This post first appeared on LSE British Politics and Policy (27.11.20) and is based on this article in British Politics.
Paul Cairneyassesses government policy in the first half of 2020. He identifies the intense criticism of its response so far, encouraging more systematic assessments grounded in policy research.
In March 2020, COVID-19 prompted policy change in the UK at a speed and scale only seen during wartime. According to the UK government, policy was informed heavily by science advice. Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that, ‘At all stages, we have been guided by the science, and we will do the right thing at the right time’. Further, key scientific advisers such as Sir Patrick Vallance emphasised the need to gather evidence continuously to model the epidemic and identify key points at which to intervene, to reduce the size of the peak of population illness initially, then manage the spread of the virus over the longer term.
Both ministers and advisors emphasised the need for individual behavioural change, supplemented by government action, in a liberal democracy in which direct imposition is unusual and unsustainable. However, for its critics, the government experience has quickly become an exemplar of policy failure.
Initial criticisms include that ministers did not take COVID-19 seriously enough in relation to existing evidence, when its devastating effect was apparent in China in January and Italy from February; act as quickly as other countries to test for infection to limit its spread; or introduce swift-enough measures to close schools, businesses, and major social events. Subsequent criticisms highlight problems in securing personal protective equipment (PPE), testing capacity, and an effective test-trace-and-isolate system. Some suggest that the UK government was responding to the ‘wrong pandemic’, assuming that COVID-19 could be treated like influenza. Others blame ministers for not pursuing an elimination strategy to minimise its spread until a vaccine could be developed. Some criticise their over-reliance on models which underestimated the R (rate of transmission) and ‘doubling time’ of cases and contributed to a 2-week delay of lockdown. Many describe these problems and delays as the contributors to the UK’s internationally high number of excess deaths.
How can we hold ministers to account in a meaningful way?
I argue that these debates are often fruitless and too narrow because they do not involve systematic policy analysis, take into account what policymakers can actually do, or widen debate to consider whose lives matter to policymakers. Drawing on three policy analysis perspectives, I explore the questions that we should ask to hold ministers to account in a way that encourages meaningful learning from early experience.
These questions include:
Was the government’s definition of the problem appropriate? Much analysis of UK government competence relates to specific deficiencies in preparation (such as shortages in PPE), immediate action (such as to discharge people from hospitals to care homes without testing them for COVID-19), and implementation (such as an imperfect test-trace-and-isolate system). The broader issue relates to its focus on intervening in late March to protect healthcare capacity during a peak of infection, rather than taking a quicker and more precautionary approach. This judgment relates largely to its definition of the policy problem which underpins every subsequent policy intervention.
Did the government select the right policy mix at the right time? Who benefits most from its choices?
Most debates focus on the ‘lock down or not?’ question without exploring fully the unequal impact of any action. The government initially relied on exhortation, based on voluntarism and an appeal to social responsibility. Initial policy inaction had unequal consequences on social groups, including people with underlying health conditions, black and ethnic minority populations more susceptible to mortality at work or discrimination by public services, care home residents, disabled people unable to receive services, non-UK citizens obliged to pay more to live and work while less able to access public funds, and populations (such as prisoners and drug users) that receive minimal public sympathy. Then, in March, its ‘stay at home’ requirement initiated a major new policy and different unequal impacts in relation to the income, employment, and wellbeing of different groups. These inequalities are list in more general discussions of impacts on the whole population.
Did the UK government make the right choices on the trade-offs between values, and what impacts could the government have reasonably predicted?
Initially, the most high-profile value judgment related to freedom from state coercion to reduce infection versus freedom from the harm of infection caused by others. Then, values underpinned choices on the equitable distribution of measures to mitigate the economic and wellbeing consequences of lockdown. A tendency for the UK government to project centralised and ‘guided by the science’ policymaking has undermined public deliberation on these trade-offs between policies. The latter will be crucial to ongoing debates on the trade-offs associated with national and regional lockdowns.
Did the UK government combine good policy with good policymaking?
A problem like COVID-19 requires trial-and-error policymaking on a scale that seems incomparable to previous experiences. It requires further reflection on how to foster transparent and adaptive policymaking and widespread public ownership for unprecedented policy measures, in a political system characterised by (a) accountability focused incorrectly on strong central government control and (b) adversarial politics that is not conducive to consensus seeking and cooperation.
These additional perspectives and questions show that too-narrow questions – such as was the UK government ‘following the science’ – do not help us understand the longer term development and wider consequences of UK COVID-19 policy. Indeed, such a narrow focus on science marginalises wider discussions of values and the populations that are most disadvantaged by government policy.
This post first appeared as Who controls public policy? on the UK in a Changing Europe website. There is also a 1-minute video, but you would need to be a completist to want to watch it.
Most coverage of British politics focuses on the powers of a small group of people at the heart of government. In contrast, my research on public policy highlights two major limits to those powers, related to the enormous number of problems that policymakers face, and to the sheer size of the government machine.
First, elected policymakers simply do not have the ability to properly understand, let alone solve, the many complex policy problems they face. They deal with this limitation by paying unusually high attention to a small number of problems and effectively ignoring the rest.
Second, policymakers rely on a huge government machine and network of organisations (containing over 5 million public employees) essential to policy delivery, and oversee a statute book which they could not possibly understand.
In other words, they have limited knowledge and even less control of the state, and have to make choices without knowing how they relate to existing policies (or even what happens next).
These limits to ministerial powers should prompt us to think differently about how to hold them to account. If they only have the ability to influence a small proportion of government business, should we blame them for everything that happens in their name?
My approach is to apply these general insights to specific problems in British politics. Three examples help to illustrate their ability to inform British politics in new ways.
First, policymaking can never be ‘evidence based’. Some scientists cling to the idea that the ‘best’ evidence should always catch the attention of policymakers, and assume that ‘speaking truth to power’ helps evidence win the day.
The truth is that policymakers only have the capacity to consider a tiny proportion of all available information. Therefore, they must find efficient ways to ignore almost all evidence to make timely choices.
Second, the UK government cannot ‘take back control’ of policy following Brexit simply because it was not in control of policy before the UK joined. The idea of control is built on the false image of a powerful centre of government led by a small number of elected policymakers.
This way of thinking assumes that sharing power is simply a choice. However, sharing power and responsibility is borne of necessity because the British state is too large to be manageable.
Governments manage this complexity by breaking down their responsibilities into many government departments. Still, ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues managed by each department. They delegate most of their responsibilities to civil servants, agencies, and other parts of the public sector.
In turn, those organisations rely on interest groups and experts to provide information and advice.
As a result, most public policy is conducted through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that operate out of the public spotlight and with minimal elected policymaker involvement.
The logical conclusion is that senior elected politicians are less important than people think. While we like to think of ministers sitting in Whitehall and taking crucial decisions, most of these decisions are taken in their name but without their intervention.
Third, the current pandemic underlines all too clearly the limits of government power. Of course people are pondering the degree to which we can blame UK government ministers for poor choices in relation to Covid-19, or learn from their mistakes to inform better policy.
Many focus on the extent to which ministers were ‘guided by the science’. However, at the onset of a new crisis, government scientists face the same uncertainty about the nature of the policy problem, and ministers are not really able to tell if a Covid-19 policy would work as intended or receive enough public support.
Some examples from the UK experience expose the limited extent to which policymakers can understand, far less control, an emerging crisis.
Prior to the lockdown, neither scientists nor ministers knew how many people were infected, nor when levels of infection would peak.
They had limited capacity to test. They did not know how often (and how well) people wash their hands. They did not expect people to accept and follow strict lockdown rules so readily, and did not know which combination of measures would have the biggest impact.
When supporting businesses and workers during ‘furlough’, they did not know who would be affected and therefore how much the scheme would cost.
In short, while Covid-19 has prompted policy change and state intervention on a scale not witnessed outside of wartime, the government has never really known what impact its measures would have.
Overall, the take-home message is that the UK narrative of strong central government control is damaging to political debate and undermines policy learning. It suggests that every poor outcome is simply the consequence of bad choices by powerful leaders. If so, we are unable to distinguish between the limited competence of some leaders and the limited powers of them all.
Paul Cairney (2020) ‘The UK Government’s COVID-19 policy: assessing evidence-informed policy analysis in real time’, British Politicshttps://rdcu.be/b9zAk (PDF)
The coronavirus feels like a new policy problem that requires new policy analysis. The analysis should be informed by (a) good evidence, translated into (b) good policy. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that either of those things are straightforward. There are simple-looking steps to go from defining a problem to making a recommendation, but this simplicity masks the profoundly political process that must take place. Each step in analysis involves political choices to prioritise some problems and solutions over others, and therefore prioritise some people’s lives at the expense of others.
My article in British Politics takes us through those steps in the UK, and situates them in a wider political and policymaking context. This post is shorter, and only scratches the surface of analysis.
5 steps to policy analysis
Define the problem.
Perhaps we can sum up the initial UK government approach as: (a) the impact of this virus and illness will be a level of death and illness that could overwhelm the population and exceed the capacity of public services, so (b) we need to contain the virus enough to make sure it spreads in the right way at the right time, so (c) we need to encourage and make people change their behaviour (primarily via hygiene and social distancing). However, there are many ways to frame this problem to emphasise the importance of some populations over others, and some impacts over others.
Identify technically and politically feasible solutions.
Solutions are not really solutions: they are policy instruments that address one aspect of the problem, including taxation and spending, delivering public services, funding research, giving advice to the population, and regulating or encouraging changes to social behaviour. Each new instrument contributes an existing mix, with unpredictable and unintended consequences. Some instruments seem technically feasible (they will work as intended if implemented), but will not be adopted unless politically feasible (enough people support their introduction). Or vice versa. From the UK government’s perspective, this dual requirement rules out a lot of responses.
Use values and goals to compare solutions.
Typical judgements combine: (a) broad descriptions of values such as efficiency, fairness, freedom, security, and human dignity, (b) instrumental goals, such as sustainable policymaking (can we do it, and for how long?), and political feasibility (will people agree to it, and will it make me more or less popular or trusted?), and (c) the process to make choices, such as the extent to which a policy process involves citizens or stakeholders (alongside experts) in deliberation. They combine to help policymakers come to high profile choices (such as the balance between individual freedom and state coercion), and low profile but profound choices (to influence the level of public service capacity, and level of state intervention, and therefore who and how many people will die).
Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.
It is difficult to envisage a way for the UK Government to publicise all of the thinking behind its choices (Step 3) and predictions (Step 4) in a way that would encourage effective public deliberation. People often call for the UK Government to publicise its expert advice and operational logic, but I am not sure how they would separate it from their normative logic about who should live or die, or provide a frank account without unintended consequences for public trust or anxiety. If so, one aspect of government policy is to keep some choices implicit and avoid a lot of debate on trade-offs. Another is to make choices continuously without knowing what their impact will be (the most likely scenario right now).
Make a choice, or recommendation to your client.
Your recommendation or choice would build on these four steps. Define the problem with one framing at the expense of the others. Romanticise some people and not others. Decide how to support some people, and coerce or punish others. Prioritise the lives of some people in the knowledge that others will suffer or die. Do it despite your lack of expertise and profoundly limited knowledge and information. Learn from experts, but don’t assume that only scientific experts have relevant knowledge (decolonise; coproduce). Recommend choices that, if damaging, could take decades to fix after you’ve gone. Consider if a policymaker is willing and able to act on your advice, and if your proposed action will work as intended. Consider if a government is willing and able to bear the economic and political costs. Protect your client’s popularity, and trust in your client, at the same time as protecting lives. Consider if your advice would change if the problem seemed to change. If you are writing your analysis, maybe keep it down to one sheet of paper (in other words, fewer words than in this post up to this point).
Policy analysis is not as simple as these steps suggest, and further analysis of the wider policymaking environment helps describe two profound limitations to simple analytical thought and action.
Policymakers must ignore almost all evidence
The amount of policy relevant information is infinite, and capacity is finite. So, individuals and governments need ways to filter out almost all of it. Individuals combine cognition and emotion to help them make choices efficiently, and governments have equivalent rules to prioritise only some information. They include: define a problem and a feasible response, seek information that is available, understandable, and actionable, and identify credible sources of information and advice. In that context, the vague idea of trusting or not trusting experts is nonsense, and the larger post highlights the many flawed ways in which all people decide whose expertise counts.
They do not control the policy process.
Policymakers engage in a messy and unpredictable world in which no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a policy recommendation into an outcome.
There are many policymakers and influencers spread across a political system. For example, consider the extent to which each government department, devolved governments, and public and private organisations are making their own choices that help or hinder the UK government approach.
Most choices in government are made in ‘subsystems’, with their own rules and networks, over which ministers have limited knowledge and influence.
The social and economic context, and events, are largely out of their control.
The take home messages (if you accept this line of thinking)
The coronavirus is an extreme example of a general situation: policymakers will always have very limited knowledge of policy problems and control over their policymaking environment. They make choices to frame problems narrowly enough to seem solvable, rule out most solutions as not feasible, make value judgements to try help some more than others, try to predict the results, and respond when the results do not match their hopes or expectations.
This is not a message of doom and despair. Rather, it encourages us to think about how to influence government, and hold policymakers to account, in a thoughtful and systematic way that does not mislead the public or exacerbate the problem we are seeing. No one is helping their government solve the problem by saying stupid shit on the internet (OK, that last bit was a message of despair).
The article (PDF) sets out these arguments in much more detail, with some links to further thoughts and developments.
This series of ‘750 words’ posts summarises key texts in policy analysis and tries to situate policy analysis in a wider political and policymaking context. Note the focus on whose knowledge counts, which is not yet a big feature of this crisis.
These series of 500 words and 1000 words posts (with podcasts) summarise concepts and theories in policy studies.
This is the long version. It is long. Too long to call a blog post. Let’s call it a ‘living document’ that I update and amend as new developments arise (then start turning into a more organised paper). In most cases, I am adding tweets, so the date of the update is embedded. If I add a new section, I will add a date. If you seek specific topics (like ‘herd immunity’), it might be worth doing a search. The short version is shorter.
The coronavirus feels like a new policy problem. Governments already have policies for public health crises, but the level of uncertainty about the spread and impact of this virus seems to be taking it to a new level of policy, media, and public attention. The UK Government’s Prime Minister calls it ‘the worst public health crisis for a generation’.
As such, there is no shortage of opinions on what to do, but there is a shortage of well-considered opinions, producing little consensus. Many people are rushing to judgement and expressing remarkably firm opinions about the best solutions, but their contributions add up to contradictory evaluations, in which:
the government is doing precisely the right thing or the completely wrong thing,
we should listen to this expert saying one thing or another expert saying the opposite.
Lots of otherwise-sensible people are doing what they bemoan in politicians: rushing to judgement, largely accepting or sharing evidence only if it reinforces that judgement, and/or using their interpretation of any new development to settle scores with their opponents.
Yet, anyone who feels, without uncertainty, that they have the best definition of, and solution to, this problem is a fool. If people are also sharing bad information and advice, they are dangerous fools. Further, as Professor Madley puts it (in the video below), ‘anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen over the next six months is lying’.
In that context, how can we make sense of public policy to address the coronavirus in a more systematic way?
Studies of policy analysis and policymaking do not solve a policy problem, but they at least give us a language to think it through.
In each step, note how quickly it is possible to be overwhelmed by uncertainty and ambiguity, even when the issue seems so simple at first.
Note how difficult it is to move from Step 1, and to separate Step 1 from the others. It is difficult to define the problem without relating it to the solution (or to the ways in which we will evaluate each solution).
Let’s relate that analysis to research on policymaking, to understand the wider context in which people pay attention to, and try to address, important problems that are largely out of their control.
Throughout, note that I am describing a thought process as simply as I can, not a full examination of relevant evidence. I am highlighting the problems that people face when ‘diagnosing’ policy problems, not trying to diagnose it myself. To do so, I draw initially on common advice from the key policy analysis texts (summaries of the texts that policy analysis students are most likely to read) that simplify the process a little too much. Still, the thought process that it encourages took me hours alone (spread over three days) to produce no real conclusion. Policymakers and advisers, in the thick of this problem, do not have that luxury of time or uncertainty.
In our latest guest blog, Jonny Pearson-Stuttard, RSPH Trustee and Public Health Doctor @imperialcollege sets out what we know about the spread of coronavirus to date, and why the Government has taken the measures it hashttps://t.co/XM7zKKjwtE
Provide a diagnosis of a policy problem, using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention.
Identify its severity, urgency, cause, and our ability to solve it. Don’t define the wrong problem, such as by oversimplifying.
Problem definition is a political act of framing, as part of a narrative to evaluate the nature, cause, size, and urgency of an issue.
Define the nature of a policy problem, and the role of government in solving it, while engaging with many stakeholders.
‘Diagnose the undesirable condition’ and frame it as ‘a market or government failure (or maybe both)’.
Coronavirus as a physical problem is not the same as a coronavirus policy problem. To define the physical problem is to identify the nature, spread, and impact of a virus and illness on individuals and populations. To define a policy problem, we identify the physical problem and relate it (implicitly or explicitly) to what we think a government can, and should, do about it. Put more provocatively, it is only a policy problem if policymakers are willing and able to offer some kind of solution.
This point may seem semantic, but it raises a profound question about the capacity of any government to solve a problem like an epidemic, or for governments to cooperate to solve a pandemic. It is easy for an outsider to exhort a government to ‘do something!’ (or ‘ACT NOW!’) and express certainty about what would happen. However, policymakers inside government:
Do not enjoy the same confidence that they know what is happening, or that their actions will have their intended consequences, and
Will think twice about trying to regulate social behaviour under those circumstances, especially when they
Know that any action or inaction will benefit some and punish others.
For example, can a government make people wash their hands? Or, if it restricts gatherings at large events, can it stop people gathering somewhere else, with worse impact? If it closes a school, can it stop children from going to their grandparents to be looked after until it reopens? There are 101 similar questions and, in each case, I reckon the answer is no. Maybe government action has some of the desired impact; maybe not. If you agree, then the question might be: what would it really take to force people to change their behaviour?
The ideal spread involves all well people sharing the virus first, while all vulnerable people (e.g. older, and/or with existing health problems that affect their immune systems) protected in one isolated space, but it won’t happen like that; so, we are trying to minimise damage in the real world.
We mainly track the spread via deaths, with data showing a major spike appearing one month later, so the problem may only seem real to most people when it is too late to change behaviour
The choice in theory is between a rapid epidemic with a high peak, or a slowed-down epidemic over a longer period, but ‘anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen over the next six months is lying’.
Maybe this epidemic will be so memorable as to shift social behaviour, but so much depends on trying to predict (badly) if individuals will actually change (see also Spiegelhalter on communicating risk).
None of this account tells policymakers what to do, but at least it helps them clarify three key aspects of their policy problem:
The impact of this virus and illness could overwhelm the population, to the extent that it causes mass deaths, causes a level of illness that exceeds the capacity of health services to treat, and contributes to an unpredictable amount of social and economic damage.
We need to contain the virus enough to make sure it (a) spreads at the right speed and/or (b) peaks at the right time. The right speed seems to be: a level that allows most people to recover alone, while the most vulnerable are treated well in healthcare settings that have enough capacity. The right time seems to be the part of the year with the lowest demand on health services (e.g. summer is better than winter). In other words, (a) reduce the size of the peak by ‘flattening the curve’, and/or (b) find the right time of year to address the peak, while (c) anticipating more than one peak.
My impression is that the most frequently-expressed aim is (a) …
… while the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer also seems to be describing (b):
We need to encourage or coerce people to change their behaviour, to look after themselves (e.g. by handwashing) and forsake their individual preferences for the sake of public health (e.g. by self-isolating or avoiding vulnerable people). Perhaps we can foster social trust and empathy to encourage responsible individual action. Perhaps people will only protect others if obliged to do so (compare Stone; Ostrom; game theory).
See also: From across the Ditch: How Australia has to decide on the least worst option for COVID-19 (Prof Tony Blakely on three bad options: (1) the likelihood of ‘elimination’ of the virus before vaccination is low; (2) an 18-month lock-down will help ‘flatten the curve’; (3) ‘to prepare meticulously for allowing the pandemic to wash through society over a period of six or so months. To tool up the production of masks and medical supplies. To learn as quickly as possible which treatments of people sick with COVID-19 saves lives. To work out our strategies for protection of the elderly and those with a chronic condition (for whom the mortality from COVID-19 is much higher’).
