Below is the draft introduction to a paper that I am writing for a Special Issue paper on Teaching Policy Analysis for Gestión y Análisis de Políticas Públicas (GAPP) (here is the version with the references if you want to sing along).
When we teach policy analysis, we can focus on how to be a policy analyst or how to situate the act of policy analysis within a much wider policymaking context. Ideally, we would teach and learn about both. Indeed, this aim is central to Lasswell’s vision for the policy sciences, in which the analysis of policy (and policymaking) informs analysis for policy, and both are essential to the pursuit of equality and dignity.
There is the potential to achieve this vision for the policy sciences. Policy analysis texts focus on the individual and professional skills required to act efficiently and effectively in a time-pressured political environment. Further, they are supported by the study of policy analysts to reflect on how analysis takes place, and policy is made, in the real world.
The next step would be to harness the wealth of policy concept- and theory-informed studies to help understand how real world contexts inform policy analysis insights. First, for example, almost all mainstream studies assume or demonstrate that there is no such thing as a policy cycle with clearly-defined and well-ordered stages of policymaking, from defining problems and generating solutions to evaluating their effect. If so, how can policy analysts understand their far more complex policymaking environment, and what skills and strategies do they need to develop to engage effectively? Indeed, these discussions may be essential to preventing the demoralisation of analysts: if they do not learn in advance about the processes and factors than can minimise their influence, how can they generate realistic expectations? Second, if the wider aim is human equality and dignity, insights from critical policy analysis are essential. They help analysts think about what those concepts mean, how to identify and support marginalised populations, and how policy analysis skills and techniques relate to those aims. In particular, they warn against treating policy analysis as a technocratic profession devoid of politics, which may contribute to exclusive research gathering practices, producing too-narrow definitions of problems, insufficient consideration of feasible solutions, and recommendations made about target populations without engaging with the people they claim to serve.
However, this aim is much easier described than achieved. Policy analysis texts, focusing on how to do it, often use insights from policy studies. However, they do so without fully explaining key concepts and theories or exploring their implications. There is simply not enough time and space to do justice to every element, from the technical tools of policy analysis (including cost-benefit analysis) to the empirical findings from policy theories and normative insights from critical policy analysis approaches (e.g. Weimer and Vining, 2017 is already 500 pages long). Policy process research, focusing on what actually happens, may have practical implications for analysts. However, they are often hidden behind layers of concepts and jargon, and – with notable exceptions – their authors seem uninterested in describing the normative importance of, or practical lessons from, theory-informed empirical studies. Further, the cumulative size of this research is overwhelming and beyond the full understanding of experienced specialist scholars. Indeed, it is even difficult to recommend a small number of texts to sum up each approach, which makes it difficult to predict how much time and energy it would take to understand this field, and therefore to demonstrate the payoff from that investment. Further, critical policy analysis is essential, but often ignored in policy analysis texts, and the potential for meaningful conversations with mainstream policy scholars remains largely untapped or resisted .
In that context, policy analysis students embody the problem of ‘bounded rationality’ described famously by Simon. Indeed, Simon’s phrase ‘to satisfice’ sums up a goal-oriented response to bounded rationality: faced with the inability to identify, process, or understand all relevant information, they must seek ways to gather enough information to inform ‘good enough’ choices. Further, since then, policy studies have sought to incorporate insights from individual human, social, and organisational psychology to understand (1) the other cognitive shortcuts that humans use, including gut-level instinct, habit, familiarity with an issue, deeply-held beliefs, and emotions, and (2) their organisations equivalents (since organisations also use rules and standard operating procedures to close off information searches and limit analysis). Human cognitive shortcuts can be described negatively as cognitive biases or more positively as ‘fast and frugal heuristics’. However, the basic point remains: if people draw on allegedly ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to information, we need to find ways to adapt to their ways of thinking, rather than holding onto an idealised version of humans (and policymaking organisations) that do not exist in the real world .
While these insights focus generally on policymakers, they are also essential to engaging with students. Gone – I hope – are the days of lecturers giving students an overwhelmingly huge reading list and expecting them to devour every source before each class, which may help some students but demoralise many others (especially since it seems inevitable that most students’ first engagement with specialist texts and technical jargon will already induce fears about their own ignorance). In their place should be a thoughtful exploration of how much students can actually learn about the wider policy analysis context, focusing on (1) the knowledge and skills they already possess, (2) the time they have to learn, and (3) how new knowledge or skills would relate to their ambitions. If students are seeking fast and frugal heuristics to learn about policy analysis, how should we help them, and what should we teach?
