Speaking truth to power

Academics are often fond of the idea of ‘speaking truth to power’, a phrase that I usually  associate with Aaron Wildavsky’s book on giving policy advice to powerful policymakers. In that context, it suggests that we have a duty to challenge the powerful to make sure that they don’t make decisions based on faulty evidence or faulty logic. Backed by our professional status (and, in some cases, tenured positions), we should have the courage to stand up for the truth.

This attitude often permeates our behaviour: to be loudly or publicly critical is to be righteous. It also reinforces a behaviour associated with ‘falsification’ in science: the best studies or theories are the ones that survive brutal criticism. Be clear enough to be proven wrong, invite harsh attacks and, if you are right, make sure that people know about it in no uncertain terms.

The problem, of course, is that it can also provide good cover for arseholeish behaviour: we give our colleagues a kicking while they present research, and we castigate policymakers while they engage in anything but evidence-based policymaking – all in the name of science and truth, but in a way that can give academics a bad name.

I say this partly as a way to account for some of the ways in which some scholars engage in public, such as on social media, when they are no longer speaking to the powerful, but to a range of people, including some who are vulnerable and without the resources to argue back in the same way. It seems difficult for some scholars to adjust to the need to speak differently with people in less powerful positions: we shout and we condescend in one venue because we have found it to be effective in another. We get away with it in one venue, particularly if we are high-research-status men, and we get away with it in another. We are the powerful but we still get away with ‘speaking truth to power’ even when engaging with the powerless.

I also say this partly as a way to wonder aloud if I’m any worse off by doing the opposite, which I take to mean saying nothing. I lose what is, from my perspective, the opportunity to speak truth to power, but which may be, as far as I know, the opportunity to be heard at the expense of other, perhaps worthier, voices. To say nothing may be a worthier political statement than saying something. To turn down a few panels may be worthier than contributing to the oversupply of men on panels. To listen to someone else’s story, and be a quiet source of support, may be better than telling my own.

Of course, it now looks like I’m leading up to the ‘third way’ or Goldilocks solution with just the right amount of engagement, but I’m honestly not sure what it looks like. My current solution, to say many critical things quietly, semi-apologetically, and with a smile on my face, is bound to get old.

 

 

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Writing an essay on politics, policymaking, and policy change

I tend to set this simple-looking question for coursework in policy modules: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why? Students get to choose the policy issue, timeframe (and sometimes the political system), and relevant explanatory concepts.

On the face of it, it looks super-simple: A+ for everyone!

Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:

  1. We spent a lot of time agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy (explained in 1000 Words and 500 Words)
  2. There are a gazillion possible measures of policy change (1000 Words and 500 Words)
  3. There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics (I describe about 25 in 1000 Words each)

I try to encourage some creativity when solving this problem, but also advise students to keep their discussion as simple and jargon-free as possible (often by stretching an analogy with diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).

Choosing a format: the initial advice

  1. Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
  2. Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in the post-war era, since UK devolution, or since a change in government).
  3. Select one or more policy concept or theory to help structure your discussion and help explain how and why policy has changed.

For example, a question might be: What is tobacco policy in the UK, how much has it changed since the 1980s, and why? I use this example because I try to answer that – UK and global – question myself, even though my 2007 article on the UK is too theory-packed to be a good model for an undergraduate essay.

Choosing a format: the cautionary advice

You may be surprised about how difficult it is to answer a simple question like ‘what is policy?’ and I will give you considerable credit for considering how to define and measure it, by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and ‘nodality’ and/ or by considering the difference between, say, policy as a statement of intent or a long term outcome. In turn, a good description and explanation of policy change is difficult. If you are feeling ambitious, you can go further, to compare, say, two issues (such as tobacco and alcohol) or places (such UK Government policy and the policy of another country), but sometimes a simple and narrow discussion can be as, or more, effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but often one theory will do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic to focus or concepts to use.

