Category Archives: Social change

The coronavirus and evidence-informed policy analysis (short version)

The coronavirus feels like a new policy problem that requires new policy analysis. The analysis should be informed by (a) good evidence, translated into (b) good policy. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that either of those things are straightforward. There are simple-looking steps to go from defining a problem to making a recommendation, but this simplicity masks the profoundly political process that must take place. Each step in analysis involves political choices to prioritise some problems and solutions over others, and therefore prioritise some people’s lives at the expense of others.

The very-long version of this post takes us through those steps in the UK, and situates them in a wider political and policymaking context. This post is shorter, and only scratches the surface of analysis.

5 steps to policy analysis

  1. Define the problem.

Perhaps we can sum it up as: (a) the impact of this virus and illness will be a level of death and illness that could overwhelm the population and exceed the capacity of public services, so (b) we need to contain the virus enough to make sure it spreads in the right way at the right time, so (c) we need to encourage and make people change their behaviour (primarily via hygiene and social distancing). However, there are many ways to frame this problem to emphasise the importance of some populations over others, and some impacts over others.

  1. Identify technically and politically feasible solutions.

Solutions are not really solutions: they are policy instruments that address one aspect of the problem, including taxation and spending, delivering public services, funding research, giving advice to the population, and regulating or encouraging changes to social behaviour. Each new instrument contributes an existing mix, with unpredictable and unintended consequences. Some instruments seem technically feasible (they will work as intended if implemented), but will not be adopted unless politically feasible (enough people support their introduction). Or vice versa. This dual requirement rules out a lot of responses.

  1. Use values and goals to compare solutions.

Typical judgements combine: (a) broad descriptions of values such as efficiency, fairness, freedom, security, and human dignity, (b) instrumental goals, such as sustainable policymaking (can we do it, and for how long?), and political feasibility (will people agree to it, and will it make me more or less popular or trusted?), and (c) the process to make choices, such as the extent to which a policy process involves citizens or stakeholders (alongside experts) in deliberation. They combine to help policymakers come to high profile choices (such as the balance between individual freedom and state coercion), and low profile but profound choices (to influence the level of public service capacity, and level of state intervention, and therefore who and how many people will die).

  1. Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.

It is difficult to envisage a way for the UK Government to publicise all of the thinking behind its choices (Step 3) and predictions (Step 4) in a way that would encourage effective public deliberation. People often call for the UK Government to publicise its expert advice and operational logic, but I am not sure how they would separate it from their normative logic about who should live or die, or provide a frank account without unintended consequences for public trust or anxiety. If so, one aspect of government policy is to keep some choices implicit and avoid a lot of debate on trade-offs. Another is to make choices continuously without knowing what their impact will be (the most likely scenario right now).

  1. Make a choice, or recommendation to your client.

Your recommendation or choice would build on these four steps. Define the problem with one framing at the expense of the others. Romanticise some people and not others. Decide how to support some people, and coerce or punish others. Prioritise the lives of some people in the knowledge that others will suffer or die. Do it despite your lack of expertise and profoundly limited knowledge and information. Learn from experts, but don’t assume that only scientific experts have relevant knowledge (decolonise; coproduce). Recommend choices that, if damaging, could take decades to fix after you’ve gone. Consider if a policymaker is willing and able to act on your advice, and if your proposed action will work as intended. Consider if a government is willing and able to bear the economic and political costs. Protect your client’s popularity, and trust in your client, at the same time as protecting lives. Consider if your advice would change if the problem seemed to change. If you are writing your analysis, maybe keep it down to one sheet of paper (in other words, fewer words than in this post up to this point).

Policy analysis is not as simple as these steps suggest, and further analysis of the wider policymaking environment helps describe two profound limitations to simple analytical thought and action.

  1. Policymakers must ignore almost all evidence

The amount of policy relevant information is infinite, and capacity is finite. So, individuals and governments need ways to filter out almost all of it. Individuals combine cognition and emotion to help them make choices efficiently, and governments have equivalent rules to prioritise only some information. They include: define a problem and a feasible response, seek information that is available, understandable, and actionable, and identify credible sources of information and advice. In that context, the vague idea of trusting or not trusting experts is nonsense, and the larger post highlights the many flawed ways in which all people decide whose expertise counts.

  1. They do not control the policy process.

Policymakers engage in a messy and unpredictable world in which no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a policy recommendation into an outcome.

  • There are many policymakers and influencers spread across a political system. For example, consider the extent to which each government department, devolved governments, and public and private organisations are making their own choices that help or hinder the UK government approach.
  • Most choices in government are made in ‘subsystems’, with their own rules and networks, over which ministers have limited knowledge and influence.
  • The social and economic context, and events, are largely out of their control.

The take home messages (if you accept this line of thinking)

  1. The coronavirus is an extreme example of a general situation: policymakers will always have very limited knowledge of policy problems and control over their policymaking environment. They make choices to frame problems narrowly enough to seem solvable, rule out most solutions as not feasible, make value judgements to try help some more than others, try to predict the results, and respond when the results do not match their hopes or expectations.
  2. This is not a message of doom and despair. Rather, it encourages us to think about how to influence government, and hold policymakers to account, in a thoughtful and systematic way that does not mislead the public or exacerbate the problem we are seeing. No one is helping their government solve the problem by saying stupid shit on the internet (OK, that last bit was a message of despair).

 

Further reading:

The longer report sets out these arguments in much more detail, with some links to further thoughts and developments.

This series of ‘750 words’ posts summarises key texts in policy analysis and tries to situate policy analysis in a wider political and policymaking context. Note the focus on whose knowledge counts, which is not yet a big feature of this crisis.

These series of 500 words and 1000 words posts (with podcasts) summarise concepts and theories in policy studies.

This page on evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) uses those insights to demonstrate why EBPM is  a political slogan rather than a realistic expectation.

These recorded talks relate those insights to common questions asked by researchers: why do policymakers seem to ignore my evidence, and what can I do about it? I’m happy to record more (such as on the topic you just read about) but not entirely sure who would want to hear what.

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Filed under 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer, POLU9UK, Prevention policy, Psychology Based Policy Studies, Public health, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy

The coronavirus and evidence-informed policy analysis (long version)

This is the long version. It is long. Too long to call a blog post. Let’s call it a ‘living document’ that I update and amend as new developments arise (then start turning into a more organised paper). In most cases, I am adding tweets, so the date of the update is embedded. If I add a new section, I will add a date. If you seek specific topics (like ‘herd immunity’), it might be worth doing a search. The short version is shorter.

The coronavirus feels like a new policy problem. Governments already have policies for public health crises, but the level of uncertainty about the spread and impact of this virus seems to be taking it to a new level of policy, media, and public attention. The UK Government’s Prime Minister calls it ‘the worst public health crisis for a generation’.

As such, there is no shortage of opinions on what to do, but there is a shortage of well-considered opinions, producing little consensus. Many people are rushing to judgement and expressing remarkably firm opinions about the best solutions, but their contributions add up to contradictory evaluations, in which:

  • the government is doing precisely the right thing or the completely wrong thing,
  • we should listen to this expert saying one thing or another expert saying the opposite.

Lots of otherwise-sensible people are doing what they bemoan in politicians: rushing to judgement, largely accepting or sharing evidence only if it reinforces that judgement, and/or using their interpretation of any new development to settle scores with their opponents.

Yet, anyone who feels, without uncertainty, that they have the best definition of, and solution to, this problem is a fool. If people are also sharing bad information and advice, they are dangerous fools. Further, as Professor Madley puts it (in the video below), ‘anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen over the next six months is lying’.

In that context, how can we make sense of public policy to address the coronavirus in a more systematic way?

Studies of policy analysis and policymaking do not solve a policy problem, but they at least give us a language to think it through.

  1. Let’s focus on the UK as an example, and use common steps in policy analysis, to help us think through the problem and how to try to manage it.
  • In each step, note how quickly it is possible to be overwhelmed by uncertainty and ambiguity, even when the issue seems so simple at first.
  • Note how difficult it is to move from Step 1, and to separate Step 1 from the others. It is difficult to define the problem without relating it to the solution (or to the ways in which we will evaluate each solution).
  1. Let’s relate that analysis to research on policymaking, to understand the wider context in which people pay attention to, and try to address, important problems that are largely out of their control.

Throughout, note that I am describing a thought process as simply as I can, not a full examination of relevant evidence. I am highlighting the problems that people face when ‘diagnosing’ policy problems, not trying to diagnose it myself. To do so, I draw initially on common advice from the key policy analysis texts (summaries of the texts that policy analysis students are most likely to read) that simplify the process a little too much. Still, the thought process that it encourages took me hours alone (spread over three days) to produce no real conclusion. Policymakers and advisers, in the thick of this problem, do not have that luxury of time or uncertainty.

See also: Boris Johnson’s address to the nation in full (23.3.20) and press conference transcripts

https://twitter.com/BorisJohnson/status/1246358936585986048

https://twitter.com/BorisJohnson/status/1243496858095411200

https://twitter.com/R_S_P_H/status/1242833029728477188

Step 1 Define the problem

Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Provide a diagnosis of a policy problem, using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention.
  • Identify its severity, urgency, cause, and our ability to solve it. Don’t define the wrong problem, such as by oversimplifying.
  • Problem definition is a political act of framing, as part of a narrative to evaluate the nature, cause, size, and urgency of an issue.
  • Define the nature of a policy problem, and the role of government in solving it, while engaging with many stakeholders.
  • ‘Diagnose the undesirable condition’ and frame it as ‘a market or government failure (or maybe both)’.

Coronavirus as a physical problem is not the same as a coronavirus policy problem. To define the physical problem is to identify the nature, spread, and impact of a virus and illness on individuals and populations. To define a policy problem, we identify the physical problem and relate it (implicitly or explicitly) to what we think a government can, and should, do about it. Put more provocatively, it is only a policy problem if policymakers are willing and able to offer some kind of solution.

This point may seem semantic, but it raises a profound question about the capacity of any government to solve a problem like an epidemic, or for governments to cooperate to solve a pandemic. It is easy for an outsider to exhort a government to ‘do something!’ (or ‘ACT NOW!’) and express certainty about what would happen. However, policymakers inside government:

  1. Do not enjoy the same confidence that they know what is happening, or that their actions will have their intended consequences, and
  2. Will think twice about trying to regulate social behaviour under those circumstances, especially when they
  3. Know that any action or inaction will benefit some and punish others.

For example, can a government make people wash their hands? Or, if it restricts gatherings at large events, can it stop people gathering somewhere else, with worse impact? If it closes a school, can it stop children from going to their grandparents to be looked after until it reopens? There are 101 similar questions and, in each case, I reckon the answer is no. Maybe government action has some of the desired impact; maybe not. If you agree, then the question might be: what would it really take to force people to change their behaviour?

See also: Coronavirus has not suspended politics – it has revealed the nature of power (David Runciman)

The answer is: often too much for a government to consider (in a liberal democracy), particularly if policymakers are informed that it will not have the desired impact.

https://twitter.com/AdamJKucharski/status/1238152492178976769

If so, the UK government’s definition of the policy problem will incorporate this implicit question: what can we do if we can influence, but not determine (or even predict well) how people behave?

