Category Archives: agenda setting

Evidence based policymaking: 7 key themes

7 themes of EBPM

I looked back at my blog posts on the politics of ‘evidence based policymaking’ and found that I wrote quite a lot (particularly from 2016). Here is a list based on 7 key themes.

1. Use psychological insights to influence the use of evidence

My most-current concern. The same basic theme is that (a) people (including policymakers) are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you (b) bombard them with information, or (c) call them idiots.

Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers (shows how to use psychological insights to promote evidence in policymaking)

Using psychological insights in politics: can we do it without calling our opponents mental, hysterical, or stupid? (yes)

The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself? (older paper, linking studies of psychology with studies of EBPM)

Older posts on the same theme:

Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government? (yes)

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

These complaints about ignoring science seem biased and naïve – and too easy to dismiss

How can we close the ‘cultural’ gap between the policymakers and scientists who ‘just don’t get it’?

2. How to use policy process insights to influence the use of evidence

I try to simplify key insights about the policy process to show to use evidence in it. One key message is to give up on the idea of an orderly policy process described by the policy cycle model. What should you do if a far more complicated process exists?

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking: 3 messages (3 ways to say that you should engage with the policy process that exists, not a mythical process that will never exist)

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs (shows how entrepreneurs are influential in politics)

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking? and What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco and There is no blueprint for evidence-based policy, so what do you do? (3 posts describing the conditions that must be met for evidence to ‘win the day’)

Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it (explains how our knowledge of the policy process helps communicate to policymakers)

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points (presentation to European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’ 2016)

Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do (presentation to Open Society Foundations New York 2016)

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts? (part of a series of videos produced by the European Commission)

3. How to combine principles on ‘good evidence’, ‘good governance’, and ‘good practice’

My argument here is that EBPM is about deciding at the same time what is: (1) good evidence, and (2) a good way to make and deliver policy. If you just focus on one at a time – or consider one while ignoring the other – you cannot produce a defendable way to promote evidence-informed policy delivery.

Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy (summary of and link to our article on this very topic)

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it? (presentation to the Scottish Government on 2016)

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

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

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

What Works (in a complex policymaking system)?

How Far Should You Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered?

4. Face up to your need to make profound choices to pursue EBPM

These posts have arisen largely from my attendance at academic-practitioner conferences on evidence and policy. Many participants tell the same story about the primacy of scientific evidence challenged by post-truth politics and emotional policymakers. I don’t find this argument convincing or useful. So, in many posts, I challenge these participants to think about more pragmatic ways to sum up and do something effective about their predicament.

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice? (shows how our knowledge of policymaking clarifies dilemmas about engagement)

The role of ‘standards for evidence’ in ‘evidence informed policymaking’ (argues that a strict adherence to scientific principles may help you become a good researcher but not an effective policy influencer)

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators (you have to make profound ethical and strategic choices when seeking to maximise the use of evidence in policy)

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions (calling yourself an ‘honest broker’ while complaining about ‘post-truth politics’ is a cop out)

What sciences count in government science advice? (political science, obvs)

I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience? (compares the often profoundly different ways in which scientists and political scientists understand and evaluate EBPM – this matters because, for example, we rarely discuss power in scientist-led debates)

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking? (no)

Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: … evidence-based policymaking (how to decide between idealism and pragmatism when engaging in politics)

Realistic ‘realist’ reviews: why do you need them and what might they look like? (if you privilege impact you need to build policy relevance into systematic reviews)

‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact? (describes ways to build evidence advocacy into research design)

The Politics of Evidence (review of – and link to – Justin Parkhurt’s book on the ‘good governance’ of evidence production and use)


5. For students and researchers wanting to read/ hear more

These posts are relatively theory-heavy, linking quite clearly to the academic study of public policy. Hopefully they provide a simple way into the policy literature which can, at times, be dense and jargony.

