Category Archives: public policy

Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it

This is a post for my talk at the ‘Politheor: European Policy Network’ event Write For Impact: Training In Op-Ed Writing For Policy Advocacy. There are other speakers with more experience of, and advice on, ‘op-ed’ writing. My aim is to describe key aspects of politics and policymaking to help the audience learn why they should write op-eds in a particular way for particular audiences.

A key rule in writing is to ‘know your audience’, but it’s easier said than done if you seek many sympathetic audiences in many parts of a complex policy process. Two simple rules should help make this process somewhat clearer:

  1. Learn how policymakers simplify their world, and
  2. Learn how policy environments influence their attention and choices.

We can use the same broad concepts to help explain both processes, in which many policymakers and influencers interact across many levels and types of government to produce what we call ‘policy’:

  1. Policymaker psychology: tell an evidence-informed story

Policymakers receive too much information, and seek ways to ignore most of it while making decisions. To do so, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ means: selecting a limited number of regular sources of information, and relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and familiarity with information. In other words, your audience combines cognition and emotion to deal with information, and they can ignore information for long periods then quickly shift their attention towards it, even if that information has not really changed.

Consequently, an op-ed focusing solely ‘the facts’ can be relatively ineffective compared to an evidence-informed story, perhaps with a notional setting, plot, hero, and moral. Your aim shifts from providing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty about a problem, to providing a persuasive reason to reduce ambiguity. Ambiguity relates to the fact that policymakers can understand a policy problem in many different ways – such as tobacco as an economic good, issue of civil liberties, or public health epidemic – but often pay exclusive attention to one.

So, your aim may be to influence the simple ways in which people understand the world, to influence their demand for more information. An emotional appeal can transform a factual case, but only if you know how people engage emotionally with information. Sometimes, the same story can succeed with one audience but fail with another.

  1. Institutions: learn the ‘rules of the game’

Institutions are the rules people use in policymaking, including the formal, written down, and well understood rules setting out who is responsible for certain issues, and the informal, unwritten, and unclear rules informing action. The rules used by policymakers can help define the nature of a policy problem, who is best placed to solve it, who should be consulted routinely, and who can safely be ignored. These rules can endure for long periods and become like habits, particularly if policymakers pay little attention to a problem or why they define it in a particular way.

  1. Networks and coalitions: build coalitions and establish trust

Such informal rules, about how to understand a problem and who to speak with about it, can be reinforced in networks of policymakers and influencers.

‘Policy community’ partly describes a sense that most policymaking is processed out of the public spotlight, often despite minimal high level policymaker interest. Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policymaking to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government, and policymakers have ‘standard operating procedures’ that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others

‘Policy community’ also describes a sense that the network seems fairly stable, built on high levels of trust between participants, based on factors such as reliability (the participant was a good source of information, and did not complain too much in public about decisions), a common aim or shared understanding of the problem, or the sense that influencers represent important groups.

So, the same policy case can have a greater impact if told by a well trusted actor in a policy community. Or, that community member may use networks to build key coalitions behind a case, use information from the network to understand which cases will have most impact, or know which audiences to seek.

  1. Ideas: learn the ‘currency’ of policy argument

This use of networks relates partly to learning the language of policy debate in particular ‘venues’, to learn what makes a convincing case. This language partly reflects a well-established ‘world view’ or the ‘core beliefs’ shared by participants. For example, a very specific ‘evidence-based’ language is used frequently in public health, while treasury departments look for some recognition of ‘value for money’ (according to a particular understanding of how you determine VFM). So, knowing your audience is knowing the terms of debate that are often so central to their worldview that they take them for granted and, in contrast, the forms of argument that are more difficult to pursue because they are challenging or unfamiliar to some audiences. Imagine a case that challenges completely someone’s world view, or one which is entirely consistent with it.

  1. Socioeconomic factors and events: influence how policymakers see the outside world

Some worldviews can be shattered by external events or crises, but this is a rare occurrence. It may be possible to generate a sense of crisis with reference to socioeconomic changes or events, but people will interpret these developments through the ‘lens’ of their own beliefs. In some cases, events seem impossible to ignore but we may not agree on their implications for action. In others, an external event only matters if policymakers pay attention to them. Indeed, we began this discussion with the insight that policymakers have to ignore almost all such information available to them.