To help answer such questions, first I describe the rationale for the blog that I developed in tandem with teaching public policy, initially at an undergraduate level as part of a wider politics programme, before developing a Master of Public Policy and contributing to shorter executive courses or one-off workshops. This range matters, since the answer to the question ‘what can students learn?’ will vary according to their existing knowledge and time. Second, I describe some examples of the valuable intersection between policy analysis, policy process research, and critical policy analysis to demonstrate the potential payoffs to wider insights. Third, I summarise the rationale for the coursework that I use to foster public policy knowledge and policy analysis skills, including skills in critical thinking and reflection to accompany more specialist analytical skills.
We define trust as ‘a belief in the reliability of other people, organizations, or processes’, but it is one of those terms – like ‘policy’ – that defies a single comprehensive definition. The term ‘distrust’ complicates things further, since it does not simply mean the absence of trust.
Its treatment in social science also varies, which makes our statement – ‘Trust is necessary for cooperation, coordination, social order, and to reduce the need for coercive state imposition’ – one of many ways to understand its role.
A summary of key concepts
Social science accounts of trust relate it to:
1. Individual choice
I may trust someone to do something if I value their integrity (if they say they will do it, I believe them), credibility (I believe their claim is accurate and feasible), and competence (I believe they have the ability).
This perception of reliability depends on:
The psychology of the truster. The truster assesses the risk of relying on others, while combining cognition and emotion to relate that risk of making themselves vulnerable to the benefit of collective action, while drawing on an expectation of reciprocity.
The behaviour of the trustee. They demonstrate their trustworthiness in relation to past performance, which demonstrates their competence and reliability and perhaps their selflessness in favour of collective action.
Common reference points. The trustee and truster may use shortcuts to collective action, such as a reference to something they have in common (e.g. their beliefs or social background), their past interactions, or the authority of the trustee.
Rules can be formal, written, and widely understood (e.g. to help assign authority regardless of levels of interaction) or informal, unwritten, and only understood by some (e.g. resulting from interactions in some contexts).
Rules can represent low levels of trust and a focus on deterring breaches (e.g. creating and enforcing contracts) or high levels of trust (e.g. to formalize ‘effective practices built on reciprocity, emotional bonds, and/or positive expectations’).
3. Societal necessity and interdependence.
Trust is a functional requirement. We need to trust people because we cannot maintain a functional society or political system without working together. Trust-building underpins the study of collaboration (or cooperation and bargaining), such as in the Ecology of Games approach (which draws on the IAD).
In that context, trust is a resource (to develop) that is crucial to a required outcome.
Is trust good and distrust bad?
We describe trust as ‘necessary for cooperation’ and distrust as a ‘potent motivator’ that may prompt people to ignore advice or defy cooperation or instruction. Yet, neither is necessarily good or bad. Too much trust may be a function of: (1) the abdication of our responsibility to engage critically with leaders in political systems, (2) vulnerability to manipulation, and/ or (3) excessive tribalism, prompting people to romanticise their own cause and demonise others, each of which could lead us to accept uncritically the cynical choices of policymakers.
Trust is a slippery concept, and academics often make it slippier by assuming rather than providing a definition. In that context, why not read all of the 500 Words series and ask yourself where trust/ distrust fit in?
Several 500 Word and 1000 Word (a, b, c) posts try to define and measure policy change.
Most studies agree that policymaking systems produce huge amounts of minor change and rare instances of radical change, but not how to explain these patterns. For example:
Debates on incrementalism questioned if radical change could be managed via non-radical steps.
Punctuated equilibrium theory describes policy change as a function of disproportionately low or high attention to problems, and akin to the frequency of earthquakes (a huge number of tiny changes, and more major changes than we would see in a ‘normal distribution’).
One of the most famous accounts of major policy change is by Peter Hall. ‘Policy paradigms’ help explain a tendency towards inertia, punctuated rarely by radical change (compare with discussions of path dependence and critical junctures).
A policy paradigm is a dominant and often taken-for-granted worldview (or collection of beliefs) about: policy goals, the nature of a policy problem, and the instruments to address it.
Paradigms can operate for long periods, subject to minimal challenge or defended successfully during events that call current policies into question. Adherence to a paradigm produces two ‘orders’ of change:
1st order: frequent routine bureaucratic changes to instruments while maintaining policy goals.
2nd order: less frequent, non-routine changes (or use of new instruments) while maintaining policy goals.