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

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

Practical Lessons from Policy Theories (series of posts on the policy process, offering potential lessons for advocates of evidence use in policy)

Writing a policy paper and blog post 

12 things to know about studying public policy

Can you want evidence based policymaking if you don’t really know what it is? (defines each word in EBPM)

Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy? (no, very no)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation) (using evidence to evaluate policy is inevitably political)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning (so is learning from the experience of others)

Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it? (read about it)

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making? (on translating policy theories into useful advice)

The role of evidence in UK policymaking after Brexit (argues that many challenges/ opportunities for evidence advocates will not change after Brexit)

Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK? (it’s not just because there is more evidence of harm)

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking and The politics of evidence-based policymaking: focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty and Revisiting the main ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: focus on ambiguity, not uncertainty and The barriers to evidence based policymaking in environmental policy (early versions of what became the chapters of the book)

6. Using storytelling to promote evidence use

This is increasingly a big interest for me. Storytelling is key to the effective conduct and communication of scientific research. Let’s not pretend we’re objective people just stating the facts (which is the least convincing story of all). So far, so good, except to say that the evidence on the impact of stories (for policy change advocacy) is limited. The major complication is that (a) the story you want to tell and have people hear interacts with (b) the story that your audience members tell themselves.

Combine Good Evidence and Emotional Stories to Change the World

Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

7. The major difficulties in using evidence for policy to reduce inequalities

These posts show how policymakers think about how to combine (a) often-patchy evidence with (b) their beliefs and (c) an electoral imperative to produce policies on inequalities, prevention, and early intervention. I suggest that it’s better to understand and engage with this process than complain about policy-based-evidence from the side-lines. If you do the latter, policymakers will ignore you.

What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

How can you tell the difference between policy-based-evidence and evidence-based-policymaking?

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

Note: these issues are discussed in similar ways in many countries. One example that caught my eye today:


All of this discussion can be found under the EBPM category:

See also the special issue on maximizing the use of evidence in policy

Palgrave C special

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, Storytelling, UK politics and policy

Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers

By Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski

Use psychological insights to inform communication strategies

Policymakers cannot pay attention to all of the things for which they are responsible, or understand all of the information they use to make decisions. Like all people, there are limits on what information they can process (Baddeley, 2003; Cowan, 2001, 2010; Miller, 1956; Rock, 2008).

They must use short cuts to gather enough information to make decisions quickly: the ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds of information, and the ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, values, beliefs, habits, schemata, scripts, and what is familiar, to make decisions quickly. Unlike most people, they face unusually strong pressures on their cognition and emotion.

Policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, often in highly charged political atmospheres, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Perhaps their solutions seem to be driven more by their values and emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, often because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach.

If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss criticism from researchers as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, we suggest that restating the need for ‘rational’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive, and declaring ‘policy based evidence’ defeatist.

We use psychological insights to recommend a shift in strategy for advocates of the greater use of evidence in policy. The simple recommendation, to adapt to policymakers’ ‘fast thinking’ (Kahneman, 2011) rather than bombard them with evidence in the hope that they will get round to ‘slow thinking’, is already becoming established in evidence-policy studies. However, we provide a more sophisticated understanding of policymaker psychology, to help understand how people think and make decisions as individuals and as part of collective processes. It allows us to (a) combine many relevant psychological principles with policy studies to (b) provide several recommendations for actors seeking to maximise the impact of their evidence.

To ‘show our work’, we first summarise insights from policy studies already drawing on psychology to explain policy process dynamics, and identify key aspects of the psychology literature which show promising areas for future development.

Then, we emphasise the benefit of pragmatic strategies, to develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking while recognising that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups. Instead of bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond effectively. Instead of identifying only the biases in our competitors, and masking academic examples of group-think, let’s reject our own imagined standards of high-information-led action. This more self-aware and humble approach will help us work more successfully with other actors.

On that basis, we provide three recommendations for actors trying to engage skilfully in the policy process:

  1. Tailor framing strategies to policymaker bias. If people are cognitive misers, minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation. If policymakers combine cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals. If policymakers make quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and moral. If policymakers reflect a ‘group emotion’, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with those beliefs.
  2. Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ to influence individuals and processes. ‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, depending on their current way of thinking, or to act while political conditions are aligned.
  3. Adapt to real-world ‘dysfunctional’ organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear. Form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.

These tips are designed to produce effective, not manipulative, communicators. They help foster the clearer communication of important policy-relevant evidence, rather than imply that we should bend evidence to manipulate or trick politicians. We argue that it is pragmatic to work on the assumption that people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves. To persuade them to change course requires showing simple respect and seeking ways to secure their trust, rather than simply ‘speaking truth to power’. Effective engagement requires skilful communication and good judgement as much as good evidence.

