Category Archives: 500 words

Policy in 500 Words: The Policy Process

We talk a lot about ‘the policy process’ without really saying what it is. If you are new to policy studies, maybe you think that you’ll learn what it is eventually if you read enough material. This would be a mistake! Instead, when you seek a definition of the policy process, you’ll find two common responses.

  1. Many will seek to define policy or public policy instead of ‘the policy process’.
  2. Some will describe the policy process as a policy cycle with stages.

Both responses seem inadequate: one avoids giving an answer, and another gives the wrong answer!

However, we can combine elements of each approach to give you just enough of a sense of ‘the policy process’ to continue reading:

  1. The beauty of the ‘what is policy?’ question is that we don’t give you an answer. I give you a working definition to help raise further questions. Look at the questions we need to ask if we begin with the definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’.
  2. The beauty of the policy cycle approach is that it provides a simple way to imagine policy ‘dynamics’, or events and choices producing a sequence of other events and choices. Look at the stages to identify many different tasks within one ‘process’, and to get the sense that policymaking is continuous and often ‘its own cause’.

There are more complicated but better ways of describing policymaking dynamics

This picture is the ‘policy process’ equivalent of my definition of public policy. It captures the main elements of the policy process described (in different ways) by most policy theories. It is there to give you enough of an answer to help you ask the right questions.

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

In the middle is ‘policy choice’. At the heart of most policy theory is ‘bounded rationality’, which describes (a) the cognitive limits of people, and (b) how they overcome those limits to make decisions. They use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to action.

Surrounding choice is what we’ll call the ‘policy environment’, containing: policymakers in many levels and types of government, the ideas or beliefs they share, the rules they follow, the networks they form with influencers, and the ‘structural’ or socioeconomic context in which they operate.

This picture is only the beginning of analysis, raising further questions that will make more sense when you read further, including: should policymaker choice be at the centre of this picture? Why are there arrows (describing the order of choice) in the cycle but not in my picture?

Take home message for students: don’t describe ‘the policy process’ without giving the reader some sense of its meaning. Its definition overlaps with ‘policy’ considerably, but the ‘process’ emphasises modes and dynamics of policymaking, while ‘policy’ emphasises outputs. Then, think about how each policy model or theory tries, in different ways, to capture the key elements of the process. A cycle focuses on ‘stages’ but most theories in this series focus on ‘environments’.






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Policy concepts in 1000 or 500 words

Imagine that your audience is a group of scientists who have read everything and are only interested in something new. You need a new theory, method, study, or set of results to get their attention.

Let’s say that audience is a few hundred people, or half a dozen in each subfield. It would be nice to impress them, perhaps with some lovely jargon and in-jokes, but almost no-one else will know or care what you are talking about.

Imagine that your audience is a group of budding scientists, researchers, students, practitioners, or knowledge-aware citizens who are new to the field and only interested in what they can pick up and use (without devoting their life to each subfield). Novelty is no longer your friend. Instead, your best friends are communication, clarity, synthesis, and a constant reminder not to take your knowledge and frame of reference for granted.

Let’s say that audience is a few gazillion people. If you want to impress them, imagine that you are giving them one of the first – if not the first – ways of understanding your topic. Reduce the jargon. Explain your problem and why people should care about how you try to solve it. Clear and descriptive titles. No more in-jokes (just stick with the equivalent of ‘I went to the doctor because a strawberry was growing in my arse, and she gave me some cream for it’).

At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself lately. As things stand, my most-read post of all time is destined to be on the policy cycle, and most people read it because it’s the first entry on a google search. Most readers of that post may never read anything else I’ve written (over a million words, if I cheat a bit with the calculation). They won’t care that there are a dozen better ways to understand the policy process. I have one shot to make it interesting, to encourage people to read more. The same goes for the half-dozen other concepts (including multiple streams, punctuated equilibrium theory, the Advocacy Coalition Framework) which I explain to students first because I now do well in google search (go on, give it a try!).

