Category Archives: 1000 words

Social Construction and Policy Design

This is an updated and expanded discussion of Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations . It’s the theoretical summary for a paper I’m writing with Jonathan Pierce on the (hopefully positive) future for this approach. I’ll add a post on empirical applications soon.

Policymakers articulate value judgements which underpin fundamental choices about which social groups should be treated positively or negatively by government bodies. When addressing highly politicised issues, they seek to reward ‘good’ groups with government support and punish ‘bad’ groups with sanctions (Schneider et al, 2014). This judgement is often described as ‘moral reasoning’ (Haidt, 2001) or ‘fast thinking’ (Kahneman, 2012: 20). Policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to pursue their understanding of a policy problem and its solution:

Likes and dislikes are not the result of individual or collective reason and deliberation but mainly the product of emotion and heuristics … judgments begin with emotional reactions … and reason is used mainly to justify initial emotion responses (Schneider et al, 2014, drawing on Kahneman, 2012 and Haidt, 2001; 2012).

Yet, social constructions can also be based on conscious bias. Policies reflect the goal-driven use of constructions, ‘strategically manipulated for political gain … to create political opportunities and avoid political risks’ or, at least, an anxiety by politicians ‘not to be caught in opposition to prevailing values’ if it affects their performance in election (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 6; 192). They aim to receive support from the populations they describe as ‘deserving’, as well as a wider public satisfied with describing others as ‘undeserving’ (1997: 6).

These judgements can have an enduring ‘feed-forward’ effect (Ingram et al, 2007: 112). Choices based on values are reproduced in ‘policy designs’, as the ‘content or substance of public policy’:

Policy designs are observable phenomena found in statutes, administrative guidelines, court decrees, programs, and even the practices and procedures of street level bureaucrats … [they] contain specific observable elements such as target populations (the recipients of policy benefits or burdens), goals or problems to be solved (the values to be distributed), rules (that guide or constrain action), rationales (that explain or legitimate the policy), and assumptions (logical connections that tie the other elements together) (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 2).

Examples of feed-forward effects include policy designs: signaling that ‘elderly citizens are worthy of respect and deserving of the funds they receive’, prompting ‘a level of political participation rivaled by no other group’; introducing convoluted rules to diminish participation in areas such as housing entitlement; signaling to welfare recipients that they have themselves to blame and deserve minimal support; and, restricting voting rights directly (Schneider and Sidney, 2009: 110-11)

Policy designs based on moral choices often become routine and questioned rarely in government because they are ‘automatic rather than thought through’. Emotional assignments of ‘deservingness’ act as important ‘decision heuristics’ because this process is ‘easy to use and recall and hard to change’ (Schneider et al, 2014). They are difficult to overcome, because a sequence of previous policies, based on a particular framing of target populations, helps produce ‘hegemony’: the public, media and/ or policymakers take this set of values for granted, as normal or natural, and rarely question them when engaging in politics (Pierce et al, 2014; see also Gramsci, 1971; Bachrach and Baratz, 1970; Lukes, 2005).

This signal of limited deservingness impacts on citizens and groups, who participate more or less according to how they are characterised by government (Schneider and Ingram, 1993: 334). Only some groups have the resources to mobilise and challenge or reinforce the way they are perceived by policymakers (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 21-4; 2005: 444; Pierce et al, 2014), or to mobilise to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy on their behalf. Some groups can be categorized differently over time, but this seems to be a non-routine outcome, at least in the absence of long term change in social attitudes, even though social constructions are – in theory – ‘inherently unstable’ (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 10). For example, it can follow a major external event such as an economic crisis or game-changing election, exploited by ‘entrepreneurs’ to change the way that policymakers view particular groups (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 10-11). Or, it can be prompted by policy design which, for example, is modified to suit powerful populations with spillover effects for the powerless (such as when drug treatment develops as an alternative to incarceration) (Schneider and Ingram, 2005: 639).

