Category Archives: agenda setting

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.

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

Tips for policy success: learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’ and exploit ‘windows of opportunity’

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.

Learn from ‘multiple streams’ analysis

Streams pic and textMy paper on the ‘multiple streams approach’ shows what happens in the absence of two things you might want to see: ‘rational’ and ‘evidence based’ policymaking which takes place in a policy cycle with linear stages. If you act according to that hope, you’ll likely say the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time. It would be better to adapt to the following implications of an agenda setting process in which framing is more important than evidence, and solutions chase problems (table 1).

Tablle 1 MSA

Learn the meaning of timing and windows of opportunity

Most people would associate ‘timing’ with the idiom ‘be in the right place at the right time’. In agenda setting it means two more important things:

  1. Learning the right time to exploit emotional thinking in policymakers to help generate attention to a policy problem, not waiting for their attention to shift naturally.
  2. Producing policy solutions first, then waiting for the right time to attach them to problems. If a policy cycle existed, policymakers would identify a problem then spark of a series of stages, to select a solution, implement, and evaluate it. In the real world, policymaker attention often shifts before a feasible solution can be developed.

Learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’

So, successful ‘policy entrepreneurs’ ‘lie in wait in and around government with their solutions at hand, waiting for problems to float by to which they can attach their solutions, waiting for a development in the political stream they can use to their advantage’ (Kingdon 1984: 165–6). Entrepreneurs are the elected policymakers or unelected influencers with the knowledge, power, tenacity and luck to be able to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ when: attention rises to a problem, a feasible solution is available, and policymakers have the motive to select it.

Learn if you can be the Queen of Makaha, Poseidon, or Cnut

Policy entrepreneurs seem to have particular skills or strategies, to frame issues well, build networks, and lead coalitions. However, Kingdon described them as ‘surfers waiting for the big wave’, which suggests that their environment is more important than their action. He was describing a large US political system in which different actors tended to be involved in different ‘streams’ or parts of policymaking (such as a President raising problems, and a bureaucracy coordinating solutions), no one was powerful enough to bring them together, and it took a lot of time for policy solutions to ‘soften’ or change enough to become acceptable to many actors in the system.

In modern studies, we can see some key differences: policymaking at a smaller scale seems to allow ‘entrepreneurs’ more opportunities to propose solutions and generate attention to problems; and, it seems possible to short-circuit the need to ‘soften’ policies by finding sympathetic audiences in different ‘venues’ or importing solutions that have a reputation for working elsewhere. Yet, most of MSA’s abstract insights remain ‘universal’, inviting us to  adopt a counterintuitive strategy of producing solutions then chasing problems, and focus on framing and persuasion to reduce ambiguity and generate demand for evidence, rather than producing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty in the hope that scientific evidence will win the day or speak for itself.

The full draft paper is here: Practical lessons from the study of agenda setting: combine evidence with emotional appeals to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’

See also: Three ways to explain the politics of evidence-based policymaking

Original streams pic


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

I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience?

‘Know your audience’ is a key phrase for anyone trying to convey a message successfully. To ‘know your audience’ is to understand the rules they use to make sense of your message, and therefore the adjustments you have to make to produce an effective message. Simple examples include:

  • The sarcasm rules. The first rule is fairly explicit. If you want to insult someone’s shirt, you (a) say ‘nice shirt, pal’, but also (b) use facial expressions or unusual speech patterns to signal that you mean the opposite of what you are saying. Otherwise, you’ve inadvertently paid someone a compliment, which is just not on. The second rule is implicit. Sarcasm is sometimes OK – as a joke or as some nice passive aggression – and a direct insult (‘that shirt is shite, pal’) as a joke is harder to pull off.
  • The joke rule. If you say that you went to the doctor because a strawberry was growing out of your arse and the doctor gave you some cream for it, you’d expect your audience to know you were joking because it’s such a ridiculous scenario and there’s a pun. Still, there’s a chance that, if you say it quickly, with a straight face, your audience is not expecting a joke, and/ or your audience’s first language is not English, your audience will take you seriously, if only for a second. It’s hilarious if your audience goes along with you, and a bit awkward if your audience asks kindly about your welfare.
  • Keep it simple stupid. If someone says KISS, or some modern equivalent – ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, the rule is that, generally, they are not calling you stupid (even though the insertion of the comma, in modern phrases, makes it look like they are). They are referring to the value of a simple design or explanation that as many people as possible can understand. If your audience doesn’t know the phrase, they may think you’re calling them stupid, stupid.

These rules can be analysed from various perspectives: linguistics, focusing on how and why rules of language develop; and philosophy, to help articulate how and why rules matter in sense making.

There is also a key role for psychological insights, since – for example – a lot of these rules relate to the routine ways in which people engage emotionally with the ‘signals’ or information they receive.

Think of the simple example of twitter engagement, in which people with emotional attachments to one position over another (say, pro- or anti- Brexit), respond instantly to a message (say, pro- or anti- Brexit). While some really let themselves down when they reply with their own tweet, and others don’t say a word, neither audience is immune from that emotional engagement with information. So, to ‘know your audience’ is to anticipate and adapt to the ways in which they will inevitably engage ‘rationally’ and ‘irrationally’ with your message.

I say this partly because I’ve been messing around with some simple ‘heuristics’ built on insights from psychology, including Psychology Based Policy Studies: 5 heuristics to maximise the use of evidence in policymaking .

Two audiences in the study of ‘evidence based policymaking’

I also say it because I’ve started to notice a big unintended consequence of knowing my audience: my one audience doesn’t like the message I’m giving the other. It’s a bit like gossip: maybe you only get away with it if only one audience is listening. If they are both listening, one audience seems to appreciate some new insights, while the other wonders if I’ve ever read a political science book.

The problem here is that two audiences have different rules to understand the messages that I help send. Let’s call them ‘science’ and ‘political science’ (please humour me – you’ve come this far). Then, let’s make some heroic binary distinctions in the rules each audience would use to interpret similar issues in a very different way.