If you are still with me, I reckon you would have worded those aims slightly differently, right? There is some ambiguity about these broad intentions, partly because there is some uncertainty, and partly because policymakers need to set rather vague intentions to generate the highest possible support for them. However, vagueness is not our friend during a crisis involving such high anxiety. Further, they are only delaying the inevitable choices that people need to make to turn a complex multi-faceted problem into something simple enough to describe and manage. The problem may be complex, but our attention focuses only on a small number of aspects, at the expense of the rest. Examples that have arisen, so far, include to accentuate:
The health of the whole population or people who would be affected disproportionately by the illness.
For example, the difference in emphasis affects the health advice for the relatively vulnerable (and the balance between exhortation and reassurance)
Inequalities in relation to health, socio-economic status (e.g. income, gender, race, ethnicity), or the wider economy.
For example, restrictive measures may reduce the risk of harm to some, but increase the burden on people with no savings or reliable sources of income.
For example, some people are hoarding large quantities of home and medical supplies that (a) other people cannot afford, and (b) some people cannot access, despite having higher need.
For example, social distancing will limit the spread of the virus (see the nascent evidence), but also produce highly unequal forms of social isolation that increase the risk of domestic abuse (possibly exacerbated by school closures) and undermine wellbeing. Or, there will be major policy changes, such as to the rules to detain people under mental health legislation, regarding abortion, or in relation to asylum (note: some of these tweets are from the US, partly because I’m seeing more attention to race – and the consequence of systematic racism on the socioeconomic inequalities so important to COVID-19 mortality – than in the UK).
COVID-19 has brought new focus to women’s continued inequality. Without a gendered response to both the health and economic crises, gender inequality will be further cemented. Read more on the blog: https://t.co/zYxSFpUTNE
Available evidence (though injuriously limited) shows that Black people are being infected & dying of #coronavirus at higher rates. Disproportionate Black suffering is what many of us have suspected and feared because it is consistent with the entirety of American history. https://t.co/qzmXvGCGvV
“I believe that the actions and omissions of world leaders in charge of fighting the #COVID19 pandemic will reveal historical and current impacts of colonial violence and continued health inequities” https://t.co/nUuBIKfrVL
BBC news reports on the disproportionate deaths of African Americans & minorities in the US from #COVID19, but silence on similar issues in the UK. Why? Where is the reporting? Where is the accountability? https://t.co/DkGPjfnWG1
What the coronavirus bill will do: https://t.co/qoBdKKr64H Mental Health Act – detention implemented using just one doctor’s opinion (not 2) & AMHP, & temporarily allow extension or removal of time limits to allow for greater flexibility where services are less able to respond
Abortion services for women from Northern Ireland remain available free of charge in England. This provision will continue until services are available to meet these needs in Northern Ireland. For more information, visit: https://t.co/YYjop5lSgUpic.twitter.com/M8k95aIisM
BREAKING NEWS!!!! The Home Office have confirmed that ALL evictions and terminations of asylum support have been paused for 3 months. Find out more and read the letter from Home Office Minister Chris Philp confirming this on our website at: https://t.co/KDlVr4PHyP
In relation to Prison Rule Changes – these would only ever be used as an absolute last resort, in order to protect staff & those in our care. I can confirm that emergency changes to showering have not been implemented in any establishment.
For example, governments cannot ignore the impact of their actions on the economy, however much they emphasise mortality, health, and wellbeing. Most high-profile emphasis was initially on the fate of large and small businesses, and people with mortgages, but a long period of crisis will a tip the balance from low income to unsustainable poverty (even prompting Iain Duncan Smith to propose policy change), and why favour people who can afford a mortgage over people scraping the money together for rent?
A need for more communication and exhortation, or for direct action to change behaviour.
The short term (do everything possible now) or long term (manage behaviour over many months).
How to maintain trust in the UK government when (a) people are more or less inclined to trust a the current part of government and general trust may be quite low, and (b) so many other governments are acting differently from the UK.
For example, note the visible presence of the Prime Minister, but also his unusually high deference to unelected experts such as (a) UK Government senior scientists providing direct advice to ministers and the public, and (b) scientists drawing on limited information to model behaviour and produce realistic scenarios (we can return to the idea of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ later). This approach is not uncommon with epidemics/ pandemics (LD was then the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer):
For example, note how often people are second guessing and criticising the UK Government position (and questioning the motives of Conservative ministers).
For example, people often try to lay blame for viruses on certain populations, based on their nationality, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or behaviour (e.g. with HIV).
For example, the (a) association between the coronavirus and China and Chinese people (e.g. restrict travel to/ from China; e.g. exacerbate racism), initially overshadowed (b) the general role of international travellers (e.g. place more general restrictions on behaviour), and (c) other ways to describe who might be responsible for exacerbating a crisis.
Under ‘normal’ policymaking circumstances, we would expect policymakers to resolve this ambiguity by exercising power to set the agenda and make choices that close off debate. Attention rises at first, a choice is made, and attention tends to move on to something else. With the coronavirus, attention to many different aspects of the problem has been lurching remarkably quickly. The definition of the policy problem often seems to be changing daily or hourly, and more quickly than the physical problem. It will also change many more times, particularly when attention to each personal story of illness or death prompts people to question government policy every hour. If the policy problem keeps changing in these ways, how could a government solve it?
Step 2 Identify technically and politically feasible solutions
As a result, what we call ‘policy’ is really a complex mix of instruments adopted by one or more governments. A truism in policy studies is that it is difficult to define or identify exactly what policy is because (a) each new instrument adds to a pile of existing measures (with often-unpredictable consequences), and (b) many instruments designed for individual sectors tend, in practice, to intersect in ways that we cannot always anticipate. When you think through any government response to the coronavirus, note how every measure is connected to many others.
Further, it is a truism in public policy that there is a gap between technical and political feasibility: the things that we think will be most likely to work as intended if implemented are often the things that would receive the least support or most opposition. For example:
Redistributing income and wealth to reduce socio-economic inequalities (e.g. to allay fears about the impact of current events on low-income and poverty) seems to be less politically feasible than distributing public services to deal with the consequences of health inequalities.
Providing information and exhortation seems more politically feasible than the direct regulation of behaviour. Indeed, compared to many other countries, the UK Government seems reluctant to introduce ‘quarantine’ style measures to restrict behaviour.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, governments may be using these distinctions as simple heuristics to help them make modest policy changes while remaining sufficiently popular (or at least looking competent). If so, they are adding or modifying policy instruments during individual ‘windows of opportunity’ for specific action, or perhaps contributing to the sense of incremental change towards an ambitious goal.
Right now, we may be pushing the boundaries of what seems possible, since crises – and the need to address public anxiety – tend to change what seems politically feasible. However, many options that seem politically feasible may not be possible (e.g. to buy a lot of extra medical/ technology capacity quickly), or may not work as intended (e.g. to restrict the movement of people). Think of technical and political feasibility as necessary but insufficient on their own, which is a requirement that rules out a lot of responses.
Typical value judgements relate to efficiency, equity and fairness, the trade-off between individual freedom and collective action, and the extent to which a policy process involves citizens in deliberation.
Normative assessments are based on values such as ‘equality, efficiency, security, democracy, enlightenment’ and beliefs about the preferable balance between state, communal, and market/ individual solutions
‘Specify the objectives to be attained in addressing the problem and the criteria to evaluate the attainment of these objectives as well as the satisfaction of other key considerations (e.g., equity, cost, equity, feasibility)’.
‘Effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and administrative efficiency’ are common.
Identify (a) the values to prioritise, such as ‘efficiency’, ‘equity’, and ‘human dignity’, and (b) ‘instrumental goals’, such as ‘sustainable public finance or political feasibility’, to generate support for solutions.
Instrumental questions may include: Will this intervention produce the intended outcomes? Is it easy to get agreement and maintain support? Will it make me popular, or diminish trust in me even further?
Step 3 is the most simple-looking but difficult task. Remember that it is a political, not technical, process. It is also a political process that most people would like to avoid doing (at least publicly) because it involves making explicit the ways in which we prioritise some people over others. Public policy is the choice to help some people and punish or refuse to help others (and includes the choice to do nothing).
Policy analysis texts describe a relatively simple procedure of identifying criteria and producing a table (with a solution in each row, and criteria in each column) to compare the trade-offs between each solution. However, these criteria are notoriously difficult to define, and people resolve that problem by exercising power to decide what each term means, and whose interests should be served when they resolve trade-offs. For example, see Stone on whose needs come first, who benefits from each definition of fairness, and how technical-looking processes such as ‘cost benefit analysis’ mask political choices.
Right now, the most obvious and visible trade-off, accentuated in the UK, is between individual freedom and collective action, or the balance between state, communal, and market/ individual solutions. In comparison with many countries (and China and Italy in particular), the UK Government seems to be favouring individual action over state quarantine measures. However, most trade-offs are difficult to categorise
What should be the balance between efforts to minimise the deaths of some (generally in older populations) and maximise the wellbeing of others? This is partly about human dignity during crisis, how we treat different people fairly, and the balance of freedom and coercion.
How much should a government spend to keep people alive using intensive case or expensive medicines, when the money could be spent improving the lives of far more people? This is partly about human dignity, the relative efficiency of policy measures, and fairness.
If you are like me, you don’t really want to answer such questions (indeed, even writing them looks callous). If so, one way to resolve them is to elect policymakers to make such choices on our behalf (perhaps aided by experts in moral philosophy, or with access to deliberative forums). To endure, this unusually high level of deference to elected ministers requires some kind of reciprocal act:
Still, I doubt that governments are making reportable daily choices with reference to a clear and explicit view of what the trade-offs and priorities should be, because their choices are about who will die, and their ability to predict outcomes is limited.
Focus on the outcomes that key actors care about (such as value for money), and quantify and visualise your predictions if possible. Compare the pros and cons of each solution, such as how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs.
‘Assess the outcomes of the policy options in light of the criteria and weigh trade-offs between the advantages and disadvantages of the options’.
Estimate the cost of a new policy, in comparison with current policy, and in relation to factors such as savings to society or benefits to certain populations. Use your criteria and projections to compare each alternative in relation to their likely costs and benefits.
Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).
Short deadlines dictate that you use ‘logic and theory, rather than systematic empirical evidence’ to make predictions efficiently.
