Category Archives: Psychology Based Policy Studies

Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything

I thank James Georgalakis for inviting me to speak at the inaugural event of IDS’ new Evidence into Policy and Practice Series, and the audience for giving extra meaning to my story about the politics of ‘evidence-based based policymaking’. The talk and Q&A is here:

 

James invited me to respond to some of the challenges raised to my talk – in his summary of the event – so here it is.

I’m working on a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, leaving some of the story open to interpretation. As a result, much of the meaning of this story – and, in particular, the focus on limiting participation – depends on the audience.

For example, consider the impact of the same story on audiences primarily focused on (a) scientific evidence and policy, or (b) participation and power.

Normally, when I talk about evidence and policy, my audience is mostly people with scientific or public health backgrounds asking why do policymakers ignore scientific evidence? I am usually invited to ruffle feathers, mostly by challenging a – remarkably prevalent – narrative that goes like this:

  • We know what the best evidence is, since we have produced it with the best research methods (the ‘hierarchy of evidence’ argument).
  • We have evidence on the nature of the problem and the most effective solutions (the ‘what works’ argument).
  • Policymakers seems to be ignoring our evidence or failing to act proportionately (the ‘evidence-policy barriers’ argument).
  • Or, they cherry-pick evidence to suit their agenda (the ‘policy based evidence’ argument).

In that context, I suggest that there are many claims to policy-relevant knowledge, policymakers have to ignore most information before making choices, and they are not in control of the policy process for which they are ostensibly in charge.

Limiting participation as a strategic aim

Then, I say to my audience that – if they are truly committed to maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy – they will need to consider how far they will go to get what they want. I use the metaphor of an ethical ladder in which each rung offers more influence in exchange for dirtier hands: tell stories and wait for opportunities, or demonise your opponents, limit participation, and humour politicians when they cherry-pick to reinforce emotional choices.

It’s ‘show don’t tell’ but I hope that the take-home point for most of the audience is that they shouldn’t focus so much on one aim – maximising the use of scientific evidence – to the detriment of other important aims, such as wider participation in politics beyond a reliance on a small number of experts. I say ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ but invite the audience to reflect on which prizes they should seek, and the trade-offs between them.

Limited participation – and ‘windows of opportunity’ – as an empirical finding

NASA launch

I did suggest that most policymaking happens away from the sphere of ‘exciting’ and ‘unruly’ politics. Put simply, people have to ignore almost every issue almost all of the time. Each time they focus their attention on one major issue, they must – by necessity – ignore almost all of the others.

For me, the political science story is largely about the pervasiveness of policy communities and policymaking out of the public spotlight.

The logic is as follows. Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. They delegate the rest to bureaucrats at lower levels of government. Bureaucrats lack specialist knowledge, and rely on other actors for information and advice. Those actors trade information for access. In many cases, they develop effective relationships based on trust and a shared understanding of the policy problem.

Trust often comes from a sense that everyone has proven to be reliable. For example, they follow norms or the ‘rules of the game’. One classic rule is to contain disputes within the policy community when actors don’t get what they want: if you complain in public, you draw external attention and internal disapproval; if not, you are more likely to get what you want next time.

For me, this is key context in which to describe common strategic concerns:

  • Should you wait for a ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change? Maybe. Or, maybe it will never come because policymaking is largely insulated from view and very few issues reach the top of the policy agenda.
  • Should you juggle insider and outsider strategies? Yes, some groups seem to do it well and it is possible for governments and groups to be in a major standoff in one field but close contact in another. However, each group must consider why they would do so, and the trade-offs between each strategy. For example, groups excluded from one venue may engage (perhaps successfully) in ‘venue shopping’ to get attention from another. Or, they become discredited within many venues if seen as too zealous and unwilling to compromise. Insider/outsider may seem like a false dichotomy to experienced and well-resourced groups, who engage continuously, and are able to experiment with many approaches and use trial-and-error learning. It is a more pressing choice for actors who may have only one chance to get it right and do not know what to expect.