I could go on with these provocative distinctions, but you get the idea. A belief taken for granted in one field will be treated as controversial in another. In one day, you can go to one workshop and hear the story of objective evidence, post-truth politics, and irrational politicians with low political will to select evidence-based policies, then go to another workshop and hear the story of subjective knowledge claims.

Or, I can give the same presentation and get two very different reactions. If these are the expectations of each audience, they will interpret and respond to my messages in very different ways.

So, imagine I use some psychology insights to appeal to the ‘science’ audience. I know that,  to keep it on side and receptive to my ideas, I should begin by being sympathetic to its aims. So, my implicit story is along the lines of, ‘if you believe in the primacy of science and seek evidence-based policy, here is what you need to do: adapt to irrational policymaking and find out where the action is in a complex policymaking system’. Then, if I’m feeling energetic and provocative, I’ll slip in some discussion about knowledge claims by saying something like, ‘politicians (and, by the way, some other scholars) don’t share your views on the hierarchy of evidence’, or inviting my audience to reflect on how far they’d go to override the beliefs of other people (such as the local communities or service users most affected by the evidence-based policies that seem most effective).

The problem with this story is that key parts are implicit and, by appearing to go along with my audience, I provoke a reaction in another audience: don’t you know that many people have valid knowledge claims? Politics is about values and power, don’t you know?

So, that’s where I am right now. I feel like I ‘know my audience’ but I am struggling to explain to my original political science audience that I need to describe its insights in a very particular way to have any traction in my other science audience. ‘Know your audience’ can only take you so far unless your other audience knows that you are engaged in knowing your audience.

If you want to know more, see:

Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

When presenting evidence to policymakers, engage with the policy process that exists, not the process you wish existed



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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, Storytelling

Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?


Schneider and Ingram’s work on Social Construction and Policy Design identifies the populations deemed by policymakers to deserve the benefits or punishments of government policy.

The most concerted attempt to use this theoretical framework empirically is in Schneider and Ingram’s (2005b) edited book Deserving and Entitled, which focuses primarily on the social construction of particular target populations and its largely degenerative effect on US policy design (introduction here).

In this post, I summarise their insights in about 3000 words, splitting their five parts into seven main insights (that way, I can provide a far shorter summary in a journal article, and refer to this page for more discussion).

Insight 1: Policy designs that we take for granted now were built on social constructions of selective deservingness in the (often very distant) past, with key choices setting a precedent for policy design expansion.

Selective group entitlement to state benefits can be traced to the rules created in 1818, initially for very specific ‘veterans of the American Revolution’, providing benefits if they were: men who had travelled extensively to fight for at least nine months and were now ‘poor or unable to work’ (Jensen, 2005: 37). This excluded women, people who were otherwise poor, and veteran militia who fought locally. Officers were paid $20 per month but soldiers $8 (2005: 57). By 1832, pension entitlement extended to all who served for two years, and in 1836 it was expanded to their dependents if they died from war injuries. In 1871, Congress approved a non-means tested pension for those who served in the War of 1812 (and their widows) if they had demonstrated their patriotism by remaining ‘loyal to the United Stated during the Civil War’ and swearing an ‘oath to support the Constitution’, which excluded ‘aged southerners’ (2005: 58). Each expansion encouraged veteran participation: sending a signal about the entitlements that they would receive, or could campaign for if they didn’t.

Selective group exclusion from the ‘universal’ electoral franchise can be traced to a similar time, when many politicians equated popular participation with ‘mob rule’ and sought to limit inclusion. Schriner (2005: 66-7; 73; 76) identifies attempts to exclude ‘idiots’ and the ‘insane’ as the ‘antithesis of the democratic citizen’. For many politicians, they lacked the ‘intellectual competence necessary for political participation’ and/or were mistrusted by the politicians who equated incompetence with deviance, ‘moral degeneracy, dependency, and crime’ (2005: 76). These exclusions only came under serious challenge when social reformers had some success in shifting wider social constructions on mental capacity, highlighting the cruelty of asylums and challenging the link between intellectual incompetence and moral deviance (2005: 76).

Insight 2: Successful challenges to the social construction of target populations are possible but seem exceptional (and, can be at the expense of other minority groups).

Dialto (2005: 81) suggests that the image of Japanese-Americans shifted profoundly between 1941-61, from the hostility and fear of immigrant aliens underpinning WW2 relocation and interment (preceded by late 19th and early 20th century legal rulings which excluded naturalisation and the ability to buy land) to the tag of ‘model minority’ and good citizen. Strategies to change this image did not challenge discrimination directly: finding legal loopholes on land ownership through American-born children; internalising ‘their negative social construction’ and focusing on earning US citizenship (both before WW2); and, crucially, forming a Japanese-American US Army unit which earned war hero status (2005: 90-8). These efforts were reinforced by shifting contexts: internally, Japanese Americans were seen as less of an economic threat (internment left them ‘economically devastated’), and externally, Japan shifted from a threat to a common force against communism and new source of trade (2005: 98).

Court cases in the 1950s helped shift the rules of naturalisation and land ownership. Media coverage in the 1960s used positive portrayals of Japanese Americans, as working hard to overcome hardship, to contrast them with negative portrayals of others and ‘keep other minorities, such as blacks and Chicanos, in their place’ (2005: 99). The US President effectively apologised for internment in 1976, and Congress approved one-off compensation for internment survivors in 1988, and key federal court cases in the late 1980s challenged the War Department’s basis for discriminatory behaviour and convictions (2005: 100). Still, the ‘model minority’ tag has profound drawbacks, in which Japanese Americans perceive the need to live up to a stereotype to gain acceptance, while still facing social discrimination and violence (2005: 100). In other words, the shifting social construction of a social group does not necessarily indicate its growing power.

Insight 3: Advocates have used national policymaking institutions as a source of major change in policy design, but often with limited effects on delivery and/ or profound unintended consequences.

