Category Archives: public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: how do policy theories describe policy change?

The 1000 words and 500 words series already show how important but difficult it is to define and measure policy change. In this post, Leanne Giordono and I dig deeper into the – often confusingly different – ways in which different researchers conceptualise this process. We show why there is such variation and provide a checklist of questions to ask of any description of policy change.

Measuring policy change is more difficult than it looks

The measurement of policy change is important. Most ‘what is policy?’ discussions remind us that there can be a huge difference between policy as a (a)  statement of intent, (b) strategy, (c) collection of tools/ instruments and (d) contributor to policy outcomes.

Policy theories remind us that, while politicians and political parties often promise to sweep into office and produce radical departures from the past, most policy change is minor. There is a major gap between stated intention and actual outcomes, partly because policymakers do not control the policy process for which they are responsible. Instead, they inherit the commitments of their predecessors and make changes at the margins.

The 1000 words and 500 words posts suggest that we address this problem of measurement by identifying the use of a potentially large number of policy instruments or policy tools such as regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal.

Then, they suggest that we tell a story of policy change, focusing on (a) what problem policymakers were trying to solve, and the size of their response in relation to the size of the problem, and (b) the precise nature of specific changes, or how each change contributes to the ‘big picture’.

This recommendation highlights a potentially major problem: as researchers, we can produce very different narratives of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data than others.

Three ways to navigate different approaches to imagining and measuring change

Researchers use many different concepts and measures to define and identify policy change. It would be unrealistic – and perhaps unimaginative – to solve this problem with a call for one uniform approach.

Rather, our aim is to help you (a) navigate this diverse field by (b) identifying the issues and concepts that will help you interpret and compare different ways to measure change.

  1. Check if people are ‘showing their work’

Pay close attention to how scholars are defining their terms. For example, be careful with incomplete definitions that rely on a reference to evolutionary change (which can mean so many different things) or incremental change (e.g. does an increment mean small or non-radical)? Or, note that frequent distinctions between minor versus major change seem useful, but we are often trying to capture and explain a confusing mixture of both.

  1. Look out for different questions

Multiple typologies of change often arise because different theories ask and answer different questions:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework distinguishes between minor and major change, associating the former with routine ‘policy-oriented learning’, and the latter with changes in core policy beliefs, often caused by a ‘shock’ associated with policy failure or external events.
  • Innovation and Diffusion models examine the adoption and non-adoption of a specific policy solution over a specific period of time in multiple jurisdictions as a result of learning, imitation, competition or coercion.
  • Classic studies of public expenditure generated four categories to ask if the ‘budgetary process of the United States government is equivalent to a set of temporally stable linear decision rules’. They describe policy change as minor and predictable and explain outliers as deviations from the norm.
  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory identifies a combination of (a) huge numbers of small policy change and (b) small numbers of huge change as the norm, in budgetary and other policy changes.
  • Hall distinguishes between (a) routine adjustments to policy instruments, (b) changes in instruments to achieve existing goals, and (c) complete shifts in goals. He compares long periods in which (1) some ideas dominate and institutions do not change, with (2) ‘third order’ change in which a profound sense of failure contributes to a radical shift of beliefs and rules.
  • More recent scholarship identifies a range of concepts – including layering, drift, conversion, and displacement – to explain more gradual causes of profound changes to institutions.

These approaches identify a range of possible sources of measures:

  1. a combination of policy instruments that add up to overall change
  2. the same single change in many places
  3. change in relation to one measure, such as budgets
  4. a change in ideas, policy instruments and/ or rules.

As such, the potential for confusion is high when we include all such measures under the single banner of ‘policy change’.

  1. Look out for different measures

Spot the different ways in which scholars try to ‘operationalize’ and measure policy change, quantitatively and/ or qualitatively, with reference to four main categories.

  1. Size can be measured with reference to:
  • A comparison of old and new policy positions.
  • A change observed in a sample or whole population (using, for example, standard deviations from the mean).
  • An ‘ideal’ state, such as an industry or ‘best practice’ standard.
  1. Speed describes the amount of change that occurs over a specific interval of time, such as:
  • How long it takes for policy to change after a specific event or under specific conditions.
  • The duration of time between commencement and completion (often described as ‘sudden’ or ‘gradual’).
  • How this speed compares with comparable policy changes in other jurisdictions (often described with reference to ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’).
  1. Direction describes the course of the path from one policy state to another. It is often described in comparison to:
  • An initial position in one jurisdiction (such as an expansion or contraction).
  • Policy or policy change in other jurisdictions (such as via ‘benchmarking’ or ‘league tables’)
  • An ‘ideal’ state (such as with reference to left or right wing aims).
  1. Substance relates to policy change in relations to:
  • Relatively tangible instruments such as legislation, regulation, or public expenditure.
  • More abstract concepts such as in relation to beliefs or goals.