This is the introduction to our revised and resubmitted paper to the special issue of Palgrave Communications The politics of evidence-based policymaking: how can we maximise the use of evidence in policy? Please get in touch if you are interested in submitting a paper to the series.

Full paper: Cairney Kwiatkowski Palgrave Comms resubmission CLEAN 14.7.17

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy

How do we get governments to make better decisions?

This is a guest post by Chris Koski (left) and Sam Workman (right), discussing how to use insights from punctuated equilibrium theory to reform government policy making. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Koski Workman

Many people assume that the main problem faced by governments is an information deficit. However, the opposite is true. A surfeit of information exists and institutions have a hard time managing it.  At the same time, all the information that exists in defining problems may be insufficient. Institutions need to develop a capacity to seek out better quality information too.

Institutions, from the national government, to state legislatures, to city councils – try to solve the information processing dilemma by delegating authority to smaller subgroups. Delegation increases the information processing capacity of governments by involving more actors to attend to narrower issues.

The delegation of authority is ultimately a delegation of attention. It solves the ‘flow’ problem, but also introduces new ‘filters’.  The preferences, interests, and modes of information search all influence the process. Even narrowly focused smaller organizations face limitations in their capacity to search and are subject to similar forces as the governments which created them – filters for the deluge of information and capacity limitations for information seeking.

Organizational design predisposes institutions to filter information for ideas that support status quo problem definitions – that is, definitions that existed at the time of delegation – and to seek out information based on these status quo understandings.  As a result, despite a desire to expand attention and information processing to adapt to changes in problem characteristics, most institutions look for information that supports their identity.  Institutional problem definitions stay the same even as the problems change.

Governments eventually face trade-offs between the gains made from delegating decision-making to smaller subgroups and the losses associated with coordinating the information generated by those subgroups.

Governments get stuck in the same ruts as when the delegation process started: status quo bias that doesn’t adjust with change problem conditions.  There is a sense among citizens and academics that governments make bad decisions in part because they respond to problems of today with the policies of 10 years ago.  Government solutions look like hammers in search of nails when they ought to look more like contractors or even urban planners.

Governments should not respond simply by centralizing

When institutions become stultified in their problem definitions, policymakers and citizens often misdiagnose the problem as entirely a coordination problem.  The logic here is that a small group of actors have captured policymaking and are using such capture for their own gain.  This understanding may be true, or may not, but it leads to the “centralization as savior” fallacy.  The idea here is that organizations with broader latitude will be better able to receive a wider variety of information from a broader range of sources.

There are two problems with this strategy.  First, centralization might guarantee an outcome, but at the expense of an honest problems search and, likely, at the expense of what we might call policy stability.  Second, centralization may offer the opportunity for a broader array of information to bear on policy decisions, but, in practice will rely on even narrower information filters given the number of issues to which the newly centralized policymaking forum must attend.

More delegation produces fragmentation

The alternative, more delegation, has significant coordination challenges as we find bottlenecks of attention when multiple subsystems bear on decision-points.  Also, simply delegating authority can predispose subsystems to a particular solution, which we want to avoid.

We’d propose: Adaptive governance

  • Design institutions not just to attend to problems, but to be specifically information seeking. For example, NEPA requires that all US federal decision-making regarding the environment undergo some kind of environmental assessment – this can be as simply as saying “the environmental will not be harmed” or as complex as an environmental impact statement.  At the same time, we’d suggest greater coordination of institutional actions – enhance communication across delegated units but also better feedback mechanisms to overarching institutions.
  • Institutions need to listen to the signals that their delegated units give them. When delegated institutions come to similar conclusions regarding similar problems, these are key signals to broader policymaking bodies.  Listening to signals from multiple delegated units allows for expertise to shine.  At the same time, disharmony across delegated units on the same problems is a good indicator of disharmony in information search.  Sometimes institutions respond to this disharmony by attempting to reduce participation in the policy process or cast outliers as simply outliers.  We think this is a bad idea as it exaggerates the acceptability of the status quo.
  • We propose ‘issue bundling’ which allows for issues to be less tied up by monolithic problem definitions. Policymaking institutions ought to formally direct delegated institutions to look at the same problem relying upon different expertise.  Examples here are climate change or critical infrastructure protection.  To create institutions to deal with these issues is a challenge given the wide range of information necessary to address each.  Institutions can solve the attention problems that emerge from the multiple sources by creating specific channels of information.  This allows for multiple subsystems  – e.g. Agriculture, Transportation, or Environmental Protection – to assist institutional decision-making by sorting issue specific – e.g. Climate Change – information.