Although often contributing to degenerative policy design, Congress has proved a key organisation to challenging negative social constructions based on race. However, advocates of housing reform to reduce desegregation addressed major opposition (including public, congressional, and business) by assigning deserving/ undeserving status within racial minorities. The narrative underpinning legislative change on fair housing in 1968 was that only some black people deserved to benefit from policy: advocates told individual stories of the black middle class rejecting the life of the black rioter, who ‘deserved to escape the ghettos’, which helped create a race-based underclass (Sidney, 2005: 114-5). Further, this strategy secured very limited policy and social change, partly because few black people could afford the market price of homes in white areas (2005: 118). As predicted by Schneider and Ingram, the ‘benefits to weak groups’ are ‘undersubscribed and conferred at levels insufficient to change behaviour to an extent that it would remediate the problem’ (2005: 119). Policy changes in the late 70s and 80s were based on a ‘diluted’ message on race, focusing for example on the negative role of financial institutions, wider sources (such as class and age) of potential discrimination in housing, or on specific regions (not populations) that might benefit from community investment: the long term benefits of policy to reduce racial desegregation ‘remain fragile and open to dilution or contestation’ (2005: 137).

Congress also acted positively on immigration in 1965, making it ‘no longer acceptable’ for policies to ‘single out groups for exclusion on the base of race or national origin’. In 1986, it gave amnesty to illegal immigrants working in the US for five years, and punished employers not individuals for illegal immigration (Netwon, 2005: 139; 143). Yet, there remain fluctuations in social constructions of which target populations are willing and able to assimilate to achieve legitimate American citizenship, measured according to: legal citizenship, positive values regarding ‘hard work and self sufficiency’, and negative connotations of foreigners committing crimes, procreating excessively, claiming welfare and, during times of economic uncertainty, taking ‘scarce jobs from Americans’ (2005: 139-40; 142).

These negative constructions informed legislation from 1996 which increased southern border patrol staff, equipment, barriers, and detention facilities, made it easier to deport, raised the bar for employers to demonstrate continuously and adequately paid jobs, and reduced entitlement to social security, housing, and higher education subsidies to ‘remove the lure of public benefits’ for ‘problem’ immigrants (2005: 145-6; 151). In congressional debate, ways to define ‘unworthy’ immigrants related to arguments such as: they are freeloaders not paying taxes, but their children get access to free schools; if they break the law to get here, they’ll break the law while here; immigrants are causing a ‘lawless border’ that local law enforcement can’t control; and, an ineffective federal government is hindering border enforcement and blaming employers rather than the criminals (2005: 151-7). Further, rather than challenging such positions with positive counter narratives, opponents used a ‘cure worse than disease’ argument which pointed to the major unintended consequences of policy (for example, removing school entitlement will worsen crime) (2005: 163). Overall, congressional debates signal ‘who matters’ and which people (primarily Mexican) are the ‘wrong kinds of immigrants’ (2005: 166).

Insight 4: public and non-governmental bodies have some discretion to make policy when they deliver. The evidence is mixed on the extent to which those actors use that chance to reframe target populations more positively.

The social and welfare organisations funded to help target populations are often the bodies identifying many as undeserving. For example, Jurik and Cowgill (2005: 173) describe the difference between a potentially positive rationale and negative experience of ‘microenterprise development programs’. MDPs are often initially designed to reduce poverty by helping low-income people of colour with ‘business loans and training’, avoid the stigmatising and unintended consequences of ‘welfare schemes’, and providing programmes to encourage ‘women’s entrepreneurship’ and challenge male conceptions of business strategy and success (2005: 175). However, as philanthropic funding reduces and bodies become more reliant on government and other highly-conditional funding, MDP bodies feel they must demonstrate high performance and distinguish their work from ‘welfare programmes’, and staff become more risk averse to reduce financial losses (2005: 185). They make value judgements based on ‘white, middle-class, male centred standards of business’ to ‘evaluate client worthiness and attempt to resocialize them as well as shape access to further services’ (2005: 174). Worthiness is linked to likely success, and bodies engage in ‘creaming’ (focusing on the easiest, cheapest cases), use implicit moral assessments of character to identify a good attitude and reject ‘entitlement seekers’ and ‘dreamers’, with assessments often ‘class-laden, gendered, and racialized’ (2005: 177; 183). Consequently, people with the lowest incomes and levels of education are less likely to receive significant loans, and most likely to continue to be viewed as ‘helpless deviants … scorned by policymakers’ when they fail to “’lift’ themselves out of poverty” (2005: 196).

Camou (2005: 197-8) identifies a more positive story based on an unusual mix, in small ‘neighborhood organizations’ (non-profit, advocacy, and resident organizations), of constructing often-marginalised groups positively but to ‘resocialize them into an acceptable way of life’ containing the “‘correct’ ‘norms and values”. Most of the studied programs combine a focus on the ‘deficits’ of target populations (such as drug addiction, and low employability and education) and belief that they can’t ‘take control of their lives without interventions’ with the hope that they ‘can reject street values in favour of mainstream ones, including employment, nonviolence, family cohesion, delayed gratification, and respect for property’ (2005: 203). They combine direct interventions, such as programs to enhance employability, with indirect strategies based on some individuals leading by example and encouraging new rules (2005: 204-5). There is minimal emphasis on welfare and structural/ environmental factors such as housing supply, or on challenging a small number of deviants ruining the neighbourhood while helping the upwardly mobile or middle class population (2005: 206-13). Programs ‘tend not to “cream”’, particularly when staff live or recently lived in the same area: their focus is on challenging highly visible and vivid examples of ‘street values’ rather than encouraging the less visible and already positive behaviour (2005: 213-5). Camou (2005: 215) identifies a commitment to a form of ‘tough love’ that ‘would assume a different connotation if pursued by outsiders’; it might punish ‘deviants’ but it also ‘rewards the successful’ users of programs designed to help disadvantaged target populations.

