What is essential reading in policy process research?

The first Conference on Policy Process Research (COPPR) takes place in January 2023, online and in person (Denver).

I’m thinking of proposing an online panel (without paper presentations) that asks: what is essential reading in policy process research?

Put another way, if you were guiding students who were relatively new to public policy studies, what would you want them to know?

My motivation is fairly instrumental. I will be writing the third edition of Understanding Public Policy, reflecting on what is in there, what is absent, and what changes to make as a result (and thinking of how to update the 500 and 1000 word summaries). What do I need to discuss more, and what should I cut to make space? For example:

  1. The book focuses on ‘mainstream’ policy theories and does not have much discussion of interpretive or critical approaches (although this series does more). If I were to shift the balance, what insights would be essential?
  2. If I were to devote a lot more space to (say) the study of gender or race, should it be mainstreamed throughout every chapter (e.g. many chapters discuss a major policy theory) or consolidated in dedicated chapters (e.g. the chapter on power)?
  3. The first edition’s conclusion focused on how to combine theoretical insights. The second focused on the dominance of the field by authors in a small number of Global North countries (especially in the US and Western Europe). What should be the concluding theme of the third?
  4. From what approaches (e.g. to teaching public policy with the aid of written material) can I learn?
  5. Are there better ways to foster learning than someone like me writing textbooks and explainers?

These are just some early (and perhaps self-indulgent) thoughts on what to discuss.

If you were thinking of proposing something with a similar theme, or would like to collaborate to design this panel proposal, please let me know.

Or, if you were to attend a panel like this, who else would you want to hear from? For example, it could be a panel composed of people who write introductory textbooks or (say) people who use them for teaching or read them during their studies.

Any ideas welcome (by August), either by commenting below or emailing me directly (p.cairney at stir.ac.uk).

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Teaching policy analysis with a blog

Below is the draft introduction to a paper that I am writing for a Special Issue paper on Teaching Policy Analysis for Gestión y Análisis de Políticas Públicas (GAPP) (here is the version with the references if you want to sing along).

When we teach policy analysis, we can focus on how to be a policy analyst or how to situate the act of policy analysis within a much wider policymaking context. Ideally, we would teach and learn about both. Indeed, this aim is central to Lasswell’s vision for the policy sciences, in which the analysis of policy (and policymaking) informs analysis for policy, and both are essential to the pursuit of equality and dignity.

There is the potential to achieve this vision for the policy sciences. Policy analysis texts focus on the individual and professional skills required to act efficiently and effectively in a time-pressured political environment. Further, they are supported by the study of policy analysts to reflect on how analysis takes place, and policy is made, in the real world.

The next step would be to harness the wealth of policy concept- and theory-informed studies to help understand how real world contexts inform policy analysis insights. First, for example, almost all mainstream studies assume or demonstrate that there is no such thing as a policy cycle with clearly-defined and well-ordered stages of policymaking, from defining problems and generating solutions to evaluating their effect. If so, how can policy analysts understand their far more complex policymaking environment, and what skills and strategies do they need to develop to engage effectively? Indeed, these discussions may be essential to preventing the demoralisation of analysts: if they do not learn in advance about the processes and factors than can minimise their influence, how can they generate realistic expectations? Second, if the wider aim is human equality and dignity, insights from critical policy analysis are essential. They help analysts think about what those concepts mean, how to identify and support marginalised populations, and how policy analysis skills and techniques relate to those aims. In particular, they warn against treating policy analysis as a technocratic profession devoid of politics, which may contribute to exclusive research gathering practices, producing too-narrow definitions of problems, insufficient consideration of feasible solutions, and recommendations made about target populations without engaging with the people they claim to serve.

However, this aim is much easier described than achieved. Policy analysis texts, focusing on how to do it, often use insights from policy studies.  However, they do so without fully explaining key concepts and theories or exploring their implications. There is simply not enough time and space to do justice to every element, from the technical tools of policy analysis (including cost-benefit analysis) to the empirical findings from policy theories and normative insights from critical policy analysis approaches (e.g. Weimer and Vining, 2017 is already 500 pages long). Policy process research, focusing on what actually happens, may have practical implications for analysts. However, they are often hidden behind layers of concepts and jargon, and – with notable exceptions – their authors seem uninterested in describing the normative importance of, or practical lessons from, theory-informed empirical studies. Further, the cumulative size of this research is overwhelming and beyond the full understanding of experienced specialist scholars. Indeed, it is even difficult to recommend a small number of texts to sum up each approach, which makes it difficult to predict how much time and energy it would take to understand this field, and therefore to demonstrate the payoff from that investment. Further, critical policy analysis is essential, but often ignored in policy analysis texts, and the potential for meaningful conversations with mainstream policy scholars remains largely untapped or resisted .

In that context, policy analysis students embody the problem of ‘bounded rationality’ described famously by Simon. Indeed, Simon’s phrase ‘to satisfice’ sums up a goal-oriented response to bounded rationality: faced with the inability to identify, process, or understand all relevant information, they must seek ways to gather enough information to inform ‘good enough’ choices. Further, since then, policy studies have sought to incorporate insights from individual human, social, and organisational psychology to understand (1) the other cognitive shortcuts that humans use, including gut-level instinct, habit, familiarity with an issue, deeply-held beliefs, and emotions, and (2) their organisations equivalents (since organisations also use rules and standard operating procedures to close off information searches and limit analysis). Human cognitive shortcuts can be described negatively as cognitive biases or more positively as ‘fast and frugal heuristics’. However, the basic point remains: if people draw on allegedly ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to information, we need to find ways to adapt to their ways of thinking, rather than holding onto an idealised version of humans (and policymaking organisations) that do not exist in the real world .

While these insights focus generally on policymakers, they are also essential to engaging with students. Gone – I hope – are the days of lecturers giving students an overwhelmingly huge reading list and expecting them to devour every source before each class, which may help some students but demoralise many others (especially since it seems inevitable that most students’ first engagement with specialist texts and technical jargon will already induce fears about their own ignorance). In their place should be a thoughtful exploration of how much students can actually learn about the wider policy analysis context, focusing on (1) the knowledge and skills they already possess, (2) the time they have to learn, and (3) how new knowledge or skills would relate to their ambitions. If students are seeking fast and frugal heuristics to learn about policy analysis, how should we help them, and what should we teach?

To help answer such questions, first I describe the rationale for the blog that I developed in tandem with teaching public policy, initially at an undergraduate level as part of a wider politics programme, before developing a Master of Public Policy and contributing to shorter executive courses or one-off workshops. This range matters, since the answer to the question ‘what can students learn?’ will vary according to their existing knowledge and time. Second, I describe some examples of the valuable intersection between policy analysis, policy process research, and critical policy analysis to demonstrate the potential payoffs to wider insights. Third, I summarise the rationale for the coursework that I use to foster public policy knowledge and policy analysis skills, including skills in critical thinking and reflection to accompany more specialist analytical skills.

See also:

500

750

1000

The finished paper will be translated into Spanish

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Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy

By Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, Sean Kippin, Heather Mitchell

This post first appeared on the Policy & Politics blog. It summarizes an article published in Policy & Politics.

Could policy theories help to understand and facilitate the pursuit of equity (or reduction of unfair inequalities)?

We are producing a series of literature reviews to help answer that question, beginning with the study of equity policy and policymaking in healtheducation, and gender research.

Each field has a broadly similar focus.  Most equity researchers challenge the ‘neoliberal’ approaches to policy that favour low state action in favour of individual responsibility and market forces.   They seek ‘social justice’ approaches, favouring far greater state intervention to address the social and economic causes of unfair inequalities, via redistributive or regulatory measures. They seek policymaking reforms to reflect the fact that most determinants of inequalities are not contained to one policy sector and cannot be solved in policy ‘silos’. Rather, equity policy initiatives should be mainstreamed via collaboration across (and outside of) government. Each field also projects a profound sense of disenchantment with limited progress, including a tendency to describe a too-large gap between their aspirations and actual policy outcomes. They describe high certainty about what needs to happen, but low confidence that equity advocates have the means to achieve it (or to persuade powerful politicians to change course).

Policy theories could offer some practical insights for equity research, but not always offer the lessons that some advocates seek. In particular, health equity researchers seek to translate insights on policy processes into a playbook for action, such as to frame policy problems to generate more attention to inequalities, secure high-level commitment to radical change, and improve the coherence of cross-cutting policy measures. Yet, policy theories are more likely to identify the dominance of unhelpful policy frames, the rarity of radical change, and the strong rationale for uncoordinated policymaking across a large number of venues. Rather than fostering technical fixes with a playbook, they encourage more engagement with the inescapable dilemmas and trade-offs inherent to policy choice. This focus on contestation (such as when defining and addressing policy problems) is more of a feature of education and gender equity research.

While we ask what policy theories have to offer other disciplines, in fact the most useful lessons emerge from cross-disciplinary insights. They highlight two very different approaches to transformational political change. One offers the attractive but misleading option of radical change through non-radical action, by mainstreaming equity initiatives into current arrangements and using a toolbox to make continuous progress. Yet, each review highlights a tendency for radical aims to be co-opted and often used to bolster the rules and practices that protect the status quo. The other offers radical change through overtly political action, fostering continuous contestation to keep the issue high on the policy agenda and challenge co-option. There is no clear step-by-step playbook for this option, since political action in complex policymaking systems is necessarily uncertain and often unrewarding. Still, insights from policy theories and equity research shows that grappling with these challenges is inescapable.

Ultimately, we conclude that advocates of profound social transformation are wasting each other’s time if they seek short-cuts and technical fixes to enduring political problems. Supporters of policy equity should be cautious about any attempt to turn a transformational political project into a technical process containing a ‘toolbox’ or ‘playbook’.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, Sean Kippin, and Heather Mitchell (2022) ‘Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education, and gender policy’, Policy and Politics https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16487239616498

This article is an output of the IMAJINE project, which focuses on addressing inequalities across Europe.

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The politics of policy design

This post summarizes the conclusion of ‘The politics of policy design’ for a Design and Policy Network workshop (15th June).  My contribution to this interdisciplinary academic-practitioner discussion is to present insights from political science and policy process research, which required me to define some terms (background) before identifying three cautionary messages.

Background

A broad definition of policy design as an activity is to (1) define policy aims, and (2) identify the tools to deliver those aims (compare with policy analysis).

However, note the verb/noun distinction, and common architectural metaphor, to distinguish between the (a) act of design, and (b) the output (e.g. the blueprints).

In terms of the outputs, tools can be defined narrowly as policy instruments – including tax/spending, regulations, staff and other resources for delivery, information sharing, ‘nudging’, etc. – or more widely to include the processes involved in their formulation (such as participatory and deliberative). Therefore, we could be describing:

  • A highly centralized process, involving very few people, to produce the equivalent of a blueprint.
  • A decentralized, and perhaps uncoordinated, process involving many people, built on the principle that to seek a blueprint would be to miss the point of participation and deliberation.

Policymaking research tends to focus on

(1) measuring policy change with reference to the ‘policy mix’ of these tools/ instruments, and generally showing that most policy change is minor (and some is major) (link1, link2, link3, link4), and/ or

(2) how to understand the complex policymaking systems or environments in which policy design processes take place.

These studies are the source of my messages of doom.

Three cautionary messages about new policy design

There is a major gap between the act of policy design and actual policies and policy processes. This issue led to the decline of old policy design studies in the 1980s.

While ‘new policy design’ scholars seek to reinvigorate the field, the old issues serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us that (1) policy design is not new, and (2) its decline did not relate to the lack of sophisticated skills or insights among policy designers.

In other words, these old problems will not simply be solved by modern scientific, methodological, or policy design advances. Rather, I encourage policy designers to pay particular attention to:

1. The gap between functional requirements and real world policymaking.

Policy analysts and designers often focus on what they need, or require to get their job done or produce the outcomes they seek.

Policy process researchers identify the major, inevitable, gaps between those requirements and actual policy processes (to the extent that the link between design and policy is often difficult to identify).

2. The strong rationale for the policy processes that undermine policy design.

Policy processes – and their contribution to policy mixes – may seem incoherent from a design perspective. However, they make sense to the participants involved.

Some relate to choice, including to share responsibility for instruments across many levels or types of government (without focusing on how those responsibilities will connect or be coordinated).