Our solutions do solve fundamental problems of information processing in terms of sorting and seeking information – such problems are fundamental to humans and human-created organizations.  However, while governments may be predisposed to prioritize decisions over information, we are optimistic that our recommendations can facilitate better informed policy in the future.

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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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Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

This post is one part of a series: Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Policy entrepreneurs’ invest their time wisely for future reward, and possess key skills that help them adapt particularly well to their environments. They are the agents for policy change who possess the knowledge, power, tenacity, and luck to be able to exploit key opportunities. They draw on three strategies:

1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence.

Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.

Table 1

2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution.

So, you produce your solution then chase problems.

Table 2

3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes.

For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.

Table 3

It all adds up to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

For the full paper, see: Cairney Practical Lessons Policy Entrepreneurs Revised 5 June 17

For more on ‘multiple streams’ see:

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: A flexible metaphor presents an opportunity to operationalize agenda setting processes’ in Zahariadis, N. (eds) Handbook of Public Policy Agenda-Setting (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF see also


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Folksy wisdom, public policy, Storytelling

Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it

This is a post for my talk at the ‘Politheor: European Policy Network’ event Write For Impact: Training In Op-Ed Writing For Policy Advocacy. There are other speakers with more experience of, and advice on, ‘op-ed’ writing. My aim is to describe key aspects of politics and policymaking to help the audience learn why they should write op-eds in a particular way for particular audiences.

A key rule in writing is to ‘know your audience’, but it’s easier said than done if you seek many sympathetic audiences in many parts of a complex policy process. Two simple rules should help make this process somewhat clearer:

  1. Learn how policymakers simplify their world, and
  2. Learn how policy environments influence their attention and choices.

We can use the same broad concepts to help explain both processes, in which many policymakers and influencers interact across many levels and types of government to produce what we call ‘policy’:

  1. Policymaker psychology: tell an evidence-informed story

Policymakers receive too much information, and seek ways to ignore most of it while making decisions. To do so, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ means: selecting a limited number of regular sources of information, and relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and familiarity with information. In other words, your audience combines cognition and emotion to deal with information, and they can ignore information for long periods then quickly shift their attention towards it, even if that information has not really changed.

Consequently, an op-ed focusing solely ‘the facts’ can be relatively ineffective compared to an evidence-informed story, perhaps with a notional setting, plot, hero, and moral. Your aim shifts from providing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty about a problem, to providing a persuasive reason to reduce ambiguity. Ambiguity relates to the fact that policymakers can understand a policy problem in many different ways – such as tobacco as an economic good, issue of civil liberties, or public health epidemic – but often pay exclusive attention to one.

So, your aim may be to influence the simple ways in which people understand the world, to influence their demand for more information. An emotional appeal can transform a factual case, but only if you know how people engage emotionally with information. Sometimes, the same story can succeed with one audience but fail with another.

  1. Institutions: learn the ‘rules of the game’

Institutions are the rules people use in policymaking, including the formal, written down, and well understood rules setting out who is responsible for certain issues, and the informal, unwritten, and unclear rules informing action. The rules used by policymakers can help define the nature of a policy problem, who is best placed to solve it, who should be consulted routinely, and who can safely be ignored. These rules can endure for long periods and become like habits, particularly if policymakers pay little attention to a problem or why they define it in a particular way.

  1. Networks and coalitions: build coalitions and establish trust

Such informal rules, about how to understand a problem and who to speak with about it, can be reinforced in networks of policymakers and influencers.

‘Policy community’ partly describes a sense that most policymaking is processed out of the public spotlight, often despite minimal high level policymaker interest. Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policymaking to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government, and policymakers have ‘standard operating procedures’ that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others

‘Policy community’ also describes a sense that the network seems fairly stable, built on high levels of trust between participants, based on factors such as reliability (the participant was a good source of information, and did not complain too much in public about decisions), a common aim or shared understanding of the problem, or the sense that influencers represent important groups.

So, the same policy case can have a greater impact if told by a well trusted actor in a policy community. Or, that community member may use networks to build key coalitions behind a case, use information from the network to understand which cases will have most impact, or know which audiences to seek.