Insight 5: only a small proportion of the many potentially demonised groups receive sustained negative policymaker attention, aided by the ‘moral entrepreneurs’, policy analysts, and ‘policy champions’ who translate specific social constructions into policy design.

Policymakers, the media, and public can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues that could be described as policy problems. So, sustained public anxiety and political attention to a target population requires three conditions (Nicholson-Crotty and Meier, 2005: 224). First, a group is already perceived negatively by many, perhaps with the additional sense that their behaviour is ‘out of control’. Second, a ‘moral entrepreneur’ draws attention to the group successfully: the public, or powerful sections or institutions within it, perceive the entrepreneur as an expert on the social value and group’s deviance; and, those powerful actors perceive a threat that extends from the deviant group to ‘the rest of society’ (2005: 225-7). Moral entrepreneurs use ‘typification’, using the behaviour visible in certain individuals to represent behaviour of a larger group, to identify a ‘dangerous class’ that can be blamed for many more social problems than linked to initial behaviour (2005: 227). Third, there must be ‘sufficient political profit’ to entice a ‘policy champion’ to set the agenda and pursue policy change (2005: 227).

For example, moral entrepreneurs such as Jacob Riis turned broad and widespread suspicion of Chinese immigrants, in the mid to late 19th century, into a specific concern about the spillover effects of their opium smoking: opium addiction spreading to the white population, with the danger of Chinese men using ‘cruel cunning’ to encourage young female ‘promiscuity’ in ‘opium dens’ (2005: 230). Policy champions, such as State Department Secretary Root, proposed legislation to prohibit the import of opium for smoking, thus restricting its effect largely to the Chinese population without prompting opposition from, for example, doctors using opiates for therapeutic purposes (2005: 233).

By the 1980s, a rapid increase in public fear of crime became linked closely to racially-charged fears of social change (2005: 235). Moral entrepreneurs such as James Q Wilson encouraged then used such concerns to generate support for a major shift in policy rationale, from a focus on the structural causes of crime (such as poverty), to a focus on individual responsibility or out of control gangs. Policy champions such as President Reagan and Representative Dan Lundgren pursued legislation (the Comprehensive Crime Act 1984) on the back of ‘organised crime’, ‘the drug racketeers who are poisoning our young people’, and testimony of victims (2005: 239). The effect of such policies is to identify approximately five million people as members of a ‘dangerous class’ (2005: 242).

Insight 6: well-intentioned but problematic social constructions produce unintended consequences if policy designs fail to address major socio-economic inequalities.

Bensonsmith (2005: 244-5) describes the ‘War on Poverty’ programs fostered by President Johnson from 1965, describing key actors such as Daniel Moynihan – author of The Negro Family (‘Moynihan Report’) – as moral entrepreneur and policy champion. Moynihan was part of a ‘new breed of public servants’ with social scientific training and seeking to define as well as solve policy problems (2005: 246). His report identified lower poverty in white and higher in black populations, arguing that the main cause was the ‘disintegration of the African-American family’, in which racism undermined the role of black men as breadwinners, contributing to family breakdown and deviant behaviour (2005: 246). Bensonsmith (2005: 247) argues that the report contributes to black stereotypes that endured from times of slavery, including the ‘shiftless black male’ and the ‘overly fertile and lazy welfare mother’, and that such stereotypes contributed to the idea that welfare dependency helped cause ‘pathological behavior’: ‘broken homes’ have a ‘matriarchal structure’ (aided by female social workers) with no ‘strong father figure’, and a key solution for black men is the ‘masculine world’ of military service (2005: 251). This social construction informed key welfare policies in two main steps. First, black mothers were often initially excluded from social security measures designed for the widows and their dependent children: the state would take on the male role if he died, not if he chose to leave. Second, as entitlement became defined more widely, it became more closely associated with the often-incorrect idea that a disproportionate number of black families received welfare benefits. The association between welfare and race, along with a greater focus on individual responsibility for a culture of dependency, helps cause victim blaming and program retrenchment (2005: 255-6).

Schram (2005: 261) provides an often-different interpretation, arguing that the failure to recognise major ‘racial disparities in the US economy’ helps ‘whitewash’ them rather than asking the ‘hard questions’ in the pursuit of ‘racial justice’. Going too far, to argue that welfare is used more by white than black families – as argued by the Welfare Law Centre’s Welfare Myths in 1996 – can be misleading (from 1985, only the absolute figures on first time use, but not more regular use, and not proportionate calculations, support its position). It is also counterproductive because ‘racial minorities’ were ‘more likely to be living in poverty and in need of public assistance at higher rates’ (2005: 267-70). Similarly, it is tempting for advocacy groups to generate support for welfare rights by associating them with white, middle class and recently divorced mothers as ‘job ready’ and in transition from welfare to work, but problematic because it helps produce insufficient public support for other groups (2005: 281). Programs become ‘bifurcated’, with the predominantly-white male ‘breadwinner’ able to benefit from social insurance based on their previous employment, and others reliant on less generous ‘public assistance’ (2005: 282).

Insight 7: social constructions of (a) deservedness and entitlement create ‘positive identities and participation’ in politics, (b) unworthiness create ‘alienation, resignation, and failure to participate politically’ (Ingram and Schneider, 2005c: 289).

Soss (2005: 291) examines the signals that a bifurcated US social welfare system sends to specific target populations, and how they feel and respond. He examines the idea that US welfare programs have become influenced by ‘new paternalism’, focusing on the ways in which programs are designed ostensibly to encourage good citizenship. In paternalist regimes, they may be associated with ‘civility, self-restraint, and compliance with social expectations’, reflecting the pursuit of ‘social order over social justice and civic compliance over political engagement’ (2005: 292). Different programs also provide profoundly different signals about citizenship, and the signal that a person gets from one key public organization affects their views of government as a whole (2005: 309).

