Category Archives: Storytelling

A general theory of public policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circle image policy process 24.10.18

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

Introduction box

(from Chapter 1)

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

conclusion box

(from Chapter 13)

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

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

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

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

 

A general theory or a general understanding? Two key issues

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

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

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

Key examples of the exercise of power include:

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

box 13.4 part 1box 13.4 part 2

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

That’s it really. To be continued.

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Beware the well-intentioned advice of unusually successful academics

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

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

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

The advice: Top tips on influencing policy

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

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

hang-in-there-baby

Inconsistencies and dilemmas

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the authors

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

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

See also:

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

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Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

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

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

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

In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:

Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.

Example 2. ‘Epistemic violencedescribes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.

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

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas

Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything

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Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything

I thank James Georgalakis for inviting me to speak at the inaugural event of IDS’ new Evidence into Policy and Practice Series, and the audience for giving extra meaning to my story about the politics of ‘evidence-based based policymaking’. The talk (using powerpoint) and Q&A is here:

 

James invited me to respond to some of the challenges raised to my talk – in his summary of the event – so here it is.

I’m working on a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, leaving some of the story open to interpretation. As a result, much of the meaning of this story – and, in particular, the focus on limiting participation – depends on the audience.

For example, consider the impact of the same story on audiences primarily focused on (a) scientific evidence and policy, or (b) participation and power.

Normally, when I talk about evidence and policy, my audience is mostly people with scientific or public health backgrounds asking why do policymakers ignore scientific evidence? I am usually invited to ruffle feathers, mostly by challenging a – remarkably prevalent – narrative that goes like this:

  • We know what the best evidence is, since we have produced it with the best research methods (the ‘hierarchy of evidence’ argument).
  • We have evidence on the nature of the problem and the most effective solutions (the ‘what works’ argument).
  • Policymakers seems to be ignoring our evidence or failing to act proportionately (the ‘evidence-policy barriers’ argument).
  • Or, they cherry-pick evidence to suit their agenda (the ‘policy based evidence’ argument).

In that context, I suggest that there are many claims to policy-relevant knowledge, policymakers have to ignore most information before making choices, and they are not in control of the policy process for which they are ostensibly in charge.

Limiting participation as a strategic aim

Then, I say to my audience that – if they are truly committed to maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy – they will need to consider how far they will go to get what they want. I use the metaphor of an ethical ladder in which each rung offers more influence in exchange for dirtier hands: tell stories and wait for opportunities, or demonise your opponents, limit participation, and humour politicians when they cherry-pick to reinforce emotional choices.

It’s ‘show don’t tell’ but I hope that the take-home point for most of the audience is that they shouldn’t focus so much on one aim – maximising the use of scientific evidence – to the detriment of other important aims, such as wider participation in politics beyond a reliance on a small number of experts. I say ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ but invite the audience to reflect on which prizes they should seek, and the trade-offs between them.

Limited participation – and ‘windows of opportunity’ – as an empirical finding

NASA launch

I did suggest that most policymaking happens away from the sphere of ‘exciting’ and ‘unruly’ politics. Put simply, people have to ignore almost every issue almost all of the time. Each time they focus their attention on one major issue, they must – by necessity – ignore almost all of the others.

For me, the political science story is largely about the pervasiveness of policy communities and policymaking out of the public spotlight.

The logic is as follows. Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. They delegate the rest to bureaucrats at lower levels of government. Bureaucrats lack specialist knowledge, and rely on other actors for information and advice. Those actors trade information for access. In many cases, they develop effective relationships based on trust and a shared understanding of the policy problem.

Trust often comes from a sense that everyone has proven to be reliable. For example, they follow norms or the ‘rules of the game’. One classic rule is to contain disputes within the policy community when actors don’t get what they want: if you complain in public, you draw external attention and internal disapproval; if not, you are more likely to get what you want next time.

For me, this is key context in which to describe common strategic concerns:

  • Should you wait for a ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change? Maybe. Or, maybe it will never come because policymaking is largely insulated from view and very few issues reach the top of the policy agenda.
  • Should you juggle insider and outsider strategies? Yes, some groups seem to do it well and it is possible for governments and groups to be in a major standoff in one field but close contact in another. However, each group must consider why they would do so, and the trade-offs between each strategy. For example, groups excluded from one venue may engage (perhaps successfully) in ‘venue shopping’ to get attention from another. Or, they become discredited within many venues if seen as too zealous and unwilling to compromise. Insider/outsider may seem like a false dichotomy to experienced and well-resourced groups, who engage continuously, and are able to experiment with many approaches and use trial-and-error learning. It is a more pressing choice for actors who may have only one chance to get it right and do not know what to expect.

Where is the power analysis in all of this?

image policy process round 2 25.10.18

I rarely use the word power directly, partly because – like ‘politics’ or ‘democracy’ – it is an ambiguous term with many interpretations (see Box 3.1). People often use it without agreeing its meaning and, if it means everything, maybe it means nothing.

However, you can find many aspects of power within our discussion. For example, insider and outsider strategies relate closely to Schattschneider’s classic discussion in which powerful groups try to ‘privatise’ issues and less powerful groups try to ‘socialise’ them. Agenda setting is about using resources to make sure issues do, or do not, reach the top of the policy agenda, and most do not.

These aspects of power sometimes play out in public, when:

  • Actors engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form coalitions with actors who share their beliefs, and often romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.
  • Actors mobilise their resources to encourage policymakers to prioritise some forms of knowledge or evidence over others (such as by valuing scientific evidence over experiential knowledge).
  • They compete to identify the issues most worthy of our attention, telling stories to frame or define policy problems in ways that generate demand for their evidence.

However, they are no less important when they play out routinely:

  • Governments have standard operating procedures – or institutions – to prioritise some forms of evidence and some issues routinely.
  • Many policy networks operate routinely with few active members.
  • Certain ideas, or ways of understanding the world and the nature of policy problems within it, becomes so dominant that they are unspoken and taken for granted as deeply held beliefs. Still, they constrain or facilitate the success of new ‘evidence based’ policy solutions.

In other words, the word ‘power’ is often hidden because the most profound forms of power often seem to be hidden.

In the context of our discussion, power comes from the ability to define some evidence as essential and other evidence as low quality or irrelevant, and therefore define some people as essential or irrelevant. It comes from defining some issues as exciting and worthy of our attention, or humdrum, specialist and only relevant to experts. It is about the subtle, unseen, and sometimes thoughtless ways in which we exercise power to harness people’s existing beliefs and dominate their attention as much as the transparent ways in which we mobilise resources to publicise issues. Therefore, to ‘maximise the use of evidence’ sounds like an innocuous collective endeavour, but it is a highly political and often hidden use of power.

See also:

I discussed these issues at a storytelling workshop organised by the OSF:

listening-new-york-1-11-16

See also:

Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

Palgrave Communications: The politics of evidence-based policymaking

Using evidence to influence policy: Oxfam’s experience

The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy

 

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer, Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, Storytelling

Evidence-based policymaking and the ‘new policy sciences’

Circle image policy process 24.10.18

I have given a series of talks to explain why we should think of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ as a myth or political slogan, not an ideal scenario or something to expect from policymaking in the real world. They usually involve encouraging framing and storytelling rather than expecting evidence to speak for itself, and rejecting the value of simple models like the policy cycle. I then put up an image of my own and encourage people to think about the implications of each concept:

SLIDE simple advice from hexagon image policy process 24.10.18

I describe the advice as simple-sounding and feasible at first glance, but actually a series of Herculean* tasks:

  • There are many policymakers and influencers spread across government, so find out where the action is, or the key venues in which people are making authoritative decisions.
  • Each venue has its own ‘institutions’ – the formal and written, or informal and unwritten rules of policymaking – so learn the rules of each venue in which you engage.
  • Each venue is guided by a fundamental set of ideas – as paradigms, core beliefs, monopolies of understanding – so learn that language.
  • Each venue has its own networks – the relationships between policy makers and influencers – so build trust and form alliances within networks.
  • Policymaking attention is often driven by changes in socioeconomic factors, or routine/ non-routine events, so be prepared to exploit the ‘windows of opportunity’ to present your solution during heightened attention to a policy problem.

In most cases, we don’t have time to discuss a more fundamental issue (at least for researchers using policy theory and political science concepts):

From where did these concepts come, and how well do we know them?