Radical and rare – 3rd order – policy change may only follow a crisis in which policymakers cannot solve a policy problem or explain why policy is failing. It prompts a reappraisal and rejection of the dominant paradigm, by a new government with new ways of thinking and/or a government rejecting current experts in favour of new ones. Hall’s example was of rapid paradigm shift in UK economic policy – from ‘Keynesianism’ to ‘Monetarism’ – within very few years.
(b) A series of less radical changes that produced paradigm change over decades: from Keynesianism to ‘neo-Keynesianism’, or from state intervention to neoliberalism (such as to foster economic growth via private rather than public borrowing and spending)
3. Paul Cairney and Chris Weible (2015) ‘Comparing and Contrasting Peter Hall’s Paradigms and Ideas with the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ in (eds) M. Howlett and J. Hogan Policy Paradigms in Theory and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave) PDF
This post is a shortened version of The Politics of Policy Analysis Annex A. It shows how to use insights from policy process research in policy analysis and policymaking coursework (much like the crossover between Scooby-Doo and Batman). It describes a range of exercises, including short presentations, policy analysis papers, blog posts, and essays. In each case, it explains the rationale for each exercise and the payoff to combining them.
If you prefer me to describe these insights less effectively, there is also a podcast:
One step to combining policy analysis and policy process research is to modify the former according to the insights of the latter. In other words, consider how a ‘new policy sciences’ inspired policy analysis differs from the analyses already provided by 5-step guides.
It could turn out that the effects of our new insights on a policy briefing could be so subtle that you might blink and miss them. Or, there are so many possibilities from which to choose that it is impossible to provide a blueprint for new policy science advice. Therefore, I encourage students to be creative in their policy analysis and reflective in their assessment of their analysis. Our aim is to think about the skills you need to analyse policy, from producing or synthesising evidence, to crafting an argument based on knowing your audience, and considering how your strategy might shift in line with a shifting context.
To encourgage creativity, I set a range of tasks so that students can express themselves in different ways, to different audiences, with different constraints. For example, we can learn how to be punchy and concise from a 3-minute presentation or 500-word blog, and use that skill to get to the point more quickly in policy analysis or clarify the research question in the essay.
The overall effect should be that students can take what they have learned from each exercise and use it for the others.
In each section below, I reproduce the ways in which I describe this mix of coursework to students then, in each box, note the underlying rationale.
1. A 3-minute spoken presentation to your peers in a seminar.
In 3 minutes, you need to identify a problem, describe one or more possible solutions, and end your presentation in a convincing way. For example, if you don’t make a firm recommendation, what can you say to avoid looking like you are copping out? Focus on being persuasive, to capture your audience’s imagination. Focus on the policy context, in which you want to present a problem as solvable (who will pay attention to an intractable problem?) but not make inflated claims about how one action can solve a major problem. Focus on providing a memorable take home message.
The presentation can be as creative as you wish, but it should not rely on powerpoint in the room. Imagine that none of the screens work or that you are making your pitch to a policymaker as you walk along the street: can you make this presentation engaging and memorable without any reference to someone else’s technology? Can you do it without just reading out your notes? Can you do it well in under 3 minutes? We will then devote 5 minutes to questions from the audience about your presentation. Being an active part of the audience – and providing peer review – is as important as doing a good presentation of your own.
BOX A1: Rationale for 3-minute presentation.
If students perform this task first (before the coursework is due), it gives them an initial opportunity to see how to present only the most relevant information, and to gauge how an audience responds to their ideas. Audience questions provide further peer-driven feedback. I also plan a long seminar to allow each student (in a group of 15-20 people) to present, then ask all students about which presentation they remember and why. This exercise helps students see that they are competing with each other for limited policymaker attention, and learn from their peers about what makes an effective pitch. Maybe you are wondering why I discourage powerpoint. It’s largely because it will cause each presenter to go way over time by cramming in too much information, and this problem outweighs the benefit of being able to present an impressive visualisation. I prefer to encourage students to only tell the audience what they will remember (by only presenting what they remember).
2. A policy analysis paper, and 3. A reflection on your analysis
Provide a policy analysis paper which has to make a substantive argument or recommendation in approximately two pages (1000 words), on the assumption that busy policymakers won’t read much else before deciding whether or not to pay attention to the problem and your solutions. Then provide a reflection paper (also approximately 1000 words) to reflect your theoretical understanding of the policy process. You can choose how to split the 2000 word length, between analysis and reflection. You can give each exercise 1000 each (roughly a 2-page analysis), provide a shorter analysis and more reflection, or widen the analysis and reject the need for conceptual reflection. The choice is yours to make, as long as you justify your choice in your reflection.
When writing policy analysis, I ask you to keep it super-short on the assumption that you have to make your case quickly to people with 99 other things to do. For example, what can you tell someone in one paragraph or a half-page to get them to read all 2 pages? It is tempting to try to tell someone everything you know, because everything is connected and to simplify is to describe a problem simplistically. Instead, be smart enough to know that such self-indulgence won’t impress your audience. In person, they might smile politely, but their eyes are looking at the elevator lights. In writing, they can skim your analysis or simply move on. So, use these three statements to help you focus less on your need to supply information and more on their demand:
Your aim is not to give a full account of a problem. It is to get powerful people to care about it.
Your aim is not to give a painstaking account of all possible solutions. It is to give a sense that at least one solution is feasible and worth pursuing.
Your guiding statement should be: policymakers will only pay attention to your problem if they think they can solve it, and without that solution being too costly.
Otherwise, I don’t like to give you too much advice because I want you to be creative about your presentation; to be confident enough to take chances and feel that you’ll see the reward of making a leap. At the very least, you have three key choices to make about how far you’ll go to make a point:
Who is your audience? Our discussion of the limits to centralised policymaking suggest that your most influential audience will not necessarily be an elected policymaker, but who else would it be?
How ‘manipulative’ should you be? Our discussions of ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ suggest that policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information and make choices. So, do you appeal to their desire to set goals and gather a lot of scientific information, make an emotional appeal, or rely on Riker-style heresthetics?
What is your role? Contemporary discussions of science advice to government highlight unresolved debates about the role of unelected advisors: should you simply lay out some possible solutions or advocate one solution strongly?
For our purposes, there are no wrong answers to these questions. Instead, I want you to make and defend your decisions. That is the aim of your policy paper ‘reflection’: to ‘show your work’. You still have some room to be creative in your reflection: tell me what you know about policy theory and how it informed your decisions. Here are some examples, but it is up to you to decide what to highlight:
Show how your understanding of policymaker psychology helped you decide how to present information on problems and solutions.
Extract insights from policy theories, such as from punctuated equilibrium theory on policymaker attention, multiple streams analysis on timing and feasibility, or the NPF on how to tell persuasive stories.
Explore the implications of the lack of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and absence of a ‘policy cycle’: feasibility is partly about identifying the extent to which a solution is ‘doable’ when central governments have limited powers. What ‘policy style’ or policy instruments would be appropriate for the solution you favour?
I use the following questions to guide the marking on the policy paper: Tailored properly to a clearly defined audience? Punchy and concise summary? Clearly defined problem? Good evidence or argument behind the solution? Clear recommendations backed by a sense that the solution is feasible? Evidence of substantial reading, accompanied by well explained further reading?
In my experience of marking, successful students gave a very clear and detailed account of the nature and size of the policy problem. The best reports used graphics and/ or statistics to describe the problem in several ways. Some identified a multi-faceted problem – such as in health outcomes, and health inequalities – without presenting confusing analysis. Some were able to present an image of urgency, to separate this problem from the many others that might grab policymaker attention. Successful students presented one or more solutions which seemed technically and/ or politically feasible. By technically feasible, I mean that there is a good chance that the policy will work as intended if implemented. For example, they provided evidence of its success in a comparable country (or in the past) or outlined models designed to predict the effects of specific policy instruments. By politically feasible, I mean that you consider how open your audience would be to the solution, and how likely the suggestion is to be acceptable to key policymakers. Some students added to a good discussion of feasibility by comparing the pros/ cons of different scenarios. In contrast, some relatively weak reports proposed solutions which were vague, untested, and/ or not likely to be acted upon.
BOX A2: Rationale for policy analysis and reflection
Students already have 5-step policy analysis texts at their disposal, and they give some solid advice about the task. However, I want to encourage students to think more about how their knowledge of the policy process will guide their analysis. First, what do you do if you think that one audience will buy your argument, and another reject it wholeheartedly? Just pretend to be an objective analyst and put the real world in the ‘too hard’ pile? Or, do you recognise that policy analysts are political actors and make your choices accordingly? For me, an appeal to objectivity combined with insufficient recognition of the ways in which people respond emotionally to information, is a total cop-out. I don’t want to contribute to a generation of policy analysts who provide long, rigorous, and meticulous reports that few people read and fewer people use. Instead, I want students to show me how to tell a convincing story with a clear moral, or frame policy analysis to grab their audience’s attention and generate enthusiasm to try to solve a problem. Then, I want them to reflect on how they draw the line between righteous persuasion and unethical manipulation.