The ‘superior tier’ consists of depersonalised federal ‘social security’ programs, primarily for the ‘elderly or disabled’, pegged to inflation and previous earnings, and producing a positive signal to ‘rights bearing’ recipients (2005: 294-5). The rules are stringent but recipients are encouraged and rewarded, to ‘come away feeling that their claims are welcome’ (2005: 297). Recipients often receive the financial security that allows them to participate in public life as much as the general population, a signal from government that their participation efforts would have a tangible effect, and do not generate feelings of stigma that undermine collective action (2005: 308).

The ‘lower tier’ consists of less generous public assistance ‘that disproportionately serve disadvantaged groups such as people of color, women, and people who have lived in poverty’ (2005: 295). They send negative signals, with recipients attached to state or local case workers and following convoluted and dispiriting rules to establish limited entitlement. Recipients become ‘clients’, vulnerable to bureaucratic rules, entitled to very little privacy (following invasive questions, fingerprinting, and/ or drug testing in some cases), made to attend in person despite limited access to transport, and subject to ‘unpleasant procedures’ in unwelcoming offices (‘authoritarian’ in design and appearance). Many are left vulnerable, with the feeling that ‘they are not valued and their claims unwanted’ and some ‘feeling exposed and humiliated’, powerless, or ‘like cattle’ (2005: 296-9). Recipients are living in poverty and/or fleeing abusive relationships, with minimal choice but to accept these rules without complaint, left with the felling that their feedback would not alter government staff behaviour, and feeling the stigma and lack of self-worth that undermines collective action (2005: 306-7; 310).

Yet, these perceptions are not inevitable. Rather, the key example of Head Start, in which parents participate in collective decisions about the running of local services for their children, ‘provide citizens with evidence that participation can be effective and fulfilling’ (2005: 305), and expose other programs for the minimal extent to which they encourage civic engagement (2005: 321).

If you want to read part two, here it is: scpd-more-empirical-insights-section-31-12-16


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Storytelling

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

Here is the dilemma for ‘evidence-based’ ‘troubled families’ policy: there are many indicators of ‘policy based evidence’ but few (if any) feasible and ‘evidence based’ alternatives.

Viewed from the outside, TF looks like a cynical attempt to produce a quick fix to the London riots, stigmatise vulnerable populations, and hoodwink the public into thinking that the central government is controlling local outcomes and generating success.

Viewed from the inside, it is a pragmatic policy solution, informed by promising evidence which needs to be sold in the right way. For the UK government there may seem to be little alternative to this policy, given the available evidence, the need to do something for the long term and to account for itself in a Westminster system in the short term.

So, in this draft paper, I outline this disconnect between interpretations of ‘evidence based policy’ and ‘policy based evidence’ to help provide some clarity on the pragmatic use of evidence in politics:


See also:

Governments think it’s OK to use bad evidence to make good policy: the case of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’

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

In each of these posts, I note that it is difficult to know how, for example, social policy scholars should respond to these issues – but that policy studies help us identify a choice between strategies. In general, pragmatic strategies to influence the use of evidence in policy include: framing issues to catch the attention or manipulate policymaker biases, identifying where the ‘action’ is in multi-level policymaking systems, and forming coalitions with like-minded and well-connected actors. In other words, to influence rather than just comment on policy, we need to understand how policymakers would respond to external evaluation. So, a greater understanding the routine motives of policymakers can help produce more effective criticism of its problematic use of evidence. In social policy, there is an acute dilemma about the choice between engagement, to influence and be influenced by policymakers, and detachment to ensure critical distance. If choosing the latter, we need to think harder about how criticism of PBE makes a difference.


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

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

Imagine this as your ‘early intervention’ policy choice: (a) a universal and non-stigmatising programme for all parents/ children, with minimal evidence of effectiveness, high cost, and potential public opposition about the state intervening in family life; or (b) a targeted, stigmatising programme for a small number, with more evidence, less cost, but the sense that you are not really intervening ‘early’ (instead, you are waiting for problems to arise before you intervene). What would you do, and how would you sell your choice to the public?

I ask this question because ‘early intervention’ seems to the classic valence issue with a twist. Most people seem to want it in the abstract: isn’t it best to intervene as early as possible in a child’s life to protect them or improve their life chances?

However, profound problems or controversies arise when governments try to pursue it. There are many more choices than I presented, but the same basic trade-offs arise in each case. So, at the start, it looks like you have lucked onto a policy that almost everyone loves. At the end, you realise that you can’t win. There is no such thing as a valence issue at the point of policy choice and delivery.

To expand on these dilemmas in more depth, I compare cases of Scottish and UK Government ‘families policies’. In previous posts, I portrayed their differences – at least in the field of prevention and early intervention policies – as more difficult to pin down than you might think. Often, they either say the same things but ‘operationalise’ them in very different ways, or describe very different problems then select very similar solutions.

This basic description sums up very similar waves of key ‘families policies’ since devolution: an initial focus on social inclusion, then anti-social behaviour, followed by a contemporary focus on ‘whole family’ approaches and early intervention. I will show how they often go their own ways, but note the same basic context for choice, and similar choices, which help qualify that picture.

Early intervention & prevention policies are valence issues …

A valence (or ‘motherhood and apple pie’) issue is one in which you can generate huge support because the aim seems, to most people, to be obviously good. Broad aims include ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. In the UK specific aims include a national health service free at the point of use. We often focus on valence issues to highlight the importance of a political party’s or leader’s image of governing competence: it is not so much what we want (when the main parties support very similar things), but who you trust to get it.

Early intervention seems to fit the bill: who would want you to intervene late or too late in someone’s life when you can intervene early, to boost their life chances at an early stage as possible? All we have to do is work out how to do it well, with reference to some good evidence. Yet, as I discuss below, things get complicated as soon as we consider the types of early intervention available, generally described roughly as a spectrum from primary (stop a problem occurring and focus on the whole population – like a virus inoculation) to secondary (address a problem at an early stage, using proxy indicators to identify high-risk groups), and tertiary (stop a problem getting worse in already affected groups).