Take home points for students

Be thoughtful when drawing comparisons between applications, drawn from many theoretical traditions, and addressing different research questions.  You can seek clarity by posing three questions:

  1. How clearly has the author defined the concept of policy change?
  2. How are the chosen theories and research questions likely to influence the author’s operationalization of policy change?
  3. How does the author operationalize policy change with respect to size, speed, direction, and/or substance?

However, you should also note that the choice of definition and theory may affect the meaning of measures such as size, speed, direction, and/or substance.

 

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Let’s combine conceptual insights

A short blog post for policy process theory specialists and Gilmore Girls enthusiasts.

Being cited in the bibliography of other scholars is lovely, and I appreciate it very much. Indeed, if you do it to me, early enough in the journal submission, there is a good chance it will come to me for review, and my heart will swell with joy while I read it.

If so, I have one small request:

1. If you want to argue something like “Cairney says ‘hey, let’s compare many theoretical insights, what can possibly go wrong?'”, then you want this one:

Paul Cairney (2007) ‘A Multiple Lens Approach to Policy Change’, British Politics, 2, 1, 45-68 PDF

Season 4 Netflix GIF by Gilmore Girls  - Find & Share on GIPHY

2. If you want to say something like “here are the three main things that Cairney says will probably go wrong”, then you want this one:

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?’ Policy Studies Journal, 41, 1, 1-21 PDF

Cant Look Season 3 GIF by Gilmore Girls  - Find & Share on GIPHY

3. If, after reading this full-of-himself post you want to say something like ‘this joker Cairney should get over himself’, then you should cite them all to project a sense of completeness.

Season 3 Netflix GIF by Gilmore Girls  - Find & Share on GIPHY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know. You don’t have to think about it much, and Kirk is funny. He’s that guy in Guardians of the Galaxy that sort of causes a mutiny unintentionally then regrets it.

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Institutionalising preventive health: what are the key issues?

By Paul Cairney and John Boswell. This post first appeared on the Public Health Reform Scotland blog.

On the 17th May, Professor Paul Cairney (University of Stirling) and Dr John Boswell (University of Southampton) led a discussion on ‘institutionalising’ preventive health with key people working with the Scottish Government and COSLA to reform public health in Scotland, including members of the Programme Board, the Oversight Board, Commission leads and members of the senior teams in NHS Health Scotland and Public Health and Intelligence. They drew on their published work, co-authored with Dr Emily St Denny (University of Stirling), to examine the role of evidence in policy and the lessons from comparable experiences in other public health agencies (in England, New Zealand and Australia).

This post summarises their presentation, reflections from the panel, group-work in the afternoon, and post-event feedback.

The Academic Argument

Governments face two major issues when they try to improve population health and reduce health inequalities:

  1. Should they ‘mainstream’ policies – to help prevent ill health and reduce health inequalities – across government and/ or set up a dedicated government agency?
  2. Should an agency ‘speak truth to power ‘and seek a high profile to set the policy agenda?

Our research provides three messages to inform policy and practice:

  1. When governments have tried to mainstream ‘preventive’ policies, they have always struggled to explain what prevention means and reform services to make them more preventive than reactive.
  2. Public health agencies could set a clearer and more ambitious policy agenda. However, successful agencies keep a low profile and make realistic demands for policy change. In the short term, they measure success according to their own survival and their ability to maintain the positive attention of policymakers.
  3. Advocates of policy change often describe ‘evidence based policy’ as the answer. However, a comparison between (a) specific tobacco policy change and (b) very general prevention policy shows that the latter’s ambiguity hinders the use of evidence for policy. Governments use three different models of evidence-informed policy. These models are internally consistent but they draw on assumptions and practices that are difficult to mix and match. Effective evidence use requires clear aims driven by political choice.

Overall, they warn against treating any response – (a) the idiom ‘prevention is better than cure’, (b) setting up a public health agency, or (c) seeking ‘evidence based policy’ – as a magic bullet. Major public health changes require policymakers to define their aims, and agencies to endure long enough to influence policy and encourage the consistent use of models of evidence-informed policy.

The Panel Discussion

The panel discussion produced a series of positive and sensible suggestions about the way forward, including the need to:

  • Make a strong political case for the idea of a ‘social return on investment’, in which every £1 spent on preventive work produces far more valuable long term returns.
  • Establish respect for the work of a public health agency in a political context.
  • Build on the fact that the broad argument for prevention has been won within Scottish central and local government.
  • Ensure a shift in culture, to maximise partnership working and foster leadership skills among a larger number of people (than associated with a hierarchical model of leadership).
  • Take forward work by the Christie Commission on reforming public services (such as to ‘empower individuals and communities’, ‘integrate service provision’, ‘prevent negative outcomes from arising’, and ‘become more efficient’).

However, we noted that Christie – and the Scottish Government’s ‘decisive shift to prevention’ – took place eight years ago. We also describe (in Why Isn’t Government Policy More Preventive?) a historic tendency for the ‘same cycle to be repeated without resolution’: an ‘initial period of enthusiasm and activity’ is replaced in a few years by ‘disenchantment and inactivity’.

In that context, our challenge is: what will make the difference this time?

The group discussion

The group discussion took on a ‘world café’ format in which people moved around each space, providing ideas according to theme. The main questions – and three key answers per question – include:

How can we engage well with members of the public?

  1. Establish a brand, digital presence, public role, and approach to ‘social marketing’.
  2. Choose a consistent model of ‘co-production’ based on what you want from your relationship with service users.
  3. Choose how to balance the need to give consistent population-wide advice, and advice tailored to specific communities.

How can we encourage and maintain a public health community?

  1. Address perceptions of power and status in the NHS and local government.
  2. Clarify what evidence counts, and how to gather and use it.
  3. Balance the need for modest ‘quick wins’ (for PHS endurance) with the need to maintain an ambitious advocacy-focused agenda (for community morale).

How can the NHS and local government work well in partnership?

  1. Address immediate important issues: contracts of employment, union recognition and support, location.
  2. Identify cross-system partnership issues: the boundaries between NHS/ Local authority work, working with local governments directly or via COSLA, how to balance your time between core work and partnership work, and how to work with each other’s stakeholders.
  3. Address the possible tensions between national NHS work and local variation and accountability.

How can PHS keep public health high on the ministerial agenda?

  1. Use advocacy to generate public attention to evidence-informed policy solutions.
  2. Frame solutions in different ways to different audiences, to appeal to national ministers and local politicians.
  3. Generate an understanding of how to work closely with stakeholders and policymakers without undermining an image of PHS independence.

How can PHS focus on the bigger picture?

  1. Develop a strategy to stay informed about, and seek to influence, policies reserved to the UK.
  2. Develop a more detailed ‘health in all policies’ strategy: clarify aims, identify key policymakers, develop a strategy to influence policymakers beyond ‘health’.
  3. Develop a strategy to deal with a complex media landscape: from personal relationships with key journalists to less personal messaging for social media.

Post Event Feedback

Feedback from the event was generally positive. Attendees appreciated the time and space to come together with PHS team leaders to discuss next steps. The feedback suggests that the academic presentation helped challenge or shape group assumptions, by:

  • Questioning if attendees agreed on key issues. What is prevention? What counts as good evidence? What models of evidence-informed policy should we recommend? From whom should we learn?
  • Shifting attitudes about what counts as agency success (survival!) and what strategies help achieve it (such as by stealth rather than always speaking truth to power).

Next Steps

From this discussion, it is clear that Public Health Scotland will happen, and its general remit and ambition is clear. However, to ensure that PHS becomes successful requires grappling with the inevitable dilemmas that confront policymakers – and advisers to policymakers – in such complex terrain. Perhaps the key theme of the reflective discussion was the role of clear choice to address important trade-offs:

  1. balancing the imperative to speak ‘uncomfortable truths’ with the need to retain the trust and attention of government
  2. pursuing evidence-informed policymaking but with sufficient flexibility to enable cooperation across different approaches
  3. choosing with whom to collaborate to maximise impact but maintain credibility
  4. working out how to retain long-term support from the public health community in the face of short-term disagreements and disappointments
  5. to work for the public (in the background) or with the public (in the foreground) in pursuit of preventive aims.

Some of these strategic choices are more pressing than others. Some can be resolved decisively while others will require an ongoing balancing act. However, each choice requires a commitment to realistic and continuous dialogue and reflection on what (a) PHS can seek to achieve, and (b) what it can realistically expect central and local governments to do.

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Public health policy: assumptions and expectations

Rather misleadingly, this very draft paper is called The Politics of Evidence-based ‘Health in All Policies’It’s for Integrating Science and Politics for Public Health, convened by Patrick Fafard and Adèle Cassola at the Global Strategy Lab.

The most interesting section, for me, is the attempt to sense check the following list of assumptions/ expectations that I associate with public health studies of public policy. Unless stated otherwise, this list is based on literature reviews and documentary analysis underpinning studies of tobacco policy and prevention policy (Cairney and St Denny, 2020), as well as more impressionistic reflections from peer-reviewing many papers on this topic and attending relevant conferences (usually to speak to practitioners about the politics of EBPM). I am relying primarily on (a) the sense, often described in qualitative research, of a ‘saturation point’ to feel confident that more research will not unearth more categories, than (b) counting the frequency of term-use in each category, or (c) network analysis to identify the nature of a self-defined public health profession or community. As such, the focus is on the assumptions that scholars in this field often seem to take for granted, and often do not feel the need to explain. Its purpose is logical and conditional: if these are the assumptions, these are the expectations.

On that basis, I present a common public health narrative of the policy problem, how to understand it, and the processes necessary to address it:

  • Focus on preventing ill health rather than treating it when it becomes too severe.
  • Distinguish between types of prevention: primary (focus on the whole population to stop a problem occurring by investing early and/or modifying the social or physical environment); secondary (focus on at-risk groups to identify a problem at a very early stage to minimise harm); tertiary (focus on affected groups to stop a problem getting worse)
  • Focus on the social determinants of health inequalities, defined by the WHO (2019) 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’.
  • Promote ‘upstream’ measures designed to influence the health of the whole population (or health inequalities) rather than ‘downstream’ measures targeting individuals (although we discussed some debate/ confusion about the meaning of upstream).
  • Use scientific evidence to identify the nature of problems and most effective solutions.
  • Define scientific evidence in a particular way, such as in relation to a ‘hierarchy’ in which (a) the systematic review of randomised control trials often represents the gold standard, and (b) systems modelling plays a key role. Or, in fewer cases, challenge that hierarchy energetically.
  • Promote major policymaking reforms, including a focus on holistic or joined-up government, since the responsibility for health improvement goes well beyond health departments.  Prevention (or preventive policymaking) is a classic term, and ‘health in all policies’ (HIAP) is currently a key term.
  • Focus strongly on the role of industry as ‘vested interests’ causing public health problems (the ‘commercial determinants of health’) and, often, the lack of political will to regulate commercial activity.
  • Treat public health and prevention as a form of social protection (new category after PHE). Often, actors describe a moral imperative to intervene (in which case, the opposite argument relates to individual responsibility and opposition to the ‘nanny state’ – see also Cairney et al, 2012 on ‘secular morality’).
  • Use tobacco control as a model for other specific issues (e.g. alcohol use, obesity, salt) and the prevention agenda more generally (Studlar and Cairney, 2019).
  • Focus on identifying policy changes that represent a ‘win-win’ scenario in which all parties benefit from the policy outcome (in terms of their health), rather than identifying political winners and losers from the policy choice itself (new category – Baum et al, 2014).

Such assumptions underpin expectations for the role of government, and provide a frame of reference for assessing the overall direction of policy (such as for ‘prevention’). Please let me know if there is a big missing category, or one of them doesn’t seem quite right.

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A general theory of public policy

This is a placeholder for future work and discussion. It tails off at the end.

People sometimes talk about a ‘general theory’ of public policy to put in our minds a comparison with the physical sciences. Usually, the punchline is that there are ‘no general theories of public policy that are not bounded by space or time’ (p21). There may be some reference to the accumulation of knowledge or wisdom in policy studies, but based rarely on the understanding that policy studies contain the equivalent of general laws (I can only think of one possible exception).

This outcome is not too surprising in the social sciences, in which context really matters and we would expect a lot of variation in policy, policymaking, and outcomes.

On the other hand, we still need a way to communicate our findings, relate them to other studies, compare them, and wonder what it all adds up to. Few people go as far as expressing the sense that every study is unique (to the point of non-comparability) and that every description of policymaking does not compare to another.

In other words, we may be looking for a happy medium, to reject the idea of general laws but encourage – when appropriate or necessary – enough of a sense of common outlook and experience to help us communicate with each other (without descending too quickly into heated debate on our cross-purposes). Or, we can at least tell a story of policy studies and invite others to learn from, or challenge, its insights.

In my case, there are two examples in which it is necessary to project some sense of a common and initially-not-too-complicated story:

  1. When describing policy theory insights to students, on the assumption that it may be their gateway to more reading.

It is possible to choose how many words to devote to each topic, including 500 Words, 1000 Words, a 9000 word Understanding Public Policy chapter, more in the source material, and even more if students start to ‘snowball’.

It is also possible, if you have a clearly defined audience, to introduce some level of uncertainty about these descriptions and their limitations.

For example, I try to describe ‘the policy process’ in 500 words and 1000 words, but in the context of a wider discussion of images of the policy process.

Circle image policy process 24.10.18

It is also possible to provide more context, such as in this kind of introductory box, coupled with 12 things to know about studying public policy

Introduction box

(from Chapter 1)

You can also get into the idea that my story is one of many, particularly after students have invested in many versions of that story by the end of an introductory book

conclusion box

(from Chapter 13)

  1. When describing these insights to people – from other disciplines or professions – who do not have the time, inclination, or frame of reference to put in that kind of work.

In this case, one presentation or article may be the limit. People may want to know the answer to a question – e.g. Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?rather than hear all about the explanation for the answer.

You do your best, and then – if there is time – you talk about what you missed out.

For example, in this talk, the first question was: why didn’t you mention the role of power?

 

A general theory or a general understanding? Two key issues

That was a long-winded introduction to a more philosophical point about what we might want from general theories. My impression is that you might be seeking one of these two possibilities:

  1. To use theories and concepts to describe material reality. In producing a general theory, we seek a general understanding of the ways in which the real world works. If so, we may focus primarily on how well these concepts describe the world, and the extent to which we can produce methods to produce systematic and consistent findings. The lack of a general theory denotes too much complexity and context.
  2. To use theories and concepts to represent a useful story. In producing a general understanding, we focus on the ways in which people generate and communicate their understanding. If so, we may focus more on how people come together to produce and share meaning through concepts. The lack of a general theory could reflect the lack of agreement on how to study policymaking. Or, the presence of a general understanding could represent the exercise of power, to set the agenda and limit scholarly attention to a small number of theories.

I describe this distinction in the following audio clip, produced halfway through a run with the dogs, while jetlagged. The large gap in the middle happens when I am trying to see if the voice to text is working well enough for me to copy/paste it here (no).

Key examples of the exercise of power include:

  1. The act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge (discussed in power and knowledge and Chapter 3).
  2. Ongoing discussions about how we deal with (a) a relatively new focus (among the most-established policy theories) on policy studies in countries in the Global South, given that (b) the dominant interpretations of policymaking come from experiences in the Global North.

box 13.4 part 1box 13.4 part 2

So, if you read these posts or Chapter 13 you will find a story of a general understanding of policy followed, almost immediately, by a list of reasons for why you should engage with it critically and perhaps not accept it. I’m setting your agenda but also reminding you that I’m doing it.

That’s it really. To be continued.

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Making sense of policy theory

Here is my 2-pager for the ICPP Montreal conference panel called ‘Making Sense of (and Through) Policy Theory’. The panel’s description is:

The panel aims to bring authors and readers together in an open exploration of the way in which theory is used in the making and analysis of policy.  There are numerous books and journal special issues about policy and theory, but they do not always explain how they see the subject and why they address it in the way they do.  In this panel, the authors or editors of selected current texts will be invited to state how they see policy process theory, and how they chose to address it in their book, and a selection of readers, with varying relationships to the policy process and its analysis, will be invited to review these books the ways in which, and the extent to which, they found them useful in advancing their understanding of the policy process.

My contribution

In my first undergraduate year (1990), Jeremy Richardson presented an image of politics (generally written in partnership with Grant Jordan) – that I still use frequently to this day:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is always in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, to all intents and purposes, policymakers manage complexity by breaking the state’s component parts into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across many parts of government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
  • Most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.
  • This description of ‘policy communities’ suggests that senior elected politicians are less important than people think, their impact on policy is questionable, and elections and changes of government may not provide the changes in policy that many expect.
  • Initially, Jordan and Richardson were addressing the worry in the 1970s that alternating parties of government were damaging UK politics. We can still find the same kinds of contrast between the popular image of centralist, majoritarian Westminster politics and academic studies of policymaking.
  • Jordan and Richardson also described the influence of US studies of interest groups and subsystems, to suggest they were describing the UK brand of an international product.

Since then, I have been interested in the extent to which key aspects of such arguments are ‘universal’ (abstract enough to apply to all systems/ times) or specific to systems and eras. Tanya Heikkila, Matt Wood, and I have just described multi-centric policymaking, which:

  1. can be abstract enough to apply universally, since so much of policy studies is based on exploring the implications of bounded rationality and complexity, but
  2. academics make sense of these concepts in very different ways, partly to reflect their preferred approaches, and partly to describe the different ways in which policy actors deal with bounded rationality and complexity in specific contexts.

My main contribution to this discussion is a picture that looks like a turtle. I use it to describe policymaking to non-specialists and reflect on this description with other specialists.

image policy process round 2 25.10.18

It projects the sense that people combine (say) cognition and emotion to make choices, and they do so within a complex policymaking environment consisting of many actors spread across many venues, each with their own rules, networks, ways of seeing the world, and ways of responding to socio-economic factors and events. The centre of the picture does not describe a centre of government, and the lines between each factor do not imply causation.

For me, these concepts represent my attempt – while going solo in Understanding Public Policy and describing ‘evidence based policymaking’ or as co-author with Tanya Heikkila or Chris Weible – to synthesise insights from many policy theories, subject to these kinds of limitations:

  1. Different academics describe each concept in remarkably different ways.
  2. Some differences seem irreconcilable. At least, we should not take synthesis lightly.
  3. The US or Global North provides the primary lens through which to view the world of policymaking. Applying that lens to Global South countries may be useful in one sense (to analyse policymaking systematically) but damaging in another (to treat some experiences as normal and others as meeting the norm or representing outliers).
  4. White male professors seem the most likely to tell these stories of policymaking. One response, explored in the 2nd edition of UPP, is to describe the problem and commit to making continuous changes. Another is to encourage far more voices as part of a series of textbooks on policymaking. I will use part of my talk to encourage such submissions to the Palgrave series that I edit, while acknowledging that the opportunities to engage, and rewards for engagement, are not shared equally.

See also:

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Beware the well-intentioned advice of unusually successful academics

This post – by Dr Kathryn Oliver and me – originally appeared on the LSE Impact Blog. I have replaced the picture of a thumb up with a cat hanging in there. 

Many academics want to see their research have an impact on policy and practice, and there is a lot of advice on how to seek it. It can be helpful to take advice from experienced and successful people. However, is this always the best advice? Guidance based on best practice and success stories in particular, often reflect unequal access to policymakers, institutional support, and credibility attached to certain personal characteristics.

To take stock of the vast amount of advice being offered to academics, we decided to compare it with the more systematic analyses available in the peer-reviewed literature, on the ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy, and policy studies. This allowed us to situate this advice in a wider context, see whether it was generalisable across settings and career stages, and to think through the inconsistencies and dilemmas which underlie these suggestions.

The advice: Top tips on influencing policy

The key themes and individual recommendations we identified from the 86 most-relevant publications are:

  1. Do high quality research: Use well-established research designs, methods, or metrics.
  2. Make your research relevant and readable: Provide easily-understandable, clear, relevant and high-quality research. Aim for the general reader. Produce good stories based on emotional appeals or humour.
  3. Understand the policymaking context. Note the busy and constrained lives of policy actors. Maximise established ways to engage, such as in advisory committees. Be pragmatic, accepting that research rarely translates directly into policy.
  4. Be ‘accessible’ to policymakers. This may involve discussing topics beyond your narrow expertise. Be humble, courteous, professional, and recognise the limits to your skills.
  5. Decide if you want to be an ‘issue advocate’. Decide whether to simply explain the evidence, remain an ‘honest broker, or recommend specific policy options. Negative consequences may include peer criticism, being seen as an academic lightweight, being used to add legitimacy to a policy position, and burnout.
  6. Build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers: Relationship-building requires investment and skills, but working collaboratively is often necessary. Academics could identify policy actors to provide insights into policy problems, act as champions for their research, and identify the most helpful policy actors.
  7. Be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is. Be a daring, persuasive scientist, comfortable in policy environments and available when needed. Or, seek brokers to act on your behalf.
  8. Reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working? Academics may enjoy the work or are passionate about the issue. Even so, keep track of when and how you have had impact, and revise your practices continuously.