Ingram et al (2007: 102) depict this dynamic with a table in which there are two spectrums – one describes the positive or negative ways in which groups are portrayed by policymakers, the other describes the resources available to groups to challenge or reinforce that image – producing four categories of target population: advantaged, contenders, dependents, and deviants. The powerful and positively constructed are ‘advantaged’; the powerful and negatively constructed are ‘contenders’; the powerless and positively constructed are ‘dependents’; the powerless and negatively constructed are ‘deviants’ (Ingram et al, 2007: 102)

Schneider and Ingram (1997: 3) argue that, although the (US) political system may ‘meet some standard of fairness or openness’, the policies they produce may not be ‘conducive to democracy’. US public policies have failed to solve major problems – including inequality, poverty, crime, racism, sexism, and effective universal healthcare and education – and such policy failure contributes to the sense that the political process serves special interests at the expense of the general public (1997: 4-7). Policy designs ‘are strongly implicated in the current crisis of democracy’ because they have failed and they discourage many target populations (the ‘undeserving’, ‘deviant’, or ‘demons’) from public participation: ‘These designs send messages, teach lessons, and allocate values that exacerbate injustice, trivialize citizenship, fail to solve problems, and undermine institutional cultures that might be more supportive of democratic designs’ (1997: 5-6; 192).

Of course, although there is the unpredictable potential for issues to be politicised, many are not. Yet, low salience can exacerbate these problems of citizen exclusion. Policies dominated by bureaucratic interests often alienate citizens receiving services (1997: 79). Or, experts dominate policies (and many government agencies) when there is high scientific agreement and wider acceptance that the ‘public interest’ is served largely through the production and use of evidence. The process does not include ordinary citizens routinely. Rather, ‘experts with scientific credentials aid and abet the disappearance of the public sphere’, and this is a problem when issues ‘with important social value implications’ transform into ‘a matter of elite scientific and professional concern’ (such as when official calculations of economic activity override personal experiences) (1997: 153; 167).

Overall, they describe a political system with major potential to diminish democracy, with politicians faced with the choice of politicising issues to reward or punish populations or depoliticise issues with reference to science and objectivity, and policy designs uninformed by routine citizen participation. They describe an increasingly individualistic US system with declining rates of collective political participation (at least in elections), a tendency for actors to seek benefits for their own populations, and often ‘degenerative’ policy which produces major inequalities along sex, race, and ethnicity lines (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 22-6).

Although SCPD began as a study of US politics, many of its concepts and insights are ‘universal’. In other words, they identify ‘policymaking issues that can arise in any time or place’ (Cairney and Jones, 2016: 38):

  1. The psychology of social construction: people make quick and emotional judgements about the populations of which they are a part, and other populations.
  2. Policymakers seek to exploit the ‘national mood’, or other indicators of social preferences, for political reward.
  3. These judgements inform policy design.
  4. Policy designs help send signals to citizens which can diminish their incentive to engage in politics.
  5. Low salience issues are often dominated by bureaucratic politics and scientific language, at a similar expense to citizen participation.

The time and place-specific nature of SCPD refers to specific social attitudes, the social construction of specific target populations (from a large list of potential constructions), and specific policy designs associated with each government.

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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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The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

Well, it’s really a set of messages, geared towards slightly different audiences, and summed up by this table:

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP.JPG

  1. This academic journal article (in Evidence and Policy) highlights the dilemmas faced by policymakers when they have to make two choices at once, to decide: (1) what is the best evidence, and (2) how strongly they should insist that local policymakers use it. It uses the case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’ to show that it often seems to favour one approach (‘approach 3’) but actually maintains three approaches. What interests me is the extent to which each approach contradicts the other. We might then consider the cause: is it an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or an unintended outcome of complex government?
  2. I explore some of the scientific  issues in more depth in posts which explore: the political significance of the family nurse partnership (as a symbol of the value of randomised control trials in government), and the assumptions we make about levels of control in the use of RCTs in policy.
  3. For local governments, I outline three ways to gather and use evidence of best practice (for example, on interventions to support prevention policy).
  4. For students and fans of policy theory, I show the links between the use of evidence and policy transfer.