Where is the power analysis in all of this?

image policy process round 2 25.10.18

I rarely use the word power directly, partly because – like ‘politics’ or ‘democracy’ – it is an ambiguous term with many interpretations (see Box 3.1). People often use it without agreeing its meaning and, if it means everything, maybe it means nothing.

However, you can find many aspects of power within our discussion. For example, insider and outsider strategies relate closely to Schattschneider’s classic discussion in which powerful groups try to ‘privatise’ issues and less powerful groups try to ‘socialise’ them. Agenda setting is about using resources to make sure issues do, or do not, reach the top of the policy agenda, and most do not.

These aspects of power sometimes play out in public, when:

  • Actors engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form coalitions with actors who share their beliefs, and often romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.
  • Actors mobilise their resources to encourage policymakers to prioritise some forms of knowledge or evidence over others (such as by valuing scientific evidence over experiential knowledge).
  • They compete to identify the issues most worthy of our attention, telling stories to frame or define policy problems in ways that generate demand for their evidence.

However, they are no less important when they play out routinely:

  • Governments have standard operating procedures – or institutions – to prioritise some forms of evidence and some issues routinely.
  • Many policy networks operate routinely with few active members.
  • Certain ideas, or ways of understanding the world and the nature of policy problems within it, becomes so dominant that they are unspoken and taken for granted as deeply held beliefs. Still, they constrain or facilitate the success of new ‘evidence based’ policy solutions.

In other words, the word ‘power’ is often hidden because the most profound forms of power often seem to be hidden.

In the context of our discussion, power comes from the ability to define some evidence as essential and other evidence as low quality or irrelevant, and therefore define some people as essential or irrelevant. It comes from defining some issues as exciting and worthy of our attention, or humdrum, specialist and only relevant to experts. It is about the subtle, unseen, and sometimes thoughtless ways in which we exercise power to harness people’s existing beliefs and dominate their attention as much as the transparent ways in which we mobilise resources to publicise issues. Therefore, to ‘maximise the use of evidence’ sounds like an innocuous collective endeavour, but it is a highly political and often hidden use of power.

See also:

I discussed these issues at a storytelling workshop organised by the OSF:

listening-new-york-1-11-16

See also:

Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

Palgrave Communications: The politics of evidence-based policymaking

Using evidence to influence policy: Oxfam’s experience

The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy

 

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

Evidence-based policymaking and the ‘new policy sciences’

image policy process round 2 25.10.18

[I wasn’t happy with the first version, so this is version 2, to be enjoyed with the see ppt MP3 ]

In the ‘new policy sciences’, Chris Weible and I advocate:

  • a return to Lasswell’s vision of combining policy analysis (to recommend policy change) and policy theory (to explain policy change), but
  • focusing on a far larger collection of actors (beyond a small group at the centre),
  • recognising new developments in studies of the psychology of policymaker choice, and
  • building into policy analysis the recognition that any policy solution is introduced in a complex policymaking environment over which no-one has control.

However, there is a lot of policy theory out there, and we can’t put policy theory together like Lego to produce consistent insights to inform policy analysis.

Rather, each concept in my image of the policy process represents its own literature: see these short explainers on the psychology of policymaking, actors spread across multi-level governance, institutions, networks, ideas, and socioeconomic factors/ events.

What the explainers don’t really project is the sense of debate within the literature about how best to conceptualise each concept. You can pick up their meaning in a few minutes but would need a few years to appreciate the detail and often-fundamental debate.

Ideally, we would put all of the concepts together to help explain policymaker choice within a complex policymaking environment (how else could I put up the image and present is as one source of accumulated wisdom from policy studies?). Peter John describes such accounts as ‘synthetic’. I have also co-authored work with Tanya Heikkila – in 2014 and 2017 to compare the different ways in which ‘synthetic’ theories conceptualise the policy process.

However, note the difficulty of putting together a large collection of separate and diverse literatures into one simple model (e.g. while doing a PhD).