Some result from necessity, to delegate responsibility to many policy communities spread across government, each with their own ways to define and address problems (without the ability to know how those responsibilities will be connected).

3. The policy analysis and design dilemmas that cannot be solved by design methods alone.

When seen from the ‘top down’, design problems often relate to the perceived lack of delivery or follow-through in relation to agreed high level design outputs (great design, poor delivery).

When seen from the ‘bottom up’, they represent legitimate ways to incorporate local stakeholder and citizen perspectives. This process will inevitably produce a gap between different sources and outputs of design, making it difficult to separate poor delivery (bad?) from deviation (good?).

Such dynamics are solved via political choice rather than design processes and  techniques.

Notes on the workshop discussion

The workshop discussion prompted us initially to consider how many different people would define it. The range of responses included seeing policy design as:

  • a specific process with specific tools to produce a well-defined output (applied to specific areas conducive to design methods)
  • a more general philosophy or way of thinking about things like policy issues (compare with systems thinking)
  • a means to encourage experimentation (such as to produce a prototype policy instrument, use it, and reflect or learn about its impact) or change completely how people think about an issue
  • the production of a policy solution, or one part of a large policy mix
  • a niche activity in one unit of government, or something mainstreamed across governments
  • something done in government, or inside and outside of government
  • producing something new (like writing on a blank sheet of paper), adding to a pile of solutions, or redesigning what exists
  • primarily a means to empower people to tell their story, or as a means to improve policy advocacy (as in discussions of narrative/ storytelling)
  • something done with authoritative policymakers like government ministers (in other words, people with the power to make policy changes after they participate in design processes) or given to them (in other words, the same people but as the audience for the outcomes of design)

These definitions matter since they have very different implications for policy and practice. Take, for example, the link – made by Professor Liz Richardson – between policy design and the idea of evidence-based policymaking, to consider two very different scenarios:

  1. A minister is directly involved in policy design processes. They use design thinking to revisit how they think about a policy problem (and target populations), seek to foster participation and deliberation, and use that process – perhaps continuously – to consider how to reconcile very different sources of evidence (including, say, new data from randomized control trials and powerful stories from citizens, stakeholders, service users). I reckon that this kind of scenario would be in the minds of people who describe policy design optimistically.
  2. A minister is the intended audience of a report on the outcomes of policy design. You assume that their thoughts on a policy problem are well-established. There is no obvious way for them to reconcile different sources of policy-relevant evidence. Crucially, the fruits of your efforts have made a profound impact on the people involved but, for the minister, the outcome is just one of too-many sources of information (likely produced too soon before or after they want to consider the issue).

The second scenario is closer to the process that I describe in the main post, although policy studies would warn against seeing someone like a government minister as authoritative in the sense that they reside in the centre of government. Rather, studies of multi-centric policymaking remind us that there are many possible centres spread across political systems. If so, policy design – according to approaches like the IAD – is about ways to envisage a much bigger context in which design success depends on the participation and agreement of a large number of influential actors (who have limited or no ability to oblige others to cooperate).

Further Reading

Paul Cairney (2022) ‘The politics of policy design’, EURO Journal on Decision Processes  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejdp.2021.100002

Paul Cairney, Tanya Heikkila, and Matthew Wood (2019) Making Policy in a Complex World (Cambridge Elements) PDF Blog

Complex systems and systems thinking (part of a series of thematic posts on policy analysis)

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Why is health improvement policy so difficult to secure?

By Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, John Boswell

Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, and John Boswell

Here is a long read based on our new paper (pre-print ‘Why is health improvement policy so difficult to secure?) and reflections on a recent academic-practitioner workshop in Scotland. If you prefer to read it in PDF, please fill your boots.

Most governments have signed-up to improve the health of their populations and reduce health inequalities. Many governments made this commitment energetically and sincerely. Some describe the belief that ‘preventive’ action to foster population health is better than responding to acute health crises. Some are committed to get beyond the usual focus on individual lifestyles or healthcare, towards addressing (1) social influences on health inequalities (which relate to safe and healthy environments, education and employment, marginalisation, and economic inequality) and (2) commercial influence on policy and society.

Despite this high political commitment, there remains an unusually large gap between policy statements, practices, and outcomes. Why is this gap so large? Why does it endure despite often high commitment to promote population health? What can be done to close that gap, and end a dispiriting cycle of enthusiasm and disappointment?

We describe two – hopefully complementary – ways to address those questions, drawing on an informal academic-practitioner workshop we co-organised to discuss the future of health improvement policy in Scotland. The context is COVID-19, which necessitated a temporary shift of resources from health improvement to health protection (in other words, from longer-term work to prevent ‘non-communicable diseases’ – NCDs – including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, and diabetes, towards an intense pandemic response). The transition, in 2022, towards an ‘endemic phase’ of health protection provides a new impetus to consider the immediate and long-term future of health improvement policies. Our aim was to focus on policy to prevent NCDs, including:

  1. Specific policies, such as to address smoking, alcohol consumption, and diet.
  2. A broader focus on collaborative policymaking, to recognise the fact that most health-relevant policies are not in the control of health departments.

We followed the format from previous workshops in Scotland and England, beginning with an academic overview (based on the paper Why is health improvement policy so difficult to secure?), followed by informal discussions on current challenges and next steps.

Please note that these are Cairney’s notes on proceedings. While we gave each participant the chance to comment on the draft, and made some changes as a result, Cairney still takes responsibility for the following text.

The academic argument

We describe a general problem with ‘preventive’ policies and ‘joined-up’ policymaking. On the one hand, the idea of prevention has widespread rhetorical appeal, suggesting that governments can save money and reduce inequalities by preventing problems happening or getting worse. On the other, there is a large gap between rhetorical commitment and actual practices (although Cairney and St. Denny show that these general prevention problems are less apparent in relation to specific agendas such as tobacco control).

We identify three main explanations for this gap:

  1. Clarity: if prevention means everything, maybe it means nothing.

The language of prevention is vague. This ambiguity helps to maximise initial support (who would be against it?) but stores up trouble for later. People face more obstacles – including opposition to policy change – when they have to translate a broad aim into tangible policy instruments.

  • Congruity: prevention is out of step with routine government business.

Preventive policymaking focuses on relatively hard-to-measure, long-term outcomes. It competes badly – for attention and resources – with more-pressing issues with short-term targets. Its push for radically different, holistic, policymaking does not fit with well-established rules and norms. Attempts to ‘institutionalise’ health improvement either lead to public health agencies with very limited powers, or cross-government initiatives that remain unfulfilled.

  • Capacity: low support for major investments with uncertain rewards.

No policy can improves live, and reduces inequalities, while avoiding political and financial costs. Rather, preventive policies involve ‘hard choices’ with political costs, and are akin to capital investment: spend now, and receive benefits in the future. This offer of short term costs for uncertain long-term benefits is not attractive to governments seeking to avoid controversy and reduce state spending.

Cairney, St.Denny, and Mitchell  show how these factors play out in studies of Health in All Policies (HIAP) strategies. On the one hand, HiAP research demonstrates high levels of coherence in relation to its:

  • Story. Treat health as a human right, identify the ‘social determinants of health’ and the ‘upstream’ solutions to reduce inequalities, promote intersectoral action, and seek high political commitment.
  • ‘Playbook’. For example, connect HiAP to current government agendas, focus on ‘win-win’ solutions, avoid the perception of ‘health imperialism’, and foster policy champions.

On the other hand, regular reports of slow progress relates to problems with:

  1. Clarity. The HiAP terminology is abstract and subject to different interpretations. For some, it involves a radical plan to redistribute money and power to reduce health inequalities. For others, it is a vague ambition to encourage collaboration inside and outside of government.
  2. Congruity. Advocates seek to ‘mainstream’ health into all policies, but find low or superficial interest from other sectors, or opposition to public health interference in other government business.
  3. Capacity. Few advocates have made a winning economic case for HiAP investment. Most initiatives are about zero-cost cooperation (undermined by low clarity and congruity).

While these experiences are dispiriting, they were at least predictable, particularly in states that were not conducive to economic redistribution and high state intervention. However, COVID-19 added an ironic twist: it should have prompted governments to connect the dots between health improvement and protection strategies, to address the unequal spread of the NCDs that caused unequal illness and death. Instead, rapid and radical changes to foster health protection came at the expense of health improvement.

These experiences provide cautionary tales to underpin future strategies. They show that vague political agreement – to mainstream health across government – is no guarantee of substantial action, and the production of a new strategy is futile without knowing if it will dovetail with routine government business.

[See also: Why doesn’t evidence win the day?]

The workshop discussion: opportunities and challenges

There were many positive messages peppered throughout our discussions, suggesting that Scottish policy and policymaking is conducive to health improvement  progress. Participants highlighted a lower tendency (than in Westminster) to focus on individual responsibility, in favour of more collectivist solutions. There is political leadership and cross party consensus behind the argument that we need to fix shameful health inequalities.

These positive factors could help to boost a current focus on ‘place’, to foster local collaboration to join-up services to improve wellbeing (such as via well maintained streets, good quality spaces, places to meet, and a sense of belonging and control). People care about what happens in local communities, which could bring together many different NCD-related aims – such as in alcohol, tobacco, gambling, diet, exercise – that would otherwise be siloed.

There is also some enthusiasm to extend a ‘public health approach’ to several policy problems – such as in criminal justice (including knife crime reduction), or housing – if it helps to break down silos (and if enough people know what a public health approach is).

Further, there is enough evidence of success in long-term thinking to think that it could be successful again. One key example is setting a target date of 2034 to produce a ‘tobacco free generation’). The 2034 goal has cross-party commitment and fits the current trajectory of government policy. Having this target allows organisations and the Scottish Parliament to hold the government to account for progress (regardless of the party in government), and allows the government to resist commercial pressure to soften key measures. Compared to ‘prevention’ in general, it comes with more tangible measures of progress that allow policy actors to know if they are on track towards long-term success.

However, our discussion began with general agreement about the challenges of health improvement when governments move from promise to practice, which we relate to three categories:

Clarity

  • The appearance of general agreement (on defining the policy problem) hides the many differences of perspectives and approaches across organisations and professions that undermine discussions of solutions.
  • There are unresolved debates about the policies to prioritise to reduce health inequalities (for example, not everyone favours economic redistribution).
  • It is disingenuous to build false consensus on the idea that health improvement policies reduce costs.

Congruity

  • Key Scottish Government policies have been consistent with HiAP and wider preventive aims. For example, the National Performance Framework is a genuine attempt to move from damaging short-term performance management and policymaking silos. However, it did not change the main drivers of the public sector or change the way that individual public sector players get measured. Short-term and silo-based accountability mechanisms remain within the Scottish Government (and the accountability measures of Scottish Parliament committees), producing contradictory incentives.
  • Policy should be about making health improvement everyone’s business, and changing performance management to be more conducive to prevention. However, acute services are always the priority.
  • Similarly, Community Planning Partnerships are a good idea, but there are not enough resources to back them up.
  • Relationships and trust are at the heart of collaborative policymaking, but there is not enough respect for these skills. There is a tendency to produce ‘hard’ reforms at the expense of more valuable ‘soft’ skills.
  • Third sector organisations often struggle to justify cross-sectoral working if it departs from a narrow description of their activities.
  • A focus on individual activities – for example, smoking, drinking, gambling – takes attention from the interconnectedness of the causes of NCDs. While national level organisations have addressed this issue by focusing on NCDs, progress is more difficult at local community levels.
  • Commercial interests have the power to use existing rules to block policy progress.
  • Wider UK developments may undermine progress further. For example, when making impact assessments, is there a greater UK government focus on business than climate or health?

Capacity

  • Public health policies and organisation do not receive proportionate attention or resources.
  • Each experience of limited progress may undermine the belief that major change is possible.
  • These general problems are exacerbated by constitutional uncertainty. Constitutional debates take up political time and energy, at the expense of the capacity to think long term and design effective policies. Many supporters of Scottish independence want to focus on governing competence and stability, not policies that would court controversy.

Challenging questions for policymakers

We then invited some challenging questions for policymakers, such as to ask how and when will key organisations ‘reboot’ health improvement policies after the COVID-19 emergency response? Or, given there is such political will to support health improvement, would it make more sense to focus on ‘rethinking’ rather than ‘rebooting’ policy delivery?