Monitoring is crucial because it is difficult to predict policy success, and unintended consequences are inevitable. Try to measure the outcomes of your solution, while noting that evaluations are contested.
It is difficult to envisage a way for the UK Government to publicise the thinking behind its choices (Step 3) and predictions (Step 4) in a way that would encourage effective public deliberation, rather than a highly technical debate between a small number of academics:
Further, people often call for the UK Government to publicise its expert advice and operational logic, but I am not sure how they would separate it from their normative logic, or provide a frank account without unintended consequences for public trust or anxiety. If so, government policy involves (a) to keep some choices implicit to avoid a lot of debate on trade-offs, and (b) to make general statements about choices when they do not know what their impact will be.
Examine your case through the eyes of a policymaker. Keep it simple and concise.
Make a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
Client-oriented advisors identify the beliefs of policymakers and tailor accordingly.
‘Unless your client asks you not to do so, you should explicitly recommend one policy’
I now invite you to make a recommendation (step 5) based on our discussion so far (steps 1-4). Define the problem with one framing at the expense of the others. Romanticise some people and not others. Decide how to support some people, and coerce or punish others. Prioritise the lives of some people in the knowledge that others will suffer or die. Do it despite your lack of expertise and profoundly limited knowledge and information. Learn from experts, but don’t assume that only scientific experts have relevant knowledge (decolonise; coproduce). Recommend choices that, if damaging, could take decades to fix after you’ve gone. Consider if a policymaker is willing and able to act on your advice, and if your proposed action will work as intended. Consider if a government is willing and able to bear the economic and political costs. Protect your client’s popularity, and trust in your client, at the same time as protecting lives. Consider if your advice would change if the problem would seem to change. If you are writing your analysis, maybe keep it down to one sheet of paper (and certainly far fewer words than in this post). Better you than me.
Please now watch this video before I suggest that things are not so simple.
Would that policy analysis were so simple
Imagine writing policy analysis in an imaginary world, in which there is a single powerful ‘rational’ policymaker at the heart of government, making policy via an orderly series of stages.
Your audience would be easy to identify at each stage, your analysis would be relatively simple, and you would not need to worry about what happens after you make a recommendation for policy change (since the selection of a solution would lead to implementation). You could adopt a simple 5 step policy analysis method, use widely-used tools such as cost-benefit analysis to compare solutions, and know where the results would feed into the policy process.
Studies of policy analysts describe how unrealistic this expectation tends to be (Radin, Brans, Thissen).
For example, there are many policymakers, analysts, influencers, and experts spread across political systems, and engaging with 101 policy problems simultaneously, which suggests that it is not even clear how everyone fits together and interacts in what we call (for the sake of simplicity) ‘the policy process’.
Instead, we can describe real world policymaking with reference to two factors.
The wider policymaking environment: 1. Limiting the use of evidence
Limited attention, and lurches of attention. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, and policymaking organizations struggle to process all policy-relevant information. They prioritize some issues and information and ignore the rest.
Power and ideas. Some ways of understanding and describing the world dominate policy debate, helping some actors and marginalizing others.
Beliefs and coalitions. Policymakers see the world through the lens of their beliefs. They engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy, form coalitions with people who share them, and compete with coalitions who don’t.
Dealing with complexity. They engage in ‘trial-and-error strategies’ to deal with uncertain and dynamic environments (see the new section on trial-and-error- at the end).
Framing and narratives. Policy audiences are vulnerable to manipulation when they rely on other actors to help them understand the world. People tell simple stories to persuade their audience to see a policy problem and its solution in a particular way.
They need to find ways to ignore most evidence so that they can focus disproportionately on some. Otherwise, they will be unable to focus well enough to make choices. The cognitive and organisational shortcuts, described above, help them do it almost instantly.
They also use their experience to help them decide – often very quickly – what evidence is policy-relevant under the circumstances. Relevance can include:
How it relates to the policy problem as they define it (Step 1).
If it relates to a feasible solution (Step 2).
If it is timely, available, understandable, and actionable.
If it seems credible, such as from groups representing wider populations, or from people they trust.
They use a specific shortcut: relying on expertise.
However, the vague idea of trusting or not trusting experts is a nonsense, largely because it is virtually impossible to set a clear boundary between relevant/irrelevant experts and find a huge consensus on (exactly) what is happening and what to do. Instead, in political systems, we define the policy problem or find other ways to identify the most relevant expertise and exclude other sources of knowledge.
In the UK Government’s case, it appears to be relying primarily on expertise from its own general scientific advisers, medical and public health advisers, and – perhaps more controversially – advisers on behavioural public policy.
Right now, it is difficult to tell exactly how and why it relies on each expert (at least when the expert is not in a clearly defined role, in which case it would be irresponsible not to consider their advice). Further, there are regular calls on Twitter for ministers to be more open about their decisions.
However, don’t underestimate the problems of identifying why we make choices, then justifying one expert or another (while avoiding pointless arguments), or prioritising one form of advice over another. Look, for example, at the kind of short-cuts that intelligent people use, which seem sensible enough, but would receive much more intense scrutiny if presented in this way by governments:
Sophisticated speculation by experts in a particular field, shared widely (look at the RTs), but questioned by other experts in another field:
Experts in one field trusting certain experts in another field based on personal or professional interaction:
Experts in one field not trusting a government’s approach based on its use of one (of many) sources of advice:
Experts representing a community of experts, criticising another expert (Prof John Ashton), for misrepresenting the amount of expert scepticism of government experts (yes, I am trying to confuse you):
Expert debate on how well policymakers are making policy based on expert advice
Finding quite-sensible ways to trust certain experts over others, such as because they can be held to account in some way (and may be relatively worried about saying any old shit on the internet):
There are many more examples in which the shortcut to expertise is fine, but not particularly better than another shortcut (and likely to include a disproportionately high number of white men with STEM backgrounds).
Update: of course, they are better than the volume trumps expertise approach:
(f) use their expertise on governance to highlight problems with thoughtless criticism
However, note that most of these experts are from a very narrow social background, and from very narrow scientific fields (first in modelling, then likely in testing), despite the policy problem being largely about (a) who, and how many people, a government should try to save, and (b) how far a government should go to change behaviour to do it (Update 2.4.20: I wrote that paragraph before adding so many people to the list). It is understandable to defer in this way during a crisis, but it also contributes to a form of ‘depoliticisation’ that masks profound choices that benefit some people and leave others vulnerable to harm.
The wider policymaking environment: 2. Limited control
Second, policymakers engage in a messy and unpredictable world in which no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a policy recommendation into an outcome. I normally use the following figure to think through the nature of a complex and unwieldy policymaking environment of which no ‘centre’ of government has full knowledge or control.
It helps us identify (further) the ways in which we can reject the idea that the UK Prime Minister and colleagues can fully understand and solve policy problems:
Actors. The environment contains many policymakers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government (‘venues’).
For example, consider how many key decisions that (a) have been made by organisations not in the UK central government, and (b) are more or less consistent with its advice, including:
Devolved governments announcing their own healthcare and public health responses (although the level of UK coordination seems more significant than the level of autonomy).
Public sector employers initiating or encouraging at-home working (and many Universities moving quickly from in-person to online teaching)
Private organisations cancelling cultural and sporting events.
Context and events. Policy solutions relate to socioeconomic context and events which can be impossible to ignore and out of the control of policymakers. The coronavirus, and its impact on so many aspects on population health and wellbeing, is an extreme example of this problem.
Networks, Institutions, and Ideas. Policymakers and influencers operate in subsystems (specialist parts of political systems). They form networks or coalitions built on the exchange of resources or facilitated by trust underpinned by shared beliefs or previous cooperation. Many different parts of government have practices driven by their own formal and informal rules. Formal rules are often written down or known widely. Informal rules are the unwritten rules, norms and practices that are difficult to understand, and may not even be understood in the same way by participants. Political actors relate their analysis to shared understandings of the world – how it is, and how it should be – which are often so established as to be taken for granted. These dominant frames of reference establish the boundaries of the political feasibility of policy solutions. These kinds of insights suggest that most policy decisions are considered, made, and delivered in the name of – but not in the full knowledge of – government ministers.
Trial and error policymaking in complex policymaking systems (17.3.20)
There are many ways to conceptualise this policymaking environment, but few theories provide specific advice on what to do, or how to engage effectively in it. One notable exception is the general advice that comes from complexity theory, including:
Law-like behaviour is difﬁcult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
Policymaking systems are difﬁcult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies. An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.
On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:
Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.
Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure (although see this example and this comment).
Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’.
In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.
Now, just imagine the UK Government taking that advice right now. I think it is fair to say that it would be condemned continuously (even more so than right now). Maybe that is because it is the wrong way to make policy in times of crisis. Maybe it is because too few people are willing and able to accept that the role of a small group of people at the centre of government is necessarily limited, and that effective policymaking requires trial-and-error rather than a single, fixed, grand strategy to be communicated to the public. The former highlights policy that changes with new information and perspective. The latter highlights errors of judgement, incompetence, and U-turns. In either case, the advice is changing as estimates of the coronavirus’ impact change:
I think this tension, in the way that we understand UK government, helps explain some of the criticism that it faces when changing its advice to reflect changes in its data or advice. This criticism becomes intense when people also question the competence or motives of ministers (and even people reporting the news) more generally, leading to criticism that ranges from mild to outrageous:
For me, this casual reference to a government policy to ‘cull the heard of the weak’ is outrageous, but you can find much worse on Twitter. It reflects wider debate on whether ‘herd immunity’ is or is not government policy. Much of it relates to interpretation of government statements, based on levels of trust/distrust in the UK Government, its Prime Minister and Secretaries of State, and the Prime Minister’s special adviser
However, I think that some of it is also about:
1. Wilful misinterpretation (particularly on Twitter). For example, in the early development and communication of policy, Boris Johnson was accused (in an irresponsibly misleading way) of advocating for herd immunity rather than restrictive measures.