On that basis, I’d encourage you to think of these attempts to synthesise as stories. I tell these stories a lot, but someone else could describe theory very differently (perhaps by relying on fewer male authors or US-derived theories in which there is a very specific reference points and positivism is represented well).

The example of EBPM

I have given a series of talks to explain why we should think of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ as a myth or political slogan, not an ideal scenario or something to expect from policymaking in the real world. They usually involve encouraging framing and storytelling rather than expecting evidence to speak for itself, and rejecting the value of simple models like the policy cycle. I then put up an image of my own and encourage people to think about the implications of each concept:

SLIDE simple advice from hexagon image policy process 24.10.18

I describe the advice as simple-sounding and feasible at first glance, but actually a series of Herculean* tasks:

  • There are many policymakers and influencers spread across government, so find out where the action is, or the key venues in which people are making authoritative decisions.
  • Each venue has its own ‘institutions’ – the formal and written, or informal and unwritten rules of policymaking – so learn the rules of each venue in which you engage.
  • Each venue is guided by a fundamental set of ideas – as paradigms, core beliefs, monopolies of understanding – so learn that language.
  • Each venue has its own networks – the relationships between policy makers and influencers – so build trust and form alliances within networks.
  • Policymaking attention is often driven by changes in socioeconomic factors, or routine/ non-routine events, so be prepared to exploit the ‘windows of opportunity’ to present your solution during heightened attention to a policy problem.

Further, policy theories/ studies help us understand the context in which people make such choices. For example, consider the story that Kathryn Oliver and I tell about the role of evidence in policymaking environments:

If there are so many potential authoritative venues, devote considerable energy to finding where the ‘action’ is (and someone specific to talk to). Even if you find the right venue, you will not know the unwritten rules unless you study them intensely. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour some sources of evidence. Research advocates can be privileged insiders in some venues and excluded completely in others. If your evidence challenges an existing paradigm, you need a persuasion strategy good enough to prompt a shift of attention to a policy problem and a willingness to understand that problem in a new way. You can try to find the right time to use evidence to exploit a crisis leading to major policy change, but the opportunities are few and chances of success low.  In that context, policy studies recommend investing your time over the long term – to build up alliances, trust in the messenger, knowledge of the system, and to seek ‘windows of opportunity’ for policy change – but offer no assurances that any of this investment will ever pay off

As described, this focus on the new policy sciences and synthesising insights helps explain why ‘the politics of evidence-based policymaking’ is equally important to civil servants (my occasional audience) as researchers (my usual audience).

To engage in skilled policy analysis, and give good advice, is to recognise the ways in which policymakers combine cognition/emotion to engage with evidence, and must navigate a complex policymaking environment when designing or selecting technically and politically feasible solutions. To give good advice is to recognise what you want policymakers to do, but also that they are not in control of the consequences.

From one story to many?

However, I tell these stories without my audience having the time to look further into each theory and its individual insights. If they do have a little more time, I go into the possible contribution of individual insights to debate.

For example, they adapt insights from psychology in different ways …

  • PET shows the overall effect of policymaker psychology on policy change: they combine cognition and emotion to pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues (contributing to major change) and ignore the rest (contributing to ‘hyperincremental’ change).
  • The IAD focuses partly on the rules and practices that actors develop to build up trust in each other.
  • The ACF describes actors going into politics to turn their beliefs into policy, forming coalitions with people who share their beliefs, then often romanticising their own cause and demonising their opponents.
  • The NPF describes the relative impact of stories on audiences who use cognitive shortcuts to (for example) identify with a hero and draw a simple moral.
  • SCPD describes policymakers drawing on gut feeling to identify good and bad target populations.
  • Policy learning involves using cognition and emotion to acquire new knowledge and skills.

… even though the pace of change in psychological research often seems faster than the ways in which policy studies can incorporate new and reliable insights.

They also present different conceptions of the policymaking environment in which actors make choices. See this post for more on this discussion in relation to EBPM.

