Category Archives: 1000 words

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations

(podcast download)

The ‘social construction of target populations’ (SCTP) literature identifies:

  1. The value judgements that policymakers express when justifying their agendas to legislatures and the public.
  2. The enduring impact of these value-driven policies beyond the terms of single elections (and often long after they have left office).

Schneider, Ingram and Deleon identify the importance of this process in three main steps.

First, when competing for elected public office, people articulate value judgements and make fundamental choices about which social groups should be treated differently by government bodies. They present arguments for rewarding ‘good’ groups with government support and punishing ‘bad’ groups with sanctions. This description, which may seem rather simplistic, highlights the tendency of policymakers to make quick and superficial judgements, and back up their impressions with selective facts, before distributing rewards and sanctions. There is a crucial ‘fast thinking’ element to policymaking. Policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution.

Second, these judgements can have an enduring ‘feed-forward’ effect: fundamental choices based on values are reproduced in the institutions devoted to policy delivery. Policy designs based on emotionally-driven thinking often become routine and questioned rarely in government.

Third, this decision has an impact on citizens and groups, who participate more or less in politics according to how they are characterised by government. Some groups can become more or less powerful, and categorised differently, if they have the resources to mobilise and challenge the way they are perceived by policymakers (and the media and public). However, this outcome may take decades in the absence of a major event, such as an economic crisis or game-changing election.

Overall, past policies, based on rapid emotional judgements and policymakers’ values, provide key context for policymaking. The distribution of rewards and sanctions is cumulative, influencing future action by signalling to target populations how they are described and will be treated. Social constructions are difficult to overcome, because a sequence of previous policies, based on a particular framing of target populations, produces ‘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.

SCTP builds on classic discussions of power, in which actors exercise power to reinforce or challenge policymaker and social attitudes. For example, if most people assume that people in poverty deserve little government help, because they are largely responsible for their own fate, policymakers have little incentive to intervene. In such cases, power and powerlessness relates to the inability of disadvantaged groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy or a problem to be solved. Or, people may take for granted that criminals should be punished because they are engaging in deviant behaviour. To challenge policies based on this understanding, groups have to challenge fundamental public assumptions, reinforced by government policy, regarding what constitutes normal and deviant behaviour. Yet, many such groups have no obvious way in which to mobilise to pursue their collective interests.

SCTP depicts this dilemma with a notional table (page 102) 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. 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’. As such, the table represents an abstract account of policymaking context, in which some groups are more likely to be favoured or stigmatised by government, and some groups are better able to exploit their favourable, or challenge their unfavourable, image.

 sctp 2007

It represents the starting point to empirical analysis since, although some examples seem intuitive (many ‘criminals’ are punished by government and have minimal ways in which to mobilise to influence policy), many are time-specific (the ‘feminist movement’ has been more or less active over time) and place-specific (gun manufacturers are high profile in the US, but not the UK). Different populations are also more or less favoured by policymakers at different levels of government – for example, ‘street level’ professionals may treat certain ‘deviant’ populations, such as intravenous drug users, more sympathetically – and may, for example, find it easier to mobilise at local than national levels. Further, people do not fit neatly into these categories – many ‘mothers’ are also ‘scientists’ and/ or part of the ‘feminist movement’ – and may mobilise according to their own perception of their identity.

Still, SCTP demonstrates that policymakers can treat people in certain ways, based on a quick, emotional and simplistic understanding of their background, and that this way of thinking should not be forgotten simply because it is taken for granted. Indeed, governments may go one step further to reinforce these judgements: capitalising on ‘fast thinking’ in the population by constructing simple ‘narratives’ designed to justify policy action to a public that may be prone to accept simple stories that seem plausible, confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/ or come from a source they trust. Actors compete to tell ‘stories, to quickly assign blame to one group of people, or praise another, even though that group is heterogeneous and cause/effect is multifaceted. The winner of this competition may help produce a policy response which endures for years, if not decades.

This post is part of the ‘1000 words’ series https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

For more on social construction, see:

Social Construction and Policy Design

Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?

 

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Can anyone use the ‘tools’ of policy research?

We often use the metaphor of ‘tools’ to describe the ways in which people use public policy analysis. For some, the suggestion is that – like a hammer and chisel – anyone could pick them up and use them. Yet, let’s think about that metaphor some more:

  • Anyone can use a hammer and chisel, but many people lop of their fingers or break things while doing so.
  • You use a hammer and chisel for a particular purpose, such as to create a sculpture. We can all whack a bit of stone with a blunt object, but it takes skill to turn it into something worth your attention.
  • Many tools require training before you should use them: power tools, lasers, MRIs, the screws to insert frames into broken bones, and so on.

My argument is this: you wouldn’t trust a political scientist to make you a piece of art, fix your window, do your laser eyesight correction, or scan your brain, because it is generally not a good idea to pick up and use these tools without training. So, have a quick think about who you would trust with policy research tools if they just picked them out of the shed and used them for the first time.

What sort of training do you need to use policy research tools effectively?

Let me give you three examples, bearing in mind that the tools metaphor will get annoying soon:

  1. You like the look of the policy cycle.

It offers a simple way to turn evidence into policy: you use evidence to identify a problem, provide a range of feasible evidence-based solutions, choose the best solution, then legitimise, implement, and evaluate the solution. However, you soon find that the cycle is the equivalent of, say, a manual carpet sweeper. The technology has moved on, and we now have a much improved understanding of the policy process. In empirical policy analysis, the cycle remains as a way to begin our discussion before identifying more useful concepts and theories.

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know about the state of the art of the technology we use.

  1. You like the look of multiple streams analysis.

It too offers a simple way into the subject. Further, it remains a well-respected and much-used tool for analysis. Let’s say it is like the X-ray. It has been used for decades and it remains a key tool in medicine (and security). You need some training to operate it and, crucially, your training would not stop at ‘here is how we used it in the 1980s’.

In other words, many people pick up Kingdon’s classic book and apply its simple insights without much reference to 3 decades of conceptual advance (much contemporary MSA was developed by other people) and hundreds of other empirical applications.

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to keep up to date with the ways in which people use the technology.

  1. You want to pick and choose insights from several theories.

This is a fairly common exercise: people pick and choose concepts, adapt them to produce their models, and apply different concepts in different ways. If you are optimistic, you will think of something like a Dremel which has the same starting point/ base unit and dozens of compatible attachments. If, like me, you are not so optimistic, you imagine a frying pan radio or an X-ray machine glued onto the side of an MRI. It can be fruitful to combine the insights of concepts and theories, but not without thinking about the trade-offs and the compatibility between concepts (which prompts some scholars to identify one kind of tool to replace another).

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know how compatible each tool is with the other, and if one is used to replace another.

This last point is crucial if you want to go beyond using a tool for a one-off project, to compare your insights and lessons with other people. Many people will want to know how you fared when you used the same tools/ approach/ language as them, and you can learn from each other’s experiences. Indeed, the aim of theory is to produce comparable and, if possible, generalisable insights, Relatively few people will want to learn from someone who glues an X-ray to an MRI, and it will be difficult to generalise from the experience.

The upshot is that you can indeed pick up some policy research tools and use them to improve your understanding of the world. Indeed, I encourage you to do so in this series of posts which outlines the concepts you are most likely to see stocked in Home Depot.

However, I also suggest that you use them as the first step of your project (or engage the help of more qualified people), since most of these concepts come with a training manual that can take years to read.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing

framing main

(podcast download)

‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.

For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.

framing with hands

However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:

timber frame

  1. Intentional framing and cognition.

The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):

  • We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
  • These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
  • We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
  • We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.

In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).

In policy theory, framing studies focus on ambiguity: there are many ways in which we can understand and define the same policy problem (note terms such as ‘problem definition’ and a ‘policy image’). Therefore, actors exercise power to draw attention to, and generate support for, one particular understanding at the expense of others. They do this with simple stories or the selective presentation of facts, often coupled with emotional appeals, to manipulate the ways in which we process information.

  1. Frames as structures

Think about the extent to which we take for granted certain ways to understand or frame issues. We don’t begin each new discussion with reference to ‘first principles’. Instead, we discuss issues with reference to:

(a) debates that have been won and may not seem worth revisiting (imagine, for example, the ways in which ‘socialist’ policies are treated in the US)

(b) other well-established ways to understand the world which, when they seem to dominate our ways of thinking, are often described as ‘hegemonic’ or with reference to paradigms.

In such cases, the timber frame metaphor serves two purposes:

(a) we can conclude that it is difficult but not impossible to change.

(b) if it is hidden by walls, we do not see it; we often take it for granted even though we should know it exists.

Framing the social, not physical, world

These metaphors can only take us so far, because the social world does not have such easily identifiable physical structures. Instead, when we frame issues, we don’t just choose where to look; we also influence how people describe what we are looking at. Or, ‘structural’ frames relate to regular patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking which are more difficult to identify than in a building. Consequently, we do not all describe structural constraints in the same way even though, ostensibly, we are looking at the same thing.

In this respect, for example, the well-known ‘Overton window’ is a sort-of helpful but also problematic concept, since it suggests that policymakers are bound to stay within the limits of what Kingdon calls the ‘national mood’. The public will only accept so much before it punishes you in events such as elections. Yet, of course, there is no such thing as the public mood. Rather, some actors (policymakers) make decisions with reference to their perception of such social constraints (how will the public react?) but they also know that they can influence how we interpret those constraints with reference to one or more proxies, including opinion polls, public consultations, media coverage, and direct action:

JEPP public opinion

They might get it wrong, and suffer the consequences, but it still makes sense to say that they have a choice to interpret and adapt to such ‘structural’ constraints.

Framing, power and the role of ideas

We can bring these two ideas about framing together to suggest that some actors exercise power to reinforce dominant ways to think about the world. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group with greater material resources wins and another loses. It also relates to agenda setting. First, actors may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in private or public places?

Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, actors exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’: more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society.

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12 things to know about studying public policy

Here is a blog post on 12 things to know about studying public policy. Please see the end of the post if you would like to listen to or watch my lecture on this topic.

  1. There is more to politics than parties and elections.

Think of policy theory as an antidote to our fixation on elections, as a focus on what happens in between. We often point out that elections can produce a change in the governing party without prompting major changes in policy and policymaking, partly because most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from elected policymakers. Elections matter but, in policy studies, they do not represent the centre of the universe.

2. Public policy is difficult to define.

Imagine a simple definition: ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’. Then consider these questions. Does policy include what policymakers say they will do (e.g. in manifestos) as well as what they actually do? Does it include the policy outcome if it does not match the original aim? What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Does public policy include what policymakers decide to not do? Is it still ‘public policy’ when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name?

3. Policy change is difficult to see and measure.

Usually we know that something has changed because the government has passed legislation, but policy is so much more: spending, economic penalties or incentives (taxes and subsidies), social security payments and sanctions, formal and informal regulations, public education, organisations and staffing, and so on. So, we need to sum up this mix of policies, asking: is there an overall and coherent aim, or a jumble of policy instruments? Can we agree on the motives of policymakers when making these policies? Does policy impact seem different when viewed from the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’? Does our conclusion change when we change statistical measures?

4. There is no objective way to identify policy success.

We know that policy evaluation is political because left/right wing political parties and commentators argue as much about a government’s success as its choices. Yet, it cannot be solved by scientists identifying objective or technical measures of success, because there is political choice in the measures we use and much debate about the best measures. Measurement also involves (frequently) a highly imperfect proxy, such as by using waiting times to measure the effectiveness of a health service. We should also note the importance of perspective: should we measure success in terms of the aims of elected policymakers, the organisations carrying out policy, or the people who are most affected? What if many policymakers were involved, or their aims were not clear? What if their aim was to remain popular, or have an easy time in the legislature, not to improve people’s lives? What if it improved the lives of some, but hurt others?

5. There is no ‘policy cycle’ with well-ordered stages.

Imagine this simple advice to policymakers: identify your aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is ‘legitimised’ by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement, and then evaluate the policy. If only life were so simple. Instead, think of policymaking as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes. Then note that it is often impossible in practice to know when one stage begins and another ends. Finally, imagine that the order of stages is completely messed up, such as when we have a solution long before a problem arises.

6. Policymakers are ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’.

A classic reference point is the ‘ideal-type’ of comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality which helps elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility. In the real world, we identify ‘bounded rationality’, challenge all of the assumptions of comprehensive rationality, and wonder what happens next. The classic debate focused on the links between bounded rationality and incrementalism. Our current focus is on ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ responses to the need to make decisions quickly without comprehensive information: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable; but also making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.

7. We talk of actors, but not on stage.

Most policy theories use the word ‘actor’ simply to describe the ability of people and organisations to deliberate and act to make choices. Many talk about the large number of actors involved in policymaking, at each level and across many levels of policymaking. Some discuss a shift, in many countries since the early post-war period, from centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors

8. We talk of institutions, but not buildings.

In political science, ‘institution’ refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour.  Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions. Others are less visible, such as the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’. So, for example, ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracies could have very different formal rules but operate in very similar ways in practice. These rules develop in different ways in many parts of government, prompting us to consider what happens when many different actors develop different expectations of politics and policymaking.  For example, it might help explain a gap between policies made in one organisation and implemented by another. It might cause government policy to be contradictory, when many different organisations produce their own policies without coordinating with others. Or, governments may contribute to a convoluted statute book by adding to laws and regulations without thinking how they all fit together.

9. We have 100 ways to describe policy networks.

Put simply, ‘policy network’ describes the relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the actors who seek to influence them. It can also describe a notional venue – a ‘subsystem’ – in which this interaction takes place. Although the network concept is crucial to most policy theories, it can be described using very different concepts,and with reference to different political systems. For example, in the UK, we might describe networks as a consequence of bounded rationality: elected policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, 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. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places

10. We struggle to separate power from ideas.

Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas (or shared beliefs). These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. Classic power debates inform current discussions of ‘agenda setting’ and ‘framing’. Debates began with the idea that we could identify the powerful by examining ‘key political choices’: the powerful would win and benefit from the outcomes at the expense of other actors. The debate developed into discussions of major barriers to the ‘key choices’ stage: actors may exercise power to persuade/ reinforce the popular belief that the government should not get involved, or to keep an issue off a government agenda by drawing attention to other issues. This ability to persuade depends on the resources of actors, but also the beliefs of the actors they seek to influence.

11. We talk a lot about ‘context’ and events, and sometimes about ‘complexity’ and ‘emergence’.

Context’ describes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a country’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and social attitudes. This wider context is in addition to the ‘institutional’ context, when governments inherit the laws and organisations of their predecessors. Important ‘game changing’ events can be routine, such as when elections produce new governments with new ideas, or unanticipated, such as when crises or major technological changes prompt policymakers to reconsider existing policies. In each case, we should consider the extent to which policymaking is in the control of policymakers. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – think for example of a ‘demographic timebomb’ – but governments show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important. This question of policymaker control is also explored in discussions of ‘complexity theory’, which highlights the unpredictability of policymaking, limited central government control, and a tendency for policy outcomes to ‘emerge’ from activity at local levels.

12. It can inform real world policymaking, but you might not like the advice.

For example, policymakers often recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on. Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame. Or, for example, we might use policy theory to inform current discussions of evidence-based policymaking, saying to scientists that they will only be influential if they go beyond the evidence to make manipulative emotional appeals.

For more information, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

To listen to the lecture (about 50 minutes plus Q&A), you can download here or stream:

You can also download the video here or stream:

To be honest, there is little gain to watching the lecture, unless you want to laugh at my posture & shuffle and wonder if I have been handcuffed.

 

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Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

Cairney jones psj pic

John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).

In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 1. ‘Universal’ concepts.

Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.

  1. Ambiguity and competition for attention.
  • There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can often be dominated by one ‘frame’.
  • There are many problems to solve, but few reach the top of the policy agenda.
  • There are many possible solutions to problems, but very few gain attention and even fewer gain support.
  1. Decision-making processes are neither ‘comprehensively rational’ nor ‘linear’.
  • New information is difficult to gather and subject to manipulation.
  • Actors have limited resources such as time and cognitive ability. This limitation forces people to make choices before they have considered all possibilities and made sure that their preferences are clear.
  • The policy process does not follow a policy cycle with ordered stages, in which (i) a policymaker identifies a problem, (ii) a bureaucracy produces many possible solutions, and (iii) the policymaker selects the best solution according to her aims and values.

These ‘universal’ insights underpin MSA’s specific contribution, in which Kingdon draws on the ‘garbage can model’ to suggest that we think of these three ‘stages’ (metaphorically) as independent streams which must come together at the same time, during a ‘window of opportunity’ before any major policy change will take place:

  1. Problem stream – attention lurches to a policy problem.
  2. Policy stream – a solution to that problem is available.
  3. Politics stream – policymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 2. New theories and perspectives.

Let’s take one example of Kingdon’s influence: on the early development of punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). In their own ways, MSA and PET are both ‘evolutionary’ theories, although they identify different kinds of evolutionary metaphors or processes, and present somewhat different implications:

  • Kingdon uses the evolutionary metaphor partly to help explain slow and gradual policy development despite lurches of attention and the importance of windows of opportunity. Note the importance of the idea of ‘feasibility’ and ‘softening’, as potential policy solutions emerge from the ‘policy primeval soup’. Kingdon is describing the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community, which challenges the notion that policies will change whenever attention lurches to a new problem. On the contrary, a feasible solution must exist, and these solutions take a lot of time to become both technically and politically feasible, before policymakers develop the motive and opportunity to adopt them.
  • Baumgartner and Jones identify the conditions under which Kingdon’s picture of slow progress, producing ‘partial mutations’ should be replaced by their identification of fast, disruptive, ‘pure mutation’. For example, major ‘policy punctuations’ may occur when issues break out of one policymaking ‘venue’. In such cases, more radical change may be acceptable to the policymakers – in other venues – that are less committed to existing policies and, therefore, less likely to select a policy solution only when it has been ‘softened’.

Such examples (explored in more depth in our article, and in my article on evolutionary policy theory) highlight the potential to trace the long term intellectual development of policy theory back to influential scholars such as Kingdon.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 1. How useful is the metaphor?

Michael and I identify a blessing and a curse, related to two aspects of Kingdon’s original work:

  1. The barriers to entry are low. If you are looking for an easy way into policy theory, you can read some of Kingdon’s book and feel you have gained some insight.
  2. The metaphor is flexible. You don’t have to learn a huge codebook or set of rules before you dive into empirical analysis.

The blessing is that both factors allow a lot of material to be produced in diverse and perhaps innovative ways. The curse is that it is difficult to see the accumulated results from all that effort. If the MSA is there to help explain one case, and one case only, then all is well. If we want more – to compare a lot of cases in a meaningful way – we have a problem.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 2. How have other scholars used the metaphor?