Below is one of the most misleading videos of its type. Look at how it cuts each segment into a narrative not provided by ministers or their advisors (see also this stinker):
2. The accentuation of a message not being emphasised by government spokespeople.
See for example this interview, described by Sky News (13.3.20) as: The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has told Sky News that about 60% of people will need to become infected with coronavirus in order for the UK to enjoy “herd immunity”. You might be forgiven for thinking that he was on Sky extolling the virtues of a strategy to that end (and expressing sincere concerns on that basis). This was certainly the write-up in respected papers like the FT (UK’s chief scientific adviser defends ‘herd immunity’ strategy for coronavirus). Yet, he was saying nothing of the sort. Rather, when prompted, he discussed herd immunity in relation to the belief that COVID-19 will endure long enough to become as common as seasonal flu.
The same goes for Vallance’s interview on the same day (13.3.20) during Radio 4’s Today programme (transcribed by the Spectator, which calls Vallance the author, and gives ittheheadline “How ‘herd immunity’ can help fight coronavirus” as if it is his main message). The Today Programme also tweeted only 30 seconds to single out that brief exchange:
Yet, clearly his overall message – in this and other interviews – was that some interventions (e.g. staying at home; self-isolating with symptoms) would have bigger effects than others (e.g. school closures; prohibiting mass gatherings) during the ‘flattening of the peak’ strategy (‘What we don’t want is everybody to end up getting it in a short period of time so that we swamp and overwhelm NHS services’). Rather than describing ‘herd immunity’ as a strategy, he is really describing how to deal with its inevitability (‘Well, I think that we will end up with a number of people getting it’).
[OK, that proved to be a big departure from the trial-and-error discussion. Here we are, back again]
In some cases, maybe people are making the argument that trial-and-error is the best way to respond quickly, and adapt quickly, in a crisis but that the UK Government version is not what, say, the WHO thinks of as good kind of adaptive response. It is not possible to tell, at least from the general ways in which they justify acting quickly.
See also the BBC’s provocative question (which I expect to be replaced soon):
The take home messages
The coronavirus is an extreme example of a general situation: policymakers will always have very limited knowledge of policy problems and control over their policymaking environment. They make choices to frame problems narrowly enough to seem solvable, rule out most solutions as not feasible, make value judgements to try help some more than others, try to predict the results, and respond when the results to not match their hopes or expectations.
This is not a message of doom and despair. Rather, it encourages us to think about how to influence government, and hold policymakers to account, in a thoughtful and systematic way that does not mislead the public or exacerbate the problem we are seeing.
Further reading, until I can think of a better conclusion:
This series of ‘750 words’ posts summarises key texts in policy analysis and tries to situate policy analysis in a wider political and policymaking context. Note the focus on whose knowledge counts, which is not yet a big feature of this crisis.
These series of 500 words and 1000 words posts (with podcasts) summarise concepts and theories in policy studies.
“The ‘Brexit’ referendum was dominated by a narrative of taking back control of policy and policy making. Control of policy would allow the UK government to make profound changes to immigration and spending. Control of policymaking would allow Parliament and the public to hold the UK government directly to account, in contrast to a more complex and distant EU policy process less subject to direct British scrutiny.
Such high level political debate is built on the false image of a small number of elected policymakers – and the Prime Minister in particular – responsible for the outcomes of the policy process.
There is a strange disconnect between the ways in which elected politicians and elected policymakers describe UK policymaking. Ministers have mostly given up the language of control; modern manifestos no longer make claims – such as to secure ‘full employment’ or eradicate health inequalities – that suggest they control the economy or can solve problems by providing public services. Yet, much Brexit rhetoric suggests that a vote to leave the EU will put control back in the hands of ministers to solve major problems.
The main problem with the latter way of thinking is that it is rejected continuously in the modern literature on policymaking. Policymaking is multi-centric: responsibility for outcomes is spread across many levels and types of government, to the extent that it is not possible to simply know who is in charge and to blame.
Somemulti-level governance (MLG) relates to the choice to share power with EU, devolved, and local policymaking organisations.
However, most MLG is necessary because ministers do not have the cognitive or coordinative capacity to control policy outcomes.
They can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, and have to delegate the rest. Most decisions are taken in their name but without their intervention. They occur within a policymaking environment over which ministers have limited knowledge and control.
The problem with using Brexit as a lens through which to understand British politics is that it emphasises the choice to no longer spread power across a political system, without acknowledging the necessity of doing so.
Our understanding of the future of UK policy and policymaking is incomplete without a focus on the concepts and evidence that help us understand why UK ministers must accept their limitations and act accordingly.
Yet, clearly the Westminster model archetype remains important even if it does not exist (Duggett, 2009). Policy studies have challenged successfully its image of central control, but, the model’s importance resides in its rhetorical power in wider politics when people maintain a simple argument during general election and referendum debates: we know who is – or should be – in charge. This perspective has a profound effect on the ways in which policymakers defend their actions, and political actors compete for votes, even when it is ridiculously misleading (Rhodes, 2013; Bevir, 2013)”
In retrospect, I think the title was too subtle and clever-clever. I wanted to convey two meanings: imaginative as a euphemism for ridiculous/ often cynical and to argue that a government has to be imaginative with evidence. The latter has two meanings: imaginative (1) in the presentation and framing of evidence-informed agenda, and (2) when facing pressure to go beyond the evidence and envisage policy outcomes.
So I describe two cases in which its evidence-use seems cynical, when:
Declaring complete success in turning around the lives of ‘troubled families’
Exploiting vivid neuroscientific images to support ‘early intervention’
Then I describe more difficult cases in which supportive evidence is not clear:
Family intervention project evaluations are of limited value and only tentatively positive
Successful projects like FNP and Incredible Years have limited applicability or ‘scalability’
As scientists, we can shrug our shoulders about the uncertainty, but elected policymakers in government have to do something. So what do they do?
At this point of the article it will look like I have become an apologist for David Cameron’s government. Instead, I’m trying to demonstrate the value of comparing sympathetic/ unsympathetic interpretations and highlight the policy problem from a policymaker’s perspective:
I suggest that they use evidence in a mix of ways to: describe an urgent problem, present an image of success and governing competence, and provide cover for more evidence-informed long term action.
The result is the appearance of top-down ‘muscular’ government and ‘a tendency for policy to change as is implemented, such as when mediated by local authority choices and social workers maintaining a commitment to their professional values when delivering policy’
I conclude by arguing that ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’ are political slogans with minimal academic value. The binary divide between EBP/ PBE distracts us from more useful categories which show us the trade-offs policymakers have to make when faced with the need to act despite uncertainty.
As such, it forms part of a far wider body of work …
In both cases, the common theme is that, although (1) the world of top-down central government gets most attention, (2) central governments don’t even know what problem they are trying to solve, far less (3) how to control policymaking and outcomes.
In that wider context, it is worth comparing this talk with the one I gave at the IDS (which, I reckon is a good primer for – or prequel to – the UK talk):
Let’s be optimistic for a few seconds, and focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ of policy and policymaking. The comparison is between an EU process that is distant and undemocratic and a UK process we can all understand and influence, following the simple phrase ‘if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame’.
The down side is that we don’t know who is in charge, and it’s often futile to try to find a named individual or role to blame. The EU certainly complicates the picture, but don’t be fooled into thinking that we will eventually produce a UK political system that anyone understands.
If giving a lecture, this is the point at which I’d pause for effect and restate the idea that no-one understands the UK policymaking system as a whole [insert meaningful looks here]. Many people know about many parts of the system, but it’s not like a jigsaw puzzle that we’ve completed by working together. At best, it’s like that Dalmatian jigsaw that we started at Christmas before getting drunk and falling out.
Instead, policymakers and commentators tell simple stories about British politics
The dominant story of British politics relates initially to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. This idea connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is perhaps designed to work. Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.
The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.
In other words, the ‘take home message’ of this story is that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.
These stories are more useful for our entertainment than enlightenment
Consider these five factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process.
Bounded rationality. Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore almost all of them?
Policy communities. Ministers delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.
Multi-level governance. The UK government shares policymaking ‘vertically’ (with international, EU, devolved, and local governments) and ‘horizontally’ (with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations).
Complex government. Policymaking ‘emerges’ from the interaction between many actors, institutions, and regulations. In complex policymaking systems, people act without full knowledge of how other people act elsewhere in the system.
Policy environments. Many policy conditions and events are out of policymakers’ control (including demographic, technological, and economic change)
So, for example, the UK government has to juggle two stories of British politics – on the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control, versus the need to construct a strong image of governing competence with reference to control – in the knowledge that one of them is a tall tale.
Brexit will change only one part of that story
None of these factors should prompt us to minimise the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they should prompt us to think harder about the impact of Brexit on ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and ministerial accountability via UK central government control. The phrase ‘you know who is in charge, and who to blame’ will become a more important rallying cry in British politics (when we can no longer blame the EU for British policy), but let’s focus on what actually happens in British politics and recognise how little of it we understand before we decide who to blame.
I tend to set this simple-looking question for coursework in policy modules: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why? Students get to choose the policy issue, timeframe (and sometimes the political system), and relevant explanatory concepts.
On the face of it, it looks super-simple: A+ for everyone!
Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:
We spent a lot of time agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy (explained in 1000 Words and 500 Words)
There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics (I describe about 25 in 1000 Words each)
I try to encourage some creativity when solving this problem, but also advise students to keep their discussion as simple and jargon-free as possible (often by stretching an analogy with diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).
Choosing a format: the initial advice
Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in the post-war era, since UK devolution, or since a change in government).
Select one or more policy concept or theory to help structure your discussion and help explain how and why policy has changed.
For example, a question might be: What is tobacco policy in the UK, how much has it changed since the 1980s, and why? I use this example because I try to answer that – UK and global – question myself, even though my 2007 article on the UK is too theory-packed to be a good model for an undergraduate essay.
Choosing a format: the cautionary advice
You may be surprised about how difficult it is to answer a simple question like ‘what is policy?’ and I will give you considerable credit for considering how to define and measure it, by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and ‘nodality’ and/ or by considering the difference between, say, policy as a statement of intent or a long term outcome. In turn, a good description and explanation of policy change is difficult. If you are feeling ambitious, you can go further, to compare, say, two issues (such as tobacco and alcohol) or places (such UK Government policy and the policy of another country), but sometimes a simple and narrow discussion can be as, or more, effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but often one theory will do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic to focus or concepts to use.