My not-brilliant conclusion is that:

  1. Policy theory/ policy studies has a lot to offer other disciplines and professions, particularly in field like EBPM in which we need to account for politics and, more importantly, policymaking systems, but
  2. Beware any policy theory story that presents the source literature as coherent and consistent.
  3. Rather, any story of the field involves a series of choices about what counts as a good theory and good insight.
  4. In other words, the exhortation to think more about what counts as ‘good evidence’ applies just as much to political science as any other.

Postscript: well, that is the last of the posts for my ANZOG talks. If I’ve done this properly, there should now be a loop of talks. It should be possible to go back to the first one and see it as a sequel to this one!

Or, for more on theory-informed policy analysis – in other words, where the ‘new policy sciences’ article is taking us – here is how I describe it to students doing a policy analysis paper (often for the first time).

Or, have a look at the earlier discussion of images of the policy process. You may have noticed that there is a different image in this post (knocked up in my shed at the weekend). It’s because I am experimenting with shapes. Does the image with circles look more relaxing? Does the hexagonal structure look complicated even though it is designed to simplify? Does it matter? I think so. People engage emotionally with images. They share them. They remember them. So, I need an image more memorable than the policy cycle.

 

Paul Cairney Brisbane EBPM New Policy Sciences 25.10.18

 

 

 

*I welcome suggestions on another word to describe almost-impossibly-hard

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

Evidence-based policymaking and the ‘new policy sciences’

Circle image policy process 24.10.18

I have given a series of talks to explain why we should think of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ as a myth or political slogan, not an ideal scenario or something to expect from policymaking in the real world. They usually involve encouraging framing and storytelling rather than expecting evidence to speak for itself, and rejecting the value of simple models like the policy cycle. I then put up an image of my own and encourage people to think about the implications of each concept:

SLIDE simple advice from hexagon image policy process 24.10.18

I describe the advice as simple-sounding and feasible at first glance, but actually a series of Herculean* tasks:

  • There are many policymakers and influencers spread across government, so find out where the action is, or the key venues in which people are making authoritative decisions.
  • Each venue has its own ‘institutions’ – the formal and written, or informal and unwritten rules of policymaking – so learn the rules of each venue in which you engage.
  • Each venue is guided by a fundamental set of ideas – as paradigms, core beliefs, monopolies of understanding – so learn that language.
  • Each venue has its own networks – the relationships between policy makers and influencers – so build trust and form alliances within networks.
  • Policymaking attention is often driven by changes in socioeconomic factors, or routine/ non-routine events, so be prepared to exploit the ‘windows of opportunity’ to present your solution during heightened attention to a policy problem.

In most cases, we don’t have time to discuss a more fundamental issue (at least for researchers using policy theory and political science concepts):

From where did these concepts come, and how well do we know them?

To cut a long story short, each concept represents its own literature: see these short explainers on the psychology of policymaking, actors spread across multi-level governance, institutions, networks, ideas, and socioeconomic factors/ events. What the explainers don’t really project is the sense of debate within the literature about how best to conceptualise each concept. You can pick up their meaning in a few minutes but would need a few years to appreciate the detail and often-fundamental debate.

Ideally, we would put all of the concepts together to help explain policymaker choice within a complex policymaking environment (how else could I put up the image and present is as one source of accumulated wisdom from policy studies?). Peter John describes such accounts as ‘synthetic’. I have also co-authored work with Tanya Heikkila – in 2014 and 2017 to compare the different ways in which ‘synthetic’ theories conceptualise the policy process. However, note the difficulty of putting together a large collection of separate and diverse literatures into one simple model (e.g. while doing a PhD).

The new policy sciences

More recently, in the ‘new policy sciences’, Chris Weible and I present a more provocative story of these efforts, in which we advocate:

  • a return to Lasswell’s vision of combining policy analysis (to recommend policy change) and policy theory (to explain policy change), but
  • focusing on a far larger collection of actors (beyond a small group at the centre),
  • recognising new developments in studies of the psychology of policymaker choice, and
  • building into policy analysis the recognition that any policy solution is introduced in a complex policymaking environment over which no-one has control.