Know your audience revisited: practical lessons from policy theories

To take into account all of these factors, while trying to make a very short and persuasive case, may seem impossible. Instead, we might pick up some basic rules of thumb from particular theories or approaches. We can discuss a few examples from ongoing work on ‘practical lessons from policy theories’.

Storytelling for policy impact

If you are telling a story with a setting, plot, hero, and moral, it may be more effective to focus on a hero than villain. More importantly, imagine two contrasting audiences: one is moved by your personal and story told to highlight some structural barriers to the wellbeing of key populations; another is unmoved, judges that person harshly, and thinks they would have done better in their shoes (perhaps they prefer to build policy on stereotypes of target populations). ‘Knowing your audience’ may involve some trial-and-error to determine which stories work under which circumstances.

Appealing to coalitions

Or, you may decide that it is impossible to write anything to appeal to all relevant audiences. Instead, you might tailor it to one, to reinforce its beliefs and encourage people to act. The ‘advocacy coalition framework’ describes such activities as routine: people go into politics to translate their beliefs into policy, they interpret the world through those beliefs, and they romanticise their own cause while demonising their opponents. If so, would a bland op-ed have much effect on any audience?

Learning from entrepreneurs

Policy entrepreneurs’ draw on three rules, two of which seem counterintuitive:

  1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence. Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.
  2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution. So, you produce your solution then chase problems.
  3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes. For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.

It all adds up to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

On the day, we can use such concepts to help us think through the factors that you might think about while writing op-eds, even though it is very unlikely that you would mention them in your written work.

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

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

Policy influence is impossible to find if you don’t know where to look. Policies theories can help you look in the right places, but they take time to understand.

It’s not realistic to expect people with their own day jobs – such as scientists producing policy-relevant knowledge in other fields – to take the time to use the insights it takes my colleagues a full-time career to appreciate.

So, we need a way to explain those insights in a way that people can pick up and use when they engage in the policy process for the first time. That’s why Chris Weible and I asked a group of policy theory experts to describe the ‘state of the art’ in their field and the practical lessons that they offer.

None of these abstract theories provide a ‘blueprint’ for action (they were designed primarily to examine the policy process scientifically). Instead, they offer one simple insight: you’ll save a lot of energy if you engage with the policy process that exists, not the one you want to see.

Then, they describe variations on the same themes, including:

  1. There are profound limits to the power of individual policymakers: they can only process so much information, have to ignore almost all issues, and therefore tend to share policymaking with many other actors.
  2. You can increase your chances of success if you work with that insight: identify the right policymakers, the ‘venues’ in which they operate, and the ‘rules of the game’ in each venue; build networks and form coalitions to engage in those venues; shape agendas by framing problems and telling good stories, design politically feasible solutions, and learn how to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for their selection.

Learn from ‘multiple streams’ analysis

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

Tablle 1 MSA

Learn the meaning of timing and windows of opportunity

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

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

Learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original streams pic


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two audiences in the study of ‘evidence based policymaking’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to know more, see:

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

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

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

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

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



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

‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact?

Two recent articles explore the role of academics in the ‘co-production’ of policy and/or knowledge.

Both papers suggest (I think) that academic engagement in the ‘real world’ is highly valuable, and that we should not pretend that we can remain aloof from politics when producing new knowledge (research production is political even if it is not overtly party political). They also suggest that it is fraught with difficulty and, perhaps, an often-thankless task with no guarantee of professional or policy payoffs (intrinsic motivation still trumps extrinsic motivation).

So, what should we do?

I plan to experiment a little bit while conducting some new research over the next 4 years. For example, I am part of a new project called IMAJINE, and plan to speak with policymakers, from the start to the end, about what they want from the research and how they’ll use it. My working assumption is that it will help boost the academic value and policy relevance of the research.

I have mocked up a paper abstract to describe this kind of work:

In this paper, we use policy theory to explain why the ‘co-production’ of comparative research with policymakers makes it more policy relevant: it allows researchers to frame their policy analysis with reference to the ways in which policymakers frame policy problems; and, it helps them identify which policymaking venues matter, and the rules of engagement within them.  In other words, theoretically-informed researchers can, to some extent, emulate the strategies of interest groups when they work out ‘where the action is’ and how to adapt to policy agendas to maximise their influence. Successful groups identify their audience and work out what it wants, rather than present their own fixed views to anyone who will listen.

Yet, when described so provocatively, our argument raises several practical and ethical dilemmas about the role of academic research. In abstract discussions, they include questions such as: should you engage this much with politics and policymakers, or maintain a critical distance; and, if you engage, should you simply reflect or seek to influence the policy agenda? In practice, such binary choices are artificial, prompting us to explore how to manage our engagement in politics and reflect on our potential influence.

We explore these issues with reference to a new Horizon 2020 funded project IMAJINE, which includes a work package – led by Cairney – on the use of evidence and learning from the many ways in which EU, national, and regional policymakers have tried to reduce territorial inequalities.

So, in the paper we (my future research partner and I), would:

  • Outline the payoffs to this engage-early approach. Early engagement will inform the research questions you ask, how you ask them, and how you ‘frame’ the results. It should also help produce more academic publications (which is still the key consideration for many academics), partly because this early approach will help us speak with some authority about policy and policymaking in many countries.
  • Describe the complications of engaging with different policymakers in many ‘venues’ in different countries: you would expect very different questions to arise, and perhaps struggle to manage competing audience demands.
  • Raise practical questions about the research audience, including: should we interview key advocacy groups and private sources of funding for applied research, as well as policymakers, when refining questions? I ask this question partly because it can be more effective to communicate evidence via policy influencers rather than try to engage directly with policymakers.
  • Raise ethical questions, including: what if policymaker interviewees want the ‘wrong’ questions answered? What if they are only interested in policy solutions that we think are misguided, either because the evidence-base is limited (and yet they seek a magic bullet) or their aims are based primarily on ideology (an allegedly typical dilemma regards left-wing academics providing research for right-wing governments)?

Overall, you can see the potential problems: you ‘enter’ the political arena to find that it is highly political! You find that policymakers are mostly interested in (what you believe are) ineffective or inappropriate solutions and/ or they think about the problem in ways that make you, say, uncomfortable. So, should you engage in a critical way, risking exclusion from the ‘coproduction’ of policy, or in a pragmatic way, to ‘coproduce’ knowledge and maximise your chances of their impact in government?

The case study of territorial inequalities is a key source of such dilemmas …

…partly because it is difficult to tell how policymakers define and want to solve such policy problems. When defining ‘territorial inequalities’, they can refer broadly to geographical spread, such as within the EU Member States, or even within regions of states. They can focus on economic inequalities, inequalities linked strongly to gender, race or ethnicity, mental health, disability, and/ or inequalities spread across generations. They can focus on indicators of inequalities in areas such as health and education outcomes, housing tenure and quality, transport, and engagement with social work and criminal justice. While policymakers might want to address all such issues, they also prioritise the problems they want to solve and the policy instruments they are prepared to use.

When considering solutions, they can choose from three basic categories:

  1. Tax and spending to redistribute income and wealth, perhaps treating economic inequalities as the source of most others (such as health and education inequalities).
  2. The provision of public services to help mitigate the effects of economic and other inequalities (such as free healthcare and education, and public transport in urban and rural areas).
  3. The adoption of ‘prevention’ strategies to engage as early as possible in people’s lives, on the assumption that key inequalities are well-established by the time children are three years old.

Based on my previous work with Emily St Denny, I’d expect that many governments express a high commitment to reduce inequalities – and it is often sincere – but without wanting to use tax/ spending as the primary means, and faced with limited evidence on the effectiveness of public services and prevention. Or, many will prefer to identify ‘evidence-based’ solutions for individuals rather than to address ‘structural’ factors linked to factors such as gender, ethnicity, and class. This is when the production and use of evidence becomes overtly ‘political’, because at the heart of many of these discussions is the extent to which individuals or their environments are to blame for unequal outcomes, and if richer regions should compensate poorer regions.

‘The evidence’ will not ‘win the day’ in such debates. Rather, the choice will be between, for example: (a) pragmatism, to frame evidence to contribute to well-established beliefs, about policy problems and solutions, held by the dominant actors in each political system; and, (b) critical distance, to produce what you feel to be the best evidence generated in the right way, and challenge policymakers to explain why they won’t use it. I suspect that (a) is more effective, but (b) better reflects what most academics thought they were signing up to.