Choosing a topic: the ‘joined up’ advice
The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between different perspectives on policy theory and analysis. For example, in a blog and policy analysis paper they try to generate attention to a policy problem and advocate a solution. Then, they draw on policy theories and concepts to reflect on their papers, highlighting (say): the need to identify the most important audience; the importance of framing issues with a mixture of evidence and emotional appeals; and, the need to present ‘feasible’ solutions.
The reflection can provide a useful segue to the essay, since we’re already identifying important policy problems, advocating change, reflecting on how best to encourage it – such as by presenting modest objectives – and then, in the essay, trying to explain (say) why governments have not taken that advice in the past. Their interest in the policy issue can prompt interest in researching the issue further; their knowledge of the issue and the policy process can help them develop politically-aware policy analysis. All going well, it produces a virtuous circle.
Some examples from my pet subject
Let me outline how I would begin to answer the three questions with reference to UK tobacco policy. I’m offering a brief summary of each section rather than presenting a full essay with more detail (partly to hold on to that idea of creativity – I don’t want students to use this description as a blueprint).
What is modern UK tobacco policy?
Tobacco policy in the UK is now one of the most restrictive in the world. The UK government has introduced a large number of policy instruments to encourage a major reduction of smoking in the population. They include: legislation to ban smoking in public places; legislation to limit tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship; high taxes on tobacco products; unequivocal health education; regulations on tobacco ingredients; significant spending on customs and enforcement measures; and, plain packaging measures.
[Note that I selected only a few key measures to define policy. A fuller analysis might expand on why I chose them and why they are so important].
How much has policy changed since the 1980s?
Policy has changed radically since the post-war period, and most policy change began from the 1980s, but it was not until the 2000s onwards that the UK cemented its place as one of the most restrictive countries. The shift from the 1980s relates strongly to the replacement of voluntary agreements and limited measures with limited enforcement with legislative measures and stronger enforcement. The legislation to ban tobacco advertising, passed in 2002, replaced limited bans combined with voluntary agreements to (for example) keep billboards a certain distance from schools. The legislation to ban smoking in public places, passed in 2006 (2005 in Scotland), replaced voluntary measures which allowed smoking in most pubs and restaurants. Plain packaging measures, combined with large and graphic health warnings, replace branded packets which once had no warnings. Health education warnings have gone from stating the facts and inviting smokers to decide, and the promotion of harm reduction (smoke ‘low tar’), to an unequivocal message on the harms of smoking and passive smoking.
[Note that I describe these changes in broad terms. Other articles might ‘zoom’ in on specific instruments to show how exactly they changed]
Why has it changed?
This is the section of the essay in which we have to make a judgement about the type of explanation: should you choose one or many concepts; if many, do you focus on their competing or complementary insights; should you provide an extensive discussion of your chosen theory?
I normally recommend a very small number of concepts or simple discussion, largely because there is only so much you can say in an essay of 2-3000 words.
For example, a simple ‘hook’ is to ask if the main driver was the scientific evidence: did policy change as the evidence on smoking (and then passive smoking) related harm became more apparent? Is it a good case of ‘evidence based policymaking’? The answer may then note that policy change seemed to be 20-30 years behind the evidence [although I’d have to explain that statement in more depth] and set out the conditions in which this driver would have an effect.
In short, one might identify the need for a ‘policy environment’, shaped by policymakers, and conducive to a strong policy response based on the evidence of harm and a political choice to restrict tobacco use. It would relate to decisions by policymakers to: frame tobacco as a public health epidemic requiring a major government response (rather than primarily as an economic good or issue of civil liberties); place health departments or organisations at the heart of policy development; form networks with medical and public health groups at the expense of tobacco companies; and respond to greater public support for control, reduced smoking prevalence, and the diminishing economic value of tobacco.
This discussion can proceed conceptually, in a relatively straightforward way, or with the further aid of policy theories which ask further questions and help structure the answers.
For example, one might draw on punctuated equilibrium theory to help describe and explain shifts of public/media/ policymaker attention to tobacco, from low and positive in the 1950s to high and negative from the 1980s.
Or, one might draw on the ACF to explain how pro-tobacco coalitions helped slow down policy change by interpreting new scientific evidence though the ‘lens’ of well-established beliefs or approaches (examples from the 1950s include filter tips, low tar brands, and ventilation as alternatives to greater restrictions on smoking).
British politics looks weird because UK governments have contradictory incentives: to look like they are in control, but delegate most, of policymaking; to take but shuffle off responsibility for policy outcomes; to hold on and let go.
One stresses central control, the other stresses complexity and emergent outcomes despite central government intervention
One stresses the need for central control to ensure clear lines of accountability, the other stresses the need for pragmatism and how ridiculous it is to hold people to account for things over which they have minimal control.
One gets all the attention, despite being misleading, partly because it relates to a simple and comforting message on accountability and the exciting world of high politics. The other gets little attention, despite being more accurate, because its message is confusing and often boring.
So, when we discuss the big post-war developments in British politics, and their impact on policymaking and accountability, we should not expect to find a grand or consistent plan. Instead, post war government reforms reflect these contradictions, and prompt a tendency for elected policymakers to delegate or ‘shuffle off’ most responsibility but intervene in unpredictable and inconsistent ways.
What were these big changes? 1. A shift from state to market?
I say this not to diminish the argument that major changes from the 1970s, to alter the balance between the state and market in the UK, were often ideologically driven. Rather, don’t assume that the consistent/systematic application of that ideology is the main explanation. In some cases, governments:
diluted their reformist beliefs, preferring pragmatism and realistic aims
pursued reforms for simple aims such as to bolster their popularity
accepted or reinforced the actions of their predecessors (even if from another party)
pursued major reforms after key events and crises seemed to force their hand.
Overall, politics is often about telling a story about handling government or crises well, not actually controlling events and outcomes, and no single elected government can oversee a 10, 20, or 30-year plan to reform the state in the scale we witnessed.
Still, we can now see fundamental differences when we compare the UK state with that of the 1970s. Examples include:
A ‘paradigm’ shift in economic policy, from ‘Keynesian’ to ‘monetarist’ economics (see Hall), prompted by economic crisis in the 1970s under Labour and the election of a Conservative government in 1979. For example, governments no longer promise to achieve ‘full employment’ via measures such as capital investment (indeed, the Thatcher government appeared to accept high unemployment while favouring inflation controls).
Privatisation. The sale of public assets (including major nationalised utilities and local authority owned social housing), break up of state monopolies, injection of competition in the public sector, introduction of public–private partnerships for major capital projects, and charging for government services.
In both cases, you can see one form of this debate on central control playing out: for some advocates of economic reform and privatisation, this was about producing a ‘rejuvenated’ and ‘lean’ state, with ministers able to focus on core tasks – making strategic decisions and creating rules for others to follow – without having to pretend that they can control the economy or manage major industries. In this account, post-war developments were based on the idea of state planning and central control over the economy and most public services, while post-79 developments were driven by the belief that such planning had failed.
Although prompted by the Conservative government of 1979-97, the Labour government from 1997-2010 reinforced most measures (and privatised more services than Thatcher would have envisaged). It also extended the idea of limiting central government ministerial intervention in the economy by introducing Bank of England independence (making it primarily responsible for interest rates and strategies to manage inflation).
A shift from ‘rowing’ to ‘steering’?
This ‘lean’ theme is summed up in the metaphor (made famous by management consultants Osborne and Gaebler) of ‘steering, not rowing’, in which governments decide to provide direction to public services/ public servants rather than managing them directly. Also look out for the phrase ‘new public management’ (NPM) which mostly describes the application of private business methods to the public sector. Examples include:
Civil service reforms to separate strategic ministerial/ operational decisions and make public servants more directly accountable for the latter.
Quasi-markets. Public bodies like hospitals and schools are given greater operational independence. One part of the public sector competes with another for (say) the business of commissioning agencies and/ or to compete in league tables of performance.
Quangos. The increased use of quasi-non-governmental bodies, sponsored by government departments but operating at ‘arms-length’ from elected policymakers.
Public sector reforms in which non-governmental bodies play an increasing role in service delivery while subject to regulation, inspection, and performance management.
These reforms, often designed to give a sense of reinforced central control, are different from decisions by the UK government to shift power upwards, to the European Union, and downwards,(a) in 1999, to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and (b) through various experiments in regional government (in the early 2000s) and ‘localism’ (from 2010).
What is the overall effect of these reforms?
These reforms prompted several debates about the modern nature of the UK state, based on questions such as, Is it ‘hollowing’ or rejuvenated?
Is UK central government now less able to influence policy outcomes, and more reliant on persuasion and cooperation from many actors in policy networks? Do we talk about multi-level governance, not government, because no single government can control policy? Is this the great irony of reform: they were designed to reinforce central control but they actually exacerbated the UK’s governance problem?
Or, has central government shuffled off direct responsibility for the previously unmanageable parts of the public sector that took up a disproportionate amount of ministerial energy (major industries, local government, Scotland), and become more powerful via regulatory mechanisms or more able to shift blame?
When considering these questions, note how this UK-specific discussion can be supplemented by the ‘universal’ factors we discuss in POLU9UK and covered in the 1000 Words series, including: ministers are boundedly rational, operating in a policy environment with a huge number of actors, and apparently unable to control outcomes that ‘emerge’ from complex systems. In other words, the answer to the ‘hollowing’ question will not come only from an analysis of UK government policies.
What is the effect on ministerial accountability?
As in Scotland, the UK Government has experimented with many forms of accountability based on one of these two stories of central government:
Westminster-style democratic accountability, through periodic elections and more regular reports by ministers to Westminster. This requires a strong sense of central government and ministerial control – if you know who is in charge, you know who to hold to account or reward or punish in the next election.
Institutional accountability, through performance management measures applied to the chief executives of public bodies, such as elected local authorities and unelected agencies and quangos.
Accountability via pluralist democracy, fostering the shared ‘ownership’ of policy with stakeholders to produce choices that both support.
Localist democracy, encouraging a sense of collective responsibility between local authorities and their stakeholders.
User based notions of accountability, when a public body considers its added value to (and responds to the wishes of) service users, or public bodies and users ‘co-produce’ and share responsibility for the outcomes.