Michael Jones and his colleagues identified a huge number of MSA studies: over 300 applications, in over 40 countries, in 10 years. However, they also identify a high proportion of theoretical superficiality: scholars mention Kingdon, but do not go into much detail on the meaning of key MSA concepts, or explain how they used those concepts in a meaningful way to explain policy or policymaking.

Michael and I zoomed in to focus on the ‘state of the art’, to see how the best studies used MSA. We found some interesting work, particularly in studies which extended Kingdon’s original focus on the US federal government (in the 1980s) to subnational and supranational studies, and used MSA to explain developments in many other countries. The best work identified how the MSA related to wider policy theory discussions and/or how we might adapt MSA to deal with new cases. However, we also found a lot of applications which made cursory reference to theory or the MSA literature, or studies which used MSA largely as a way to identify their own models.

It all adds up to a lot of activity but it is difficult to know how to sum up its value. The flexibility of the MSA has allowed people to take it in all sorts of directions, but also to use it in a way that is difficult to relate to Kingdon’s original study or important new developments (put forward by scholars such as Zahariadis).

Where do we go from here? Some simple rules for you to consider.

So, we propose three simple rules to help maintain MSA flexibility but allow us to accumulate empirical insights or encourage conceptual development: demonstrate proficiency with MSA; speak to MSA; and, speak to broader policy research.

In other words, a lot has been written about MSA and policy theory since 1984. The world has changed, and so too have the ways in which we describe it. So, put simply, it would be weird if people continued to produce scholarly research based simply on one book written in the 80s and little else (you might be surprised about how much of this approach we found, and how few people explained MSA concepts before presenting their empirical analysis).

We don’t call for a set of rigid rules to allow systematic comparison (although I really like the suggestion by a colleague, presented with tongue firmly in cheek, that we have become the ‘multiple streams Taliban’). Instead, at the very least, we encourage people not to submit Kingdon-inspired articles for review until they have read and digested a lot of the MSA literature. That way, we’ll be able to go beyond the sense that we are all using the same conceptual descriptions without knowing if we mean the same thing or if my results can be compared usefully with yours.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 words: Critical Policy Studies and the Narrative Policy Framework

(podcast download)

‘Critical policy analysis’ (or studies’) is a broad term to describe a wide collection of texts, and it is difficult to come up with a definitive account, beyond the idea that it is perhaps based on the equally broad description ‘post-positivism’ and methods such as discourse analysis (also note the phrase ‘argumentative turn’). However, a discussion of ‘post-positivism’ is incredibly valuable even if you wouldn’t see yourself as post-positivist.

One key account of the intellectual basis of this literature is by Fischer when he describes the failings of ‘positivist’ policy sciences to describe, aid and explain policymaking (at least if measured against certain, rather unrealistic, hopes). In particular, he takes to task the idea of objective science in which we can separate facts from values and accumulate knowledge using scientific tenets such as hypothesis generation, revision and falsification. This argument ties in to one of the big questions about the nature of the world and the extent to which it exists independently of our knowledge or experience of it. Fischer stresses the social context in which knowledge is produced, to argue that scientists do not produce what can meaningfully be called ‘objective truth’. Instead, they are part of communities which produce knowledge according to rules, and that some professions, following particular rules, receive more respect than others in a notional hierarchy of knowledge production. This shifts our focus to the idea of ‘interpreting’ the social world rather than uncovering its truths, and provides a case for considering the value of many (often less respected) approaches even if they do not follow the same ‘positivist’ rules.

This is an important conclusion when we consider that many of the theories discussed in the ‘1000 word’ series would be described by Fischer as ‘positivist’. In particular, debates between Fischer and Paul Sabatier (the ACF) were based largely on their very-different views about how you do science and which approaches deserve support in published academic texts.

On that basis, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) is interesting because a key aim is to take insights from critical policy analysis, about the importance of interpreting and framing the world, and use them to produce work that would satisfy the kinds of scientific requirements associated with Sabatier. They argue that, although the study of policy ‘narratives’ (often using discourse analysis) is associated strongly with post-positivist scholarship, they can be examined in a ‘systematic empirical manner’ – and that the study of narratives can be an important way to hep reconcile (to some extent) positivist/ post-positivist studies.

The NPF seeks to measure how narratives are used in policymaking. Narratives are stylized accounts of the origins, aims, and likely impacts of policies. They are used strategically to reinforce or oppose policy measures. Narratives have a setting, characters, plot, and moral. They can be compared to marketing, as persuasion based more on appealing to an audience’s beliefs than on the ‘facts’. People will pay attention to certain narratives because they are boundedly rational, seeking shortcuts to gather sufficient information, and prone to accept simple stories that confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/or come from a source they trust.

So far, so good – as discussed, this description would not look out of place within the literature on argumentation and persuasion. There is nothing inherently post-positivist about identifying how people use information selectively to persuade people about the merits of an argument. The same might be said for discourse analysis, if we define it broadly as the study of the meaning of language, by examining the use of statements within specific contexts. It might have become associated with one philosophy, but it need not follow inevitably that one’s choice, regarding ontology and epistemology, produces an inevitable link to a particular method, or that a method can be claimed by one group of scholars.

Nevertheless, this topic raises the problem about how we combine the insights of policy studies when they may be produced by people with fundamentally different (and potentially ‘incommensurable’) ways of understanding, describing, and seeking to explain the world. Two different scholars may study narratives, and even draw on a form of discourse analysis, but see their task very differently, and find it difficult to produce a common language (beyond the superficial) to determine the meaning and significance of their results. One might see themselves as the purveyor of value-free knowledge to settle policy debates, while another may describe socially constructed knowledge used to aid deliberation. These kinds of debates may seem exaggerated or artificial (particularly in relation to the way I just described a form of naïve empiricism that may not be practiced by many scholars), but we should not ignore them completely.

In my opinion, this discussion is crucial even if you end up rejecting critical policy analysis as an important way of seeing and researching the world. It should makes you pause and reflect about how you understand the world and re-examine the assumptions you make when you engage in research.

See also: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories

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

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People engage in politics to further their beliefs – but what do they believe?

The Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) is associated strongly with the idea that people engage in the policy process to turn their beliefs into public policies, by forming coalitions with like-minded people and competing with coalitions of people with different beliefs. The early literature breaks beliefs into three distinct categories:

  • ‘Core’ are fundamental and unlikely to change (like a ‘religious conversion’) but too broad to guide detailed policy (such as one’s views on human nature).
  • ‘Policy core’ are more specific but still unlikely to change.
  • ‘Secondary Aspects’ relate to the implementation of policy. They are the most likely to change, as people learn about the effects of, say, regulations versus economic incentives.

The notional idea is that there is a ‘hierarchy’ of beliefs, from strongest to weakest. Core beliefs can relate to something like the nature of people (are their motives pure or evil?), or beliefs that are held so firmly and routinely that they might almost be taken for granted. As importantly, it is difficult to link these beliefs to coordinated behaviour (‘hey, we both think that people are misanthropists – let’s form a coalition’). Instead, we focus on ‘policy core’ as the deeply held beliefs that might underpin cooperation and conflict.

I was speaking with Chris Weible and colleagues about this recently, at a comparative workshop on the ACF, saying that I would use the example of state/ market as a policy core belief, since this basic left/right distinction can underpin a discussion of the role of government (for example, let’s have a large regulatory state or a minimal state). Since we were talking about hydraulic fracturing/ fracking, I thought this underpinned a lot of the discussion. Yet, of course, at the core of something like fracking is something else – the balance between a pro-business/ economic argument and a pro-environment argument, which may represent the fundamental cleavage in a subsystem. Each subsystem may also have its own fundamental cleavage which, in some way, overlaps with the state/market. The latter could perhaps be considered more of a core belief, since it spreads across so many subsystems – and may underpin debates across the political system as a whole. It is difficult to say for sure, and it is not something that we can conclude easily, even following general discussion.

In other words, it is difficult to assign these things precisely to the three categories. Instead we might think of a spectrum in which there is a degree of fluidity between categories despite a notional hierarchy.

This sort of conceptual uncertainty happens all the time in the policy sciences, and the ACF is no worse off than other theories. More importantly, like other theories, a framework provides a basic language that, if shared by a group of people, can be used to think through conceptual discussions such as these, to come to some sort of agreement, and use that agreement to underpin academic cooperation, in which we produce a range of case studies (using a variety of methods) and compare our insights, to help us better understand our own cases. At times, it looks like the initial concepts become a casualty of that cooperation. Yet, in our recent experience, it helped us focus on more important issues and generate the sense that we were working together to produce some important comparative work.

See Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework

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What is a policy entrepreneur?

See also: Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

From pages 271-2 of Understanding Public Policy

For example, ‘policy entrepreneur’ is used by Kingdon (1984: 21; 104) to describe actors who use their knowledge of the process to further their own policy ends. They ‘lie in wait in and around government with their solutions at hand, waiting for problems to float by to which they can attach their solutions, waiting for a development in the political stream they can use to their advantage’ (Kingdon, 1984: 165–6). Entrepreneurs may be elected politicians, leaders of interest groups or merely unofficial spokespeople for particular causes. They are people with the knowledge, power, tenacity and luck to be able to exploit windows of opportunity and heightened levels of attention to policy problems to promote their ‘pet solutions’ to policymakers (see also Jones, 1994: 196 on their ability to reframe issues).

John’s (1999) treatment of entrepreneurs is similar, but he perhaps replaces the image of a surefooted calculating individual with someone that follows a trial and error strategy; entrepreneurs try out combinations of ideas, ‘to find the one that replicates’ (1999: 45).

In policy transfer, entrepreneurs can be consultants, NGOs or think tanks which promote best practice internationally. International entrepreneurs often have added credentials, either from the exporting country or from a supranational institution such as the World Bank that ties its cooperation to the use of a particular expert (Dolowitz and Marsh, 2000: 10). The classic case is the Harvard professor who travelled the world selling new public management, backed notionally by the US government (Common, 1998: 441). In this case the entrepreneur is perhaps guaranteed some level of success and is always on the road and looking for business rather than waiting for the right opportunity to act.

‘Entrepreneur’ is used in rational choice to explain why some individuals seek to provide public services or form political parties or interest groups when we assume that most free ride (McLean, 1987: 29). In business, entrepreneurs are innovative actors who provide a good or service that otherwise may not be provided; in return for their services they take a profit. The amount of profit depends partly on the level of competition by different entrepreneurs (1987: 28). In politics, it may be more difficult to sell goods, particularly when they are non-excludable (Chapter 7). Political entrepreneurs may profit through other means: when people make voluntary donations; when organizations pay politicians to try to secure contracts or other favours; and, through taxation. Again, the amount of profit depends in part on the level of competition: a high taxing, corrupt politician might be replaced by a cleaner and cheaper opponent (1987: 29). In other cases, politicians pursue measures simply because they believe that there will be an electoral payoff (Mclean, 2002: 541). In the case of organizations, there are people who value a good or service so much that they pay for it regardless of the ability of others to free ride. Or, there are entrepreneurs, driven partly by ideology, who provide a cheap solution to a problem shared by many in exchange for a donation to pursue further initiatives (McLean, 1987: 32).

Mintrom and Vergari (1996: 431; see also Mintrom and Norman, 2009) use ‘entrepreneur’ in a similar way to Kingdon (someone selling ideas) and to rational choice (someone solving a collective action problem) to explain change within the ACF. For example, coalitions are born when entrepreneurs frame issues to encourage members with common beliefs to coalesce around an issue.

Overall, while ‘entrepreneur’ may be a key concept used to explain the timing and degree of policy innovations, we need to be clear about how we use the term. Who are the entrepreneurs? What is their role? What skills do they posses? Do entrepreneurs sell ideas or services? Do they benefit from policy outcomes that favour their beliefs, or material outcomes? Is an entrepreneur a domestic actor joining streams from within, or an external actor applying pressure (or both)?

Posted for comparison with ‘knowledge broker’ – EBPM and ‘knowledge brokers’

Some of these theories about entrepreneurs are discussed in the 1000 Words and 500 Words series on policy theories.

See also: Practical Lessons from Policy Theories

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Can you want evidence based policymaking if you don’t really know what it is?

This is an old post with a new title. It occurred to me that the phrase ‘evidence based policy making’ has a ‘bewitching’ effect. It seems impossible not to want it when you see the words in it. Yet, the problem is that not only do we not really know what it means, but we also do not know what each word means. I try to define them below, but these definitions don’t take us very far. ‘Evidence’ is assertion backed by information. ‘Based’ seems like a metaphor. ‘Policy’ is one of the worst-defined words in politics (up there with power and democracy). Policymaking implies there is a policymaker, but we don’t always know who it is.

This seems like just a semantic discussion, but I think that there is a lot of confusion in the EBPM literature simply because people begin by complaining that we don’t have it without really saying what we don’t have. A focus on things like ‘evidence informed’ doesn’t make things much better, because it is difficult to point to a policy and show how we would know if it related to the evidence, and to give it a mark out of ten. I think what people are often describing is the extent to which they feel that policymakers listen to what they have to say, and act on that basis. In some cases, people are quick to say that a policy is ‘not evidence based’ if policymakers only listen to some of what they have to say and/ or only adopt some of their recommendations (so it is less of a mark out of ten and more of a 0 or 1 code). For me, this is the most they could reasonably hope for – policy made with some regard to a wide range of the available evidence. It is less catchy, but it gives more equal status to the policymaking part of EBPM, in comparison with many accounts of EBPM which suggest that the policy process mangles *the* evidence; that we should judge the process’ merit according to how much the process dilutes scientific evidence.

I was re-reading this sentence …

“The term ‘evidence based policy making’ (EBPM) is in common currency in media and social media. Generally, it is a vague, aspirational term, rather than a good description of the policy process”

… and, before I knew it, I felt the need to define a whole bunch of other things in an end-note. Instead of biting my nails about these definitions, I am going to reproduce them here, and decide only to worry if anyone takes the time to object:

“Unfortunately, it is not the only term to be defined vaguely:

  • Policy. There is no single accepted definition of policy. 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 with 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 (Cairney, 2012a: 24-5.
  • It is also important to identify the 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).
  • Policymakers. The intuitive definition is ‘people who make policy’, but there are two important distinctions: (1) between elected and unelected people, since actors 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 with reference to a decision-making rule (an ‘institution’). These distinctions are crucial, to remind us that advocates would miss something important if they focused their energies only on elected politicians. They also produce a conceptual problem by blurring the dividing line between the people who make and influence In most respects, this is appropriate, since terms such as ‘policy community’ suggest that policy decisions are made, in some sense, by a collection of people with formal responsibility and informal influence. We just need to be careful to make clear what we mean by ‘policymakers’ in specific discussions.
  • Evidence and scientific evidence. We can define evidence as an argument or assertion backed by information. Scientific evidence therefore describes information produced in a particular way. Some (including me) use ‘scientific’ broadly, to refer to information gathered systematically using recognised methods. Others refer to a specific hierarchy of scientific methods, with randomized control trials (RCTs) and quantitative systematic review/ meta-analysis at the top (see Nutley et al, 2013).
  • Also note the difference between two kinds of evidence-based activity relating to: the size of the problem (for example, the number of smokers and the link between smoking and ill health); and, the effectiveness of the solution (for example, the effect of higher taxes and health warnings on consumption).”

The endnote will appear in The Science of Policymaking

See also Defining policy shows how messed up it seems (as part of the 1000 words series)

‘The strange new world of evidence-free government’ by Zoe Williams

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How to teach public policy to non-specialists

Write a textbook or find one already written. This isn’t just a self-promoting statement. I partly wrote a textbook because I couldn’t find a way to teach public policy theories without one. Consider your other choices:

  1. A course guide/ syllabus with representative books and articles per topic per class. In most cases, there are no representative texts that will do the job. In the main, scholars write for other scholars. They publish articles with a very specific aim. They don’t have the space to set things out in an accessible way. They don’t say how their work relates to the work of everyone else. So, when you try to recommend a small number of texts, you find that they are too specialist and they provide minimal context. In most chapters of textbooks, you will find an attempt by one scholar to combine all of this mess into one coherent account of a significant part of the literature.
  2. A book that brings together the state of the art in an edited volume. In cases like the excellent Theories of the Policy Process (or other, as good, ‘handbooks’ on policy concepts), often the main authors (or the nearest best thing) try to sum up their work. However, they are still speaking to other scholars. Indeed, in the TOPP series, they now update their progress since the last edition – which is great for me, and other academics, but not great for students with no prior knowledge of the field.
  3. The key book. In some cases, you can point to the book/ article that set the field on fire. A good example is Agendas and Instability by Baumgartner and Jones. I recommend this book highly, and often argue that it remains the best thing they have written (all things considered). However, it is also over 20 years old (or, over 5 years old if you get the 2nd edition with the added chapter at the end) and it does not include much reference to the quantitative and comparative work that they have done since.

So, you need something that students can get into before they get into the harder-to-reach literature; to stop them giving up when they find some initial, not-very-accessible, articles inaccessible; and to encourage them to read further. Even then, policy theory is a tough sell, which partly explains why I am forever seeking ways (such as 1000 words posts, but see also ICPP ‘Policy Approaches’) to make the initial explanation shorter and more straightforward.

This is not a process of dumbing down. Instead, it’s good teaching. It’s an attempt to see the topic through the eyes of someone who has (as yet) done little reading on it, does not have enough knowledge of the wider literature to understand it, and is looking to build on something they understand.

In more general terms, it’s good communication. The same process, to turn something specialist into something readable to non-specialists, is useful when we engage with other audiences:

All of these things require a level of simplicity and clarity that we don’t always find in the specialist journals, no matter how many we read.

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Policy concepts in a tweet

#policyconceptsinatweet

I have been trying to summarise complex policy concepts in 1000 words, to make the study of public policy more accessible to students and people with a general interest. The aim is to condense hundreds of thousands of words into one short description, as a way to get people interested. Of course, you have to grab people’s attention in a tweet first, so I wondered if I could sum up each concept in well under 140 characters. See if you can tell what the topic is before you click. If not, can you think of a better short description?