For more on IMAJINE, see New EU study looks at gap between rich and poor and The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

For more on evidence/ policy dilemmas, see Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy


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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), IMAJINE, public policy

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

Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?

“There is extensive health and public health literature on the ‘evidence-policy gap’, exploring the frustrating experiences of scientists trying to secure a response to the problems and solutions they raise and identifying the need for better evidence to reduce policymaker uncertainty. We offer a new perspective by using policy theory to propose research with greater impact, identifying the need to use persuasion to reduce ambiguity, and to adapt to multi-level policymaking systems”.

We use this table to describe how the policy process works, how effective actors respond, and the dilemmas that arise for advocates of scientific evidence: should they act this way too?

We summarise this argument in two posts for:

The Guardian If scientists want to influence policymaking, they need to understand it

Sax Institute The evidence policy gap: changing the research mindset is only the beginning

The article is part of a wider body of work in which one or both of us considers the relationship between evidence and policy in different ways, including:

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 PDF

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (PDF)

Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J. and Thomas, J. (2014a) ‘A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers’ BMC health services research, 14 (1), 2.

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T., & Innvær, S. (2014b) ‘New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature’, Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34

Paul Cairney (2016) Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks in Evidence and Policy

Many of my blog posts explore how people like scientists or researchers might understand and respond to the policy process:

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

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

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking?

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

Psychology Based Policy Studies: 5 heuristics to maximise the use of evidence in policymaking

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts?

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

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

There are more posts like this on my EBPM page

I am also guest editing a series of articles for the Open Access journal Palgrave Communications on the ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’ and we are inviting submissions throughout 2017.

There are more details on that series here.

And finally ..

… if you’d like to read about the policy theories underpinning these arguments, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words and 500 words.




Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

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

Long read for Political Studies Association annual conference 2017 panel Rethinking Impact: Narratives of Research-Policy Relations. There is a paper too, but I’ve hidden it in the text like an Easter Egg hunt.

I’ve watched a lot of film and TV dramas over the decades. Many have the same basic theme, characters, and moral:

  1. There is a villain getting away with something, such as cheating at sport or trying to evict people to make money on a property deal.
  2. There are some characters who complain that life is unfair and there’s nothing they can do about it.
  3. A hero emerges to inspire the other characters to act as a team/ fight the system and win the day. Think of a range from Wyldstyle to Michael Corleone.

For many scientists right now, the villains are people like Trump or Farage, Trump’s election and Brexit symbolise an unfairness on a grand scale, and there’s little they can do about it in a ‘post-truth’ era in which people have had enough of facts and experts. Or, when people try to mobilise, they are unsure about what to do or how far they are willing to go to win the day.

These issues are playing out in different ways, from the March for Science to the conferences informing debates on modern principles of government-science advice (see INGSA). Yet, the basic question is the same when scientists are trying to re-establish a particular role for science in the world: can you present science as (a) a universal principle and (b) unequivocal resource for good, producing (c) evidence so pure that it speaks for itself, regardless of (d) the context in which specific forms of scientific evidence are produced and used?

Of course not. Instead, we are trying to privilege the role of science and scientific evidence in politics and policymaking without always acknowledging that these activities are political acts:

(a) selling scientific values rather than self-evidence truths, and

(b) using particular values to cement the status of particular groups at the expense of others, either within the scientific profession (in which some disciplines and social groups win systematically) or within society (in which scientific experts generally enjoy privileged positions in policymaking arenas).

Politics is about exercising power to win disputes, from visible acts to win ‘key choices’, to less visible acts to keep issues off agendas and reinforce the attitudes and behaviours that systematically benefit some groups at the expense of others.

To deny this link between science, politics and power – in the name of ‘science’ – is (a) silly, and (b) not scientific, since there is a wealth of policy science out there which highlights this relationship.

Instead, academic and working scientists should make better use of their political-thinking-time to consider this basic dilemma regarding political engagement: how far are you willing to go to make an impact and get what you want?  Here are three examples.

  1. How energetically should you give science advice?

My impression is that most scientists feel most comfortable with the unfortunate idea of separating facts from values (rejected by Douglas), and living life as ‘honest brokers’ rather than ‘issue advocates’ (a pursuit described by Pielke and critiqued by Jasanoff). For me, this is generally a cop-out since it puts the responsibility on politicians to understand the implications of scientific evidence, as if they were self-evident, rather than on scientists to explain the significance in a language familiar to their audience.