This focus on psychology is not new …

  • PET shows the overall effect of policymaker psychology on policy change: they combine cognition and emotion to pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues (contributing to major change) and ignore the rest (contributing to ‘hyperincremental’ change).
  • The IAD focuses partly on the rules and practices that actors develop to build up trust in each other.
  • The ACF describes actors going into politics to turn their beliefs into policy, forming coalitions with people who share their beliefs, then often romanticising their own cause and demonising their opponents.
  • The NPF describes the relative impact of stories on audiences who use cognitive shortcuts to (for example) identify with a hero and draw a simple moral.
  • SCPD describes policymakers drawing on gut feeling to identify good and bad target populations.
  • Policy learning involves using cognition and emotion to acquire new knowledge and skills.

… but the pace of change in psychological research often seems faster than the ways in which policy studies can incorporate new and reliable insights.

Perhaps more importantly, policy studies help us understand the context in which people make such choices. For example, consider the story that Kathryn Oliver and I tell about the role of evidence in policymaking environments:

If there are so many potential authoritative venues, devote considerable energy to finding where the ‘action’ is (and someone specific to talk to). Even if you find the right venue, you will not know the unwritten rules unless you study them intensely. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour some sources of evidence. Research advocates can be privileged insiders in some venues and excluded completely in others. If your evidence challenges an existing paradigm, you need a persuasion strategy good enough to prompt a shift of attention to a policy problem and a willingness to understand that problem in a new way. You can try to find the right time to use evidence to exploit a crisis leading to major policy change, but the opportunities are few and chances of success low.  In that context, policy studies recommend investing your time over the long term – to build up alliances, trust in the messenger, knowledge of the system, and to seek ‘windows of opportunity’ for policy change – but offer no assurances that any of this investment will ever pay off

Then, have a look at this discussion of ‘synthetic’ policy theories, designed to prompt people to consider how far they would go to get their evidence into policy.

Theory-driven policy analysis

As described, this focus on the new policy sciences helps explain why ‘the politics of evidence-based policymaking’ is equally important to civil servants (my occasional audience) as researchers (my usual audience).

To engage in skilled policy analysis, and give good advice, is to recognise the ways in which policymakers combine cognition/emotion to engage with evidence, and must navigate a complex policymaking environment when designing or selecting technically and politically feasible solutions. To give good advice is to recognise what you want policymakers to do, but also that they are not in control of the consequences.

Epilogue

Well, that is the last of the posts for my ANZOG talks. If I’ve done this properly, there should now be a loop of talks. It should be possible to go back to the first one in Auckland and see it as a sequel to this one in Brisbane!

Or, for more on theory-informed policy analysis – in other words, where the ‘new policy sciences’ article is taking us – here is how I describe it to students doing a policy analysis paper (often for the first time).

Or, have a look at the earlier discussion of images of the policy process. You may have noticed that there is a different image in this post (knocked up in my shed at the weekend). It’s because I am experimenting with shapes. Does the image with circles look more relaxing? Does the hexagonal structure look complicated even though it is designed to simplify? Does it matter? I think so. People engage emotionally with images. They share them. They remember them. So, I need an image more memorable than the policy cycle.

 

Paul Cairney Brisbane EBPM New Policy Sciences 25.10.18

 

 

*I welcome suggestions on another word to describe almost-impossibly-hard

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

Emotion and reason in politics: the rational/ irrational distinction

In ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers’, Richard Kwiatkowski and I use the distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts ‘provocatively’. I sort of wish we had been more direct, because I have come to realise that:

  1. My attempts to communicate with sarcasm and facial gestures may only ever appeal to a niche audience, and
  2. even if you use the scare quotes – around a word like ‘irrational’ – to denote the word’s questionable use, it’s not always clear what I’m questioning, because
  3. you need to know the story behind someone’s discussion to know what they are questioning.*

So, here are some of the reference points I’m using when I tell a story about ‘irrationality’:

1. I’m often invited to be the type of guest speaker that challenges the audience, it is usually a scientific audience, and the topic is usually evidence based policymaking.