Uncertainty about the coronavirus plus uncertainty about policy impact

Now, add that general uncertainty about the impact of government to this specific uncertainty about the likely nature and spread of the coronavirus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=350&v=blkDulsgh3Q&feature=emb_logo

A summary of this video suggests:

  • There will be an epidemic (a profound spread to many people in a short space of time), then the problem will be endemic (a long-term, regular feature of life) (see also UK policy on coronavirus COVID-19 assumes that the virus is here to stay).
  • In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to produce ‘herd immunity’ is for most people to be infected and recover

[Note: there is much debate on whether ‘herd immunity’ is or is not government policy. Much of it relates to interpretation, based on levels of trust/distrust in the UK Government, its Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister’s special adviser. I discuss this point below under ‘trial and error policymaking’. See also Who can you trust during the coronavirus crisis? ]

  • The ideal spread involves all well people sharing the virus first, while all vulnerable people (e.g. older, and/or with existing health problems that affect their immune systems) protected in one isolated space, but it won’t happen like that; so, we are trying to minimise damage in the real world.
  • We mainly track the spread via deaths, with data showing a major spike appearing one month later, so the problem may only seem real to most people when it is too late to change behaviour

https://twitter.com/ChrisGiles_/status/1247458186300456960

https://twitter.com/d_spiegel/status/1248157520943857665

https://twitter.com/d_spiegel/status/1247824140645683205

https://twitter.com/EmergMedDr/status/1250039068890726400

See also: Coronavirus: Government expert defends not closing UK schools (BBC, Sir Patrick Vallance 13th March 2020)

https://twitter.com/DrSamSims/status/1247445729439895555

  • The choice in theory is between a rapid epidemic with a high peak, or a slowed-down epidemic over a longer period, but ‘anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen over the next six months is lying’.
  • Maybe this epidemic will be so memorable as to shift social behaviour, but so much depends on trying to predict (badly) if individuals will actually change (see also Spiegelhalter on communicating risk).

None of this account tells policymakers what to do, but at least it helps them clarify three key aspects of their policy problem:

  1. The impact of this virus and illness could overwhelm the population, to the extent that it causes mass deaths, causes a level of illness that exceeds the capacity of health services to treat, and contributes to an unpredictable amount of social and economic damage.
  2. We need to contain the virus enough to make sure it (a) spreads at the right speed and/or (b) peaks at the right time. The right speed seems to be: a level that allows most people to recover alone, while the most vulnerable are treated well in healthcare settings that have enough capacity. The right time seems to be the part of the year with the lowest demand on health services (e.g. summer is better than winter). In other words, (a) reduce the size of the peak by ‘flattening the curve’, and/or (b) find the right time of year to address the peak, while (c) anticipating more than one peak.

My impression is that the most frequently-expressed aim is (a) …

https://twitter.com/STVNews/status/1238468179036459008

https://twitter.com/DHSCgovuk/status/1238540941717356548

… while the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer also seems to be describing (b):

  1. We need to encourage or coerce people to change their behaviour, to look after themselves (e.g. by handwashing) and forsake their individual preferences for the sake of public health (e.g. by self-isolating or avoiding vulnerable people). Perhaps we can foster social trust and empathy to encourage responsible individual action. Perhaps people will only protect others if obliged to do so (compare Stone; Ostrom; game theory).

See also: From across the Ditch: How Australia has to decide on the least worst option for COVID-19 (Prof Tony Blakely on three bad options: (1) the likelihood of ‘elimination’ of the virus before vaccination is low; (2) an 18-month lock-down will help ‘flatten the curve’; (3) ‘to prepare meticulously for allowing the pandemic to wash through society over a period of six or so months. To tool up the production of masks and medical supplies. To learn as quickly as possible which treatments of people sick with COVID-19 saves lives. To work out our strategies for protection of the elderly and those with a chronic condition (for whom the mortality from COVID-19 is much higher’).

https://twitter.com/luciadambruoso/status/1246361265909444608

https://twitter.com/anandMenon1/status/1246712962519310337

From uncertainty to ambiguity

If you are still with me, I reckon you would have worded those aims slightly differently, right? There is some ambiguity about these broad intentions, partly because there is some uncertainty, and partly because policymakers need to set rather vague intentions to generate the highest possible support for them. However, vagueness is not our friend during a crisis involving such high anxiety. Further, they are only delaying the inevitable choices that people need to make to turn a complex multi-faceted problem into something simple enough to describe and manage. The problem may be complex, but our attention focuses only on a small number of aspects, at the expense of the rest. Examples that have arisen, so far, include to accentuate:

  1. The health of the whole population or people who would be affected disproportionately by the illness.
  • For example, the difference in emphasis affects the health advice for the relatively vulnerable (and the balance between exhortation and reassurance)

https://twitter.com/colinrtalbot/status/1238227267471527937?s=09

https://twitter.com/hacscot/status/1240588827829436416?s=09

https://twitter.com/lisatrigg/status/1249670660802187266

 

  1. Inequalities in relation to health, socio-economic status (e.g. income, gender, race, ethnicity), or the wider economy.
  • For example, restrictive measures may reduce the risk of harm to some, but increase the burden on people with no savings or reliable sources of income.
  • For example, some people are hoarding large quantities of home and medical supplies that (a) other people cannot afford, and (b) some people cannot access, despite having higher need.
  • For example, social distancing will limit the spread of the virus (see the nascent evidence), but also produce highly unequal forms of social isolation that increase the risk of domestic abuse (possibly exacerbated by school closures) and undermine wellbeing. Or, there will be major policy changes, such as to the rules to detain people under mental health legislation, regarding abortion, or in relation to asylum (note: some of these tweets are from the US, partly because I’m seeing more attention to race – and the consequence of systematic racism on the socioeconomic inequalities so important to COVID-19 mortality – than in the UK).

See also: COVID-19: how the UK’s economic model contributes towards a mismanagement of the crisis (Carolina Alves and Farwa Sial 30.3.20),

Economic downturn and wider NHS disruption likely to hit health hard – especially health of most vulnerable (Institute for Fiscal Studies 9.4.20),

Don’t be fooled: Britain’s coronavirus bailout will make the rich richer still (Christine Berry 13.4.20)

https://twitter.com/closethepaygap/status/1244579870392422400

https://twitter.com/heyDejan/status/1238944695260233728?s=09

https://twitter.com/TimothyNoah1/status/1240375741809938433

https://twitter.com/politicshome/status/1249236632009691136?s=09

 

https://twitter.com/NPR/status/1246837779474120705?s=09

https://twitter.com/povertyscholar/status/1246487621230092294

https://twitter.com/Yamiche/status/1248028548998344708

https://twitter.com/MalindaSmith/status/1247281226274107392

https://twitter.com/Jas_Athwal/status/1248875273568878592?s=09

https://twitter.com/GKBhambra/status/1248874500764073989

cc

https://twitter.com/sunny_hundal/status/1247454112762990592

https://twitter.com/olivernmoody/status/1248260326140805125

https://twitter.com/boodleoops/status/1246717497308577792

https://twitter.com/boodleoops/status/1246717497308577792

https://twitter.com/MarioLuisSmall/status/1239879542094925825

https://twitter.com/kevinstoneUWE/status/1240000285046640645?s=09

https://twitter.com/colinimckay/status/1240721797731045378?s=09

https://twitter.com/heytherehurley/status/1242113416103432195

https://twitter.com/stellacreasy/status/1244022413865648128

https://twitter.com/NIOgov/status/1246482663738871811

https://twitter.com/refugeecouncil/status/1243842703680471040

https://twitter.com/libertyhq/status/1248173788598013953

https://twitter.com/TheLancet/status/1246039259880054784

https://twitter.com/profhrs/status/1247572112061222914

https://twitter.com/HumzaYousaf/status/1248262165657722885

  • For example, governments cannot ignore the impact of their actions on the economy, however much they emphasise mortality, health, and wellbeing. Most high-profile emphasis was initially on the fate of large and small businesses, and people with mortgages, but a long period of crisis will a tip the balance from low income to unsustainable poverty (even prompting Iain Duncan Smith to propose policy change), and why favour people who can afford a mortgage over people scraping the money together for rent?
  1. A need for more communication and exhortation, or for direct action to change behaviour.
  2. The short term (do everything possible now) or long term (manage behaviour over many months).
  1. How to maintain trust in the UK government when (a) people are more or less inclined to trust a the current part of government and general trust may be quite low, and (b) so many other governments are acting differently from the UK.

https://twitter.com/DrSophieHarman/status/1238893265782530059

https://twitter.com/Sander_vdLinden/status/1242168652180475906?s=09

https://twitter.com/policyatkings/status/1248318259029516289

  • For example, note the visible presence of the Prime Minister, but also his unusually high deference to unelected experts such as (a) UK Government senior scientists providing direct advice to ministers and the public, and (b) scientists drawing on limited information to model behaviour and produce realistic scenarios (we can return to the idea of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ later). This approach is not uncommon with epidemics/ pandemics (LD was then the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer):

https://twitter.com/AndyBurnhamGM/status/1239153510903619584

  • For example, note how often people are second guessing and criticising the UK Government position (and questioning the motives of Conservative ministers).

See also: Coronavirus: meet the scientists who are now household names

  1. How policy in relation to the coronavirus relates to other priorities (e.g. Brexit, Scottish independence, trade, education, culture)

7. Who caused, or who is exacerbating, the problem? The answers to such questions helps determine which populations are most subject to policy intervention.

  • For example, people often try to lay blame for viruses on certain populations, based on their nationality, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or behaviour (e.g. with HIV).
  • For example, the (a) association between the coronavirus and China and Chinese people (e.g. restrict travel to/ from China; e.g. exacerbate racism), initially overshadowed (b) the general role of international travellers (e.g. place more general restrictions on behaviour), and (c) other ways to describe who might be responsible for exacerbating a crisis.

See also: ‘Othering the Virus‘ by Marius Meinhof

Under ‘normal’ policymaking circumstances, we would expect policymakers to resolve this ambiguity by exercising power to set the agenda and make choices that close off debate. Attention rises at first, a choice is made, and attention tends to move on to something else. With the coronavirus, attention to many different aspects of the problem has been lurching remarkably quickly. The definition of the policy problem often seems to be changing daily or hourly, and more quickly than the physical problem. It will also change many more times, particularly when attention to each personal story of illness or death prompts people to question government policy every hour. If the policy problem keeps changing in these ways, how could a government solve it?

Step 2 Identify technically and politically feasible solutions

Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Identify the relevant and feasible policy solutions that your audience/ client might consider.
  • Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).
  • Provide ‘plausible’ predictions about the future effects of current/ alternative policies.
  • Identify many possible solutions, then select the ‘most promising’ for further analysis.
  • Identify how governments have addressed comparable problems, and a previous policy’s impact.