Further reading (links):

My academic articles on these topics

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Prevention policy

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies

In the 24 other posts in this series, I know the material well and am thinking primarily about communicating it to a new audience. In this post, I would like to (a) admit my limited understanding of topics such as feminist and postcolonial studies, and concern about oversimplifying key points, but (b) set out some thoughts about the links between them and the topics I discuss on this site. I would appreciate your comments and suggestions on relevant further reading for students of public policy.

Let’s begin with a transition from two other posts: combining theories, and critical policy studies/ the NPF. Both posts raise the same basic question: what is science? This question leads to a series of concerns about the criteria we use to determine which theories are most worthy of our investment, and the extent to which social scientific criteria should emulate those in natural science.

One set of criteria, which you can find in the ‘policy shootout!’, relates to the methods and principles we might associate with some branches of natural science (and use, for example, to support astronomy but not astrology):

  • A theory’s methods should be explained so that they can be replicated by others.
  • Its concepts should be clearly defined, logically consistent, and give rise to empirically falsifiable hypotheses.
  • Its propositions should be as general as possible.
  • It should set out clearly what the causal processes are.
  • It should be subject to empirical testing and revision

If we were to provide a caricature of this approach, we might associate it with other explicit or implicit principles, such as:

  1. The world exists independently of our knowledge of it, and our role is to develop theories to help us understand its properties (for example, discover its general laws).
  2. These principles help us produce objective science: if the methods and results can be replicated, they do not depend on individual scientists.

In other words, the caricature is of a man in a white lab coat gathering knowledge of his object of study while remaining completely separate from it. Such principles are generally difficult to maintain, and relatively tricky in the study of the social world (and it seems increasingly common for one part of PhD training to relate to reflexivity – see what is our role in social scientific research)? However, critical challenges go far beyond this point about false objectivity.

The challenge to objective science: 1. the role of emancipatory research

One aspect of feminist and postcolonial social science is to go beyond the simple rejection of the idea of objective social science: a further key (or perhaps primary) aim is to generate research with emancipatory elements. This may involve producing research questions with explicit normative elements and combining research with recommendations on social and political change.

The challenge to objective science: 2. a rejection of the dominant scientific method?

A second aspect is the challenge to the idea that one dominant conception of scientific method is correct. Instead, one might describe the scientific rules developed by one social group to the exclusion of others. This may involve historical analysis to identify the establishment of an elite white male dominance of science in the ‘West’, and the ‘Western’ dominance of science across the world.

To such scientists, a challenge to these criteria seems ridiculous: why reject the scientific principles that help us produce objective science and major social and technological advances? To their challengers, this response may reflect a desire to protect the rules associated with elite privilege, and to maintain dominance over the language we use to establish which social groups should be respected as the generators of knowledge (the recipients of prestige and funding, and perhaps the actors most influential in policy).

The challenge to objective science: 3. the democratisation of knowledge production

A third is the challenge to the idea that only well-trained scientists can produce valuable knowledge. This may involve valuing the knowledge of lived experience as a provider of new perspectives (particularly when people are in the unusual position to understand and compare their perspective and those of others). It also involves the development of new research methods and principles, combined with a political challenge to the dominance of a small number of scientific methods (for example, see rejections of the hierarchy of knowledge at which the systematic review of randomised control trials is often at the top).

Revisiting the live debate on the NPF and critical/ interpretive studies

This seems like good context for some of the debate on the NPF (see this special issue). One part of the debate may be about fundamentally different ideas about how we do research: do we adhere to specific scientific principles, or reject them in favour of a focus on, for example, generating meaning from statements and actions in particular contexts?

Another part may reflect wider political views on what these scientific principles represent (an elitist and exclusionary research agenda, whose rules reinforce existing privileges) and the role of alternative methods, in which critical policy studies may play an important part. In other words, we may be witnessing such a heated debate because critical theorists see the NPF as symbolic of attempts by some scholars to (a) reassert a politically damaging approach to academic research and (b) treat other forms of research as unscientific.

Where do we go from here?