I also say this because I didn’t anticipate this outcome when I wrote those posts. Now, a few years on, I’m worried that they are not very good. They were summaries of chapters from Understanding Public Policy, rather than first principles discussions, and lots of people have told me that UPP is a little bit complicated for the casual reader. So, when revising it, I hope to make it better, and by better I mean to appeal to a wider audience without dumping the insights. I have begun by trying to write 500-words posts as, I hope, improvements on the 1000-word versions. However, I am also open to advice on the originals. Which ones work, and which ones don’t? Where are the gaps in exposition? Where are the gaps in content?

This post is 500 words.

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Policy in 500 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis and Policy Entrepreneurs

NASA launch

In a previous post, I ask: if the policy cycle does not exist, what do we do? In this artificial policy cycle world, ‘comprehensively rational’ policymakers combine their values with evidence to define policy problems and their aims, ‘neutral’ bureaucracies produce many possible solutions consistent with those aims, and policymakers select the ‘best’ or most ‘evidence based’ solution, setting in motion a cycle of stages including legitimation, implementation, evaluation, and the choice to maintain or change policy.

In the real world, policymaking is not so simple, and three ‘stages’ seem messed up:

  • Defining problems. There is too much going on in the world, and too much information about problems. So, policymakers have to ignore most problems and most ways to understand them. They use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ short-cuts to help them pay attention to a manageable number of issues and address problems without fully understanding them. Problems get attention based on how they are ‘framed’: actors use evidence to reduce uncertainty, and persuasion to reduce ambiguity (they focus our minds on one way to understand a problem).
  • Producing solutions. When policymaker attention lurches to a problem, it’s too late to produce a new solution that is technically feasible (will it work as intended?) and politically feasible (is it acceptable to enough people in the ‘community’?). While attention lurches quickly, feasible solutions take time to develop.
  • Making choices. The willingness and ability of policymakers to select a solution is fleeting, based on their beliefs, perception of the ‘national mood’, and the feedback they receive from interest groups and political parties.

Don’t think of these things as linear ‘stages’. Instead, they are independent ‘streams’ which have to come together during a brief ‘window of opportunity’. All key factors – heightened attention to a problem (problem stream), an available and feasible solution (policy stream), and the motive to select it (politics stream) – must come together at the same time, or the opportunity is lost. If you think of the streams as water, the metaphor suggests that when they come together they are hard to separate.  Instead, a ‘window of opportunity’ is like a space launch in which policymakers will abort the mission unless every factor is just right.

So, what do we do in the absence of a policy cycle?

Policy entrepreneurs’ know how to respond. They use persuasion to frame problems, help develop feasible solutions, wait for the right time to present them, and know how to adapt to their environment to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’.

Take home message for students. It is easy to dismiss the policy cycle, and find better explanations, but don’t stop there. Consider how to turn this insight into action. If policymaking is so messy, how should people respond? Studying ‘entrepreneurs’ helps us identify strategies to influence the policy process, but how could elected policymakers justify such a weird-looking process? Finally, look at many case studies to see how scholars describe MSA. It’s a flexible metaphor, but is there a coherent literature with common themes?

Next steps for reading:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis – an expanded version of this introductory post

What is a policy entrepreneur? – describes various ways in which policy scholars define ‘entrepreneur’

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs – a blog post and paper on how entrepreneurs deal with ‘organized anarchy’

Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis? – introduces an article by Michael Jones and me on MSA studies

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2016) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, 44, 1, 37-58 PDF (Annex to Cairney Jones 2016) (special issue of PSJ)

Paul Cairney and Nikos Zahariadis (2016) ‘Multiple streams analysis’ in Zahariadis, N. (eds) Handbook of Public Policy Agenda-Setting (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF see also

There is also a chapter on MSA and ideas in Understanding Public Policy.

If you are feeling really energetic, you can read the source texts:

Kingdon J (1984) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies New York: Harper Collins

Cohen, M., March, J. and Olsen, J. (1972) ‘A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 17, 1, 1-25

Picture source: NASA Deep Space Gateway to Open Opportunities for Distant Destinations






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Writing an essay on politics, policymaking, and policy change

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing a format: the initial advice

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

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

Choosing a format: the cautionary advice

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

Choosing a topic: the ‘joined up’ advice

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

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

Some examples from my pet subject

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

What is modern UK tobacco policy?