On the other hand, the alternative is not really clear. ‘Getting your hands dirty’, to maximise the uptake of evidence in politics, is a great metaphor but a hopeless blueprint, especially when you, as part of a notional ‘scientific community’, face trade-offs between doing what you think is the right thing and getting what you want.

There are 101 examples of these individual choices that make up one big engagement dilemmas. One of my favourite examples from table 1 is as follows:

One argument stated frequently is that, to be effective in policy, you should put forward scientists with a particular background trusted by policymakers: white men in their 50s with international reputations and strong networks in their scientific field. This way, they resemble the profile of key policymakers who tend to trust people already familiar to them. Another is that we should widen out science and science advice, investing in a new and diverse generation of science-policy specialists, to address the charge that science is an elite endeavour contributing to inequalities.

  1. How far should you go to ensure that the ‘best’ scientific evidence underpins policy?

Kathryn Oliver and I identify the dilemmas that arise when principles of evidence-production meet (a) principles of governance and (b) real world policymaking. Should scientists learn how to be manipulative, to combine evidence and emotional appeals to win the day? Should they reject other forms of knowledge, and particular forms of governance if the think they get in the way of the use of the best evidence in policymaking?

Cairney Oliver 2017 table 1

  1. Is it OK to use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers?

Richard Kwiatkowski and I mostly discuss how to be manipulative if you make that leap. Or, to put it less dramatically, how to identify relevant insights from psychology, apply them to policymaking, and decide how best to respond. Here, we propose five heuristics for engagement:

  1. developing heuristics to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking
  2. tailoring framing strategies to policymaker bias
  3. identifying the right time to influence individuals and processes
  4. adapting to real-world (dysfunctional) organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear, and
  5. recognising that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups

Then there is the impact agenda, which describes something very different

I say these things to link to our PSA panel, in which Christina Boswell and Katherine Smith sum up (in their abstract) the difference between the ways in which we are expected to demonstrate academic impact, and the practices that might actually produce real impact:

Political scientists are increasingly exhorted to ensure their research has policy ‘impact’, most notably in the form of REF impact case studies, and ‘pathways to impact’ plans in ESRC funding. Yet the assumptions underpinning these frameworks are frequently problematic. Notions of ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ are typically premised on simplistic and linear models of the policy process, according to which policy-makers are keen to ‘utilise’ expertise to produce more effective policy interventions”.

I then sum up the same thing but with different words in my abstract:

“The impact agenda prompts strategies which reflect the science literature on ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: produce more accessible reports, find the right time to engage, encourage academic-practitioner workshops, and hope that policymakers have the skills to understand and motive to respond to your evidence. Such strategies are built on the idea that scientists serve to reduce policymaker uncertainty, with a linear connection between evidence and policy. Yet, the literature informed by policy theory suggests that successful actors combine evidence and persuasion to reduce ambiguity, particularly when they know where the ‘action’ is within complex policymaking systems”.

The implications for the impact agenda are interesting, because there is a big difference between (a) the fairly banal ways in which we might make it easier for policymakers to see our work, and (b) the more exciting and sinister-looking ways in which we might make more persuasive cases. Yet, our incentive remains to produce the research and play it safe, producing examples of ‘impact’ that, on the whole, seem more reportable than remarkable.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Public health, public policy

Psychology Based Policy Studies: 5 heuristics to maximise the use of evidence in policymaking

Richard Kwiatkowski and I combine policy studies and psychology to (a) take forward ‘Psychology Based Policy Studies’, and (b) produce practical advice for actors engaged in the policy process.

Cairney Kwiatkowski abstract

Most policy studies, built on policy theory, explain policy processes without identifying practical lessons. They identify how and why people make decisions, and situate this process of choice within complex systems of environments in which there are many actors at multiple levels of government, subject to rules, norms, and group influences, forming networks, and responding to socioeconomic dynamics. This approach helps generate demand for more evidence of the role of psychology in these areas:

  1. To do more than ‘psychoanalyse’ a small number of key actors at the ‘centre’ of government.
  2. To consider how and why actors identify, understand, follow, reproduce, or seek to shape or challenge, rules within their organisations or networks.
  3. To identify the role of network formation and maintenance, and the extent to which it is built on heuristics to establish trust and the regular flow of information and advice.
  4. To examine the extent to which persuasion can be used to prompt actors to rethink their beliefs – such as when new evidence or a proposed new solution challenges the way that a problem is framed, how much attention it receives, and how it is solved.
  5. To consider (a) the effect of events such as elections on the ways in which policymakers process evidence (e.g. does it encourage short-term and vote-driven calculations?), and (b) what prompts them to pay attention to some contextual factors and not others.