Choosing a topic: the ‘joined up’ advice

The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between different perspectives on policy theory and analysis. For example, in a blog and policy analysis paper they try to generate attention to a policy problem and advocate a solution. Then, they draw on policy theories and concepts to reflect on their papers, highlighting (say): the need to identify the most important audience; the importance of framing issues with a mixture of evidence and emotional appeals; and, the need to present ‘feasible’ solutions.

The reflection can provide a useful segue to the essay, since we’re already identifying important policy problems, advocating change, reflecting on how best to encourage it – such as by presenting modest objectives – and then, in the essay, trying to explain (say) why governments have not taken that advice in the past. Their interest in the policy issue can prompt interest in researching the issue further; their knowledge of the issue and the policy process can help them develop politically-aware policy analysis. All going well, it produces a virtuous circle.

Some examples from my pet subject

Let me outline how I would begin to answer the three questions with reference to UK tobacco policy. I’m offering a brief summary of each section rather than presenting a full essay with more detail (partly to hold on to that idea of creativity – I don’t want students to use this description as a blueprint).

What is modern UK tobacco policy?

Tobacco policy in the UK is now one of the most restrictive in the world. The UK government has introduced a large number of policy instruments to encourage a major reduction of smoking in the population. They include: legislation to ban smoking in public places; legislation to limit tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship; high taxes on tobacco products; unequivocal health education; regulations on tobacco ingredients; significant spending on customs and enforcement measures; and, plain packaging measures.

[Note that I selected only a few key measures to define policy. A fuller analysis might expand on why I chose them and why they are so important].

How much has policy changed since the 1980s?

Policy has changed radically since the post-war period, and most policy change began from the 1980s, but it was not until the 2000s onwards that the UK cemented its place as one of the most restrictive countries. The shift from the 1980s relates strongly to the replacement of voluntary agreements and limited measures with limited enforcement with legislative measures and stronger enforcement. The legislation to ban tobacco advertising, passed in 2002, replaced limited bans combined with voluntary agreements to (for example) keep billboards a certain distance from schools. The legislation to ban smoking in public places, passed in 2006 (2005 in Scotland), replaced voluntary measures which allowed smoking in most pubs and restaurants. Plain packaging measures, combined with large and graphic health warnings, replace branded packets which once had no warnings. Health education warnings have gone from stating the facts and inviting smokers to decide, and the promotion of harm reduction (smoke ‘low tar’), to an unequivocal message on the harms of smoking and passive smoking.

[Note that I describe these changes in broad terms. Other articles might ‘zoom’ in on specific instruments to show how exactly they changed]

Why has it changed?

This is the section of the essay in which we have to make a judgement about the type of explanation: should you choose one or many concepts; if many, do you focus on their competing or complementary insights; should you provide an extensive discussion of your chosen theory?

I normally recommend a very small number of concepts or simple discussion, largely because there is only so much you can say in an essay of 2-3000 words.

For example, a simple ‘hook’ is to ask if the main driver was the scientific evidence: did policy change as the evidence on smoking (and then passive smoking) related harm became more apparent? Is it a good case of ‘evidence based policymaking’? The answer may then note that policy change seemed to be 20-30 years behind the evidence [although I’d have to explain that statement in more depth] and set out the conditions in which this driver would have an effect.

In short, one might identify the need for a ‘policy environment’, shaped by policymakers, and conducive to a strong policy response based on the evidence of harm and a political choice to restrict tobacco use. It would relate to decisions by policymakers to: frame tobacco as a public health epidemic requiring a major government response (rather than primarily as an economic good or issue of civil liberties); place health departments or organisations at the heart of policy development; form networks with medical and public health groups at the expense of tobacco companies; and respond to greater public support for control, reduced smoking prevalence, and the diminishing economic value of tobacco.

This discussion can proceed conceptually, in a relatively straightforward way, or with the further aid of policy theories which ask further questions and help structure the answers.