To cut a long story short, each concept represents its own literature: see these short explainers on the psychology of policymaking, actors spread across multi-level governance, institutions, networks, ideas, and socioeconomic factors/ events. What the explainers don’t really project is the sense of debate within the literature about how best to conceptualise each concept. You can pick up their meaning in a few minutes but would need a few years to appreciate the detail and often-fundamental debate.

Ideally, we would put all of the concepts together to help explain policymaker choice within a complex policymaking environment (how else could I put up the image and present is as one source of accumulated wisdom from policy studies?). Peter John describes such accounts as ‘synthetic’. I have also co-authored work with Tanya Heikkila – in 2014 and 2017 to compare the different ways in which ‘synthetic’ theories conceptualise the policy process. However, note the difficulty of putting together a large collection of separate and diverse literatures into one simple model (e.g. while doing a PhD).

The new policy sciences

More recently, in the ‘new policy sciences’, Chris Weible and I present a more provocative story of these efforts, in which we advocate:

  • a return to Lasswell’s vision of combining policy analysis (to recommend policy change) and policy theory (to explain policy change), but
  • focusing on a far larger collection of actors (beyond a small group at the centre),
  • recognising new developments in studies of the psychology of policymaker choice, and
  • building into policy analysis the recognition that any policy solution is introduced in a complex policymaking environment over which no-one has control.

This focus on psychology is not new …

  • PET shows the overall effect of policymaker psychology on policy change: they combine cognition and emotion to pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues (contributing to major change) and ignore the rest (contributing to ‘hyperincremental’ change).
  • The IAD focuses partly on the rules and practices that actors develop to build up trust in each other.
  • The ACF describes actors going into politics to turn their beliefs into policy, forming coalitions with people who share their beliefs, then often romanticising their own cause and demonising their opponents.
  • The NPF describes the relative impact of stories on audiences who use cognitive shortcuts to (for example) identify with a hero and draw a simple moral.
  • SCPD describes policymakers drawing on gut feeling to identify good and bad target populations.
  • Policy learning involves using cognition and emotion to acquire new knowledge and skills.

… but the pace of change in psychological research often seems faster than the ways in which policy studies can incorporate new and reliable insights.

Perhaps more importantly, policy studies help us understand the context in which people make such choices. For example, consider the story that Kathryn Oliver and I tell about the role of evidence in policymaking environments:

If there are so many potential authoritative venues, devote considerable energy to finding where the ‘action’ is (and someone specific to talk to). Even if you find the right venue, you will not know the unwritten rules unless you study them intensely. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour some sources of evidence. Research advocates can be privileged insiders in some venues and excluded completely in others. If your evidence challenges an existing paradigm, you need a persuasion strategy good enough to prompt a shift of attention to a policy problem and a willingness to understand that problem in a new way. You can try to find the right time to use evidence to exploit a crisis leading to major policy change, but the opportunities are few and chances of success low.  In that context, policy studies recommend investing your time over the long term – to build up alliances, trust in the messenger, knowledge of the system, and to seek ‘windows of opportunity’ for policy change – but offer no assurances that any of this investment will ever pay off

Then, have a look at this discussion of ‘synthetic’ policy theories, designed to prompt people to consider how far they would go to get their evidence into policy.

Theory-driven policy analysis

As described, this focus on the new policy sciences helps explain why ‘the politics of evidence-based policymaking’ is equally important to civil servants (my occasional audience) as researchers (my usual audience).

To engage in skilled policy analysis, and give good advice, is to recognise the ways in which policymakers combine cognition/emotion to engage with evidence, and must navigate a complex policymaking environment when designing or selecting technically and politically feasible solutions. To give good advice is to recognise what you want policymakers to do, but also that they are not in control of the consequences.

Epilogue

Well, that is the last of the posts for my ANZOG talks. If I’ve done this properly, there should now be a loop of talks. It should be possible to go back to the first one in Auckland and see it as a sequel to this one in Brisbane!

Or, for more on theory-informed policy analysis – in other words, where the ‘new policy sciences’ article is taking us – here is how I describe it to students doing a policy analysis paper (often for the first time).