Similarly, look at how Emily St Denny and I describe prevention policy. Would many people object to the basic principles?

“In the name of prevention, the UK and Scottish Governments propose to radically change policy and policymaking across the whole of government. Their deceptively simple definition of ‘prevention policy’ is: a major shift in resources, from the delivery of reactive public services to solve acute problems, to the prevention of those problems before they occur. The results they promise are transformative, to address three crises in politics simultaneously: a major reduction in socioeconomic equalities by focusing on their ‘root causes’; a solution to unsustainable public spending which is pushing public services to breaking point; and, new forms of localised policymaking, built on community and service user engagement, to restore trust in politics”.

… but the evidence on their effectiveness is inconvenient …

A good simple rule about ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is that there is never a ‘magic bullet’ to tell you what to do or take the place of judgement. Politics is about making choices which benefit some people while others lose out. You can use evidence to help clarify those choices, but not produce a ‘technical’ solution. A further rule with ‘wicked’ problems is that the evidence is not good enough even to generate clarity about the cause of the problem. Or, you simply find out things you don’t want to hear.

Early intervention seems to be a good candidate for the latter, for three main reasons:

  1. Very few interventions live up to high evidence standards

There are two main types of relevant ‘evidence based’ interventions in this field. The first are ‘family intervention projects’ (FIPs). They generally focus on low income, often lone parent, families at risk of eviction linked to factors such as antisocial behaviour, and provide two forms of intervention: intensive 24/7 support, including after school clubs for children and parenting skills classes, and treatment for addiction or depression in some cases, in dedicated core accommodation with strict rules on access and behaviour; and an outreach model of support and training. The evidence of success comes from evaluation and a counterfactual: this intervention is expensive, but we think that it would have cost far more money and heartache if we had not intervened to prevent (for example) family homelessness. There is generally no randomised control trial (RCT) to establish the cause of improved outcomes, or demonstrate that those outcomes would not have happened without an intervention of this sort.

The second are projects imported from other countries (primarily the US and Australia) based on their reputation for success. This reputation has been generated according to evidential rules associated with ‘evidence based medicine’ (EBM), in which there is relatively strong adherence to a hierarchy of evidence, with RCTs and their systematic review at the top, and the belief that there should be ‘fidelity’ to programmes to make sure that the ‘dosage’ of the intervention is delivered properly and its effect measured. Key examples include the Family Nurse Partnership (although its first UK RCT evaluation was not promising), Triple P (although James Coyne has his doubts!), and Incredible Years (but note the importance of ‘indicated’ versus ‘selective’ programmes, below). In this approach, there may be more quantitative evidence of success, but it is still difficult to know if the project can be transferred effectively and if its success can be replicated in another country with a very different political drivers, problems, and levels of existing services. We know that some interventions are associated with positive outcomes, but we struggle to establish definitively that they caused them (solely, separate from their context).

  1. The evidence on ‘scaling up’ for primary prevention is relatively weak

Kenneth Dodge (2009) sums up a general problem with primary prevention in this field. It is difficult to see much evidence of success because: there are few examples of taking effective specialist projects ‘to scale’; there are major issues around ‘fidelity’ to the original project when you scale up (including the need to oversee a major expansion in well-trained practitioners); and, it is difficult to predict the effect of a programme, which showed promise when applied to one population, to a new and different population.

  1. The evidence on secondary early intervention is also weak

This point about different populations with different motivations is demonstrated in a more recent (published 2014) study by Stephen Scott et al of two Incredible Years interventions – to address ‘oppositional defiant disorder symptoms and antisocial personality character traits’ in children aged 3-7 (for a wider discussion of such programmes see the Early Intervention Foundation’s Foundations for life: what works to support parent child interaction in the early years?).

They highlight a classic dilemma in early intervention: the evidence of effectiveness is only clear when children have been clinically referred (‘indicated approach’), but unclear when children have been identified as high risk using socioeconomic predictors (‘selective approach’):

An indicated approach is simpler to administer, as there are fewer children with severe problems, they are easier to identify, and their parents are usually prepared to engage in treatment; however, the problems may already be too entrenched to treat. In contrast, a selective approach targets milder cases, but because problems are less established, whole populations have to be screened and fewer cases will go on to develop serious problems.

For our purposes, this may represent the most inconvenient form of evidence on early intervention: you can intervene early on the back of very limited evidence of likely success, or have a far higher likelihood of success when you intervene later, when you are running out of time to call it ‘early intervention’.

… so governments have to make and defend highly ‘political’ choices …

I think this is key context in which we can try to understand the often-different choices by the UK and Scottish Governments. Faced with the same broad aim, to intervene early to prevent poor outcomes, the same uncertainty and lack of evidence that their interventions will produce the desired effect, and the same need to DO SOMETHING rather than wait for the evidence that may never arise, what do they do?

Both governments often did remarkably similar things before they did different things

From the late 1990s, both governments placed primary emphasis initially on a positive social inclusion agenda, followed by a relatively negative focus on anti-social behaviour (ASB), before a renewed focus on the social determinants of inequalities and the use of early intervention to prevent poor outcomes.

Both governments link families policies strongly to parenting skills, reinforcing the idea that parents are primarily responsible for the life chances of their children.

Both governments talk about getting away from deficit models of intervention (the Scottish Government in particular focuses on the ‘assets’ of individuals, families, and communities) but use deficit-model proxies to identify families in need of support, including: lone parenthood, debt problems, ill health (including disability and depression), and at least one member subject to domestic abuse or intergenerational violence, as well as professional judgements on the ‘chaotic’ or ‘dysfunctional’ nature of family life and of the likelihood of ‘family breakdown’ when, for example, a child it taken into care.

So, when we consider their headline-grabbing differences, note this common set of problems and drivers, and similar responses.