So, when I say ‘irrational’, I’m speaking to (some) scientists who think of themselves as rational and policymakers as irrational, and use this problematic distinction to complain about policy-based evidence, post-truth politics, and perhaps even the irrationality of voters for Brexit. Action based on this way of thinking would be counterproductive. In that context, I use the word ‘irrational’ as a way into some more nuanced discussions including:

  • all humans combine cognition and emotion to make choices; and,
  • emotions are one of many sources of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ that help us make some decisions very quickly and often very well.

In other words, it is silly to complain that some people are irrational, when we are all making choices this way, and such decision-making is often a good thing.

2. This focus on scientific rationality is part of a wider discussion of what counts as good evidence or valuable knowledge. Examples include:

  • Policy debates on the value of bringing together many people with different knowledge claims – such as through user and practitioner experience – to ‘co-produce’ evidence.
  • Wider debates on the ‘decolonization of knowledge’ in which narrow ‘Western’ scientific principles help exclude the voices of many populations by undermining their claims to knowledge.

3. A focus on rationality versus irrationality is still used to maintain sexist and racist caricatures or stereotypes, and therefore dismiss people based on a misrepresentation of their behaviour.

I thought that, by now, we’d be done with dismissing women as emotional or hysterical, but apparently not. Indeed, as some recent racist and sexist coverage of Serena Williams demonstrates, the idea that black women are not rational is still tolerated in mainstream discussion.

4. Part of the reason that we can only conclude that people combine cognition and emotion, without being able to separate their effects in a satisfying way, is that the distinction is problematic.

It is difficult to demonstrate empirically. It is also difficult to assign some behaviours to one camp or the other, such as when we consider moral reasoning based on values and logic.

To sum up, I’ve been using the rational/irrational distinction explicitly to make a simple point that is relevant to the study of politics and policymaking:

  • All people use cognitive shortcuts to help them ignore almost all information about the world, to help them make decisions efficiently.
  • If you don’t understand and act on this simple insight, you’ll waste your time by trying to argue someone into submission or giving them a 500-page irrelevant report when they are looking for one page written in a way that makes sense to them.

Most of the rest has been mostly implicit, and communicated non-verbally, which is great when you want to keep a presentation brief and light, but not if you want to acknowledge nuance and more serious issues.

 

 

 

 

*which is why I’m increasingly interested in Riker’s idea of heresthetics, in which the starting point of a story is crucial. We can come to very different conclusions about a problem and its solution by choosing different starting points, to accentuate one aspect of a problem and downplay another, even when our beliefs and preferences remain basically the same.

 

 

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

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

The first post in this series asks: Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? It is based on talks that I have been giving since 2016, mostly to tap into a common story told by people in my audience (and the ‘science community’ more generally) about a new era in politics: policymakers do not pay sufficient respect to expertise or attention to good quality evidence.

It’s not my story, but I think it’s important to respect my audience members enough to (a) try to engage with their question, before (b) inviting them to think differently about how to ask it, and (c) provide different types of solutions according to the changing nature of the question.

Instead of a really long post for (b) and (c), I’ve made it a bit like Ceefax in which you can choose which question to ask or answer:

  • Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? (go to page 154)
  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Tips from the ‘how to’ literature from the science community (go to page 650)
  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’ (go to page 568)
  • How else can we describe and seek to fill the evidence-policy gap? (go to page 400)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

Some of this material will appear in work with Dr Kathryn Oliver and with my co-authors on a forthcoming report for Enlightenment 2.0 

See also:

Evidence-based policymaking: political strategies for scientists living in the real world

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

Evidence based policymaking: 7 key themes

I also do slides, such as:

Paul Cairney FUSE May 2018 

Paul Cairney Victoria May 2018

The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking: ANZSOG talks 

Talks and blogs: ANZSOG and beyond

This is me presenting those slides in Cambridge while being very Scottish, enjoying a too-heavy cold, and sucking a lozenge. Please note that I tend to smile a lot and make many sarcastic jokes while presenting, partly to apologise indirectly for all the self-publicity.

