My overall impression, of the 28 submissions to the committee, is that they inform a very familiar two-part story:
There should be clearly defined steps or stages to making decisions, and governments should make use of well-established, rigorous, decision-making tools (the call for systematic policymaking in theory)
They identify their generally disappointing experiences of unfulfilled reforms and implementation gaps (the absence of systematic policymaking in practice)
In that context, it is worth asking:
Are these problems specific to Scottish Government (right now), or are they more general and systemic?
Can we separate specific expectations for Scottish Government from more general expectations about policymaking?
Why these problems are general and systemic
My report identifies two main reasons to expect the same problems in any government (based on theories and studies of policymaking).
First, there is always a gap between simple and idealised models of systematic policymaking and real-world policy processes. We can tell this story as follows:
Policymakers do not (a) fully understand the problems they face, or (b) control the complex policymaking systems in which they engage.
They need to be pragmatic (to recognise these limits) but also tell a story of being in charge (to reflect an electoral imperative).
This imperative to be pragmatic but project central government control (as part of a story of governing competence) is relatively strong in Westminster systems.
Second, governments pursue a large number of worthy ‘effective government’ principles, which seem fine in isolation (and when expressed vaguely), but are contradictory when combined (and turned into concrete measures). In my report, I listed seven principles which map (somewhat) onto the committee’s list of topics:
1. Hold to account the people and organisations responsible for policy.
2. Anticipate and prevent policy problems rather than react to crisis.
3. Avoid power hoarding at the ‘centre’. Co-produce policy with citizens.
4. Ensure policy coherence and policymaking integration.
5. Foster evidence-informed policymaking.
6. Mainstream equity, fairness, or justice across all policy.
7. Ensure that public services deliver public value.
For example, the primacy of national elections concentrates power in the centre, fosters short-term thinking, biases evidence-gathering towards experts, limits consensus seeking, and reduces incentives to learn.
The Scottish Government is no exception to the general rule
This general picture is familiar to students of public policy in Scotland, where a fixation with Scottish Parliament elections, as the main vehicle for accountability, overshadows other aims such as more preventive, decentralised, and co-produced policy processes.
There is also a specific Scottish story, such as how the Scottish Government might pursue (1) policy coherence (for example, via the National Performance Framework) and, (2) co-produced, integrated, and equitable ‘public value’ approaches (via the Scottish model of government or Scottish approach to policymaking).
However, this story has the same ending as many others, recounting a gap between aspiration and reality, followed by a tendency to retell the fictional story rather than focus on what governments can actually do. The result is a lost opportunity to generate new knowledge of – and thoughtful reflection on – what exactly a government does (and if it has policy capacity). It fuels a cycle of disappointment and reinvention rather than proper investigation.
What can the Scottish Government learn?
My report identifies some examples of comparable places where some elements of government are worth examining, including:
Welsh government and Welsh Centre for Public Policy – on the systematic use of external evidence for policy.
New Zealand Policy Project – on the pursuit of a formalised and systematic approach to giving good policy advice to ministers.
Annex A also lists some possibilities regarding international benchmarks and performance indicators.
It is also essential for the Scottish Government to learn from its own experiences as part of a process of continuous development, although a focus on other governments can often take the heat out of debate (since a focus on Scottish policy success is inevitably partisan).
In each case, what would be the likelihood of learning, and about what? My final remark was to suggest that (1) learning about specific initiatives (such as to improve evidence and advice to minsters), is very limited without (2) situating that learning in a much wider systemic perspective.
Wouldn’t it be nice if policy scholars and professionals could have frequent and fruitful discussions about policy and policymaking? Both professions could make valuable contributions to our understanding of policy design in a wider political context.
However, it is notoriously difficult to explain what policy is and how it is made, and academics and practitioners may present very different perspectives on what policymakers or governments do. Without a common reference point, how can they cooperate to discuss how to (say) improve policy or policymaking?
One starting point is to visualize policymaking to identify overlaps in perspectives. To that end, if academics and policymakers were to describe ‘the policy process’, could they agree on what it looks like? To help answer this question, in this post I’m presenting some commonly-used images in policy research, then inviting you to share images that you would use to sum up policy work.
Why produce different images of policy processes?
One obstacle to a shared description is that we need different images for different aims, including:
To describe and explain what policymakers do. Academics describe one part of a complex policy process, accompanied by a technical language to understand each image.
To describe what policymakers need to do. Practitioners visualise a manageable number of aims or requirements (essential steps, stages, or functions), accompanied by a professional in-house language (such as in the Green Book).
To describe what they would like to do. Governments produce images of policymaking to tell stakeholders or citizens what they do, accompanied by an aspirational language related to what is expected of elected governments.
Why seek a common image? Would it help or hinder discussion?
If we have such different aims, is it (a) possible, and (b) desirable to produce an image that satisfies each aim? For example, it is possible but undesirable to use the policy cycle image to that end.
This image may be shared by academics and practitioners, but it means something different each time:
1.Most policy scholars use the cycle to describe what does not happen. It is a teaching tool, to (a) describe the ideal-type, (b) explain its descriptive inaccuracy, and (c) introduce the search for better models, which (d) might help to visualise a messier reality (for example, by using Spirograph).
2. Practitioners often find it more useful to sum up the steps they need to take – to get from defining to addressing a policy problem. For example, the ROAMEF cycle looks fairly similar to the one in my textbook. However, most policymakers would describe their actual steps in different ways or – more importantly – accept that no-one really makes policy this way.
3. Policymakers find it useful to project to the public that their process is orderly. You will find many versions of this image in UK government and European Commission documents, using images to summarise how they would like to be seen.
In each case, the policy cycle image represents a confusing mix of (1) valuable to prompt further discussion, and (2) not valuable because it is so misleading. Indeed, even (one small part of) the European Commission presents a very different image, to superimpose an unwieldy mess onto the traditional cyclical image.
What images do academics use to explain complexity?
While an image of messy policymaking makes a simple point well (policymaking is far messier than the cycle suggests), it does not do much else. What other images convey this complexity while also providing specific insights to guide research or action?
The multiple streams framework: much like a space launch, major policy change will not happen unless many requirements come together simultaneously. In policymaking, the requirements are: attention rises to a problem, a feasible solution already exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to select it. Policy entrepreneurs may help, but as surfers riding a wave, not controllers of the sea (apologies for the mixed metaphors).
Take home message from image 1: ‘stages’ of a policy cycle matter, but the process (1) is not linear, and (2) does not lead inevitably to policy change.
Punctuated equilibrium theory: this image sums up the distribution of policy change in liberal democracies: there is a huge number of very small changes, and a very small number of huge changes. This distribution is akin to the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes! What is the cause? (1) Policymaker attention to problems does not relate strongly to (a) the size of the problem, or (b) the available information. (2) A lack of attention results – in most cases – in limited change (since high attention may be required to help overcome existing rules and practices).
Take home message from image 2: Policymaking is largely about governments managing existing policies which can change very little for long periods. Major changes can happen, but they are rare. They can be explained, but are not easy to predict.
Visualising important factors
The advocacy coalition framework flow diagram: people join ‘advocacy coalitions’ to turn their beliefs into policy and they compete with other coalitions to influence policy in subsystems (specialist networks of policymakers and influencers). Policy change relates to how coalitions manage internal dynamics (such as learning from policy failure) or deal with external events (such as a crisis or change of government).
Take home message from image 3: Most policy is processed in a large number of specialist policy networks, which are more or less insulated from the wider political system.
Visualising concepts in a non-threatening way
The blue turtle: – my aim is to introduce concepts in a visually pleasing way (to compete with the policy cycle). The image provides an introductory story about how policymakers deliberate and make choices (drawing on psychology to show how they frame problems and identify trusted sources of information) while surrounded by their policymaking environment (consisting of many policy actors spread across many venues, each with their own rules, networks, and reference points).
Take home message from image 4: Policy is processed by many different ‘centres’ – each with their own ways of working – rather than one single central government. The overall effect cannot be summed up by one single cycle of activity, and the overall ‘policy mix’ does not emerge from one source.
What images do you find more useful?
My main aim has been to present these images to prompt discussion: what does each image say about how we describe policymaking, our role in policy processes, and how we would like others to understand what we do? Do you prefer other images, such as to describe the ‘strategic triangle’?
I would welcome your thoughts in the comments below. Or, if you have some valuable images to share, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
The next post
My plan is to write a follow-up post to collate many more images, with early suggestions including:
‘Political science remains indebted to approaches, debates, and categories that emerged to make sense of the challenges that imperial centers faced in ruling over the colonial margins that they had created’ (Shilliam, 2021: 3)
Shilliam (2018: 18) aims to ‘decolonize the academic study of politics’, partly by identifying the historic impact of Western imperialism (including the violence to centre one world or perspective) and colonialism (including ways to govern marginalised populations) on how we still think about politics. These legacies have helped to set limits on whose perspectives matter in political research and whose written knowledge we have treated as canonical (the sacred sources that we treat as foundational to our approach).
I would summarise part of Shilliam’s approach as follows:
First, ask: which sources are treated as canon in my field, and why?
Second, identify the political context in which that work was produced, re-engaging with conventional accounts of key texts.
Third, identify the legacy of past choices. For example, what limits do conventional accounts of key sources place on our understanding of political research? Whose knowledge and voices matter in these accounts? Whose knowledge is diminished and whose voices went unheard? What has been said, and what remains unsaid?
Shilliam’s examples include:
Political theory. The usual story of Aristotle helps to downplay – for example – the limits on who would be treated as citizens entitled to deliberate and pursue ‘the good life’. The Enlightenment also took place at a time of imperialism and an assumption that only some humans were ‘properly human’ (2021: 21),
The study of political behaviour emerged during concern about the forms of social mixing (such as between races) that could undermine ‘democracy’.
Comparative politics developed during and after the Cold War, focusing on the acknowledgement of difference (as a basis for comparison) but also a belief that some differences should be discouraged (such as in the battle to ensure that decolonised states became liberal democracies, not communist).
Strands of international relations have focused on how to deal with international anarchy via globalised orders overseen by elites.
What is the relevance to the study of policy analysis?
We can tell a similar story about the development of post-war (US and UK) policy analysis, although ‘mainstream’ and critical/ interpretive accounts may tell it in different ways.
On the one hand, both reject old stories of ‘rationalist’ policymaking which romanticised the idea of a centralised and exclusive policy process, where elite professional analysts translated the highest quality science to produce the correct diagnosis of a problem and an optimal solution (see Radin and Thissen/Walker).
On the other, note the potential for different take-home messages relating to their treatment of wider context:
Rejecting the description or prescription? Mainstream approaches seek more accurate accounts of the policy processes in which analysts engage (e.g. 1000 series). Critical approaches also reject the ideal, or the assertion that policy analysis could or should be a depoliticised process driven primarily by experts and scientific evidence. Defining problems and establishing the feasibility of solutions is inevitably a political process and it should be based on citizen and stakeholder participation and deliberation, including steps to include marginalised groups.
Rejecting rationalism in political science? ‘Mainstream’ tends to describe the largely-US ‘positivist’ approaches that also tend to dominate political science. Critical or interpretive approaches are not ‘canon’ in mainstream policy theory journals (such as Policy Studies Journal) or the influential Theories of the Policy Process series.
‘Each framework must do a reasonably good job of meeting the criteria of a scientific theory; that is, its concepts and propositions must be relatively clear and internally consistent, it must identify clear causal drivers, it must give rise to falsifiable hypotheses, and it must be fairly broad in scope (i.e., apply to most of the policy process in a variety of political systems) … Each framework must be a positive theory seeking to explain much of the policy process. The theoretical framework may also contain some explicitly normative elements, but these are not required’ (Sabatier, 2007: 8).
This description – of what methods to gather knowledge should be included – should seem familiar if you read Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012), who describes:
The exercise of power to determine whole rules – about knowledge and how to gather and use it – matter in research, and
How scientific research (in the ‘European Enlightenment’ mould) went hand in hand with colonialism, to the extent that “the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism” (2012: 1; 21-6).
Consequently, while it is relatively straightforward to consider (1) how we might share insights from knowledge based on mainstream or interpretive approaches, it is harder to (2) reconcile what each approach may represent in a wider political context.
For example, mainstream accounts focus primarily on explanation, with normative issues an optional extra.
In contrast, critical accounts:
Come with an explicit commitment to emancipation or social justice in relation to research (challenging the idea that scientific knowledge trumps all others) and politics (fostering more inclusive, participatory, deliberative approaches to knowledge gathering and use), and
When we teach policy analysis, we focus on how to be a policy analyst or how to situate the act of policy analysis within a wider policymaking context. Ideally, students would learn about both. This aim is central to Lasswell’s vision for the policy sciences, in which the analysis of policy and policymaking informs analysis for policy, and both are essential to the pursuit of human equality and dignity (Lasswell, 1951; 1956; 1971; see Cairney and Weible, 2017).
There is the potential to achieve this vision for the policy sciences. Policy analysis texts focus on the individual and professional skills required to act efficiently and effectively in a time-pressured political environment. Further, they are supported by the study of policy analysts to reflect on how analysis takes place, and policy is made, in the real world (Radin, 2019; Brans et al, 2017; Thissen and Walker, 2013; Geva-May, 2005). The next steps would be to harness the wealth of policy concept- and theory-informed studies to help understand how real-world contexts inform policy analysis insights.
First, almost all mainstream policy theories assume or demonstrate that there is no such thing as a policy cycle. It would be misleading to suggest that the policy process consists of clearly defined and well-ordered stages of policymaking, from defining problems and generating solutions to implementing solutions and evaluating their effects. If so, there is no clear route to influence via analysis unless we understand a far messier reality. In that context, how can policy analysts understand their complex policymaking environment, and what skills and strategies do they need to develop to engage effectively? These discussions may be essential to preventing the demoralisation of analysts: if they do not learn in advance about the processes and factors that can minimise their influence, how can they generate realistic expectations?
Second, if the wider aim is human equality and dignity, insights from critical policy analysis are essential. They help analysts think about what those values mean, how to identify and support marginalised populations, and how policy analysis skills and techniques relate to those aims. In particular, they warn against treating policy analysis as a technocratic profession devoid of politics. This rationalist story may contribute to exclusive research gathering practices, producing too-narrow definitions of problems, insufficient consideration of feasible solutions, and recommendations made about target populations without engaging with the people they claim to serve (Bacchi, 2009; Stone, 2012).
However, this aim is much easier described than achieved. Policy analysis texts, focusing on how to do it, often use insights from policy studies but without fully explaining key concepts and theories or exploring their implications. There is not enough time and space to do justice to every element, from the technical tools of policy analysis (including cost-benefit analysis) to the empirical findings from policy theories and normative insights from critical policy analysis approaches (e.g. Weimer and Vining, 2017 is already 500 pages long). Policy process research, focusing on what happens, may have practical implications for analysts. However, they are often hidden behind layers of concepts and jargon, and most of their authors seem uninterested in describing the normative importance of, or practical lessons from, theory-informed empirical studies. The cumulative size of this research is overwhelming and beyond the full understanding of experienced specialist scholars. Further, it is difficult to recommend a small number of texts to sum up each approach, which makes it difficult to predict how much time and energy it would take to understand this field, or to demonstrate the payoff from that investment. In addition, critical policy analysis is essential, but often ignored in policy analysis texts, and the potential for meaningful conversations between critical or interpretive versus mainstream policy scholars remains largely untapped (e.g. Durnova and Weible, 2020) or resisted (e.g. Jones and Radaelli, 2016).
In that context, policy analysis students embody the problem of ‘bounded rationality’ described famously by Simon (1976). Simon’s phrase ‘to satisfice’ sums up a goal-oriented response to bounded rationality: faced with the inability to identify, process, or understand all relevant information, they seek ways to gather enough information to inform ‘good enough’ choices. More recently, policy studies have sought to incorporate insights from individual human, social, and organisational psychology to understand (1) the cognitive shortcuts that humans use, including gut-level instinct, habit, familiarity with an issue, deeply-held beliefs, and emotions, and (2) their organisation’s equivalents (organisations use rules and standard operating procedures to close off information searches and limit analysis – Koski and Workman, 2018). Human cognitive shortcuts can be described negatively as cognitive biases or more positively as ‘thinking fast and slow’ (Kahneman, 2012) or ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ (Gigerenzer, 2001). However, the basic point remains: if people seek shortcuts to information, we need to find ways to adapt to their ways of thinking, rather than holding onto an idealised version of humans that do not exist in the real world (Cairney and Kwiatkowski, 2017).
While these insights focus on policymakers, they are also essential to engaging with students. Gone – I hope – are the days of lecturers giving students an overwhelmingly huge reading list and expecting them to devour every source before each class. This approach may help some students but demoralise many others, especially since it seems inevitable that students’ first engagement with specialist texts and technical jargon will already induce fears about their own ignorance. Rather, we should base teaching on a thoughtful exploration of how much students can learn about the wider policy analysis context, focusing on (1) the knowledge and skills they already possess, (2) the time they have to learn, and (3) how new knowledge or skills would relate to their ambitions. For example, if students are seeking fast and frugal heuristics to learn about policy analysis, how can we help?
To help answer this question, I focus on what students should learn, can learn, and how blog posts and coursework can contribute to that learning. First, I describe the valuable intersection between policy analysis, policy process research, and critical policy analysis to demonstrate the potential payoffs to wider insights. In other words, what should policy analysis students learn from mainstream policy process research and critical policy analysis? Second, I describe the rationale for the blog that I developed in tandem with teaching public policy. I taught initially at an undergraduate level as part of a wider politics programme, before developing a Master of Public Policy and contributing to shorter executive courses and one-off workshops. This range of audiences matters, since the answer to the question ‘what can people learn?’ will vary according to their existing knowledge and time. Third, I summarise the rationale for the coursework that I use to encourage the application of public policy theories and knowledge to policy analysis (as part of a wider degree programme), including skills in critical thinking about policymaking dilemmas, to accompany more specialist research and analytical skills.
Could policy theories help to understand and facilitate the pursuit of equity (or reduction of unfair inequalities)?
We are producing a series of literature reviews to help answer that question, beginning with the study of equity policy and policymaking in health, education, and gender research.
Each field has a broadly similar focus. Most equity researchers challenge the ‘neoliberal’ approaches to policy that favour low state action in favour of individual responsibility and market forces. They seek ‘social justice’ approaches, favouring far greater state intervention to address the social and economic causes of unfair inequalities, via redistributive or regulatory measures. They seek policymaking reforms to reflect the fact that most determinants of inequalities are not contained to one policy sector and cannot be solved in policy ‘silos’. Rather, equity policy initiatives should be mainstreamed via collaboration across (and outside of) government. Each field also projects a profound sense of disenchantment with limited progress, including a tendency to describe a too-large gap between their aspirations and actual policy outcomes. They describe high certainty about what needs to happen, but low confidence that equity advocates have the means to achieve it (or to persuade powerful politicians to change course).
Policy theories could offer some practical insights for equity research, but not always offer the lessons that some advocates seek. In particular, health equity researchers seek to translate insights on policy processes into a playbook for action, such as to frame policy problems to generate more attention to inequalities, secure high-level commitment to radical change, and improve the coherence of cross-cutting policy measures. Yet, policy theories are more likely to identify the dominance of unhelpful policy frames, the rarity of radical change, and the strong rationale for uncoordinated policymaking across a large number of venues. Rather than fostering technical fixes with a playbook, they encourage more engagement with the inescapable dilemmas and trade-offs inherent to policy choice. This focus on contestation (such as when defining and addressing policy problems) is more of a feature of education and gender equity research.
While we ask what policy theories have to offer other disciplines, in fact the most useful lessons emerge from cross-disciplinary insights. They highlight two very different approaches to transformational political change. One offers the attractive but misleading option of radical change through non-radical action, by mainstreaming equity initiatives into current arrangements and using a toolbox to make continuous progress. Yet, each review highlights a tendency for radical aims to be co-opted and often used to bolster the rules and practices that protect the status quo. The other offers radical change through overtly political action, fostering continuous contestation to keep the issue high on the policy agenda and challenge co-option. There is no clear step-by-step playbook for this option, since political action in complex policymaking systems is necessarily uncertain and often unrewarding. Still, insights from policy theories and equity research shows that grappling with these challenges is inescapable.
Ultimately, we conclude that advocates of profound social transformation are wasting each other’s time if they seek short-cuts and technical fixes to enduring political problems. Supporters of policy equity should be cautious about any attempt to turn a transformational political project into a technical process containing a ‘toolbox’ or ‘playbook’.
You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:
My contribution to this interdisciplinary academic-practitioner discussion is to present insights from political science and policy process research, which required me to define some terms (background) before identifying three cautionary messages.
However, note the verb/noun distinction, and common architectural metaphor, to distinguish between the (a) act of design, and (b) the output (e.g. the blueprints).
In terms of the outputs, tools can be defined narrowly as policy instruments – including tax/spending, regulations, staff and other resources for delivery, information sharing, ‘nudging’, etc. – or more widely to include the processes involved in their formulation (such as participatory and deliberative). Therefore, we could be describing:
A highly centralized process, involving very few people, to produce the equivalent of a blueprint.
A decentralized, and perhaps uncoordinated, process involving many people, built on the principle that to seek a blueprint would be to miss the point of participation and deliberation.
Policymaking research tends to focus on
(1) measuring policy change with reference to the ‘policy mix’ of these tools/ instruments, and generally showing that most policy change is minor (and some is major) (link1, link2, link3, link4), and/ or
(2) how to understand the complex policymaking systems or environments in which policy design processes take place.
These studies are the source of my messages of doom.
Three cautionary messages about new policy design
There is a major gap between the act of policy design and actual policies and policy processes. This issue led to the decline of old policy design studies in the 1980s.
While ‘new policy design’ scholars seek to reinvigorate the field, the old issues serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us that (1) policy design is not new, and (2) its decline did not relate to the lack of sophisticated skills or insights among policy designers.