… and selling their early intervention choices is remarkably difficult …

Although our starting point was valence politics, prevention and early intervention policies are incredibly hard to get off the ground. As Emily St Denny and I describe elsewhere, when policymakers ‘make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate the scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution’.

These constraints refer to the broad idea of prevention policy, while specific policies can involve different drivers and constraints. With general prevention policy, it is difficult to know what government policy is and how you measure its success. ‘Prevention’ is vague, plus governments encourage local discretion to adapt the evidence of ‘what works’ to local circumstances.

Governments don’t get away with this regarding specific policies. Instead, Westminster politics is built on a simple idea of accountability in which you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. UK central governments have to maintain some semblance of control because they know that people will try to hold them to account in elections and general debate. This ‘top down’ perspective has an enduring effect, particularly in the UK, but also the Scottish, government.

… so the UK Government goes for it and faces the consequences ….

‘Troubled Families’ in England: the massive expansion of secondary prevention?

So, although prevention policy is vague, individual programmes such as ‘troubled families’ contain enough detail to generate intense debate on central government policy and performance and contain elements which emphasise high central direction, including sustained ministerial commitment, a determination to demonstrate early success to justify a further rollout of policy, and performance management geared towards specific measurable short term outcomes – even if the broader aim is to encourage local discretion and successful long term outcomes.

In the absence of unequivocally supportive evidence (which may never appear), the UK government relied on a crisis (the London riots in 2011) to sell policy, and ridiculous processes of estimation of the size of the problem and performance measurement to sell the success of its solution. In this system, ministers perceive the need to display strength, show certainty that they have correctly diagnosed a problem and its solution, and claim success using the ‘currency’ of Westminster politics – and to do these things far more quickly than the people gathering evidence of more substantive success. There is a lot of criticism of the programme in terms of its lack, or cynical use, of evidence but little of it considers policy from an elected government’s perspective.

…while the Scottish Government is more careful, but faces unintended consequences

This particular UK Government response has no parallel in Scotland. The UK Government is far more likely than its Scottish counterpart to link families policies to a moral agenda in response to crisis, and there is no Scottish Government equivalent to ‘payment by results’ and massive programme expansion. Instead, it continued more modest roll-outs in partnership with local public bodies. Indeed, if we ‘zoom in’ to this one example, at this point in time, the comparison confirms the idea of a ‘Scottish Approach’ to policy and policymaking.

Yet, the Scottish Government has not solved the problems I describe in this post: it has not found an alternative ‘evidence based’ way to ‘scale up’ early intervention significantly and move from secondary/ tertiary forms of prevention to the more universal/ primary initiatives that you might associate intuitively with prevention policy.

Instead, its different experiences have highlighted different issues. For example, its key vehicle for early intervention and prevention is the ‘collaborative’ approach, such as in the Early Years Collaborative. Possibly, it represents the opposite of the UK’s attempt to centralise and performance-manage-the-hell-out-of the direction of major expansion.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

Certainty, with this approach, your main aim is not to generate evidence of the success of interventions – at least not in the way we associate with ‘evidence based medicine’, randomised control trials, and the star ratings developed by the Early Intervention Foundation. Rather, the aim is to train local practitioners to use existing evidence and adapt it to local circumstances, experimenting as you go, and gathering/using data on progress in ways not associated with, for example, the family nurse partnership.

So, in terms of the discussion so far, perhaps its main advantage is that a government does not have to sell its political choices (it is more of a delivery system than a specific intervention) or back them up with evidence of success elsewhere. In the absence of much public, media, or political party attention, maybe it’s a nice pragmatic political solution built more on governance principles than specific evidence.

Yet, despite our fixation with the constitution, some policy issues do occasionally get discussed. For our purposes, the most relevant is the ‘named person’ scheme because it looks like a way to ‘scale up’ an initiative to support a universal or primary prevention approach and avoid stigmatising some groups by offering a service to everyone (in this respect, it is the antithesis to ‘troubled families’). In this case, all children in Scotland (and their parents or guardians) get access to a senior member of a public service, and that person acts as a way to ‘join up’ a public sector response to a child’s problems.

Interestingly, this universal approach has its own problems. ‘Troubled families’ sets up a distinction between troubled/ untroubled to limit its proposed intervention in family life. Its problem is the potential to stigmatise and demoralise ‘troubled’ families. ‘Named person’ shows the potential for greater outcry when governments try to not identify and stigmatise specific families. The scheme is largely a response to the continuous suggestion – made after high profile cases of child abuse or neglect – that children can suffer when no agency takes overall responsibility for their care, but has been opposed as excessive infringement on normal family life and data protection, successfully enough to delay its implementation.

The punchline to early intervention as a valence issue

Problems arise almost instantly when you try to turn a valence issue into something concrete. A vague and widely-supported policy, to intervene early to prevent bad outcomes, becomes a set of policy choices based on how governments frame the balance between ideology, stigma, and the evidence of the impact and cost-effectiveness of key interventions (which is often very limited).

Their experiences are not always directly comparable, but the UK and Scottish Governments have helped show us the pitfalls of concrete approaches to prevention and early intervention. They help us show that your basic policy choices include: (a) targeted programmes which increase stigma, (b) ‘indicated’ approaches which don’t always look like early intervention; (c) ‘selective’ approaches which seem to be less effective despite intervening at an earlier stage, (d) universal programmes which might cross a notional line between the state and the family, and (e) approaches which focus primarily on local experimentation with uncertain outcomes.

None of these approaches provide a solution to the early intervention dilemmas that all governments face, and there is no easy way to choose between approaches. We can make these choices more informed and systematic, by highlighting how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together, and somehow comparing their intended and unintended consequences. However, this process does not replace political judgement – and quite right too – because there is no such thing as a valence issue at the point of policy choice and delivery.