  1. Policy concepts in a tweet: public policy is about much more than ‘whatever governments choose to do or not do’ http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-gG
  2. Policy concepts in a tweet: How can we measure policy change if we don’t know what policy is? Like this … http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ji
  3. Policy concepts in a tweet: describing policymaking as cycles & stages to show how the policy process does *not* work http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-cB
  4. Policy concepts in a tweet: there is no apolitical way to measure the success and failure of policies http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ga
  5. Policy concepts in a tweet: policymakers have to take shortcuts to make quick decisions with limited information http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-cx
  6. Policy concepts in a tweet: ‘Evidence Based Policy Making’ (EBPM) doesn’t happen, and maybe it shouldn’t http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-dR
  7. Policy concepts in a tweet: policymakers are driven by rules, both formal (e.g. constitutional) and informal (norms) http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-k1
  8. Policy concepts in a tweet: when people don’t cooperate well on their own, can the state intervene and do better? http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-kT
  9. Policy concepts in a tweet: most policy is made by junior civil servants working with bodies such as interest groups http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-jG
  10. Policy concepts in a tweet: long periods of stability & continuity disrupted by short bursts of instability & change http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ak
  11. Policy concepts in a tweet: forming meaningful coalitions with like-minded people to translate beliefs into policies http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-an
  12. Policy Concepts in a tweet: policy won’t change without high attention, feasible solution & the motive to adopt it http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-au
  13. Policy Concepts in a tweet: the ‘policy environment’ constrains some policy solutions and facilitates others http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ay
  14. Policy Concepts in a tweet: policy seems to ’emerge’ in the absence of government control. Here’s why it happens … http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-aC
  15. Policy Concepts in a tweet: socioeconomic factors may seem impossible to ignore & can be beyond policymakers’ control http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-jM
  16. Policy Concepts in a tweet: is it more effective to distract people, or influence how they think, than win disputes? http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-aP
  17. Policy Concepts a tweet: power is shared across many levels & types of government and with non-governmental bodies http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-bT
  18. Policy Concepts in a tweet: governments import policies from elsewhere without learning why they were successful http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-cK
  19. Policy Concepts in a tweet: ideally we’d want to combine the insights of many policy theories, but we don’t know how http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-aF
  20. Policy Concepts in a tweet: policy comes from the decisions of emotional policymakers with flawed thought processes http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-kF

https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD

(podcast download)

‘Rational choice theory’ is easy to caricature and dismiss, but difficult to define and describe, because it refers to a very broad and diverse body of work. So, we can identify some broad features but recognise that some studies display them more than others:

  • Inspiration – the application of ideas and methods from economics to politics.
  • Approach – models and deductive reasoning. It creates models of the world based on a small number of propositions and a logical examination of their connections.
  • Assumptions – ‘instrumental rationality’. Individuals fulfil their preferences according to their beliefs regarding the most appropriate means to achieve them. This is an ‘intentional’ explanation of behaviour based on the goals of individuals rather than motivation by ‘habit, tradition, or social appropriateness’*
  • Aim – to establish how many, or what proportion of, political outcomes one can explain with reference to the choices of individuals under particular conditions.

We can also identify two main types. The first is the abstract work which often involves building models or creating discussions based on openly unrealistic assumptions – for example, people have perfect information and judgement; they can act ‘optimally’ when faced with any situation.

box 7.2 assumptions

‘Optimally’ is potentially misleading, since it refers to an ability to fulfil their individual preferences, by ranking them in order and being able to fulfil them. It does not necessarily refer to an optimal overall outcome, because things get complicated when many individuals, each seeking to fulfil their preferences, interact. We should also note that ‘rational’ refers to the ability to reason and act on reason (crucially, we do not have to assume that rational beings are selfish beings).

The second type involves more detailed and/ or realistic assumptions regarding the preferences of individuals and how they relate to specific institutional settings. In this case, the aim is to help explain outcomes.

The first type of work is a logical exercise, to help think through problems and often produce ‘paradoxical results’. Famous examples include:

  • the paradox of non-voting, in which we wonder why people vote when their individual vote makes a minimal difference.
  • the ‘free rider’ problem, in which we wonder why people would engage in collective group activity if they can benefit without engaging.
  • the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, in which we demonstrate that two people making choices to satisfy their individual first preferences are worse off than if they cooperate to secure their second best preferences.
  • the ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which we demonstrate the potentially catastrophic, cumulative effect of individual choices regarding scarce ‘common pool resources’ such as fertile land, unpolluted water, clean air, and fishing stocks.

The identification of such ‘collective action problems’ prompts us to consider the role of government and public policy in solving them. For example, we may identify ‘public goods’ to justify the role of the state as a supplement to, or replacement for, the market. Public goods are ‘non-excludable’ (no-one can be excluded from enjoying their benefits) and ‘non-rival’ (their use by one person does not diminish their value to another). Common examples, based on the argument that the state must intervene when the market would fail, regard national defence (the government should tax its citizens and businesses and provide national security) and clean air (the government should use a range of policy instruments to discourage pollution or encourage non-pollution).

In turn, the role of the state, or its institutions, can be analysed in the same rational choicey way, perhaps divided into three types of question:

  1. To what extent should the state replace the market? Since state action generally involves a degree of coercion (including taxation and regulation), it is important to consider how appropriate each intervention is, and how it might compare to solutions based on trust within particular groups, non-state incentives, or private mechanisms to ensure cooperation.
  2. Will state action improve collective outcomes? There is large body of ‘social choice theory’ which exists to demonstrate that the state cannot produce any rule that would make all of its citizens better off. Rather, it must consider how possible and appropriate it is to produce winners and losers, and if the winners can compensate others for their losses.
  3. What are the unintended consequences to government action? There is also a literature arguing that the state can make things worse: public servants acting in their own, not the public’s interest; interest groups and businesses encouraged to waste a lot of resources securing government privileges; and, governments manipulating economic cycles to influence their election chances.

Indeed, rational choice presents us with a way in which to justify a role for government, or to argue for a minimal role for the state, in favour of the market.

The work of Elinor Ostrom and colleagues presents a third option. Ostrom’s work demonstrates the potential for non-market solutions to collective action problems based on a combination of trust and less impositional means (than government institutions), to minimize the costs of monitoring and enforcing collective agreements. This approach involves individuals seeking agreements with each other that could be enshrined in a set of meaningful rules (which is what we now think of as an institution). The rules may be enforced by a private rather than state authority – the ‘commons’ would remain common and actors would observe each other’s behaviour and report rule-breaking to the third party that everyone pays for and agrees to respect. For Ostrom, the theoretical aim was to identify the conditions that have to be met for some groups to organize themselves to solve a collective action problem without state coercion, while the empirical aim was to identify concrete examples of this process. This approach has proved to be influential, winning Ostrom the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009 and demonstrating the direct policy relevance of institutional rational choice analysis (see the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework, IAD).

Please note: this discussion is based largely on the 1st edition of Understanding Public Policy. The second edition devotes most of chapter 7 to

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons (download)

*here is how that section appears in the 1st edition (without the Harvard referencing removed).

p133 UPP rational

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

(podcast download)

Psychology is at the heart of policymaking, but the literature on psychology is not always at the heart of policy theory. Most theories identify ‘bounded rationality’ which, on its own, is little more than a truism: people do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, all possibilities, all solutions, or anticipate all consequences of their actions. Consequently, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics – perhaps to produce ‘good-enough’ decisions. This is where psychology comes in, to:

  1. Describe the thought processes that people use to turn a complex world into something simple enough to understand and/ or respond to; and
  2. To compare types of thought process, such as (a) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour and (b) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly.

Where does policy theory come in? It seeks to situate these processes within a wider examination of policymaking systems and their environments, identifying the role of:

  • A wide range of actors making choices.
  • Institutions, as the rules, norms, and practices that influence behaviour.
  • Policy networks, as the relationships between policymakers and the ‘pressure participants’ with which they consult and negotiate.
  • Ideas – a broad term to describe beliefs, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems.
  • Context and events, to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s environment is in her control or how it influences her decisions.

Putting these approaches together is not easy. It presents us with an important choice regarding how to treat the role of psychology within explanations of complex policymaking systems – or, at least, on which aspect to focus.

Our first choice is to focus specifically on micro-level psychological processes, to produce hypotheses to test propositions regarding individual thought and action. There are many from which to choose, although from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (p 20), we can identify a basic distinction between two kinds ‘System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations … often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration’. Further, system 1 can be related to a series of cognitive shortcuts which develop over time as people learn from experience, including:

  • the ‘availability heuristic’, when people relate the size, frequency or probability of a problem to how easy it is to remember or imagine
  • the ‘representativeness heuristic’, when people overestimate the probability of vivid events
  • ‘prospect theory’, when people value losses more than equivalent gains
  • ‘framing effects’, based on emotional and moral judgements
  • confirmation bias
  • optimism bias, or unrealistic expectations about our aims working out well when we commit to them
  • status quo bias
  • a tendency to use exemplars of social groups to represent general experience; and
  • a ‘need for coherence’ and to establish patterns and causal relationships when they may not exist (see Paul Lewis, p 7).

The ‘availability heuristic’ may also be linked to more recent studies of ‘processing fluency’ – which suggests that people’s decisions are influenced by their familiarity with things; with the ease in which they process information (see Alter and Oppenheimer, 2009). Fluency can take several forms, including conceptual, perceptual, and linguistic. For example, people may pay more attention to an issue or statement if they already possess some knowledge of it and find it easy to understand or recall. They may pay attention to people when their faces seem familiar and find fewer faults with systems they comprehend. They may place more value on things they find familiar, such as their domestic currency, items that they own compared to items they would have to buy, or the stocks of companies with more pronounceable names – even if they are otherwise identical. Or, their ability to imagine things in an abstract or concrete form may relate to their psychological ‘distance’ from it.

Our second choice is to treat these propositions as assumptions, allowing us to build larger (‘meso’ or ‘macro’ level) models that produce other hypotheses. We ask what would happen if these assumptions were true, to allow us to theorise a social system containing huge numbers of people, and/ or focus on the influence of the system or environment in which people make decisions.