In other words, these old problems will not simply be solved by modern scientific, methodological, or policy design advances. Rather, I encourage policy designers to pay particular attention to:
1. The gap between functional requirements and real world policymaking.
Policy analysts and designers often focus on what they need, or require to get their job done or produce the outcomes they seek.
Policy process researchers identify the major, inevitable, gaps between those requirements and actual policy processes (to the extent that the link between design and policy is often difficult to identify).
2. The strong rationale for the policy processes that undermine policy design.
Policy processes – and their contribution to policy mixes – may seem incoherent from a design perspective. However, they make sense to the participants involved.
Some relate to choice, including to share responsibility for instruments across many levels or types of government (without focusing on how those responsibilities will connect or be coordinated).
Some result from necessity, to delegate responsibility to many policy communities spread across government, each with their own ways to define and address problems (without the ability to know how those responsibilities will be connected).
3. The policy analysis and design dilemmas that cannot be solved by design methods alone.
When seen from the ‘top down’, design problems often relate to the perceived lack of delivery or follow-through in relation to agreed high level design outputs (great design, poor delivery).
When seen from the ‘bottom up’, they represent legitimate ways to incorporate local stakeholder and citizen perspectives. This process will inevitably produce a gap between different sources and outputs of design, making it difficult to separate poor delivery (bad?) from deviation (good?).
Such dynamics are solved via political choice rather than design processes and techniques.
You can hear my presentation below (it took a while to get going because I wasn’t sure who could hear me):
Notes on the workshop discussion
The workshop discussion prompted us initially to consider how many different people would define it. The range of responses included seeing policy design as:
a specific process with specific tools to produce a well-defined output (applied to specific areas conducive to design methods)
a more general philosophy or way of thinking about things like policy issues (compare with systems thinking)
a means to encourage experimentation (such as to produce a prototype policy instrument, use it, and reflect or learn about its impact) or change completely how people think about an issue
the production of a policy solution, or one part of a large policy mix
a niche activity in one unit of government, or something mainstreamed across governments
something done in government, or inside and outside of government
producing something new (like writing on a blank sheet of paper), adding to a pile of solutions, or redesigning what exists
primarily a means to empower people to tell their story, or as a means to improve policy advocacy (as in discussions of narrative/ storytelling)
something done with authoritative policymakers like government ministers (in other words, people with the power to make policy changes after they participate in design processes) or given to them (in other words, the same people but as the audience for the outcomes of design)
These definitions matter since they have very different implications for policy and practice. Take, for example, the link – made by Professor Liz Richardson – between policy design and the idea of evidence-based policymaking, to consider two very different scenarios:
A minister is directly involved in policy design processes. They use design thinking to revisit how they think about a policy problem (and target populations), seek to foster participation and deliberation, and use that process – perhaps continuously – to consider how to reconcile very different sources of evidence (including, say, new data from randomized control trials and powerful stories from citizens, stakeholders, service users). I reckon that this kind of scenario would be in the minds of people who describe policy design optimistically.
A minister is the intended audience of a report on the outcomes of policy design. You assume that their thoughts on a policy problem are well-established. There is no obvious way for them to reconcile different sources of policy-relevant evidence. Crucially, the fruits of your efforts have made a profound impact on the people involved but, for the minister, the outcome is just one of too-many sources of information (likely produced too soon before or after they want to consider the issue).
The second scenario is closer to the process that I describe in the main post, although policy studies would warn against seeing someone like a government minister as authoritative in the sense that they reside in the centre of government. Rather, studies of multi-centric policymaking remind us that there are many possible centres spread across political systems. If so, policy design – according to approaches like the IAD – is about ways to envisage a much bigger context in which design success depends on the participation and agreement of a large number of influential actors (who have limited or no ability to oblige others to cooperate).
James Nicholls, Wulf Livingston, Andy Perkins, Beth Cairns, Rebecca Foster, Kirsten M. A. Trayner, Harry R. Sumnall, Tracey Price, Paul Cairney, Josh Dumbrell, and Tessa Parkes (2022) ‘Drug Consumption Rooms and Public Health Policy: Perspectives of Scottish Strategic Decision-Makers’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(11), 6575; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19116575
Q: if stakeholders in Scotland express high support for drug consumption rooms, and many policymakers in Scotland seem sympathetic, why is there so little prospect of policy change?
My summary of the article’s answer is as follows:
Although stakeholders support DCRs almost unanimously, they do not support them energetically.
They see this solution as one part of a much larger package rather than a magic bullet. They are not sure of the cost-effectiveness in relation to other solutions, and can envisage some potential users not using them.
The existing evidence on their effectiveness is not persuasive for people who (1) adhere to a hierarchy of evidence which prioritizes evidence from randomized control trials or (2) advocate alternative ways to use evidence.
There are competing ways to frame this policy solution. It suggests that there are some unresolved issues among stakeholders which have not yet come to the fore (since the lack of need to implement something specific reduces the need to engage with a more concrete problem definition).
This method invites local policymakers and practitioners to try out new solutions, work with stakeholders and service users during delivery, reflect on the results, and use this learning to design the next iteration. This is a pragmatic, small-scale, approach that appeals to the (small-c conservative) Scottish Government, which uses pilots to delay major policy changes, and is keen on its image as not too centralist and quite collaboration minded.
3. This approach is not politically feasible in this case.
Some factors suggest that the general argument has almost been won, including positive informal feedback from policymakers, and increasingly sympathetic media coverage (albeit using problematic ways to describe drug use).
However, this level of support is not enough to support experimentation. Drug consumption rooms would need a far stronger steer from the Scottish Government.
In this case, it can’t experiment now and decide later. It needs to make a strong choice (with inevitable negative blowback) and stay the course, knowing that one failed political experiment could set back progress for years.
4. The multi-level policymaking system is not conducive to overcoming these obstacles.
The issue of drugs policy is often described as a public health – and therefore devolved – issue politically (and in policy circles)
However, the legal/ formal division of responsibilities suggests that UK government consent is necessary and not forthcoming.
It is possible that the Scottish Government could take a chance and act alone. Indeed, the example of smoking in public places showed that it shifted its position after a slow start (it described the issue as reserved to the UK took charge of its own legislation, albeit with UK support).
However, the Scottish Government seems unwilling to take that chance, partly because it has been stung by legal challenges in other areas, and is reluctant to engage in more of the same (see minimum unit pricing for alcohol).
Local policymakers could experiment on their own, but they won’t do it without proper authority from a central government.
This experience is part of a more general issue: people may describe multi-level policymaking as a source of venues for experimentation (‘laboratories of democracy’) to encourage policy learning and collaboration. However, this case, and cases like fracking, show that they can actually be sites of multiple veto points and multi-level reluctance.
If so, the remaining question for reflection is: what would it take to overcome these obstacles? The election of a Labour UK government? Scottish independence? Or, is there some other way to make it happen in the current context?
By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes.
There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes.
To demonstrate these links, we present:
A long-read blog post to (a) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing, adopted by the Scottish Government but not the UK Government) to (b) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications. We then added some examples of further reading.
A 45 minute podcast to describe and explain these developments (click below or scroll to the end)
Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland: background and development
Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol was introduced in Scotland in 2018. In 2012, the UK Government had also announced plans to introduce MUP, but within a year dopped the policy following intense industry pressure. What do these two journeys tell us about policy processes?
When MUP was first proposed by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems in 2007, it was a novel policy idea. Public health advocates had long argued that raising the price of alcohol could help tackle harmful consumption. However, conventional tax increases were not always passed onto consumers, so would not necessarily raise prices in the shops (and the Scottish Government did not have such taxation powers). MUP appeared to present a neat solution to this problem. It quickly became a prominent policy goal of public health advocates in Scotland and across the UK, while gaining increasing attention, and support, from the global alcohol policy community.
In 2008, the UK Minister for Health, Dawn Primarolo, had commissioned researchers at the University of Sheffield to look into links between alcohol pricing and harm. The Sheffield team developed economic models to analysis the predicted impact of different systems. MUP was included, and the ‘Sheffield Model’ would go on to play a decisive role in developing the case for the policy.
What problem would MUP help to solve?
Descriptions of the policy problem often differed in relation to each government. In the mid-2000s, alcohol harm had become a political problem for the UK government. Increasing consumption, alongside changes to the night-time economy, had started to gain widespread media attention. In 2004, just as a major liberalisation of the licensing system was underway in England, news stories began documenting the apparent horrors of ‘Binge Britain’: focusing on public drunkenness and disorder, but also growing rates of liver disease and alcohol-related hospital admissions.
Politicians began to respond, and the issue became especially useful for the Conservatives who were developing a narrative that Britain was ‘broken’ under New Labour. Labour’s liberalising reforms of alcohol licensing could conveniently be linked to this political framing. The newly formed Alcohol Health Alliance, a coalition set up under the leadership of Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, was also putting pressure on the UK Government to introduce stricter controls. In Scotland, while much of the debate on alcohol focused on crime and disorder, Scottish advocates were focused on framing the problem as one of public health. Emerging evidence showed that Scotland had dramatically higher rates of alcohol-related illness and death than the rest of Europe – a situation strikingly captured in a chart published in the Lancet.
The notion that Scotland faced an especially acute public health problem with alcohol was supported by key figures in the increasingly powerful Scottish National Party (in government since 2007), which, around this time, had developed working relationships with Alcohol Focus Scotland and other advocacy groups.
What happened next?
The SNP first announced that it would support MUP in 2008, but it did not implement this change until 2018. There are two key reasons for the delay:
Its minority government did not achieve enough parliamentary support to pass legislation. It then formed a majority government in 2011, and its legislation to bring MUP into law was passed in 2012.
Court action took years to resolve. The alcohol industry, which is historically powerful in Scotland, was vehemently opposed. A coalition of industry bodies, led by the Scotch Whisky Association, took the Scottish Government to court in an attempt to prove the policy was illegal. Ultimately, this process would take years, and conclude in rulings by the European Court of Justice (2016), Scottish Court of Session Inner House (2016), and UK Supreme Court (2017) which found in favour of the Scottish Government.
This public campaign was accompanied by intense behind-the-scenes lobbying, aided by the fact that the leadership of industry groups had close ties to Government and that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beer had the largest membership of any APPG in Westminster. The industry campaign made much of the fact there was little evidence to suggest MUP would reduce crime, but also argued strongly that the modelling produced by Sheffield University was not valid evidence in the first place. A year after the adopting the policy, the UK Government announced a U-turn and MUP was dropped.
How can we use policy theories and concepts to interpret these dynamics?
Here are some examples of using policy theories and concepts as a lens to interpret these developments.
1. What was the impact of evidence in the case for policy change?
Third, policymakers do not control the policy process.
There is no centralised and orderly policy cycle. Rather, policymaking involves policymakers and influencers spread across many authoritative ‘venues’, with each venue having its own rules, networks, and ways of thinking.
In that context, policy theories identify the importance of contestation between policy actors, and describe the development of policy problems, and how evidence fits in. Approaches include:
The acceptability of a policy solution will often depend on how the problem is described. Policymakers use evidence to reduce uncertainty, or a lack of information around problems and how to solve them. However, politics is about exercising power to reduce ambiguity, or the ability to interpret the same problem in different ways.