Participants recognised that COVID-19 caused inevitable delays to the development of Public Health Scotland (PHS, which launched in April 2020). Health improvement work did not stop completely (in PHS or the Scottish Government), and a clear strategic plan – supporting a targeted list priorities (including child poverty, underlying causes of poverty and inequality, and place based approaches) will help to deliver a new programme of work.

However, when prompted to identify areas for concern, individuals provided the following answers from their perspective (in other words, their inclusion does not suggest that the whole group agreed with the following points):

  1. Encourage the Scottish Government to be less directive.

Recognise that we are dealing with a very large system that is less directable in a local community environment. Political leaders need to let go more, to give space to local groupings of policymakers, citizens, and service deliverers. This change requires us to:

  • Get past the idea that only the Scottish Government can make the change (e.g. with legislation)
  • Take different accountability measures seriously (e.g. not focused so much on ministers).
  • Recognise the lack of trust between ministers and local authority leaders, and between many civil servants and council employees, and think about how to build it.

Also, reflect on what happens when the Scottish Government suddenly devotes higher attention and resources to a problem – such as drugs-related deaths – when it becomes a salient political issue. This heavy-handed approach produces immense pressure, unintended consequences, and the sense that you can get your issue higher up the agenda if you create a political storm.

We need to see the progress reports on delivery plans, and reboot the governance and accountability process. The wider agenda on public health reform, embedded across government, seems to have gone. Not all of the public health priorities enjoy the same support (e.g. healthy weight/ diet seems low priority).

The Scottish Government had a good tobacco strategy in 2013, and passed legislation in 2016. After some years of relative inactivity on tobacco, the Scottish Government is moving to enact provisions in legislation passed in 2016. PHS seems less active on tobacco control, such as in relation to: gaps in data on young people smoking and vaping, tracking changes in use of novel tobacco related products, including tobacco in place-based approaches to addiction, and connecting national third sector with PHS in-house expertise (although it has focused more strongly on wider tobacco issues, including how they relate to the underlying causes of poverty and inequality).

It seems – to some workshop participants – that the evidence threshold, required to bring about change, has shifted fundamentally over 10 years. There is a far higher bar to clear before governments will act (relating, in few cases, to anticipating the threat of litigation). Some recent inertia could relate to uncertainty around the (post-Brexit) UK Internal Market Act, but there are emerging signs of greater flexibility. Further, a current PHS focus – on working with stakeholders and citizens to understand the quantitative and qualitative evidence – could help to address that perception of inertia.

A focus on ‘place’ could allow public health professionals to situate evidence-use in a wider context, to reflect on powerful work from local communities on how people experience  and describe the problems they face, to help prioritise issues without requiring loads of scientific evidence. This approach is a priority in PHS’s strategic plan.

  • Support capacity development.

People are so stretched, and the turnover of experienced people (with expertise and connections) is high. There is less opportunity for informal and serendipitous conversation, less capacity for reflection, less of a feeling of being part of something bigger than the day-to-day.

The cross-party commitment is there in principle, but to what extent will it be reflected in delivery? Where are the accountability mechanisms to support the changes associated with ‘whole system’ work (beyond the – often narrower – scrutiny in parliamentary committees)?

Reflections on these discussions

Academics often question the extent to which their engagement with practitioners is fruitful to both parties, or conclude that ‘little is known about what works’. In our case, the value is reflected in a fairly common academic-practitioner (a) focus on health improvement policy, and (b) language to describe the issues involved. Key examples of common topics include:

  1. The search for clarity: how should we understand and frame the problem?

To define the problem is to draw attention to different perspectives that can have distributional consequences.

For example, we described the workshop in relation to ‘health improvement’ in general. Should we describe ‘health inequalities’ in particular? The latter concern is taken for granted by some, but not a priority for others (especially if it involves economic redistribution).

We focused on NCDs, which perhaps draws attention to medical interpretations of the problem and separates the agenda into component parts (e.g. tobacco, alcohol, diet). Do many people, outside of public health, use this language, or is it alienating to most? Would it be better to focus on people and places? Does a focus on ‘place’ (in which health improvement plays one part) solve this problem? Or, does it help to reduce public health as a priority?

  • The search for congruity: identifying limits to Westminster-style accountability and evidence-informed policymaking.  

Policy agendas reflect and reinforce the contradictory pressures that encourage and discourage health improvement.

For example, governments want to pursue a preventive agenda, but also produce the policies that undermine it. They seek a long-term agenda with meaningful measures of change, but undermine it with short-term and narrow measures, producing unintended consequences. Our discussions related this problem to the dilemmas of accountability measures, in which Scottish Government ministers need to let go, to encourage decentralised policymaking, but know that they will still be held to account for whatever happens.

Governments may also seek evidence- or knowledge-informed policymaking, but struggle to connect very different elements. First, people present very different claims to knowledge (such as scientific and experiential) that cannot simply be added together or resolved during ‘co-production’ exercises. Second, they relate these claims to competing ideas on who should gather and use evidence to make policy (e.g. centralise and roll out the same policy versus decentralise and create policy diversity). Any selection of an evidence-informed model of policymaking is political and contested, and not amenable to simple technical solutions.

See also: Maintaining strict adherence to evidence standards is like tying your hands behind your back

  • The search for capacity in complex systems.

Finally, when we talk about the need for more health improvement capacity, what exactly do we mean? One answer is that most participants are not seeking more ‘political will’ or top-down direction. Some seek to avoid the sense that policy change requires major organisational upheavals. Rather, we need to assign more value to the ‘soft’ skills required to built trust and meaningful collaboration across (and outside) the public sector (as described by Carey & Crammond, and Holt et al).

Some use the language of complex systems in a suitably challenging way. Too often, people describe ‘systems thinking’ to highlight control: ‘If we engage in systems thinking effectively, we can understand systems well enough to control, manage, or influence them’. The alternative is to recognise that policy outcomes ‘emerge from complex systems in the absence of: (a) central government control and often (b) policymaker awareness. We need to acknowledge these limitations properly, to accept our limitations’, and act accordingly. Our discussions highlighted the expectation that these systems are less directable in local community environments, requiring a change in expectations and the need to let go. This advice makes sense, and is consistent with the usual advice in complexity studies. However, it will get nowhere as long as everyone expects Scottish Government ministers to be in charge and control of all policy outcomes.

See: The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

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Promoting equity and reducing inequalities: the role of evidence and science

I wrote this (slightly abridged) post for the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab:

Science and evidence are important to policy, and researchers can contribute to programmes that reduce social and economic inequalities. However, without understanding policy processes and how politicians process evidence, researchers will struggle to understand their – sometimes peripheral – role in the bigger picture. The following step-by-step list could help to better grasp and engage with these processes in democratic political systems: 

STEP 1: Embrace the value and necessity of politics.  

Politics should be at the heart of policymaking, helping to find non-violent ways to resolve diverse preferences held by people with different beliefs and interests through mechanisms such as electing people, parties or governments. Democratic mechanisms legitimise policy choices. Thus, trust in scientists – and the evidence they provide – is incomplete without trust in political systems. It is tempting to seek to replace choices by politicians with expert-driven technocracy, but the latter does not provide the same legitimacy.  

STEP 2: Accept that public policy is not, and never will be, evidence-based.  

Treat evidence-based policy as one of many contested phrases masquerading as self-evident aims. Others include follow the science or focus on what works. Each phrase suggests, misleadingly, that we can solve ideological debates with evidence.  

STEP 3: Seek practical lessons from scientific studies of policymaking. 

It is tempting to see scientists as the policy entrepreneurs that use their authority and powers of persuasion to prompt politicians to define and solve problems in better ways. However, policy theories highlight the wider contextual issues that limit politicians’ influence. Core insights include: 

  • Most policy changes are minor. Major change is unusual.  
  • Policymakers cannot pay attention to all issues and information. They use cognitive shortcuts – drawing on their trusted sources, beliefs, and emotions – to ignore most issues and evidence. 
  • Policymakers do not fully understand or control the processes for which they are responsible. Their environments contain policymakers and influencers spread across multiple policymaking venues, each with their own rules, ways of thinking and networks.  

STEP 4: Engage properly with political dilemmas.  

The close analysis of politics and policymaking allows us to identify key dilemmas that cannot be resolved via additional evidence. These dilemmas span diverse aspects of policymaking and implementation procedures. 

First, evidence cannot determine the role that the state plays (or should play) in addressing societal problems. Neoliberal approaches recommend low state intervention in favour of individual responsibility and market forces, while social justice approaches favour state intervention to address structural factors out of the control of individuals. Each approach produces major differences in the demand for evidence of a policy problem and assessment of what solutions work. 

Second, questions on the delegation of state responsibilities are not addressed via traditional evidence-gathering mechanisms. Political systems are multi-centric, with different levels and types of government taking responsibility for parts of a larger programme. Some seek a technocratic or optimal distribution of these responsibilities. However, the process to determine responsibility is highly contested, relating more to demands for territorial autonomy (or turf wars). Governments also delegate tasks to other organisations, producing a distribution of policymaking that defies simple coordination. This delegation of responsibilities requires researchers to understand where the action is and how to engage effectively in relevant systems.  

Third, there is no standard way to combine multiple sources of policy-relevant knowledge. Some scientists assert a hierarchy of knowledge: randomised control trials (RCTs) are gold, scientific expertise is bronze, and practitioner or service user experience would not make the podium. Other political actors prioritise the knowledge from people who deliver or receive services. Some seek compromise, to combine policy-relevant insights. However, their deliberations still involve choices, including whether policymaking should be centralised to roll out ‘evidence based’ solutions built on RCTs, or decentralised to allow local communities to draw on many knowledge sources in policy design.  

Finally, evidence cannot settle the debate between the maintenance of science’s image vs. the development of science’s influence over policy. In some political systems, scientists face dilemmas when their principles contradict the rules of government. Science emphasises transparency and independence to foster institutional trust and the credibility of evidence. Governments often require secrecy and informal rule-following to foster trust in advisers. Researchers must navigate this perspective mismatch when engaging with policymakers. 

Evidence-informed equity policies: two competing visions

The dynamics highlighted in these steps may vary across policy sectors. However, regardless of sector, a choice can be made between two methods of seeking evidence-informed policies to reduce inequalities. These methods are: 

  • A non-confrontational, technocratic project: offering radical change through non-radical action, mainstreaming equity initiatives into current arrangements and using a playbook to make continuous progress. This method is attractive because governments often project a sincere-looking rhetorical commitment to reducing inequalities. Yet, we find a tendency for radical aims to be co-opted to serve the practices that protect the status quo.  
  • A challenging political project: offering radical change through overtly political action and contestation, and translating rhetoric into substance by keeping the reduction of inequalities high on the agenda. In this case, there is no clear guide for action. Rather, participants accept that the impact of research-informed political action is uncertain and often unrewarding.  

Overall, the implications of policy engagement for researchers are profound. Too many evidence-to-policy initiatives are built on the misplaced idea that scientists can remain objective when engaging in politics. This leads to the equally implausible focus on detailed playbooks to replace political problems with technocratic solutions. Embracing the value of politics, and the inescapably political nature of research engagement, is the first step in considering a more realistic alternative. It requires engagement with the policy processes that exist, not the ones that scientists would rather see. 

References 

Cairney, P., 2016. The Politics of Evidence-based Policy Making. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Cairney, P. and Oliver, K., 2017. Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?. Health Research Policy and Systems 15(35). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x 

Cairney, P. et al., 2022. Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy. Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16487239616498 

Oliver, K. et al., 2022. What works to promote research-policy engagement? Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16420918447616  

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Why is there high support for, but low likelihood of, drug consumption rooms in Scotland?

This is my interpretation of this new article:

James Nicholls, Wulf Livingston, Andy Perkins, Beth Cairns, Rebecca Foster, Kirsten M. A. Trayner, Harry R. Sumnall, Tracey Price, Paul Cairney, Josh Dumbrell, and Tessa Parkes (2022) ‘Drug Consumption Rooms and Public Health Policy: Perspectives of Scottish Strategic Decision-Makers’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(11), 6575; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19116575

Q: if stakeholders in Scotland express high support for drug consumption rooms, and many policymakers in Scotland seem sympathetic, why is there so little prospect of policy change?

My summary of the article’s answer is as follows:

  1. Although stakeholders support DCRs almost unanimously, they do not support them energetically.

They see this solution as one part of a much larger package rather than a magic bullet. They are not sure of the cost-effectiveness in relation to other solutions, and can envisage some potential users not using them.

The existing evidence on their effectiveness is not persuasive for people who (1) adhere to a hierarchy of evidence which prioritizes evidence from randomized control trials or (2) advocate alternative ways to use evidence.

There are competing ways to frame this policy solution. It suggests that there are some unresolved issues among stakeholders which have not yet come to the fore (since the lack of need to implement something specific reduces the need to engage with a more concrete problem definition).

2. A common way to deal with such uncertainty in Scotland is to use ‘improvement science’ or the ‘improvement method’.

This method invites local policymakers and practitioners to try out new solutions, work with stakeholders and service users during delivery, reflect on the results, and use this learning to design the next iteration. This is a pragmatic, small-scale, approach that appeals to the (small-c conservative) Scottish Government, which uses pilots to delay major policy changes, and is keen on its image as not too centralist and quite collaboration minded.

3. This approach is not politically feasible in this case.

Some factors suggest that the general argument has almost been won, including positive informal feedback from policymakers, and increasingly sympathetic media coverage (albeit using problematic ways to describe drug use).

However, this level of support is not enough to support experimentation. Drug consumption rooms would need a far stronger steer from the Scottish Government.

In this case, it can’t experiment now and decide later. It needs to make a strong choice (with inevitable negative blowback) and stay the course, knowing that one failed political experiment could set back progress for years.

4. The multi-level policymaking system is not conducive to overcoming these obstacles.

The issue of drugs policy is often described as a public health – and therefore devolved – issue politically (and in policy circles)

However, the legal/ formal division of responsibilities suggests that UK government consent is necessary and not forthcoming.

It is possible that the Scottish Government could take a chance and act alone. Indeed, the example of smoking in public places showed that it shifted its position after a slow start (it described the issue as reserved to the UK took charge of its own legislation, albeit with UK support).

However, the Scottish Government seems unwilling to take that chance, partly because it has been stung by legal challenges in other areas, and is reluctant to engage in more of the same (see minimum unit pricing for alcohol).

Local policymakers could experiment on their own, but they won’t do it without proper authority from a central government.

This experience is part of a more general issue: people may describe multi-level policymaking as a source of venues for experimentation (‘laboratories of democracy’) to encourage policy learning and collaboration. However, this case, and cases like fracking, show that they can actually be sites of multiple veto points and multi-level reluctance.

If so, the remaining question for reflection is: what would it take to overcome these obstacles? The election of a Labour UK government? Scottish independence? Or, is there some other way to make it happen in the current context?

See also:

What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco

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We are recruiting a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling

Update 16.6.22 The panel received 87 applications, with around 25 applicants having substantial track records in teaching and research. As such, around 20 people did not make the shortlist despite being appointable at our grade 7 or 8 level. We also received applications from many early career applicants who showed great future potential but were relatively unable to show how they would ‘hit the ground running’ in terms of this particular post. In that context, not making the shortlist is primarily a sign of the competitiveness of the field at this level.

‘The Division of History, Heritage and Politics wishes to appoint a suitably qualified and experienced Grade 7/8 Lecturer in International Politics. International Politics is a core element of our interdisciplinary research in relation to politics, including human rights and justice, and policy, including climate change, energy, security, resource conflict, and health. The appointee will pursue a programme of research, including research outputs and funding applications, in that context. We are open to applicants with regional specialisms (such as European or Asian politics). We also welcome a critical focus on gendered and racialised dimensions of international politics’.

Please see our Vacancy page for the full details: https://www.stir.ac.uk/about/work-at-stirling/list/details/?jobId=3088&jobTitle=Lecturer%20in%20International%20Politics

I am one of the pre-interview contacts and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. These notes are also there to address a potentially major imbalance in the informal side to recruitment: if you do not have the contacts and networks that help give you the confidence to seek information (on the things not mentioned in the further particulars), here is the next best thing: the information I would otherwise give you on the phone. This approach is also handy under the current circumstances, in which (a) the vacancy will run for a short period (28 days, with a deadline of 7th June, and interviews on 20th June), because (b) we need someone to start in September.

Here are some general tips on the application and interview processes.

The application process:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • You should keep the cover letter short to show your skills at concise writing (I suggest 1-page). Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD and have some publications – so what makes your CV stand out?
  • We take teaching very seriously. Within our division, we plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback.
  • You might think generally about how you would contribute to teaching and learning in that context. In particular, you should think about how, for example, you would deliver large undergraduate modules (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, modules closer to your expertise. However, please also note that your main initial contribution is specific:

The appointee will contribute to our successful Masters Programme in International Conflict and Cooperation (ICC) and BA programmes in International Politics, as well as doctoral and dissertation supervision. An ability to deliver the introductory undergraduate module Introduction to International Politics (POLU9X3), as well as design an advanced undergraduate and ICC module, is essential. The ability to teach qualitative and quantitative research methods is welcome’.

The interview process

The shortlisting should be finished by around the 13th June so, all going well, you will know if you have reached the interview stage by 14th June. The interviews will take place – on Teams – on 20th June. 

The interview stage

By the interview stage, here are the things that you should normally know:

  • The teaching and research specialisms of the division and their links to cross-divisional research.
  • The kinds of courses that the division would expect you to teach.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you want to come and work at Stirling. ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should think about it in advance. We recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ faculty, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’ and ‘I need a job’). Since it is the first question, your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division or faculty, since this is likely to be a featured question too.

  • Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks.
  • Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

The interview format

For open-ended contracts, we tend to combine (a) presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with (b) interviews in the afternoon. They will almost certainly be on Teams. The usual expectation is that if you can’t make the date, you can’t get the job. In addition:

  • We recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is five members: one subject specialist from the Division (in this case, me), one member of the Faculty (in this case, our Head of Division), the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, a senior manager of the University (in the chair), and a senior academic in another Faculty.
  • So, only 1 member of your panel will be a specialist in Politics. This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success in a way that a wider audience will appreciate. For example, you would have to explain the significance of a single-author article in the top-rated journal in your field.

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (nerves), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager, and the research question from the divisional representative. There are often more men than women on the panel (although no more than 3 to 2), and they are often all-white panels, but I hope that we are providing other more useful ‘signals’ about our commitment to equality and diversity.

I am happy to answer your questions, via email in the first instance  p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk

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Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol

By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes.

There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes.

To demonstrate these links, we present:

  1. A long-read blog post to (a) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing, adopted by the Scottish Government but not the UK Government) to (b) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications. We then added some examples of further reading.
  2. A 45 minute podcast to describe and explain these developments (click below or scroll to the end)

Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland: background and development

Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol was introduced in Scotland in 2018. In 2012, the UK Government had also announced plans to introduce MUP, but within a year dopped the policy following intense industry pressure. What do these two journeys tell us about policy processes?

When MUP was first proposed by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems in 2007, it was a novel policy idea. Public health advocates had long argued that raising the price of alcohol could help tackle harmful consumption. However, conventional tax increases were not always passed onto consumers, so would not necessarily raise prices in the shops (and the Scottish Government did not have such taxation powers). MUP appeared to present a neat solution to this problem. It quickly became a prominent policy goal of public health advocates in Scotland and across the UK, while gaining increasing attention, and support, from the global alcohol policy community.

In 2008, the UK Minister for Health, Dawn Primarolo, had commissioned researchers at the University of Sheffield to look into links between alcohol pricing and harm. The Sheffield team developed economic models to analysis the predicted impact of different systems. MUP was included, and the ‘Sheffield Model’ would go on to play a decisive role in developing the case for the policy.

What problem would MUP help to solve?

Descriptions of the policy problem often differed in relation to each government. In the mid-2000s, alcohol harm had become a political problem for the UK government. Increasing consumption, alongside changes to the night-time economy, had started to gain widespread media attention. In 2004, just as a major liberalisation of the licensing system was underway in England, news stories began documenting the apparent horrors of ‘Binge Britain’: focusing on public drunkenness and disorder, but also growing rates of liver disease and alcohol-related hospital admissions.

In 2004, influential papers such as the Daily Mail began to target New Labour alcohol policy

Politicians began to respond, and the issue became especially useful for the Conservatives who were developing a narrative that Britain was ‘broken’ under New Labour. Labour’s liberalising reforms of alcohol licensing could conveniently be linked to this political framing. The newly formed Alcohol Health Alliance, a coalition set up under the leadership of Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, was also putting pressure on the UK Government to introduce stricter controls. In Scotland, while much of the debate on alcohol focused on crime and disorder, Scottish advocates were focused on framing the problem as one of public health. Emerging evidence showed that Scotland had dramatically higher rates of alcohol-related illness and death than the rest of Europe – a situation strikingly captured in a chart published in the Lancet.

Source: Leon, D. and McCambridge, J. (2006). Liver cirrhosis mortality rates in Britain from 1950 to 2002: an analysis of routine data. Lancet 367

The notion that Scotland faced an especially acute public health problem with alcohol was supported by key figures in the increasingly powerful Scottish National Party (in government since 2007), which, around this time, had developed working relationships with Alcohol Focus Scotland and other advocacy groups.

What happened next?

The SNP first announced that it would support MUP in 2008, but it did not implement this change until 2018. There are two key reasons for the delay:

  1. Its minority government did not achieve enough parliamentary support to pass legislation. It then formed a majority government in 2011, and its legislation to bring MUP into law was passed in 2012.  
  2. Court action took years to resolve. The alcohol industry, which is historically powerful in Scotland, was vehemently opposed. A coalition of industry bodies, led by the Scotch Whisky Association, took the Scottish Government to court in an attempt to prove the policy was illegal. Ultimately, this process would take years, and conclude in rulings by the European Court of Justice (2016), Scottish Court of Session Inner House (2016), and UK Supreme Court (2017) which found in favour of the Scottish Government.

In England, to the surprise of many people, the Coalition Government announced in March 2012 that it too would introduce MUP, specifically to reduce binge drinking and public disorder. This different framing was potentially problematic, however, since the available evidence suggested (and subsequent evaluation has confirmed) that MUP would have only a small impact on crime. Nonetheless, health advocates were happy,  with one stating that ‘I do not mind too much how it was framed. What I mind about is how it measures up’.

Once again, the alcohol industry swung into action, launching a campaign led by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, asking ‘Why should moderate drinkers pay more?’

This public campaign was accompanied by intense behind-the-scenes lobbying, aided by the fact that the leadership of industry groups had close ties to Government and that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beer had the largest membership of any APPG in Westminster. The industry campaign made much of the fact there was little evidence to suggest MUP would reduce crime, but also argued strongly that the modelling produced by Sheffield University was not valid evidence in the first place. A year after the adopting the policy, the UK Government announced a U-turn and MUP was dropped.

How can we use policy theories and concepts to interpret these dynamics?

Here are some examples of using policy theories and concepts as a lens to interpret these developments.

1. What was the impact of evidence in the case for policy change?

While public health researchers often expect (or at least promote) ‘evidence based’ policymaking, insights from research identify three main reasons why policymakers do not make evidence-based choices:

First, many political actors (including policymakers) have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence.

The assessment, promotion, and use of evidence is highly contested, and never speaks for itself.

Second, policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence to make choices.

They address ‘bounded rationality’ by using two cognitive shortcuts: ‘rational’ measures set goals and identify trusted sources, while ‘irrational’ measures use gut instinct, emotions, and firmly held beliefs.

Third, policymakers do not control the policy process.

There is no centralised and orderly policy cycle. Rather, policymaking involves policymakers and influencers spread across many authoritative ‘venues’, with each venue having its own rules, networks, and ways of thinking.

In that context, policy theories identify the importance of contestation between policy actors, and describe the development of policy problems, and how evidence fits in. Approaches include:

The study of framing

The acceptability of a policy solution will often depend on how the problem is described. Policymakers use evidence to reduce uncertainty, or a lack of information around problems and how to solve them. However, politics is about exercising power to reduce ambiguity, or the ability to interpret the same problem in different ways.

