How you want your presentation to go, versus how it goes.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

At MOCA

At Broad

At Six Flags MM

At a novelty sweet shop at Citywalk

At the Hollywood Museum

On the walk of fame

At the Getty Museum

At the California Academy of Sciences

At the de Young Museum, San Francisco

… It’s more of a comment than a question …

At the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In retrospect, this constant search for new photos for a joke that became tired by photo 3 could have ruined the trip, but it totally didn’t. No room for The Thinker, though. This look would be welcome during a presentation.

See also:

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One year research post at Stirling, energy politics and policy in a multi-level UK

Update: the deadline has passed and the interviews will be May 1st.

We are recruiting: Research Assistant in Energy Politics and Public Policy.

The post is one year full time and it begins as soon as possible (hopefully early May). The deadline is Thursday 5th April (3 days!) and I think we will interview on the week beginning 23rd April.

The panel will likely be three people: me (describing the specific project), Dr Emily St Denny (subject expert, likely probing your knowledge of politics/ public policy research), and Professor Richard Oram (Head of Faculty, likely probing your wider transferable skills). It will be less daunting than the usual panel for a lectureship (at least five people, including one of the most senior managers).

I apologise for such a short contract (and short notice). We have tried to do some things to make it more rewarding:

  1. We consolidated our funding, and the University of Stirling contributed extra funding, to make the post full time and include some space for training/ career development.
  2. If you and I are being honest, the biggest part of career development – at least if you seek a permanent lectureship or similar University post – is to add to your list of publications. It is harder to make any guarantees in this regard, but I will work with you (and our wider team) to make sure that your contribution to the project is recognised fully and reflected accurately in our outputs. One or two decent team-authored journal articles seems realistic (albeit published after the end of the contract). I will also deal with ‘reviewer 2’ on our behalf.
  3. ‘Impact’ is also central to academic careers. You should have the chance to, for example, take part in academic-practitioner workshops and develop ‘networking’ skills (I apologise for turning network into a verb).
  4. I’ll do all I can to be flexible, to support your choice about how you work most effectively (perhaps this will be the first conversation with the successful candidate).

The full description of the advert is here and there is some background on our project here.

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Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?

Since 2016, my most common academic presentation to interdisciplinary scientist/ researcher audiences is a variant of the question, ‘why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?’

I tend to provide three main answers.

1. Many policymakers have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence

Few policymakers know or care about the criteria developed by some scientists to describe a hierarchy of scientific evidence. For some scientists, at the top of this hierarchy is the randomised control trial (RCT) and the systematic review of RCTs, with expertise much further down the list, followed by practitioner experience and service user feedback near the bottom.

Yet, most policymakers – and many academics – prefer a wider range of sources of information, combining their own experience with information ranging from peer reviewed scientific evidence and the ‘grey’ literature, to public opinion and feedback from consultation.

While it may be possible to persuade some central government departments or agencies to privilege scientific evidence, they also pursue other key principles, such as to foster consensus driven policymaking or a shift from centralist to localist practices.

Consequently, they often only recommend interventions rather than impose one uniform evidence-based position. If local actors favour a different policy solution, we may find that the same type of evidence may have more or less effect in different parts of government.

2. Policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence and almost every decision taken in their name

Many scientists articulate the idea that policymakers and scientists should cooperate to use the best evidence to determine ‘what works’ in policy (in forums such as INGSA, European Commission, OECD). Their language is often reminiscent of 1950s discussions of the pursuit of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in policymaking.

The key difference is that EBPM is often described as an ideal by scientists, to be compared with the more disappointing processes they find when they engage in politics. In contrast, ‘comprehensive rationality’ is an ideal-type, used to describe what cannot happen, and the practical implications of that impossibility.

The ideal-type involves a core group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’, identifying their values or the problems they seek to solve, and translating their policies into action to maximise benefits to society, aided by neutral organisations gathering all the facts necessary to produce policy solutions. Yet, in practice, they are unable to: separate values from facts in any meaningful way; rank policy aims in a logical and consistent manner; gather information comprehensively, or possess the cognitive ability to process it.

Instead, Simon famously described policymakers addressing ‘bounded rationality’ by using ‘rules of thumb’ to limit their analysis and produce ‘good enough’ decisions. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory uses bounded rationality to show that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, which limits their control of the many decisions made in their name.

More recent discussions focus on the ‘rational’ short cuts that policymakers use to identify good enough sources of information, combined with the ‘irrational’ ways in which they use their beliefs, emotions, habits, and familiarity with issues to identify policy problems and solutions. Or, they explore how individuals communicate their narrow expertise within a system of which they have almost no knowledge. In each case, ‘most members of the system are not paying attention to most issues most of the time’.