By suggesting MUP would solve problems around crime, the UK Government made it easier for opponents to claim the policy wasn’t evidence-based. In Scotland, policymakers and advocates focused on health, where the evidence was stronger. In addition, the SNP’s approach fitted within a wider political independence frame, in which more autonomy meant more innovation.
Policy actors tell stories to appeal to the beliefs (or exploit the cognitive shortcuts) of their audiences. A narrative contains a setting (the policy problem), characters (such as the villain who caused it, or the victim of its effects), plot (e.g. a heroic journey to solve the problem), and moral (e.g. the solution to the problem).
Supporters of MUP tended to tell the story that there was an urgent public health crisis, caused largely by the alcohol industry, and with many victims, but that higher alcohol prices pointed to one way out of this hole. Meanwhile opponents told the story of an overbearing ‘nanny state’, whose victims – ordinary, moderate drinkers – should be left alone by government.
Policymakers make strategic and emotional choices, to identify ‘good’ populations deserving of government help, and ‘bad’ populations deserving punishment or little help. These judgements inform policy design (government policies and practices) and provide positive or dispiriting signals to citizens.
For example, opponents of MUP rejected the idea that alcohol harms existed throughout the population. They focused instead on dividing the majority of moderate drinkers from irresponsible minority of binge drinkers, suggesting that MUP would harm the former more than help the latter.
This competition to frame policy problems takes place in political systems that contain many ‘centres’, or venues for authoritative choice. Some diffusion of power is by choice, such as to share responsibilities with devolved and local governments. Some is by necessity, since policymakers can only pay attention to a small proportion of their responsibilities, and delegate the rest to unelected actors such as civil servants and public bodies (who often rely on interest groups to process policy).
For example, ‘alcohol policy’ is really a collection of instruments made or influenced by many bodies, including (until Brexit) European organisations deciding on the legality of MUP, UK and Scottish governments, as well as local governments responsible for alcohol licensing. In Scotland, this delegation of powers worked in favour of MUP, since Alcohol Focus Scotland were funded by the Scottish Government to help deliver some of their alcohol policy goals, and giving them more privileged access than would otherwise have been the case.
The role of evidence in MUP
In the case of MUP, similar evidence was available and communicated to policymakers, but used and interpreted differently, in different centres, by the politicians who favoured or opposed MUP.
In Scotland, the promotion, use of, and receptivity to research evidence – on the size of the problem and potential benefit of a new solution – played a key role in increasing political momentum. The forms of evidence were complimentary. The ‘hard’ science on a potentially effective solution seemed authoritative (although few understood the details), and was preceded by easily communicated and digested evidence on a concrete problem:
There was compelling evidence of a public health problem put forward by a well-organised ‘advocacy coalition’ (see below) which focused clearly on health harms. In government, there was strong attention to this evidence, such as the Lancet chart which one civil servant described as ‘look[ing] like the north face of the Eiger’. There were also influential ‘champions’ in Government willing to frame action as supporting the national wellbeing.
Reports from Sheffield University appeared to provide robust evidence that MUP could reduce harm, and advocacy was supported by research from Canada which suggested that similar policies there had been successful elsewhere.
Advocacy in England was also well-organised and influential, but was dealing with a larger – and less supportive – Government machine, and the dominant political frame for alcohol harms remained crime and disorder rather than health.
Debates on MUP modelling exemplify these differences in evidence communication and use. Those in favour appealed to econometric models, but sometimes simplifying their complexity and blurring the distinction between projected outcomes and proof of efficacy. Opponents went the other way and dismissed the modelling as mere speculation. What is striking is the extent to which an incredibly complex, and often poorly understand, set of econometric models – and the ’Sheffield Model’ in particular – came to occupy centre stage in a national policy debate. Katikireddi and colleagues talked about this as an example of evidence as rhetoric:
Support became less about engagement with the econometric modelling, and more an indicator of general concern about alcohol harm and the power of the industry.
Scepticism was often viewed as the ‘industry position’, and an indicator of scepticism towards public health policy more broadly.
2. Who influences policy change?
Advocacy plays a key role in alcohol policy, with industry and other actors competing with public health groups to define and solve alcohol policy problems. It prompts our attention to policy networks, or the actors who make and influence policy.
People engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form advocacy coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. The action takes place within a subsystem devoted to a policy issue, and a wider policymaking process that provides constraints and opportunities to coalitions. Beliefs about how to interpret policy problems act as a glue to bind actors together within coalitions. If the policy issue is technical and humdrum, there may be room for routine cooperation. If the issue is highly charged, then people romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.
MUP became a highly charged focus of contestation between a coalition of public health advocates, who saw themselves as fighting for the wellbeing of the wider community (and who believed fundamentally that government had a duty to promote population health), and a coalition of industry actors who were defending their commercial interests, while depicting public health policies as illiberal and unfair.
3. Was there a ‘window of opportunity’ for MUP?
Policy theories – including Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – describe a tendency for policy change to be minor in most cases and major in few. Paradigmatic policy change is rare and may take place over decades, as in the case of UK tobacco control where many different policy instruments changed from the 1980s. Therefore, a major change in one instrument could represent a sea-change overall or a modest adjustment to the overall approach.
Multiple Streams Analysis is a popular way to describe the adoption of a new policy solution such as MUP. It describes disorderly policymaking, in which attention to a policy problem does not produce the inevitable development, implementation, and evaluation of solutions. Rather, these ‘stages’ should be seen as separate ‘streams’. A ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change occurs when the three ‘streams’ come together:
Problem stream. There is high attention to one way to define a policy problem.
Policy stream. A technically and politically feasible solution already exists (and is often pushed by a ‘policy entrepreneur’ with the resources and networks to exploit opportunities).
Politics stream. Policymakers have the motive and opportunity to choose that solution.
However, these windows open and close, often quickly, and often without producing policy change.
This approach can help to interpret different developments in relation to Scottish and UK governments:
The Scottish Government paid high attention to public health crises, including the role of high alcohol consumption.
The UK government paid often-high attention to alcohol’s role in crime and anti-social behaviour (‘Binge Britain’ and ‘Broken Britain’)
In Scotland, MUP connected strongly to the dominant framing, offering a technically feasible solution that became politically feasible in 2011.
The UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s made a surprising bid to adopt MUP in 2012, but ministers were divided on its technical feasibility (to address the problem they described) and its political feasibility seemed to be more about distracting from other crises than public health.
The Scottish Government was highly motivated to adopt MUP. MUP was a flagship policy for the SNP; an opportunity to prove its independent credentials, and to be seen to address a national public health problem. It had the opportunity from 2011, then faced interest group opposition that delayed implementation.
The Coalition Government was ideologically more committed to defending commercial interests, and to framing alcohol harms as one of individual (rather than corporate) responsibility. It took less than a year for the alcohol industry to successfully push for a UK government U-turn.
As a result, MUP became policy (eventually) in Scotland, but the window closed (without resolution) in England.
Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2014) ‘Public Health Policy in the United Kingdom: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Brewing?’ World Medical and Health Policy, 6, 3, 308-323PDF
Niamh Fitzgerald and Paul Cairney (2022) ‘National objectives, local policymaking: public health efforts to translate national legislation into local policy in Scottish alcohol licensing’, Evidence and Policy, https://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16397418342227, PDF
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By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes.
There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes,.
To demonstrate these links, we present this podcast and blog post to (1) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing in Scotland) to (2) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications.
Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy (wordpress.com)
Dr Emily St.Denny, Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Copenhagen
Dr Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Dr Sean Kippin, Lecturer in Public Policy, Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Every year, March 8th marks International Women’s Day: an official UN holiday to draw attention to women’s rights and gender equality, celebrating achievements and highlighting challenges. There is a strong consensus that reducing gender inequality is the right thing to do and has wider economic and social benefits. There is also evidence that some gender gaps have narrowed, for example in education.
Nevertheless, significant inequalities still persist, despite policy interventions from states and organisations like the European Union and the United Nations. For instance, women remain underrepresented in politics and in corporate leadership, are more likely to be poor, and are frequently victims of gendered violence, harassment and discrimination.
As part of our research for the IMAJINE project, we studied how governments might make better policies to reduce gender inequalities. Ideas abound, and feminist civil society and policy actors have generated new visions to improve gender equality policy and policymaking.
Despite this, many advocates remain disappointed by slow progress and poor outcomes. We therefore sought to analyse the rich literature on gender inequality policy to identify potential lessons to help policymakers more effectively tackle the issue. In particular we looked at the case of ‘Gender mainstreaming’ as one example of an influential policy agenda that has gained global prominence.
Overall, we identify three challenges facing policymakers seeking to make and deliver effective inequality reduction policies:
Challenge 1: Defining equality
Gender equality is an ambiguous and contested term. Interpretations of how and why gender inequality constitutes a problem vary significantly and beliefs about how best to address it are subject to ongoing debate. We can identify some common ground, with broad consensus that ‘gender inequality’ refers to the fact that some individuals, especially women, face discrimination, hardships, or missed opportunities on the basis of their gender. Nevertheless, when policy actors seek to make sense of gender equality as a policy goal, they contribute to three different interpretations of the problem based on what they consider ‘equality’ to mean. These different interpretations lead to different diagnoses of the solution and, ultimately, different forms of public action.
Equality of treatment: women and men are the same and therefore deserving of equal treatment (e.g. establish of anti-discrimination laws).
Equality of opportunity: there are differences between men and women that identify women as deserving of special protection or affirmative action to redress socially and historically entrenched inequalities.
Equality of outcome/impact: focus on equal outcomes, for example through ‘gender mainstreaming’ – a strategy to ensure that the goal of advancing gender equality is actively integrated into all stages of the policymaking process across all sectors.
This ambiguity can be assessed in different ways. On the one hand, it has allowed broad coalitions to mobilise in its defense and elevate it as an important issue. On the other, ambiguity has made it possible to label a wide range of policies as ‘gender equality policies’, some of which are (intentionally and unintentionally) ineffective or become so in the absence of coordination with other policy efforts.
Policymakers seeking to improve gender equality through public action must therefore grapple with a trade-off: define the term very specifically and perhaps increase its meaningfulness as a concrete policy goal but risk narrowing the possible impact of policy and alienating those with alternative interpretations.
Challenge 2: Designing effective policies
Policymakers can choose from different instruments to craft their response, but options are limited by calculations of what is feasible.
One choice is between ‘soft’ instruments that rely on voluntary take-up, such as benchmarking and the issuance of recommendations, and ‘hard’ instruments, which are imposed and include penalties for non-compliance.
For example, in the case of the EU, we can contrast the publication of gender equality data by the European Institute for Gender Equality, which is intended to incentivize Member States to continually strive to improve their position, with the introduction of the EU Work-Life Balance Directive, which requires Member States to introduce earmarked paternity leave.