Yet, 2-5 generally seem incompatible with, or overshadowed by, 1. Ministers think that the public expects Westminster-style accountability, so they try these other measures but also:
Try to show that they still control the direction of delegated services, often with reference to problematic proxies of their own success (see the example of Troubled Families)
Intervene in an ad hoc way in the decisions of public bodies that they’d otherwise like to run themselves (see Gains and Stoker)
Or, they seem to delegate power to public bodies but introduce so many regulations, budget limits, and performance measures that it is difficult for those bodies to exert their autonomy (see the example of ‘prevention policy’, in which central governments simultaneously support and scupper various forms of prevention and early intervention).
In groups we can discuss these major reforms and the extent to which they were driven by a grand plan or a series of unfortunate events.
We can discuss accountability and try to explain how and why ministers intervene in some areas but not others.
Since we focused on the two basic stories of (lack of) control in week 2, this week we can zoom in to discuss specific measures to demonstrate success in government or produce the appearance of control. What examples spring to mind?
You get the idea by now. We began the course with a stylised Westminster model of centralised control and each week we use something new to chip away at that image. This week we focus on the sense that the UK government is (a) constantly responding to events rather than setting the political agenda, and (b) dealing with policy conditions and outcomes that seem to be out of its control.
Big E and small e events
You might get two impressions from the word ‘events’:
The really big ones that seem to shock half of the population (more or less, or much more). Take your pick from recent Events including Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum, or from economic crises including the global financial crises and shocks to the British Pound. Generally speaking, it is difficult to get a sense from these Events that the UK Government is in control of the agenda or outcome.
The day-to-day ones. You now get this other sense of events most strongly from social media: people’s attention lurches from issue to issue very quickly, and governments (or individual policymakers) often seem to struggle to respond effectively or set the agenda.
So, as we discussed in week 2, policymakers will often settle for the chance to portray themselves as decisive in responding and adapting to such events rather than controlling them (perhaps particularly in an age in which they struggle more and more to control the flow of information within populations).
Policy conditions: from funnels of causality to globalisation
A reference to policy ‘conditions’ or ‘environments’ is broader. It refers to the context in which policymakers make choices, including:
Literally, the environment in which people live and the spread of populations in urban and rural areas.
The demographic profile and trends in birth and ageing.
Levels of economic activity.
Social behaviour and attitudes.
Technological changes which prompt social change, from mass road transit to information technology.
Governing institutions with rules that constrain and facilitate behaviour.
One main connection between conditions and events is that the former often shape the latter: environmental crises prompt new forms of behaviour, ageing populations prompt a sense of crisis in health and social care, economic downturns panic governments, and so on. You get the idea: this is a far cry from our initial starting point in which we focus on what governments do. If we focus on what surrounds governments we get more of a sense of the limits to what governments can do, and a limited sense of their control of policymaking processes and outcomes.
As the language of ‘structure and agency’ suggests, we need to find a convincing way to describe this sense of limited choice. We (or, at least, I) want to maintain the sense that policymakers are actors making choices but that some choices are far more attractive or possible than others.
So, we have a choice about how to portray these choices. On the one hand, we have accounts which focus on the limits to choice:
The classic (but now little-discussed) way of thinking about wider conditions is Hofferbert’s ‘funnel of causality’. Its usefulness is to expand our horizons to think about the wider (literal or metaphorical) environment of policymaking in which, for example, geographical conditions influence population concentrations and public behaviour and attitudes influence elite behaviour.
The concept of ‘globalisation’ prompts us to think about the pressures on domestic governments to respond to global factors often outside of their control. In such cases, their choices about how to respond to external factors are not particularly attractive, such as when they are deciding how to set interest rates to deal with external fluctuations in demand for their currency (who do I mean by ‘they’ these days?), or how willing they are to reduce taxes and offer subsidies to attract foreign direct investment.
On the other hand is the sense that actors mediate such conditions and events: to a large extent they decide how to interpret events, the importance to attach to policy conditions, and which conditions produce events that seem the most urgent or important. In other words, many governments have shown an impressive ability to completely ignore events that other governments would treat as urgent crises.
The latter point is a nice segue to one of the recommended articles for this week, by Hindmoor and McConnell, in which they discuss the UK Government’s response to financial crisis. They remind us that we should understand the processing of events as they occurred, rather than via hindsight. This approach allows us to see that governments have highly imperfect ways to gather information and detect ‘warning signals’ effectively: what seems obvious now would not be obvious then. What now seems like a crisis to which governments inevitably had to respond would then seem very different.
In our groups we can identify and discuss key examples: how have UK governments dealt with demographic change or economic crisis? What kinds of factors are most likely to get their attention (and why?) and how are they likely to deal with them? What are the big events or conditions in UK politics that seem impossible to ignore? And what does our discussion tell us about the idea of a UK political system characterised by central government control and a centralisation of power.
As we discussed in week 2, if you start your study of British politics by describing the Westminster model, you get something like this:
Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.
Most contemporary analysts dwell on the shortcomings of the Westminster account and compare it with a more realistic framework based on modern discussions of governance … Britain has moved away from a distinctive Westminster model.
‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process.
So, you may want to know: ‘How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?’ (source). Here are some possible explanations to discuss.
One account is wrong
In our grumpy account, we pretty much complain that the incorrect story still wins because it sounds so good. The uncool academics have all agreed that the ‘governance’ story best sums up British politics, but the media and public don’t pay attention to it, politicians act as if it doesn’t exist, and cool Lijphart gets all the attention with his ‘majoritarian’ model of the UK which accentuates the adversarial and top-down nature compared to the utopian consensus democracies in which all politicans hold hands and sing together before agreeing all their policies.
One account is wrong most of the time
When less grumpy, we suggest that our account is correct most of the time. People pay attention to the exciting world of elected politics and governing politicians, but it represents the tip of the iceberg. Most policy is processed below the surface, away from the public spotlight, and this process does not match the UK’s majoritarian image. Instead, policymakers tend to work routinely with other policy participants to share information and advice and come to collective understandings of problems and feasible solutions.
What explains the shift from one image to the other?
If we go for the latter explanation, we need to know how this process works: what prompts a tiny number of issues to receive the excitement and attention and a huge number to receive almost none? I’ll give you some ideas below, but note that you can find the same basic explanation of this agenda setting/ framing process in many theories of the policy process. You should read as many as possible and, in particular, those on framing, punctuated equilibrium, and power/ideas. Combined, you get the sense of two scenarios: one in which people simply can’t pay attention to many policy issues and have to ignore most; and, one in which people exploit this limitation to make sure that some issues are ignored (for example, by framing issues as ‘solved’ by policymakers, with only experts required to oversee the implementation of key choices).
The general explanation: powerful people have limited attention
You’ll find this general explanation squirrelled away somewhere in almost everything I’ve written. In this case, it’s in the networks 1000 words post:
The size and scope of the state is so large that it is in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, the state’s component parts are broken down into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across government.
Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice.
Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
Therefore, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.
A specific explanation: even ‘majoriarian’ governments seek consensus even when issues become high profile
I like this story about Brent Spar as an example of ‘bureaucratic accommodation’. In a nutshell (from p577), they argue that we began with a high profile issue in which Greenpeace occupied a Shell oil rig that was due for disposal, got Shell to change its policy through high profile campaigning, but that they came to quieter agreement within government by agreeing on specific policies without shifting their basic principles. Many of us saw the conflict but few saw the consensus building that followed (and, in fact, preceded these events). There are many stories like this, in which relatively short periods of highly salient policymaking ‘punctuate’ much longer spells of humdrum activity.
So, in our group work we can explore the key themes through examples. I’ll ask you to identify the conditions under which Westminster-model-style activity happens, and the conditions under which we’d expect policy communities to develop. I’ll ask you to compare issues in which there is high salience and conflict with issues that are low salience and/ or low conflict. I might even ask you to remember some high profile issues from the past then ask: where are they now?
It can be quite daunting to produce a policy analysis paper or blog post for the first time. You learn about the constraints of political communication by being obliged to explain your ideas in an unusually small number of words. The short word length seems good at first, but then you realise that it makes your life harder: how can you fit all your evidence and key points in? The answer is that you can’t. You have to choose what to say and what to leave out.
You also have to make this presentation ‘not about you’. In a long essay or research report you have time to show how great you are, to a captive audience. In a policy paper, imagine that you are trying to get the attention and support from someone that may not know or care about the issue you raise. In a blog post, your audience might stop reading at any point, so every sentence counts.
There are many guides out there to help you with the practical side, including the broad guidance I give you in the module guide, and Bardach’s 8-steps. In each case, the basic advice is to (a) identify a policy problem and at least one feasible solution, and (b) tailor the analysis to your audience.
Be concise, be smart
So, for example, I ask you to keep your analysis and presentations super-short on the assumption that you have to make your case quickly to people with 99 other things to do. What can you tell someone in a half-page (to get them to read all 2 pages)? Could you explain and solve a problem if you suddenly bumped into a government minister in a lift/ elevator?
It is tempting to try to tell someone everything you know, because everything is connected and to simplify is to describe a problem simplistically. Instead, be smart enough to know that such self-indulgence won’t impress your audience. They might smile politely, but their eyes are looking at the elevator lights.
Your aim is not to give a full account of a problem – it’s to get someone important to care about it.
Your aim is not to give a painstaking account of all possible solutions – it’s to give a sense that at least one solution is feasible and worth pursuing.
Your guiding statement should be: policymakers will only pay attention to your problem if they think they can solve it, and without that solution being too costly.
I don’t like to give you too much advice because I want you to be creative about your presentation; to be confident enough to take chances and feel that I’ll reward you for making the leap. At the very least, you have three key choices to make about how far you’ll go to make a point:
Who is your audience? Our discussion of the limits to centralised policymaking suggest that your most influential audience will not necessarily be a UK government minister – but who else would it be?
How manipulative should you be? Our discussions of ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ suggest that policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information and make choices. So, do you appeal to their desire to set goals and gather a lot of scientific information and/or make an emotional and manipulative appeal?
Are you an advocate or an ‘honest broker’? Contemporary discussions of science advice to government highlight unresolved debates about the role of unelected advisors: should you simply lay out some possible solutions or advocate one solution strongly?
For our purposes, there are no wrong answers to these questions. Instead, I want you to make and defend your decisions. That is the aim of your policy paper ‘reflection’: to ‘show your work’.
You still have some room to be creative: tell me what you know about policy theory and British politics and how it informed your decisions. Here are some examples, but it is up to you to decide what to highlight:
Show how your understanding of policymaker psychology helped you decide how to present information on problems and solutions.