Policy ‘solutions’ are better described as ‘tools’ or ‘instruments’, largely because (a) it is rare to expect them to solve a problem, and (b) governments use many instruments (in different ways, at different times) to make policy, including:

  1. Public expenditure (e.g. to boost spending for emergency care, crisis services, medical equipment)
  2. Economic incentives and disincentives (e.g. to reduce the cost of business or borrowing, or tax unhealthy products)
  3. Linking spending to entitlement or behaviour (e.g. social security benefits conditional on working or seeking work, perhaps with the rules modified during crises)
  4. Formal regulations versus voluntary agreements (e.g. making organisations close, or encouraging them to close)
  5. Public services: universal or targeted, free or with charges, delivered directly or via non-governmental organisations
  6. Legal sanctions (e.g. criminalising reckless behaviour)
  7. Public education or advertising (e.g. as paid adverts or via media and social media)
  8. Funding scientific research, and organisations to advise on policy
  9. Establishing or reforming policymaking units or departments
  10. Behavioural instruments, to ‘nudge’ behaviour (seemingly a big feature in the UK , such as on how to encourage handwashing).

As a result, what we call ‘policy’ is really a complex mix of instruments adopted by one or more governments. A truism in policy studies is that it is difficult to define or identify exactly what policy is because (a) each new instrument adds to a pile of existing measures (with often-unpredictable consequences), and (b) many instruments designed for individual sectors tend, in practice, to intersect in ways that we cannot always anticipate. When you think through any government response to the coronavirus, note how every measure is connected to many others.

Further, it is a truism in public policy that there is a gap between technical and political feasibility: the things that we think will be most likely to work as intended if implemented are often the things that would receive the least support or most opposition. For example:

  1. Redistributing income and wealth to reduce socio-economic inequalities (e.g. to allay fears about the impact of current events on low-income and poverty) seems to be less politically feasible than distributing public services to deal with the consequences of health inequalities.
  2. Providing information and exhortation seems more politically feasible than the direct regulation of behaviour. Indeed, compared to many other countries, the UK Government seems reluctant to introduce ‘quarantine’ style measures to restrict behaviour.

Under ‘normal’ circumstances, governments may be using these distinctions as simple heuristics to help them make modest policy changes while remaining sufficiently popular (or at least looking competent). If so, they are adding or modifying policy instruments during individual ‘windows of opportunity’ for specific action, or perhaps contributing to the sense of incremental change towards an ambitious goal.

Right now, we may be pushing the boundaries of what seems possible, since crises – and the need to address public anxiety – tend to change what seems politically feasible. However, many options that seem politically feasible may not be possible (e.g. to buy a lot of extra medical/ technology capacity quickly), or may not work as intended (e.g. to restrict the movement of people). Think of technical and political feasibility as necessary but insufficient on their own, which is a requirement that rules out a lot of responses.

https://twitter.com/CairneyPaul/status/1244970044351791104

https://twitter.com/ChrisCEOHopson/status/1249617980859744256?s=09

Step 3 Use value-based criteria and political goals to compare solutions

Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Typical value judgements relate to efficiency, equity and fairness, the trade-off between individual freedom and collective action, and the extent to which a policy process involves citizens in deliberation.
  • Normative assessments are based on values such as ‘equality, efficiency, security, democracy, enlightenment’ and beliefs about the preferable balance between state, communal, and market/ individual solutions
  • ‘Specify the objectives to be attained in addressing the problem and the criteria  to  evaluate  the  attainment  of  these  objectives  as  well as  the  satisfaction  of  other  key  considerations  (e.g.,  equity,  cost, equity, feasibility)’.
  • ‘Effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and administrative efficiency’ are common.
  • Identify (a) the values to prioritise, such as ‘efficiency’, ‘equity’, and ‘human dignity’, and (b) ‘instrumental goals’, such as ‘sustainable public finance or political feasibility’, to generate support for solutions.
  • Instrumental questions may include: Will this intervention produce the intended outcomes? Is it easy to get agreement and maintain support? Will it make me popular, or diminish trust in me even further?

Step 3 is the most simple-looking but difficult task. Remember that it is a political, not technical, process. It is also a political process that most people would like to avoid doing (at least publicly) because it involves making explicit the ways in which we prioritise some people over others. Public policy is the choice to help some people and punish or refuse to help others (and includes the choice to do nothing).

Policy analysis texts describe a relatively simple procedure of identifying criteria and producing a table (with a solution in each row, and criteria in each column) to compare the trade-offs between each solution. However, these criteria are notoriously difficult to define, and people resolve that problem by exercising power to decide what each term means, and whose interests should be served when they resolve trade-offs. For example, see Stone on whose needs come first, who benefits from each definition of fairness, and how technical-looking processes such as ‘cost benefit analysis’ mask political choices.

Right now, the most obvious and visible trade-off, accentuated in the UK, is between individual freedom and collective action, or the balance between state, communal, and market/ individual solutions. In comparison with many countries (and China and Italy in particular), the UK Government seems to be favouring individual action over state quarantine measures. However, most trade-offs are difficult to categorise

  1. What should be the balance between efforts to minimise the deaths of some (generally in older populations) and maximise the wellbeing of others? This is partly about human dignity during crisis, how we treat different people fairly, and the balance of freedom and coercion.
  2. How much should a government spend to keep people alive using intensive case or expensive medicines, when the money could be spent improving the lives of far more people? This is partly about human dignity, the relative efficiency of policy measures, and fairness.

If you are like me, you don’t really want to answer such questions (indeed, even writing them looks callous). If so, one way to resolve them is to elect policymakers to make such choices on our behalf (perhaps aided by experts in moral philosophy, or with access to deliberative forums). To endure, this unusually high level of deference to elected ministers requires some kind of reciprocal act:

https://twitter.com/devisridhar/status/1240648925998178304

See also: We must all do everything in our power to protect lives (UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care)

Still, I doubt that governments are making reportable daily choices with reference to a clear and explicit view of what the trade-offs and priorities should be, because their choices are about who will die, and their ability to predict outcomes is limited.

See also: Media experts despair at Boris Johnson’s coronavirus campaign (Sonia Sodha)

Step 4 Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.

Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Focus on the outcomes that key actors care about (such as value for money), and quantify and visualise your predictions if possible. Compare the pros and cons of each solution, such as how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs.
  • ‘Assess the outcomes of the policy options in light of the criteria and weigh trade-offs between the advantages and disadvantages of the options’.
  • Estimate the cost of a new policy, in comparison with current policy, and in relation to factors such as savings to society or benefits to certain populations. Use your criteria and projections to compare each alternative in relation to their likely costs and benefits.
  • Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).
  • Short deadlines dictate that you use ‘logic and theory, rather than systematic empirical evidence’ to make predictions efficiently.
  • Monitoring is crucial because it is difficult to predict policy success, and unintended consequences are inevitable. Try to measure the outcomes of your solution, while noting that evaluations are contested.

It is difficult to envisage a way for the UK Government to publicise the thinking behind its choices (Step 3) and predictions (Step 4) in a way that would encourage effective public deliberation, rather than a highly technical debate between a small number of academics:

Further, people often call for the UK Government to publicise its expert advice and operational logic, but I am not sure how they would separate it from their normative logic, or provide a frank account without unintended consequences for public trust or anxiety. If so, government policy involves (a) to keep some choices implicit to avoid a lot of debate on trade-offs, and (b) to make general statements about choices when they do not know what their impact will be.

Step 5 Make a recommendation to your client

Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Examine your case through the eyes of a policymaker. Keep it simple and concise.
  • Make a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
  • Client-oriented advisors identify the beliefs of policymakers and tailor accordingly.
  • ‘Unless your client asks you not to do so, you should explicitly recommend one policy’

I now invite you to make a recommendation (step 5) based on our discussion so far (steps 1-4). Define the problem with one framing at the expense of the others. Romanticise some people and not others. Decide how to support some people, and coerce or punish others. Prioritise the lives of some people in the knowledge that others will suffer or die. Do it despite your lack of expertise and profoundly limited knowledge and information. Learn from experts, but don’t assume that only scientific experts have relevant knowledge (decolonise; coproduce). Recommend choices that, if damaging, could take decades to fix after you’ve gone. Consider if a policymaker is willing and able to act on your advice, and if your proposed action will work as intended. Consider if a government is willing and able to bear the economic and political costs. Protect your client’s popularity, and trust in your client, at the same time as protecting lives. Consider if your advice would change if the problem would seem to change. If you are writing your analysis, maybe keep it down to one sheet of paper (and certainly far fewer words than in this post). Better you than me.

Please now watch this video before I suggest that things are not so simple.

Would that policy analysis were so simple

Imagine writing policy analysis in an imaginary world, in which there is a single powerful ‘rational’ policymaker at the heart of government, making policy via an orderly series of stages.

cycle and cycle spirograph 18.2.20

Your audience would be easy to identify at each stage, your analysis would be relatively simple, and you would not need to worry about what happens after you make a recommendation for policy change (since the selection of a solution would lead to implementation).  You could adopt a simple 5 step policy analysis method, use widely-used tools such as cost-benefit analysis to compare solutions, and know where the results would feed into the policy process.

Studies of policy analysts describe how unrealistic this expectation tends to be (Radin, Brans, Thissen).

Table for coronavirus 750

For example, there are many policymakers, analysts, influencers, and experts spread across political systems, and engaging with 101 policy problems simultaneously, which suggests that it is not even clear how everyone fits together and interacts in what we call (for the sake of simplicity) ‘the policy process’.

Instead, we can describe real world policymaking with reference to two factors.

The wider policymaking environment: 1. Limiting the use of evidence

First, policymakers face ‘bounded rationality’, in which they only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of available facts, are unable to separate those facts from their values (since we use our beliefs to evaluate the meaning of facts), struggle to make clear and consistent choices, and do not know what impact they will have. The consequences can include:

  • Limited attention, and lurches of attention. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, and policymaking organizations struggle to process all policy-relevant information. They prioritize some issues and information and ignore the rest.
  • Power and ideas. Some ways of understanding and describing the world dominate policy debate, helping some actors and marginalizing others.
  • Beliefs and coalitions. Policymakers see the world through the lens of their beliefs. They engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy, form coalitions with people who share them, and compete with coalitions who don’t.
  • Dealing with complexity. They engage in ‘trial-and-error strategies’ to deal with uncertain and dynamic environments (see the new section on trial-and-error- at the end).
  • Framing and narratives. Policy audiences are vulnerable to manipulation when they rely on other actors to help them understand the world. People tell simple stories to persuade their audience to see a policy problem and its solution in a particular way.
  • The social construction of populations. Policymakers draw on quick emotional judgements, and social stereotypes, to propose benefits to some target populations and punishments for others.
  • Rules and norms. Institutions are the formal rules and informal understandings that represent a way to narrow information searches efficiently to make choices quickly.
  • Learning. Policy learning is a political process in which actors engage selectively with information, not a rational search for truth.

Evidence-based or expert-informed policymaking

Put simply, policymakers cannot oversee a simple process of ‘evidence-based policymaking’. Rather, to all intents and purposes:

  1. They need to find ways to ignore most evidence so that they can focus disproportionately on some. Otherwise, they will be unable to focus well enough to make choices. The cognitive and organisational shortcuts, described above, help them do it almost instantly.
  2. They also use their experience to help them decide – often very quickly – what evidence is policy-relevant under the circumstances. Relevance can include:
  • How it relates to the policy problem as they define it (Step 1).
  • If it relates to a feasible solution (Step 2).
  • If it is timely, available, understandable, and actionable.
  • If it seems credible, such as from groups representing wider populations, or from people they trust.
  1. They use a specific shortcut: relying on expertise.