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

Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?

Since 2016, my most common academic presentation to interdisciplinary scientist/ researcher audiences is a variant of the question, ‘why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?’

I tend to provide three main answers.

1. Many policymakers have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence

Few policymakers know or care about the criteria developed by some scientists to describe a hierarchy of scientific evidence. For some scientists, at the top of this hierarchy is the randomised control trial (RCT) and the systematic review of RCTs, with expertise much further down the list, followed by practitioner experience and service user feedback near the bottom.

Yet, most policymakers – and many academics – prefer a wider range of sources of information, combining their own experience with information ranging from peer reviewed scientific evidence and the ‘grey’ literature, to public opinion and feedback from consultation.

While it may be possible to persuade some central government departments or agencies to privilege scientific evidence, they also pursue other key principles, such as to foster consensus driven policymaking or a shift from centralist to localist practices.

Consequently, they often only recommend interventions rather than impose one uniform evidence-based position. If local actors favour a different policy solution, we may find that the same type of evidence may have more or less effect in different parts of government.

2. Policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence and almost every decision taken in their name

Many scientists articulate the idea that policymakers and scientists should cooperate to use the best evidence to determine ‘what works’ in policy (in forums such as INGSA, European Commission, OECD). Their language is often reminiscent of 1950s discussions of the pursuit of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in policymaking.

The key difference is that EBPM is often described as an ideal by scientists, to be compared with the more disappointing processes they find when they engage in politics. In contrast, ‘comprehensive rationality’ is an ideal-type, used to describe what cannot happen, and the practical implications of that impossibility.

The ideal-type involves a core group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’, identifying their values or the problems they seek to solve, and translating their policies into action to maximise benefits to society, aided by neutral organisations gathering all the facts necessary to produce policy solutions. Yet, in practice, they are unable to: separate values from facts in any meaningful way; rank policy aims in a logical and consistent manner; gather information comprehensively, or possess the cognitive ability to process it.

Instead, Simon famously described policymakers addressing ‘bounded rationality’ by using ‘rules of thumb’ to limit their analysis and produce ‘good enough’ decisions. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory uses bounded rationality to show that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, which limits their control of the many decisions made in their name.

More recent discussions focus on the ‘rational’ short cuts that policymakers use to identify good enough sources of information, combined with the ‘irrational’ ways in which they use their beliefs, emotions, habits, and familiarity with issues to identify policy problems and solutions (see this post on the meaning of ‘irrational’). Or, they explore how individuals communicate their narrow expertise within a system of which they have almost no knowledge. In each case, ‘most members of the system are not paying attention to most issues most of the time’.

This scarcity of attention helps explain, for example, why policymakers ignore most issues in the absence of a focusing event, policymaking organisations make searches for information which miss key elements routinely, and organisations fail to respond to events or changing circumstances proportionately.

In that context, attempts to describe a policy agenda focusing merely on ‘what works’ are based on misleading expectations. Rather, we can describe key parts of the policymaking environment – such as institutions, policy communities/ networks, or paradigms – as a reflection of the ways in which policymakers deal with their bounded rationality and lack of control of the policy process.

3. Policymakers do not control the policy process (in the way that a policy cycle suggests)

Scientists often appear to be drawn to the idea of a linear and orderly policy cycle with discrete stages – such as agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, policy maintenance/ succession/ termination – because it offers a simple and appealing model which gives clear advice on how to engage.

Indeed, the stages approach began partly as a proposal to make the policy process more scientific and based on systematic policy analysis. It offers an idea of how policy should be made: elected policymakers in central government, aided by expert policy analysts, make and legitimise choices; skilful public servants carry them out; and, policy analysts assess the results with the aid of scientific evidence.

Yet, few policy theories describe this cycle as useful, while most – including the advocacy coalition framework , and the multiple streams approach – are based on a rejection of the explanatory value of orderly stages.

Policy theories also suggest that the cycle provides misleading practical advice: you will generally not find an orderly process with a clearly defined debate on problem definition, a single moment of authoritative choice, and a clear chance to use scientific evidence to evaluate policy before deciding whether or not to continue. Instead, the cycle exists as a story for policymakers to tell about their work, partly because it is consistent with the idea of elected policymakers being in charge and accountable.

Some scholars also question the appropriateness of a stages ideal, since it suggests that there should be a core group of policymakers making policy from the ‘top down’ and obliging others to carry out their aims, which does not leave room for, for example, the diffusion of power in multi-level systems, or the use of ‘localism’ to tailor policy to local needs and desires.

Now go to:

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

Further Reading

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

The politics of evidence-based policymaking: maximising the use of evidence in policy

Images of the policy process

How to communicate effectively with policymakers

Forthcoming special issue in Policy and Politics called ‘Practical lessons from policy theories’, which includes my discussion of how to be a ‘policy entrepreneur’.

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What do we need to know about the politics of evidence-based policymaking?

Today, I’m helping to deliver a new course – Engaging Policymakers Training Programme – piloted by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the UCL. Right now, it’s for UCL staff (and mostly early career researchers). My bit is about how we can better understand the policy process so that we can engage in it more effectively.  I have reproduced the brief guide below (for my two 2-hour sessions as part of a wider block). If anyone else is delivering something similar, please let me know. We could compare notes. 

This module will be delivered in two parts to combine theory and practice

Part 1: What do we need to know about the politics of evidence-based policymaking?

Policy theories provide a wealth of knowledge about the role of evidence in policymaking systems. They prompt us to understand and respond to two key dynamics:

  1. Policymaker psychology. Policymakers combine rational and irrational shortcuts to gather information and make good enough decisions quickly. To appeal to rational shortcuts and minimise cognitive load, we reduce uncertainty by providing syntheses of the available evidence. To appeal to irrational shortcuts and engage emotional interest, we reduce ambiguity by telling stories or framing problems in specific ways.
  2. Complex policymaking environments. These processes take place in the context of a policy environment out of the control of individual policymakers. Environments consist of: many actors in many levels and types of government; engaging with institutions and networks, each with their own informal and formal rules; responding to socioeconomic conditions and events; and, learning how to engage with dominant ideas or beliefs about the nature of the policy problem. In other words, there is no policy cycle or obvious stage in which to get involved.

In this seminar, we discuss how to respond effectively to these dynamics. We focus on unresolved issues:

  1. Effective engagement with policymakers requires storytelling skills, but do we possess them?
  2. It requires a combination of evidence and emotional appeals, but is it ethical to do more than describe the evidence?
  3. The absence of a policy cycle, and presence of an ever-shifting context, requires us to engage for the long term, to form alliances, learn the rules, and build up trust in the messenger. However, do we have and how should we invest the time?

The format will be relatively informal. Cairney will begin by making some introductory points (not a powerpoint driven lecture) and encourage participants to relate the three questions to their research and engagement experience.

Gateway to further reading:

  • Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski (2017) ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies’, Palgrave Communications
  • Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS), DOI: 10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x
  • Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

Part 2: How can we respond pragmatically and effectively to the politics of EBPM?

In this seminar, we move from abstract theory and general advice to concrete examples and specific strategies. Each participant should come prepared to speak about their research and present a theoretically informed policy analysis in 3 minutes (without the aid of powerpoint). Their analysis should address:

  1. What policy problem does my research highlight?
  2. What are the most technically and politically feasible solutions?
  3. How should I engage in the policy process to highlight these problems and solutions?

After each presentation, each participant should be prepared to ask questions about the problem raised and the strategy to engage. Finally, to encourage learning, we will reflect on the memorability and impact of presentations.

Powerpoint: Paul Cairney A4UE UCL 2017

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