For example, one might draw on punctuated equilibrium theory to help describe and explain shifts of public/media/ policymaker attention to tobacco, from low and positive in the 1950s to high and negative from the 1980s.

Or, one might draw on the ACF to explain how pro-tobacco coalitions helped slow down policy change by interpreting new scientific evidence though the ‘lens’ of well-established beliefs or approaches (examples from the 1950s include filter tips, low tar brands, and ventilation as alternatives to greater restrictions on smoking).

One might even draw on multiple streams analysis to identify a ‘window of opportunity for change (as I did when examining the adoption of bans on smoking in public places).

Any of these approaches will do, as long as you describe and justify your choice well. One cannot explain everything, so it may be better to try to explain one thing well.

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What happens when UK Governments try to control and delegate policymaking? #POLU9UK

To celebrate Andy Murray becoming number 1, I have recorded the podcast in the style of him giving an interview:

 

British politics looks weird because UK governments have contradictory incentives: to look like they are in control, but delegate most, of policymaking; to take but shuffle off responsibility for policy outcomes; to hold on and let go.

These incompatible incentives reflect our incompatible stories of British politics:

  • One stresses central control, the other stresses complexity and emergent outcomes despite central government intervention
  • One stresses the need for central control to ensure clear lines of accountability, the other stresses the need for pragmatism and how ridiculous it is to hold people to account for things over which they have minimal control.
  • One gets all the attention, despite being misleading, partly because it relates to a simple and comforting message on accountability and the exciting world of high politics. The other gets little attention, despite being more accurate, because its message is confusing and often boring.

So, when we discuss the big post-war developments in British politics, and their impact on policymaking and accountability, we should not expect to find a grand or consistent plan. Instead, post war government reforms reflect these contradictions, and prompt a tendency for elected policymakers to delegate or ‘shuffle off’ most responsibility but intervene in unpredictable and inconsistent ways.

What were these big changes? 1. A shift from state to market?

I say this not to diminish the argument that major changes from the 1970s, to alter the balance between the state and market in the UK, were often ideologically driven. Rather, don’t assume that the consistent/systematic application of that ideology is the main explanation. In some cases, governments:

  • diluted their reformist beliefs, preferring pragmatism and realistic aims
  • pursued reforms for simple aims such as to bolster their popularity
  • accepted or reinforced the actions of their predecessors (even if from another party)
  • pursued major reforms after key events and crises seemed to force their hand.

Overall, politics is often about telling a story about handling government or crises well, not actually controlling events and outcomes, and no single elected government can oversee a 10, 20, or 30-year plan to reform the state in the scale we witnessed.

Still, we can now see fundamental differences when we compare the UK state with that of the 1970s. Examples include:

  • A ‘paradigm’ shift in economic policy, from ‘Keynesian’ to ‘monetarist’ economics (see Hall), prompted by economic crisis in the 1970s under Labour and the election of a Conservative government in 1979. For example, governments no longer promise to achieve ‘full employment’ via measures such as capital investment (indeed, the Thatcher government appeared to accept high unemployment while favouring inflation controls).
  • Privatisation. The sale of public assets (including major nationalised utilities and local authority owned social housing), break up of state monopolies, injection of competition in the public sector, introduction of public–private partnerships for major capital projects, and charging for government services.

In both cases, you can see one form of this debate on central control playing out: for some advocates of economic reform and privatisation, this was about producing a ‘rejuvenated’ and ‘lean’ state, with ministers able to focus on core tasks – making strategic decisions and creating rules for others to follow – without having to pretend that they can control the economy or manage major industries. In this account, post-war developments were based on the idea of state planning and central control over the economy and most public services, while post-79 developments were driven by the belief that such planning had failed.

Although prompted by the Conservative government of 1979-97, the Labour government from 1997-2010 reinforced most measures (and privatised more services than Thatcher would have envisaged). It also extended the idea of limiting central government ministerial intervention in the economy by introducing Bank of England independence (making it primarily responsible for interest rates and strategies to manage inflation).