However, the vague idea of trusting or not trusting experts is a nonsense, largely because it is virtually impossible to set a clear boundary between relevant/irrelevant experts and find a huge consensus on (exactly) what is happening and what to do. Instead, in political systems, we define the policy problem or find other ways to identify the most relevant expertise and exclude other sources of knowledge.

In the UK Government’s case, it appears to be relying primarily on expertise from its own general scientific advisers, medical and public health advisers, and – perhaps more controversially – advisers on behavioural public policy.

box 7.1

Right now, it is difficult to tell exactly how and why it relies on each expert (at least when the expert is not in a clearly defined role, in which case it would be irresponsible not to consider their advice). Further, there are regular calls on Twitter for ministers to be more open about their decisions.

See also: Coronavirus: do governments ever truly listen to ‘the science’?

However, don’t underestimate the problems of identifying why we make choices, then justifying one expert or another (while avoiding pointless arguments), or prioritising one form of advice over another. Look, for example, at the kind of short-cuts that intelligent people use, which seem sensible enough, but would receive much more intense scrutiny if presented in this way by governments:

  • Sophisticated speculation by experts in a particular field, shared widely (look at the RTs), but questioned by other experts in another field:
  • Experts in one field trusting certain experts in another field based on personal or professional interaction:
  • Experts in one field not trusting a government’s approach based on its use of one (of many) sources of advice:
  • Experts representing a community of experts, criticising another expert (Prof John Ashton), for misrepresenting the amount of expert scepticism of government experts (yes, I am trying to confuse you):
  • Expert debate on how well policymakers are making policy based on expert advice
  • Finding quite-sensible ways to trust certain experts over others, such as because they can be held to account in some way (and may be relatively worried about saying any old shit on the internet):

There are many more examples in which the shortcut to expertise is fine, but not particularly better than another shortcut (and likely to include a disproportionately high number of white men with STEM backgrounds).

Update: of course, they are better than the volume trumps expertise approach:

See also:

Further, in each case, we may be receiving this expert advice via many other people, and by the time it gets to us the meaning is lost or reversed (or there is some really sophisticated expert analysis of something rumoured – not demonstrated – to be true):

For what it’s worth, I tend to favour experts who:

(a) establish the boundaries of their knowledge, (b) admit to high uncertainty about the overall problem:

(c) (in this case) make it clear that they are working on scenarios, not simple prediction

(d) examine critically the too-simple ideas that float around, such as the idea that the UK Government should emulate ‘what works’ somewhere else

(e) situate their own position (in Prof Sridhar’s case, for mass testing) within a broader debate

See also:

See also: Prof Sir John Bell (4.3.20) on why an accurate antibody test is at least one month away and these exchanges on the problems with test ‘accuracy’:

(f) use their expertise on governance to highlight problems with thoughtless criticism

However, note that most of these experts are from a very narrow social background, and from very narrow scientific fields (first in modelling, then likely in testing), despite the policy problem being largely about (a) who, and how many people, a government should try to save, and (b) how far a government should go to change behaviour to do it (Update 2.4.20: I wrote that paragraph before adding so many people to the list). It is understandable to defer in this way during a crisis, but it also contributes to a form of ‘depoliticisation’ that masks profound choices that benefit some people and leave others vulnerable to harm.

See also: COVID-19: a living systematic map of the evidence

See also: To what extent does evidence support decision making during infectious disease outbreaks? A scoping literature review

See also: Covid-19: why is the UK government ignoring WHO’s advice? (British Medical Journal editorial)

See also: Coronavirus: just 2,000 NHS frontline workers tested so far

See also: ‘What’s important is social distancing’ coronavirus testing ‘is a side issue’, says Deputy Chief Medical Officer [Professor Jonathan Van-Tam talks about the important distinction between a currently available test to see if someone has contracted the virus (an antigen test) and a forthcoming test to see if someone has had and recovered from COVID-19 (an antibody test)]. The full interview is here (please feel free to ignore the editorialising of the uploader):

See also: Why is Germany able to test for coronavirus so much more than the UK? (which is mostly a focus on Germany’s innovation and partly on the UK (Public Health England) focus on making sure its test is reliable, in the context of ‘coronavirus tests produced at great speed which have later proven to be inaccurate’ (such as one with a below-30% accuracy rate, which is worse than not testing at all). Compare with The Coronavirus Hit Germany And The UK Just Days Apart But The Countries Have Responded Differently. Here’s How and the Opinion piece ‘A public inquiry into the UK’s coronavirus response would find a litany of failures

See also: Rights and responsibilities in the Coronavirus pandemic

See also: UK police warned against ‘overreach’ in use of virus lockdown powers (although note that there is no UK police force and that Scotland has its own legal system) and Coronavirus: extra police powers risk undermining public trust (Alex Oaten and Chris Allen)

See also (Calderwood resigned as CMO that night):

See also: Social Licensing of Privacy-Encroaching Policies to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic (U.K.) (research on public opinion)

The wider policymaking environment: 2. Limited control

Second, policymakers engage in a messy and unpredictable world in which no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a policy recommendation into an outcome. I normally use the following figure to think through the nature of a complex and unwieldy policymaking environment of which no ‘centre’ of government has full knowledge or control.

image policy process round 2 25.10.18

It helps us identify (further) the ways in which we can reject the idea that the UK Prime Minister and colleagues can fully understand and solve policy problems:

Actors. The environment contains many policymakers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government (‘venues’).

For example, consider how many key decisions that (a) have been made by organisations not in the UK central government, and (b) are more or less consistent with its advice, including:

  • Devolved governments announcing their own healthcare and public health responses (although the level of UK coordination seems more significant than the level of autonomy).
  • Public sector employers initiating or encouraging at-home working (and many Universities moving quickly from in-person to online teaching)
  • Private organisations cancelling cultural and sporting events.

Context and events. Policy solutions relate to socioeconomic context and events which can be impossible to ignore and out of the control of policymakers. The coronavirus, and its impact on so many aspects on population health and wellbeing, is an extreme example of this problem.

Networks, Institutions, and Ideas. Policymakers and influencers operate in subsystems (specialist parts of political systems). They form networks or coalitions built on the exchange of resources or facilitated by trust underpinned by shared beliefs or previous cooperation. Many different parts of government have practices driven by their own formal and informal rules. Formal rules are often written down or known widely. Informal rules are the unwritten rules, norms and practices that are difficult to understand, and may not even be understood in the same way by participants. Political actors relate their analysis to shared understandings of the world – how it is, and how it should be – which are often so established as to be taken for granted. These dominant frames of reference establish the boundaries of the political feasibility of policy solutions.  These kinds of insights suggest that most policy decisions are considered, made, and delivered in the name of – but not in the full knowledge of – government ministers.

Trial and error policymaking in complex policymaking systems (17.3.20)

There are many ways to conceptualise this policymaking environment, but few theories provide specific advice on what to do, or how to engage effectively in it. One notable exception is the general advice that comes from complexity theory, including:

  • Law-like behaviour is difficult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Policymaking systems are difficult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
  • Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies.  An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
  • Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.

On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:

  1. Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
  2. To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.
  3. Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure (although see this example and this comment).
  4. Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’.

In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.

[See also: Complex systems and systems thinking]

Now, just imagine the UK Government taking that advice right now. I think it is fair to say that it would be condemned continuously (even more so than right now). Maybe that is because it is the wrong way to make policy in times of crisis. Maybe it is because too few people are willing and able to accept that the role of a small group of people at the centre of government is necessarily limited, and that effective policymaking requires trial-and-error rather than a single, fixed, grand strategy to be communicated to the public. The former highlights policy that changes with new information and perspective. The latter highlights errors of judgement, incompetence, and U-turns. In either case, the advice is changing as estimates of the coronavirus’ impact change:

I think this tension, in the way that we understand UK government, helps explain some of the criticism that it faces when changing its advice to reflect changes in its data or advice. This criticism becomes intense when people also question the competence or motives of ministers (and even people reporting the news) more generally, leading to criticism that ranges from mild to outrageous:

For me, this casual reference to a government policy to ‘cull the heard of the weak’ is outrageous, but you can find much worse on Twitter. It reflects wider debate on whether ‘herd immunity’ is or is not government policy. Much of it relates to interpretation of government statements, based on levels of trust/distrust in the UK Government, its Prime Minister and Secretaries of State, and the Prime Minister’s special adviser

However, I think that some of it is also about:

1. Wilful misinterpretation (particularly on Twitter). For example, in the early development and communication of policy, Boris Johnson was accused (in an irresponsibly misleading way) of advocating for herd immunity rather than restrictive measures.

See: Here is the transcript of what Boris Johnson said on This Morning about the new coronavirus (Full Fact)

full fact coronavirus

Below is one of the most misleading videos of its type. Look at how it cuts each segment into a narrative not provided by ministers or their advisors (see also this stinker):

See also:

2. The accentuation of a message not being emphasised by government spokespeople.

See for example this interview, described by Sky News (13.3.20) as: The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has told Sky News that about 60% of people will need to become infected with coronavirus in order for the UK to enjoy “herd immunity”. You might be forgiven for thinking that he was on Sky extolling the virtues of a strategy to that end (and expressing sincere concerns on that basis). This was certainly the write-up in respected papers like the FT (UK’s chief scientific adviser defends ‘herd immunity’ strategy for coronavirus). Yet, he was saying nothing of the sort. Rather, when prompted, he discussed herd immunity in relation to the belief that COVID-19 will endure long enough to become as common as seasonal flu.

The same goes for Vallance’s interview on the same day (13.3.20) during Radio 4’s Today programme (transcribed by the Spectator, which calls Vallance the author, and gives it the headlineHow ‘herd immunity’ can help fight coronavirusas if it is his main message). The Today Programme also tweeted only 30 seconds to single out that brief exchange:

Yet, clearly his overall message – in this and other interviews – was that some interventions (e.g. staying at home; self-isolating with symptoms) would have bigger effects than others (e.g. school closures; prohibiting mass gatherings) during the ‘flattening of the peak’ strategy (‘What we don’t want is everybody to end up getting it in a short period of time so that we swamp and overwhelm NHS services’). Rather than describing ‘herd immunity’ as a strategy, he is really describing how to deal with its inevitability (‘Well, I think that we will end up with a number of people getting it’).

See also: British government wants UK to acquire coronavirus ‘herd immunity’, writes Robert Peston (12.3.20) and live debates (and reports grasping at straws) on whether or not ‘herd immunity’ was the goal of the UK government:

See also: Why weren’t we ready? (Harry Lambert) which is a good exemplar of the ‘U turn’ argument, and compare with the evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee (CMO Whitty, DCMO Harries) that it describes.