Second, how do you account for policymaking complexity? You can’t assume that there is a cycle in which a policymaker selects a solution and it sets in train a series of stages towards successful implementation. Instead, you need to think about the delivery of your policy as much as the substance. Students have several choices. In some cases, they will describe how to deliver policy in a multi-level or multi-centric environment, in which, say, a central government actor will need to use persuasion or cooperation rather than command-and-control. Or, if they are feeling energetic, they might compare a top-down delivery option with support for Ostrom-style polycentric arrangements. Maybe they’ll recommend pilots and/ or trial and error, to monitor progress continuously instead of describing a one-shot solution. Maybe they’ll reflect on multiple streams analysis and think about how you can give dependable advice in a policy process containing some serendipity. Who knows? Policy process research is large and heterogeneous, which opens the possibility for some creative solutions that I won’t be able to anticipate in advance.
4. One kind of blog post (for the policy analysis)
Write a short and punchy blog post which recognises the need to make an argument succinctly and grab attention with the title and first sentence/ paragraph, on the assumption that your audience will be reading it on their phone and will move on to something else quickly. In this exercise, your blog post is connected to your policy analysis. Think, for example, about how you would make the same case for a policy solution to a wider ‘lay’ audience. Or, use the blog post to gauge the extent to which your client could sell your policy solution. If they would struggle, should you make this recommendation in the first place?
Your blog post audience is wider than your policy analysis audience. You are trying to make an argument that will capture the attention of a larger group of people who are interested in politics and policy, but without being specialists. They will likely access your post from Twitter/ Facebook or via a search engine. This constraint produces a new requirement, to: present a punchy title which sums up the whole argument in under 280 characters (a statement is often better than a vague question); to summarise the whole argument in approximately 100 words in the first paragraph (what is the problem and solution?); then, to provide more information up to a maximum of 500 words. The reader can then be invited to read the whole policy analysis.
The style of blog posts varies markedly, so you should consult many examples before attempting your own (for example, compare the LSE with The Conversation and newspaper blogs to get a sense of variations in style). When you read other posts, take note of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, many posts associated with newspapers introduce a personal or case study element to ground the discussion in an emotional appeal. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it causes the reader to scroll down quickly to find the main argument. Perhaps ironically, I recommend storytelling but I often skim past people’s stories. Many academic posts are too long (well beyond your 500 limit), take too long to get to the point, and do not make explicit recommendations, so you should not emulate them. You should aim to be better than the scholars whose longer work you read. You should not just chop down your policy analysis to 500 words; you need a new kind of communication.
Hopefully, by the end of this fourth task, you will appreciate the transferable life skills. I have generated some uncertainty about your task to reflect the sense among many actors that they don’t really know how to make a persuasive case and who to make it to. We can follow some basic Bardach-style guidance, but a lot of this kind of work relies on trial-and-error. I maintain a short word count to encourage you to get to the point, and I bang on about ‘stories’ in modules to encourage you to present a short and persuasive story to policymakers.
This process seems weird at first, but isn’t it also intuitive? For example, next time you’re in my seminar, measure how long it takes you to get bored and look forward to the weekend. Then imagine that policymakers have the same attention span as you. That’s how long you have to make your case! Policymakers are not magical beings with an infinite attention span. In fact, they are busier and under more pressure than us, so you need to make your pitch count.
BOX A3: Rationale for blog post 1
This exercise forces students to make their case in 500 words. It helps them understand the need to communicate in different ways to different audiences. It suggests that successful communication is largely about knowing how your audience consumes information, rather than telling people all you know. I gauge success according to questions such as: Punchy and eye grabbing title? Tailored to an intelligent ‘lay’ audience rather than a specific expert group? Clearly defined problem? Good evidence or argument behind the solution? Clear recommendations backed by a sense that the solution is feasible? Well embedded weblinks to further relevant reading?
5. Writing a theory-informed essay
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, political system, and relevant explanatory concepts.
On the face of it, it looks very straightforward. Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:
We spend a lot of time in class agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy
There are many possible measures of policy change
There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics.
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 competitive diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).
Choosing a format: the initial advice
Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in a particular era, after an event or constitutional change, or after a change in government).
Select one or more policy concepts 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 question myself, even though some of my work is too theory-packed to be a good model for a student essay (Cairney, 2007 is essentially a bad model for students).
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 a lot of credit for considering how to define and measure it; by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and information sharing, 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 more effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but one theory may do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic or concepts to use.
BOX A4: Rationale for the essay
The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between differentperspectives 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.
BOX A5: Rationale for blog post 2
I get students to do the analysis/reflection/blog combination in the first module, and an essay/ blog combo in the second module. The second blog post has a different aim. Students use the 500 words to present a jargon-free analysis of policy change. The post represents a useful exercise in theory translation. Without it, students tend to describe a large amount of jargon because I am the audience and I understand it. By explaining the same thing to a lay audience, they are obliged to explain key developments in a plain language. This requirement should also help them present a clearer essay, because people (academics and students) often use jargon to cover the fact that they don’t really know what they are saying.
Paul comes from a Political Science background and started off his project trying to understand why politicians don’t make good policy. He uses a lot of Political Science theory to understand the policy process (what MPP students have been learning) and theory from Public Policy about how to make the policy process better.
I come from a Social Policy background. I presume policy will be bad, and approach policy analysis from a normative position, analysing and criticising it from theoretical and critical perspectives.
I specialize in the study of public policy and policymaking. I ‘synthesise’ and use policy concepts and theories to ask: how do policy processes work, and why?
Most theories and concepts – summarized in 1000 and 500 words – engage with that question in some way.
As such, I primarily seek to describe and explain policymaking, without spending much time thinking about making it better (unless asked to do so, or unless I feel very energetic).
In particular, I can give you a decent account of how all of these policy theories relate to each other, which is more important that it first seems.
That story provides context for applications to the agendas taken forward by other disciplines or professions.
The most obvious example is ‘evidence based policymaking’: my role is to explain why it is little more than a political slogan, and why people should not expect (or indeed want) it to exist, not to lobby for its existence
Also working on similar stories in relation to policy learning and policy design: my role is to highlight dilemmas and cautionary tales, not be a policy designer.
The politics of policymaking research
Most of the theories I describe relate to theory-informed empirical projects, generally originating from the US, and generally described as ‘positivist’ in contrast to (say) ‘interpretive’ (or, say, ‘constructivist’).
However, there are some interesting qualifications:
Some argue that these distinctions are overcooked (or, I suppose, overboiled)
Some try to bring in postpositivist ideas to positivist networks (NPF)
Some emerged from ‘critical policy analysis’ (SCPD)
The initial podcast tells a story about MPP development, in which I used to ask students to write policy analyses (1st semester) without explaining what policy analysis was, or how to do it. My excuse is that the punchline of the module was: your account of the policy theories/ policy context is more important than your actual analysis (see the Annex to the book).
Since then, I have produced a webpage – 750 – which:
summarises the stories of the most-used policy analysis texts (e.g. Bardach) which identify steps including: define the problem; identify solutions; use values to compare trade-offs between solutions; predict their effects; make a recommendation
relates those texts to policy theories, to identify how bounded rationality and complexity change that story (and the story of the policy cycle)
relates both to ‘critical’ policy analysis and social science texts (some engage directly – like Stone, like Bacchi – while some provide insights – such as on critical race theory – without necessarily describing ‘policy analysis’)
A description of ‘critical’ approaches is fairly broad, but I think they tend to have key elements in common:
a commitment to use research to improve policy for marginalized populations (described by Bacchi as siding with the powerless against the powerful, usually in relation to class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability)
analysing policy to identify: who is portrayed positively/negatively; who benefits or suffers as a result
analysing policymaking to identify: whose knowledge counts (e.g. as high quality and policy relevant), who is included or excluded
identifying ways to challenge (a) dominant and damaging policy frames and (b) insulated/ exclusive versus participatory/ inclusive forms of policymaking
If so, I would see these three approaches as ways to understand and engage with policymaking that could be complementary or contradictory. In other words, I would warn against assuming one or the other.
Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) tells a story of complex systems that are stable and dynamic:
Most policymaking exhibits long periods of stability, but with the ever-present potential for sudden instability.
Most policies stay the same for long periods. Some change very quickly and dramatically.
We can explain this dynamic with reference to bounded rationality: since policymakers cannot consider all issues at all times, they ignore most and promote relatively few to the top of their agenda.
This lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change, while intense periods of attention to some issues prompts new ways to frame and solve policy problems.
Some explanation comes from the power of participants, to (a) minimize attention and maintain an established framing, or (b) expand attention in the hope of attracting new audiences more sympathetic to new ways of thinking.
Further explanation comes from policymaking complexity, in which the scale of conflict is too large to understand, let alone control.
The original PET story
The original PET story – described in more detail in the 1000 Words version – applies two approaches – policy communities and agenda setting – to demonstrate stable relationships between interest groups and policymakers:
They endure when participants have built up trust and agreement – about the nature of a policy problem and how to address it – and ensure that few other actors have a legitimate role or interest in the issue.
They come under pressure when issues attract high policymaker attention, such as following a ‘focusing event’ or a successful attempt by some groups to ‘venue shop’ (seek influential audiences in another policymaking venue). When an issue reaches the ‘top’ of this wider political agenda it is processed in a different way: more participants become involved, and they generate more ways to look at (and seek to solve) the policy.
The key focus is the competition to frame or define a policy problem (to exercise power to reduce ambiguity). The successful definition of a policy problem as technical or humdrum ensures that issues are monopolized and considered quietly in one venue. The reframing of that issue as crucial to other institutions, or the big political issues of the day, ensures that it will be considered by many audiences and processed in more than one venue (see also Schattschneider).
PET shows how policy actors and organisations contribute to ‘disproportionate information processing’, in which attention to information fluctuates out of proportion to (a) the size of policy problems and (b) the information on problems available to policymakers.
It also shows that the same basic distribution of policy change – ‘hyperincremental’ in most cases, but huge in some – is present in every political system studied by the CAP (summed up by the image below)
People engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form advocacy coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. The action takes place within a subsystem devoted to a policy issue, and a wider policymaking process that provides constraints and opportunities to coalitions.
The policy process contains multiple actors and levels of government. It displays a mixture of intensely politicized disputes and routine activity. There is much uncertainty about the nature and severity of policy problems. The full effects of policy may be unclear for over a decade. The ACF sums it up in the following diagram:
If the policy issue is technical and humdrum, there may be room for routine cooperation. If the issue is highly charged, then people romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.
The outcome is often long-term policymaking stability and policy continuity because the ‘core’ beliefs of coalitions are unlikely to shift and one coalition may dominate the subsystem for long periods.
There are two main sources of change.
Coalitions engage in policy learning to remain competitive and adapt to new information about policy. This process often produces minor change because coalitions learn on their own terms. They learn how to retain their coalition’s strategic advantage and use the information they deem most relevant.
‘Shocks’ affect the positions of coalitions within subsystems. Shocks are the combination of events and coalition responses. External shocks are prompted by events including the election of a new government with different ideas, or the effect of socioeconomic change. Internal shocks are prompted by policy failure. Both may prompt major change as members of one coalition question their beliefs in the light of new evidence. Or, another coalition may adapt more readily to its new policy environment and exploit events to gain competitive advantage.
The ACF began as the study of US policymaking, focusing largely on environmental issues. It has changed markedly to reflect the widening of ACF scholarship to new policy areas, political systems, and methods.
For example, the flow diagram’s reference to the political system’s long term coalition opportunity structures is largely the response to insights from comparative international studies:
A focus on the ‘degree of consensus needed for major policy change’ reflects applications in Europe that highlighted the important of proportional electoral systems
A focus on the ‘openness of the political system’ partly reflects applications to countries without free and fair elections, and/ or systems that do not allow people to come together easily as coalitions to promote policy change.
As such, like all theories in this series, the ACF discusses elements that it would treat as (a) universally applicable, such as the use of beliefs to address bounded rationality, and (b) context-specific, such as the motive and opportunity of specific people to organize collectively to translate their beliefs into policy.
The ‘Ecology of Games Framework’ (EG) combines insights from many approaches to analyze ‘institutional complexity’ and ‘complex institutional systems’.
The focus is on actors learning how to secure ‘mutually beneficial outcomes’, cooperating to produce and deliver agreed solutions, and bargaining within a system over which no actor has control. Therefore, it is worth reading the posts on game theory, the IAD, and SES first (especially if, like me, you associated ‘game’ with tig, then Monopoly, then The Wire).
In simple games, we need only analyse the interaction between a small number of actors with reference to one set of self-contained rules providing clear sanctions or payoffs. In real world policymaking, many different games take place at the same time in different venues.
Some policy games may be contained within a geographical area – such as California – but there are no self-contained collective action problems:
Examples such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecology’ or ‘environmental’ policies command a collection of interdependent policies relating to issues like local planning, protected species, water management, air pollution, transport, energy use, and contributors to such policies or policy problems in other areas of government (such as public services).
Each contributor to policy may come from different institutions associated with many policymaking venues spread across many levels and types of government.
Consequently, many games interact with each other. The same actor might participate in multiple games subject to different rules. Further, each game produces ‘externalities’ for the others; the ‘payoffs’ to each game are connected and complicated.