If so, we have raised the stakes considerably. When I wrote previously about the problems of combining the insights and knowledge from different theories, it often related to the practical problems of research resources and potential for conceptual misunderstanding. Now, we face a more overt political dimension to social research and some fundamentally different understandings of its role by different social groups.

Can these understandings be reconciled, or will they remain ‘incommensurable’, in which we cannot generate agreement on the language to use to communicate research, and therefore the principles on which to compare the relative merits of approaches? I don’t know.

Initial further reading

Paying attention to this intellectual and political challenge provides a good way ‘in’ to reading that may seem relatively unfamiliar, at least for students with (a) some grounding in the policy theories I describe, and (b) looking to expand their horizons.

Possibly the closest link to our focus is when:

First, we know that policy problems do not receive policymaker attention because they are objectively important. Instead, actors compete to define issues and maximise attention to that definition. Second, we do the same when we analyse public policy: we decide which issues are worthy of study and how to define problems. Bacchi argues that the ‘conventional’ policy theorists (including Simon, Bardach, Lindblom, Wildavsky) try to ‘stand back from the policy process’ to give advice from afar, while others (including Fischer, Drysek, Majone) “recognise the analysts’ necessarily normative involvement in advice giving” (p200). Combining both points, Bacchi argues that feminists should engage in both processes – to influence how policymakers and analysts define issues – to, for example, challenge ‘constructions of problems which work to disempower women’ (p204). This is a topic (how should academics engage in the policy process) which I follow up in a study of EBPM.

For a wider discussion of feminist studies and methods, have a look at:

  • Fonow and Cook’s ‘pragmatic’ discussion about how to do feminist public policy research based on key principles:

‘Our original analysis of feminist approaches to social science research in women’s studies revealed some commonalities, which we articulated as guiding principles of feminist methodology: first, the necessity of continuously and reflexively attending to the significance of gender and gender asymmetry as a basic feature of all social life, including the conduct of research; second, the centrality of consciousness-raising or debunking as a specific methodological tool and as a general orientation or way of seeing; third, challenging the norm of objectivity that assumes that the subject and object of research can be separated from each other and that personal and/or grounded experiences are unscientific; fourth, concern for the ethical implications of feminist research and recognition of the exploitation of women as objects of knowledge; and finally, emphasis on the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research and research results’ (Fonow and Cook, 2005: 2213).

  • Lovenduski on early attempts to reinterpret political science through the lens of feminist theory/ research.

Note the links between our analysis of power/ideas and institutions as the norms and rules (informal and formal, written and unwritten) which help produce regular patterns of behaviour which benefit some and exclude others (and posts on bounded rationality, EBPM and complexity: people use simple rules to turn a complex world into manageable strategies, but to whose benefit?).

With feminist research comes a shift of focus from sex (as a primarily biological definition) and gender (as a definition based on norms and roles performed by individuals), and therefore the (ideal-type) ‘codes of masculinity and femininity’ which underpin political action and even help define which aspects of public policy are public or private. This kind of research links to box 3.3 in Understanding Public Policy (note that it relates to my discussion of Schattschneider and the privatisation/ socialisation of conflict, which he related primarily to ‘big business’).

box 3.3 gender policy

Then see two articles which continue our theme of combining theories and insights carefully:

  • Kenny’s discussion of feminist institutionalism, which seems like one of many variants of new institutionalism (e.g. this phrase could be found in many discussions of new institutionalism: ‘seemingly neutral institutional processes and practices are in fact embedded in hidden norms and values, privileging certain groups over others’ – Kenny, 2007: 95) but may involve ‘questioning the very foundations and assumptions of mainstream institutional theory’. Kenny argues that few studies of new institutionalism draw on feminist research (‘there has been little dialogue between the two fields’) and, if they were to do so, may produce very different analyses of power and ‘the political’. This point reinforces the problems I describe in combining theories when we ignore the different meanings that people attach to apparently identical concepts.
  • Mackay and Meier’s concern (quoted here) that new institutionalism could be ‘an enabling framework – or an intellectual strait-jacket” for feminist scholarship’. Kenny and Mackay identify similar issues about ‘epistemological incompatibilities’ when we combine approaches such as feminist research and rational choice institutionalism.

So far, I provide one link between postcolonial studies and public policy, since this seems like the best way ‘in’.

  • Munshi and Kurian’s identify the use of ‘postcolonial filters’ to reinterpret the framing of corporate social responsibility, describing ‘the old colonial strategy of reputation management among elite publics at the expense of marginalized publics’ which reflects a ‘largely Western, top-down way of doing or managing things’. In this case, we are talking about frames as structures or dominant ways to understand the world. Actors exercise power to reinforce a particular way of thinking which benefits some at the expense of others. Munshi and Kurian describe a ‘dominant, largely Western, model of economic growth and development’ which corporations seek to protect with reference to, for example, the ‘greenwashing’ of their activities to divert attention from the extent to which ‘indigenous peoples and poorer communities in a number of developing countries “are generally the victims of environmental degradation mostly caused by resource extractive operations of MNCs in the name of global development”’ (see p516).

It is also worth noting that I have, in some ways, lumped feminism and postcolonialism together when they are separate fields with different (albeit often overlapping and often complementary) traditions. See for example Emejulu’s Beyond Feminism’s White Gaze.

Hopefully some more suggested readings will appear in the comments section …

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What is Policy?

what is policy

(you can stream the podcast here or right click and save this link)

The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off the public, media and government agenda.

The second thing we do is point to the vast scale of government, which is too big to be understood without some simplifying concepts and theories. It is also too big to be managed. We soon learn that the vast majority of policymaking takes place in the absence of meaningful public attention. The ‘public’ simply does not have the time to pay attention to government. Even when it pays attention to some issues, the debate is simplified and does not give a good account of the complicated nature of policy problems.

We also learn that government is too big to be managed by elected policymakers. Instead, they divide government into manageable units and devolve almost all decisions to bureaucrats and organisations (including ‘street level’).  They are responsible for government, but they simply do not have the time to pay attention to anything but a tiny proportion.

So, a big part of public policy is about what happens when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name. That’s what makes it seem so messed up and so interesting at the same time.

It’s also what makes policy studies look so weird. We often reject a focus on high-profile elected policymakers, because we know that the action takes place elsewhere. We often focus on the day-to-day practices of organisations far removed from the ‘top’ or the ‘centre’. We ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to gain several perspectives on the same thing. We spend a lot of time gnashing our teeth about how you can identify and measure policy change (still, no-one has cracked this one) and compare it with the past and the experience of other countries. We try to come up with ways to demonstrate that inaction is often more significant than action. When you ask us a question, your eyes will glaze over while we try to explain, ‘well, that’s really 12 questions’. We come up with wacky names to describe policymaking and bristle if you call it ‘jargon’. It’s because policymaking is complicated and it takes skill, and some useful concepts, to make it look simple.

To read more, see: Policy Concepts in 1000 words

box 2.1 UPP

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

(podcast download)

We can generate new insights on policymaking by connecting the dots between many separate concepts. However, don’t underestimate some major obstacles or how hard these dot-connecting exercises are to understand. They may seem clear in your head, but describing them (and getting people to go along with your description) is another matter. You need to set out these links clearly and in a set of logical steps. I give one example – of the links between evidence and policy transfer – which I have been struggling with for some time.

In this post, I combine three concepts – policy transfer, bounded rationality, and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ – to identify the major dilemmas faced by central government policymakers when they use evidence to identify a successful policy solution and consider how to import it and ‘scale it up’ within their jurisdiction. For example, do they use randomised control trials (RCTs) to establish the effectiveness of interventions and require uniform national delivery (to ensure the correct ‘dosage’), or tell stories of good practice and invite people to learn and adapt to local circumstances? I use these examples to demonstrate that our judgement of good evidence influences our judgement on the mode of policy transfer.