A more careful forensic analysis (such as this one) will try to relate each government choice to the ways in which key advisory bodies (such as the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, NERVTAG) received and described evidence on the current nature of the problem:

See also: Special Report: Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm (Reuters)

Some aspects may also be clearer when there is systematic qualitative interview data on which to draw. Right now, there are bits and pieces of interviews sandwiched between whopping great editorial discussions (e.g. FT Alphaville Imperial’s Neil Ferguson: “We don’t have a clear exit strategy”; compare with the more useful Let’s flatten the coronavirus confusion curve) or confused accounts by people speaking to someone who has spoken to someone else (e.g. Buzzfeed Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why).

See also: other rabbit holes are available

[OK, that proved to be a big departure from the trial-and-error discussion. Here we are, back again]

In some cases, maybe people are making the argument that trial-and-error is the best way to respond quickly, and adapt quickly, in a crisis but that the UK Government version is not what, say, the WHO thinks of as good kind of adaptive response. It is not possible to tell, at least from the general ways in which they justify acting quickly.

See also the BBC’s provocative question (which I expect to be replaced soon):

Compare with:

The take home messages

  1. The coronavirus is an extreme example of a general situation: policymakers will always have very limited knowledge of policy problems and control over their policymaking environment. They make choices to frame problems narrowly enough to seem solvable, rule out most solutions as not feasible, make value judgements to try help some more than others, try to predict the results, and respond when the results to not match their hopes or expectations.
  2. This is not a message of doom and despair. Rather, it encourages us to think about how to influence government, and hold policymakers to account, in a thoughtful and systematic way that does not mislead the public or exacerbate the problem we are seeing.

Further reading, until I can think of a better conclusion:

This series of ‘750 words’ posts summarises key texts in policy analysis and tries to situate policy analysis in a wider political and policymaking context. Note the focus on whose knowledge counts, which is not yet a big feature of this crisis.

These series of 500 words and 1000 words posts (with podcasts) summarise concepts and theories in policy studies.

This page on evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) uses those insights to demonstrate why EBPM is  a political slogan rather than a realistic expectation.

These recorded talks relate those insights to common questions asked by researchers: why do policymakers seem to ignore my evidence, and what can I do about it? I’m happy to record more (such as on the topic you just read about) but not entirely sure who would want to hear what.

See also: Advisers, Governments and why blunders happen? (Colin Talbot)

See also: Why we might disagree about … Covid-19 (Ruth Dixon and Christopher Hood)

See also: Pandemic Science and Politics (Daniel Sarewitz)

See also: We knew this would happen. So why weren’t we ready? (Steve Bloomfield)

See also: Europe’s coronavirus lockdown measures compared (Politico)

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Filed under 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer, POLU9UK, Prevention policy, Psychology Based Policy Studies, Public health, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy

The background of new MSPs

There is an interesting set of stories, by David Leask and colleagues in the Herald, about the background of MSPs. I take an interest as part of a team of scholars comparing backgrounds in Westminster and devolved assemblies.

Normally, one measure uses education as a proxy for class: we look at the proportion of members who went from private schools on to Oxford or Cambridge. We then normally find that, for example, Conservative MPs are more likely than most to have come via this route.

In the Scottish Parliament, compared to Westminster, you tend to find fewer members with this background, partly because there are fewer Conservatives, but also because there are subtle differences: fewer people in Scotland go to private schools (this is difficult to gauge, but is maybe 4-6% in Scotland compared to 7% in England, and it’s higher in places like Edinburgh and Aberdeen) and places like Glasgow University are bigger recruiting grounds than Oxbridge.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the mix of state school backgrounds. Many people recently noted the stark differences in attainment between schools in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if (as we might expect) MSPs are far more likely to come from the least deprived areas? The Herald has done the heavy lifting by providing the list of secondary schools attended by MSPs, but it will take a bit of work to get a clear picture (the SSLN is newish, and many of MSPs’ previous schools no longer exist).

Why does it matter?

With colleagues such as Lynn Bennie, I hope to go into this question in more detail. We want to speak individually to MSPs to get their individual stories, to help us build up a picture of the barriers they faced before becoming candidates with a shot of winning a seat. One key barrier relates to gender, as a traditional source of selection bias and a factor in the supply of candidates, and another is broadly described as class. It would be interesting to see how education and poverty-related factors contributed to barriers to candidacy, and if many MSPs faced them (and using proxy measures can only take us so far).

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Filed under Scottish politics, Social change

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies

See also three more recent posts:

  1. Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge
  2. Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism
  3. Policy Analysis in 750 words: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies

In this post, let’s begin with a transition from two others: combining theories, and critical policy studies/ the NPF. Both posts raise the same basic question: what is science? This question leads to a series of concerns about the criteria we use to determine which theories are most worthy of our investment, and the extent to which social scientific criteria should emulate those in natural science.

One set of criteria, which you can find in the ‘policy shootout!’, relates to the methods and principles we might associate with some branches of natural science (and use, for example, to support astronomy but not astrology):

  • A theory’s methods should be explained so that they can be replicated by others.
  • Its concepts should be clearly defined, logically consistent, and give rise to empirically falsifiable hypotheses.
  • Its propositions should be as general as possible.
  • It should set out clearly what the causal processes are.
  • It should be subject to empirical testing and revision

If we were to provide a caricature of this approach, we might associate it with other explicit or implicit principles, such as:

  1. The world exists independently of our knowledge of it, and our role is to develop theories to help us understand its properties (for example, discover its general laws).
  2. These principles help us produce objective science: if the methods and results can be replicated, they do not depend on individual scientists.

In other words, the caricature is of a man in a white lab coat gathering knowledge of his object of study while remaining completely separate from it. Such principles are generally difficult to maintain, and relatively tricky in the study of the social world (and it seems increasingly common for one part of PhD training to relate to reflexivity – see what is our role in social scientific research)? However, critical challenges go far beyond this point about false objectivity.

The challenge to objective science: 1. the role of emancipatory research

One aspect of feminist and postcolonial social science is to go beyond the simple rejection of the idea of objective social science: a further key (or perhaps primary) aim is to generate research with emancipatory elements. This may involve producing research questions with explicit normative elements and combining research with recommendations on social and political change.

The challenge to objective science: 2. a rejection of the dominant scientific method?

A second aspect is the challenge to the idea that one dominant conception of scientific method is correct. Instead, one might describe the scientific rules developed by one social group to the exclusion of others. This may involve historical analysis to identify the establishment of an elite white male dominance of science in the ‘West’, and the ‘Western’ dominance of science across the world.

To such scientists, a challenge to these criteria seems ridiculous: why reject the scientific principles that help us produce objective science and major social and technological advances? To their challengers, this response may reflect a desire to protect the rules associated with elite privilege, and to maintain dominance over the language we use to establish which social groups should be respected as the generators of knowledge (the recipients of prestige and funding, and perhaps the actors most influential in policy).

The challenge to objective science: 3. the democratisation of knowledge production

A third is the challenge to the idea that only well-trained scientists can produce valuable knowledge. This may involve valuing the knowledge of lived experience as a provider of new perspectives (particularly when people are in the unusual position to understand and compare their perspective and those of others). It also involves the development of new research methods and principles, combined with a political challenge to the dominance of a small number of scientific methods (for example, see rejections of the hierarchy of knowledge at which the systematic review of randomised control trials is often at the top).

Revisiting the live debate on the NPF and critical/ interpretive studies

This seems like good context for some of the debate on the NPF (see this special issue). One part of the debate may be about fundamentally different ideas about how we do research: do we adhere to specific scientific principles, or reject them in favour of a focus on, for example, generating meaning from statements and actions in particular contexts?

Another part may reflect wider political views on what these scientific principles represent (an elitist and exclusionary research agenda, whose rules reinforce existing privileges) and the role of alternative methods, in which critical policy studies may play an important part. In other words, we may be witnessing such a heated debate because critical theorists see the NPF as symbolic of attempts by some scholars to (a) reassert a politically damaging approach to academic research and (b) treat other forms of research as unscientific.

Where do we go from here?

If so, we have raised the stakes considerably. When I wrote previously about the problems of combining the insights and knowledge from different theories, it often related to the practical problems of research resources and potential for conceptual misunderstanding. Now, we face a more overt political dimension to social research and some fundamentally different understandings of its role by different social groups.

Can these understandings be reconciled, or will they remain ‘incommensurable’, in which we cannot generate agreement on the language to use to communicate research, and therefore the principles on which to compare the relative merits of approaches? I don’t know.

Initial further reading

Paying attention to this intellectual and political challenge provides a good way ‘in’ to reading that may seem relatively unfamiliar, at least for students with (a) some grounding in the policy theories I describe, and (b) looking to expand their horizons.

Possibly the closest link to our focus is when:

First, we know that policy problems do not receive policymaker attention because they are objectively important. Instead, actors compete to define issues and maximise attention to that definition. Second, we do the same when we analyse public policy: we decide which issues are worthy of study and how to define problems. Bacchi (1999) argues that the ‘conventional’ policy theorists (including Simon, Bardach, Lindblom, Wildavsky) try to ‘stand back from the policy process’ to give advice from afar, while others (including Fischer, Drysek, Majone) “recognise the analysts’ necessarily normative involvement in advice giving” (1999: 200). Combining both points, Bacchi argues that feminists should engage in both processes – to influence how policymakers and analysts define issues – to, for example, challenge ‘constructions of problems which work to disempower women’ (1999: 204). This is a topic (how should academics engage in the policy process?) which I follow up in a study of EBPM.

For a wider discussion of feminist studies and methods, see:

  • Fonow and Cook’s ‘pragmatic’ discussion about how to do feminist public policy research based on key principles:

‘Our original analysis of feminist approaches to social science research in women’s studies revealed some commonalities, which we articulated as guiding principles of feminist methodology: first, the necessity of continuously and reflexively attending to the significance of gender and gender asymmetry as a basic feature of all social life, including the conduct of research; second, the centrality of consciousness-raising or debunking as a specific methodological tool and as a general orientation or way of seeing; third, challenging the norm of objectivity that assumes that the subject and object of research can be separated from each other and that personal and/or grounded experiences are unscientific; fourth, concern for the ethical implications of feminist research and recognition of the exploitation of women as objects of knowledge; and finally, emphasis on the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research and research results’ (Fonow and Cook, 2005: 2213).

  • Lovenduski on early attempts to reinterpret political science through the lens of feminist theory/ research.

Note the links between our analysis of power/ideas and institutions as the norms and rules (informal and formal, written and unwritten) which help produce regular patterns of behaviour which benefit some and exclude others (and posts on bounded rationality, EBPM and complexity: people use simple rules to turn a complex world into manageable strategies, but to whose benefit?).