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

Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: Labour, Brexit, and evidence-based policymaking

In a series of heroic leaps of logic, I aim to highlight some important links between three current concerns: Labour’s leadership contest, the Brexit vote built on emotion over facts, and the insufficient use of evidence in policy. In each case, there is a notional competition between ‘idealism’ and ‘pragmatism’ (as defined in common use, not philosophy); the often-unrealistic pursuit of a long term ideal versus the focus on solving more immediate problems often by compromising ideals and getting your hands dirty. We know what this looks like in party politics, including the compromises that politicians make to win elections and the consequences for their image, but do we know how to make the same compromises when we appeal for a more deliberative referendum or more evidence-informed policymaking?

I searched Google for a few minutes until I found a decent hook for this post. It is a short Forbes article by Susan Gunelius advocating a good mix of pragmatic and idealistic team members:

Pragmatic leaders focus on the practical, “how do we get this done,” side of any task, initiative or goal.  They can erroneously be viewed as negative in their approach when in fact they simply view the entire picture (roadblocks included) to get to the end result.  It’s a linear, practical way of thinking and “doing.”

Idealist leaders focus on the visionary, big ideas.  It could be argued that they focus more on the end result than the path to get there, and they can erroneously be viewed as looking through rose-colored glasses when, in fact, they simply “see” the end goal and truly believe there is a way to get there”.

On the surface, it’s a neat description of the current battle to win the Labour party, with Jeremy Corbyn representing the idealist willing to lose elections to stay true to the pure ideal, and Owen Smith representing the pragmatist willing to compromise on the ideal to win an election.

In this context, pragmatic politicians face a dilemma that we often take for granted in party politics: they want to look flexible enough to command the ‘centre’ ground, but also appear principled and unwilling to give up completely on their values to secure office. Perhaps pragmatists also accept to a large extent that the means can justify the ends: they can compromise their integrity and break a few rules to win office if it means that they serve the long term greater good as a result (in this case, better a compromised socialist than a Tory government). So, politicians accept that a slightly tarnished image is the price you pay to get what you want.

For current purposes, let us assume that you are the kind of person drawn more to the pragmatist rather than the idealist politician; you despair at the naiveté of the idealist politician, and expect to see them fail rather than gain office.

If so, how might we draw comparisons with other areas in politics and policymaking?

Referendums should be driven by facts and an intelligent public, not lies and emotions

Many people either joke or complain seriously about most of the public being too stupid to engage effectively in elections and referendums. I will use this joke about Trump because I saw it as a meme, and on Facebook it has 49000 smiley faces already:


An more serious idealistic argument about the Brexit vote goes something like this:

  • the case for Remain was relatively strong and backed by most of the best experts
  • most Leave voters ignored or mistrusted the experts
  • the Leave campaign was riddled with lies and exaggerations; and,
  • a large chunk of the public was not intelligent enough to separate the lies from the facts.

You often have to read between the lines and piece together this argument, but Dame Liz Forgan recently did me a favour by spelling out a key part in a speech to the British Academy:

Democracies require not just literate and numerate electorates. They need people who cannot be sold snake oil by every passing shyster because their critical faculties have been properly honed. Whose popular culture has not degenerated so completely that every shopping channel hostess is classed as a celebrity. Where post-modern irony doesn’t undermine both honest relaxation and serious endeavour. Where the idea of a post-factual age is seen as an acute peril not an amusing cultural meme. If the events of June have taught us anything it is that we need to put the rigour back in our education, the search for truth back in our media.

Of course, I have cherry picked the juiciest part to highlight a sense of idealism that I have seen in many places. Let’s link it back to our despair at the naïvely idealist politician: doesn’t this look quite similar? If we took this line, and pursued public education as our main solution to Brexit, wouldn’t people think that we are doomed to fail in the long term and lose a lot of other votes on the way?

Another (albeit quicker and less idealistic) solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement. Yet, if the problem is that people are too stupid or emotional to process facts, it doesn’t seem that much more effective.

At this stage, I’d like to say: instead of clinging to idealism, let’s be pragmatic about this. If you despair of the world, get your hands dirty to win key votes rather than hope that people will do the right thing or wait for a sufficiently ‘rational’ public.

Yet, I don’t think we yet know enough about how to do it and how far ‘experts’ should go, particularly since many experts are funded – directly or indirectly – by the state and are subject to different (albeit often unwritten) rules than politicians. So, in a separate post, I provide some bland advice that might apply to all:

  • Don’t simply supply people with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely to demand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

Yet, if we think that other referendum participants are winning because they are lying and cheating, we might also think that honourable strategies won’t tip the balance. We know that, like pragmatic politicians, we might need to go a bit further to win key debates. Anything else is idealism, right?

Policy should be based on evidence, not electoral politics, ideology and emotion

The same can be said for many scientists bemoaning the lack of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM). Some express the naïve hope that politicians become trained to think like scientists and/ or the view that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts. This seems to be EBPM’s equivalent of idealism, in which you largely wish for something that won’t exist rather than trying to produce pragmatic strategies for the real world.

A more pragmatic two-step solution is to:

(1) work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate (which I describe in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking, and with Kathryn Oliver and Adam Wellstead in PAR).

(2) draw on as many interdisciplinary insights to explore how to do something about it, such as to establish the psychology of policymakers and identify good ways to tell simple stories to generate an emotional connection to your evidence (which I describe in a forthcoming special issue in Palgrave Communications).

Should academics remain idealists rather than pragmatists?

Of course, it is legitimate to take what I am calling an idealistic approach. In politics, Corbyn’s idealism is certainly capturing a part of the public imagination (while another part of the public watches on, sniggering or aghast). In the Academy, it may be a part of a legitimate attempt to maintain your integrity by not engaging directly in politics or policymaking, and/or accepting that academics largely contribute to a very long term enlightenment function rather than enjoy immediate impact. All I am saying is that you need to choose and, if you seek more direct impact, you need to forego idealism and start thinking about what it means to be pragmatic while pursuing ‘evidence informed’ politics.

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