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

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

How much has policy changed since the 1980s?

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

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

Why has it changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Policy in 500 Words: if the policy cycle does not exist, what do we do?

It is easy to reject the empirical value of the policy cycle, but difficult to replace it as a practical tool. I identify the implications for students, policymakers, and the actors seeking influence in the policy process.


A policy cycle divides the policy process into a series of stages:

  • Agenda setting. Identifying problems that require government attention, deciding which issues deserve the most attention and defining the nature of the problem.
  • Policy formulation. Setting objectives, identifying the cost and estimating the effect of solutions, choosing from a list of solutions and selecting policy instruments.
  • Legitimation. Ensuring that the chosen policy instruments have support. It can involve one or a combination of: legislative approval, executive approval, seeking consent through consultation with interest groups, and referenda.
  • Implementation. Establishing or employing an organization to take responsibility for implementation, ensuring that the organization has the resources (such as staffing, money and legal authority) to do so, and making sure that policy decisions are carried out as planned.
  • Evaluation. Assessing the extent to which the policy was successful or the policy decision was the correct one; if it was implemented correctly and, if so, had the desired effect.
  • Policy maintenance, succession or termination. Considering if the policy should be continued, modified or discontinued.

Most academics (and many practitioners) reject it because it oversimplifies, and does not explain, a complex policymaking system in which: these stages may not occur (or occur in this order), or we are better to imagine thousands of policy cycles interacting with each other to produce less orderly behaviour and predictable outputs.

But what do we do about it?

The implications for students are relatively simple: we have dozens of concepts and theories which serve as better ways to understand policymaking. In the 1000 Words series, I give you 25 to get you started.

The implications for policymakers are less simple because they cycle may be unrealistic and useful. Stages can be used to organise policymaking in a simple way: identify policymaker 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. The idea is simple and the consequent advice to policy practitioners is straightforward.  A major unresolved challenge for scholars and practitioners is to describe a more meaningful, more realistic, analytical model to policymakers and give advice on how to act and justify action in the same straightforward way. So, in this article, I discuss how to reconcile policy advice based on complexity and pragmatism with public and policymaker expectations.

The implications for actors trying to influence policymaking can be dispiriting: how can we engage effectively in the policy process if we struggle to understand it? So, in this page (scroll down – it’s long!), I discuss how to present evidence in complex policymaking systems.

Take home message for students. It is easy to describe then assess the policy cycle as an empirical tool, but don’t stop there. Consider how to turn this insight into action. First, examine the many ways in which we use concepts to provide better descriptions and explanations. Then, think about the practical implications. What useful advice could you give an elected policymaker, trying to juggle pragmatism with accountability? What strategies would you recommend to actors trying to influence the policy process?


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Policy in 500 Words: applying economics to politics

Rational choice theory can be defined as the application of economic methods and insights to the study of politics. It can help inform major questions in public policy, including:

  • Should we try to get people to change their behaviour, perhaps ‘for their own good’ or to act in the ‘collective’ rather than their own narrow self-interest?
  • If so, how? Should we rely on the state to address ‘collective action problems’?
  • If so, should we use incentives, coercion, and/ or ‘nudges’ to change behaviour?

In other words, we ask if it is appropriate to change public behaviour and, if so, what means are most effective.

A classic approach is to make some simplifying assumptions – for example, about people’s ability to process information and rank their preferences when making choices – to help us imagine how they might act in particular situations.

For example, people might ‘free ride’ if they can benefit from a good or service without paying for it. This insight underpins the argument that the state must intervene to solve ‘market failure’, such as in the provision of ‘public goods’ (which are ‘non-excludable’, i.e. no-one can be excluded from enjoying their benefits, and ‘non-rival’, i.e. their use by one person does not diminish their value to another).

Or, people might contribute to Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’: the potentially catastrophic, cumulative effect of individual choices regarding scarce ‘common pool resources’ such as fertile land, unpolluted water, clean air, and fishing stocks. It is in our collective interest to act collectively to manage such resources, but individual interest to take a little bit more. So, if we all act individually, not collectively, the scarce resource is ruined.