There is a tendency for soft instruments to be associated with a weaker commitment to gender equality, held responsible for a dilution of policy efficacy over time. Our research suggests, however, that soft instruments have their uses. In particular, since they do not require strong consensus to adopt, they are easier to introduce and adapt to local circumstances. For this reason, they may also serve as a useful way to prime support across the policy community ahead of trying to introduce harder and more binding instruments.
Policymakers seeking to improve efforts to reduce gender inequality should therefore think carefully about policy design in relation to overall coherence, or the extent to which policy actions mutually reinforce each other. Seen this way, policy coherence becomes an ongoing and everyday concern about the extent to which instruments and actions work effectively together over time, rather than simply at the moment of introduction. This may involve trade-offs over instrument selection as well as policy goals, such as whether to focus on securing immediate material objectives or achieving longer-term strategic goals.
Challenge 3: More than an implementation gap
An ‘implementation gap’ refers to the discrepancy between policy choices and actual outcomes. Thinking of the challenge of contemporary gender equality policy as an implementation gap is too reductive. It is not just that effective gender equality policy is hard to make and even harder to implement effectively. It is also that the way we make policy, and many of the people involved, actively contribute to sustaining gender inequalities.
Some of this can be attributed to resistance by some policymakers to gender equality as a legitimate and desirable goal. However, a lot can be attributed to the fact that many well-intentioned policy actors have not grasped the structural nature of gender inequality. Consequently, they are ill-equipped to address inequalities and inadvertently reproduce them. This can be seen when gender equality policy takes the shape of bureaucratic instruments and ‘tick box’ exercises rather than a more meaningful commitment to reforming the way we make and deliver policy. At the same time, making gender everybody’s business also risks making it nobody’s business if specialized equality institutions are dismantled for being redundant.
Overall, what our research suggests is that policymakers must let go of the illusion that gender equality can be achieved as a matter of mundane routine, without having to make fundamentally political decisions about big questions including: what do we mean by equality, what does it look like in practice, and are we willing to get out of our comfort zone to achieve it?
It would be a mistake to equate public policy with whatever a government says it is doing (or wants to do).
The most obvious, but often unhelpful, explanation for this statement is that politicians are not sincere when making policy promises, or not competent enough to see them through.
This focus on sincerity and ‘political will’ can be useful, but only scratches the surface of explanation.
The bigger source of explanation comes from the routine, pervasive, and inevitable contradictions of policy and policymaking.
The basic idea of contradictory aims and necessary trade-offs
I want to eat crisps and lose weight, but making a commitment to both does not achieve both. Rather, I cycle between each aim, often unpredictably, producing what might appear to be an inconsistent approach to my wellbeing.
These problems only get worse when more people and aims are involved. Indeed, a general description of ‘politics’ regards trying to find ways to resolve the many different preferences of many people in the same society. These preferences are intransitive, prompting policy actors to try to manipulate choice situations, or produce effective stories or narratives, to encourage one choice over another. Even if successful in once case, the overall impact of political action is not consistent.
The inevitable result of politics is that policymakers want to prioritise many policy aims and the aims that undermine them. When they pursue many contradictory aims, they have to make trade-offs and prioritise some aims over others. Sometimes, this choice is explicit. Sometimes, you have to work out what a government’s real priorities are when they seem sincerely committed to so many things. If so, we should not deduce government policy overall from specific statements and policies.
This basic idea plays out in many different ways, including:
Policymakers need to address many contradictory demands
Contradictions are inevitable when policymakers seek to offer policy benefits to many different groups for different reasons. Some benefits are largely rhetorical, others more substantive.
Ambiguity allows policy actors to downplay contradictions (temporarily) when generating support.
Contradictions are masked by ambiguity, such as when many different actors support the same vague ambition for very different reasons.
Policy silos contribute to contradictory action
Contradictions are exacerbated by inevitable and pervasive policy silos or ‘communities’ that seem immune to ‘holistic’ government. They multiply when governments have many departments pursuing many different aims. There may be a vague hope for joined-up policy, but a strong rationale for policy communities to specialise and become insulated.
The power to make policies – or create or amend policy instruments – is spread across many different venues of authority. If so, a key aim – stated often – is to find ways to cooperate to avoid contradictory policies and practices. The logical consequence of this distribution of powers, and the continuous search for meaningful cooperation, is that such contradictions are routine features, not bugs, of political systems.
Some of these outcomes simply emerge from routine policy delivery, when the actors carrying out policy have different ideas than the actors sending them instructions. Or, implementing actors do not have the resources or clarity to do what they think they are being told.
Examples of contradictions in policy and policymaking
Most governments are committed rhetorically (and often sincerely) to the public health agenda ‘Health in All Policies’ but also the social and economic policies that undermine it. The same goes for the more general aim of ‘prevention’.
In these kinds of cases, it is tempting to conclude that governments make promises energetically as a substitute for – not a signal of – action.
Levin et al note that the governments seeking to reduce climate change are also responsible for its inevitability.
The US and EU have subsidised the production and/or encouraged the sale of tobacco (to foster economic aims) at the same time as seeking tobacco control and discouraging smoking (to foster public health aims).
I apologise for every word in this post, and the capitalised 5-letter words in particular.
WORDLE is a SIMPLE word game (in US English). The aim is to identify a 5-letter word correctly in 6 guesses or fewer. Each guess has to be a real word, and you receive informative feedback each time: GREEN means you have the letter RIGHT and in the right position; yellow means the right letter in the wrong position; grey MEANS the letter does not appear in the word.
One strategy involves trial-and-error learning via 3 or 4 simple steps:
1. Use your initial knowledge of the English language to inform initial guesses, such as guessing a word with common vowels (I go for E and A) and consonants (e.g. S, T).
2. Learn from feedback on your correct and incorrect estimates.
3. Use your new information and deduction (e.g. about which combinations work when you exclude many options) to make informed guesses.
4. Do so while avoiding unhelpful heuristics, such as assuming that each letter will only appear once (or that the spelling is in UK English).
At least, that is how I play it. I get it in 3 just over half the time, and 4 or 5 in the rest. I make 2-4 ‘errors’ then succeed. In the context of the game’s rules, that is consistent success, RIGHT?
[insert crowbar GIF to try to get away with the segue]
That is the spirit of the idea of trial-and-error learning.
It is informed by previous knowledge, but also a recognition of the benefits of trying things out to generate new information, update your knowledge and skills (the definition of learning), and try again.
A positive normative account of this approach can be found in classic discussions of incrementalism and modern discussions of policymaking informed by complex systems insights:
‘To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly’.
Advocates of such approaches also suggest that we change how we describe them, replacing the language of policy failure with ERROR, at least when part of a process of continuous policy learning in the face of uncertainty.
At the heart of such advice are two guiding principles:
1. Recognise the limits to centralism when giving policy advice. There is no powerful centre of government, able to carry out all of its aims successfully, so do not build policy advice on that assumption.
2. Recognise the limits to our knowledge. Policymakers must make and learn from choices in the face of uncertainty, so do not kid yourself that one piece of analysis and action will do.
Much like the first two WORDLE guesses, your existing knowledge alone does not tell you how to proceed (regardless of the number of times that people repeat the slogan of ‘evidence-based policymaking’).
Political problems with trial and error
The main political problem with this approach is that many political systems – including adversarial and/or Westminster systems – are not conducive to learning from error. You may think that adapting continuously to uncertainty is crucial, but also be wary of recommending it to:
1. Politicians who will be held to account for failure. A government’s apparent failure to deliver on promises represents a resource for its opposition.
2. Organisations subject to government targets. Failure to meet strict statutory requirements is not seen as a learning experience.
More generally, your audience may face criticism whenever errors are associated with negative policy consequences (with COVID-19 policy representing a vivid, extreme example).
These limitations produce a major dilemma in policy analysis, in which you believe that you will not learn how to make good policy without trial-and-error but recognise that this approach will not be politically feasible. In many political systems, policymakers need to pretend to their audience that they know what the problem is and that they have the knowledge and power to solve it. You may not be too popular if you encourage open-minded experimentation. This limitation should not warn you against trial-and-error recommendations completely, but rather remind you to relate good-looking ideas to your policymaking context.
Please note that I missed my train stop while writing this post, despite many opportunities to learn from the other times it happened.
This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series. It draws on work for an in-progress book on learning to reduce inequalities. Some of the text will seem familiar if you have read other posts. Think of it as an adventure game in which the beginning is the same but you don’t know the end.
Policy learning is the use of new information to update policy-relevant knowledge. Policy transfer involves the use of knowledge about policy and policymaking in one government to inform policy and policymaking in another.
These processes may seem to relate primarily to research and expertise, but they require many kinds of political choices (explored in this series). They take place in complex policymaking systems over which no single government has full knowledge or control.
Therefore, while the agency of policy analysts and policymakers still matters, they engage with a policymaking context that constrains or facilitates their action.
Two approaches to policy learning: agency and context-driven stories
Analysts compete to define problems and determine the manner and sources of learning, in a multi-centric environment where different contexts will constrain and facilitate action in different ways. For example, varying structural factors – such as socioeconomic conditions – influence the feasibility of proposed policy change, and each centre’s institutions provide different rules for gathering, interpreting, and using evidence.
Think of two different ways to respond to this description of the policy process with this lovely blue summary of concepts. One is your agency-centred strategic response. The other is me telling you why it won’t be straightforward.
There are many policy makers and influencers spread across many policymaking ‘centres’
Find out where the action is and tailor your analysis to different audiences.
There is no straightforward way to influence policymaking if multiple venues contribute to policy change and you don’t know who does what.
Each centre has its own ‘institutions’
Learn the rules of evidence gathering in each centre: who takes the lead, how do they understand the problem, and how do they use evidence?
There is no straightforward way to foster policy learning between political systems if each is unaware of each other’s unwritten rules. Researchers could try to learn their rules to facilitate mutual learning, but with no guarantee of success.
Each centre has its own networks
Form alliances with policymakers and influencers in each relevant venue.
The pervasiveness of policy communities complicates policy learning because the boundary between formal power and informal influence is not clear.
Well-established ‘ideas’ tend to dominate discussion
Learn which ideas are in good currency. Tailor your advice to your audience’s beliefs.
The dominance of different ideas precludes many forms of policy learning or transfer. A popular solution in one context may be unthinkable in another.
Many policy conditions (historic-geographic, technological, social and economic factors) command the attention of policymakers and are out of their control. Routine events and non-routine crises prompt policymaker attention to lurch unpredictably.
The policy conditions may be so different in each system that policy learning is limited and transfer would be inappropriate. Events can prompt policymakers to pay disproportionately low or high attention to lessons from elsewhere, and this attention relates weakly to evidence from analysts.
Feel free to choose one or both forms of advice. One is useful for people who see analysts and researchers as essential to major policy change. The other is useful if it serves as a source of cautionary tales rather than fatalistic responses.
We define trust as ‘a belief in the reliability of other people, organizations, or processes’, but it is one of those terms – like ‘policy’ – that defies a single comprehensive definition. The term ‘distrust’ complicates things further, since it does not simply mean the absence of trust.
Its treatment in social science also varies, which makes our statement – ‘Trust is necessary for cooperation, coordination, social order, and to reduce the need for coercive state imposition’ – one of many ways to understand its role.
A summary of key concepts
Social science accounts of trust relate it to:
1. Individual choice
I may trust someone to do something if I value their integrity (if they say they will do it, I believe them), credibility (I believe their claim is accurate and feasible), and competence (I believe they have the ability).
This perception of reliability depends on:
The psychology of the truster. The truster assesses the risk of relying on others, while combining cognition and emotion to relate that risk of making themselves vulnerable to the benefit of collective action, while drawing on an expectation of reciprocity.
The behaviour of the trustee. They demonstrate their trustworthiness in relation to past performance, which demonstrates their competence and reliability and perhaps their selflessness in favour of collective action.
Common reference points. The trustee and truster may use shortcuts to collective action, such as a reference to something they have in common (e.g. their beliefs or social background), their past interactions, or the authority of the trustee.
Rules can be formal, written, and widely understood (e.g. to help assign authority regardless of levels of interaction) or informal, unwritten, and only understood by some (e.g. resulting from interactions in some contexts).
Rules can represent low levels of trust and a focus on deterring breaches (e.g. creating and enforcing contracts) or high levels of trust (e.g. to formalize ‘effective practices built on reciprocity, emotional bonds, and/or positive expectations’).
3. Societal necessity and interdependence.
Trust is a functional requirement. We need to trust people because we cannot maintain a functional society or political system without working together. Trust-building underpins the study of collaboration (or cooperation and bargaining), such as in the Ecology of Games approach (which draws on the IAD).
In that context, trust is a resource (to develop) that is crucial to a required outcome.
Is trust good and distrust bad?
We describe trust as ‘necessary for cooperation’ and distrust as a ‘potent motivator’ that may prompt people to ignore advice or defy cooperation or instruction. Yet, neither is necessarily good or bad. Too much trust may be a function of: (1) the abdication of our responsibility to engage critically with leaders in political systems, (2) vulnerability to manipulation, and/ or (3) excessive tribalism, prompting people to romanticise their own cause and demonise others, each of which could lead us to accept uncritically the cynical choices of policymakers.
Trust is a slippery concept, and academics often make it slippier by assuming rather than providing a definition. In that context, why not read all of the 500 Words series and ask yourself where trust/ distrust fit in?
One take home message from the 750 Words series is to avoid seeing policy analysis simply as a technical (and ‘evidence-based’) exercise. Mainstream policy analysis texts break down the process into technical-looking steps, but also show how each step relates to a wider political context. Critical policy analysis texts focus more intensely on the role of politics in the everyday choices that we might otherwise take for granted or consider to be innocuous. The latter connect strongly to wider studies of the links between power and knowledge.
Power and ideas
Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.
Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by (1) the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), (2) social groups, and (3) individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).
Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.
Relating power to policy analysis: whose knowledge matters?
The concept of‘epistemic violence’ is one way todescribe the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.
It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.
750 Words posts examining this link between power and knowledge
Some posts focus on the role of power in research and/ or policy analysis:
These posts ask questions such as: who decides what evidence will be policy-relevant, whose knowledge matters, and who benefits from this selective use of evidence? They help to (1) identify the exercise of power to maintain evidential hierarchies (or prioritise scientific methods over other forms of knowledge gathering and sharing), and (2) situate this action within a wider context (such as when focusing on colonisation and minoritization). They reflect on how (and why) analysts should respect a wider range of knowledge sources, and how to produce more ethical research with an explicit emancipatory role. As such, they challenge the – naïve or cynical – argument that science and scientists are objective and that science-informed analysis is simply a technical exercise (see also Separating facts from values).
Many posts incorporate these discussions into many policy analysis themes.
A key argument in policy studies is that it is impossible to separate facts and values when making policy. We often treat our beliefs as facts, or describe certain facts as objective, but perhaps only to simplify our lives or support a political strategy (a ‘self-evident’ fact is very handy for an argument). People make empirical claims infused with their values and often fail to realise just how their values or assumptions underpin their claims.
This is not an easy argument to explain. One strategy is to use extreme examples to make the point. For example, Herbert Simon points to Hitler’s Mein Kampf as the ultimate example of value-based claims masquerading as facts. We can also identify historic academic research which asserts that men are more intelligent than women and some races are superior to others. In such cases, we would point out, for example, that the design of the research helped produce such conclusions: our values underpin our (a) assumptions about how to measure intelligence or other measures of superiority, and (b) interpretations of the results.
‘Wait a minute, though’ (you might say). “What about simple examples in which you can state facts with relative certainty – such as the statement ‘there are X number of words in this post’”. ‘Fair enough’, I’d say (you will have to speak with a philosopher to get a better debate about the meaning of your X words claim; I would simply say that it is trivially true). But this statement doesn’t take you far in policy terms. Instead, you’d want to say that there are too many or too few words, before you decided what to do about it.
In that sense, we have the most practical explanation of the unclear fact/ value distinction: the use of facts in policy is to underpin evaluations (assessments based on values). For example, we might point to the routine uses of data to argue that a public service is in ‘crisis’ or that there is a public health related epidemic (note: I wrote the post before COVID-19; it referred to crises of ‘non-communicable diseases’). We might argue that people only talk about ‘policy problems’ when they think we have a duty to solve them.
Or, facts and values often seem the hardest to separate when we evaluate the success and failure of policy solutions, since the measures used for evaluation are as political as any other part of the policy process. The gathering and presentation of facts is inherently a political exercise, and our use of facts to encourage a policy response is inseparable from our beliefs about how the world should work.
‘Modern science remains value-laden … even when so many people employ so many systematic methods to increase the replicability of research and reduce the reliance of evidence on individual scientists. The role of values is fundamental. Anyone engaging in research uses professional and personal values and beliefs to decide which research methods are the best; generate research questions, concepts and measures; evaluate the impact and policy relevance of the results; decide which issues are important problems; and assess the relative weight of ‘the evidence’ on policy effectiveness. We cannot simply focus on ‘what works’ to solve a problem without considering how we used our values to identify a problem in the first place. It is also impossible in practice to separate two choices: (1) how to gather the best evidence and (2) whether to centralize or localize policymaking. Most importantly, the assertion that ‘my knowledge claim is superior to yours’ symbolizes one of the most worrying exercises of power. We may decide to favour some forms of evidence over others, but the choice is value-laden and political rather than objective and innocuous’.
Implications for policy analysis
Many highly-intelligent and otherwise-sensible people seem to get very bothered with this kind of argument. For example, it gets in the way of (a) simplistic stories of heroic-objective-fact-based-scientists speaking truth to villainous-stupid-corrupt-emotional-politicians, (b) the ill-considered political slogan that you can’t argue with facts (or ‘science’), (c) the notion that some people draw on facts while others only follow their feelings, and (d) the idea that you can divide populations into super-facty versus post-truthy people.
A more sensible approach is to (1) recognise that all people combine cognition and emotion when assessing information, (2) treat politics and political systems as valuable and essential processes (rather than obstacles to technocratic policymaking), and (3) find ways to communicate evidence-informed analyses in that context. This article and 750 post explore how to reflect on this kind of communication.
One aim of this series is to combine insights from policy research (1000, 500) and policy analysis texts. How might we combine insights to think about effective communication?
1. Insights from policy analysis texts
Most texts in this series relate communication to understanding your audience (or client) and the political context. Your audience has limited attention or time to consider problems. They may have a good antennae for the political feasibility of any solution, but less knowledge of (or interest in) the technical details. In that context, your aim is to help them treat the problem as worthy of their energy (e.g. as urgent and important) and the solution as doable. Examples include:
Bardach: communicating with a client requires coherence, clarity, brevity, and minimal jargon.
Dunn: argumentation involves defining the size and urgency of a problem, assessing the claims made for each solution, synthesising information from many sources into a concise and coherent summary, and tailoring reports to your audience.
Smith: your audience makes a quick judgement on whether or not to read your analysis. Ask yourself questions including: how do I frame the problem to make it relevant, what should my audience learn, and how does each solution relate to what has been done before? Maximise interest by keeping communication concise, polite, and tailored to a policymaker’s values and interests.
2. Insights from studies of policymaker psychology
‘Rational’ shortcuts. Goal-oriented reasoning based on prioritizing trusted sources of information.
‘Irrational’ shortcuts. Emotional thinking, or thought fuelled by gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, or habits.
We can use such distinctions to examine the role of evidence-informed communication, to reduce:
Uncertainty, or a lack of policy-relevant knowledge. Focus on generating ‘good’ evidence and concise communication as you collate and synthesise information.
Ambiguity, or the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem. Focus on argumentation and framing as you try to maximise attention to (a) one way of defining a problem, and (b) your preferred solution.
Gone are the mythical days of a small number of analysts communicating to a single core executive (and of the heroic researcher changing the world by speaking truth to power). Instead, we have many analysts engaging with many centres, creating a need to not only (a) tailor arguments to different audiences, but also (b) develop wider analytical skills (such as to foster collaboration and the use of ‘design principles’).
How to communicate effectively with policymakers
In that context, we argue that effective communication requires analysts to:
1. Understand your audience and tailor your response (using insights from psychology)
2. Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ for influence (while noting that these windows are outside of anyone’s control)
3. Engage with real world policymaking rather than waiting for a ‘rational’ and orderly process to appear (using insights from policy studies).
Several 500 Word and 1000 Word (a, b, c) posts try to define and measure policy change.
Most studies agree that policymaking systems produce huge amounts of minor change and rare instances of radical change, but not how to explain these patterns. For example:
Debates on incrementalism questioned if radical change could be managed via non-radical steps.
Punctuated equilibrium theory describes policy change as a function of disproportionately low or high attention to problems, and akin to the frequency of earthquakes (a huge number of tiny changes, and more major changes than we would see in a ‘normal distribution’).
One of the most famous accounts of major policy change is by Peter Hall. ‘Policy paradigms’ help explain a tendency towards inertia, punctuated rarely by radical change (compare with discussions of path dependence and critical junctures).
A policy paradigm is a dominant and often taken-for-granted worldview (or collection of beliefs) about: policy goals, the nature of a policy problem, and the instruments to address it.
Paradigms can operate for long periods, subject to minimal challenge or defended successfully during events that call current policies into question. Adherence to a paradigm produces two ‘orders’ of change:
1st order: frequent routine bureaucratic changes to instruments while maintaining policy goals.
2nd order: less frequent, non-routine changes (or use of new instruments) while maintaining policy goals.
Radical and rare – 3rd order – policy change may only follow a crisis in which policymakers cannot solve a policy problem or explain why policy is failing. It prompts a reappraisal and rejection of the dominant paradigm, by a new government with new ways of thinking and/or a government rejecting current experts in favour of new ones. Hall’s example was of rapid paradigm shift in UK economic policy – from ‘Keynesianism’ to ‘Monetarism’ – within very few years.
(b) A series of less radical changes that produced paradigm change over decades: from Keynesianism to ‘neo-Keynesianism’, or from state intervention to neoliberalism (such as to foster economic growth via private rather than public borrowing and spending)
3. Paul Cairney and Chris Weible (2015) ‘Comparing and Contrasting Peter Hall’s Paradigms and Ideas with the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ in (eds) M. Howlett and J. Hogan Policy Paradigms in Theory and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave) PDF
This post is a shortened version of The Politics of Policy Analysis Annex A. It shows how to use insights from policy process research in policy analysis and policymaking coursework (much like the crossover between Scooby-Doo and Batman). It describes a range of exercises, including short presentations, policy analysis papers, blog posts, and essays. In each case, it explains the rationale for each exercise and the payoff to combining them.
If you prefer me to describe these insights less effectively, there is also a podcast:
One step to combining policy analysis and policy process research is to modify the former according to the insights of the latter. In other words, consider how a ‘new policy sciences’ inspired policy analysis differs from the analyses already provided by 5-step guides.
It could turn out that the effects of our new insights on a policy briefing could be so subtle that you might blink and miss them. Or, there are so many possibilities from which to choose that it is impossible to provide a blueprint for new policy science advice. Therefore, I encourage students to be creative in their policy analysis and reflective in their assessment of their analysis. Our aim is to think about the skills you need to analyse policy, from producing or synthesising evidence, to crafting an argument based on knowing your audience, and considering how your strategy might shift in line with a shifting context.
To encourgage creativity, I set a range of tasks so that students can express themselves in different ways, to different audiences, with different constraints. For example, we can learn how to be punchy and concise from a 3-minute presentation or 500-word blog, and use that skill to get to the point more quickly in policy analysis or clarify the research question in the essay.
The overall effect should be that students can take what they have learned from each exercise and use it for the others.
In each section below, I reproduce the ways in which I describe this mix of coursework to students then, in each box, note the underlying rationale.
1. A 3-minute spoken presentation to your peers in a seminar.
In 3 minutes, you need to identify a problem, describe one or more possible solutions, and end your presentation in a convincing way. For example, if you don’t make a firm recommendation, what can you say to avoid looking like you are copping out? Focus on being persuasive, to capture your audience’s imagination. Focus on the policy context, in which you want to present a problem as solvable (who will pay attention to an intractable problem?) but not make inflated claims about how one action can solve a major problem. Focus on providing a memorable take home message.
The presentation can be as creative as you wish, but it should not rely on powerpoint in the room. Imagine that none of the screens work or that you are making your pitch to a policymaker as you walk along the street: can you make this presentation engaging and memorable without any reference to someone else’s technology? Can you do it without just reading out your notes? Can you do it well in under 3 minutes? We will then devote 5 minutes to questions from the audience about your presentation. Being an active part of the audience – and providing peer review – is as important as doing a good presentation of your own.
BOX A1: Rationale for 3-minute presentation.
If students perform this task first (before the coursework is due), it gives them an initial opportunity to see how to present only the most relevant information, and to gauge how an audience responds to their ideas. Audience questions provide further peer-driven feedback. I also plan a long seminar to allow each student (in a group of 15-20 people) to present, then ask all students about which presentation they remember and why. This exercise helps students see that they are competing with each other for limited policymaker attention, and learn from their peers about what makes an effective pitch. Maybe you are wondering why I discourage powerpoint. It’s largely because it will cause each presenter to go way over time by cramming in too much information, and this problem outweighs the benefit of being able to present an impressive visualisation. I prefer to encourage students to only tell the audience what they will remember (by only presenting what they remember).
2. A policy analysis paper, and 3. A reflection on your analysis
Provide a policy analysis paper which has to make a substantive argument or recommendation in approximately two pages (1000 words), on the assumption that busy policymakers won’t read much else before deciding whether or not to pay attention to the problem and your solutions. Then provide a reflection paper (also approximately 1000 words) to reflect your theoretical understanding of the policy process. You can choose how to split the 2000 word length, between analysis and reflection. You can give each exercise 1000 each (roughly a 2-page analysis), provide a shorter analysis and more reflection, or widen the analysis and reject the need for conceptual reflection. The choice is yours to make, as long as you justify your choice in your reflection.
When writing policy analysis, I ask you to keep it super-short on the assumption that you have to make your case quickly to people with 99 other things to do. For example, what can you tell someone in one paragraph or a half-page to get them to read all 2 pages? It is tempting to try to tell someone everything you know, because everything is connected and to simplify is to describe a problem simplistically. Instead, be smart enough to know that such self-indulgence won’t impress your audience. In person, they might smile politely, but their eyes are looking at the elevator lights. In writing, they can skim your analysis or simply move on. So, use these three statements to help you focus less on your need to supply information and more on their demand:
Your aim is not to give a full account of a problem. It is to get powerful people to care about it.
Your aim is not to give a painstaking account of all possible solutions. It is to give a sense that at least one solution is feasible and worth pursuing.
Your guiding statement should be: policymakers will only pay attention to your problem if they think they can solve it, and without that solution being too costly.
Otherwise, I don’t like to give you too much advice because I want you to be creative about your presentation; to be confident enough to take chances and feel that you’ll see the reward of making a leap. At the very least, you have three key choices to make about how far you’ll go to make a point:
Who is your audience? Our discussion of the limits to centralised policymaking suggest that your most influential audience will not necessarily be an elected policymaker, but who else would it be?
How ‘manipulative’ should you be? Our discussions of ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ suggest that policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information and make choices. So, do you appeal to their desire to set goals and gather a lot of scientific information, make an emotional appeal, or rely on Riker-style heresthetics?
What is your role? Contemporary discussions of science advice to government highlight unresolved debates about the role of unelected advisors: should you simply lay out some possible solutions or advocate one solution strongly?
For our purposes, there are no wrong answers to these questions. Instead, I want you to make and defend your decisions. That is the aim of your policy paper ‘reflection’: to ‘show your work’. You still have some room to be creative in your reflection: tell me what you know about policy theory and how it informed your decisions. Here are some examples, but it is up to you to decide what to highlight:
Show how your understanding of policymaker psychology helped you decide how to present information on problems and solutions.
Extract insights from policy theories, such as from punctuated equilibrium theory on policymaker attention, multiple streams analysis on timing and feasibility, or the NPF on how to tell persuasive stories.
Explore the implications of the lack of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and absence of a ‘policy cycle’: feasibility is partly about identifying the extent to which a solution is ‘doable’ when central governments have limited powers. What ‘policy style’ or policy instruments would be appropriate for the solution you favour?
I use the following questions to guide the marking on the policy paper: Tailored properly to a clearly defined audience? Punchy and concise summary? Clearly defined problem? Good evidence or argument behind the solution? Clear recommendations backed by a sense that the solution is feasible? Evidence of substantial reading, accompanied by well explained further reading?
In my experience of marking, successful students gave a very clear and detailed account of the nature and size of the policy problem. The best reports used graphics and/ or statistics to describe the problem in several ways. Some identified a multi-faceted problem – such as in health outcomes, and health inequalities – without presenting confusing analysis. Some were able to present an image of urgency, to separate this problem from the many others that might grab policymaker attention. Successful students presented one or more solutions which seemed technically and/ or politically feasible. By technically feasible, I mean that there is a good chance that the policy will work as intended if implemented. For example, they provided evidence of its success in a comparable country (or in the past) or outlined models designed to predict the effects of specific policy instruments. By politically feasible, I mean that you consider how open your audience would be to the solution, and how likely the suggestion is to be acceptable to key policymakers. Some students added to a good discussion of feasibility by comparing the pros/ cons of different scenarios. In contrast, some relatively weak reports proposed solutions which were vague, untested, and/ or not likely to be acted upon.
BOX A2: Rationale for policy analysis and reflection
Students already have 5-step policy analysis texts at their disposal, and they give some solid advice about the task. However, I want to encourage students to think more about how their knowledge of the policy process will guide their analysis. First, what do you do if you think that one audience will buy your argument, and another reject it wholeheartedly? Just pretend to be an objective analyst and put the real world in the ‘too hard’ pile? Or, do you recognise that policy analysts are political actors and make your choices accordingly? For me, an appeal to objectivity combined with insufficient recognition of the ways in which people respond emotionally to information, is a total cop-out. I don’t want to contribute to a generation of policy analysts who provide long, rigorous, and meticulous reports that few people read and fewer people use. Instead, I want students to show me how to tell a convincing story with a clear moral, or frame policy analysis to grab their audience’s attention and generate enthusiasm to try to solve a problem. Then, I want them to reflect on how they draw the line between righteous persuasion and unethical manipulation.
Second, how do you account for policymaking complexity? You can’t assume that there is a cycle in which a policymaker selects a solution and it sets in train a series of stages towards successful implementation. Instead, you need to think about the delivery of your policy as much as the substance. Students have several choices. In some cases, they will describe how to deliver policy in a multi-level or multi-centric environment, in which, say, a central government actor will need to use persuasion or cooperation rather than command-and-control. Or, if they are feeling energetic, they might compare a top-down delivery option with support for Ostrom-style polycentric arrangements. Maybe they’ll recommend pilots and/ or trial and error, to monitor progress continuously instead of describing a one-shot solution. Maybe they’ll reflect on multiple streams analysis and think about how you can give dependable advice in a policy process containing some serendipity. Who knows? Policy process research is large and heterogeneous, which opens the possibility for some creative solutions that I won’t be able to anticipate in advance.
4. One kind of blog post (for the policy analysis)
Write a short and punchy blog post which recognises the need to make an argument succinctly and grab attention with the title and first sentence/ paragraph, on the assumption that your audience will be reading it on their phone and will move on to something else quickly. In this exercise, your blog post is connected to your policy analysis. Think, for example, about how you would make the same case for a policy solution to a wider ‘lay’ audience. Or, use the blog post to gauge the extent to which your client could sell your policy solution. If they would struggle, should you make this recommendation in the first place?
Your blog post audience is wider than your policy analysis audience. You are trying to make an argument that will capture the attention of a larger group of people who are interested in politics and policy, but without being specialists. They will likely access your post from Twitter/ Facebook or via a search engine. This constraint produces a new requirement, to: present a punchy title which sums up the whole argument in under 280 characters (a statement is often better than a vague question); to summarise the whole argument in approximately 100 words in the first paragraph (what is the problem and solution?); then, to provide more information up to a maximum of 500 words. The reader can then be invited to read the whole policy analysis.
The style of blog posts varies markedly, so you should consult many examples before attempting your own (for example, compare the LSE with The Conversation and newspaper blogs to get a sense of variations in style). When you read other posts, take note of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, many posts associated with newspapers introduce a personal or case study element to ground the discussion in an emotional appeal. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it causes the reader to scroll down quickly to find the main argument. Perhaps ironically, I recommend storytelling but I often skim past people’s stories. Many academic posts are too long (well beyond your 500 limit), take too long to get to the point, and do not make explicit recommendations, so you should not emulate them. You should aim to be better than the scholars whose longer work you read. You should not just chop down your policy analysis to 500 words; you need a new kind of communication.
Hopefully, by the end of this fourth task, you will appreciate the transferable life skills. I have generated some uncertainty about your task to reflect the sense among many actors that they don’t really know how to make a persuasive case and who to make it to. We can follow some basic Bardach-style guidance, but a lot of this kind of work relies on trial-and-error. I maintain a short word count to encourage you to get to the point, and I bang on about ‘stories’ in modules to encourage you to present a short and persuasive story to policymakers.