By suggesting MUP would solve problems around crime, the UK Government made it easier for opponents to claim the policy wasn’t evidence-based. In Scotland, policymakers and advocates focused on health, where the evidence was stronger. In addition, the SNP’s approach fitted within a wider political independence frame, in which more autonomy meant more innovation.

The Narrative Policy Framework

Policy actors tell stories to appeal to the beliefs (or exploit the cognitive shortcuts) of their audiences. A narrative contains a setting (the policy problem), characters (such as the villain who caused it, or the victim of its effects), plot (e.g. a heroic journey to solve the problem), and moral (e.g. the solution to the problem).

Supporters of MUP tended to tell the story that there was an urgent public health  crisis, caused largely by the alcohol industry, and with many victims, but that higher alcohol prices pointed to one way out of this hole. Meanwhile opponents told the story of an overbearing ‘nanny state’, whose victims – ordinary, moderate drinkers – should be left alone by government.

Social Construction and Policy Design

Policymakers make strategic and emotional choices, to identify ‘good’ populations deserving of government help, and ‘bad’ populations deserving punishment or little help. These judgements inform policy design (government policies and practices) and provide positive or dispiriting signals to citizens.

For example, opponents of MUP rejected the idea that alcohol harms existed throughout the population. They focused instead on dividing the majority of moderate drinkers from irresponsible minority of binge drinkers, suggesting that MUP would harm the former more than help the latter.

Multi-centric policymaking

This competition to frame policy problems takes place in political systems that contain many ‘centres’, or venues for authoritative choice. Some diffusion of power is by choice, such as to share responsibilities with devolved and local governments. Some is by necessity, since policymakers can only pay attention to a small proportion of their responsibilities, and delegate the rest to unelected actors such as civil servants and public bodies (who often rely on interest groups to process policy).

For example, ‘alcohol policy’ is really a collection of instruments made or influenced by many bodies, including (until Brexit) European organisations deciding on the legality of MUP, UK and Scottish governments, as well as local governments responsible for alcohol licensing. In Scotland, this delegation of powers worked in favour of MUP, since Alcohol Focus Scotland were funded by the Scottish Government to help deliver some of their alcohol policy goals, and giving them more privileged access than would otherwise have been the case.

The role of evidence in MUP

In the case of MUP, similar evidence was available and communicated to policymakers, but used and interpreted differently, in different centres, by the politicians who favoured or opposed MUP.

In Scotland, the promotion, use of, and receptivity to research evidence – on the size of the problem and potential benefit of a new solution – played a key role in increasing political momentum. The forms of evidence were complimentary. The ‘hard’ science on a potentially effective solution seemed authoritative (although few understood the details), and was preceded by easily communicated and digested evidence on a concrete problem:

  1. There was compelling evidence of a public health problem put forward by a well-organised ‘advocacy coalition’ (see below) which focused clearly on health harms. In government, there was strong attention to this evidence, such as the Lancet chart which one civil servant described as ‘look[ing] like the north face of the Eiger’. There were also influential ‘champions’ in Government willing to frame action as supporting the national wellbeing.
  2. Reports from Sheffield University appeared to provide robust evidence that MUP could reduce harm, and advocacy was supported by research from Canada which suggested that similar policies there had been successful elsewhere.

Advocacy in England was also well-organised and influential, but was dealing with a larger – and less supportive – Government machine, and the dominant political frame for alcohol harms remained crime and disorder rather than health.

Debates on MUP modelling exemplify these differences in evidence communication and use. Those in favour appealed to econometric models, but sometimes simplifying their complexity and blurring the distinction between projected outcomes and proof of efficacy. Opponents went the other way and dismissed the modelling as mere speculation. What is striking is the extent to which an incredibly complex, and often poorly understand, set of econometric models – and the ’Sheffield Model’ in particular – came to occupy centre stage in a national policy debate. Katikireddi and colleagues talked about this as an example of evidence as rhetoric:

  1. Support became less about engagement with  the econometric modelling, and more an indicator of general concern about alcohol harm and the power of the industry.
  2. Scepticism was often viewed as the ‘industry position’, and an indicator of scepticism towards public health policy more broadly.

2. Who influences policy change?

Advocacy plays a key role in alcohol policy, with industry and other actors competing with public health groups to define and solve alcohol policy problems. It prompts our attention to policy networks, or the actors who make and influence policy.

According to the Advocacy Coalition Framework:

People engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form advocacy coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. The action takes place within a subsystem devoted to a policy issue, and a wider policymaking process that provides constraints and opportunities to coalitions. Beliefs about how to interpret policy problems act as a glue to bind actors together within coalitions. If the policy issue is technical and humdrum, there may be room for routine cooperation. If the issue is highly charged, then people romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.

MUP became a highly charged focus of contestation between a coalition of public health advocates, who saw themselves as fighting for the wellbeing of the wider community (and who believed fundamentally that government had a duty to promote population health), and a coalition of industry actors who were defending their commercial interests, while depicting public health policies as illiberal and unfair.

3. Was there a ‘window of opportunity’ for MUP?

Policy theories – including Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – describe a tendency for policy change to be minor in most cases and major in few. Paradigmatic policy change is rare and may take place over decades, as in the case of UK tobacco control where many different policy instruments changed from the 1980s. Therefore, a major change in one instrument could represent a sea-change overall or a modest adjustment to the overall approach.

Multiple Streams Analysis is a popular way to describe the adoption of a new policy solution such as MUP. It describes disorderly policymaking, in which attention to a policy problem does not produce the inevitable development, implementation, and evaluation of solutions. Rather, these ‘stages’ should be seen as separate ‘streams’.  A ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change occurs when the three ‘streams’ come together:

  • Problem stream. There is high attention to one way to define a policy problem.
  • Policy stream. A technically and politically feasible solution already exists (and is often pushed by a ‘policy entrepreneur’ with the resources and networks to exploit opportunities).
  • Politics stream. Policymakers have the motive and opportunity to choose that solution.

However, these windows open and close, often quickly, and often without producing policy change.

This approach can help to interpret different developments in relation to Scottish and UK governments:

Problem stream

  • The Scottish Government paid high attention to public health crises, including the role of high alcohol consumption.
  • The UK government paid often-high attention to alcohol’s role in crime and anti-social behaviour (‘Binge Britain’ and ‘Broken Britain’)

Policy stream

  • In Scotland, MUP connected strongly to the dominant framing, offering a technically feasible solution that became politically feasible in 2011.
  • The UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s made a surprising bid to adopt MUP in 2012, but ministers were divided on its technical feasibility (to address the problem they described) and its political feasibility seemed to be more about distracting from other crises than public health.

Politics stream

  • The Scottish Government was highly motivated to adopt MUP. MUP was a flagship policy for the SNP; an opportunity to prove its independent credentials, and to be seen to address a national public health problem. It had the opportunity from 2011, then faced interest group opposition that delayed implementation.
  • The Coalition Government was ideologically more committed to defending commercial interests, and to framing alcohol harms as one of individual (rather than corporate) responsibility. It took less than a year for the alcohol industry to successfully push for a UK government U-turn.

As a result, MUP became policy (eventually) in Scotland, but the window closed (without resolution) in England.

Further Reading

Nicholls, J. and Greenaway, J. (2015) ‘What is the problem?: Evidence, politics and alcohol policy in England and Wales, 2010–2014’, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 22.2  https://doi.org/10.3109/09687637.2014.993923

Butler, S., Elmeland, K., Nicholls, J. and Thom, B. (2017) Alcohol, power and public health: a comparative study of alcohol policy. Routledge.

Fitzgerald, N. and Angus, C. (2015) Four nations: how evidence–based are alcohol policies and programmes across the UK?

Holden, C. and Hawkins, B. (2013) ‘Whisky gloss’: the alcohol industry, devolution and policy communities in Scotland. Public Policy and Administration, 28(3), pp.253-273.

Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2014) ‘Public Health Policy in the United Kingdom: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Brewing?’ World Medical and Health Policy6, 3, 308-323 PDF

Niamh Fitzgerald and Paul Cairney (2022) ‘National objectives, local policymaking: public health efforts to translate national legislation into local policy in Scottish alcohol licensing’, Evidence and Policyhttps://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16397418342227PDF

Podcast

You can listen directly here:

You can also listen on Spotify or iTunes via Anchor

Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol Understanding Public Policy (in 1000 and 500 words)

By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes. There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes,. To demonstrate these links, we present this podcast and blog post to (1) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing in Scotland) to (2) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications.  Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy (wordpress.com)
  1. Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol
  2. Policy in 500 Words: policymaking environments and their consequences
  3. Policy in 500 Words: bounded rationality and its consequences
  4. Policy in 500 Words: evolutionary theory
  5. Policy in 500 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework

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Filed under 1000 words, 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, alcohol, alcohol policy, podcast, Public health, public policy, Scottish politics, Social change, UK politics and policy

Save the Date: Conference on Policy Process Research, January 10-14, Denver, USA

Save the Date: January 10 – 14 2023 | Denver, CO USA
Advancing Policy Process Theories and Methods
Call for papers, roundtables panels, and workshops coming soon!
The Conference on Policy Process Research (COPPR) mission is to advance the scholarship of policy process theory and methods. It embraces a broad interpretation of theories and methods, supporting a plurality of theoretical perspectives. It welcomes both emergent and established theories and methods and questions of what it means to conduct science and engage with our communities. COPPR seeks to support both established and emerging research communities and build bridges among them. COPPR includes critical assessments of the lessons learned from the past, challenges to contemporary boundaries, proposals for innovative research agendas, and arguments of what our future should be. 
Find Out More
COPPR targets seven components of policy process research:
Advancing research within policy process theories and methods;
Developing connections between different theories and methods;
Establishing a critical, constructive, creative, and congenial culture;  
Enlarging the network among policy process researchers, particularly among under-represented and minority communities;
Mentoring students and early career researchers;
Learning from our history and supporting innovative and emergent ideas for our future;
Engaging the challenges facing society and developing scholarship that advances human dignity.  

COPPR ORGANIZERS & SPONSORS
CO-COORDINATORS
Tanya Heikkila and Chris Weible, University of Colorado Denver; Michael D. Jones, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

JOURNAL SPONSORS
Policy & Politics
Policy Studies Journal


ORGANIZING COMMITTEE
Gwen Arnold, University of California, Davis
Paul Cairney, University of Stirling
Claire Dunlop, University of Exeter, UK
Raul Pacheco-Vega, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO)
Evangelia Petridou, Mid Sweden University
Osmany Porto de Oliveira, Federal University of São Paulo, São Paulo
Caroline Schlaufer, University of Bern
Saba Siddiki, Syracuse University
Mallory SoRelle, Duke University
Samuel Workman, West Virginia University

INSTITUTIONAL SPONSORS
School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver
Center for Policy and Democracy, University of Colorado Denver
University of Tennessee, Knoxville Department of Political Science
Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee
Linda and Peter deLeon Fund for Policy and Democracy

LOCATION
The COPPR 2023 is hosted by the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver, in Denver, U.S.A. Denver is the capital of Colorado and the second-largest city in the Mountain West region of the United States. Known as “The Mile-High City”, Denver sits at an altitude of 5,280 feet (1,600 m) above sea level and lies where the Great Plains give way to the Rocky Mountains. Denver is home to nearly 700,000 people in a fast-growing metropolitan area of nearly 3.5 million people. The city embraces its cowboy and mining past but also looks toward the future with a thriving innovative economy, vibrant arts scene, dozens of great outdoor festivals, and distinct neighborhoods, each offering a unique experience. You’ll find everything a cosmopolitan city has to offer, including spectacular views of, and easy access to, the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Downtown Denver and the campus is approximately 26 miles from the airport and takes 40 minutes by light rail. Information about recommended lodging will be provided in fall 2022.

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Policymaking to reduce gender inequalities: Lessons and challenges

Dr Emily St.Denny, Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Copenhagen

Dr Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Dr Sean Kippin, Lecturer in Public Policy, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Every year, March 8th marks International Women’s Day: an official UN holiday to draw attention to women’s rights and gender equality, celebrating achievements and highlighting challenges. There is a strong consensus that reducing gender inequality is the right thing to do and has wider economic and social benefits. There is also evidence that some gender gaps have narrowed, for example in education.