These choices are made in different ways in the policy theory literature:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework has tested the idea of ‘devil shift’ (coalitions romanticize their own cause and demonise their opponents, misperceiving their power, beliefs and/ or motives) but also makes assumptions about belief systems and prospect theory to build models and test other assumptions.
  • Multiple Streams Analysis and Punctuated Equilibrium Theory focus on uncertainty and ambiguity, exploring the potential for policymaker attention to lurch dramatically from one problem or ‘image’ (the way the problem is viewed or understood). They identify the framing strategies of actors such as ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘venue shoppers’ and ‘monopolists’.
  • Social Construction Theory argues that policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution.
  • The Narrative Policy Framework combines a discussion of emotion with the identification of ‘homo narrans’ (humans as storytellers – in stated contrast to ‘homo economicus’, or humans as rational beings). Narratives are used strategically to reinforce or oppose policy measures. Each narrative has a setting, characters, plot and moral. They can be compared to marketing, as persuasion based more on appealing to an audience’s beliefs (or exploiting their thought processes) than the evidence. People will pay attention to certain narratives because they are boundedly rational, seeking shortcuts to gather sufficient information – and prone to accept simple stories that seem plausible, confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/ or come from a source they trust.

These issues are discussed at more length in this paper: PSA 2014 Cairney Psychology Policymaking 7.4.14

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism

box 5.1 2nd ed UPP

(podcast download)

The study of public policy would be incomplete without an understanding of policymaking institutions. The study of political science would also be incomplete without turning our understanding of terms such as ‘institutions’ upside down. ‘Institution’ may in the past have referred to organizations such as legislatures, courts and executives. With ‘new institutionalism’, it refers to two factors: regular patterns of behaviour; and the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence such behaviour.

These rules can be formal, or enshrined in a constitution, legislation or regulations:

  • The constitutional nature of political systems – such as confederal or federal; federal or unitary; presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential; unicameral or bicameral; containing constitutional courts; or holding procedures for regular referendums.
  • Their operating procedures – including electoral systems, party systems, rules of government formation and executive–legislative relations, the role of public bureaucracies, and the extent to which group-government relations are ‘institutionalised’ (such as in formal corporatist arrangements).
  • Their regulatory frameworks – including the rules governing the operation of economic organizations, interest groups, and public organizations, and the rules governing the provision of public services.

Rules can also be informal, and are described variously as habits, norms, practices or rules that develop without a grand plan. As such, they are often unwritten and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation.

In practice, we may identify a mix of formality and informality – the combination of written regulations and unwritten understandings of how organisations are expected to operate. This helps explain why political systems often operate rather similarly in practice despite having different constitutional arrangements. For example, the commonly perceived logic or benefit of subsystem/ policy community arrangements helps explain why they are central to most systems.

So far, so good. The problems begin when we try to move from this rather intuitive and broad discussion, to produce concrete studies and detailed approaches. There are three main problems to look out for:

1. We may not know what an institution is. Instead, we often use the ‘I know it when I see it’ approach. For example, the Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions dedicates at least one chapter to: the state, civil society, economic institutions, constitutions, federal and territorial institutions, executives, legislatures, courts, bicameral structures, public bureaucracies, the welfare state, regulations, local government, political parties, electoral systems, direct democracy, international and non-governmental institutions. This is a wide range of activity, brought together largely because definition of institution is vague.

2. We may not agree what new institutionalism is. Instead, Lowndes identifies many variants, including normative, rational choice, historical, empirical, international, sociological, network, constructivist and feminist institutionalism. This suggests that ‘institutionalism’ represents a loose collection of approaches rather than a coherent theory.

3. We may not agree what institutions do. Most discussions tread a fine line between saying that rules influence or determine the behaviour of individuals but there is no common agreement on how to balance the two. It presents us with a classic structure/ agency problem. On the one hand, an institution can be treated effectively as a structure because many rules often endure in the same basic form regardless of the individuals involved. On the other, these rules may only endure because they are passed on, as part of a process of training or socialisation. If so, a rule becomes akin to a language: it only survives if there are enough individuals committed to its survival. It is not inevitable that institutions endure over time, and we may question the extent to which institutions represent shared meanings and practices. Instead, they may be reproduced in different ways by individuals who understand those rules, and act, differently. This makes the identification of institutions very tricky indeed, particularly if rules exist largely in the minds of actors, they are reproduced in implicit or unwritten ways, and implicit rules contradict the rules that are written down.

The first edition of  Understanding Public Policy only outlined four main approaches:

  1. Historical. Historical contingency refers to the extent to which events and decisions made in the past contributed to the formation of institutions that influence current practices. Path dependence suggests that when a commitment to an institution has been established and resources devoted to it, it becomes increasingly costly to choose a different path. Therefore, institutions, and the practices they encourage, may remain stable for long periods of time. A ‘critical juncture’ is the point at which certain events and decisions were made which led to the development of an institution. The timing of these decisions is crucial, because it may be the order of events that sets institutional development on a particular path (note the term ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ which also appears in complexity theory).
  2. Rational Choice. One aim of rational choice theory is to establish what proportion of political outcomes one can explain with reference to the choices of individuals pursuing their preferences under particular conditions. Institutions represent those conditions, providing incentives to act or punishments to deter action. Institutions represent sets of rules that influence choices, often producing regular patterns of behaviour. This regularity can be expressed in terms of equilibrium when we identify a stable point at which there is no incentive to divert from these patterns of behaviour.
  3. Normative and Sociological. Norms and values within organisations influence behaviour. They matter when members understand and are expected to follow rules. March and Olson describe the ‘rules of appropriateness’ which are ‘transmitted through socialization’ and ‘followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected and legitimate’.
  4. Constructivist. Institutions represent shared beliefs which give people a common aim and a reason to believe that they have shared interests. In some cases, ideas or beliefs become institutionalized; they are often taken for granted and rarely questioned. In other cases, they are subject to often-radical change, as beliefs are challenged or the understanding of rules change as they are communicated or debated.
  5. The second edition now includes feminist institutionalism, which now has its own 500 words post.

One task, with these accounts, is to consider if their insights are complementary or contradictory. They are not mutually exclusive, and ideational accounts may provide important qualifications to the idea that institutions represent relatively-fixed structures. However, note the level of debate on these points, and consider our ability to reconcile these approaches.

Another task is to consider institutions as part of a wider explanation. For example, Social Construction and Policy Design links this discussion to power and agenda setting. Compare with Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, which is one of the few to define institutions primarily as organisations or venues rather than their rules.

See also the more up-to-date:

Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

 

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors

(podcast download)

We need a way to describe the things that policymakers take into account when they make decisions. We also need a way to categorise these things in order of importance, from factors that simply catch their eye, to factors that seem to be out of their control and/ or force them into making particular choices.

For example, ‘policy context’ or ‘structural factors’ may be used to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s ‘environment’ is in her control. It can refer to the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass social attitudes and behaviour.

box 6.1 structural

Or, we might refer to‘events’, which can be: routine, such as the elections, or unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, major scientific breakthroughs and technological change (see Weible).

Or, we might refer to policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs (Rose, 1990). The first thing that a new government does is accept responsibility for the decisions made in its name in the past. New policymakers also realise that they are engaging in governing organisations which often have well-established rules, to which they either have to adapt or expend energy to challenge.

Structure and agency

Our challenge is to find a way to incorporate these factors into a convincing account of policymaking. The policy sciences face the same problem as the social sciences: how to conceptualise the relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. Or, how much do policymakers shape, and how much of their behaviour is shaped by, their policy environment?

The term ‘structure’ refers vaguely to a set of parts put together to form a whole. In social science, we attribute two key properties to structures: they are relatively fixed and difficult but not impossible to break down; and, they influence the decisions that actors (‘agents’) make. For example, it is common to describe the structure of the economy, rules within institutions, government, and even some ideas.

From this starting point, we can identify agency-heavy and structural-heavy explanations. For the latter, one common solution is to focus on how actors interpret and respond to context and events. If so, we might consider if an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to it.

This approach may contrast with socioeconomic-driven accounts which suggest that demographic, economic and other factors determine: which issues reach the policymaking agenda; which solutions seem feasible; the actors that policymakers try most to please; and, the likely success of any action.

For example, some studies from the 1960s examined the extent to which variations in policies across US states were explained by the socio-economic composition of each state. Similarly, Hofferbert’s (1974) ‘funnel of causality’ gives the impression that historic-geographic conditions contribute to the socio-economic composition of a region, which contributes to mass political behavior which determines the fortunes of parties – and all three combine with government institutions to influence elite behaviour.

Perhaps the most recent exposition of a structure-heavy account is summed up in the phrase ‘globalisation’ which describes the diminished ability of governments to control their own economic and monetary policies. Governments appear to be forced to ‘race to the bottom’; to compete economically, react to widespread shifts and crises in international financial conditions and change to attract business from multi-national corporations (often by reducing corporation taxes and labour regulations).

Structural versus comprehensive rationality based explanations?

This discussion prompts us to consider a different perspective to comprehensively rational decision making, or the idea that the policy process begins with the decision by a policymaker to identify a problem to solve. Instead, we may envisage a world in which policies are already in place and the ability of policymakers to replace them are limited. This decision-making process takes place within the context of existing government policy and a huge infrastructure devoted to carrying it out. Further, policymakers often define problems after events have taken place; those events may be out of the control of policymakers and often appear to give them very little choice about how, if it is possible, to solve them.

One way to describe this process is to suggest that policymakers represent one small part of a large complex system. Complexity theory suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a political system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down into the actions of its constituent parts. This idea of a system captures the difficulty of policymaking and serves as a corrective to accounts that focus too much on the importance of individual policymakers and which exaggerate their ability to single-handedly change policy.