With feminist research comes a shift of focus from sex (as a primarily biological definition) and gender (as a definition based on norms and roles performed by individuals), and therefore the (ideal-type) ‘codes of masculinity and femininity’ which underpin political action and even help define which aspects of public policy are public or private. This kind of research links to box 3.3 in Understanding Public Policy (note that it relates to my discussion of Schattschneider and the privatisation/ socialisation of conflict, which he related primarily to ‘big business’).

box 3.3 gender policy

Then see two articles which continue our theme of combining theories and insights carefully:

  • Kenny’s discussion of feminist institutionalism, which seems like one of many variants of new institutionalism (e.g. this phrase could be found in many discussions of new institutionalism: ‘seemingly neutral institutional processes and practices are in fact embedded in hidden norms and values, privileging certain groups over others’ – Kenny, 2007: 95) but may involve ‘questioning the very foundations and assumptions of mainstream institutional theory’. Kenny argues that few studies of new institutionalism draw on feminist research (‘there has been little dialogue between the two fields’) and, if they were to do so, may produce very different analyses of power and ‘the political’. This point reinforces the problems I describe in combining theories when we ignore the different meanings that people attach to apparently identical concepts.
  • Mackay and Meier’s concern (quoted here) that new institutionalism could be ‘an enabling framework – or an intellectual strait-jacket” for feminist scholarship’. Kenny and Mackay identify similar issues about ‘epistemological incompatibilities’ when we combine approaches such as feminist research and rational choice institutionalism.
  • These approaches receive more coverage in the 2nd edition of Understanding Public Policy, and are summarised in Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

Here is one example of a link between ‘postcolonial’ studies and public policy:

  • Munshi and Kurian’s identify the use of ‘postcolonial filters’ to reinterpret the framing of corporate social responsibility, describing ‘the old colonial strategy of reputation management among elite publics at the expense of marginalized publics’ which reflects a ‘largely Western, top-down way of doing or managing things’. In this case, we are talking about frames as structures or dominant ways to understand the world. Actors exercise power to reinforce a particular way of thinking which benefits some at the expense of others. Munshi and Kurian describe a ‘dominant, largely Western, model of economic growth and development’ which corporations seek to protect with reference to, for example, the ‘greenwashing’ of their activities to divert attention from the extent to which ‘indigenous peoples and poorer communities in a number of developing countries “are generally the victims of environmental degradation mostly caused by resource extractive operations of MNCs in the name of global development”’ (see p516).

It is also worth noting that I have, in some ways, lumped feminism and postcolonialism together when they are separate fields with different (albeit often overlapping and often complementary) traditions. See for example Emejulu’s Beyond Feminism’s White Gaze.

For more discussion, please see

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies

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Women don’t understand facts (and fracking)

A recent poll suggests that women are far less likely to support commercial fracking than men. For a while, the same divide was detected in relation to Scottish independence. The common factor is that you can learn a lot from people’s attitudes to gender by how they try to explain these divides.

A common starting point is that women are less likely to take risks (quick and cheap Google examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Then lots of people make fools of themselves by adding to the explanation: women prefer security/ a ‘safety blanket’ because their role is to nurture, earth mothers are closer to the environment, men are buccaneers, men are more ‘rational’ when they consider risk, and so on.

Or, perhaps they are misreported. I don’t know.

For example, it is now being reported in the Times that Professor Averil MacDonald (‘the new champion of the shale gas industry’) says: ‘Vast numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they “don’t understand” and follow their gut instinct rather than the facts’ (the same interpretation can be found in the Guardian, Daily Mail, and Independent).

The message that I think MacDonald was presenting is this: people are less likely to support fracking if they didn’t study particular sciences at school; and, women are less likely to have studied those sciences at school. Maybe, at its core, is a good point about challenging the barriers to women studying, and choosing a career in, certain science subjects (i.e. these findings might give us a window of opportunity to discuss such barriers).

Turned into a newspaper headline it becomes this: “Fracking? Women ‘don’t understand the science’”.

Beyond this point, there are four other things worthy of discussion:

  1. You can’t separate your values from your empirical studies and scientific explanations

Some people like to present themselves as objective truth-seeking scientists, but they are kidding themselves or trying to kid other people. Scientific study is infused with our values, from what is worthy of our study, to how to study it, and what counts as good research, evidence, and explanation. Normally, you just see the end without considering all the assumptions that people make at the beginning. Or, people engage in inductive science, then struggle with post-hoc explanation (‘umm, like, women are different, eh?’).

  1. You can’t separate politics from explanation

Part of the problem with gender-based conclusions is that people jump to explanations based on the too-broad category ‘women’ (or ‘men’) without considering the political implications of treating one gender as one group of people. Maybe it gets you somewhere initially, as a way of efficiently identifying correlations, but it gets you nowhere if you then try and come up with one overarching explanation for what is going on. It’s quite bad science and it’s very bad politics, contributing to unsubstantiated stereotypes. The overall correlation also distracts us from more detailed explanations based on gender and a wide range of other factors, which contributes to a further political problem: it reinforces the argument that somehow the difference between a positive or negative political choice boils down to the attitudes of women.

  1. People go beyond their expertise

It is common for people to develop an undeserved general reputation for expertise, built on specific expertise in one discipline or field. It’s always worth being particularly skeptical when people with a background in natural science pronounce on social behaviour, or indeed when political scientists try to explain psychology or how gravity works. Just as you wouldn’t ask me to give a lecture on the combustion engine, don’t rely primarily on STEM professors to explain the outcomes of surveys.

  1. All people combine ‘rational’ and gut-level shortcuts

If you read something like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you won’t find him saying that only women make gut, intuitive, or emotional decisions. We’re all at it. In fact, in my forthcoming Palgrave ‘Pivot’ book The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking* I use that basic insight to explain policymaking: Policymakers cannot consider all evidence relevant to policy problems. They use two shortcuts: ‘rational’ ways to establish the best evidence, and ‘irrational’ decision-making, drawing on emotions and beliefs to act quickly.

*Yes, I wrote this post largely to advertise my next publication.

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What can be done about the UK’s ‘glass floor’?

New research on the ‘glass floor’ presents a striking way to understand socioeconomic inequality in the UK. It also highlights ever-present problems in translating such information into policy: we understand the size of the problem well, speculate on its cause badly, and produce vague calls for government action ineffectively. Our initial shock and enthusiasm for policy change translates into disenchantment with yet another ‘too difficult’ problem.

The UK Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has released new research on the life chances of the British population. It identifies a “’glass floor’ in British society” to reject the idea that people get on in life through hard work and merit. Instead, mediocre and lazy children in the right family will do better than bright and hardworking children in the wrong family.

This is horrible paraphrasing of the report, but you get the idea about how most people might notice the report in a hurry, have their beliefs about the lack of a British meritocracy reinforced, then complain that the government is doing enough about it. There wasn’t quite a public outcry (far from it), but you might be forgiven for thinking that the report gives the government plenty of reason to do something. The big question is: will it do anything new with the information?

I wouldn’t rule it out, but would exercise this note of caution: reports like this don’t speak for themselves or give governments a clear impetus to act. Instead, they form part of a larger pattern in this area (of socio-economic inequalities policy), in which we can speak with much more certainty about the size of the problem than (a) its cause, (b) how we should respond, and (c) who exactly should respond.

The size of the problem

The size of the problem is quantified well (it’s not a simple task to measure cognitive ability, class backgrounds and life chances like this) and easy to understand. For example, the commission’s press release states that:

‘Less able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids … children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age 5 as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households. Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability’.

The cause of the problem

This is when things get a bit trickier, because although the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, describes ‘a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain’, the commission is not entirely clear on who or what caused it. There is not one simple message about a single villain. Instead, there are at least two, and both stories are not crystal clear.

First, the author of the report, Dr Abigail McKnight, links the outcomes to the behaviour of certain parents:

“The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children.”

The keyword there is ‘hoarding’, which suggests inappropriately selfish behaviour. Yet, the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, is keen not to blame parents: ‘No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want’.

Instead, Milburn sort of blames the government for its current lack of proportionate action: ‘The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them’.

The result is a mixed view about the cause of the problem – perhaps it’s the fault of some hoarding parents (the especially rich ones sending their kids to private schools, getting tutors and securing internships for their children) and not so much others (the ones using their own skills to secure a spot for their child in a good state school) – and maybe the solution is to give other parents some of these skills to ‘level the playing field’ a bit.

The realistic solution

This is when things get even trickier, because the report seems to call for the government to do far more than it will, while giving it the ability to say that it is already doing as much as it should.

In the ‘far more than it will’ column is the call to reduce socio-economic inequalities (through wealth and income redistribution?), remove differences in quality between schools, and remove class-based barriers to University admissions.

In the ‘sort of doing it already’ column is the call for the state to intervene early in people’s lives to, in effect, train disadvantaged parents in how to give their children things like ‘soft skills’ related to forming networks and spotting opportunities.

The ultimate complication

The final, and perhaps trickiest, obstacle is about working out who is in charge of taking the next step, to drive this new policy agenda forward. The final paragraph of the main report is instructive:

‘If politicians are serious about their expressed desire to increase social mobility in the UK they will need to address barriers that are preventing less advantaged children from reaching their full potential and remove barriers that block downward mobility’.

It doesn’t say who the politicians are – perhaps for good reason. In areas such as social and economic inequality, it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy progress. If it’s mainly about economic redistribution, you can call for action from central government – but, let’s be honest, this won’t get you very far. If it’s mainly about training and encouraging ‘soft skills’ like ‘resilience’, central government might produce a broad strategy document, but its localism agenda suggests that it expects local public bodies to take responsibility for social outcomes.

The overall message is that it takes us seconds to understand the problem and call for government action, but a lot longer to decide what we want them to do, and longer still to find the people likely to do it. By that time, our attention will probably have shifted elsewhere, until the next report comes out and we do it all over again. Maybe this time will be different.

 

 

 

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The Gerry Adams Novelty Mugs on Twitter Test

How far ahead can we make accurate and detailed political predictions? I propose the Gerry Adams Novelty Mugs on Twitter Test. We ask: how many years ago could you have predicted that Gerry Adams would be tweeting about novelty mugs?

https://twitter.com/GerryAdamsSF/status/430801541373915137

gerry adams mugs

We could probably have made that prediction, say, a year ago based on his whimsical twitter style. However, think about the difficulties in going further back, say 5-10 years, to consider the role of the rise of social media and its confluence with Adams’ new position in the political landscape. Then, consider that Adams’ case is relatively simple, compared to the interaction between a wide range of actors, institutions, socioeconomic conditions and events which produce political changes. In short, the test is there to remind us to be wary of people claiming to have the political equivalent of clairvoyance.

See also:

Predicting the future

McBusted has been to the Year 3000 and it predicts a higher income tax in Scotland relative to the rest of the UK

In 50 years, we won’t care about North Sea Oil because we’ll be on solar jet packs

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas

panopticon

(podcast download)

Compare with Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas. These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. A good rule of thumb, from classic studies, is that the more profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe.

Dahl argued that elitism was unobservable; that it was ‘virtually impossible to disprove’ the idea that inequalities in society translate into systematic advantages across the political system. Dahl’s classic statement is that, ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can [or does] get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’. To demonstrate this power requires the identification of A’s: resources, means to exploit those resources, willingness to engage in political action; the amount of power exerted (or threatened) by A and the effect of A’s action on B. Dahl identified ‘key political choices’ involving a significant conflict of preferences – suggesting that the powerful are those that benefit from ‘concrete outcomes’. He identified inequalities in many areas but no overall, coordinated, control of the policy process. His work is often described as ‘pluralist’.