This scarcity of attention helps explain, for example, why policymakers ignore most issues in the absence of a focusing event, policymaking organisations make searches for information which miss key elements routinely, and organisations fail to respond to events or changing circumstances proportionately.

In that context, attempts to describe a policy agenda focusing merely on ‘what works’ are based on misleading expectations. Rather, we can describe key parts of the policymaking environment – such as institutions, policy communities/ networks, or paradigms – as a reflection of the ways in which policymakers deal with their bounded rationality and lack of control of the policy process.

3. Policymakers do not control the policy process (in the way that a policy cycle suggests)

Scientists often appear to be drawn to the idea of a linear and orderly policy cycle with discrete stages – such as agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, policy maintenance/ succession/ termination – because it offers a simple and appealing model which gives clear advice on how to engage.

Indeed, the stages approach began partly as a proposal to make the policy process more scientific and based on systematic policy analysis. It offers an idea of how policy should be made: elected policymakers in central government, aided by expert policy analysts, make and legitimise choices; skilful public servants carry them out; and, policy analysts assess the results with the aid of scientific evidence.

Yet, few policy theories describe this cycle as useful, while most – including the advocacy coalition framework , and the multiple streams approach – are based on a rejection of the explanatory value of orderly stages.

Policy theories also suggest that the cycle provides misleading practical advice: you will generally not find an orderly process with a clearly defined debate on problem definition, a single moment of authoritative choice, and a clear chance to use scientific evidence to evaluate policy before deciding whether or not to continue. Instead, the cycle exists as a story for policymakers to tell about their work, partly because it is consistent with the idea of elected policymakers being in charge and accountable.

Some scholars also question the appropriateness of a stages ideal, since it suggests that there should be a core group of policymakers making policy from the ‘top down’ and obliging others to carry out their aims, which does not leave room for, for example, the diffusion of power in multi-level systems, or the use of ‘localism’ to tailor policy to local needs and desires.

Further Reading

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

The politics of evidence-based policymaking: maximising the use of evidence in policy

Images of the policy process

How to communicate effectively with policymakers

Forthcoming special issue in Policy and Politics called ‘Practical lessons from policy theories’, which includes my discussion of how to be a ‘policy entrepreneur’.

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Policy concepts in 1000 words: Institutional memory

Guest post by Jack Corbett, Dennis Grube, Heather Lovell and Rodney Scott

Democratic governance is defined by the regular rotation of elected leaders. Amidst the churn, the civil service is expected to act as the repository of received wisdom about past policies, including assessments of what works and what doesn’t. The claim is that to avoid repeating the same mistakes we need to know what happened last time and what were the effects. Institutional memory is thus central to the pragmatic task of governing.

What is institutional memory? And, how is it different to policy learning?

Despite increasing recognition of the role that memory can or should play in the policy process, the concept has defied easy scholarly definition.

In the classic account, institutional memory is the sum total of files, procedures and knowledge held by an organisation. Christopher Pollitt, who has pioneered the study of institutional memory, refers to the accumulated knowledge and experience of staff, technical systems, including electronic databases and various kinds of paper records, the management system, and the norms and values of the organizational culture, when talking about institutional memory. In this view, which is based on the key principles of the new institutionalism, memory is essentially an archive.

The problem with this definition is that it is hard to distinguish the concept from policy learning (see also here). If policy learning is in part about increasing knowledge about policy, including correcting for past mistakes, then we could perhaps conceive of a continuum from learning to memory with an inflection point where one starts and the other stops. But, this is easier to imagine than it is to measure empirically. It also doesn’t acknowledge the forms memories take and the ways memories are contested, suppressed and actively forgotten.

In our recent contribution to this debate (see here and here) we define memories as ‘representations of the past’ that actors draw on to narrate what has been learned when developing and implementing policy. When these narratives are embedded in processes they become ‘institutionalised’. It is this emphasis on embedded narratives that distinguishes institutional memory from policy learning. Institutional memory may facilitate policy learning but equally some memories may prohibit genuine adaptation and innovation. As a result, while there is an obvious affinity between the two concepts it is imperative that they remain distinct avenues of inquiry. Policy learning has unequivocally positive connotations that are echoed in some conceptualisations of institutional memory (i.e. Pollitt). But, equally, memory (at least in a ‘static’ form) can be said to provide administrative agents with an advantage over political principals (think of the satirical Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister fame). The below table seeks to distinguish between these two conceptualisations of institutional memory:

Key debates: Is institutional memory declining?

The scholar who has done the most to advance our understanding of institutional memory in government is Christopher Pollitt. His main contention is that institutional memory has declined over recent decades due to: the high rotation of staff in the civil service, changes in IT systems which prevent proper archiving, regular organisational restructuring, rewarding management skills above all others, and adopting new management ‘fads’ that favour constant change as they become popular. This combination of factors has proven to be a perfect recipe for the loss of institutional memory within organisations.  The result is a contempt for the past that leads to repeated policy failure.

We came to a different view. Our argument is that one of the key reasons why institutional memory is said to have declined is that it has been conceptualised in a ‘static’ manner more in keeping with an older way of doing government. This practice has assumed that knowledge on a given topic is held centrally (by government departments) and can be made explicit for the purpose of archiving. But, if government doesn’t actually work this way (see relevant posts on networks here) then we shouldn’t expect it to remember this way either. Instead of static repositories of summative documents holding a singular ‘objective’ memory, we propose a more ‘dynamic’ people-centred conceptualisation that sees institutional memory as a composite of intersubjective memories open to change. This draws to the fore the role of actors as crucial interpreters of memory, combining the documentary record with their own perspectives to create a story about the past. In this view, institutional memory has not declined, it is simply being captured in a fundamentally different way.

Corbett et al memory

Key debates: How can an institution improve how it remembers?

How an institution might improve its memory is intrinsically linked to how memory is defined and whether or not it is actually in decline. If we follow Pollitt’s view that memory is about the archive of accumulated knowledge that is being ignored or deliberately dismantled by managerialism then the answer involves returning to an older way of doing government that placed a higher value on experience. By putting a higher value on the past as a resource institutions would reduce staff turnover, stop regular restructures and changes in IT systems, etc. For those of us who work in an institution where restructuring and IT changes are the norm, this solution has obvious attractions. But, would it actually improve memory? Or would it simply make it easier to preserve the status quo (a process that involves actively forgetting disruptive but generative innovations)?

Our definition, relying as it does on a more dynamic conceptualisation of memory, is sceptical about the need to improve practices of remembering. But, if an institution did want to remember better we would favour increasing the opportunity for actors within an institution to reflect on and narrate the past. One example of this might be a ‘Wikipedia’ model of memory in which the story of a policy, it success and failure, is constructed by those involved, highlighting points of consensus and conjecture.

Additional reading:

 Corbett J, Grube D, Lovell H, Scott R. “Singular memory or institutional memories? Toward a dynamic approach”. Governance. 2018;00:1–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/gove.12340

 Pollitt, C. 2009. “Bureaucracies Remember, Post‐Bureaucratic Organizations Forget?” Public Administration 87 (2): 198-218.

Pollitt, C. 2000. “Institutional Amnesia: A Paradox of the ‘Information Age’?” Prometheus 18 (1): 5-16.

 

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POLU9RM Asking the right research question

When I supervise dissertation students, I try to get them to do things in a specific order:

  • get the research question right
  • write an abstract to see if you can answer it (and explain how you structure the dissertation to allow you to answer it)
  • write the introduction to see if you can explain the whole rationale for your dissertation before you do most of the research.

Now, I don’t want to get into a big debate with the deviants who want to write or rewrite their introductions at the end. You can do what you like, pal.

Instead, I want to emphasise the benefits of the early investment. If you get the research question spot-on, in relation to the introduction, you can do the following:

  • make your project manageable from the start, without learning the hard way that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew
  • save a remarkably hellish amount of time on your ‘literature review’ by producing a clear sense of what is relevant/ to be skipped over
  • boast to your friends that you finished on time.

There is some good advice out there on designing a question to speak to a big question and a narrow research project at the same time.

For example, most of my projects follow roughly the same format: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why?

We can then narrow it down in several ways:

  • Choose, say, tobacco policy (quite specific) versus health policy (very broad indeed)
  • Choose one political system or one region, or limit your comparison of systems
  • Choose one time period
  • Choose what aspect of change you want to explain.

The latter is often the most important, because (in my case) it can make the difference between (a) feeling the need to explain many, many theories to give the whole picture (an impossible task) or (b) narrowing down theory selection by focusing on a small number of causes/ dynamics.

Ideally, the question should be super-important and sophisticated, but a dissertation also takes a lot of time and attention. So, my best advice is to choose a question to which you actually want to know the answer. If so, you should end up very satisfied in your result. If you don’t find the question interesting, you may come to resent your dissertation.

A final thought is that students often don’t know what question to ask, and they talk quite broadly about a very general topic. In such cases, it’s important to work with your supervisor until you’re both happy with the final result. My most memorable example is a student who, above all else, wanted to write about Beyoncé (and it worked out very well indeed).

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People come to my show for the joy of being hoodwinked

Ladies and gents, roll up, roll up, as I offer to you a fantastic and surprising story. You’ll think you’re seeing one story. Then you’ll think it’s another. Actually it’s another story entirely.

Our story begins to be about a circus owner, before appearing to turn into a story about giving voice to people once considered to be deviants.

Yet, it would fail at both tales, because to romanticize historic circus owners would be wrong (and it couldn’t be clearer that the film is not a biopic) and to really give voice to so many people would require a different film entirely.

Instead, we have a fairly safe and conventional film in which the main characters are white, male, heterosexual, and going on the usual voyage of self discovery.

As such, its popularity can be ensured by appealing widely to a fairly conventional family audience without being too threatening to the people buying the tickets.

Yet, there is an unusually radical morality tale hidden within this safe morality tale if you conclude eventually that the white male heroes are not heroic at all.

At first glance, you think you’re being asked to root for them as they go on a journey at great risk to themselves for the benefit of other people.

At second glance, they act out of selfishness and ignorance, yet still do well despite their faults because, for them, the rewards are unusually high and the stakes will always be relatively low.

The main character is PT Barnum. At first, there is a lot to root for. He emerges from poverty after showing much tenacity and imagination. In the process, he sticks it to the upper classes – symbolised by Charity Barnum’s violently oppressive father – and shows that anyone from humble beginnings can end up rich and famous if they have a big enough chip on their shoulder.

Yet, really, his is a story of male hubris and selfishness, in which he manipulates the people he claims to care for, and takes all sorts of risks which affect the people around him more than himself. He is in the remarkably privileged position – afforded to very few other characters – to be able to fail then succeed; to emerge as the wise hero at the end.

The superficial moral is to treat people with respect, and be thankful for the love of a small group of people around you (a message handed to him by the heroically supportive Charity). The deeper moral is that our hero is not to be admired for his actions. Our main character is a clown who (*spoiler alert*) emerged victorious despite his faults. He did not get there on merit.

The second main character is Phillip Carlyle, a rich white man putting on theatrical plays and drinking a lot until he inherits massive wealth from his father. At first glance, he is cast in the heroic role of a man willing to give it all up for his dreams and for love. Yet, his economic position never really seems in doubt, wavering from super wealthy to merely wealthy.

More importantly, he appears heroic because he is (eventually) willing to undermine his social position to form a relationship with a black woman, Anne Wheeler.

Yet, Phillip quickly serves as the film’s representation of the ignorance of white men who do not understand the unequal negative effects, or unintended consequences, of collective positive action.

For him, the choice is simple: to declare their love, be defiant, and not care about the reactions of other people (including his racist and classist parents).

This act exposes his ignorance and prompts Anne to explain that she would bear the brunt of their decision. She would be continuously vulnerable to violence and abuse (and would have to choose to be totally reliant on a white man for support and protection, despite having no previous life experience prompting her to trust white men). She knows this because it is a constant part of her life experience, of which he is blissfully ignorant.

[The importance of racism to this story is reinforced in three brief scenes with WD Wheeler, Anne’s brother. In one scene, he warns correctly about the likely hostile and violent reaction of a white audience to black performers, even though Barnum clearly designs his recruitment of performers to shock.

In another, his brief knowing smile confirms to Anne their belief that black people will be excluded from their visit to the Queen, because exclusion has been their routine experience

In another, he punches a white man – part of a mob – who threatens him and calls him a ‘spook’].

This context does not occur to Charles at all. Then, when she explains, he dismisses her concerns (albeit melodically) before she rejects him.

In the end, Anne decides (*spoiler alert*)  that a lifetime of external abuse for her is preferable to his horrible death, which really makes her the hero.

By the end, the two main male characters are totally delighted because their lives turned out brilliantly despite their ignorance and hubris. So, the film provides a realistic moral from a deliberately unrealistic premise.

🎤🎵🎶🎼 It also has some brilliant songs which make me cry every time I see it. I’ve seen it 7 times so far and I’ve lined up 2 more visits. I honestly don’t know why it’s so good, but I love it. Love it. Absolutely love it. If you go, sit in the front section. It has better sound and you can weep liberally and have a little dance when no one’s looking.

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Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity

In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
  • Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.

Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:

  • ‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
  • ‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.

I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.

Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.

Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:

A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.

In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.

Further reading:

Framing

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty

How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies

Here is the relevant opening section in UPP:

p234 UPP ambiguity

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