hang-in-there-baby

Inconsistencies and dilemmas

This advice tends not to address wider issues. For example, there is no consensus over what counts as good evidence for policy, or therefore how best to communicate good evidence. We know little about how to gain the wide range of skills that researchers and policymakers need to act collectively, including to: produce evidence syntheses, manage expert communities, ‘co-produce’ research and policy with a wide range of stakeholders, and be prepared to offer policy recommendations as well as scientific advice. Further, a one-size fits-all model won’t help researchers navigate a policymaking environment where different venues have different cultures and networks. Researchers therefore need to decide what policy engagement is for—to frame problems or simply measure them according to an existing frame—and how far researchers should go to be useful and influential. If academics need to go ‘all in’ to secure meaningful impact, we need to reflect on the extent to which they have the resources and support to do so. This means navigating profound dilemmas:

Source: The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics

 

Can academics try to influence policy? The financial costs of seeking impact are prohibitive for junior or untenured researchers, while women and people of colour may be more subject to personal abuse. Such factors undermine the diversity of voices available.

How should academics influence policy? Many of these new required skills – such as storytelling – are not a routine part of academic training, and may be looked down on by our colleagues.  

What is the purpose of academics engagement in policymaking? To go beyond tokenistic and instrumental engagement is to build genuine rapport with policymakers, which may require us to co-produce knowledge and cede some control over the research process. It involves a fundamentally different way of doing public engagement: one with no clear aim in mind other than to listen and learn, with the potential to transform research practices and outputs.

Where is the evidence that this advice helps us improve impact?

The existing advice offered to academics on how to create impact is – although often well-meaning – not based on systematic research or comprehensive analysis of empirical evidence. Few advice-givers draw clearly on key literatures on policymaking or evidence use. This leads to significant misunderstandings, which can have potentially costly repercussions for research, researchers and policy.  These limitations matter, as they lead to advice which fails to address core dilemmas for academics—whether to engage, how to engage, and why—which have profound implications for how scientists and universities should respond to the calls for increased impact.

Most tips focus on individual experience, whereas engagement between research and policy is driven by systemic factors. Many of the tips may be sensible and effective, but often only within particular settings. The advice is likely to be useful mostly to a relatively similar group of people who are confident and comfortable in policy environments, and have access and credibility within policy arenas. Thus, the current advice and structures may help reproduce and reinforce existing power dynamics and an underrepresentation of people who do not fit a very narrow mould.

The overall result may be that each generation of scientists has to fight the same battles, and learn the same lessons over again. Our best response as a profession is to interrogate current advice, shape and frame it, and to help us all to find ways to navigate the complex practical, political, moral and ethical challenges associated with being researchers today. The ‘how to’ literature can help, but only if authors are cognisant of their wider role in society and complex policymaking systems.

This blog post is based on the authors’ co-written articles, The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics, published in Palgrave Communications, and ‘How should academics engage in policymaking to achieve impact?’  published in Political Studies Review 

About the authors

Kathryn Oliver is Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (@oliver_kathryn ). Her interest is in how knowledge is produced, mobilized and used in policy and practice, and how this affects the practice of research. She co-runs the research collaborative Transforming Evidence with Annette Boaz. https://transformure.wordpress.com and her writings can be found here: https://kathrynoliver.wordpress.com

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling, UK (@Cairneypaul).  His research interests are in comparative public policy and policy theories, which he uses to explain the use of evidence in policy and policymaking, in one book (The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making, 2016), several articles, and many, many blog posts: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/

See also:

  1. Adam Wellstead, Paul Cairney, and Kathryn Oliver (2018) ‘Reducing ambiguity to close the science-policy gap’, Policy Design and Practice, 1, 2, 115-25 PDF
  2. Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS), DOI: 10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x PDF AM
  3. Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, 76, 3, 399–402 DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

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