Subsequent debates were based on a critique of pluralist methods. Bachrach and Baratz argued that the ‘second face’ of power is exercised before Dahl’s ‘key political choices’. Power is not simply about visible conflicts. It can relate to two barriers to engagement. First, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. In such cases, power and powerlessness relates to the inability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, groups may exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda may be ‘safe’ – more attention to them means less attention to the imbalances of power within society. Schattschneider argues (in A Realist’s View of Democracy) that the structures of government, such as legislative procedures controlling debate, reinforce this problem when determining which conflicts receive attention and which are ignored.

The ‘third dimension’ of power suggests that people or organizations can be powerful without appearing to act. For example, Crenson’s study of US air pollution found that regulations were relatively low in a town (Gary, Indiana) dependent on US steel. Using pluralist methods, we would witness inactivity, or overt agreement on minimal regulations. This would disguise a power relationship in which one group (US Steel) benefited at another’s (Gary’s ill population) expense. US Steel was powerful without having to act, and the town’s public was powerless because it felt unable to act. Lukes takes the idea of a false consensus further, drawing on Marxist descriptions of the exploitation of the working classes within a capitalist system: if only they knew the full facts – that capitalism worked against their real interests – they would rise up and overthrow it. In this scenario, they do not object because they are manipulated into thinking that capitalism is their best chance of increasing their standard of living. We observe a consensus between capitalists and workers, but one benefits at the expense of the other.

Foucault describes a further dimension of power, drawing on the idea of society modelled on a prison. The power of the state to monitor and punish may reach the point in which its subjects assume that they are always visible. This ‘perfection of power’ – associated with the all-seeing ‘Panopticon’ – renders the visible exercise of power unnecessary. Individuals accept that discipline is a fact of life, anticipate the consequences of their actions and regulate their own behaviour. Control may be so embedded in our psyches, knowledge and language, that it is ‘normalized’ and invisible. We ‘know’ which forms of behaviour are deviant and should be regulated or punished. Therefore, power is exercised not merely by the state, but also individuals who control their behaviour and that of others.

These arguments rely as much on the role of ideas as power. Discussions of agenda setting focus on the ability of groups to ‘frame’ issues as inoocuous or specialist, to limit the number of participants in the policy process. Bachrach and Baratz’s first barrier to engagement is the dominant set of beliefs held within society. Luke’s third dimension of power focuses on what people believe to be their real interests and the extent to which those perceptions can be manipulated. He describes Gramscian ‘hegemony’ in which the most powerful dominate state institutions and the intellectual and moral world in which we decide which actions are most worthy of attention and which are right or wrong. Foucault’s social control is based on common beliefs/ knowledge of normality and deviance.

In this context, ideas may be used:

  1. To limit policy change by excluding participants who hold beliefs that challenge current arrangements.
  2. By excluded groups to challenge barriers to policymaking engagement. While some studies might suggest that elite or state dominance may never be challenged, others treat established ideas as barriers to engagement which can be overcome (as in the studies by Bachrach & Baratz and Crenson).

This has been a whistle-stop tour of power and ideas. Other discussions are available, including:

  • We used to talk more about structural power carried out by individuals, with no autonomy or choice, on behalf of certain classes. Now, we talk about a combination of individual action and the rules they follow (see forthcoming post on institutions).
  • Luck. Power may be measured according to outcomes – the powerful benefit from decisions, and the powerless lose out. If so, people may be ‘lucky’ as well as powerful. They may benefit from outcomes secured by the actions of others (see forthcoming post on rational choice).

box 3.1 powerbox 11.1

(For the source of the tables, see https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/policy-theory-into-practice/ or here)

Series: Policy Concepts in 1000 words

See also: Making Sense of Policymaking: why it’s always someone else’s fault and nothing ever changes

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Och Aye or Och No: we don’t know

Lesley Riddoch’s piece in the Scotsman argues that the Scottish Independence campaign, so far, has been a bit crap. No one (bar the single minded numpty) is quite sure what they want and they need better information. They won’t get that if Yes/ No campaigns just invite people to vote yes or no, or if they just get ‘one-sided “propaganda”’. They ‘need an authentic choice’. That choice needs to come via something like a ‘pre-referendum Constitutional Convention’ which ‘would let voters compare all propositions before taking the plunge’:

It’s naïve perhaps to think political parties might sink bitter differences for the sake of democracy. But as things stand, this referendum may be remembered more for the chronic indecision of the Scottish people than any actual result.

For me, the naïve idea is that we can construct a commission to set out the facts in an objective way. I reckon that it comes from a romantic view of the Nordics, where many countries have this reputation for consensus-building. The problem with this idea is that consensus-seeking is also debate-stifling. It does not sit well with the UK tradition of open, often adversarial, argument in which two groups present opposing arguments and ask people to choose between them. The advantage of this system is that it is entertaining and relatively likely to capture the public imagination. The more theatrical, the better. If anything, the debate has received too much attention – it has dominated Scottish debate for ages – at the expense of more important issues. This seems, to me, to be more useful than hanging our hats on a commission – which, if it is populated by thinky-folk, could only produce an honest report if it says: “how the hell do we know what will happen?”.

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A Realist’s View of Democracy

Imagine two very different starting points to consider democracy. One is to say that politics is ‘broken’ and that we need to rediscover popular democracy. The other is to say that almost all decisions are made, necessarily, by a very small number of people out of the public spotlight – and that no political reform will change this fact. How might we bring those two points closer together? We should start with Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy (in America – first published 1960; I am using the 1975 version).

Schattschneider’s argument is timeless because he describes (a) a widespread belief in the power of democracy but (b) a disdain for unrealistic expectations about the power of ‘the people’ and (c) a belief that the more realistic vehicle for democracy – government – contains undemocratic elements.  So, he provides a series of warnings against the assumption that there is a simple way to encourage popular democracy:

The beginning of wisdom in democratic theory is to distinguish between the things the people can do and the things the people cannot do. The worst possible disservice that can be done to the democratic cause is to attribute to the people a mystical, magical omnipotence which takes no cognizance of what very large numbers of people cannot do by the sheer weight of numbers. At this point the common definition of democracy has invited us to make fools of ourselves. What 180 million people can do spontaneously, on their own initiative, is not much more than a locomotive can do without rails (1975: 136)

For Schattschneider, the key argument is that a political system can be run well if most decisions are made by the government on behalf of the people, with minimal public involvement, and the very small number of important decisions is made with maximal public involvement. So far, so good (if we ignore the very-problematic idea that ‘the people’ is a real thing and that we can agree on what the most important problems are). The problem is that the political system does not ensure that these issues are the ones most likely to be discussed. On the contrary – a key source of power is to make sure that people pay attention to innocuous issues at the expense of the more important ones.

Schattschneider (1975: 2–5) creates a thought experiment to demonstrate that, in any conflict, the audience could be more important than the original participants. The people matter when they pay attention and become mobilized. Think of two fighters surrounded by a massive crowd – its composition, bias towards each fighter and willingness to engage are crucial. The outcome of conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved. However, there are far more potential conflicts than any public can pay attention to. Therefore, most are ignored and the people are ‘semi-sovereign’ – only able to exercise their power in a few areas.

This is important because there are systematic imbalances in social systems that may require systematic attention. For example, the pressure group system is not pluralistic; a small proportion of the population – the well-educated and upper class – is active and well represented by groups (1975: 34–5). The pressure system is largely the preserve of the business class seeking to minimize attention to their activities (1975: 30–7). Therefore, Schattschneider (1975: 12; 119) highlights the need for government to intervene:

Democratic government is the greatest single instrument for the socialization of conflict … big business has to be matched by … big democracy.

Yet, of course, the same argument applies – elected officials within the government can only pay attention to a small number of issues; they have to promote a few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest.  This is where one kind of power becomes important – it is exercised to determine the issues most worthy of government attention. The structures of government, such as legislative procedures controlling debate, reinforce this process by determining which conflicts receive attention and which are ignored:

All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out (1975: 69).

While we may have some vague hope that key decisions receive the most attention, we should not expect it to happen naturally. Rather, groups may exercise power to make sure that important issues do not receive attention. Politics is not only about winners and losers, but also a battle in which the winner seeks to isolate its opponent (by keeping the dispute between them and not a wider audience) and the loser seeks to expand the scope of the conflict by encouraging a part of the audience to become involved. Most political behaviour involves this competition to ‘socialize’ or ‘privatize’ conflict. The most common example may involve keeping an issue off the government agenda by encouraging policymaker attention to relatively ‘safe’ issues – more attention to these issues means less attention to, say, the imbalances of power within society. Another example is when groups exercise power to reinforce public attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, they will not ask the government to intervene.  In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.

If we look at that problem, as I have described it, and conclude that politics is ‘broken’ we should also accept that it cannot be fixed. Or, to put it more positively, we should consider what can be done in that context rather than hoping that political reforms can be a quick fix.  Let’s conclude by thinking of two issues to be addressed. First, can we use existing measures to make sure that ‘the people’ consider the most important issues? We may not agree on what are the most important problems to solve. Maybe the forthcoming in/out referendums in Scotland (in/ out the UK) and the UK (in/out Europe) are good examples, maybe not. Maybe we could generally agree that ‘the economy’ is the big one, without agreeing what we should consider (such as encouraging growth and/ or reducing inequality). Who knows?

The second issue is the one that I think is more of a conundrum: how much attention do you think that we should expect ‘the people’ to pay to the same issue? The thing about public policy is that it involves thousands of decisions, taken hourly or daily when new information arises. We may make one key decision, only to find that we need to make a thousand decisions to inform the substance of that big decision. Do the people just make that big one, or should we expect them to stay involved? Should we expect them to pay attention once per year? Who knows? While this may be starting to sound a bit facetious, it is a serious point that is explored very well by books such as Agendas and Instability. Baumgartner and Jones describe long periods (often several decades) of public inattention to an issue when the assumption is that (a) it received huge attention (b) the problem was ‘solved’ then (c) the details were left to public and private organisations. This process helps explain why the public (a) seemed to support the use of pesticides and nuclear power in the early postwar era, then (b) seemed dead against those things from the 1970s.

It’s at this point in a seminar where I’d say ‘oh look at the time’ rather than try to produce a ‘take home message’ from this discussion because I honestly don’t know what you’d want to take home. Then I’d point out that Jones and Baumgartner were actually optimistic about the links between public opinion and government action and ask you to work that one out.

A lot of this discussion draws on my book Understanding Public Policy, pp 52-6 and the Baumgartner/ Jones chapter is Green Access (Paul Cairney Understanding Public Policy chapter 9 STORRE)

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Democracy Max

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland has published its very interesting report Democracy Max: An Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy. The tone is set with the statement that ‘politics is too important to be left to politicians’. It is reinforced by the broader suggestion that politics is ‘broken’ . The idea is that representative government is flawed. It is not enough to elect politicians to represent us in Parliament. We also need a more direct link between politics, policymaking and ‘the people’. ‘Apathy is a myth’ and people just need the right opportunities to get involved.

This is a familiar refrain in the UK, especially after the MP expenses scandal in 2009. It also has a special place in Scotland. The pursuit of constitutional change is now accompanied by the pursuit of alternative forms of democracy.  It happened before 1997 and it is happening again before 2014. Let’s think about that for a minute: why would we need this debate and reform twice in under twenty years? Why, if we had the debate about politics being broken in the 1990s, do we need to fix it now? The optimistic answer is that no-one fixed Scottish politics – or they just did a patchy job which needs to be re-done (see p.49). The pessimistic answer is that Scottish politics cannot or will not be fixed. Representative government is here to stay, warts and all.