A structure-agency mix

Of course, we do not want to go too far; to suggest that people don’t matter. So, a sensible approach is to think in terms of a structure–agency mix:

  • An ageing population may give governments little choice but to plan for the consequences, but they can do so in a variety of ways.
  • Technology-driven healthcare is not irresistible, particularly if expenditure is limited and cost-effective public health policies are available.
  • Coastal conditions may force us to build protective barriers, but policymakers have shown that they can ignore the issue for some time, until the environmental conditions cause a human crisis.
  • The appearance of globalisation, crises and economically-driven policies may be convenient for policymakers attempting to introduce unpopular policies or avoid responsibility for poor results. Yet, the ‘race to the bottom’ has also been resisted by many governments, often with reference to competing structural factors such as historical legacies and national values.

A final sensible solution is to not worry too much about what we call the solution. In my day, there was a lot of humming and hawing about Gidden’s ‘two sides of the same coin’ description of actors and structures, but I don’t remember anything being resolved.

See also: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Networks, sub-government and communities

(podcast download)

‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process. The concept also travels well and, for example, there is a common focus in many countries, such as the US and UK, on ‘sub-government’. Yet, as box 9.1 suggests, there has been a proliferation of terms to describe the nature of relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the pressure participants* who seek to influence them.

box 9.1

We should also remember that some descriptions may relate to specific places and/ or eras and often have different target audiences.

Let’s explore this potentially-confusing combination of ‘universal’ and specific meanings by beginning with the ‘logic’ of policy communities:

  • 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.

Broadly speaking, this logic is likely to hold in many countries and eras (including the current ‘age of austerity’), but this level of abstraction also masks important variations over time and in different countries. For example, my bullet-point description derives largely from studies of the UK from the late 1970s. Their main targets were studies of Westminster politics, ‘centring on an adversarial parliamentary arena where successive changes of government would lead to major changes in policy imposed from the top down’ (Jordan and Cairney, 2013: 236). Instead, policy communities are pervasive and most decisions are beyond the reach, or attention, of ministers.

Over time, and as networks research was at its peak in the 1980s and 90s, those targets shifted and the meaning of community changed:

Jordan Cairney 2013 meaning of policy community

As you can see from this excerpt (p238), my colleague Grant Jordan was not happy with the redefinition of ‘policy community’ over the years, but it helped accentuate a key point regarding the logic described above: it could produce a small and exclusive club mentality, as civil servants rely on a select number of groups and together they exclude most other actors, or a much messier, open, and/ or unpredictable process in which many actors could gain entry.

The latter is generally called an ‘issue network’ and associated with Heclo’s (1978) famous desire to conceptualise the changing world of US politics, as the simple ‘clubby days of Washington politics’ (and ‘cozy’ or ‘iron triangles’) was replaced by ‘complex relationships’ among a huge, politically active population. Issues which were once ‘quietly managed by a small group of insiders’ have now become ‘controversial and politicized’.

This is the main focus of several of the policy theories described in the 1000 words series, including:

  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – it seeks to measure and explain long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. A key focus is on the maintenance or breakdown on subsystem-level ‘policy monopolies’.
  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework – its focus is on actors with similar beliefs forming coalitions which compete with other coalitions in subsystems. It focuses on relatively open subsystems with a wide range of actors.
  • Multi-level Governance – it draws on the policy communities/ networks literature to track the diffusion of power, from the ‘centre’ to a wide range of organisations, and how it is shared between the actors formally responsible for policymaking and the actors seeking to inform and influence their decisions.

*Grant Jordan and colleagues prefer ‘pressure participant’ because they worry about ‘pressure group’ or ‘interest group’ being used as default terms whenever we are not quite sure how to describe lobbying activity. They argue that ‘pressure group’ can be misleading in two main ways. First, it conjures up a particular image of a group which may not be accurate. We may think of subscription-based unions or large membership groups like Greenpeace, even though many groups (and ‘think tanks’) are funded by single patrons. Second, the organisations most likely to lobby governments are not pressure groups. Instead, they are businesses, public sector organisations such as universities and other types of government.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy change and measurement

narratives

(podcast download)

The first thing we learn when we study public policy is that no-one is quite sure how to define it. Instead, introductory texts focus on our inability to provide something definitive. That is OK if we want to pretend to be relaxed about life’s complexities, but not if we want to measure policy change in a reasonably precise way. How can we measure change in something if we don’t know what it is?

A partial solution is to identify and measure types of public policy. For example we might treat policy as the collection of a large number of policy instruments or decisions, including:

  1. Public expenditure. This includes deciding how to tax, how much money to raise, on which policy areas (crime, health, education) to spend and the balance between current (e.g. the wages of doctors) and capital (building a new hospital) spending.
  2. Economic penalties, such as taxation on the sale of certain products, or charges to use services.
  3. Economic incentives, such as subsidies to farmers or tax expenditure on certain spending (giving to charity, buying services such as health insurance).
  4. Linking government-controlled benefits to behaviour (e.g. seeking work to qualify for unemployment benefits) or a means test.
  5. The use of formal regulations or legislation to control behaviour.
  6. Voluntary regulations, such as agreements between governments and other actors such as unions and business.
  7. Linking the provision of public services to behaviour (e.g. restricting the ability of smokers to foster children).
  8. Legal penalties, such as when the courts approve restrictions on, or economic sanctions against, organizations.
  9. Public education and advertising to highlight the risks to certain behaviours.
  10. Providing services and resources to help change behaviour.
  11. Providing resources to tackle illegal behaviour.
  12. Funding organizations to influence public, media and government attitudes.
  13. Funding scientific research or advisory committee work.
  14. Organizational change, such as the establishment of a new unit within a government department or a reform of local government structures.
  15. Providing services directly or via non-governmental organizations.
  16. Providing a single service or setting up quasi-markets.

I say ‘partial solution’ because this approach throws up a major practical problem: we do not have the ability to track and characterise all of these instruments in a satisfactory or holistic way. Rather, we have to make choices about what information to use (and, by extension, what to ignore) to build up a partial, biased, picture of what is going on. Here are some of the practical problems we face:

Depth versus breadth. Should I focus on one policy instrument or all of them (or some combination)? Should I focus on a single key event or a picture of change over decades? Should I focus on the outputs of one policymaking organization or them all, or try to track the outcomes of the system as a whole? In each case there is a major trade-off: if we ‘zoom in’ we might miss broad or long term trends; if we ‘zoom out’ we might miss important details.

Our empirical and normative expectations. When we identify policy change we link it, explicitly or implicitly, to a yardstick based on how much we expect it to change (based on, for example, the abilities of people to initiate and block change) and how much we think policy should change under the circumstances, given the size of problem or the level of public attention. Our normative expectations are difficult to separate from the empirical. Think of cases such as air pollution, environmental policy, tobacco, alcohol and drugs control, violent crime, poverty, and inequality. In each case, we have expectations about what should happen based on how important we believe the problem to be – and may often identify minor or moderate change, based on that perception, rather than compared with (say) change in other areas.

Differing perspectives. Policy change looks very different from the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’. For example, a focus on policy choices by central governments may exaggerate change compared to long term outcomes at the ‘street level’. Indeed, it is tempting to focus on rapid, exciting changes at the top, without thinking through their long term consequences. Or, we may find reformers at the top, frustrated with a lack of progress, compared with local actors frustrated with the effects of the rapid pace of change on their organisations.

Motivation. In each case, we have to think about why a policy decision was made: what problem was it designed to solve? For example, a tax or economic sanction can be used to influence behaviour or simply to raise revenue (think, for example, of ‘sin’ taxes). Policymakers can introduce measures to satisfy a particular interest or constituency, ensure a boost to their popularity or fulfil a long-term commitment based on fundamental beliefs. The distinction is crucial if the long term political weight behind a measure determines its success.

Statistical comparisons. When we consider the use of economic measures, we need an appropriate context in which to consider its significance. We may describe spending on an issue as a proportion of GDP, a proportion of the government budget, a proportion of the policy area’s budget, and in terms of change from last year or over many years. In some cases the amount of money spent or raised by government could be compared with that spent by industry, such as when a health education budget is dwarfed by tobacco/ alcohol advertising, or a huge company receives a small fine for environmental or competition law breaches.

Contradictions. Policy as a whole may seem inconsistent, either within a single field (e.g. some governments control tobacco use but also subsidise leaf growing and encourage trade) or across government (e.g. school expulsion policies may exacerbate youth crime).

Given these problems of inevitable bias, I suggest (at the end of this post, and on p30 of the book) that we consider the extent to which our findings can be interpreted in different, and equally plausible, ways.

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Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

When you do a PhD in policymaking, it is likely that you have to engage significantly with the literature on policy theory. This often prompts bursts of enthusiasm, when some theories seem to be spot on, and periods of frustration, when theories seem to be deficient in some way. For example, they might only explain one part of the ‘policy process’ when you want to explain it all, or they are difficult to operationalise and apply to specific cases. This may be a particular problem for PhDs focused primarily on a substantive case study. You will find that the case study is too complicated to be explained fully by a relatively simple theory designed to be applied across a range of cases. You may then think about what to do, focusing on two main possibilities:

First, should I propose my own theory, which takes insights from other theories but puts them together in a new way, perhaps with a new terminology? My advice is: no (or not unless you are convinced that you are a genius, destined to become the new Sabatier, Kingdon, Ostrom, Schneider, Ingram, Baumgartner or Jones). Don’t confuse a better explanation for your case with a better overall explanation. Your theory is not backed up in the same way by multiple applications and long term refinement.