Nevertheless, significant inequalities still persist, despite policy interventions from states and organisations like the European Union and the United Nations. For instance, women remain underrepresented in politics and in corporate leadership, are more likely to be poor, and are frequently victims of gendered violence, harassment and discrimination.

As part of our research for the IMAJINE project, we studied how governments might make better policies to reduce gender inequalities. Ideas abound, and feminist civil society and policy actors have generated new visions to improve gender equality policy and policymaking.

Despite this, many advocates remain disappointed by slow progress and poor outcomes. We therefore sought to analyse the rich literature on gender inequality policy to identify potential lessons to help policymakers more effectively tackle the issue. In particular we looked at the case of ‘Gender mainstreaming’ as one example of an influential policy agenda that has gained global prominence.

Overall, we identify three challenges facing policymakers seeking to make and deliver effective inequality reduction policies:

Challenge 1: Defining equality

Gender equality is an ambiguous and contested term. Interpretations of how and why gender inequality constitutes a problem vary significantly and beliefs about how best to address it are subject to ongoing debate. We can identify some common ground, with broad consensus that ‘gender inequality’ refers to the fact that some individuals, especially women, face discrimination, hardships, or missed opportunities on the basis of their gender. Nevertheless, when policy actors seek to make sense of gender equality as a policy goal, they contribute to three different interpretations of the problem based on what they consider ‘equality’ to mean. These different interpretations lead to different diagnoses of the solution and, ultimately, different forms of public action.

  • Equality of treatment: women and men are the same and therefore deserving of equal treatment (e.g. establish of anti-discrimination laws).
  • Equality of opportunity: there are differences between men and women that identify women as deserving of special protection or affirmative action to redress socially and historically entrenched inequalities.
  • Equality of outcome/impact: focus on equal outcomes, for example through ‘gender mainstreaming’ – a strategy to ensure that the goal of advancing gender equality is actively integrated into all stages of the policymaking process across all sectors.

This ambiguity can be assessed in different ways. On the one hand, it has allowed broad coalitions to mobilise in its defense and elevate it as an important issue. On the other, ambiguity has made it possible to label a wide range of policies as ‘gender equality policies’, some of which are (intentionally and unintentionally) ineffective or become so in the absence of coordination with other policy efforts.

Policymakers seeking to improve gender equality through public action must therefore grapple with a trade-off: define the term very specifically and perhaps increase its meaningfulness as a concrete policy goal but risk narrowing the possible impact of policy and alienating those with alternative interpretations.

Challenge 2: Designing effective policies

Policymakers can choose from different instruments to craft their response, but options are limited by calculations of what is feasible.

One choice is between ‘soft’ instruments that rely on voluntary take-up, such as benchmarking and the issuance of recommendations, and ‘hard’ instruments, which are imposed and include penalties for non-compliance.

For example, in the case of the EU, we can contrast the publication of gender equality data by the European Institute for Gender Equality, which is intended to incentivize Member States to continually strive to improve their position, with the introduction of the EU Work-Life Balance Directive, which requires Member States to introduce earmarked paternity leave.

There is a tendency for soft instruments to be associated with a weaker commitment to gender equality, held responsible for a dilution of policy efficacy over time. Our research suggests, however, that soft instruments have their uses. In particular, since they do not require strong consensus to adopt, they are easier to introduce and adapt to local circumstances. For this reason, they may also serve as a useful way to prime support across the policy community ahead of trying to introduce harder and more binding instruments.

Policymakers seeking to improve efforts to reduce gender inequality should therefore think carefully about policy design in relation to overall coherence, or the extent to which policy actions mutually reinforce each other. Seen this way, policy coherence becomes an ongoing and everyday concern about the extent to which instruments and actions work effectively together over time, rather than simply at the moment of introduction. This may involve trade-offs over instrument selection as well as policy goals, such as whether to focus on securing immediate material objectives or achieving longer-term strategic goals. 

Challenge 3: More than an implementation gap

An ‘implementation gap’ refers to the discrepancy between policy choices and actual outcomes. Thinking of the challenge of contemporary gender equality policy as an implementation gap is too reductive. It is not just that effective gender equality policy is hard to make and even harder to implement effectively. It is also that the way we make policy, and many of the people involved, actively contribute to sustaining gender inequalities.

Some of this can be attributed to resistance by some policymakers to gender equality as a legitimate and desirable goal. However, a lot can be attributed to the fact that many well-intentioned policy actors have not grasped the structural nature of gender inequality. Consequently, they are ill-equipped to address inequalities and inadvertently reproduce them. This can be seen when gender equality policy takes the shape of bureaucratic  instruments and ‘tick box’ exercises rather than a more meaningful commitment to reforming the way we make and deliver policy. At the same time, making gender everybody’s business also risks making it nobody’s business if specialized equality institutions are dismantled for being redundant.

Overall, what our research suggests is that policymakers must let go of the illusion that gender equality can be achieved as a matter of mundane routine, without having to make fundamentally political decisions about big questions including: what do we mean by equality, what does it look like in practice, and are we willing to get out of our comfort zone to achieve it?

This post first appeared on the University of Stirling Public Policy blog

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Contradictions in policy and policymaking

It would be a mistake to equate public policy with whatever a government says it is doing (or wants to do).

The most obvious, but often unhelpful, explanation for this statement is that politicians are not sincere when making policy promises, or not competent enough to see them through.

This focus on sincerity and ‘political will’ can be useful, but only scratches the surface of explanation.

The bigger source of explanation comes from the routine, pervasive, and inevitable contradictions of policy and policymaking.

The basic idea of contradictory aims and necessary trade-offs

I want to eat crisps and lose weight, but making a commitment to both does not achieve both. Rather, I cycle between each aim, often unpredictably, producing what might appear to be an inconsistent approach to my wellbeing.

These problems only get worse when more people and aims are involved. Indeed, a general description of ‘politics’ regards trying to find ways to resolve the many different preferences of many people in the same society. These preferences are intransitive, prompting policy actors to try to manipulate choice situations, or produce effective stories or narratives, to encourage one choice over another. Even if successful in once case, the overall impact of political action is not consistent.

The inevitable result of politics is that policymakers want to prioritise many policy aims and the aims that undermine them. When they pursue many contradictory aims, they have to make trade-offs and prioritise some aims over others.  Sometimes, this choice is explicit. Sometimes, you have to work out what a government’s real priorities are when they seem sincerely committed to so many things. If so, we should not deduce government policy overall from specific statements and policies.

This basic idea plays out in many different ways, including:

  • Policymakers need to address many contradictory demands

Contradictions are inevitable when policymakers seek to offer policy benefits to many different groups for different reasons. Some benefits are largely rhetorical, others more substantive.

  • Ambiguity allows policy actors to downplay contradictions (temporarily) when generating support.

Contradictions are masked by ambiguity, such as when many different actors support the same vague ambition for very different reasons.

  • Policy silos contribute to contradictory action

Contradictions are exacerbated by inevitable and pervasive policy silos or ‘communities’ that seem immune to ‘holistic’ government. They multiply when governments have many departments pursuing many different aims. There may be a vague hope for joined-up policy, but a strong rationale for policy communities to specialise and become insulated.

The power to make policies – or create or amend policy instruments – is spread across many different venues of authority. If so, a key aim – stated often – is to find ways to cooperate to avoid contradictory policies and practices. The logical consequence of this distribution of powers, and the continuous search for meaningful cooperation, is that such contradictions are routine features, not bugs, of political systems.

Contradictions are a feature of organisational and systemic rules and norms, in which the rules on paper are not the rules in use.

  • Policymaking systems exacerbate contradictions

Contradictions emerge from  complex policymaking systems, in which unexpected outcomes emerge despite central government action.

Some of these outcomes simply emerge from routine policy delivery, when the actors carrying out policy have different ideas than the actors sending them instructions. Or, implementing actors do not have the resources or clarity to do what they think they are being told.

Examples of contradictions in policy and policymaking

Most governments are committed rhetorically (and often sincerely) to the public health agenda ‘Health in All Policies’ but also the social and economic policies that undermine it. The same goes for the more general aim of ‘prevention’.

Governments and organisations promote anti-racist policies (or softer-sounding equality, diversity, and inclusion policies) while reproducing racist institutions and practices.

In these kinds of cases, it is tempting to conclude that governments make promises energetically as a substitute for – not a signal of – action.

Levin et al note that the governments seeking to reduce climate change are also responsible for its inevitability.

The US and EU have subsidised the production and/or encouraged the sale of tobacco (to foster economic aims) at the same time as seeking tobacco control and discouraging smoking (to foster public health aims).

Governments seek to combine contradictory ways to encourage centralism/ localism and the use of evidence for policy.

Further reading

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Policy in 500 words

Few theories and concepts in these series use this term, but many help to explain many elements of policy and policymaking contradictions.

See also this note on policymaking in Scotland, also containing the not-entirely-helpful crisp analogy.

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Policy analysis in 750 words: WORDLE and trial and error policymaking

I apologise for every word in this post, and the capitalised 5-letter words in particular.

WORDLE is a SIMPLE word game (in US English). The aim is to identify a 5-letter word correctly in 6 guesses or fewer. Each guess has to be a real word, and you receive informative feedback each time: GREEN means you have the letter RIGHT and in the right position; yellow means the right letter in the wrong position; grey MEANS the letter does not appear in the word.

One strategy involves trial-and-error learning via 3 or 4 simple steps:

1. Use your initial knowledge of the English language to inform initial guesses, such as guessing a word with common vowels (I go for E and A) and consonants (e.g. S, T).

2. Learn from feedback on your correct and incorrect estimates.

3. Use your new information and deduction (e.g. about which combinations work when you exclude many options) to make informed guesses.

4. Do so while avoiding unhelpful heuristics, such as assuming that each letter will only appear once (or that the spelling is in UK English).

At least, that is how I play it. I get it in 3 just over half the time, and 4 or 5 in the rest. I make 2-4 ‘errors’ then succeed. In the context of the game’s rules, that is consistent success, RIGHT?

[insert crowbar GIF to try to get away with the segue]

That is the spirit of the idea of trial-and-error learning.

It is informed by previous knowledge, but also a recognition of the benefits of trying things out to generate new information, update your knowledge and skills (the definition of learning), and try again.

A positive normative account of this approach can be found in classic discussions of incrementalism and modern discussions of policymaking informed by complex systems insights:

‘To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly’.

Advocates of such approaches also suggest that we change how we describe them, replacing the language of policy failure with ERROR, at least when part of a process of continuous policy learning in the face of uncertainty.

At the heart of such advice are two guiding principles:

1. Recognise the limits to centralism when giving policy advice. There is no powerful centre of government, able to carry out all of its aims successfully, so do not build policy advice on that assumption.

2. Recognise the limits to our knowledge. Policymakers must make and learn from choices in the face of uncertainty, so do not kid yourself that one piece of analysis and action will do.

Much like the first two WORDLE guesses, your existing knowledge alone does not tell you how to proceed (regardless of the number of times that people repeat the slogan of ‘evidence-based policymaking’).

Political problems with trial and error

The main political problem with this approach is that many political systems – including adversarial and/or Westminster systems – are not conducive to learning from error. You may think that adapting continuously to uncertainty is crucial, but also be wary of recommending it to:

1. Politicians who will be held to account for failure. A government’s apparent failure to deliver on promises represents a resource for its opposition.

2. Organisations subject to government targets. Failure to meet strict statutory requirements is not seen as a learning experience.  

More generally, your audience may face criticism whenever errors are associated with negative policy consequences (with COVID-19 policy representing a vivid, extreme example).

These limitations produce a major dilemma in policy analysis, in which you believe that you will not learn how to make good policy without trial-and-error but recognise that this approach will not be politically feasible. In many political systems, policymakers need to pretend to their audience that they know what the problem is and that they have the knowledge and power to solve it. You may not be too popular if you encourage open-minded experimentation. This limitation should not warn you against trial-and-error recommendations completely, but rather remind you to relate good-looking ideas to your policymaking context.

Please note that I missed my train stop while writing this post, despite many opportunities to learn from the other times it happened.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Political feasibility and policy success

Policy studies and policy analysis guidebooks identify the importance of feasible policy solutions:

  • Technical feasibility: will this solution work as intended if implemented?
  • Political feasibility: will it be acceptable to enough powerful people?

For example, Kingdon treats feasibility as one of three conditions for major policy change during a ‘window of opportunity’: (1) there is high attention to the policy problem, (2) a feasible solution already exists, and (3) key policymakers have the motive and opportunity to select it.

Guidebooks relate this requirement initially to your policymaker client: what solutions will they rule out, to the extent that they are not even worth researching as options (at least for the short term)?

Further, this assessment relates to types of policy ‘tool’ or ‘instrument’: one simple calculation is that ‘redistributive’ measures are harder to sell than ‘distributive’, while both may be less attractive than regulation (although complex problems likely require a mix of instruments).

These insights connect to Lindblom’s classic vision of:

  1. Incremental analysis. It is better to research in-depth a small number of feasible options than spread your resources too thinly to consider all possibilities.
  2. Strategic analysis. The feasibility of a solution relates strongly to current policy. The more radical a departure from the current negotiated position, the harder it will be to sell.

As many posts in the Policy Analysis in 750 words series describe, this advice is not entirely  useful for actors who seek rapid and radical departures from the status quo. Lindblom’s response to such critics was to seek radical change via a series of non-radical steps (at least in political systems like the US), which (broadly speaking) represents one of two possible approaches.

While incrementalism is not as popular as it once was (as a description of, or prescription for, policymaking), it tapped into the enduring insight that policymaking systems produce huge amounts of minor change. Rapid and radical policy change is rare, and it is even rarer to be able to connect it to influential analysis and action (at least in the absence of a major event). This knowledge should not put people off trying, but rather help them understand the obstacles that they seek to overcome.

Relating feasible solutions and strategies to ‘policy success’

One way to incorporate this kind of advice is to consider how (especially elected) policymakers would describe their own policy success. The determination of success and failure is a highly contested and political process (not simply a technical exercise called ‘evaluation’), and policymakers may refer – often implicitly – to the following questions when seeking success:

  1. Political. Will this policy boost my government’s credibility and chances of re-election?
  2. Process. Will it be straightforward to legitimise and maintain support for this policy?
  3. Programmatic. Will it achieve its stated objectives and produce beneficial outcomes if implemented?

The benefit to analysts, in asking themselves these questions, is that they help to identify the potential solutions that are technically but not politically feasible (or vice versa).

The absence of clear technical feasibility does not necessarily rule out solutions with wider political benefits (for example, it can be beneficial to look like you are trying to do something good). Hence the popular phrase ‘good politics, bad policy’.

Nor does a politically unattractive option rule out a technically feasible solution (not all politicians flee the prospect of ‘good policy, bad politics’). However, it should prompt attention to hard choices about whose support to seek, how long to wait, or how hard to push, to seek policy change. You can see this kind of thinking as ‘entrepreneurial‘ or ‘systems thinking’ depending on how much faith you have in agency in highly-unequal political contexts.

Further reading

It is tempting to conclude that these obstacles to ‘good policy’ reflect the pathological nature of politics. However, if we want to make this argument, we should at least do it well:

1. You can find this kind of argument in fields such as public health and climate change studies, where researchers bemoan the gap between (a) their high-quality evidence on an urgent problem and (b) a disproportionately weak governmental response. To do it well, we need to separate analytically (or at least think about): (a) the motivation and energy of politicians (usually the source of most criticism of low ‘political will’), and (b) the policymaking systems that constrain even the most sincere and energetic policymakers. See the EBPM page for more.

2. Studies of Social Construction and Policy Design are useful to connect policymaking research with a normative agenda to address ‘degenerative’ policy design.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Changing things from the inside

How should policy actors seek radical changes to policy and policymaking?

This question prompts two types of answer:

1. Be pragmatic, and change things from the inside

Pragmatism is at the heart of most of the policy analysis texts in this series. They focus on the needs and beliefs of clients (usually policymakers). Policymakers are time-pressed, so keep your analysis short and relevant. See the world through their eyes. Focus on solutions that are politically as well as technically feasible. Propose non-radical steps, which may add up to radical change over the long-term.

This approach will seem familiar to students of research ‘impact’ strategies which emphasise relationship-building, being available to policymakers, and responding to the agendas of governments to maximise the size of your interested audience.

It will also ring bells for advocates of radical reforms in policy sectors such as (public) health and intersectoral initiatives such as gender mainstreaming:

  • Health in All Policies is a strategy to encourage radical changes to policy and policymaking to improve population health.  Common advice includes to: identify to policymakers how HiAP fits into current policy agendas, seek win-win strategies with partners in other sectors, and go to great lengths to avoid the sense that you are interfering in their work (‘health imperialism’).
  • Gender mainstreaming is a strategy to consider gender in all aspect of policy and policymaking. An equivalent playbook involves steps to: clarify what gender equality is, and what steps may help achieve it; make sure that these ideas translate across all levels and types of policymaking; adopt tools to ensure that gender is a part of routine government business (such as budget processes); and, modify existing policies or procedures while increasing the representation of women in powerful positions.

In other words, the first approach is to pursue your radical agenda via non-radical means, using a playbook that is explicitly non-confrontational.  Use your insider status to exploit opportunities for policy change.

2. Be radical, and challenge things from the outside

Challenging the status quo, for the benefit of marginalised groups, is at the heart of critical policy analysis:

  • Reject the idea that policy analysis is a rationalist, technical, or evidence-based process. Rather, it involves the exercise of power to (a) depoliticise problems to reduce attention to current solutions, and (b) decide whose knowledge counts.
  • Identify and question the dominant social constructions of problems and populations, asking who decides how to portray these stories and who benefits from their outcomes.

This approach resonates with frequent criticisms of ‘impact’ advice, emphasising the importance of producing research independent of government interference, to challenge policies that further harm already-marginalised populations.

It will also rings bells among advocates of more confrontational strategies to seek radical changes to policy and policymaking. They include steps to: find more inclusive ways to generate and share knowledge, produce multiple perspectives on policy problems and potential solutions, focus explicitly on the impact of the status quo on marginalised populations, politicise issues continuously to ensure that they receive sufficient attention, and engage in outsider strategies to protest current policies and practices.

Does this dichotomy make sense?

It is tempting to say that this dichotomy is artificial and that we can pursue the best of both worlds, such as working from within when it works and resorting to outsider action and protest when it doesn’t.

However, the blandest versions of this conclusion tend to ignore or downplay the politics of policy analysis in favour of more technical fixes. Sometimes collaboration and consensus politics is a wonderful feat of human endeavour. Sometimes it is a cynical way to depoliticise issues, stifle debate, and marginalise unpopular positions.

This conclusion also suggests that it is possible to establish what strategies work, and when, without really saying how (or providing evidence for success that would appeal to audiences associated with both approaches). Indeed, a recurrent feature of research in these fields is that most attempts to produce radical change prove to be dispiriting struggles. Non-radical strategies tend to be co-opted by more powerful actors, to mainstream new ways of thinking without changing the old. Radical strategies are often too easy to dismiss or counter.

The latter point reminds us to avoid excessively optimistic overemphasis on the strategies of analysts and advocates at the expense of context and audience. The 500 and 1000 words series perhaps tip us too far in the other direction, but provide a useful way to separate (analytically) the reasons for often-minimal policy change. To challenge dominant forms of policy and policymaking requires us to separate the intentional sources of inertia from the systemic issues that would constrain even the most sincere and energetic reformer.

Further reading

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series, including posts on the role of analysts and marginalised groups. It also relates to work with St Denny, Kippin, and Mitchell (drawing on this draft paper) and posts on ‘evidence based policymaking’.

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Call for papers for a JEPP Special Issue, ‘The politics of policy analysis: theoretical insights on real world problems’

Note: this call will appear shortly on the JEPP page. See also my 750 words series on policy analysis.

For a special edition of the Journal of European Public Policy, we invite proposals for papers that reflect on the theory and practice of policy analysis. This special issue will include state of the art articles on the politics of policy analysis, and empirical studies that use theoretical insights to analyse and address real world problems.

Policy analysis is not a rationalist, technocratic, centrally managed, or ‘evidence based’ process to solve policy problems. Rather, critical policy analysis and mainstream policy studies describe contemporary policy analysis as a highly contested (but unequal) process in which many policymakers, analysts, and influencers cooperate or compete across many centres of government. Further, governments are not in the problem solving business. Instead, they inherit policies that address some problems and create or exacerbate others, benefit some groups and marginalize others, or simply describe problems as too difficult to solve. The highest profile problems, such as global public health and climate change, require the kinds of (1) cooperation across many levels of government (and inside and outside of government), and (2) attention to issues of justice and equity, of which analysts could only dream.

This description of policymaking complexity presents a conundrum. On the one hand, there exist many five-step guides to analysis, accompanied by simple stage-based descriptions of policy processes, but they describe what policy actors would need or like to happen rather than policymaking reality. On the other, policy theory-informed studies are essential to explanation, but not yet essential reading for policy analysts. Policy theorists may be able to describe policy processes – and the role of policy analysts – more accurately than simple guides, but do not offer a clear way to guide action. Practitioner audiences are receptive to accurate descriptions of policymaking reality, but also want a take-home message that they can pick up and use in their work. Critical policy analysts may appreciate insights on the barriers to policy and policymaking change, but only if there is equal attention to how to overcome them.

We seek contributions that engage with this conundrum. We welcome papers which use theories, concepts and frameworks that are considered the policy studies mainstream, but also contributions from critical studies that use research to support marginalized populations as they analyse contemporary policy problems. We focus on Europe broadly defined, but welcome contributions with  direct lessons from any other region.

Potential themes include but are not limited to:

  • State of the art articles that use insights from policy theories and/ or critical policy analysis to guide the study and practice of policy analysis
  • Articles that situate the analysis of contemporary policy problems within a wider policymaking context, to replace wishful thinking with more feasible (but equally ambitious) analysis
  • Articles that engage critically with contemporary themes in policy analysis and design, such as how to encourage ‘entrepreneurial’ policy analysis, foster ‘co-production’ during policy analysis and design, or engage in ‘systems thinking’ without relying on jargon and gimmicks.
  • Articles that engage with the unrealistic idea of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ to produce more feasible (and less technocratic) images of evidence-informed policymaking.

Expressions of interest consisting of a title, author(s) names and affiliation, and a short abstract (no more than 300 words) should be sent to p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk by Feb 28th 2022. Successful authors should have a full article draft for submission into the JEPP review process by August 30th 2022.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Two approaches to policy learning and transfer

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series. It draws on work for an in-progress book on learning to reduce inequalities. Some of the text will seem familiar if you have read other posts. Think of it as an adventure game in which the beginning is the same but you don’t know the end.

Policy learning is the use of new information to update policy-relevant knowledge. Policy transfer involves the use of knowledge about policy and policymaking in one government to inform policy and policymaking in another.

These processes may seem to relate primarily to research and expertise, but they require many kinds of political choices (explored in this series). They take place in complex policymaking systems over which no single government has full knowledge or control.

Therefore, while the agency of policy analysts and policymakers still matters, they engage with a policymaking context that constrains or facilitates their action.

Two approaches to policy learning: agency and context-driven stories

Policy analysis textbooks focus on learning and transfer as an agent-driven process with well-established  guidance (often with five main steps). They form part of a functionalist analysis where analysts identify the steps required to turn comparative analysis into policy solutions, or part of a toolkit to manage stages of the policy process.

Agency is less central to policy process research, which describes learning and transfer as contingent on context. Key factors include:

Analysts compete to define problems and determine the manner and sources of learning, in a multi-centric environment where different contexts will constrain and facilitate action in different ways. For example, varying structural factors – such as socioeconomic conditions – influence the feasibility of proposed policy change, and each centre’s institutions provide different rules for gathering, interpreting, and using evidence.

The result is a mixture of processes in which:

  1.  Learning from experts is one of many possibilities. For example, Dunlop and Radaelli also describe ‘reflexive learning’, ‘learning through bargaining’, and ‘learning in the shadow hierarchy’
  2.  Transfer takes many forms.

How should analysts respond?

Think of two different ways to respond to this description of the policy process with this lovely blue summary of concepts. One is your agency-centred strategic response. The other is me telling you why it won’t be straightforward.

An image of the policy process (see 5 images)

There are many policy makers and influencers spread across many policymaking ‘centres’

  1. Find out where the action is and tailor your analysis to different audiences.
  2. There is no straightforward way to influence policymaking if multiple venues contribute to policy change and you don’t know who does what.

Each centre has its own ‘institutions’

  1. Learn the rules of evidence gathering in each centre: who takes the lead, how do they understand the problem, and how do they use evidence?
  2. There is no straightforward way to foster policy learning between political systems if each is unaware of each other’s unwritten rules. Researchers could try to learn their rules to facilitate mutual learning, but with no guarantee of success.

Each centre has its own networks

  1. Form alliances with policymakers and influencers in each relevant venue.
  2. The pervasiveness of policy communities complicates policy learning because the boundary between formal power and informal influence is not clear.

Well-established ‘ideas’ tend to dominate discussion

  1. Learn which ideas are in good currency. Tailor your advice to your audience’s beliefs.
  2. The dominance of different ideas precludes many forms of policy learning or transfer. A popular solution in one context may be unthinkable in another.

Many policy conditions (historic-geographic, technological, social and economic factors) command the attention of policymakers and are out of their control. Routine events and non-routine crises prompt policymaker attention to lurch unpredictably.

  1. Learn from studies of leadership in complex systems or the policy entrepreneurs who find the right time to exploit events and windows of opportunity to propose solutions.
  2. The policy conditions may be so different in each system that policy learning is limited and transfer would be inappropriate. Events can prompt policymakers to pay disproportionately low or high attention to lessons from elsewhere, and this attention relates weakly to evidence from analysts.

Feel free to choose one or both forms of advice. One is useful for people who see analysts and researchers as essential to major policy change. The other is useful if it serves as a source of cautionary tales rather than fatalistic responses.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

Teaching evidence based policy to fly: how to deal with the politics of policy learning and transfer

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer

Policy learning to reduce inequalities: a practical framework

Three ways to encourage policy learning

Epistemic versus bargaining-driven policy learning

The ‘evidence-based policymaking’ page explores these issues in more depth

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We are recruiting a temporary lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling

Please see our Vacancy page for the details: https://www.stir.ac.uk/about/work-at-stirling/list/details/?jobId=2841&jobTitle=Lecturer%20in%20International%20Politics

I am one of the pre-interview contacts and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. These notes are also there to address a potentially major imbalance in the informal side to recruitment: if you do not have the contacts and networks that help give you the confidence to seek information (on the things not mentioned in the further particulars), here is the next best thing: the information I would otherwise give you on the phone.

This approach is also handy under the current circumstances, in which (a) the vacancy will run for a short period (deadline: 29th November), because (b) we need someone to start in January.

In contrast to most of the positions I have described on this blog , this post is temporary (12 months, beginning in January). It arises from (very welcome) grant success, which prompted us to rejuggle our teaching and administration at short notice (the essential criteria and descriptions are narrower than usual because we have in mind some very specific teaching requirements).

Here are some general tips on the application and interview processes.

The application process:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • You should keep the cover letter short to show your skills at concise writing (I suggest 1-page). Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD – so what makes your CV stand out?
  • We take teaching very seriously. Within our division, we plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback.
  • You might think generally about how you would contribute to teaching and learning in that context. In particular, you should think about how, for example, you would deliver large undergraduate modules (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, modules closer to your expertise. However, please also note that your main contribution is specific:
  • Dissertation supervision at Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels;
  • Coordinating and delivering specialist modules in the Undergraduate programme (including the advanced module POLU9PE Global Political Economy, and one other advanced module)
  • Coordinating and delivering the International Conflict and Cooperation (ICC) Postgraduate taught programme (ICCPP02 International Organisations)

The interview process

The shortlisting is on the 10th December. All going well, you will know if you have reached the interview stage by the 13th. The interviews will take place on the 16th December (morning). 

The interview stage

Here is how I would describe an open ended lectureship. By the interview stage, here are the things that you should normally know:

  • The teaching and research specialisms of the division and their links to cross-divisional research.
  • The kinds of courses that the division would expect you to teach.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you want to come and work at Stirling. ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should think about it in advance. We recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ faculty, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’). We will see through a generic response and, since it is the first question, your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division or faculty, since this is likely to be a featured question too.

  • Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks.
  • Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

Here is how I would qualify that advice for this post.  With this post, we are likely to focus relatively intensely on specific questions regarding the likely teaching, so please do not feel that you should research the history of the University as preparation.

The interview format

For open-ended contracts, we tend to combine (a) presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with (b) interviews in the afternoon. However, in this case, we will ask you to present briefly to the interview panel.

“Please prepare a 10-minute presentation (with no obligation to use powerpoint) on this question: How would your teaching experience contribute to this Lectureship? Please focus on:

  • coordinating and delivering the advanced undergraduate module Global Political Economy
  • what other advanced undergraduate module you could deliver (based on your research expertise)
  • coordinating and delivering the postgraduate taught module International Organisations
  • supervising undergraduate dissertations in international politics”

In addition:

  • We recommend keeping the (online, via Teams) presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in teaching, research, and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University (but this one is more focused).
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is four members, including: one subject specialist from the Division (me), one member of the Faculty (our Head of Division), the Head of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and a senior academic in another Faculty.
  • In other words, only 1 member of your panel will be a subject specialist in Politics (and, in this case, not International Politics). This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success in a way that a wider audience will appreciate.

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (although they are written on Teams), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager. There are often more men than women on the panel (I think this one will be 50-50), and they are often all-white panels, but we are committed to making such routine imbalances a thing of the past.

Please email – p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk – if you have further questions.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: How to deal with ambiguity

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series. It draws on this 500 Words post, then my interpretation of co-authored work with Drs Emily St Denny and John Boswell (which I would be delighted to share if it gets published). It trails off at the end.

In policy studies, ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem. There are many ways to frame issues as problems. However, only some frames receive high policymaker attention, and policy change relates strongly to that attention. Resolving ambiguity in your favour is the prize.

Policy studies focus on different aspects of this dynamic, including:

  1. The exercise of power, such as of the narrator to tell stories and the audience to engage with or ignore them.
  2. Policy learning, in which people collaborate (and compete) to assign concrete meaning to abstract aims.
  3. A complex process in which many policymakers and influencers are cooperating/ competing to define problems in many policymaking centres.

They suggest that resolving ambiguity affects policy in different ways, to influence the:

The latter descriptions, reflecting multi-centric policymaking, seem particularly relevant to major contemporary policy problems – such as global public health and climate crises – in which cooperation across (and outside of) many levels and types of government is essential.

Resolving ambiguity in policy analysis texts

This context helps us to interpret common (Step 1) advice in policy analysis textbooks: define a policy problem for your client, using your skills of research and persuasion but tailoring your advice to your client’s interests and beliefs. Yet, gone are the mythical days of elite analysts communicating to a single core executive in charge of formulating and implementing all policy instruments. Many analysts engage with many centres producing (or co-producing) many instruments. Resolving ambiguity in one centre does not guarantee the delivery of your aims across many.

Two ways to resolve ambiguity in policy analysis

Classic debates would highlight two different responses:

  • ‘Top down’ accounts see this issue through the lens of a single central government, examining how to reassert central control by minimising implementation gaps.

Policy analysis may focus on (a) defining the policy problem, and (b) ensuring the implementation of its solution.

  • ‘Bottom up’ accounts identify the inevitability (and legitimacy) of policy influence in multiple centres. Policy analysis may focus on how to define the problem in cooperation with other centres, or to set a strategic direction and encourage other centres to make sense of it in their context.

This terminology went out of fashion, but note the existence of each tendency in two ideal-type approaches to contemporary policy problems:

1. Centralised and formalised approaches.

Seek clarity and order to address urgent policy problems. Define the policy problem clearly, translate that definition into strategies for each centre, and develop a common set of effective ‘tools’ to ensure cooperation and delivery.

Policy analysis may focus on technical aspects, such as how to create a fine-detail blueprint for action, backed by performance management and accountability measures that tie actors to specific commitments.

The tagline may be: ambiguity is a problem to be solved, to direct policy actors towards a common goal.

2. Decentralised, informal, collaborative approaches.

Seek collaboration to make sense of, and address, problems. Reject a single definition of the problem, encourage actors in each centre (or in concert) to deliberate to make sense of problems together, and co-create the rules to guide a continuous process of collective behaviour.

Policy analysis may focus on how to contribute to a collaborative process of sense-making and rule-making.

The tagline may be: ambiguity presents an opportunity to energise policy actors, to harness the potential for innovation arising from deliberation.

Pick one approach and stick with it?

Describing these approaches in such binary terms makes the situation – and choice between approaches – look relatively straightforward. However, note the following issues:

  • Many policy sectors (and intersectoral agendas) are characterised by intense disagreement on which choice to make. These disagreements intersect with others (such as when people seek not only transformative policy change to solve global problems, but also equitable process and outcomes).
  • Some sectors seem to involve actors seeking the best of both worlds (centralise and localise, formalise and deliberate) without recognising the trade-offs and dilemmas that arise.
  • I have described these options as choices, but did not establish if anyone is in the position to make or contribute to that choice.

In that context, resolving ambiguity in your favour may still be the prize, but where would you even begin?

Further reading

Well, that was an unsatisfying end to the post, eh? Maybe I’ll write a better one when some things are published. In the meantime, some of these papers and posts explore some of these issues:

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Policy in 500 Words: Trust

This post summarises ‘COVID-19: effective policymaking depends on trust in experts, politicians, and the public’ by Adam Wellstead and me.

The meaning of trust

We define trust as ‘a belief in the reliability of other people, organizations, or processes’, but it is one of those terms – like ‘policy’ – that defies a single comprehensive definition. The term ‘distrust’ complicates things further, since it does not simply mean the absence of trust.

Its treatment in social science also varies, which makes our statement – ‘Trust is necessary for cooperation, coordination, social order, and to reduce the need for coercive state imposition’ – one of many ways to understand its role.

A summary of key concepts

Social science accounts of trust relate it to:

1. Individual choice

I may trust someone to do something if I value their integrity (if they say they will do it, I believe them), credibility (I believe their claim is accurate and feasible), and competence (I believe they have the ability).

This perception of reliability depends on:

  • The psychology of the truster. The truster assesses the risk of relying on others, while combining cognition and emotion to relate that risk of making themselves vulnerable to the benefit of collective action, while drawing on an expectation of reciprocity.
  • The behaviour of the trustee. They demonstrate their trustworthiness in relation to past performance, which demonstrates their competence and reliability and perhaps their selflessness in favour of collective action.
  • Common reference points. The trustee and truster may use shortcuts to collective action, such as a reference to something they have in common (e.g. their beliefs or social background), their past interactions, or the authority of the trustee.

2. Social and political rules (aka institutions).

Perhaps ideally, we would learn who to trust via our experiences of working together, but we also need to trust people we have never met, and put equivalent trust in organisations and ‘systems’.

In that context, approaches such as the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) identify the role of many different kinds of rules in relation to trust:

  • Rules can be formal, written, and widely understood (e.g. to help assign authority regardless of levels of interaction) or informal, unwritten, and only understood by some (e.g. resulting from interactions in some contexts).
  • Rules can represent low levels of trust and a focus on deterring breaches (e.g. creating and enforcing contracts) or high levels of trust (e.g. to formalize ‘effective practices built on reciprocity, emotional bonds, and/or positive expectations’).

3. Societal necessity and interdependence.

Trust is a functional requirement. We need to trust people because we cannot maintain a functional society or political system without working together. Trust-building underpins the study of collaboration (or cooperation and bargaining), such as in the Ecology of Games approach (which draws on the IAD).

  • In that context, trust is a resource (to develop) that is crucial to a required outcome.

Is trust good and distrust bad?

We describe trust as ‘necessary for cooperation’ and distrust as a ‘potent motivator’ that may prompt people to ignore advice or defy cooperation or instruction. Yet, neither is necessarily good or bad. Too much trust may be a function of: (1) the abdication of our responsibility to engage critically with leaders in political systems, (2) vulnerability to manipulation, and/ or (3) excessive tribalism, prompting people to romanticise their own cause and demonise others, each of which could lead us to accept uncritically the cynical choices of policymakers.

Further reading

Trust is a slippery concept, and academics often make it slippier by assuming rather than providing a definition. In that context, why not read all of the 500 Words series and ask yourself where trust/ distrust fit in?

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