Hardin’s solution to this problem is ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’, such as state intervention. He recommends taxation as a good example of a coercive device. However, state intervention is not a panacea and it produces major unintended consequences. So, this recommendation prompts two key discussions that are central to contemporary studies of public policy:

  1. The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) is a key development

Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work challenges the idea that state intervention is necessarily the best solution to collective action problems. It demonstrates the potential for non-market solutions based on a combination of trust and less coercive means 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 (institution). The rules may be enforced by a private authority, and 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.

  1. Should we nudge instead of coerce?

Behavioural economics takes insights from psychology to identify the cognitive biases that influence human choice. It has become associated with the idea of ‘nudge’, in which we influence people’s behaviour by exploiting their biases (such as by having them opt-out-of rather than opt-into services, or making it easier to process the information required to make choices).

Take home message for students: don’t just reject rational choice because you read that it uses wackily unrealistic assumptions. Instead, focus on the practical benefits of different ways of thinking. In this case, what issues do these simple models raise? Then note the links between classic and modern studies. Behavioural economics draws insights from psychology to get a better understanding of ‘rational choice’ but you can see the same broad aim to understand how people might act and if we should try to change such action. The IAD also informs the study of state and market failure: can we say with any certainty what governing set-up is best?

500 words series

1000 words series

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Policy in 500 Words: how much does policy change?

You should get the impression from 1000 words that most policy changes are small or not radically different from the past: Lindblom identifies incrementalism; punctuated equilibrium  highlights a huge number of small changes and small number of huge changes; the ACF compares routine learning by a dominant coalition to a ‘shock’ which prompts new subsystem and policy dynamics; and multiple streams identifies the conditions (rarely met) for major change.

Yet, I just gave you the impression that we don’t know how to define policy. If we can’t define it well, how can we measure it well enough to come to this conclusion so consistently?

Why is the measurement of policy change important?

We miss a lot if we equate policy with statements rather than outputs/ outcomes. We also miss a lot if we equate policy change with the most visible outputs such as legislation. I list 16 different policy instruments, although they tend to be grouped into smaller categories: focusing on regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal; or regulatory/ distributive/ redistributive to suggest that some policy measures are more difficult to ‘sell’ than others.

We also give a limited picture if we equate change with outputs rather than outcomes, since a key insight from policy studies is that there is generally a gap between policymaker expectations and the actual result.

What are the key issues in measurement?

So, as in defining policy change, we need to make choices about what counts as policy in this instance to measure how much it has changed. For example, I have (a) written on one output as a key exemplar of policy change –  legislation to ban smoking in public places for Scotland, England/ Wales, the UK, and (almost) EU – to show that a government is signalling major changes to come, but also (b) situated that policy instrument within a much broader discussion – of many tobacco policies in the UK and across the globe – to examine the extent to which it is already consistent with a well-established direction of travel.

To make such choices we need to consider:

  • Breadth (to give the ‘big picture’) versus depth (to note important details forensically)
  • How much we expect policy to change, given the size of the problem (a big feature in public health studies, which criticise government inaction)
  • How radical policy change looks from the ‘top’ (at the point of central government choice) or the ‘bottom’ (longer-term delivery of policy by other bodies)
  • What policies mean (what problem were policymakers trying to solve?)
  • How consistent ‘policy’ seems when made of often-contradictory instruments

How do we solve the problem?

The problem is that we can produce very different accounts of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data more than others (e.g. during interviews).

500 words p30 UPP

Sometimes, my preferred solution is to compare more than one narrative of policy change. Another is simply to ‘show your work’.

Take home message for students: ‘show your work’ means explaining your logical process and step-by-step choices. Don’t just write that it is difficult to define policy and measure change. Instead, explain how you assess policy change in one important way, why you chose this way, and shine a light on the payoffs to your approach. Read up on how other scholars do it, to learn good practice and how to make your results comparable to theirs. Indeed, part of the benefit of using an established theory, to guide our analysis, is that we can engage in research systematically as a group.


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