Or, have a look at the earlier discussion of images of the policy process. You may have noticed that there is a different image in this post (knocked up in my shed at the weekend). It’s because I am experimenting with shapes. Does the image with circles look more relaxing? Does the hexagonal structure look complicated even though it is designed to simplify? Does it matter? I think so. People engage emotionally with images. They share them. They remember them. So, I need an image more memorable than the policy cycle.

 

Paul Cairney Brisbane EBPM New Policy Sciences 25.10.18

 

 

*I welcome suggestions on another word to describe almost-impossibly-hard

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer, Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, Storytelling

Emotion and reason in politics: the rational/ irrational distinction

In ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers’, Richard Kwiatkowski and I use the distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts ‘provocatively’. I sort of wish we had been more direct, because I have come to realise that:

  1. My attempts to communicate with sarcasm and facial gestures may only ever appeal to a niche audience, and
  2. even if you use the scare quotes – around a word like ‘irrational’ – to denote the word’s questionable use, it’s not always clear what I’m questioning, because
  3. you need to know the story behind someone’s discussion to know what they are questioning.*

So, here are some of the reference points I’m using when I tell a story about ‘irrationality’:

1. I’m often invited to be the type of guest speaker that challenges the audience, it is usually a scientific audience, and the topic is usually evidence based policymaking.

So, when I say ‘irrational’, I’m speaking to (some) scientists who think of themselves as rational and policymakers as irrational, and use this problematic distinction to complain about policy-based evidence, post-truth politics, and perhaps even the irrationality of voters for Brexit. Action based on this way of thinking would be counterproductive. In that context, I use the word ‘irrational’ as a way into some more nuanced discussions including:

  • all humans combine cognition and emotion to make choices; and,
  • emotions are one of many sources of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ that help us make some decisions very quickly and often very well.

In other words, it is silly to complain that some people are irrational, when we are all making choices this way, and such decision-making is often a good thing.

2. This focus on scientific rationality is part of a wider discussion of what counts as good evidence or valuable knowledge. Examples include:

  • Policy debates on the value of bringing together many people with different knowledge claims – such as through user and practitioner experience – to ‘co-produce’ evidence.
  • Wider debates on the ‘decolonization of knowledge’ in which narrow ‘Western’ scientific principles help exclude the voices of many populations by undermining their claims to knowledge.

3. A focus on rationality versus irrationality is still used to maintain sexist and racist caricatures or stereotypes, and therefore dismiss people based on a misrepresentation of their behaviour.

I thought that, by now, we’d be done with dismissing women as emotional or hysterical, but apparently not. Indeed, as some recent racist and sexist coverage of Serena Williams demonstrates, the idea that black women are not rational is still tolerated in mainstream discussion.

4. Part of the reason that we can only conclude that people combine cognition and emotion, without being able to separate their effects in a satisfying way, is that the distinction is problematic.

It is difficult to demonstrate empirically. It is also difficult to assign some behaviours to one camp or the other, such as when we consider moral reasoning based on values and logic.

To sum up, I’ve been using the rational/irrational distinction explicitly to make a simple point that is relevant to the study of politics and policymaking:

  • All people use cognitive shortcuts to help them ignore almost all information about the world, to help them make decisions efficiently.
  • If you don’t understand and act on this simple insight, you’ll waste your time by trying to argue someone into submission or giving them a 500-page irrelevant report when they are looking for one page written in a way that makes sense to them.

Most of the rest has been mostly implicit, and communicated non-verbally, which is great when you want to keep a presentation brief and light, but not if you want to acknowledge nuance and more serious issues.

 

 

 

 

*which is why I’m increasingly interested in Riker’s idea of heresthetics, in which the starting point of a story is crucial. We can come to very different conclusions about a problem and its solution by choosing different starting points, to accentuate one aspect of a problem and downplay another, even when our beliefs and preferences remain basically the same.

 

 

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

Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity

In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
  • Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.

Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:

  • ‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
  • ‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.

I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.

Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.

Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:

A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.

In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.

Further reading:

For a longer discussion, see Fostering Evidence-informed Policy Making: Uncertainty Versus Ambiguity (PDF)

Or, if you fancy it in French: Favoriser l’élaboration de politiques publiques fondées sur des données probantes : incertitude versus ambiguïté (PDF)

Framing

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty

How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies

Here is the relevant opening section in UPP:

p234 UPP ambiguity

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Filed under 500 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling