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‘New institutionalism’ describes regular patterns of behaviour and the rules, norms, practices, and relationships that influence such behaviour. This influence can range from direct enforcement by the state to an individual’s perception of a need to conform to norms.
Institutions can be formal, well understood, and written down (such as when enshrined in a constitution, legislation, or regulations).
They can also be informal, unwritten, and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation. They ‘exist in the minds of the participants and sometimes are shared as implicit knowledge rather than in an explicit and written form’ (Ostrom, 2007: 23). Therefore, the rules followed implicitly may contradict the rules described explicitly.
Feminist research helps us understand the relationship between such institutions and power, to advance ‘the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research’.
If we understand institutions broadly as formal rules and informal norms, we can find many ways in which to explore the existence and enforcement of inequalities, such as by:
- Directly excluding women from participation in public life, or otherwise restricting their opportunities in the ‘core executive’
- Categorizing masculine and feminine roles and assigning higher value/ more rewards to the former
- Treating feminist issues as private matters for individuals rather than public policy issues for the state (see also privatizing v socializing issues)
- Excluding Women of Colour from political debate and intellectual history
- The everyday and taken-for-granted rules and assumptions that can seem innocuous but reflect immense inequalities of power and outcomes.
In other words, such action can involve the direct and visible exercise of power, often reflected in the formal rules of political systems. Or, it can be part of the ‘hidden life of institutions’ that requires much more analysis and effort to see and challenge.
Such insights help to advance other common variants of new institutionalism, including:
- Historical. The well-established dominance of elected positions by men is maintained via ‘path dependent’ processes (such as the incumbency effect).
- Rational choice. Men and women may adopt the same ‘calculus’ approach to action, but face very different rewards and punishments.
- Discursive. The use of discourse to reinforce ‘racial or gendered stereotypes’ may help maintain social inequalities.
- Network. The ‘velvet triangle’ describes the policy networks of ‘feminist bureaucrats, trusted academics, and organized voices in the women’s movement’ that develop partly because women are excluded routinely from the positions of power.
Crucially, these insights also help us understand the expectations- or implementation-gaps that arise when people try to reform political practices and policymaking in complex or multi-centric systems. A policy change such as gender mainstreaming may seem straightforward and instant when viewed in relation to formal institutions, such as a statutory duty combined with a strategic plan adopted across government. However, it also represents the first step in a highly uncertain and problematic process to address the informal, unwritten, ill-understood, everyday, taken-for-granted (and often fiercely guarded) sources of inequality that are reflected in policy and practice as a whole.
- The size and scope of the state is so large that it is always in danger of becoming unmanageable. There is a highly crowded policymaking environment, in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, ministers manage complexity by breaking the state’s component parts into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across many parts of government.
- Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as civil servants, often at low levels of government.
- At this level of government and specialisation, civil servants rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government.
- Most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.
By Paul Cairney (University of Stirling, blue shirt), John Boswell (University of Southampton, check), Richard Gleave (Public Health England, tie), and Kathryn Oliver (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, black jacket). This post first appeared on the University of Stirling public policy blog and University of Bristol IEUREKA! blog.
On the 12th June, at the invitation of Richard Gleave (Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer, PHE), Professor Paul Cairney (University of Stirling) and Dr John Boswell (University of Southampton) led a discussion on ‘institutionalising’ preventive health with senior members of PHE. It follows a similar event in Scotland, to inform the development of Public Health Scotland, and the PHE event enjoyed contributions from key members of NHS Health Scotland. Cairney and Boswell drew on their published work – co-authored with Dr Kathryn Oliver (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and Dr Emily St Denny (University of Stirling) – to examine the role of evidence in policy and the lessons from comparable experiences in other public health agencies (in England, New Zealand and Australia). This post summarises their presentation and reflections from the workshop (gathered using the Chatham House rule).
The Academic Argument
Governments face two major issues when they try to improve population health and reduce health inequalities:
- Should they ‘mainstream’ policies – to help prevent ill health and reduce health inequalities – across government and/ or maintain a dedicated government agency?
- Should an agency ‘speak truth to power’ and seek a high profile to set the policy agenda?
Our research provides three messages to inform policy and practice:
- When governments have tried to mainstream ‘preventive’ policies, they have always struggled to explain what prevention means and reform services to make them more preventive than reactive.
- Public health agencies could set a clearer and more ambitious policy agenda. However, successful agencies keep a low profile and make realistic demands for policy change. In the short term, they measure success according to their own survival and their ability to maintain the positive attention of policymakers.
- Advocates of policy change often describe ‘evidence based policy’ as the answer. However, a comparison between (a) specific tobacco policy change and (b) very general prevention policy shows that the latter’s ambiguity hinders the use of evidence for policy. Governments use three different models of evidence-informed policy. These models are internally consistent but they draw on assumptions and practices that are difficult to mix and match. Effective evidence use requires clear aims driven by political choice.
Overall, they warn against treating any response – (a) the idiom ‘prevention is better than cure’, (b) setting up a public health agency, or (c) seeking ‘evidence based policy’ – as a magic bullet. Major public health changes require policymakers to define their aims, and agencies to endure long enough to influence policy and encourage the consistent use of models of evidence-informed policy. To do so, they may need to act like prevention ninjas, operating quietly and out of the public spotlight, rather than seeking confrontation and speaking truth to power.
The Workshop Discussion
The workshop discussion highlighted an impressive level of agreement between the key messages of the presentation and the feedback from most members of the PHE audience.
One aspect of this agreement was predictable, since Boswell et al’s article describes PHE as a relative success story and bases its analysis of prevention ‘ninjas’ on interviews with PHE staff. However, this strategy is subject to frequent criticism. PHE has to manage the way it communicates with multiple audiences, which is a challenge in itself. One key audience is a public health profession in which most people see their role as to provoke public debate, shine a light on corporate practices (contributing to the ‘commercial determinants of health’), and criticise government inaction. In contrast, PHE often seeks to ensure that quick wins are not lost, must engage with a range of affected interests, and uses quiet diplomacy to help maintain productive relationships with senior policymakers. Four descriptions of this difference in outlook and practice stood out:
- Walking the line. Many PHE staff gauge how well they are doing in relation to the criticism they receive. Put crudely, they may be doing well politically if they are criticised equally by proponents of public health intervention and vocal opponents of the ‘nanny state’.
- Building and maintaining relationships. PHE staff recognise the benefit of following the rules of the game within government, which include not complaining too loudly in public if things do not go your way, expressing appreciation (or at least a recognition of policy progress) if they do, and being a team player with good interpersonal skills rather than simply an uncompromising advocate for a cause. This approach may be taken for granted by interest groups, but tricky for public health researchers who seek a sense of critical detachment from policymakers.
- Managing expectations. PHE staff recognise the need to prioritise their requirements from government. Phrases such as ‘health in all policies’ often suggest the need to identify a huge number of crucial, and connected, policy changes. However, a more politically feasible strategy is to identify a small number of discrete priorities on which to focus intensely.
- Linking national and local. PHE staff who work closely with local government, the local NHS, and other partners, described how they can find it challenging to link ‘place-based’ and ‘national policy area’ perspectives. Local politics are different from national politics, though equally important in implementation and practice.
There was also high agreement on how to understand the idea of ‘evidence based’ or ‘evidence informed’ policymaking (EBPM). Most aspects of EBPM are not really about ‘the evidence’. Policy studies often suggest that, to improve evidence use requires advocates to:
- find out where the action is, and learn the rules and language of debate within key policymaking venues, and
- engage routinely with policymakers, to help them understand their audience, build up trust based on an image of scientific credibility and personal reliability, and know when to exploit temporary opportunities to propose policy solutions.
- To this we can add the importance of organisational morale and a common sense of purpose, to help PHE staff operate effectively while facing unusually high levels of external scrutiny and criticism. PHE staff are in the unusual position of being (a) part of the meetings with ministers and national leaders, and (b) active at the front-line with professionals and key publics.
In other words, political science-informed policy studies, and workshop discussions, highlighted the need for evidence advocates to accept that they are political actors seeking to win policy arguments, not objective scientists simply seeking the truth. Scientific evidence matters, but only if its advocates have the political skills to know how to communicate and when to act.
Although there was high agreement, there was also high recognition of the value of internal reflection and external challenge. In that context, one sobering point is that, although PHE may be relatively successful now (it has endured for some time), we know that government agencies are vulnerable to disinvestment and major reform. This vulnerability underpins the need for PHE staff to recognise political reality when they pursue evidence-informed policy change. Put bluntly, they often have to strike a balance between two competing pressures – being politically effective or insisting on occupying the moral high ground – rather than assuming that the latter always helps the former.
Why is the presence of Boris Johnson so important to the prospect of Scottish independence? Why is it so important to the fate of the Scottish Conservatives? How are both questions connected?
One way to answer these questions is to think back to the relative success of the Scottish Conservatives in the most recent elections in Westminster and Holyrood. During this period, the party’s Scottish strategy was simple and effective:
- Focus on its leader in Scotland – Ruth Davidson – and downplay the party.
- Focus almost exclusively on opposing a second referendum on Scottish independence.
- Promote Ruth Davidson’s image – as a competent, reliable, and therefore trustworthy leader – to give weight to its message on the referendum.
Another is to remember that some key UK factors helped facilitate this approach:
- UK Prime Ministers – David Cameron and Theresa May – were relatively respectful towards Scottish political actors and relatively sympathetic to the Scottish context.
- Until the Brexit debate and its aftermath, they were often able to project a sense of order and use it to highlight a set of relatively consistent rules, norms, and expectations about how politics should work.
In that context, think about the extent to which any of these factors now hold:
- Boris Johnson will often overshadow the Scottish party and its leader, reinforcing the old association between (a) support for constitutional change, and (b) opposition to the Conservatives.
- He will likely slip up, either by appearing to favour a second Scottish referendum on impulse, or by opposing it in an unhelpful way.
- His reputation for incompetent buffoonery may seem cute to his supporters, but embarrassing and damaging to Scottish Conservatives.
- He is already on record as being disrespectful to the Scottish case, and will be under relatively high pressure to ‘stand up for England’ in the way that the SNP has become known as ‘standing up for Scotland’.
- All bets are off in relation to the idea that there is a standard way to deal with demands for things like referendums.
Put more simply, the person in charge of telling the SNP not to be so gung ho, unreasonable, or obsessed with national identity and independence from an external authority, will be Boris Johnson.
Two ginger guys have won an award.
Competition winners pictured: Madeleine Pill, Valeria Guarneros-Meza, Christopher M. Weible & Paul Cairney
Written by Sarah Ayres, Steve Martin and Felicity Matthews, Co-Editors of Policy & Politics
The Bleddyn Davies Best Early Career prize has been awarded to: Madeleine Pill and Valeria Guarneros-Meza for their article on Local governance under austerity: hybrid organisations and hybrid officers
In this excellent paper, Madeleine Pill & Valeria Guarneros-Meza explore what austerity means for participation in city governance.
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Most policy theories in this series begin with reference to bounded rationality. Policymakers and influencers can only process a tiny proportion of all policy relevant information. They must find ways to limit their attention, to make choices under political and time pressures. They combine cognition and emotion, or rational and irrational shortcuts. Actors also exercise power to frame issues, to focus the attention of their audience to specific information and ways to interpret issues.
Narrative can be an effective means to that end, but the stories that we tell people compete with the stories they tell to themselves. The same story can motivate some audiences, if it chimes with their beliefs or pulls their heartstrings, but backfire in others, if it grates with their view of the world.
- Setting. It relates to a policymaking context, including institutional and socio-economic factors.
- Characters. It contains at least one actor, such as a hero or villain.
- Plot. Common story arcs include: heroes going on a journey or facing and overcoming adversity, often relating to villains causing trouble and victims suffering tragedy.
- Moral. A story’s take-home point describes the cause of, and solution to, the policy problem.
Empirical NPF studies suggest that narrators are effective when they:
- use an audience’s fundamental beliefs to influence their more malleable beliefs
- tie their story to a hero rather than villain
- help the audience imagine a concrete, not abstract, problem, and
- connect individual stories to a well understood ‘grand narrative’.
They also compete with others, using stories to: ‘socialise’ or ‘privatise’ issues, romanticize their own coalition’s aim while demonizing others, or encourage governments to distribute benefits to heroic target populations and punishments to villains.
However, narrator success also depends on the audience and context. Particular narratives may only be influential during a window of opportunity in which the audience is receptive to the story, or when the story fits with the audience’s beliefs (think of the same message to left and right wing populations). Indeed, NPF studies suggest that the stories with the biggest short-term impact were on the audiences predisposed to accept them.
It may not seem important that stories have most impact when telling people what they already think, but it could make the difference between thought and action, such as when people turn out to vote or prioritise one problem at the expense of the rest. We may struggle to persuade people to change their minds, but we can encourage them to act by focusing their attention to one belief over another.
Follow up reading
As described, the NPF does not seem too controversial: people tell stories to themselves and each other, and persuasive stories really matter to policymaking. However, note the wider debate about the implications of the NPF’s ‘positivist’ approach in a field often characterised as ‘post-positivist’. This debate – for example in Critical Policy Studies – is a great way into some profound academic differences about (a) the nature of the world, (b) how we can gather knowledge of it, and (c) the methods we should use.