Insights from each concept

From studies of policy transfer, we know that central governments (a) import policies from other countries and/ or (b) encourage the spread (‘diffusion’) of successful policies which originated in regions within their country: but how do they use evidence to identify success and decide how to deliver programs?

From studies of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM), we know that providers of scientific evidence identify an ‘evidence-policy gap’ in which policymakers ignore the evidence of a problem and/ or do not select the best evidence-based solution: but can policymakers simply identify the ‘best’ evidence and ‘roll-out’ the ‘best’ evidence-based solutions?

From studies of bounded rationality and the policy cycle (compared with alternative theories, such as multiple streams analysis or the advocacy coalition framework), we know that it is unrealistic to think that a policymaker at the heart of government can simply identify then select a perfect solution, click their fingers, and see it carried out. This limitation is more pronounced when we identify multi-level governance, or the diffusion of policymaking power across many levels and types of government. Even if they were not limited by bounded rationality, they would still face: (a) practical limits to their control of the policy process, and (b) a normative dilemma about how far you should seek to control subnational policymaking to ensure the delivery of policy solutions.

The evidence-based policy transfer dilemma

If we combine these insights we can identify a major policy transfer dilemma for central government policymakers:

  1. If subject to bounded rationality, they need to use short cuts to identify (what they perceive to be) the best sources of evidence on the policy problem and its solution.
  2. At the same time, they need to determine if there is convincing evidence of success elsewhere, to allow them to: (a) import policy from another country, and/ or (b) ‘scale up’ a solution that seems to be successful in one of its regions.
  3. Then they need to decide how to ‘spread success’, either by (a) ensuring that the best policy is adopted by all regions within its jurisdiction, or (b) accepting that their role in policy transfer is limited: they identify ‘best practice’ and merely encourage subnational governments to adopt particular policies.

Note how closely connected these concerns are: our judgement of the ‘best evidence’ can produce a judgement on how to ‘scale up’ success

Here are three ideal-type approaches to using evidence to transfer or ‘scale up’ successful interventions. In at least two cases, the choice of ‘best evidence’ seems linked inextricably to the choice of transfer strategy:

3 ideal types EBPM

With approach 1, you gather evidence of effectiveness with reference to a hierarchy of evidence, with systematic reviews and RCTs at the top (see pages 4, 15, 33). This has a knock-on effect for ‘scaling up’: you introduce the same model in each area, requiring ‘fidelity’ to the model to ensure you administer the correct ‘dosage’ and measure its effectiveness with RCTs.

With approach 2, you reject this hierarchy and place greater value on practitioner and service user testimony. You do not necessarily ‘scale up’. Instead, you identify good practice (or good governance principles) by telling stories based on your experience and inviting other people to learn from them.

With approach 3, you gather evidence of effectiveness based on a mix of evidence. You seek to ‘scale up’ best practice through local experimentation and continuous data gathering (by practitioners trained in ‘improvement methods’).

The comparisons between approaches 1 and 2 (in particular) show us the strong link between a judgement on evidence and transfer. Approach 1 requires particular methods to gather evidence and high policy uniformity when you transfer solutions, while approach 2 places more faith in the knowledge and judgement of practitioners.

Therefore, our choice of what counts as EBPM can determine our policy transfer strategy. Or, a different transfer strategy may – if you adhere to an evidential hierarchy – preclude EBPM.

Further reading

I describe these issues, with concrete examples of each approach here, and in far more depth here:

Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: ‘National governments use evidence selectively to argue that a successful policy intervention in one local area should be emulated in others (‘evidence-based best practice’). However, the value of such evidence is always limited because there is: disagreement on the best way to gather evidence of policy success, uncertainty regarding the extent to which we can draw general conclusions from specific evidence, and local policymaker opposition to interventions not developed in local areas. How do governments respond to this dilemma? This article identifies the Scottish Government response: it supports three potentially contradictory ways to gather evidence and encourage emulation’.