  1. A shift from ‘rowing’ to ‘steering’?

This ‘lean’ theme is summed up in the metaphor (made famous by management consultants Osborne and Gaebler) of ‘steering, not rowing’, in which governments decide to provide direction to public services/ public servants rather than managing them directly. Also look out for the phrase ‘new public management’ (NPM) which mostly describes the application of private business methods to the public sector. Examples include:

  • Civil service reforms to separate strategic ministerial/ operational decisions and make public servants more directly accountable for the latter.
  • Quasi-markets. Public bodies like hospitals and schools are given greater operational independence. One part of the public sector competes with another for (say) the business of commissioning agencies and/ or to compete in league tables of performance.
  • Quangos. The increased use of quasi-non-governmental bodies, sponsored by government departments but operating at ‘arms-length’ from elected policymakers.
  • Public sector reforms in which non-governmental bodies play an increasing role in service delivery while subject to regulation, inspection, and performance management.
  1. Constitutional

These reforms, often designed to give a sense of reinforced central control, are different from decisions by the UK government to shift power upwards, to the European Union, and downwards,(a) in 1999, to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and (b) through various experiments in regional government (in the early 2000s) and ‘localism’ (from 2010).

What is the overall effect of these reforms?

These reforms prompted several debates about the modern nature of the UK state, based on questions such as, Is it ‘hollowing’ or rejuvenated?

  • Is UK central government now less able to influence policy outcomes, and more reliant on persuasion and cooperation from many actors in policy networks? Do we talk about multi-level governance, not government, because no single government can control policy? Is this the great irony of reform: they were designed to reinforce central control but they actually exacerbated the UK’s governance problem?
  • Or, has central government shuffled off direct responsibility for the previously unmanageable parts of the public sector that took up a disproportionate amount of ministerial energy (major industries, local government, Scotland), and become more powerful via regulatory mechanisms or more able to shift blame?

When considering these questions, note how this UK-specific discussion can be supplemented by the ‘universal’ factors we discuss in POLU9UK and covered in the 1000 Words series, including: ministers are boundedly rational, operating in a policy environment with a huge number of actors, and apparently unable to control outcomes that ‘emerge’ from complex systems. In other words, the answer to the ‘hollowing’ question will not come only from an analysis of UK government policies.

What is the effect on ministerial accountability?

As in Scotland, the UK Government has experimented with many forms of accountability based on one of these two stories of central government:

  1. Westminster-style democratic accountability, through periodic elections and more regular reports by ministers to Westminster. This requires a strong sense of central government and ministerial control – if you know who is in charge, you know who to hold to account or reward or punish in the next election.
  2. Institutional accountability, through performance management measures applied to the chief executives of public bodies, such as elected local authorities and unelected agencies and quangos.
  3. Accountability via pluralist democracy, fostering the shared ‘ownership’ of policy with stakeholders to produce choices that both support.
  4. Localist democracy, encouraging a sense of collective responsibility between local authorities and their stakeholders.
  5. User based notions of accountability, when a public body considers its added value to (and responds to the wishes of) service users, or public bodies and users ‘co-produce’ and share responsibility for the outcomes.

Yet, 2-5 generally seem incompatible with, or overshadowed by, 1. Ministers think that the public expects Westminster-style accountability, so they try these other measures but also:

  • Try to show that they still control the direction of delegated services, often with reference to problematic proxies of their own success (see the example of Troubled Families)
  • Intervene in an ad hoc way in the decisions of public bodies that they’d otherwise like to run themselves (see Gains and Stoker)
  • Or, they seem to delegate power to public bodies but introduce so many regulations, budget limits, and performance measures that it is difficult for those bodies to exert their autonomy (see the example of ‘prevention policy’, in which central governments simultaneously support and scupper various forms of prevention and early intervention).

Group work

In groups we can discuss these major reforms and the extent to which they were driven by a grand plan or a series of unfortunate events.

We can discuss accountability and try to explain how and why ministers intervene in some areas but not others.

Since we focused on the two basic stories of (lack of) control in week 2, this week we can zoom in to discuss specific measures to demonstrate success in government or produce the appearance of control. What examples spring to mind?

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Using psychological insights in politics: can we do it without calling our opponents mental, hysterical, or stupid?

One of the most dispiriting parts of fierce political debate is the casual use of mental illness or old and new psychiatric terms to undermine an opponent: she is mad, he is crazy, she is a nutter, they are wearing tin foil hats, get this guy a straightjacket and the men in white coats because he needs to lie down in a dark room, she is hysterical, his position is bipolar, and so on. This kind of statement reflects badly on the campaigner rather than their opponent.

I say this because, while doing some research on a paper on the psychology of politics and policymaking (this time with Richard Kwiatkowski, as part of this special collection), there are potentially useful concepts that seem difficult to insulate from such political posturing. There is great potential to use them cynically against opponents rather than benefit from their insights.

The obvious ‘live’ examples relate to ‘rational’ versus ‘irrational’ policymaking. For example, one might argue that, while scientists develop facts and evidence rationally, using tried and trusted and systematic methods, politicians act irrationally, based on their emotions, ideologies, and groupthink. So, we as scientists are the arbiters of good sense and they are part of a pathological political process that contributes to ‘post truth’ politics.

The obvious problem with such accounts is that we all combine cognitive and emotional processes to think and act. We are all subject to bias in the gathering and interpretation of evidence. So, the more positive, but less tempting, option is to consider how this process works – when both competing sides act ‘rationally’ and emotionally – and what we can realistically do to mitigate the worst excesses of such exchanges. Otherwise, we will not get beyond demonising our opponents and romanticising our own cause. It gives us the warm and fuzzies on twitter and in academic conferences but contributes little to political conversations.

A less obvious example comes from modern work on the links between genes and attitudes. There is now a research agenda which uses surveys of adult twins to compare the effect of genes and environment on political attitudes. For example, Oskarsson et al (2015: 650) argue that existing studies ‘report that genetic factors account for 30–50% of the variation in issue orientations, ideology, and party identification’. One potential mechanism is cognitive ability: put simply, and rather cautiously and speculatively, with a million caveats, people with lower cognitive ability are more likely to see ‘complexity, novelty, and ambiguity’ as threatening and to respond with fear, risk aversion, and conservatism (2015: 652).

My immediate thought, when reading this stuff, is about how people would use it cynically, even at this relatively speculative stage in testing and evidence gathering: my opponent’s genes make him stupid, which makes him fearful of uncertainty and ambiguity, and therefore anxious about change and conservative in politics (in other words, the Yoda hypothesis applied only to stupid people). It’s not his fault, but his stupidity is an obstacle to progressive politics. If you add in some psychological biases, in which people inflate their own sense of intelligence and underestimate that of their opponents, you have evidence-informed, really shit political debate! ‘My opponent is stupid’ seems a bit better than ‘my opponent is mental’ but only in the sense that eating a cup of cold sick is preferable to eating shit.

I say this as we try to produce some practical recommendations (for scientist and advocates of EBPM) to engage with politicians to improve the use of evidence in policy. I’ll let you know if it goes beyond a simple maxim: adapt to their emotional and cognitive biases, but don’t simply assume they’re stupid.

See also: the many commentaries on how stupid it is to treat your political opponents as stupid

Stop Calling People “Low Information Voters

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Socioeconomic factors and events in British politics #POLU9UK

See also: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors (you can hear my dulcet tones there, so I won’t do an extra podcast).

You get the idea by now. We began the course with a stylised Westminster model of centralised control and each week we use something new to chip away at that image. This week we focus on the sense that the UK government is (a) constantly responding to events rather than setting the political agenda, and (b) dealing with policy conditions and outcomes that seem to be out of its control.

Big E and small e events

You might get two impressions from the word ‘events’:

  1. The really big ones that seem to shock half of the population (more or less, or much more). Take your pick from recent Events including Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum, or from economic crises including the global financial crises and shocks to the British Pound. Generally speaking, it is difficult to get a sense from these Events that the UK Government is in control of the agenda or outcome.
  2. The day-to-day ones. You now get this other sense of events most strongly from social media: people’s attention lurches from issue to issue very quickly, and governments (or individual policymakers) often seem to struggle to respond effectively or set the agenda.

So, as we discussed in week 2, policymakers will often settle for the chance to portray themselves as decisive in responding and adapting to such events rather than controlling them (perhaps particularly in an age in which they struggle more and more to control the flow of information within populations).

Policy conditions: from funnels of causality to globalisation

A reference to policy ‘conditions’ or ‘environments’ is broader. It refers to the context in which policymakers make choices, including:

  • Literally, the environment in which people live and the spread of populations in urban and rural areas.
  • The demographic profile and trends in birth and ageing.
  • Levels of economic activity.
  • Social behaviour and attitudes.
  • Technological changes which prompt social change, from mass road transit to information technology.
  • Governing institutions with rules that constrain and facilitate behaviour.

One main connection between conditions and events is that the former often shape the latter: environmental crises prompt new forms of behaviour, ageing populations prompt a sense of crisis in health and social care, economic downturns panic governments, and so on. You get the idea: this is a far cry from our initial starting point in which we focus on what governments do. If we focus on what surrounds governments we get more of a sense of the limits to what governments can do, and a limited sense of their control of policymaking processes and outcomes.

As the language of ‘structure and agency’ suggests, we need to find a convincing way to describe this sense of limited choice. We (or, at least, I) want to maintain the sense that policymakers are actors making choices but that some choices are far more attractive or possible than others.

So, we have a choice about how to portray these choices. On the one hand, we have accounts which focus on the limits to choice:

  • The classic (but now little-discussed) way of thinking about wider conditions is Hofferbert’s ‘funnel of causality’. Its usefulness is to expand our horizons to think about the wider (literal or metaphorical) environment of policymaking in which, for example, geographical conditions influence population concentrations and public behaviour and attitudes influence elite behaviour.
  • The concept of ‘globalisation’ prompts us to think about the pressures on domestic governments to respond to global factors often outside of their control. In such cases, their choices about how to respond to external factors are not particularly attractive, such as when they are deciding how to set interest rates to deal with external fluctuations in demand for their currency (who do I mean by ‘they’ these days?), or how willing they are to reduce taxes and offer subsidies to attract foreign direct investment.

On the other hand is the sense that actors mediate such conditions and events: to a large extent they decide how to interpret events, the importance to attach to policy conditions, and which conditions produce events that seem the most urgent or important. In other words, many governments have shown an impressive ability to completely ignore events that other governments would treat as urgent crises.

The latter point is a nice segue to one of the recommended articles for this week, by Hindmoor and McConnell, in which they discuss the UK Government’s response to financial crisis. They remind us that we should understand the processing of events as they occurred, rather than via hindsight. This approach allows us to see that governments have highly imperfect ways to gather information and detect ‘warning signals’ effectively: what seems obvious now would not be obvious then. What now seems like a crisis to which governments inevitably had to respond would then seem very different.

Group exercises

In our groups we can identify and discuss key examples: how have UK governments dealt with demographic change or economic crisis? What kinds of factors are most likely to get their attention (and why?) and how are they likely to deal with them? What are the big events or conditions in UK politics that seem impossible to ignore? And what does our discussion tell us about the idea of a UK political system characterised by central government control and a centralisation of power.

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Policy networks and communities #POLU9UK

As we discussed in week 2, if you start your study of British politics by describing the Westminster model, you get something like this:

Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Yet, if you read the recommended reading, you get this:

Most contemporary analysts dwell on the shortcomings of the Westminster account and compare it with a more realistic framework based on modern discussions of governance … Britain has moved away from a distinctive Westminster model.

And, if you read this post on the pervasiveness of policy networks and communities, you get something like this:

‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process.

So, you may want to know: ‘How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?’ (source). Here are some possible explanations to discuss.

One account is wrong

In our grumpy account, we pretty much complain that the incorrect story still wins because it sounds so good. The uncool academics have all agreed that the ‘governance’ story best sums up British politics, but the media and public don’t pay attention to it, politicians act as if it doesn’t exist, and cool Lijphart gets all the attention with his ‘majoritarian’ model of the UK which accentuates the adversarial and top-down nature compared to the utopian consensus democracies in which all politicans hold hands and sing together before agreeing all their policies.

One account is wrong most of the time

When less grumpy, we suggest that our account is correct most of the time. People pay attention to the exciting world of elected politics and governing politicians, but it represents the tip of the iceberg. Most policy is processed below the surface, away from the public spotlight, and this process does not match the UK’s majoritarian image. Instead, policymakers tend to work routinely with other policy participants to share information and advice and come to collective understandings of problems and feasible solutions.

What explains the shift from one image to the other?

If we go for the latter explanation, we need to know how this process works: what prompts a tiny number of issues to receive the excitement and attention and a huge number to receive almost none? I’ll give you some ideas below, but note that you can find the same basic explanation of this agenda setting/ framing process in many theories of the policy process. You should read as many as possible and, in particular, those on framing, punctuated equilibrium, and power/ideas. Combined, you get the sense of two scenarios: one in which people simply can’t pay attention to many policy issues and have to ignore most; and, one in which people exploit this limitation to make sure that some issues are ignored (for example, by framing issues as ‘solved’ by policymakers, with only experts required to oversee the implementation of key choices).

The general explanation: powerful people have limited attention

You’ll find this general explanation squirrelled away somewhere in almost everything I’ve written. In this case, it’s in the networks 1000 words post:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, the state’s component parts are broken down into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice.
  • Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
  • Therefore, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

A specific explanation: even ‘majoriarian’ governments seek consensus even when issues become high profile

I like this story about Brent Spar as an example of ‘bureaucratic accommodation’. In a nutshell (from p577), they argue that we began with a high profile issue in which Greenpeace occupied a Shell oil rig that was due for disposal, got Shell to change its policy through high profile campaigning, but that they came to quieter agreement within government by agreeing on specific policies without shifting their basic principles. Many of us saw the conflict but few saw the consensus building that followed (and, in fact, preceded these events). There are many stories like this, in which relatively short periods of highly salient policymaking ‘punctuate’ much longer spells of humdrum activity.

brent-spar

Group activities

So, in our group work we can explore the key themes through examples. I’ll ask you to identify the conditions under which Westminster-model-style activity happens, and the conditions under which we’d expect policy communities to develop. I’ll ask you to compare issues in which there is high salience and conflict with issues that are low salience and/ or low conflict. I might even ask you to remember some high profile issues from the past then ask: where are they now?

 

 

 

 

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Why the pollsters got it wrong

We have a new tradition in politics in which some people glory in the fact that the polls got it wrong. It might begin with ‘all these handsome experts with all their fancy laptops and they can’t even tell us exactly how an election will turn out’, and sometimes it ends with, ‘yet, I knew it all along’. I think that the people who say it most are the ones that are pleased with the result and want to stick it to the people who didn’t predict it: ‘if, like me, they’d looked up from their laptops and spoken to real people, they’d have seen what would happen’.

To my mind, it’s always surprising when so many polls seem to do so well. Think for a second about what ‘pollsters’ do: they know they can’t ask everyone how they will vote (and why), so they take a small sample and use it as a proxy for the real world. To make sure the sample isn’t biased by selection, they develop methods to generate respondents randomly. To try to make the most of their resources, and make sure that their knowledge is cumulative, they use what they think they know about the population to make sure that they get enough responses from a ‘representative’ sample of the population. In many cases, that knowledge comes from things like focus groups or one-to-one interviews to get richer (qualitative) information than we can achieve from asking everyone the same question, often super-quickly, in a larger survey.

This process involves all sorts of compromises and unintended consequences when we have a huge population but limited resources: we’d like to ask everyone in person, but it’s cheaper to (say) get a 4-figure response online or on the phone; and, if we need to do it quickly, our sample will be biased towards people willing to talk to us.* So, on top of a profound problem – the possibility of people not telling the truth in polls – we have a potentially less profound but more important problem: the people we need to talk to us aren’t talking to us. So, we get a misleading read because we’re asking an unrepresentative sample (although it is nothing like as unrepresentative as proxy polls from social media, the word ‘on the doorstep’, or asking your half-drunk mates how they’ll vote).

Sensible ‘pollsters’ deal with such problems by admitting that they might be a bit off: highlighting their estimated ‘margin of error’ from the size of their sample, then maybe crossing their fingers behind their backs if asked about the likelihood of more errors based on non-random sampling. So, ignore this possibility for error at your peril. Yet, people do ignore it despite the peril! Here are two reasons why.

  1. Being sensible is boring.

In a really tight-looking two-horse race, the margin of error alone might suggest that either horse might win. So, a sensible interpretation of a poll might be (say), ‘either Clinton or Trump will get the most votes’. Who wants to hear or talk about that?! You can’t fill a 24-hour news cycle and keep up shite Twitter conversations by saying ‘who knows?’ and then being quiet. Nor will anyone pay much attention to a quietly sensible ‘pollster’ or academic telling them about the importance of embracing uncertainty. You’re in the studio to tell us what will happen, pal. Otherwise, get lost.

  1. Recognising complexity and uncertainty is boring.

You can heroically/ stupidly break down the social scientific project into two competing ideas: (1) the world contains general and predictable patterns of behaviour that we can identify with the right tools; or (2) the world is too complex and unpredictable to produce general laws of behaviour, and maybe your best hope is to try to make sense of how other people try to make sense of it. Then, maybe (1) sounds quite exciting and comforting while (2) sounds like it is the mantra of a sandal-wearing beansprout-munching hippy academic. People seem to want a short, confidently stated, message that is easy to understand. You can stick your caveats.

Can we take life advice from this process?

These days I’m using almost every topic as a poorly-constructed segue into a discussion about the role of evidence in politics and policy. This time, the lesson is about using evidence correctly for the correct purpose. In our example, we can use polls effectively for their entertainment value. Or, campaigners can use them as the best-possible proxies during their campaigns: if their polls tell them they are lagging in one area, give it more attention; if they seem to have a big lead in another area; give it less attention. The evidence won’t be totally accurate, but it gives you enough to generate a simple campaigning strategy. Academics can also use the evidence before and after a campaign to talk about how it’s all going. Really, the only thing you don’t expect poll evidence to do is predict the result. For that, you need the Observers from Fringe.

The same goes for evidence in policymaking: people use rough and ready evidence because they need to act on what they think is going on. There will never be enough evidence to make the decision for you, or let you know exactly what will happen next. Instead, you combine good judgement with your values, sprinkle in some evidence, and off you go. It would be silly to expect a small sample of evidence – a snapshot of one part of the world – to tell you exactly what will happen in the much larger world. So, let’s not kid ourselves about the ability of science to tell us what’s what and what to do. It’s better, I think, to recognise life’s uncertainties and act accordingly. It’s better than blaming other people for not knowing what will happen next.

 

*I say ‘we’ and ‘us’ but I’ve never conducted a poll in my life. I interview elites in secret and promise them anonymity.

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