  1. Ideas: learn the ‘currency’ of policy argument

This use of networks relates partly to learning the language of policy debate in particular ‘venues’, to learn what makes a convincing case. This language partly reflects a well-established ‘world view’ or the ‘core beliefs’ shared by participants. For example, a very specific ‘evidence-based’ language is used frequently in public health, while treasury departments look for some recognition of ‘value for money’ (according to a particular understanding of how you determine VFM). So, knowing your audience is knowing the terms of debate that are often so central to their worldview that they take them for granted and, in contrast, the forms of argument that are more difficult to pursue because they are challenging or unfamiliar to some audiences. Imagine a case that challenges completely someone’s world view, or one which is entirely consistent with it.

  1. Socioeconomic factors and events: influence how policymakers see the outside world

Some worldviews can be shattered by external events or crises, but this is a rare occurrence. It may be possible to generate a sense of crisis with reference to socioeconomic changes or events, but people will interpret these developments through the ‘lens’ of their own beliefs. In some cases, events seem impossible to ignore but we may not agree on their implications for action. In others, an external event only matters if policymakers pay attention to them. Indeed, we began this discussion with the insight that policymakers have to ignore almost all such information available to them.

Know your audience revisited: practical lessons from policy theories

To take into account all of these factors, while trying to make a very short and persuasive case, may seem impossible. Instead, we might pick up some basic rules of thumb from particular theories or approaches. We can discuss a few examples from ongoing work on ‘practical lessons from policy theories’.

Storytelling for policy impact

If you are telling a story with a setting, plot, hero, and moral, it may be more effective to focus on a hero than villain. More importantly, imagine two contrasting audiences: one is moved by your personal and story told to highlight some structural barriers to the wellbeing of key populations; another is unmoved, judges that person harshly, and thinks they would have done better in their shoes (perhaps they prefer to build policy on stereotypes of target populations). ‘Knowing your audience’ may involve some trial-and-error to determine which stories work under which circumstances.

Appealing to coalitions

Or, you may decide that it is impossible to write anything to appeal to all relevant audiences. Instead, you might tailor it to one, to reinforce its beliefs and encourage people to act. The ‘advocacy coalition framework’ describes such activities as routine: people go into politics to translate their beliefs into policy, they interpret the world through those beliefs, and they romanticise their own cause while demonising their opponents. If so, would a bland op-ed have much effect on any audience?

Learning from entrepreneurs

Policy entrepreneurs’ draw on three rules, two of which seem counterintuitive:

  1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence. Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.
  2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution. So, you produce your solution then chase problems.
  3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes. For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.

It all adds up to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

On the day, we can use such concepts to help us think through the factors that you might think about while writing op-eds, even though it is very unlikely that you would mention them in your written work.


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling

Practical Lessons from Policy Theories

  1. Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs
  2. How do we get governments to make better decisions?
  3. Why advocacy coalitions matter and how to think about them
  4. How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?
  5. Telling stories that shape public policy
  6. How to navigate complex policy designs
  7. Three ways to encourage policy learning
  8. How to design ‘maps’ for policymakers relying on their ‘internal compass’

Policy influence is impossible to find if you don’t know where to look. Policies theories can help you look in the right places, but they take time to understand.

It’s not realistic to expect people with their own day jobs – such as scientists producing policy-relevant knowledge in other fields – to take the time to use the insights it takes my colleagues a full-time career to appreciate.

So, we need a way to explain those insights in a way that people can pick up and use when they engage in the policy process for the first time. That’s why Chris Weible and I asked a group of policy theory experts to describe the ‘state of the art’ in their field and the practical lessons that they offer.

None of these abstract theories provide a ‘blueprint’ for action (they were designed primarily to examine the policy process scientifically). Instead, they offer one simple insight: you’ll save a lot of energy if you engage with the policy process that exists, not the one you want to see.

Then, they describe variations on the same themes, including:

  1. There are profound limits to the power of individual policymakers: they can only process so much information, have to ignore almost all issues, and therefore tend to share policymaking with many other actors.
  2. You can increase your chances of success if you work with that insight: identify the right policymakers, the ‘venues’ in which they operate, and the ‘rules of the game’ in each venue; build networks and form coalitions to engage in those venues; shape agendas by framing problems and telling good stories, design politically feasible solutions, and learn how to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for their selection.

Our next presentation is at the ECPR in Oslo:



Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy