Category Archives: public policy

Teaching policy analysis with a blog

Below is the draft introduction to a paper that I am writing for a Special Issue paper on Teaching Policy Analysis for Gestión y Análisis de Políticas Públicas (GAPP) (here is the version with the references if you want to sing along).

When we teach policy analysis, we can focus on how to be a policy analyst or how to situate the act of policy analysis within a much wider policymaking context. Ideally, we would teach and learn about both. Indeed, this aim is central to Lasswell’s vision for the policy sciences, in which the analysis of policy (and policymaking) informs analysis for policy, and both are essential to the pursuit of equality and dignity.

There is the potential to achieve this vision for the policy sciences. Policy analysis texts focus on the individual and professional skills required to act efficiently and effectively in a time-pressured political environment. Further, they are supported by the study of policy analysts to reflect on how analysis takes place, and policy is made, in the real world.

The next step would be to harness the wealth of policy concept- and theory-informed studies to help understand how real world contexts inform policy analysis insights. First, for example, almost all mainstream studies assume or demonstrate that there is no such thing as a policy cycle with clearly-defined and well-ordered stages of policymaking, from defining problems and generating solutions to evaluating their effect. If so, how can policy analysts understand their far more complex policymaking environment, and what skills and strategies do they need to develop to engage effectively? Indeed, these discussions may be essential to preventing the demoralisation of analysts: if they do not learn in advance about the processes and factors than can minimise their influence, how can they generate realistic expectations? Second, if the wider aim is human equality and dignity, insights from critical policy analysis are essential. They help analysts think about what those concepts mean, how to identify and support marginalised populations, and how policy analysis skills and techniques relate to those aims. In particular, they warn against treating policy analysis as a technocratic profession devoid of politics, which may contribute to exclusive research gathering practices, producing too-narrow definitions of problems, insufficient consideration of feasible solutions, and recommendations made about target populations without engaging with the people they claim to serve.

However, this aim is much easier described than achieved. Policy analysis texts, focusing on how to do it, often use insights from policy studies.  However, they do so without fully explaining key concepts and theories or exploring their implications. There is simply not enough time and space to do justice to every element, from the technical tools of policy analysis (including cost-benefit analysis) to the empirical findings from policy theories and normative insights from critical policy analysis approaches (e.g. Weimer and Vining, 2017 is already 500 pages long). Policy process research, focusing on what actually happens, may have practical implications for analysts. However, they are often hidden behind layers of concepts and jargon, and – with notable exceptions – their authors seem uninterested in describing the normative importance of, or practical lessons from, theory-informed empirical studies. Further, the cumulative size of this research is overwhelming and beyond the full understanding of experienced specialist scholars. Indeed, it is even difficult to recommend a small number of texts to sum up each approach, which makes it difficult to predict how much time and energy it would take to understand this field, and therefore to demonstrate the payoff from that investment. Further, critical policy analysis is essential, but often ignored in policy analysis texts, and the potential for meaningful conversations with mainstream policy scholars remains largely untapped or resisted .

In that context, policy analysis students embody the problem of ‘bounded rationality’ described famously by Simon. Indeed, Simon’s phrase ‘to satisfice’ sums up a goal-oriented response to bounded rationality: faced with the inability to identify, process, or understand all relevant information, they must seek ways to gather enough information to inform ‘good enough’ choices. Further, since then, policy studies have sought to incorporate insights from individual human, social, and organisational psychology to understand (1) the other cognitive shortcuts that humans use, including gut-level instinct, habit, familiarity with an issue, deeply-held beliefs, and emotions, and (2) their organisations equivalents (since organisations also use rules and standard operating procedures to close off information searches and limit analysis). Human cognitive shortcuts can be described negatively as cognitive biases or more positively as ‘fast and frugal heuristics’. However, the basic point remains: if people draw on allegedly ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to information, we need to find ways to adapt to their ways of thinking, rather than holding onto an idealised version of humans (and policymaking organisations) that do not exist in the real world .

While these insights focus generally on policymakers, they are also essential to engaging with students. Gone – I hope – are the days of lecturers giving students an overwhelmingly huge reading list and expecting them to devour every source before each class, which may help some students but demoralise many others (especially since it seems inevitable that most students’ first engagement with specialist texts and technical jargon will already induce fears about their own ignorance). In their place should be a thoughtful exploration of how much students can actually learn about the wider policy analysis context, focusing on (1) the knowledge and skills they already possess, (2) the time they have to learn, and (3) how new knowledge or skills would relate to their ambitions. If students are seeking fast and frugal heuristics to learn about policy analysis, how should we help them, and what should we teach?

To help answer such questions, first I describe the rationale for the blog that I developed in tandem with teaching public policy, initially at an undergraduate level as part of a wider politics programme, before developing a Master of Public Policy and contributing to shorter executive courses or one-off workshops. This range matters, since the answer to the question ‘what can students learn?’ will vary according to their existing knowledge and time. Second, I describe some examples of the valuable intersection between policy analysis, policy process research, and critical policy analysis to demonstrate the potential payoffs to wider insights. Third, I summarise the rationale for the coursework that I use to foster public policy knowledge and policy analysis skills, including skills in critical thinking and reflection to accompany more specialist analytical skills.

See also:

500

750

1000

The finished paper will be translated into Spanish

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Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy

By Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, Sean Kippin, Heather Mitchell

This post first appeared on the Policy & Politics blog. It summarizes an article published in Policy & Politics.

Could policy theories help to understand and facilitate the pursuit of equity (or reduction of unfair inequalities)?

We are producing a series of literature reviews to help answer that question, beginning with the study of equity policy and policymaking in healtheducation, and gender research.

Each field has a broadly similar focus.  Most equity researchers challenge the ‘neoliberal’ approaches to policy that favour low state action in favour of individual responsibility and market forces.   They seek ‘social justice’ approaches, favouring far greater state intervention to address the social and economic causes of unfair inequalities, via redistributive or regulatory measures. They seek policymaking reforms to reflect the fact that most determinants of inequalities are not contained to one policy sector and cannot be solved in policy ‘silos’. Rather, equity policy initiatives should be mainstreamed via collaboration across (and outside of) government. Each field also projects a profound sense of disenchantment with limited progress, including a tendency to describe a too-large gap between their aspirations and actual policy outcomes. They describe high certainty about what needs to happen, but low confidence that equity advocates have the means to achieve it (or to persuade powerful politicians to change course).

Policy theories could offer some practical insights for equity research, but not always offer the lessons that some advocates seek. In particular, health equity researchers seek to translate insights on policy processes into a playbook for action, such as to frame policy problems to generate more attention to inequalities, secure high-level commitment to radical change, and improve the coherence of cross-cutting policy measures. Yet, policy theories are more likely to identify the dominance of unhelpful policy frames, the rarity of radical change, and the strong rationale for uncoordinated policymaking across a large number of venues. Rather than fostering technical fixes with a playbook, they encourage more engagement with the inescapable dilemmas and trade-offs inherent to policy choice. This focus on contestation (such as when defining and addressing policy problems) is more of a feature of education and gender equity research.

While we ask what policy theories have to offer other disciplines, in fact the most useful lessons emerge from cross-disciplinary insights. They highlight two very different approaches to transformational political change. One offers the attractive but misleading option of radical change through non-radical action, by mainstreaming equity initiatives into current arrangements and using a toolbox to make continuous progress. Yet, each review highlights a tendency for radical aims to be co-opted and often used to bolster the rules and practices that protect the status quo. The other offers radical change through overtly political action, fostering continuous contestation to keep the issue high on the policy agenda and challenge co-option. There is no clear step-by-step playbook for this option, since political action in complex policymaking systems is necessarily uncertain and often unrewarding. Still, insights from policy theories and equity research shows that grappling with these challenges is inescapable.

Ultimately, we conclude that advocates of profound social transformation are wasting each other’s time if they seek short-cuts and technical fixes to enduring political problems. Supporters of policy equity should be cautious about any attempt to turn a transformational political project into a technical process containing a ‘toolbox’ or ‘playbook’.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, Sean Kippin, and Heather Mitchell (2022) ‘Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education, and gender policy’, Policy and Politics https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16487239616498

This article is an output of the IMAJINE project, which focuses on addressing inequalities across Europe.

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The politics of policy design

This post summarizes the conclusion of ‘The politics of policy design’ for a Design and Policy Network workshop (15th June).  My contribution to this interdisciplinary academic-practitioner discussion is to present insights from political science and policy process research, which required me to define some terms (background) before identifying three cautionary messages.

Background

A broad definition of policy design as an activity is to (1) define policy aims, and (2) identify the tools to deliver those aims (compare with policy analysis).

However, note the verb/noun distinction, and common architectural metaphor, to distinguish between the (a) act of design, and (b) the output (e.g. the blueprints).

In terms of the outputs, tools can be defined narrowly as policy instruments – including tax/spending, regulations, staff and other resources for delivery, information sharing, ‘nudging’, etc. – or more widely to include the processes involved in their formulation (such as participatory and deliberative). Therefore, we could be describing:

  • A highly centralized process, involving very few people, to produce the equivalent of a blueprint.
  • A decentralized, and perhaps uncoordinated, process involving many people, built on the principle that to seek a blueprint would be to miss the point of participation and deliberation.

Policymaking research tends to focus on

(1) measuring policy change with reference to the ‘policy mix’ of these tools/ instruments, and generally showing that most policy change is minor (and some is major) (link1, link2, link3, link4), and/ or

(2) how to understand the complex policymaking systems or environments in which policy design processes take place.

These studies are the source of my messages of doom.

Three cautionary messages about new policy design

There is a major gap between the act of policy design and actual policies and policy processes. This issue led to the decline of old policy design studies in the 1980s.

While ‘new policy design’ scholars seek to reinvigorate the field, the old issues serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us that (1) policy design is not new, and (2) its decline did not relate to the lack of sophisticated skills or insights among policy designers.

In other words, these old problems will not simply be solved by modern scientific, methodological, or policy design advances. Rather, I encourage policy designers to pay particular attention to:

1. The gap between functional requirements and real world policymaking.

Policy analysts and designers often focus on what they need, or require to get their job done or produce the outcomes they seek.

Policy process researchers identify the major, inevitable, gaps between those requirements and actual policy processes (to the extent that the link between design and policy is often difficult to identify).

2. The strong rationale for the policy processes that undermine policy design.

Policy processes – and their contribution to policy mixes – may seem incoherent from a design perspective. However, they make sense to the participants involved.

Some relate to choice, including to share responsibility for instruments across many levels or types of government (without focusing on how those responsibilities will connect or be coordinated).

Some result from necessity, to delegate responsibility to many policy communities spread across government, each with their own ways to define and address problems (without the ability to know how those responsibilities will be connected).

3. The policy analysis and design dilemmas that cannot be solved by design methods alone.

When seen from the ‘top down’, design problems often relate to the perceived lack of delivery or follow-through in relation to agreed high level design outputs (great design, poor delivery).

When seen from the ‘bottom up’, they represent legitimate ways to incorporate local stakeholder and citizen perspectives. This process will inevitably produce a gap between different sources and outputs of design, making it difficult to separate poor delivery (bad?) from deviation (good?).

Such dynamics are solved via political choice rather than design processes and  techniques.

Notes on the workshop discussion

The workshop discussion prompted us initially to consider how many different people would define it. The range of responses included seeing policy design as:

  • a specific process with specific tools to produce a well-defined output (applied to specific areas conducive to design methods)
  • a more general philosophy or way of thinking about things like policy issues (compare with systems thinking)
  • a means to encourage experimentation (such as to produce a prototype policy instrument, use it, and reflect or learn about its impact) or change completely how people think about an issue
  • the production of a policy solution, or one part of a large policy mix
  • a niche activity in one unit of government, or something mainstreamed across governments
  • something done in government, or inside and outside of government
  • producing something new (like writing on a blank sheet of paper), adding to a pile of solutions, or redesigning what exists
  • primarily a means to empower people to tell their story, or as a means to improve policy advocacy (as in discussions of narrative/ storytelling)
  • something done with authoritative policymakers like government ministers (in other words, people with the power to make policy changes after they participate in design processes) or given to them (in other words, the same people but as the audience for the outcomes of design)

These definitions matter since they have very different implications for policy and practice. Take, for example, the link – made by Professor Liz Richardson – between policy design and the idea of evidence-based policymaking, to consider two very different scenarios:

  1. A minister is directly involved in policy design processes. They use design thinking to revisit how they think about a policy problem (and target populations), seek to foster participation and deliberation, and use that process – perhaps continuously – to consider how to reconcile very different sources of evidence (including, say, new data from randomized control trials and powerful stories from citizens, stakeholders, service users). I reckon that this kind of scenario would be in the minds of people who describe policy design optimistically.
  2. A minister is the intended audience of a report on the outcomes of policy design. You assume that their thoughts on a policy problem are well-established. There is no obvious way for them to reconcile different sources of policy-relevant evidence. Crucially, the fruits of your efforts have made a profound impact on the people involved but, for the minister, the outcome is just one of too-many sources of information (likely produced too soon before or after they want to consider the issue).

The second scenario is closer to the process that I describe in the main post, although policy studies would warn against seeing someone like a government minister as authoritative in the sense that they reside in the centre of government. Rather, studies of multi-centric policymaking remind us that there are many possible centres spread across political systems. If so, policy design – according to approaches like the IAD – is about ways to envisage a much bigger context in which design success depends on the participation and agreement of a large number of influential actors (who have limited or no ability to oblige others to cooperate).

Further Reading

Paul Cairney (2022) ‘The politics of policy design’, EURO Journal on Decision Processes  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejdp.2021.100002

Paul Cairney, Tanya Heikkila, and Matthew Wood (2019) Making Policy in a Complex World (Cambridge Elements) PDF Blog

Complex systems and systems thinking (part of a series of thematic posts on policy analysis)

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Why is there high support for, but low likelihood of, drug consumption rooms in Scotland?

This is my interpretation of this new article:

James Nicholls, Wulf Livingston, Andy Perkins, Beth Cairns, Rebecca Foster, Kirsten M. A. Trayner, Harry R. Sumnall, Tracey Price, Paul Cairney, Josh Dumbrell, and Tessa Parkes (2022) ‘Drug Consumption Rooms and Public Health Policy: Perspectives of Scottish Strategic Decision-Makers’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(11), 6575; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19116575

Q: if stakeholders in Scotland express high support for drug consumption rooms, and many policymakers in Scotland seem sympathetic, why is there so little prospect of policy change?

My summary of the article’s answer is as follows:

  1. Although stakeholders support DCRs almost unanimously, they do not support them energetically.

They see this solution as one part of a much larger package rather than a magic bullet. They are not sure of the cost-effectiveness in relation to other solutions, and can envisage some potential users not using them.

The existing evidence on their effectiveness is not persuasive for people who (1) adhere to a hierarchy of evidence which prioritizes evidence from randomized control trials or (2) advocate alternative ways to use evidence.

There are competing ways to frame this policy solution. It suggests that there are some unresolved issues among stakeholders which have not yet come to the fore (since the lack of need to implement something specific reduces the need to engage with a more concrete problem definition).

2. A common way to deal with such uncertainty in Scotland is to use ‘improvement science’ or the ‘improvement method’.

This method invites local policymakers and practitioners to try out new solutions, work with stakeholders and service users during delivery, reflect on the results, and use this learning to design the next iteration. This is a pragmatic, small-scale, approach that appeals to the (small-c conservative) Scottish Government, which uses pilots to delay major policy changes, and is keen on its image as not too centralist and quite collaboration minded.

3. This approach is not politically feasible in this case.

Some factors suggest that the general argument has almost been won, including positive informal feedback from policymakers, and increasingly sympathetic media coverage (albeit using problematic ways to describe drug use).

However, this level of support is not enough to support experimentation. Drug consumption rooms would need a far stronger steer from the Scottish Government.

In this case, it can’t experiment now and decide later. It needs to make a strong choice (with inevitable negative blowback) and stay the course, knowing that one failed political experiment could set back progress for years.

4. The multi-level policymaking system is not conducive to overcoming these obstacles.

The issue of drugs policy is often described as a public health – and therefore devolved – issue politically (and in policy circles)

However, the legal/ formal division of responsibilities suggests that UK government consent is necessary and not forthcoming.

It is possible that the Scottish Government could take a chance and act alone. Indeed, the example of smoking in public places showed that it shifted its position after a slow start (it described the issue as reserved to the UK took charge of its own legislation, albeit with UK support).

However, the Scottish Government seems unwilling to take that chance, partly because it has been stung by legal challenges in other areas, and is reluctant to engage in more of the same (see minimum unit pricing for alcohol).

Local policymakers could experiment on their own, but they won’t do it without proper authority from a central government.

This experience is part of a more general issue: people may describe multi-level policymaking as a source of venues for experimentation (‘laboratories of democracy’) to encourage policy learning and collaboration. However, this case, and cases like fracking, show that they can actually be sites of multiple veto points and multi-level reluctance.

If so, the remaining question for reflection is: what would it take to overcome these obstacles? The election of a Labour UK government? Scottish independence? Or, is there some other way to make it happen in the current context?

See also:

What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco

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Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol

By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes.

There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes.

To demonstrate these links, we present:

  1. A long-read blog post to (a) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing, adopted by the Scottish Government but not the UK Government) to (b) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications. We then added some examples of further reading.
  2. A 45 minute podcast to describe and explain these developments (click below or scroll to the end)

Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland: background and development

Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol was introduced in Scotland in 2018. In 2012, the UK Government had also announced plans to introduce MUP, but within a year dopped the policy following intense industry pressure. What do these two journeys tell us about policy processes?

When MUP was first proposed by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems in 2007, it was a novel policy idea. Public health advocates had long argued that raising the price of alcohol could help tackle harmful consumption. However, conventional tax increases were not always passed onto consumers, so would not necessarily raise prices in the shops (and the Scottish Government did not have such taxation powers). MUP appeared to present a neat solution to this problem. It quickly became a prominent policy goal of public health advocates in Scotland and across the UK, while gaining increasing attention, and support, from the global alcohol policy community.

In 2008, the UK Minister for Health, Dawn Primarolo, had commissioned researchers at the University of Sheffield to look into links between alcohol pricing and harm. The Sheffield team developed economic models to analysis the predicted impact of different systems. MUP was included, and the ‘Sheffield Model’ would go on to play a decisive role in developing the case for the policy.

What problem would MUP help to solve?

Descriptions of the policy problem often differed in relation to each government. In the mid-2000s, alcohol harm had become a political problem for the UK government. Increasing consumption, alongside changes to the night-time economy, had started to gain widespread media attention. In 2004, just as a major liberalisation of the licensing system was underway in England, news stories began documenting the apparent horrors of ‘Binge Britain’: focusing on public drunkenness and disorder, but also growing rates of liver disease and alcohol-related hospital admissions.

In 2004, influential papers such as the Daily Mail began to target New Labour alcohol policy

Politicians began to respond, and the issue became especially useful for the Conservatives who were developing a narrative that Britain was ‘broken’ under New Labour. Labour’s liberalising reforms of alcohol licensing could conveniently be linked to this political framing. The newly formed Alcohol Health Alliance, a coalition set up under the leadership of Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, was also putting pressure on the UK Government to introduce stricter controls. In Scotland, while much of the debate on alcohol focused on crime and disorder, Scottish advocates were focused on framing the problem as one of public health. Emerging evidence showed that Scotland had dramatically higher rates of alcohol-related illness and death than the rest of Europe – a situation strikingly captured in a chart published in the Lancet.

Source: Leon, D. and McCambridge, J. (2006). Liver cirrhosis mortality rates in Britain from 1950 to 2002: an analysis of routine data. Lancet 367

The notion that Scotland faced an especially acute public health problem with alcohol was supported by key figures in the increasingly powerful Scottish National Party (in government since 2007), which, around this time, had developed working relationships with Alcohol Focus Scotland and other advocacy groups.

What happened next?

The SNP first announced that it would support MUP in 2008, but it did not implement this change until 2018. There are two key reasons for the delay:

  1. Its minority government did not achieve enough parliamentary support to pass legislation. It then formed a majority government in 2011, and its legislation to bring MUP into law was passed in 2012.  
  2. Court action took years to resolve. The alcohol industry, which is historically powerful in Scotland, was vehemently opposed. A coalition of industry bodies, led by the Scotch Whisky Association, took the Scottish Government to court in an attempt to prove the policy was illegal. Ultimately, this process would take years, and conclude in rulings by the European Court of Justice (2016), Scottish Court of Session Inner House (2016), and UK Supreme Court (2017) which found in favour of the Scottish Government.

In England, to the surprise of many people, the Coalition Government announced in March 2012 that it too would introduce MUP, specifically to reduce binge drinking and public disorder. This different framing was potentially problematic, however, since the available evidence suggested (and subsequent evaluation has confirmed) that MUP would have only a small impact on crime. Nonetheless, health advocates were happy,  with one stating that ‘I do not mind too much how it was framed. What I mind about is how it measures up’.

Once again, the alcohol industry swung into action, launching a campaign led by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, asking ‘Why should moderate drinkers pay more?’

This public campaign was accompanied by intense behind-the-scenes lobbying, aided by the fact that the leadership of industry groups had close ties to Government and that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beer had the largest membership of any APPG in Westminster. The industry campaign made much of the fact there was little evidence to suggest MUP would reduce crime, but also argued strongly that the modelling produced by Sheffield University was not valid evidence in the first place. A year after the adopting the policy, the UK Government announced a U-turn and MUP was dropped.

How can we use policy theories and concepts to interpret these dynamics?

Here are some examples of using policy theories and concepts as a lens to interpret these developments.

1. What was the impact of evidence in the case for policy change?

While public health researchers often expect (or at least promote) ‘evidence based’ policymaking, insights from research identify three main reasons why policymakers do not make evidence-based choices:

First, many political actors (including policymakers) have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence.

The assessment, promotion, and use of evidence is highly contested, and never speaks for itself.

Second, policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence to make choices.

They address ‘bounded rationality’ by using two cognitive shortcuts: ‘rational’ measures set goals and identify trusted sources, while ‘irrational’ measures use gut instinct, emotions, and firmly held beliefs.

Third, policymakers do not control the policy process.

There is no centralised and orderly policy cycle. Rather, policymaking involves policymakers and influencers spread across many authoritative ‘venues’, with each venue having its own rules, networks, and ways of thinking.

In that context, policy theories identify the importance of contestation between policy actors, and describe the development of policy problems, and how evidence fits in. Approaches include:

The study of framing

The acceptability of a policy solution will often depend on how the problem is described. Policymakers use evidence to reduce uncertainty, or a lack of information around problems and how to solve them. However, politics is about exercising power to reduce ambiguity, or the ability to interpret the same problem in different ways.

By suggesting MUP would solve problems around crime, the UK Government made it easier for opponents to claim the policy wasn’t evidence-based. In Scotland, policymakers and advocates focused on health, where the evidence was stronger. In addition, the SNP’s approach fitted within a wider political independence frame, in which more autonomy meant more innovation.

The Narrative Policy Framework

Policy actors tell stories to appeal to the beliefs (or exploit the cognitive shortcuts) of their audiences. A narrative contains a setting (the policy problem), characters (such as the villain who caused it, or the victim of its effects), plot (e.g. a heroic journey to solve the problem), and moral (e.g. the solution to the problem).

Supporters of MUP tended to tell the story that there was an urgent public health  crisis, caused largely by the alcohol industry, and with many victims, but that higher alcohol prices pointed to one way out of this hole. Meanwhile opponents told the story of an overbearing ‘nanny state’, whose victims – ordinary, moderate drinkers – should be left alone by government.

Social Construction and Policy Design

Policymakers make strategic and emotional choices, to identify ‘good’ populations deserving of government help, and ‘bad’ populations deserving punishment or little help. These judgements inform policy design (government policies and practices) and provide positive or dispiriting signals to citizens.

For example, opponents of MUP rejected the idea that alcohol harms existed throughout the population. They focused instead on dividing the majority of moderate drinkers from irresponsible minority of binge drinkers, suggesting that MUP would harm the former more than help the latter.

Multi-centric policymaking

This competition to frame policy problems takes place in political systems that contain many ‘centres’, or venues for authoritative choice. Some diffusion of power is by choice, such as to share responsibilities with devolved and local governments. Some is by necessity, since policymakers can only pay attention to a small proportion of their responsibilities, and delegate the rest to unelected actors such as civil servants and public bodies (who often rely on interest groups to process policy).

For example, ‘alcohol policy’ is really a collection of instruments made or influenced by many bodies, including (until Brexit) European organisations deciding on the legality of MUP, UK and Scottish governments, as well as local governments responsible for alcohol licensing. In Scotland, this delegation of powers worked in favour of MUP, since Alcohol Focus Scotland were funded by the Scottish Government to help deliver some of their alcohol policy goals, and giving them more privileged access than would otherwise have been the case.

The role of evidence in MUP

In the case of MUP, similar evidence was available and communicated to policymakers, but used and interpreted differently, in different centres, by the politicians who favoured or opposed MUP.

In Scotland, the promotion, use of, and receptivity to research evidence – on the size of the problem and potential benefit of a new solution – played a key role in increasing political momentum. The forms of evidence were complimentary. The ‘hard’ science on a potentially effective solution seemed authoritative (although few understood the details), and was preceded by easily communicated and digested evidence on a concrete problem:

  1. There was compelling evidence of a public health problem put forward by a well-organised ‘advocacy coalition’ (see below) which focused clearly on health harms. In government, there was strong attention to this evidence, such as the Lancet chart which one civil servant described as ‘look[ing] like the north face of the Eiger’. There were also influential ‘champions’ in Government willing to frame action as supporting the national wellbeing.
  2. Reports from Sheffield University appeared to provide robust evidence that MUP could reduce harm, and advocacy was supported by research from Canada which suggested that similar policies there had been successful elsewhere.

Advocacy in England was also well-organised and influential, but was dealing with a larger – and less supportive – Government machine, and the dominant political frame for alcohol harms remained crime and disorder rather than health.

Debates on MUP modelling exemplify these differences in evidence communication and use. Those in favour appealed to econometric models, but sometimes simplifying their complexity and blurring the distinction between projected outcomes and proof of efficacy. Opponents went the other way and dismissed the modelling as mere speculation. What is striking is the extent to which an incredibly complex, and often poorly understand, set of econometric models – and the ’Sheffield Model’ in particular – came to occupy centre stage in a national policy debate. Katikireddi and colleagues talked about this as an example of evidence as rhetoric:

  1. Support became less about engagement with  the econometric modelling, and more an indicator of general concern about alcohol harm and the power of the industry.
  2. Scepticism was often viewed as the ‘industry position’, and an indicator of scepticism towards public health policy more broadly.

2. Who influences policy change?

Advocacy plays a key role in alcohol policy, with industry and other actors competing with public health groups to define and solve alcohol policy problems. It prompts our attention to policy networks, or the actors who make and influence policy.

According to the Advocacy Coalition Framework:

People engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form advocacy coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. The action takes place within a subsystem devoted to a policy issue, and a wider policymaking process that provides constraints and opportunities to coalitions. Beliefs about how to interpret policy problems act as a glue to bind actors together within coalitions. If the policy issue is technical and humdrum, there may be room for routine cooperation. If the issue is highly charged, then people romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.

MUP became a highly charged focus of contestation between a coalition of public health advocates, who saw themselves as fighting for the wellbeing of the wider community (and who believed fundamentally that government had a duty to promote population health), and a coalition of industry actors who were defending their commercial interests, while depicting public health policies as illiberal and unfair.

3. Was there a ‘window of opportunity’ for MUP?

Policy theories – including Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – describe a tendency for policy change to be minor in most cases and major in few. Paradigmatic policy change is rare and may take place over decades, as in the case of UK tobacco control where many different policy instruments changed from the 1980s. Therefore, a major change in one instrument could represent a sea-change overall or a modest adjustment to the overall approach.

Multiple Streams Analysis is a popular way to describe the adoption of a new policy solution such as MUP. It describes disorderly policymaking, in which attention to a policy problem does not produce the inevitable development, implementation, and evaluation of solutions. Rather, these ‘stages’ should be seen as separate ‘streams’.  A ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change occurs when the three ‘streams’ come together:

  • Problem stream. There is high attention to one way to define a policy problem.
  • Policy stream. A technically and politically feasible solution already exists (and is often pushed by a ‘policy entrepreneur’ with the resources and networks to exploit opportunities).
  • Politics stream. Policymakers have the motive and opportunity to choose that solution.

However, these windows open and close, often quickly, and often without producing policy change.

This approach can help to interpret different developments in relation to Scottish and UK governments:

Problem stream

  • The Scottish Government paid high attention to public health crises, including the role of high alcohol consumption.
  • The UK government paid often-high attention to alcohol’s role in crime and anti-social behaviour (‘Binge Britain’ and ‘Broken Britain’)

Policy stream

  • In Scotland, MUP connected strongly to the dominant framing, offering a technically feasible solution that became politically feasible in 2011.
  • The UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s made a surprising bid to adopt MUP in 2012, but ministers were divided on its technical feasibility (to address the problem they described) and its political feasibility seemed to be more about distracting from other crises than public health.

Politics stream

  • The Scottish Government was highly motivated to adopt MUP. MUP was a flagship policy for the SNP; an opportunity to prove its independent credentials, and to be seen to address a national public health problem. It had the opportunity from 2011, then faced interest group opposition that delayed implementation.
  • The Coalition Government was ideologically more committed to defending commercial interests, and to framing alcohol harms as one of individual (rather than corporate) responsibility. It took less than a year for the alcohol industry to successfully push for a UK government U-turn.

As a result, MUP became policy (eventually) in Scotland, but the window closed (without resolution) in England.

Further Reading

Nicholls, J. and Greenaway, J. (2015) ‘What is the problem?: Evidence, politics and alcohol policy in England and Wales, 2010–2014’, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 22.2  https://doi.org/10.3109/09687637.2014.993923

Butler, S., Elmeland, K., Nicholls, J. and Thom, B. (2017) Alcohol, power and public health: a comparative study of alcohol policy. Routledge.

Fitzgerald, N. and Angus, C. (2015) Four nations: how evidence–based are alcohol policies and programmes across the UK?

Holden, C. and Hawkins, B. (2013) ‘Whisky gloss’: the alcohol industry, devolution and policy communities in Scotland. Public Policy and Administration, 28(3), pp.253-273.

Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2014) ‘Public Health Policy in the United Kingdom: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Brewing?’ World Medical and Health Policy6, 3, 308-323 PDF

Niamh Fitzgerald and Paul Cairney (2022) ‘National objectives, local policymaking: public health efforts to translate national legislation into local policy in Scottish alcohol licensing’, Evidence and Policyhttps://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16397418342227PDF

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Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol Understanding Public Policy (in 1000 and 500 words)

By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes. There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes,. To demonstrate these links, we present this podcast and blog post to (1) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing in Scotland) to (2) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications.  Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy (wordpress.com)
  1. Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol
  2. Policy in 500 Words: policymaking environments and their consequences
  3. Policy in 500 Words: bounded rationality and its consequences
  4. Policy in 500 Words: evolutionary theory
  5. Policy in 500 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework

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Policymaking to reduce gender inequalities: Lessons and challenges

Dr Emily St.Denny, Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Copenhagen

Dr Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Dr Sean Kippin, Lecturer in Public Policy, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Every year, March 8th marks International Women’s Day: an official UN holiday to draw attention to women’s rights and gender equality, celebrating achievements and highlighting challenges. There is a strong consensus that reducing gender inequality is the right thing to do and has wider economic and social benefits. There is also evidence that some gender gaps have narrowed, for example in education.

Nevertheless, significant inequalities still persist, despite policy interventions from states and organisations like the European Union and the United Nations. For instance, women remain underrepresented in politics and in corporate leadership, are more likely to be poor, and are frequently victims of gendered violence, harassment and discrimination.

As part of our research for the IMAJINE project, we studied how governments might make better policies to reduce gender inequalities. Ideas abound, and feminist civil society and policy actors have generated new visions to improve gender equality policy and policymaking.

Despite this, many advocates remain disappointed by slow progress and poor outcomes. We therefore sought to analyse the rich literature on gender inequality policy to identify potential lessons to help policymakers more effectively tackle the issue. In particular we looked at the case of ‘Gender mainstreaming’ as one example of an influential policy agenda that has gained global prominence.

Overall, we identify three challenges facing policymakers seeking to make and deliver effective inequality reduction policies:

Challenge 1: Defining equality

Gender equality is an ambiguous and contested term. Interpretations of how and why gender inequality constitutes a problem vary significantly and beliefs about how best to address it are subject to ongoing debate. We can identify some common ground, with broad consensus that ‘gender inequality’ refers to the fact that some individuals, especially women, face discrimination, hardships, or missed opportunities on the basis of their gender. Nevertheless, when policy actors seek to make sense of gender equality as a policy goal, they contribute to three different interpretations of the problem based on what they consider ‘equality’ to mean. These different interpretations lead to different diagnoses of the solution and, ultimately, different forms of public action.

  • Equality of treatment: women and men are the same and therefore deserving of equal treatment (e.g. establish of anti-discrimination laws).
  • Equality of opportunity: there are differences between men and women that identify women as deserving of special protection or affirmative action to redress socially and historically entrenched inequalities.
  • Equality of outcome/impact: focus on equal outcomes, for example through ‘gender mainstreaming’ – a strategy to ensure that the goal of advancing gender equality is actively integrated into all stages of the policymaking process across all sectors.

This ambiguity can be assessed in different ways. On the one hand, it has allowed broad coalitions to mobilise in its defense and elevate it as an important issue. On the other, ambiguity has made it possible to label a wide range of policies as ‘gender equality policies’, some of which are (intentionally and unintentionally) ineffective or become so in the absence of coordination with other policy efforts.

Policymakers seeking to improve gender equality through public action must therefore grapple with a trade-off: define the term very specifically and perhaps increase its meaningfulness as a concrete policy goal but risk narrowing the possible impact of policy and alienating those with alternative interpretations.

Challenge 2: Designing effective policies

Policymakers can choose from different instruments to craft their response, but options are limited by calculations of what is feasible.

One choice is between ‘soft’ instruments that rely on voluntary take-up, such as benchmarking and the issuance of recommendations, and ‘hard’ instruments, which are imposed and include penalties for non-compliance.

For example, in the case of the EU, we can contrast the publication of gender equality data by the European Institute for Gender Equality, which is intended to incentivize Member States to continually strive to improve their position, with the introduction of the EU Work-Life Balance Directive, which requires Member States to introduce earmarked paternity leave.

There is a tendency for soft instruments to be associated with a weaker commitment to gender equality, held responsible for a dilution of policy efficacy over time. Our research suggests, however, that soft instruments have their uses. In particular, since they do not require strong consensus to adopt, they are easier to introduce and adapt to local circumstances. For this reason, they may also serve as a useful way to prime support across the policy community ahead of trying to introduce harder and more binding instruments.

Policymakers seeking to improve efforts to reduce gender inequality should therefore think carefully about policy design in relation to overall coherence, or the extent to which policy actions mutually reinforce each other. Seen this way, policy coherence becomes an ongoing and everyday concern about the extent to which instruments and actions work effectively together over time, rather than simply at the moment of introduction. This may involve trade-offs over instrument selection as well as policy goals, such as whether to focus on securing immediate material objectives or achieving longer-term strategic goals. 

Challenge 3: More than an implementation gap

An ‘implementation gap’ refers to the discrepancy between policy choices and actual outcomes. Thinking of the challenge of contemporary gender equality policy as an implementation gap is too reductive. It is not just that effective gender equality policy is hard to make and even harder to implement effectively. It is also that the way we make policy, and many of the people involved, actively contribute to sustaining gender inequalities.

Some of this can be attributed to resistance by some policymakers to gender equality as a legitimate and desirable goal. However, a lot can be attributed to the fact that many well-intentioned policy actors have not grasped the structural nature of gender inequality. Consequently, they are ill-equipped to address inequalities and inadvertently reproduce them. This can be seen when gender equality policy takes the shape of bureaucratic  instruments and ‘tick box’ exercises rather than a more meaningful commitment to reforming the way we make and deliver policy. At the same time, making gender everybody’s business also risks making it nobody’s business if specialized equality institutions are dismantled for being redundant.

Overall, what our research suggests is that policymakers must let go of the illusion that gender equality can be achieved as a matter of mundane routine, without having to make fundamentally political decisions about big questions including: what do we mean by equality, what does it look like in practice, and are we willing to get out of our comfort zone to achieve it?

This post first appeared on the University of Stirling Public Policy blog

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Contradictions in policy and policymaking

It would be a mistake to equate public policy with whatever a government says it is doing (or wants to do).

The most obvious, but often unhelpful, explanation for this statement is that politicians are not sincere when making policy promises, or not competent enough to see them through.

This focus on sincerity and ‘political will’ can be useful, but only scratches the surface of explanation.

The bigger source of explanation comes from the routine, pervasive, and inevitable contradictions of policy and policymaking.

The basic idea of contradictory aims and necessary trade-offs

I want to eat crisps and lose weight, but making a commitment to both does not achieve both. Rather, I cycle between each aim, often unpredictably, producing what might appear to be an inconsistent approach to my wellbeing.

These problems only get worse when more people and aims are involved. Indeed, a general description of ‘politics’ regards trying to find ways to resolve the many different preferences of many people in the same society. These preferences are intransitive, prompting policy actors to try to manipulate choice situations, or produce effective stories or narratives, to encourage one choice over another. Even if successful in once case, the overall impact of political action is not consistent.

The inevitable result of politics is that policymakers want to prioritise many policy aims and the aims that undermine them. When they pursue many contradictory aims, they have to make trade-offs and prioritise some aims over others.  Sometimes, this choice is explicit. Sometimes, you have to work out what a government’s real priorities are when they seem sincerely committed to so many things. If so, we should not deduce government policy overall from specific statements and policies.

This basic idea plays out in many different ways, including:

  • Policymakers need to address many contradictory demands

Contradictions are inevitable when policymakers seek to offer policy benefits to many different groups for different reasons. Some benefits are largely rhetorical, others more substantive.

  • Ambiguity allows policy actors to downplay contradictions (temporarily) when generating support.

Contradictions are masked by ambiguity, such as when many different actors support the same vague ambition for very different reasons.

  • Policy silos contribute to contradictory action

Contradictions are exacerbated by inevitable and pervasive policy silos or ‘communities’ that seem immune to ‘holistic’ government. They multiply when governments have many departments pursuing many different aims. There may be a vague hope for joined-up policy, but a strong rationale for policy communities to specialise and become insulated.

The power to make policies – or create or amend policy instruments – is spread across many different venues of authority. If so, a key aim – stated often – is to find ways to cooperate to avoid contradictory policies and practices. The logical consequence of this distribution of powers, and the continuous search for meaningful cooperation, is that such contradictions are routine features, not bugs, of political systems.

Contradictions are a feature of organisational and systemic rules and norms, in which the rules on paper are not the rules in use.

  • Policymaking systems exacerbate contradictions

Contradictions emerge from  complex policymaking systems, in which unexpected outcomes emerge despite central government action.

Some of these outcomes simply emerge from routine policy delivery, when the actors carrying out policy have different ideas than the actors sending them instructions. Or, implementing actors do not have the resources or clarity to do what they think they are being told.

Examples of contradictions in policy and policymaking

Most governments are committed rhetorically (and often sincerely) to the public health agenda ‘Health in All Policies’ but also the social and economic policies that undermine it. The same goes for the more general aim of ‘prevention’.

Governments and organisations promote anti-racist policies (or softer-sounding equality, diversity, and inclusion policies) while reproducing racist institutions and practices.

In these kinds of cases, it is tempting to conclude that governments make promises energetically as a substitute for – not a signal of – action.

Levin et al note that the governments seeking to reduce climate change are also responsible for its inevitability.

The US and EU have subsidised the production and/or encouraged the sale of tobacco (to foster economic aims) at the same time as seeking tobacco control and discouraging smoking (to foster public health aims).

Governments seek to combine contradictory ways to encourage centralism/ localism and the use of evidence for policy.

Further reading

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Policy in 500 words

Few theories and concepts in these series use this term, but many help to explain many elements of policy and policymaking contradictions.

See also this note on policymaking in Scotland, also containing the not-entirely-helpful crisp analogy.

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Policy analysis in 750 words: WORDLE and trial and error policymaking

I apologise for every word in this post, and the capitalised 5-letter words in particular.

WORDLE is a SIMPLE word game (in US English). The aim is to identify a 5-letter word correctly in 6 guesses or fewer. Each guess has to be a real word, and you receive informative feedback each time: GREEN means you have the letter RIGHT and in the right position; yellow means the right letter in the wrong position; grey MEANS the letter does not appear in the word.

One strategy involves trial-and-error learning via 3 or 4 simple steps:

1. Use your initial knowledge of the English language to inform initial guesses, such as guessing a word with common vowels (I go for E and A) and consonants (e.g. S, T).

2. Learn from feedback on your correct and incorrect estimates.

3. Use your new information and deduction (e.g. about which combinations work when you exclude many options) to make informed guesses.

4. Do so while avoiding unhelpful heuristics, such as assuming that each letter will only appear once (or that the spelling is in UK English).

At least, that is how I play it. I get it in 3 just over half the time, and 4 or 5 in the rest. I make 2-4 ‘errors’ then succeed. In the context of the game’s rules, that is consistent success, RIGHT?

[insert crowbar GIF to try to get away with the segue]

That is the spirit of the idea of trial-and-error learning.

It is informed by previous knowledge, but also a recognition of the benefits of trying things out to generate new information, update your knowledge and skills (the definition of learning), and try again.

A positive normative account of this approach can be found in classic discussions of incrementalism and modern discussions of policymaking informed by complex systems insights:

‘To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly’.

Advocates of such approaches also suggest that we change how we describe them, replacing the language of policy failure with ERROR, at least when part of a process of continuous policy learning in the face of uncertainty.

At the heart of such advice are two guiding principles:

1. Recognise the limits to centralism when giving policy advice. There is no powerful centre of government, able to carry out all of its aims successfully, so do not build policy advice on that assumption.

2. Recognise the limits to our knowledge. Policymakers must make and learn from choices in the face of uncertainty, so do not kid yourself that one piece of analysis and action will do.

Much like the first two WORDLE guesses, your existing knowledge alone does not tell you how to proceed (regardless of the number of times that people repeat the slogan of ‘evidence-based policymaking’).

Political problems with trial and error

The main political problem with this approach is that many political systems – including adversarial and/or Westminster systems – are not conducive to learning from error. You may think that adapting continuously to uncertainty is crucial, but also be wary of recommending it to:

1. Politicians who will be held to account for failure. A government’s apparent failure to deliver on promises represents a resource for its opposition.

2. Organisations subject to government targets. Failure to meet strict statutory requirements is not seen as a learning experience.  

More generally, your audience may face criticism whenever errors are associated with negative policy consequences (with COVID-19 policy representing a vivid, extreme example).

These limitations produce a major dilemma in policy analysis, in which you believe that you will not learn how to make good policy without trial-and-error but recognise that this approach will not be politically feasible. In many political systems, policymakers need to pretend to their audience that they know what the problem is and that they have the knowledge and power to solve it. You may not be too popular if you encourage open-minded experimentation. This limitation should not warn you against trial-and-error recommendations completely, but rather remind you to relate good-looking ideas to your policymaking context.

Please note that I missed my train stop while writing this post, despite many opportunities to learn from the other times it happened.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Two approaches to policy learning and transfer

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series. It draws on work for an in-progress book on learning to reduce inequalities. Some of the text will seem familiar if you have read other posts. Think of it as an adventure game in which the beginning is the same but you don’t know the end.

Policy learning is the use of new information to update policy-relevant knowledge. Policy transfer involves the use of knowledge about policy and policymaking in one government to inform policy and policymaking in another.

These processes may seem to relate primarily to research and expertise, but they require many kinds of political choices (explored in this series). They take place in complex policymaking systems over which no single government has full knowledge or control.

Therefore, while the agency of policy analysts and policymakers still matters, they engage with a policymaking context that constrains or facilitates their action.

Two approaches to policy learning: agency and context-driven stories

Policy analysis textbooks focus on learning and transfer as an agent-driven process with well-established  guidance (often with five main steps). They form part of a functionalist analysis where analysts identify the steps required to turn comparative analysis into policy solutions, or part of a toolkit to manage stages of the policy process.

Agency is less central to policy process research, which describes learning and transfer as contingent on context. Key factors include:

Analysts compete to define problems and determine the manner and sources of learning, in a multi-centric environment where different contexts will constrain and facilitate action in different ways. For example, varying structural factors – such as socioeconomic conditions – influence the feasibility of proposed policy change, and each centre’s institutions provide different rules for gathering, interpreting, and using evidence.

The result is a mixture of processes in which:

  1.  Learning from experts is one of many possibilities. For example, Dunlop and Radaelli also describe ‘reflexive learning’, ‘learning through bargaining’, and ‘learning in the shadow hierarchy’
  2.  Transfer takes many forms.

How should analysts respond?

Think of two different ways to respond to this description of the policy process with this lovely blue summary of concepts. One is your agency-centred strategic response. The other is me telling you why it won’t be straightforward.

An image of the policy process (see 5 images)

There are many policy makers and influencers spread across many policymaking ‘centres’

  1. Find out where the action is and tailor your analysis to different audiences.
  2. There is no straightforward way to influence policymaking if multiple venues contribute to policy change and you don’t know who does what.

Each centre has its own ‘institutions’

  1. Learn the rules of evidence gathering in each centre: who takes the lead, how do they understand the problem, and how do they use evidence?
  2. There is no straightforward way to foster policy learning between political systems if each is unaware of each other’s unwritten rules. Researchers could try to learn their rules to facilitate mutual learning, but with no guarantee of success.

Each centre has its own networks

  1. Form alliances with policymakers and influencers in each relevant venue.
  2. The pervasiveness of policy communities complicates policy learning because the boundary between formal power and informal influence is not clear.

Well-established ‘ideas’ tend to dominate discussion

  1. Learn which ideas are in good currency. Tailor your advice to your audience’s beliefs.
  2. The dominance of different ideas precludes many forms of policy learning or transfer. A popular solution in one context may be unthinkable in another.

Many policy conditions (historic-geographic, technological, social and economic factors) command the attention of policymakers and are out of their control. Routine events and non-routine crises prompt policymaker attention to lurch unpredictably.

  1. Learn from studies of leadership in complex systems or the policy entrepreneurs who find the right time to exploit events and windows of opportunity to propose solutions.
  2. The policy conditions may be so different in each system that policy learning is limited and transfer would be inappropriate. Events can prompt policymakers to pay disproportionately low or high attention to lessons from elsewhere, and this attention relates weakly to evidence from analysts.

Feel free to choose one or both forms of advice. One is useful for people who see analysts and researchers as essential to major policy change. The other is useful if it serves as a source of cautionary tales rather than fatalistic responses.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

Teaching evidence based policy to fly: how to deal with the politics of policy learning and transfer

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

Policy learning to reduce inequalities: a practical framework

Three ways to encourage policy learning

Epistemic versus bargaining-driven policy learning

The ‘evidence-based policymaking’ page explores these issues in more depth

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Policy in 500 Words: Trust

This post summarises ‘COVID-19: effective policymaking depends on trust in experts, politicians, and the public’ by Adam Wellstead and me.

The meaning of trust

We define trust as ‘a belief in the reliability of other people, organizations, or processes’, but it is one of those terms – like ‘policy’ – that defies a single comprehensive definition. The term ‘distrust’ complicates things further, since it does not simply mean the absence of trust.

Its treatment in social science also varies, which makes our statement – ‘Trust is necessary for cooperation, coordination, social order, and to reduce the need for coercive state imposition’ – one of many ways to understand its role.

A summary of key concepts

Social science accounts of trust relate it to:

1. Individual choice

I may trust someone to do something if I value their integrity (if they say they will do it, I believe them), credibility (I believe their claim is accurate and feasible), and competence (I believe they have the ability).

This perception of reliability depends on:

  • The psychology of the truster. The truster assesses the risk of relying on others, while combining cognition and emotion to relate that risk of making themselves vulnerable to the benefit of collective action, while drawing on an expectation of reciprocity.
  • The behaviour of the trustee. They demonstrate their trustworthiness in relation to past performance, which demonstrates their competence and reliability and perhaps their selflessness in favour of collective action.
  • Common reference points. The trustee and truster may use shortcuts to collective action, such as a reference to something they have in common (e.g. their beliefs or social background), their past interactions, or the authority of the trustee.

2. Social and political rules (aka institutions).

Perhaps ideally, we would learn who to trust via our experiences of working together, but we also need to trust people we have never met, and put equivalent trust in organisations and ‘systems’.

In that context, approaches such as the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) identify the role of many different kinds of rules in relation to trust:

  • Rules can be formal, written, and widely understood (e.g. to help assign authority regardless of levels of interaction) or informal, unwritten, and only understood by some (e.g. resulting from interactions in some contexts).
  • Rules can represent low levels of trust and a focus on deterring breaches (e.g. creating and enforcing contracts) or high levels of trust (e.g. to formalize ‘effective practices built on reciprocity, emotional bonds, and/or positive expectations’).

3. Societal necessity and interdependence.

Trust is a functional requirement. We need to trust people because we cannot maintain a functional society or political system without working together. Trust-building underpins the study of collaboration (or cooperation and bargaining), such as in the Ecology of Games approach (which draws on the IAD).

  • In that context, trust is a resource (to develop) that is crucial to a required outcome.

Is trust good and distrust bad?

We describe trust as ‘necessary for cooperation’ and distrust as a ‘potent motivator’ that may prompt people to ignore advice or defy cooperation or instruction. Yet, neither is necessarily good or bad. Too much trust may be a function of: (1) the abdication of our responsibility to engage critically with leaders in political systems, (2) vulnerability to manipulation, and/ or (3) excessive tribalism, prompting people to romanticise their own cause and demonise others, each of which could lead us to accept uncritically the cynical choices of policymakers.

Further reading

Trust is a slippery concept, and academics often make it slippier by assuming rather than providing a definition. In that context, why not read all of the 500 Words series and ask yourself where trust/ distrust fit in?

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: power and knowledge

This post adapts Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge (the body of this post) to inform the Policy Analysis in 750 words series (the top and tails).

One take home message from the 750 Words series is to avoid seeing policy analysis simply as a technical (and ‘evidence-based’) exercise. Mainstream policy analysis texts break down the process into technical-looking steps, but also show how each step relates to a wider political context. Critical policy analysis texts focus more intensely on the role of politics in the everyday choices that we might otherwise take for granted or consider to be innocuous. The latter connect strongly to wider studies of the links between power and knowledge.

Power and ideas

Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.

Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by (1) the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), (2) social groups, and (3) individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).

Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.

Relating power to policy analysis: whose knowledge matters?

The concept of‘epistemic violence’ is one way todescribe the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.

It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.

750 Words posts examining this link between power and knowledge

Some posts focus on the role of power in research and/ or policy analysis:

These posts ask questions such as: who decides what evidence will be policy-relevant, whose knowledge matters, and who benefits from this selective use of evidence? They help to (1) identify the exercise of power to maintain evidential hierarchies (or prioritise scientific methods over other forms of knowledge gathering and sharing), and (2) situate this action within a wider context (such as when focusing on colonisation and minoritization). They reflect on how (and why) analysts should respect a wider range of knowledge sources, and how to produce more ethical research with an explicit emancipatory role. As such, they challenge the – naïve or cynical – argument that science and scientists are objective and that science-informed analysis is simply a technical exercise (see also Separating facts from values).

Many posts incorporate these discussions into many policy analysis themes.

See also

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas

Education equity policy: ‘equity for all’ as a distraction from race, minoritization, and marginalization. It discusses studies of education policy (many draw on critical policy analysis)

There are also many EBPM posts that slip this discussion of power and politics into discussions of evidence and policy. They don’t always use the word ‘power’ though (see Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything)

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Separating facts from values

This post begins by reproducing Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy?(based on the 1st edition of Understanding Public Policy) …

A key argument in policy studies is that it is impossible to separate facts and values when making policy. We often treat our beliefs as facts, or describe certain facts as objective, but perhaps only to simplify our lives or support a political strategy (a ‘self-evident’ fact is very handy for an argument). People make empirical claims infused with their values and often fail to realise just how their values or assumptions underpin their claims.

This is not an easy argument to explain. One strategy is to use extreme examples to make the point. For example, Herbert Simon points to Hitler’s Mein Kampf as the ultimate example of value-based claims masquerading as facts. We can also identify historic academic research which asserts that men are more intelligent than women and some races are superior to others. In such cases, we would point out, for example, that the design of the research helped produce such conclusions: our values underpin our (a) assumptions about how to measure intelligence or other measures of superiority, and (b) interpretations of the results.

‘Wait a minute, though’ (you might say). “What about simple examples in which you can state facts with relative certainty – such as the statement ‘there are X number of words in this post’”. ‘Fair enough’, I’d say (you will have to speak with a philosopher to get a better debate about the meaning of your X words claim; I would simply say that it is trivially true). But this statement doesn’t take you far in policy terms. Instead, you’d want to say that there are too many or too few words, before you decided what to do about it.

In that sense, we have the most practical explanation of the unclear fact/ value distinction: the use of facts in policy is to underpin evaluations (assessments based on values). For example, we might point to the routine uses of data to argue that a public service is in ‘crisis’ or that there is a public health related epidemic (note: I wrote the post before COVID-19; it referred to crises of ‘non-communicable diseases’). We might argue that people only talk about ‘policy problems’ when they think we have a duty to solve them.

Or, facts and values often seem the hardest to separate when we evaluate the success and failure of policy solutions, since the measures used for evaluation are as political as any other part of the policy process. The gathering and presentation of facts is inherently a political exercise, and our use of facts to encourage a policy response is inseparable from our beliefs about how the world should work.

It continues with an edited excerpt from p59 of Understanding Public Policy, which explores the implications of bounded rationality for contemporary accounts of ‘evidence-based policymaking’:

‘Modern science remains value-laden … even when so many people employ so many systematic methods to increase the replicability of research and reduce the reliance of evidence on individual scientists. The role of values is fundamental. Anyone engaging in research uses professional and personal values and beliefs to decide which research methods are the best; generate research questions, concepts and measures; evaluate the impact and policy relevance of the results; decide which issues are important problems; and assess the relative weight of ‘the evidence’ on policy effectiveness. We cannot simply focus on ‘what works’ to solve a problem without considering how we used our values to identify a problem in the first place. It is also impossible in practice to separate two choices: (1) how to gather the best evidence and (2) whether to centralize or localize policymaking. Most importantly, the assertion that ‘my knowledge claim is superior to yours’ symbolizes one of the most worrying exercises of power. We may decide to favour some forms of evidence over others, but the choice is value-laden and political rather than objective and innocuous’.

Implications for policy analysis

Many highly-intelligent and otherwise-sensible people seem to get very bothered with this kind of argument. For example, it gets in the way of (a) simplistic stories of heroic-objective-fact-based-scientists speaking truth to villainous-stupid-corrupt-emotional-politicians, (b) the ill-considered political slogan that you can’t argue with facts (or ‘science’), (c) the notion that some people draw on facts while others only follow their feelings, and (d) the idea that you can divide populations into super-facty versus post-truthy people.

A more sensible approach is to (1) recognise that all people combine cognition and emotion when assessing information, (2) treat politics and political systems as valuable and essential processes (rather than obstacles to technocratic policymaking), and (3) find ways to communicate evidence-informed analyses in that context. This article and 750 post explore how to reflect on this kind of communication.

Most relevant posts in the 750 series

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies 

Carol Bacchi (2009) Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? 

Deborah Stone (2012) Policy Paradox

Who should be involved in the process of policy analysis?

William Riker (1986) The Art of Political Manipulation

Using Statistics and Explaining Risk (David Spiegelhalter and Gerd Gigerenzer)

Barry Hindess (1977) Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences

See also

To think further about the relevance of this discussion, see this post on policy evaluation, this page on the use of evidence in policymaking, this book by Douglas, and this short commentary on ‘honest brokers’ by Jasanoff.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: How to communicate effectively with policymakers

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview. The title comes from this article by Cairney and Kwiatkowski on ‘psychology based policy studies’.

One aim of this series is to combine insights from policy research (1000, 500) and policy analysis texts. How might we combine insights to think about effective communication?

1. Insights from policy analysis texts

Most texts in this series relate communication to understanding your audience (or client) and the political context. Your audience has limited attention or time to consider problems. They may have a good antennae for the political feasibility of any solution, but less knowledge of (or interest in) the technical details. In that context, your aim is to help them treat the problem as worthy of their energy (e.g. as urgent and important) and the solution as doable. Examples include:

  • Bardach: communicating with a client requires coherence, clarity, brevity, and minimal jargon.
  • Dunn: argumentation involves defining the size and urgency of a problem, assessing the claims made for each solution, synthesising information from many sources into a concise and coherent summary, and tailoring reports to your audience.
  • Smith: your audience makes a quick judgement on whether or not to read your analysis. Ask yourself questions including: how do I frame the problem to make it relevant, what should my audience learn, and how does each solution relate to what has been done before? Maximise interest by keeping communication concise, polite, and tailored to a policymaker’s values and interests.

2. Insights from studies of policymaker psychology

These insights emerged from the study of bounded rationality: policymakers do not have the time, resources, or cognitive ability to consider all information, possibilities, solutions, or consequences of their actions. They use two types of informational shortcut associated with concepts such as cognition and emotion, thinking ‘fast and slow’, ‘fast and frugal heuristics’, or, if you like more provocative terms:

  • ‘Rational’ shortcuts. Goal-oriented reasoning based on prioritizing trusted sources of information.
  • ‘Irrational’ shortcuts. Emotional thinking, or thought fuelled by gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, or habits.

We can use such distinctions to examine the role of evidence-informed communication, to reduce:

  • Uncertainty, or a lack of policy-relevant knowledge. Focus on generating ‘good’ evidence and concise communication as you collate and synthesise information.
  • Ambiguity, or the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem. Focus on argumentation and framing as you try to maximise attention to (a) one way of defining a problem, and (b) your preferred solution.

Many policy theories describe the latter, in which actors: combine facts with emotional appeals, appeal to people who share their beliefs, tell stories to appeal to the biases of their audience, and exploit dominant ways of thinking or social stereotypes to generate attention and support. These possibilities produce ethical dilemmas for policy analysts.

3. Insights from studies of complex policymaking environments

None of this advice matters if it is untethered from reality.

Policy analysis texts focus on political reality to note that even a perfectly communicated solution is worthless if technically feasible but politically unfeasible.

Policy process texts focus on policymaking reality: showing that ideal-types such as the policy cycle do not guide real-world action, and describing more accurate ways to guide policy analysts.

For example, they help us rethink the ‘know your audience’ mantra by:

Identifying a tendency for most policy to be processed in policy communities or subsystems:

Showing that many policymaking ‘centres’ create the instruments that produce policy change

Gone are the mythical days of a small number of analysts communicating to a single core executive (and of the heroic researcher changing the world by speaking truth to power). Instead, we have many analysts engaging with many centres, creating a need to not only (a) tailor arguments to different audiences, but also (b) develop wider analytical skills (such as to foster collaboration and the use of ‘design principles’).

How to communicate effectively with policymakers

In that context, we argue that effective communication requires analysts to:

1. Understand your audience and tailor your response (using insights from psychology)

2. Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ for influence (while noting that these windows are outside of anyone’s control)

3. Engage with real world policymaking rather than waiting for a ‘rational’ and orderly process to appear (using insights from policy studies).

See also:

Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?

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

Entrepreneurial policy analysis

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Policy in 500 Words: Peter Hall’s policy paradigms

Several 500 Word and 1000 Word (a, b, c) posts try to define and measure policy change.

Most studies agree that policymaking systems produce huge amounts of minor change and rare instances of radical change, but not how to explain these patterns. For example:

  • Debates on incrementalism questioned if radical change could be managed via non-radical steps.
  • Punctuated equilibrium theory describes policy change as a function of disproportionately low or high attention to problems, and akin to the frequency of earthquakes (a huge number of tiny changes, and more major changes than we would see in a ‘normal distribution’).

One of the most famous accounts of major policy change is by Peter Hall. ‘Policy paradigms’ help explain a tendency towards inertia, punctuated rarely by radical change (compare with discussions of path dependence and critical junctures).

A policy paradigm is a dominant and often taken-for-granted worldview (or collection of beliefs) about: policy goals, the nature of a policy problem, and the instruments to address it.

Paradigms can operate for long periods, subject to minimal challenge or defended successfully during events that call current policies into question. Adherence to a paradigm produces two ‘orders’ of change:

  • 1st order: frequent routine bureaucratic changes to instruments while maintaining policy goals.
  • 2nd order: less frequent, non-routine changes (or use of new instruments) while maintaining policy goals.

Radical and rare – 3rd order – policy change may only follow a crisis in which policymakers cannot solve a policy problem or explain why policy is failing. It prompts a reappraisal and rejection of the dominant paradigm, by a new government with new ways of thinking and/or a government rejecting current experts in favour of new ones. Hall’s example was of rapid paradigm shift in UK economic policy – from ‘Keynesianism’ to ‘Monetarism’ – within very few years.

Hall’s account prompted two different debates:

1. Some describe Hall’s case study as unusual.

Many scholars produced different phrases to describe a more likely pattern of (a) non-radical policy changes contributing to (b) long-term paradigm change and (c) institutional change, perhaps over decades. They include: ‘gradual change with transformative results’ and ‘punctuated evolution’ (see also 1000 Words: Evolution).

2. Some describe Hall’s case study as inaccurate.

This UK paradigm change did not actually happen. Instead, there was:

(a) A sudden and profound policy change that did not represent a paradigm shift (the UK experiment with Monetarism was short-lived).

(b) A series of less radical changes that produced paradigm change over decades: from Keynesianism to ‘neo-Keynesianism’, or from state intervention to neoliberalism (such as to foster economic growth via private rather than public borrowing and spending)

These debates connect strongly to issues in policy analysis, particularly if analysts seek transformative policy change to challenge unequal and unfair outcomes (such as in relation to racism or the climate crisis):

  1. Is paradigm change generally only possible over decades?
  2. How will we know if this transformation is actually taking place and here to stay (if even the best of us can be fooled by temporary developments)?

See also:

1. Beware the use of the word ‘evolution

2. This focus on the endurance of policy instrument change connects to studies of policy success (see Great Policy Successes).

3. Paul Cairney and Chris Weible (2015) ‘Comparing and Contrasting Peter Hall’s Paradigms and Ideas with the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ in (eds) M. Howlett and J. Hogan Policy Paradigms in Theory and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave) PDF

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The future of education equity policy: ‘neoliberal’ versus ‘social justice’ approaches

This post summarises Cairney and Kippin’s qualitative systematic review of peer-reviewed research on education equity policy. See also: The future of equity policy in education and health: will intersectoral action be the solution? and posts on ‘Heath in All Policies’ and health inequalities.

Governments, international organisations, and researchers all express a high and enduring commitment to ‘education equity’. Yet, this is where the agreement ends.

The definition of the problem of inequity and the feasibility of solutions is highly contested, to the extent that it is common to identify two competing approaches:

1. A ‘neoliberal’ approach, focusing on education’s role in the economy, market-based reforms, and ‘new public management’ reforms to schools.

2. A ‘social justice’ approach, focusing on education’s role in student wellbeing and life opportunities, and state-led action to address the wider social determinants of education outcomes.

Almost all of the research included in our review suggests that the neoliberal approach dominates international and domestic policy agendas at the expense of the wider focus on social justice.

We describe education equity researchers as the narrators of cautionary tales of education inequity. Most employ critical policy analysis to challenge what they call the dominant stories of education that hinder meaningful equity policies.

First, many describe common settings, including a clear sense that unfair inequalities endure despite global and domestic equity rhetoric.

They also describe the multi-level nature of the governance of education, but with less certainty about relationships across levels. A small number of international organisations and countries are key influencers of a global neoliberal agenda and there is discretion to influence policy at local and school levels. In that context, some studies relate the lack of progress to the malign influence of one or more levels, such as global and central government agendas undermining local change, or local actors disrupting central initiatives.

Second, studies describe similar plots. Many describe stymied progress on equity caused by the negative impacts of neoliberalism: undermining equity by (1) equating it with narrow definitions of equal access to well-performing schools and test-based attainment outcomes, and (2) taking attention from social justice to focus on economic competitiveness.

Many describe policymakers using a generic focus on equity as a facade, to ignore and reproduce inequalities in relation to minoritized populations. Or, equity is a ‘wicked’ issue that defies simple solutions. Many plots involve a contrast between agency-focused narratives that emphasise hopefulness (e.g. among ‘change agents’) and systemic or structural narratives that emphasise helplessness.

Third, they present common ideas about characters. In global narratives, researchers challenge the story by international organisations that they are the heroes providing funding backed by crucial instructions to make educations systems and economies competitive. Most education articles portray neoliberal international organisations and central governments as the villains: narrowing equity to simplistic measures of performance at the expense of more meaningful outcomes.

At a national and local level, they criticise the dominant stories of equity within key countries, such as the US, that continue to reproduce highly unequal outcomes while projecting a sense of progress. The most vividly told story is of white parents, who portray their ‘gifted’ children as most deserving of advantage in the school system, and therefore the victims of attempts to widen access or redistribute scarce resources (high quality classes and teachers). Rather, these parents are the villains standing – sometimes unintentionally, but mostly intentionally – in the way of progress.

The only uncertainty regards the role of local and school leaders. In some cases, they are the initially-heroic figures, able to find ways to disrupt a damaging national agenda and become the ‘change agents’ that shift well-established rules and norms before being thwarted by community and parental opposition. In others, they are perhaps-unintentional villains who reproduce racialised, gendered, or class-based norms regarding which students are ‘gifted’ and worthy of investment versus which students need remedial classes or disrupt other learners.

Fourth, the moral of the story is mostly clear. Almost all studies criticise the damaging impact of neoliberal definitions of equity and the performance management and quasi-market techniques that support it. They are sold as equity measures but actually exacerbate inequalities. As such, the moral is to focus our efforts elsewhere: on social justice, the social and economic determinants of education, and the need to address head-on the association between inequalities and minoritized populations (to challenge ‘equity for all’ messages). However, it is difficult to pinpoint the source of much-needed change. In some cases, strong direction from central governments is necessary to overcome obstacles to change. In others, only bottom-up action by local and school leaders will induce change.

Perhaps the starkest difference in approaches relates to expectations for the future. For ‘neoliberal’ advocates, solutions such as market incentives or education system reforms will save schools and the next generation of students. In contrast, ‘social justice’ advocates expect these reforms to fail and cause irreparable damage to the prospect of education equity.

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Education equity policy: ‘equity for all’ as a distraction from race, minoritization, and marginalization

By Paul Cairney and Sean Kippin

This post summarizes a key section of our review of education equity policymaking [see the full article for references to the studies summarized here].

One of the main themes is that many governments present a misleading image of their education policies. There are many variations on this theme, in which policymakers:

  1. Describe the energetic pursuit of equity, and use the right language, as a way to hide limited progress.
  2. Pursue ‘equity for all’ initiatives that ignore or downplay the specific importance of marginalization and minoritization, such as in relation to race and racism, immigration, ethnic minorities, and indigenous populations.
  3. Pursue narrow definitions of equity in terms of access to schools, at the expense of definitions that pay attention to ‘out of school’ factors and social justice.

Minoritization is a strong theme in US studies in particular. US experiences help us categorise multiple modes of marginalisation in relation to race and migration, driven by witting and unwitting action and explicit and implicit bias:

  • The social construction of students and parents. Examples include: framing white students as ‘gifted’ and more deserving of merit-based education (or victims of equity initiatives); framing non-white students as less intelligent, more in need of special needs or remedial classes, and having cultural or other learning ‘deficits’ that undermine them and disrupt white students; and, describing migrant parents as unable to participate until they learn English.
  • Maintaining or failing to challenge inequitable policies. Examples include higher funding for schools and colleges with higher white populations, and tracking (segregating students according to perceived ability), which benefit white students disproportionately.
  • Ignoring social determinants or ‘out of school’ factors.
  • Creating the illusion of equity with measures that exacerbate inequalities. For example, promoting school choice policies while knowing that the rules restrict access to sought-after schools.
  • Promoting initiatives to ignore race, including so-called ‘color blind’ or ‘equity for all’ initiatives.
  • Prioritizing initiatives at the expense of racial or socio-economic equity, such as measures to boost overall national performance at the expense of targeted measures.
  • Game playing and policy subversion, including school and college selection rules to restrict access and improve metrics.

The wider international – primarily Global North – experience suggests that minoritization and marginalization in relation to race, ethnicity, and migration is a routine impediment to equity strategies, albeit with some uncertainty about which policies would have the most impact.

Other country studies describe the poor treatment of citizens in relation to immigration status or ethnicity, often while presenting the image of a more equitable system. Until recently, Finland’s global reputation for education equity built on universalism and comprehensive schools has contrasted with its historic ‘othering’ of immigrant populations. Japan’s reputation for containing a homogeneous population, allowing its governments to present an image of classless egalitarianism and harmonious society, contrasts with its discrimination against foreign students. Multiple studies of Canadian provinces provide the strongest accounts of the symbolic and cynical use of multiculturalism for political gains and economic ends:

As in the US, many countries use ‘special needs’ categories to segregate immigrant and ethnic minority populations. Mainstreaming versus special needs debates have a clear racial and ethnic dimension when (1) some groups are more likely to be categorised as having learning disabilities or behavioural disorders, and (2) language and cultural barriers are listed as disabilities in many countries. Further, ‘commonwealth’ country studies identify the marginalisation of indigenous populations in ways comparable to the US marginalisation of students of colour.

Overall, these studies generate the sense that the frequently used language of education equity policy can signal a range of possibilities, from (1) high energy and sincere commitment to social justice, to (2) the cynical use of rhetoric and symbolism to protect historic inequalities.

Examples:

  • Turner, E.O., and Spain, A.K., (2020) ‘The Multiple Meanings of (In)Equity: Remaking School District Tracking Policy in an Era of Budget Cuts and Accountability’, Urban Education, 55, 5, 783-812 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0042085916674060
  • Thorius, K.A. and Maxcy, B.D. (2015) ‘Critical Practice Analysis of Special Education Policy: An RTI Example’, Remedial and Special Education, 36, 2, 116-124 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0741932514550812
  • Felix, E.R. and Trinidad, A. (2020) ‘The decentralization of race: tracing the dilution of racial equity in educational policy’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 33, 4, 465-490 https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2019.1681538
  • Alexiadou, N. (2019) ‘Framing education policies and transitions of Roma students in Europe’, Comparative Education, 55, 3,  https://doi.org/10.1080/03050068.2019.1619334

See also: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/policy-concepts-in-500-words-social-construction-and-policy-design/

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Perspectives on academic impact and expert advice to policymakers

A blog post prompted by this fascinating post by Dr Christiane Gerblinger: Are experts complicit in making their advice easy for politicians to ignore?

There is a lot of advice out there for people seeking to make an ‘impact’ on policy with their research, but some kinds of advice must seem like they are a million miles apart.

For the sake of brevity, here are some exemplars of the kinds of discussion that you might find:

Advice from former policymakers

Here is what you could have done to influence my choices when I was in office. Almost none of you did it.

(for a nicer punchline see How can we demonstrate the public value of evidence-based policy making when government ministers declare that the people ‘have had enough of experts’?)

Advice from former civil servants

If you don’t know and follow the rules here, people will ignore your research. We despair when you just email your articles.

(for nicer advice see Creating and communicating social research for policymakers in government)

Advice from training courses on communication

Be concise and engaging.

Advice from training courses on policy impact

Find out where the action is, learn the rules, build up relationships and networks, become a trusted guide, be in the right place at the right time to exploit opportunities, give advice rather than sitting on the fence.

(see for example Knowledge management for policy impact: the case of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre)

Advice from researchers with some experience of engagement

Do great research, make it relevant and readable, understand your policymaking context, decide how far you want to go have an impact, be accessible, build relationships, be entrepreneurial.

(see Beware the well-intentioned advice of unusually successful academics)

Advice from academic-practitioner exchanges

Note the different practices and incentives that undermine routine and fruitful exchanges between academics, practitioners, and policymakers.

(see Theory and Practice: How to Communicate Policy Research beyond the Academy and ANZOG Wellington).

Advice extrapolated from policy studies

Your audience decides if your research will have impact; policymakers will necessarily ignore almost all of it; a window of opportunity may never arise; and, your best shot may be to tailor your research findings to policymakers whose beliefs you may think are abhorrent.

(discussed in how much impact can you expect from your analysis? and book The Politics of Policy Analysis)

Inference from my study of UK COVID-19 policy

Very few expert advisers had a continuous impact on policy, some had decent access, but almost all were peripheral players or outsiders by choice.

(see The UK government’s COVID-19 policy: what does ‘guided by the science’ mean in practice? and COVID-19 page)

Inference from Dr Gerblinger

Experts ensure that they ignored when: ‘focussing extensively on one strand of enquiry while sidestepping the wider context; expunging complexity; and routinely raising the presence of inconclusiveness’.

What can we make of all of this advice?

One way to navigate all of this material is to make some basic distinctions between:

Sensible basic advice to early career researchers

Know your audience, and tailor your communication accordingly; see academic-practitioner exchange as two-way conversation rather than one-way knowledge transfer.

Take home message: here are some sensible ways to share experiences with people who might find your research useful.

Reflections from people with experience

It will likely not reflect your position or experience (but might be useful sometimes).

Take home message: I think this stuff worked for me, but I am not really sure, and I doubt you will have the same resources.

Reflections from studies of academic-practitioner exchange

It tends to find minimal evidence that people are (a) evaluating research engagement projects, and (b) finding tangible evidence of success (see Research engagement with government: insights from research on policy analysis and policymaking)

Take home message: there is a lot of ‘impact’ work going on, but no one is sure what it all adds up to.

Policy initiatives such as the UK Research Excellence Framework, which requires case studies of policy (or other) impact to arise directly from published research.

Take home message: I have my own thoughts, but see Rethinking policy ‘impact’: four models of research-policy relations

Reflections from people like me

Policy studies can be quite dispiriting. It often looks like I am saying that none of these activities will make much of a difference to policy or policymaking. Rather, I am saying to beware the temptation to turn (a) studies that describe policymaking complexity (e.g. 500 Words) into an agent-centred story of heroically impactful researchers (see for example the Discussion section of this article on health equity policy).

Take home message: don’t confuse studies of policymaking with advice for policy participants.

In other words, identify what you are after before you start to process all of this advice. If you want to engage more with policymakers, you will find some sensible practical advice. If you want to be responsible for a fundamental change of public policy in your field, I doubt any of the available advice will help (unless you seek an explanation for failure).

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The future of public health policymaking after COVID-19: lessons from Health in All Policies

Paul Cairney, Emily St Denny, Heather Mitchell 

This post summarises new research on the health equity strategy Health in All Policies. As our previous post suggests, it is common to hope that a major event will create a ‘window of opportunity’ for such strategies to flourish, but the current COVID-19 experience suggests otherwise. If so, what do HIAP studies tell us about how to respond, and do they offer any hope for future strategies? The full report is on Open Research Europe, accompanied by a brief interview on its contribution to the Horizon 2020 project – IMAJINE – on spatial justice.

COVID-19 should have prompted governments to treat health improvement as fundamental to public policy

Many had made strong rhetorical commitments to public health strategies focused on preventing a pandemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). To do so, they would address the ‘social determinants’ of health and health inequalities, defined by the WHO as ‘the unfair and avoidable differences in health status’ that are ‘shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources’ and ‘the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age’.

COVID-19 reinforces the impact of the social determinants of health. Health inequalities result from factors such as income and social and environmental conditions, which influence people’s ability to protect and improve their health. COVID-19 had a visibly disproportionate impact on people with (a) underlying health conditions associated with NCDs, and (b) less ability to live and work safely.

Yet, the opposite happened. The COVID-19 response side-lined health improvement

Health departments postponed health improvement strategies and moved resources to health protection.

This experience shows that the evidence does not speak for itself

The evidence on social determinants is clear to public health specialists, but the idea of social determinants is less well known or convincing to policymakers.

It also challenges the idea that the logic of health improvement is irresistible

Health in All Policies (HIAP) is the main vehicle for health improvement policymaking, underpinned by: a commitment to health equity by addressing the social determinants of health; the recognition that the most useful health policies are not controlled by health departments; the need for collaboration across (and outside) government; and, the search for high level political commitment to health improvement.

Its logic is undeniable to HIAP advocates, but not policymakers. A government’s public commitment to HIAP does not lead inevitably to the roll-out of a fully-formed HIAP model. There is a major gap between the idea of HIAP and its implementation. It is difficult to generate HIAP momentum, and it can be lost at any time.

Instead, we need to generate more realistic lessons from health improvement and promotion policy

However, most HIAP research does not provide these lessons. Most HIAP research combines:

  1. functional logic (here is what we need)
  2. programme logic (here is what we think we need to do to achieve it), and
  3. hope.

Policy theory-informed empirical studies of policymaking could help produce a more realistic agenda, but very few HIAP studies seem to exploit their insights.

To that end, this review identifies lessons from studies of HIAP and policymaking

It summarises a systematic qualitative review of HIAP research. It includes 113 articles (2011-2020) that refer to policymaking theories or concepts while discussing HIAP.

We produced these conclusions from pre-COVID-19 studies of HIAP and policymaking, but our new policymaking context – and its ironic impact on HIAP – is impossible to ignore.

It suggests that HIAP advocates produced a 7-point playbook for the wrong game

The seven most common pieces of advice add up to a plausible but incomplete strategy:

  1. adopt a HIAP model and toolkit
  2. raise HIAP awareness and support in government
  3. seek win-win solutions with partners
  4. avoid the perception of ‘health imperialism’ when fostering intersectoral action
  5. find HIAP policy champions and entrepreneurs
  6. use HIAP to support the use of health impact assessments (HIAs)
  7. challenge the traditional cost-benefit analysis approach to valuing HIAP.

Yet, two emerging pieces of advice highlight the limits to the current playbook and the search for its replacement:

  1. treat HIAP as a continuous commitment to collaboration and health equity, not a uniform model; and,
  2. address the contradictions between HIAP aims.

As a result, most country studies report a major, unexpected, and disappointing gap between HIAP commitment and actual outcomes

These general findings are apparent in almost all relevant studies. They stand out in the ‘best case’ examples where: (a) there is high political commitment and strategic action (such as South Australia), or (b) political and economic conditions are conducive to HIAP (such as Nordic countries).

These studies show that the HIAP playbook has unanticipated results, such as when the win-win strategy leads to  HIAP advocates giving ground but receiving little in return.

HIAP strategies to challenge the status quo are also overshadowed by more important factors, including (a) a far higher commitment to existing healthcare policies and the core business of government, and (b) state retrenchment. Additional studies of decentralised HIAP models find major gaps between (a) national strategic commitment (backed by national legislation) and (b) municipal government progress.

Some studies acknowledge the need to use policymaking research to produce new ways to encourage and evaluate HIAP success

Studies of South Australia situate HIAP in a complex policymaking system in which the link between policy activity and outcomes is not linear.  

Studies of Nordic HIAP show that a commitment to municipal responsibility and stakeholder collaboration rules out the adoption of a national uniform HIAP model.

However, most studies do not use policymaking research effectively or appropriately

Almost all HIAP studies only scratch the surface of policymaking research (while some try to synthesise its insights, but at the cost of clarity).

Most HIAP studies use policy theories to:

  1. produce practical advice (such as to learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’), or
  2. supplement their programme logic (to describe what they think causes policy change and better health outcomes).

Most policy theories were not designed for this purpose.

Policymaking research helps primarily to explain the HIAP ‘implementation gap’

Its main lesson is that policy outcomes are beyond the control of policymakers and HIAP advocates. This explanation does not show how to close implementation gaps.

Its practical lessons come from critical reflection on dilemmas and politics, not the reinvention of a playbook

It prompts advocates to:

  • Treat HIAP as a political project, not a technical exercise or puzzle to be solved.
  • Re-examine the likely impact of a focus on intersectoral action and collaboration, to recognise the impact of imbalances of power and the logic of policy specialisation.
  • Revisit the meaning-in-practice of the vague aims that they take for granted without explaining, such as co-production, policy learning, and organisational learning.
  • Engage with key trade-offs, such as between a desire for uniform outcomes (to produce health equity) but acceptance of major variations in HIAP policy and policymaking.
  • Avoid reinventing phrases or strategies when facing obstacles to health improvement.

We describe these points in more detail here:

Our Open Research Europe article (peer reviewed) The future of public health policymaking… (europa.eu)

Paul summarises the key points as part of a HIAP panel: Health in All Policies in times of COVID-19

ORE blog on the wider context of this work: forthcoming

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Filed under agenda setting, COVID-19, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Public health, public policy

The COVID-19 exams fiasco across the UK: why did policymaking go so wrong?

This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, and it summarises our new article: Sean Kippin and Paul Cairney (2021) ‘The COVID-19 exams fiasco across the UK: four nations and two windows of opportunity’, British Politics, PDF Annex. The focus on inequalities of attainment is part of the IMAJINE project on spatial justice and territorial inequalities.

In the summer of 2020, after cancelling exams, the UK and devolved governments sought teacher estimates on students’ grades, but supported an algorithm to standardise the results. When the results produced a public outcry over unfair consequences, they initially defended their decision but reverted quickly to teacher assessment. These experiences, argue Sean Kippin and Paul Cairney, highlight the confluence of events and choices in which an imperfect and rejected policy solution became a ‘lifeline’ for four beleaguered governments. 

In 2020, the UK and devolved governments performed a ‘U-turn’ on their COVID-19 school exams replacement policies. The experience was embarrassing for education ministers and damaging to students. There are significant differences between (and often within) the four nations in terms of the structure, timing, weight, and relationship between the different examinations. However, in general, the A-level (England, Northern Ireland, Wales) and Higher/ Advanced Higher (Scotland) examinations have similar policy implications, dictating entry to further and higher education, and influencing employment opportunities. The Priestley review, commissioned by the Scottish Government after their U-turn, described this as an ‘impossible task’.

Initially, each government defined the new policy problem in relation to the need to ‘credibly’ replicate the purpose of exams to allow students to progress to tertiary education or employment. All four quickly announced their intentions to allocate in some form grades to students, rather than replace the assessments with, for example, remote examinations. However, mindful of the long-term credibility of the examinations system and of ensuring fairness, each government opted to maintain the qualifications and seek a similar distribution of grades to previous years. A key consideration was that UK universities accept large numbers of students from across the UK.

One potential solution open to policymakers was to rely solely on teacher grading (CAG). CAGs are ‘based on a range of evidence including mock exams, non-exam assessment, homework assignments and any other record of student performance over the course of study’. Potential problems included the risk of high variation and discrepancies between different centres, the potential overload of the higher education system, and the tendency for teacher predicted grades to reward already privileged students and punish disabled, non-white, and economically deprived children.

A second option was to take CAGs as a starting point, then use an algorithm to produce ‘standardisation’, which was potentially attractive to each government as it allowed students to complete secondary education and to progress to the next level in similar ways to previous (and future) cohorts. Further, an emphasis on the technical nature of this standardisation, with qualifications agencies taking the lead in designing the process by which grades would be allocated, and opting not share the details of its algorithm were a key part of its (temporary) viability. Each government then made similar claims when defending the problem and selecting the solution. Yet this approach reduced both the debate on the unequal impact of this process on students, and the chance for other experts to examine if the algorithm would produce the desired effect. Policymakers in all four governments assured students that the grading would be accurate and fair, with teacher discretion playing a large role in the calculation of grades.

To these governments, it appeared at first that they had found a fair and efficient (or at least defendable) way to allocate grades, and public opinion did not respond negatively to its announcement. However, these appearances proved to be profoundly deceptive and vanished on each day of each exam result. The Scottish national mood shifted so intensely that, after a few days, pursuing standardisation no longer seemed politically feasible. The intense criticism centred on the unequal level of reductions of grades after standardisation, rather than the unequal overall rise in grade performance after teacher assessment and standardisation (which advantaged poorer students).

Despite some recognition that similar problems were afoot elsewhere, this shift of problem definition did not happen in the rest of the UK until (a) their published exam results highlighted similar problems regarding the role of previous school performance on standardised results, and (b) the Scottish Government had already changed course. Upon the release of grades outside Scotland, it became clear that downgrades were also concentrated in more deprived areas. For instance, in Wales, 42% of students saw their A-Level results lowered from their Centre Assessed Grades, with the figure close to a third for Northern Ireland.

Each government thus faced similar choices between defending the original system by challenging the emerging consensus around its apparent unfairness; modifying the system by changing the appeal system; or abandoning it altogether and reverting to solely teacher assessed grades. Ultimately, all three governments followed the same path. Initially, they opted to defend their original policy choice. However, by 17 August, the UK, Welsh, and Northern education secretaries announced (separately) that examination grades would be based solely on CAGs – unless the standardisation process had generated a higher grade (students would receive whichever was highest).

Scotland’s initial experience was instructive to the rest of the UK and its example provided the UK government with a blueprint to follow (eventually). It began with a new policy choice – reverting to teacher assessed grades – sold as fairer to victims of the standardisation process. Once this precedent had been set, a different course for policymakers at the UK level became difficult to resist, particularly when faced with a similar backlash. The UK’s government’s decision in turn influenced the Welsh and Northern Irish governments.

In short, we can see that the particular ordering of choices created a cascading effect across the four governments which created initially one policy solution, before triggering a U-turn. This focus on order and timing should not be lost during the inevitable inquiries and reports on the examinations systems. The take-home message is to not ignore the policy process when evaluating the long-term effect of these policies. Focus on why the standardisation processes went wrong is welcome, but we should also focus on why the policymaking process malfunctioned, to produce a wildly inconsistent approach to the same policy choice in such a short space of time. Examining both aspects of this fiasco will be crucial to the grading process in 2021, given that governments will be seeking an alternative to exams for a second year.

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Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in British Politics.

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What have we learned so far from the UK government’s COVID-19 policy?

This post first appeared on LSE British Politics and Policy (27.11.20) and is based on this article in British Politics.

Paul Cairney assesses 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.

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Filed under COVID-19, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), POLU9UK, Public health, public policy, UK politics and policy