Second, should I use the insights from a range of established policy theories to inform my case study? My advice is: yes, but be careful. Read this Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories. Then, consider what you are trying to do. In most cases, your aim is to account for a significant part of the policy process. Tanya Heikkila and I describe what that might entail. In Theories of the Policy Process 3rd ed.  we identify (with a lot of input from Chris Weible) what we think are the main elements of the policy process that a theory or case should cover:

  1. “Actors making choices.  We need to simplify a policymaking world which may include thousands of people, into a set of categories and/ or discussion of the key actors involved. Actors can be individuals or collectives, and collectives can range from private companies to interest groups to governments bodies. We also need to account for the ways in which people act; their calculations and motivations. For example, most theories use ‘bounded rationality’ as a springboard for explanation, while others focus on motivations such as beliefs.
  2. Institutions. These are the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence individual and collective behaviour.  The choices of actors is explained to some extent by their understanding of, and adherence to, such rules. Those rules can be formal and widely understood, such as when enshrined in law or a constitution. Or, they can be informal and only understood in particular organisations. Policies can be considered a subset of the broad concept of institutions, but institutions at one level (e.g. constitutional rules) can also shape the policymaking activities or decisions at another level (e.g. legislation or regulation). Similarly, institutions can establish the types of venues where policy decisions are made and the rules that allow particular types of actors or information and ideas to enter into the policy process.
  3. Networks or subsystems. These are the relationships between actors responsible for policy decisions and the ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups with which they consult and negotiate.  Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policy making to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government or other collective choice processes. It is through these networks where collective action often emerges in policy processes.  Many theories describe a process in which groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government. Bureaucracies and other public bodies may have particular operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others.
  4. Ideas. This is a broad term to describe beliefs, or ways of thinking, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems. It can refer to two intertwined processes. First, shared ideas (knowledge, world views, language) appear to structure political activity when they are almost taken for granted or rarely questioned – for example, as core beliefs, paradigms and monopolies of understanding. Second, new ideas or ways of thinking can be used to prompt actors to rethink their beliefs to some extent – such as when a proposed new solution challenges the way that a problem is framed or understood, and therefore how much attention it receives and how it is solved. So, for example, we may identify relative stability when shared ideas are not questioned and instability when different groups with different beliefs interact.
  5. Policy Context. This is a broad category to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s environment is in her control. It can refer to the often-changing policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, biophysical and demographic profile; economy; and, mass attitudes and behaviour.  It can also refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, institutions and programs – when they enter office.
  6. Events. Events can be routine and anticipated, such as the elections which produce limited change or introduce new actors with different ideas about policy problems and solutions. Or, they can be unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. Their unpredictability makes them difficult to theorise, and they can often effectively be treated as ‘error’, or as external factors providing an additional source of explanation to a policy theory. Or, they can be incorporated within theories which focus on how actors interpret and respond to events. To some extent, an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to them”.

From there, we can consider how each theory accounts for the nature of these elements, and their interaction, to explain policy dynamics and outcomes. You can find summaries of many of these relevant theories here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/ and a copy of the 3rd and 4th edition chapters here: Cairney and Heikkila 2014, Heikkila and Cairney 2017.

For what it’s worth, when I co-authored the book Global Tobacco Control (with Studlar and Mamudu), we had chapters on the role of policy theory but structured the book according to those elements of the policy process, not specific theories. I’m not saying that you should take this simple approach. Rather, I am asking you to think about, and explain, why yours is better.

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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: Success and Failure (Evaluation)

(podcast download)

Policy success is in the eye of the beholder. The evaluation of success is political in several ways. It can be party political, when election campaigns focus on the record of the incumbent government. Policy decisions produce winners and losers, prompting disputes about success between actors with different aims. Evaluation can be political in subtler but as-important ways, involving scientific disputes about:

  • How long we wait to evaluate.
  • How well-resourced our evaluation should be.
  • The best way to measure and explain outcomes.
  • The ‘benchmarks’ to use – should we compare outcomes with the past or other countries?
  • How we can separate the effect of policy from other causes, in a complex world where randomised-controlled-trials are often difficult to use.

In this more technical-looking discussion, the trade-off is between the selection of a large mixture of measures that are hard to work with, or a small number of measures that are handpicked and represent no more than crude proxies for success.

Evaluation is political because we set the agenda with the measures we use, by prompting a focus on some aims at the expense of others. A classic example is the aim to reduce healthcare waiting times, which represent a small part of health service activity but generate disproportionate attention and action, partly because outcomes are relatively visible and easy to measure. Many policies are implemented and evaluated using such proxies: the government publishes targets to provide an expectation of implementer behaviour; and, regulatory bodies exist to monitor compliance.

Let’s consider success in terms of the aims of the person responsible for the policy. It raises four interesting issues:

  1. The aims of that policymaker may not be clear. For example, they may not say why they made particular choices, they may have many reasons, their reasons may not be specific enough to be meaningful, and/or they may not be entirely truthful.
  2. Policymaking is a group effort, which magnifies the problem of identifying a single, clear, aim.
  3. Aims are not necessarily noble. Marsh and McConnell describe three types. Process measures success in terms of its popularity among particular groups and its ease of passage through the legislature. Political describes its effect on the government’s popularity. Programmatic describes its implementation in terms of original aims, its effect in terms of intended outcomes, and the extent to which it represented an ‘efficient use of resources’. Elected policymakers may justify their actions in programmatic terms, but be more concerned with politics and process. Or, their aims may be unambitious. We could identify success in their terms but still feel that major problems remain unsolved.
  4. Responsibility is a slippery concept. In a Westminster system, we may hold ministers to be ultimately responsible but, in practice, responsibility is shared with a range of people in various types and levels of government. In multi-level political systems, responsibility may be shared with several elected bodies with their own mandates and claims to pursue distinctive aims.

Traditionally, these responsibility issues were played out in top-down and bottom-up discussions of policy implementation. For the sake of simplicity, the ‘top’ is the policymaker at the heart of central government and we try to explain success or failure according to the extent to which policy implementation met these criteria:

1.   The policy’s objectives are clear, consistent and well communicated and understood.

2.   The policy will work as intended when implemented.

3.   The required resources are committed to the programme.

4.   Policy is implemented by skilful and compliant officials.

5.   Success does not depend on cooperation from many bodies.

6.   Support from influential groups is maintained.

7.   Demographic and socioeconomic conditions, and unpredictable events beyond the control of policymakers, do not significantly undermine the process.

Such explanations for success still have some modern day traction, such as in recommendations by the Institute for Government:

  1. Understand the past and learn from failure.
  2. Open up the policy process.
  3. Be rigorous in analysis and use of evidence.
  4. Take time and build in scope for iteration and adaptation.
  5. Recognise the importance of individual leadership and strong personal relationships.
  6. Create new institutions to overcome policy inertia.
  7. Build a wider constituency of support.

Alternatively, ‘bottom-up’ studies prompted a shift of analysis, towards a larger number of organisations which made policy as they carried it out – and had legitimate reasons to diverge from the aims set at the ‘top’. Indeed, central governments might encourage a bottom up approach, by setting a broad strategy and accepting that other bodies will implement policy in their own way. However, this is difficult to do in Westminster systems, where government success is measured in terms of ministerial and party manifesto aims.

Examples of success and failure?

Many implementation studies focus on failure, including Pressman and Wildavsky’s ‘How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland’ and Marsh & Rhodes’ focus on the ‘implementation gap’ during the Thatcher Government era (1979-90).

In contrast, the IFG report focuses on examples of success, derived partly from a vote by UK political scientists, including: the national minimum wage, Scottish devolution, and privatisation.

Note the respondents’ reasons for declaring success, based on a mix of their personal values and their assessment of process, political and programmatic factors.  They declare success in very narrow terms, as the successful delivery in the short term.

So, privatisation is a success because the government succeeded in raising money, boosting its popularity and international reputation – not because we have established that the nationalized industries work better in the private sector.

Similarly, devolution was a declared a success because it solved a problem (local demand for self-autonomy), not because devolved governments are better at making policy or their policies have improved the lives of the Scottish population (Neil McGarvey and I discuss this here).

Individual policy instruments like the smoking ban are often treated in similar ways – we declare instant success when the bill passes and public compliance is high, then consider the longer term successes (less smoking, less secondhand smoke) later.

Further reading and watching: (1) Can a Policy Fail and Succeed at the Same Time?

(2)  http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/34735

Why should you read and watch this case study? I hesitate to describe UK tobacco control as a success because it instantly looks like I am moralising, and because it is based on a narrow set of policymaking criteria rather than an outcome in the population (it is up to you to decide if the UK’s policies are appropriate and its current level of smoking and health marks policy success). However, it represents a way to explore success in terms of several ‘causal factors’ (Peter John) that arise in each 1000 Words post: institutions, networks, socioeconomic conditions and ideas. Long term tobacco control ‘success’ happened because:

  • the department of health took the policy lead (replacing trade and treasury departments);
  • tobacco is ‘framed’ as a pressing public health problem, not an economic good;
  • public health groups are consulted at the expense of tobacco companies;
  • socioeconomic conditions (including the value of tobacco taxation, and public attitudes to tobacco control) are conducive to policy change;
  • and, the scientific evidence on the harmful effects of smoking and secondhand smoking are ‘set in stone’ within governments.

The ‘take home’ message here is that ‘success’ depends as much on a policy environment conducive to change as the efficacy of political instruments and leadership qualities of politicians.

Update September 2019

I have now written up this UK tobacco discussion in this book:

Paul Cairney (2019) ‘The transformation of UK tobacco control’ in (eds) Mallory Compton and Paul ‘t Hart Great Policy Successes: How Governments Get It Right in a Big Way at Least Some of the Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Preview PDF

Each chapter is accompanied by a case study, such as the one on UK tobacco by 

 

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