We can explore these possibilities by comparing the ‘new politics’ in the Democracy Max proposals with the ‘new politics’ in the 1990s (as promoted by bodies such as cross-party and ‘civil society’ group, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, SCC  and the Consultative Steering Group, CSG, set up by the UK Government to establish the Scottish Parliament’s standing orders and principles). We can identify: (a) the similarities in tone and substance between the reports; (b) why things are not likely to change despite the hopes expressed in such reports; and/ or (c) what would need to happen to produce greater success second time round.

How do you challenge the role of political parties *and* get their help? The SCC involved parties (primarily Labour, Liberal Democrat and to-be-Green), noting that ‘It is the instinct of political parties to disagree with one another, and the instinct of civic groups like the churches, the trade unions and others to be impatient with the preoccupations of politicians’. One of its stated successes was taking the time to hammer out a deal between parties and groups – an agreement deemed necessary for the success of its proposals in Scotland (although devolution policy was the responsibility of the UK Government).  The ERS makes clear that it is an independent body, not a political party, helping to produce ‘a vision informed by people not politicians’ (pp6-7). The obvious question that arises is: who will turn its vision into reality? The devolution experience suggests that political parties and governments were the gatekeepers to political reform.

Will more venues produce better representatives? One tentative solution by the ERS is to provide resources (such as grants) to reduce the barriers for people to stand for election – to address the stated problem that people generally seek election only through parties. At the same time, they propose more local venues for election – a strong local government underpinned by further devolution to smaller units and/ or “’Mini-publics’ – deliberative local groups working alongside representative democracy, empowering people to run their own towns and villages”. The ERS perhaps have this sort of thing in mind (this isn’t just a wee joke; I really like the Gilmore Girls):

The ERS suggests that people who tend to be uninvolved in, or feel excluded from, national politics may be more likely to get involved in local politics. Indeed, this local involvement may be a springboard to local and national campaigns. There are perhaps two main problems which are partly addressed in the report. First, existing elected ‘elites’ may not share this enthusiasm for sharing power. Second, existing political parties may simply use these new venues as springboards for their own candidates. There is great potential for more layers of government populated by more representatives of parties (something that many of us may associate with the US). The ERS may or may not be right that ‘apathy is a myth’ but they do not show us how the non-partisan citizen can turn her or his newfound enthusiasm into a political project, engaging peers and attracting voters.

How could and should you give ‘more power to the people’?  The alternative to more people involved in elected politics is some variation of a citizen jury in which people are selected to represent a local population. This presents two issues to explore. First, the production of a quota-style jury may solve one problem of the former Scottish Civic Forum. It was a self-selecting group, producing many of the old biases – based on gender, race and ethnicity – that new forms of democracy are there to challenge. A quota system gives us the ability to select people according to the most recognised social divisions.  However, there is a danger that we are confusing diversity with representativeness, or diversity of opinion with a representative spread of opinion. Our hope is perhaps that people with certain characteristics represent people with a similar background, but I wonder how far we would go to make sure the system works (or, perhaps I am using the wrong standard here; for example, the substantial representation of women in Parliament is about much more than representing views or paying attention to certain issues).

Second, we need to think about how an unelected body will interact with an elected body. Which is the more legitimate actor here? Despite the general talk of distrust in politicians, we could assume that elected governments would make the final decision (and this seems to be the argument of the ERS when discussing juries). This may involve a decision that contradicts the views expressed by selected bodies, since politics is often about leadership and making unpopular decisions. Policymaking is also about evidence as well as opinion, and it usually involves gathering opinions, evidence and considering the unexpressed opinion from the latent public.  In this context, it is difficult to know the status of the new “diversity of ‘witnesses’ to provide evidence”. If the ERS is simply making a call for more opinions, good, but this is really about giving a voice to some people rather than power to the people.

The ERS goes further when promoting the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly – a selected body that could be given a statutory function beyond mere consultation. This may involve a ‘new form of legitimacy’ (p52) beyond the world of elected representatives; a Citizens’ Chamber could have the power to ‘veto’ decisions made by the executive (p51). The problem here is that there is not enough discussion of the difference between the role of a new assembly as a forum for public discussion and as a policymaking body. The ERS calls for a discussion of new forms of legitimacy without demonstrating how an unelected body would be legitimate in the eyes of the public. There is also no demonstration that selecting people using quotas and then putting them in the same room will produce a deliberative effect in which people use reason to persuade others. They suggest that party politics limits the ability of MSPs to perform this role, but do not demonstrate that the absence of overt electoral partisanship will produce something different. In effect, we are comparing the problems of the existing system with the possibilities of a new one. This is not a good comparison.

A better comparison is based on the experience of the past. For example, the ERS’ case may be more convincing if it can say how a new Citizens’ Assembly would be an improvement on the old Scottish Civic Forum – beyond the idea that it would be selected from above rather than self-selected (and why would two-thirds be retired or unemployed?). Interestingly, the ERS report sometimes betrays the problem of forum-based advice. It collects a range of opinions without always choosing between them or considering how to prioritise aims or if the aims expressed by some contradict those expressed by others. There is perhaps an implicit belief that politics is about consensus seeking and compromise; that by talking we can come to an agreement that suits both parties to some extent (so the report would be the start of a conversation). If so, I don’t buy it. It is equally convincing to say that politics is about winning and losing; by talking we get other people to agree with, or oppose less, our decisions.

How do we stop ‘vested interests’ having too much power? By ‘vested interests’, the ERS is describing the links between money and power, such as when people with a privileged background gain privileged access to government, people give large donations to parties and expect something in return, or when private companies use their resources to influence disproportionately (and benefit financially from) public policy. I think we can all agree that this is a bad thing. So far, so good. The SCC was accompanied by the idea of getting beyond the ‘usual suspects’ – the well-resourced groups most likely to be consulted by governments during policymaking. These are different things. The first discussion implies private people and businesses being dodgy, sometimes aided by corrupt politicians. The second may include groups representing doctors, nurses, teachers, charities and local government. On the other hand, in both cases we may be talking about ‘self interested advocacy’ which is an almost-inescapable (and often very useful) part of politics. I don’t think that the ERS suggests that advocacy is necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it is the stuff of politics: if we are affected by politics we get mobilised and engage directly. This is as true for community groups seeking to protect their community as to doctors protecting their hospitals or businesses protecting their profits.

In that context, it is difficult to see the effect of a lobbying bill (one proposed solution). It will not stop advocacy, but make some meetings more visible to the public. The public (or perhaps some people in some parts of some media) may then be asked to decide which meetings are legitimate. This works to some extent when MSPs have to declare their expenses (pp85-8) (although perhaps less well when declaring their interests), but advocacy is a bit different. Companies using money to secure outcomes is one thing, but companies giving information and advice is another. We must also remember the importance of winning and losing. Consider, for example, the idea that we limit the activities of lobbying firms – this may simply benefit those groups with the resources to fund their own lobbying. Corporate lobbyists are not just employed by big business – they are also used by groups unable to maintain their own advocacy staff. ‘Vested interests’ will not be removed by legislation, they will just regroup.

What is so wrong with political parties and representative government? An old argument by Grant Jordan and Linda Stevenson is that by talking up ‘new politics’ we produce two problems: more disenchantment with representative democracy (which is here to stay) and alternative forms of democracy (which is hyped up to the point that it will always seem to fail). What we need to remember is that parties and elections serve a purpose. Parties provide a way for people with shared ideas to coordinate their activity. The heated debate between parties can provide information to the public. Adversarialism serves a purpose – it exposes important differences and encourages people to make choices which produce winners and losers. Parties produce manifestos allowing the electorate to choose according to their beliefs. This benefit of representative democracy tends to be downplayed in discussion of new politics because we are looking for faults to justify reforms. I reckon that we could make an equally convincing case for representative democracy based on the flaws of direct participation. A more honest assessment of the pros and cons of all forms of democratic participation would produce a very different type of debate on the future of Scottish politics.

How politics works. The ERS makes some very bold claims, including reference to the ‘inability of unreformed majoritarian and representative systems of democracy to answer the demands of popular uprisings around the world’ (p12) and a ‘Falling turnout in elections’ which ‘is not an apathetic response of a disinterested public. To many it is a very rational response to their increasing distrust in and alienation from traditional politics’. In such cases, it is important to be clear about the meaning of ‘traditional politics’. In this case, it probably just means that we don’t like the idea of MPs or MSPs being too corrupt, too blinkered to the facts or public opinion or too adversarial in Parliament.

However, for me, ‘traditional politics’ is also about the practices that we should expect in any relevant political system. The public, Parliament and government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of public policy. So they promote a very small number of issues to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. The consequence is that most policy is made out of the public spotlight by civil servants engaging with organisations (such as interest groups, businesses, other parts of government). Those organisations trade information and advice for access to the political system. They often form trust-based relationships allowing groups to become involved in policymaking on a regular basis.

This is the context for any ‘new politics’ initiatives. Parliaments often seem ineffectual because there are 129 MSPs overseeing the work of 500,000 public employees. In that context, MSPs may be doing a good job at raising issues and providing a forum for deliberation (from the highly charged theatre of First Minister’s Questions to the more business-like inquiries in committees). Similarly, any new Citizens’ Assembly, elected or unelected, will be engaging with issues that represent a tiny proportion of government policy. They will shine a light on one house in a large city. If we expect more than that, we will be disappointed. Give it 20 more years and a new report will again say that politics is broken.

New Politics revisited. Still, the ERS report is valuable because it challenges us to think about the success of the original devolution reforms and consider the need for further reform. This type of discussion only seems possible when accompanied by a big event such as the prospect of further constitutional change. All I suggest is that we consider the potential drawbacks to a rejection of past decisions based on the assumption that old initiatives failed. If our expectations are too high, all initiatives will fail.

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Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, Social change

A brief guide to people

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Folksy wisdom, Social change

Social Change and Our Part in It

Major social change takes decades, generations or centuries to complete. It results from millions of interactions between people, institutions and their social environments. There are two things we can take from that:
1. The role of the individual is minuscule. Any action we take as individuals, as groups; any small action by government will have almost no effect. So, let’s not bother.
2. If social change consists of millions of conversations and actions, nothing will change unless that process plays out. You may, as an individual, play a tiny part in social change but, if many people share your values, you are part of a wider movement that may initiate long term change.
I say this because it is annoying on twitter to hear constantly from people that something won’t work. People will still behave in the same way, only somewhere else. You don’t change someone’s mind overnight. No, of course not – but you can change minds over generations. You can look back at iconic, inspirational figures and see that they were part of something important. You can see if your actions grab attention, inspire others and set something in motion. The chances are that your actions will have a tiny effect if viewed in isolation, but a massive effect if viewed alongside the actions of those you inspired and those who share your project.
If change results from a million social exchanges, be the first to initiate that exchange. Inspire others to do the same. Learn from each other and support each other, then look back in 50 years (not 5 minutes) and see if you made a difference.

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Filed under Social change, UK politics and policy