A focus on ‘complex adaptive systems’ suggests that central governments do not have the resources to control – or understand fully – interaction at this frequency and scale. Rather, policymaking influences are:
Internal to the game, when actors (a) follow and shape the rules of each institution, and (b) learn through trial and error.
External to the game, when physical resources change, or central levels of government change the resources of local actors.
Insights from the wider literature
The EG brings in wider insights – from theories in the 500 and 1000 Words series – to analyse this process. Examples include:
As with the IAD, the EG emphasis is on (a) finding solutions to complex (largely environmental) policy problems, with reference to (b) initiatives consistent with self-organising systems such as ‘collaborative governance’. Like most posts in this series, it rejects a naïve attachment to a single powerful central government. Policymaking is multi-centric, and solutions to complex problems will emerge in that context.
ecological sciences approaches to ‘complex social-ecological systems’
The result is a framework that resembles CPR studies in key respects. Ostrom’s 2009 article in Science provides a visual emphasis on the interactions between ‘first-level’ concepts including users, their governance system, resourcesystem (such as a protected park) and resourceunits (such as its trees):
It also raises similar questions, such as ‘When will the users of a resource invest time and energy to avert “a tragedy of the commons”’?
It answers them with reference to ‘second level’ concepts describing factors that encourage users to (a) value long term sustainability and (b) self-organize to secure this outcome. This table summarizes many of them:
Note that Ostrom describes their effect as indicative because, ‘As in most complex systems, the variables interact in a nonlinear fashion …Simple blueprint policies do not work’.
As a result, we have a super-complicated framework to help us understand an even more super-complicated world. For some, the SES framework serves to ‘diagnose’ the sustainability of social-ecological systems and explore the prospect of more effective self-organisation to manage resources. However, as with the IAD, effective use of the framework itself requires a fair amount of immersion in the language of analysis.
Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.
Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), but also social groups and individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).
Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.
In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:
Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.
Example 2. ‘Epistemic violence’ describes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.
It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.
In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:
Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.
Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:
‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.
I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:
Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.
Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.
Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.
Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:
A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.
In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.
High profile politics and electoral competition can cause alienation:
Political actors compete to tell ‘stories’ to assign praise or blame to groups of people. For example, politicians describe value judgements about who should be rewarded or punished by government. They base them on stereotypes of ‘target populations’, by (a) exploiting the ways in which many people think about groups, or (b) making emotional and superficial judgements, backed up with selective use of facts.
These judgements have a ‘feed-forward’ effect: they are reproduced in policies, practices, and institutions. Such ‘policy designs’ can endure for years or decades. The distribution of rewards and sanctions is cumulative and difficult to overcome.
Policy design has an impact on citizens, who participate in politics according to how they are characterised by government. Many know they will be treated badly; their engagement will be dispiriting.
Some groups have the power to challenge the way they are described by policymakers (and the media and public), and receive benefits behind the scenes despite their poor image. However, many people feel powerless, become disenchanted with politics, and do not engage in the democratic process.
SCTP depicts this dynamic with a 2-by-2 table in which target populations are described positively/ negatively and more or less able to respond:
2. Bureaucratic and expert politics
Most policy issues are not salient and politicised in this way. Yet, low salience can exacerbate problems of citizen exclusion. Policies dominated by bureaucratic interests often alienate citizens receiving services. Or a small elite dominates policymaking when there is high acceptance that (a) the best policy is ‘evidence based’, and (b) the evidence should come from experts.
Overall, SCPD describes a political system with major potential to diminish democracy, containing key actors (a) politicising issues to reward or punish populations or (b) depoliticising issues with reference to science and objectivity. In both cases, policy design is not informed by routine citizen participation.
Take home message for students: SCPD began as Schneider and Ingram’s description of the US political system’s failure to solve major problems including inequality, poverty, crime, racism, sexism, and effective universal healthcare and education. Think about how its key drivers apply elsewhere: (1) some people make and exploit quick and emotional judgements for political gain, and others refer to expertise to limit debate; (2) these judgements inform policy design; and, (3) policy design sends signals to citizens which can diminish or boost their incentive to engage in politics.
For more, see the 1000-word and 5000-word versions. The latter has a detailed guide to further reading.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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?
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?
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:
We spent a lot of time agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy (explained in 1000 Words and 500 Words)
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
Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
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).
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).
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.
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?
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
PS Here is the way in which I describe these issues to MPP students writing theory-driven coursework on policy and policy change (using the case study of UK tobacco policy as a guide):
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.