This process seems weird at first, but isn’t it also intuitive? For example, next time you’re in my seminar, measure how long it takes you to get bored and look forward to the weekend. Then imagine that policymakers have the same attention span as you. That’s how long you have to make your case! Policymakers are not magical beings with an infinite attention span. In fact, they are busier and under more pressure than us, so you need to make your pitch count.
BOX A3: Rationale for blog post 1
This exercise forces students to make their case in 500 words. It helps them understand the need to communicate in different ways to different audiences. It suggests that successful communication is largely about knowing how your audience consumes information, rather than telling people all you know. I gauge success according to questions such as: Punchy and eye grabbing title? Tailored to an intelligent ‘lay’ audience rather than a specific expert group? Clearly defined problem? Good evidence or argument behind the solution? Clear recommendations backed by a sense that the solution is feasible? Well embedded weblinks to further relevant reading?
5. Writing a theory-informed essay
I tend to set this simple-looking question for coursework in policy modules: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why? Students get to choose the policy issue, timeframe, political system, and relevant explanatory concepts.
On the face of it, it looks very straightforward. Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:
We spend a lot of time in class agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy
There are many possible measures of policy change
There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics.
I try to encourage some creativity when solving this problem, but also advise students to keep their discussion as simple and jargon-free as possible (often by stretching an analogy with competitive diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).
Choosing a format: the initial advice
Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in a particular era, after an event or constitutional change, or after a change in government).
Select one or more policy concepts or theory to help structure your discussion and help explain how and why policy has changed.
For example, a question might be: What is tobacco policy in the UK, how much has it changed since the 1980s, and why? I use this example because I try to answer that question myself, even though some of my work is too theory-packed to be a good model for a student essay (Cairney, 2007 is essentially a bad model for students).
Choosing a format: the cautionary advice
You may be surprised about how difficult it is to answer a simple question like ‘what is policy?’ and I will give you a lot of credit for considering how to define and measure it; by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and information sharing, and/ or by considering the difference between, say, policy as a statement of intent or a long term outcome. In turn, a good description and explanation of policy change is difficult. If you are feeling ambitious, you can go further, to compare, say, two issues (such as tobacco and alcohol) or places (such UK Government policy and the policy of another country), but sometimes a simple and narrow discussion can be more effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but one theory may do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic or concepts to use.
BOX A4: Rationale for the essay
The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between differentperspectives on policy theory and analysis. For example, in a blog and policy analysis paper they try to generate attention to a policy problem and advocate a solution. Then, they draw on policy theories and concepts to reflect on their papers, highlighting (say): the need to identify the most important audience; the importance of framing issues with a mixture of evidence and emotional appeals; and, the need to present ‘feasible’ solutions.
The reflection can provide a useful segue to the essay, since we’re already identifying important policy problems, advocating change, reflecting on how best to encourage it – such as by presenting modest objectives – and then, in the essay, trying to explain (say) why governments have not taken that advice in the past. Their interest in the policy issue can prompt interest in researching the issue further; their knowledge of the issue and the policy process can help them develop politically-aware policy analysis. All going well, it produces a virtuous circle.
BOX A5: Rationale for blog post 2
I get students to do the analysis/reflection/blog combination in the first module, and an essay/ blog combo in the second module. The second blog post has a different aim. Students use the 500 words to present a jargon-free analysis of policy change. The post represents a useful exercise in theory translation. Without it, students tend to describe a large amount of jargon because I am the audience and I understand it. By explaining the same thing to a lay audience, they are obliged to explain key developments in a plain language. This requirement should also help them present a clearer essay, because people (academics and students) often use jargon to cover the fact that they don’t really know what they are saying.
Governments, international organisations, and researchers all express a high and enduring commitment to ‘education equity’. Yet, this is where the agreement ends.
The definition of the problem of inequity and the feasibility of solutions is highly contested, to the extent that it is common to identify two competing approaches:
1. A ‘neoliberal’ approach, focusing on education’s role in the economy, market-based reforms, and ‘new public management’ reforms to schools.
2. A ‘social justice’ approach, focusing on education’s role in student wellbeing and life opportunities, and state-led action to address the wider social determinants of education outcomes.
Almost all of the research included in our review suggests that the neoliberal approach dominates international and domestic policy agendas at the expense of the wider focus on social justice.
We describe education equity researchers as the narrators of cautionary tales of education inequity. Most employ critical policy analysis to challenge what they call the dominant stories of education that hinder meaningful equity policies.
First, many describe common settings, including a clear sense that unfair inequalities endure despite global and domestic equity rhetoric.
They also describe the multi-level nature of the governance of education, but with less certainty about relationships across levels. A small number of international organisations and countries are key influencers of a global neoliberal agenda and there is discretion to influence policy at local and school levels. In that context, some studies relate the lack of progress to the malign influence of one or more levels, such as global and central government agendas undermining local change, or local actors disrupting central initiatives.
Second, studies describe similar plots. Many describe stymied progress on equity caused by the negative impacts of neoliberalism: undermining equity by (1) equating it with narrow definitions of equal access to well-performing schools and test-based attainment outcomes, and (2) taking attention from social justice to focus on economic competitiveness.
Many describe policymakers using a generic focus on equity as a facade, to ignore and reproduce inequalities in relation to minoritized populations. Or, equity is a ‘wicked’ issue that defies simple solutions. Many plots involve a contrast between agency-focused narratives that emphasise hopefulness (e.g. among ‘change agents’) and systemic or structural narratives that emphasise helplessness.
Third, they present common ideas about characters. In global narratives, researchers challenge the story by international organisations that they are the heroes providing funding backed by crucial instructions to make educations systems and economies competitive. Most education articles portray neoliberal international organisations and central governments as the villains: narrowing equity to simplistic measures of performance at the expense of more meaningful outcomes.
At a national and local level, they criticise the dominant stories of equity within key countries, such as the US, that continue to reproduce highly unequal outcomes while projecting a sense of progress. The most vividly told story is of white parents, who portray their ‘gifted’ children as most deserving of advantage in the school system, and therefore the victims of attempts to widen access or redistribute scarce resources (high quality classes and teachers). Rather, these parents are the villains standing – sometimes unintentionally, but mostly intentionally – in the way of progress.
The only uncertainty regards the role of local and school leaders. In some cases, they are the initially-heroic figures, able to find ways to disrupt a damaging national agenda and become the ‘change agents’ that shift well-established rules and norms before being thwarted by community and parental opposition. In others, they are perhaps-unintentional villains who reproduce racialised, gendered, or class-based norms regarding which students are ‘gifted’ and worthy of investment versus which students need remedial classes or disrupt other learners.
Fourth, the moral of the story is mostly clear. Almost all studies criticise the damaging impact of neoliberal definitions of equity and the performance management and quasi-market techniques that support it. They are sold as equity measures but actually exacerbate inequalities. As such, the moral is to focus our efforts elsewhere: on social justice, the social and economic determinants of education, and the need to address head-on the association between inequalities and minoritized populations (to challenge ‘equity for all’ messages). However, it is difficult to pinpoint the source of much-needed change. In some cases, strong direction from central governments is necessary to overcome obstacles to change. In others, only bottom-up action by local and school leaders will induce change.
Perhaps the starkest difference in approaches relates to expectations for the future. For ‘neoliberal’ advocates, solutions such as market incentives or education system reforms will save schools and the next generation of students. In contrast, ‘social justice’ advocates expect these reforms to fail and cause irreparable damage to the prospect of education equity.
This post summarizes a key section of our review of education equity policymaking [see the full article for references to the studies summarized here].
One of the main themes is that many governments present a misleading image of their education policies. There are many variations on this theme, in which policymakers:
Describe the energetic pursuit of equity, and use the right language, as a way to hide limited progress.
Pursue ‘equity for all’ initiatives that ignore or downplay the specific importance of marginalization and minoritization, such as in relation to race and racism, immigration, ethnic minorities, and indigenous populations.
Pursue narrow definitions of equity in terms of access to schools, at the expense of definitions that pay attention to ‘out of school’ factors and social justice.
Minoritization is a strong theme in US studies in particular. US experiences help us categorise multiple modes of marginalisation in relation to race and migration, driven by witting and unwitting action and explicit and implicit bias:
The social construction of students and parents. Examples include: framing white students as ‘gifted’ and more deserving of merit-based education (or victims of equity initiatives); framing non-white students as less intelligent, more in need of special needs or remedial classes, and having cultural or other learning ‘deficits’ that undermine them and disrupt white students; and, describing migrant parents as unable to participate until they learn English.
Maintaining or failing to challenge inequitable policies. Examples include higher funding for schools and colleges with higher white populations, and tracking (segregating students according to perceived ability), which benefit white students disproportionately.
Ignoring social determinants or ‘out of school’ factors.
Creating the illusion of equity with measures that exacerbate inequalities. For example, promoting school choice policies while knowing that the rules restrict access to sought-after schools.
Promoting initiatives to ignore race, including so-called ‘color blind’ or ‘equity for all’ initiatives.
Prioritizing initiatives at the expense of racial or socio-economic equity, such as measures to boost overall national performance at the expense of targeted measures.
Game playing and policy subversion, including school and college selection rules to restrict access and improve metrics.
The wider international – primarily Global North – experience suggests that minoritization and marginalization in relation to race, ethnicity, and migration is a routine impediment to equity strategies, albeit with some uncertainty about which policies would have the most impact.
Other country studies describe the poor treatment of citizens in relation to immigration status or ethnicity, often while presenting the image of a more equitable system. Until recently, Finland’s global reputation for education equity built on universalism and comprehensive schools has contrasted with its historic ‘othering’ of immigrant populations. Japan’s reputation for containing a homogeneous population, allowing its governments to present an image of classless egalitarianism and harmonious society, contrasts with its discrimination against foreign students. Multiple studies of Canadian provinces provide the strongest accounts of the symbolic and cynical use of multiculturalism for political gains and economic ends:
As in the US, many countries use ‘special needs’ categories to segregate immigrant and ethnic minority populations. Mainstreaming versus special needs debates have a clear racial and ethnic dimension when (1) some groups are more likely to be categorised as having learning disabilities or behavioural disorders, and (2) language and cultural barriers are listed as disabilities in many countries. Further, ‘commonwealth’ country studies identify the marginalisation of indigenous populations in ways comparable to the US marginalisation of students of colour.
Overall, these studies generate the sense that the frequently used language of education equity policy can signal a range of possibilities, from (1) high energy and sincere commitment to social justice, to (2) the cynical use of rhetoric and symbolism to protect historic inequalities.
Turner, E.O., and Spain, A.K., (2020) ‘The Multiple Meanings of (In)Equity: Remaking School District Tracking Policy in an Era of Budget Cuts and Accountability’, Urban Education, 55, 5, 783-812 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0042085916674060
Felix, E.R. and Trinidad, A. (2020) ‘The decentralization of race: tracing the dilution of racial equity in educational policy’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 33, 4, 465-490 https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2019.1681538
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.