Extract insights from policy theories, such as from punctuated equilibrium theory on policymaker attention, multiple streams analysis on timing and feasibility, or the NPF on how to tell persuasive stories.
With a blog post, your audience is wider. You are trying to make an argument that will capture the attention of a more general audience (interested in politics and policy, but not a specialist) that might access your post from Twitter/ Facebook or via a search engine. This produces a new requirement, to: present a ‘punchy’ title which sums up the whole argument in under 140 characters (a statement is often better than a vague question); to summarise the whole argument in (say) 100 words in the first paragraph (what is the problem and solution?); and, to provide more information up to a maximum of 500 words. The reader can then be invited to read the whole policy analysis.
The style of blog posts varies markedly, so you should consult many examples before attempting your own (compare the LSE with The Conversation and newspaper columns to get a sense of variations in style). When you read other posts, take note of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, many posts associated with newspapers introduce a personal or case study element to ground the discussion in an emotional appeal. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it causes the reader to scroll down quickly to find the main argument. Consider if it is as, or more, effective to make your argument more direct and easy to find as soon as someone clicks the link on their phone. Many academic posts are too long (well beyond your 500 limit), take too long to get to the point, and do not make explicit recommendations, so you should not merely emulate them. You should also not just chop down your policy paper – this is about a new kind of communication.
Be reflective once again
Hopefully, by the end, you will appreciate the transferable life skills. I have generated some uncertainty about your task to reflect the sense among many actors that they don’t really know how to make a persuasive case and who to make it to. We can follow some basic Bardach-style guidance, but a lot of this kind of work relies on trial-and-error. I maintain a short word count to encourage you to get to the point, and I bang on about ‘stories’ in our module to encourage you to make a short and persuasive story to policymakers.
This process seems weird at first, but isn’t it also intuitive? For example, next time you’re in my seminar, measure how long it takes you to get bored and look forward to the weekend. Then imagine that policymakers have the same attention span as you. That’s how long you have to make your case!
This week, we continue with the idea of two stories of British politics. In one, the Westminster model-style story, the moral is that the centralisation of power produces clear lines of accountability: you know who is in charge and, therefore, the heroes or villains. In another, the complex government story, the world seems too messy and power too diffuse to know all the main characters.
Although some aspects of these stories are specific to the UK, they relate to some ‘universal’ questions and concepts that we can use to identify the limits to centralised power. Put simply, some rather unrealistic requirements for the Westminster story include:
You know what policy is, and that it is made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.
Those actors possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe.
They can turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way.
If life were that simple, I wouldn’t be asking you to read the following blog posts (underlined) which complicate the hell out of our neat story:
You don’t know what policy is, and it is notonly made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.
We don’t really know what government policy is. In fact, we don’t even know how to define ‘public policy’ that well. Instead, a definition like ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ raises more issues than it settles: policy is remarkably difficult to identify and measure; it is made by many actors inside, outside, and sort of inside/outside government; the boundary between the people influencing and making policy is unclear; and, the study of policy is often about the things governments don’t do.
Actors don’t possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe
Policymakers pay disproportionate attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. There is great potential for punctuations in policy/ policymaking when their attention lurches, but most policy is made in networks in the absence of such attention.
Policymakers cannot turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way
The classic way to describe straightforward policymaking is with reference to a policy cycle and its stages. This image of a cycle was cooked up by marketing companies trying to sell hula hoops to policymakers and interest groups in the 1960s. It is not an accurate description of policymaking (but spirographs are harder to sell).
Instead, for decades we have tried to explain the ‘gap’ between the high expectations of policymakers and the actual – often dispiriting- outcomes, or wonder if policymakers really have such high expectations for success in the first place (or if they prefer to focus on how to present any of their actions as successful). This was a key topic before the rise of ‘multi-level governance’ and the often-deliberate separation of central government action and expected outcomes.
The upshot:in Westminster systems do you really know who is in charge and who to blame?
These factors combine to generate a sense of complex government in which it is difficult to identify policy, link it to the ‘rational’ processes associated with a small number of powerful actors at the heart of government, and trace a direct line from their choices to outcomes.
Of course, we should not go too far to argue that governments don’t make a difference. Indeed, many ministers have demonstrated the amount of damage (or good) you can do in government. Still, let’s not assume that the policy process in the UK is anything like the story we tell about Westminster.
In the seminar, I’ll ask you reflect on these limits and what they tell us about the ‘Westminster model’. We’ll start by me asking you to summarise the main points of this post. Then, we’ll get into some examples in British politics.
Try to think of some relevant examples of what happens when, for example, minsters seem to make quick and emotional (rather than ‘evidence based’) decisions: what happens next? Some obvious examples – based on our discussions so far – include the Iraq War and the ‘troubled families’ agenda, but please bring some examples that interest you.
In group work, I’ll invite you to answer these questions:
What is UK government policy on X? Pick a topic and tell me what government policy is.
How did the government choose policy? When you decide what government policy is, describe how it made its choices.
What were the outcomes? When you identify government policy choices, describe their impact on policy outcomes.
I’ll also ask you to identify at least one blatant lie in this blog post.
I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.
How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
How do we persuade other people to act on that information?
To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.
Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.
We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.
As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!
If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:
We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?
The two stories
This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.
One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:
Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.
Another is about the profound limits to the WM:
No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.
What is the moral of these stories?
For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.
For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).
Who would buy that story though?We need someone to blame!
Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:
There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.
There is UK–specific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.
How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?
Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:
Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.
For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?
The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:
They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.
We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?
Illustrative example: (1) troubled families
I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:
It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.
Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention
“Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate 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 (Rittell and Webber, 1973) 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”.
Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:
Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?
This is the first of 10 blog posts for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK. They will be a fair bit longer than the blog posts I asked you to write. I have also recorded a short lecture to go with it (OK, 22 minutes isn’t short).
In week 1 we’ll identify all that we think we knew about British politics, compare notes, then throw up our hands and declare that the Brexit vote has changed what we thought we knew.
I want to focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty. People voted Leave/ Remain for all sorts of reasons, and bandied around all sorts of ways to justify their position, but the idea of sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ is central to the Leave argument and this module.
For our purposes, it relates to broader ideas about the images we maintain about who makes key decisions in British politics, summed up by the phrases ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the ‘Westminster model’, and challenged by terms such as ‘bounded rationality’, ‘policy communities’, ‘multi-level governance’, and ‘complex government’.
UK sovereignty relates strongly to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. In practice, one party tends to dominate Parliament, and the elected government tends to dominate that party, but the principle remains important.
So, ‘taking back control’ is about responding, finally, to the sense that (a) the UK’s entry to the European Union from 1972 (when it signed the accession treaty) involved giving up far more sovereignty than most people expected, and (b) the European Union’s role has strengthened ever since, at the further expense of parliamentary sovereignty.
The Westminster Model
This idea of parliamentary sovereignty connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is designed to work.
Our main task is to examine how well the WM: (a) describes what actually happens in British politics, and (b) represents what should happen in British politics. We can separate these two elements analytically but they influence each other in practice. For example, I ask what happens when elected policymakers know their limits but have to pretend that they don’t.
What should happen in British politics?
Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.
The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.
In other words, the WM narrative suggests that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.
Pause for further reading: at this point, consider how this WM story links to a wider discussion of centralised policymaking (in particular, read the 1000 Words post on the policy cycle).
Another is to focus on the factors that undermine this WM image of central control: maybe Westminster political elites are remote, but they don’t control policy outcomes. Instead, there are many factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process. We will focus on these challenges throughout the course:
Challenge 1. Bounded rationality
Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore them? Much of the ‘1000 Words’ series explores the general implications of bounded rationality.
Challenge 2. Policy communities
Ministers don’t quite ignore issues; they delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.
‘Multi-level’ refers to a tendency for the UK government to share policymaking responsibility with international, EU, devolved, and local governments.
‘Governance’ extends the logic of policy communities to identify a tendency to delegate or share responsibility with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations (quangos).
So, MLG can describe a clear separation of powers at many levels and a fairly coherent set of responsibilities in each case. Or, it can describe a ‘patchwork quilt’ of relationships which is difficult to track and understand. In either case, we identify ‘polycentricity’ or the presence of more than one ‘centre’ in British politics.
Challenge 4. Complex government
The phrase ‘complex government’ can be used to describe the complicated world of public policy, with elements including:
the huge size and reach of government – most aspects of our lives are regulated by the state
the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making
the blurry boundaries between the actors who make policy and those who seek to influence and/ or implement it (public policy results from their relationships and interactions)
the multi-level nature of policymaking
the complicated network of interactions between policy actors and many different ‘institutions’
the complexity of the statute book and the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.
Overall, these factors generate a sense of complex government that challenges the Westminster-style notion of accountability. How can we hold elected ministers to account if:
they seem to have no hope of paying attention to much of complex government, far less control it
there is so much interaction with unpredictable effects
we don’t understand enough about how this process works to know if ministers are acting effectively?
Challenge 5. The policy environment and unpredictable events
Further, such governments operate within a wider environment in which conditions and events are often out of policymakers’ control. For example, how do they deal with demographic change or global economic crisis? Policymakers have some choice about the issues to which they pay attention, and the ways in which they understand and address them. However, they do not control that agenda or policy outcomes in the way we associate with the WM image of central control.
How has the UK government addressed these challenges?
We can discuss two key themes throughout the course:
UK central governments have to balance two stories of British politics. One is the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control. Another is the need to construct an image of governing competence, and most governments do so by portraying an image of power and central control!
This dynamic contributes to state reform. There has been a massive build-up and partial knock-down of the ‘welfare state’ in the post-war period (please have a think about the key elements). This process links strongly to that idea of pragmatism versus central control: governments often reform the state to (a) deliver key policy outcomes (the development of the welfare state and aims such as full employment), or (b) reinvigorate central control (for example, to produce a ‘lean state’ or ‘hollowing state’).
What does this discussion tell us about our initial discussion of Brexit?
None of these factors help downplay the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they prompt us to think harder about the meaning, in practice, of parliamentary sovereignty and the Westminster model which underpins ongoing debates about the UK-EU relationship. In short, we can explore the extent to which a return to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ describes little more than principles not evidence in practice. Such principles are important, but let’s also focus on what actually happens in British politics.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.