Both articles relate to ‘prevention policy’ and the examples (so far) are from my research in Scotland, but in a future paper I’ll try to convince you that the issues are ‘universal’

 

 

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‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

This post accompanies a 40 minute lecture (download) which considers ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) through the lens of policy theory. The theory is important, to give us a language with which to understand EBPM as part of a wider discussion of the policy process, while the lens of EBPM allows us to think through the ‘real world’ application of concepts and theories.

To that end, I’ll make three key points:

  1. Definitions and clarity are important. ‘Evidence-based policymaking’, ‘evidence-based policy’ and related phrases such as ‘policy based evidence’ are used incredibly loosely in public debates. A focus on basic questions in policy studies – what is policy, and how can we measure policy change? – helps us clarify the issues, reject superficial debates on ‘evidence-based policy versus policy-based evidence’, and in some cases identify the very different assumptions people make about how policymaking works and should work.
  2. Realistic models are important. Discussing EBPM helps us identify the major flaws in simple models of policymaking such as the ‘policy cycle’. I’ll discuss the insights we gain by considering how policy scholars describe the implications of policymaker ‘bounded rationality’ and policymaking complexity.
  3. Realistic strategies are important. There is a lot of academic discussion of the need to overcome ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy. It is often atheoretical, producing naïve recommendations about improving the supply of evidence and training policymakers to understand it. I identify two more useful (but potentially controversial) strategies: be manipulative and learn where the ‘action’ is.

Definitions and clarity are important, so what is ‘evidence-based policymaking’?

What is Policy? It is incredibly difficult to say what policy is and measure how much it has changed. I use the working definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ to raise important qualifications: (a) it is problematic to conflate what people say they will do and what they actually do; (b) a policy outcome can be very different from the intention; (c) policy is made routinely through cooperation between elected and unelected policymakers and actors with no formal role in the process; (d) policymaking is also about the power not to do something. It is also important to identify the many components or policy instruments that make up policies, including: the level of spending; the use of economic incentives/ penalties; regulations and laws; the use of voluntary agreements and codes of conduct; the provision of public services; education campaigns; funding for scientific studies or advocacy; organisational change; and, the levels of resources/ methods dedicated to policy implementation (2012a: 26).

In that context, we are trying to capture a process in which actors make and deliver ‘policy’ continuously, not identify a set-piece event which provides a single opportunity to use a piece of scientific evidence to prompt a policymaker response.

Who are the policymakers? The intuitive definition is ‘people who make policy’, but there are two important distinctions: (1) between elected and unelected participants, since people such as civil servants also make important decisions; (2) between people and organisations, with the latter used as a shorthand to refer to a group of people making decisions collectively. There are blurry dividing lines between the people who make and influence policy. Terms such as ‘policy community’ suggest that policy decisions are made by a collection of people with formal responsibility and informal influence. Consequently, we need to make clear what we mean by ‘policymakers’ when we identify how they use evidence.

What is evidence? We can define evidence as an argument backed by information. Scientific evidence describes information produced in a particular way. Some describe ‘scientific’ broadly, to refer to information gathered systematically using recognised methods, while others refer to a specific hierarchy of scientific methods, with randomized control trials (RCTs) and the systematic review of RCTs at the top. This is a crucial point:

policymakers will seek many kinds of information that many scientists would not consider to be ‘the evidence’.

This discussion helps identify two key points of potential confusion when people discuss EBPM:

  1. When you describe ‘evidence-based policy’ and EBPM you need to clarify what the policy is and who is making it. This is not just about some elected politicians making announcements.
  2. When you describe ‘evidence’ you need to clarify what counts as evidence and what an ‘evidence-based’ policy response would look like. This point is at the heart of often fruitless discussions about ‘policy based evidence’, which seems to describe almost a dozen alleged mistakes by policymakers (relating to ignoring evidence, using the wrong kinds, and/ or producing a disproportionate response).

Realistic models are important, so what is wrong with the policy cycle?

One traditional way to understand policymaking in the ‘real world’ is to compare it to an ideal-type: what happens when the conditions of the ideal-type are not met? We do this in particular with the ‘policy cycle and ‘comprehensive rationality’.

So, consider this modified ideal-type of EBPM:

  • There is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, breaking down their task into clearly defined and well-ordered stages;
  • Scientists are in a privileged position to help those policymakers make good decisions by getting them as close as possible to the ideal of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which they have the best information available to inform all options and consequences.

So far, so good (although you might stop to consider who is best placed to provide evidence, and who – or which methods of evidence gathering – should be privileged or excluded), but what happens when we move away from the ideal-type? Here are two insights from a forthcoming paper (Cairney Oliver Wellstead 26.1.16).

Lessons from policy theory: 1. Identify multi-level policymaking environments

First, policymaking takes place in less ordered and predictable policy environment, exhibiting:

  • a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  • a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  • close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors
  • a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  • shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

A focus on this bigger picture shifts our attention from the use of scientific evidence by an elite group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’ to its use by a wide range of influential actors in a multi-level policy process. It shows scientists and practitioners that they are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience. Support for particular solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ (such as ‘value for money’) – that takes time to learn. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift. In this context, too many practitioner studies analyse, for example, a singular point of central government decision rather than the longer term process. Overcoming barriers to influence in that small part of the process will not provide an overall solution.

Lessons from policy theory: 2. Policymakers use two ‘shortcuts’ to make decisions

How do policymakers deal with their ‘bounded rationality’? They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, habits, and the familiar to make decisions quickly. Consequently, the focus of policy theories is on the links between evidence, persuasion, and framing (in the wider context of a tendency for certain beliefs to dominate discussion).

Framing refers to the ways in which we understand, portray, and categorise issues. Problems are multi-faceted, but bounded rationality limits the attention of policymakers, and actors compete to highlight one image at the expense of others. The outcome of this process determines who is involved (for example, portraying an issue as technical limits involvement to experts), who is responsible for policy, how much attention they pay, and what kind of solution they favour. For example, tobacco control is more likely when policymakers view it primarily as a public health epidemic rather than an economic good, while ‘fracking’ policy depends on its primary image as a new oil boom or environmental disaster (I discuss both examples in depth here).

Scientific evidence plays a part in this process, but we should not exaggerate the ability of scientists to win the day with reference to evidence. Rather, policy theories signal the strategies that practitioners may have to adopt to increase demand for their evidence:

  • to combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention from one policy image to another (punctuated equilibrium theory)
  • to tell simple stories which are easy to understand, help manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (narrative policy framework)
  • to interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (advocacy coalition framework)
  • to produce a policy solution that is feasible and exploit a time when policymakers have the opportunity to adopt it (multiple streams analysis).

Further, the impact of a framing strategy may not be immediate, even if it appears to be successful. Scientific evidence may prompt a lurch of attention to a policy problem, prompting a shift of views in one venue or the new involvement of actors from other venues. However, for example, it can take years to produce support for an ‘evidence-based’ policy solution, built on its technical and political feasibility (will it work as intended, and do policymakers have the motive and opportunity to select it?).

This discussion helps identify two key points of potential confusion when people discuss the policy cycle and comprehensive rationality:

  1. These concepts are there to help us understand what doesn’t happen. What are the real world implications of the limits to these models?
  2. They do not help you give good advice to people trying to influence the policy process. A focus on going through policymaking ‘stages’ and improving ‘rationality’ is always relevant when you give advice to policymakers. However unrealistic these models are, you would still want to gather the maximum information and go through a process of stages. This is very different from (a) giving advice on how to influence the process, or (b) evaluating the pros and cons of a political system with reference to ideal-types.

Realistic strategies are important, so how far should you go to overcome ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy?

You can’t take the politics out of EBPM. Even the selection of ‘the evidence’ is political (should evidence be scientific, and what counts as scientific evidence?).

Further, providers of scientific evidence face major dilemmas when they seek to maximise the ‘impact’ of their research. Armed with this knowledge of the policy process, how should you seek to engage and influence decisions made within it?

If you are interested in this final discussion, please see the short video here and the follow up blog post: Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

See also:

To bridge the divide between evidence and policy: reduce ambiguity as much as uncertainty

 

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