This literature highlights the use of evidence by actors who anticipate or respond to lurches of attention, moral choices, and coalition formation built on bolstering one’s own position, demonising competitors, and discrediting (some) evidence. Although this aspect of choice should not be caricatured – it is not useful simply to bemoan ‘post-truth’ politics and policymaking ‘irrationality’ – it provides a useful corrective to the fantasy of a linear policy process in which evidence can be directed to a single moment of authoritative and ‘comprehensively rational’ choice based only on cognition. Political systems and human psychology combine to create a policy process characterised by many actors competing to influence continuous policy choice built on cognition and emotion.

What are the practical implications?

Few studies consider how those seeking to influence policy should act in such environments or give advice about how they can engage effectively in the policy process. Of course context is important, and advice needs to be tailored and nuanced, but that is not necessarily a reason to side-step the issue of moving beyond description. Further, policymakers and influencers do not have this luxury. They need to gather information quickly and effectively to make good choices. They have to take the risk of action.

To influence this process we need to understand it, and to understand it more we need to study how scientists try to influence it. Psychology-based policy studies can provide important insights to help actors begin to measure and improve the effectiveness of their engagement in policy by: taking into account cognitive and emotional factors and the effect of identity on possible thought; and, considering how political actors are ‘embodied’ and situated in time, place, and social systems.

5 tentative suggestions

However, few psychological insights have been developed from direct studies of policymaking, and there is a limited evidence base. So, we provide preliminary advice by identifying the most relevant avenues of conceptual research and deriving some helpful ‘tools’ to those seeking to influence policy.

Our working assumption is that policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Their solutions often seem to be driven more by their emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, partly because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach. If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss our criticism as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, restating the need for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, and naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive.

For us, heuristics represent simple alternative strategies, built on psychological insights to use psychological insights in policy practice. They are broad prompts towards certain ways of thinking and acting, not specific blueprints for action in all circumstances:

  1. Develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking

Instead of automatically bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond in a ‘fast and frugal’ way, to pursue the kinds of evidence informed policymaking that is realistic in a complex and constantly changing policymaking environment.

  1. Tailor framing strategies to policymaker bias

The usual advice is to minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation, and use strategies tailored to the ways in which people pay attention to, and remember information (at the beginning and end of statements, with repetition, and using concrete and immediate reference points).

What is the less usual advice? If policymakers are combining cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals. If policymakers are making quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and a clear moral. If policymakers are reflecting a group emotion, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with the ‘lens’ through which actors in those coalitions understand the world.


  1. Identify the right time to influence individuals and processes

Understand what it means to find the right time to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’. ‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, which is relatively difficult to identify but with the possibility of direct influence, or to act while several political conditions are aligned, which presents less chance for you to make a direct impact.

  1. Adapt to real-world dysfunctional organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear

Politicians may appear confident of policy and with a grasp of facts and details, but are (a) often vulnerable and defensive, and closed to challenging information, and/ or (b) inadequate in organisational politics, or unable to change the rules of their organisations. In the absence of institutional reforms, and presence of ‘dysfunctional’ processes, develop pragmatic strategies: form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.

  1. Recognise that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups.

Identifying only the biases in our competitors may help mask academic/ scientific examples of group-think, and it may be counterproductive to use euphemistic terms like ‘low information’ to describe actors whose views we do not respect. This is a particular problem for scholars if they assume that most people do not live up to their own imagined standards of high-information-led action.

It may be more effective to recognise that: (a) people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves.; and, (b) a fundamental aspect of evolutionary psychology is that people need to get on with each other, so showing simple respect – or going further, to ‘mirror’ that person’s non-verbal signals – can be useful even if it looks facile.

This leaves open the ethical question of how far we should go to identify our biases, accept the need to work with people whose ways of thinking we do not share, and how far we should go to secure their trust without lying about one’s beliefs.


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