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Why is health improvement policy so difficult to secure?

By Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, John Boswell

Paul Cairney, Emily St.Denny, and John Boswell

Here is a long read based on our new paper (pre-print ‘Why is health improvement policy so difficult to secure?) and reflections on a recent academic-practitioner workshop in Scotland. If you prefer to read it in PDF, please fill your boots.

Most governments have signed-up to improve the health of their populations and reduce health inequalities. Many governments made this commitment energetically and sincerely. Some describe the belief that ‘preventive’ action to foster population health is better than responding to acute health crises. Some are committed to get beyond the usual focus on individual lifestyles or healthcare, towards addressing (1) social influences on health inequalities (which relate to safe and healthy environments, education and employment, marginalisation, and economic inequality) and (2) commercial influence on policy and society.

Despite this high political commitment, there remains an unusually large gap between policy statements, practices, and outcomes. Why is this gap so large? Why does it endure despite often high commitment to promote population health? What can be done to close that gap, and end a dispiriting cycle of enthusiasm and disappointment?

We describe two – hopefully complementary – ways to address those questions, drawing on an informal academic-practitioner workshop we co-organised to discuss the future of health improvement policy in Scotland. The context is COVID-19, which necessitated a temporary shift of resources from health improvement to health protection (in other words, from longer-term work to prevent ‘non-communicable diseases’ – NCDs – including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, and diabetes, towards an intense pandemic response). The transition, in 2022, towards an ‘endemic phase’ of health protection provides a new impetus to consider the immediate and long-term future of health improvement policies. Our aim was to focus on policy to prevent NCDs, including:

  1. Specific policies, such as to address smoking, alcohol consumption, and diet.
  2. A broader focus on collaborative policymaking, to recognise the fact that most health-relevant policies are not in the control of health departments.

We followed the format from previous workshops in Scotland and England, beginning with an academic overview (based on the paper Why is health improvement policy so difficult to secure?), followed by informal discussions on current challenges and next steps.

Please note that these are Cairney’s notes on proceedings. While we gave each participant the chance to comment on the draft, and made some changes as a result, Cairney still takes responsibility for the following text.

The academic argument

We describe a general problem with ‘preventive’ policies and ‘joined-up’ policymaking. On the one hand, the idea of prevention has widespread rhetorical appeal, suggesting that governments can save money and reduce inequalities by preventing problems happening or getting worse. On the other, there is a large gap between rhetorical commitment and actual practices (although Cairney and St. Denny show that these general prevention problems are less apparent in relation to specific agendas such as tobacco control).

We identify three main explanations for this gap:

  1. Clarity: if prevention means everything, maybe it means nothing.

The language of prevention is vague. This ambiguity helps to maximise initial support (who would be against it?) but stores up trouble for later. People face more obstacles – including opposition to policy change – when they have to translate a broad aim into tangible policy instruments.

  • Congruity: prevention is out of step with routine government business.

Preventive policymaking focuses on relatively hard-to-measure, long-term outcomes. It competes badly – for attention and resources – with more-pressing issues with short-term targets. Its push for radically different, holistic, policymaking does not fit with well-established rules and norms. Attempts to ‘institutionalise’ health improvement either lead to public health agencies with very limited powers, or cross-government initiatives that remain unfulfilled.

  • Capacity: low support for major investments with uncertain rewards.

No policy can improves live, and reduces inequalities, while avoiding political and financial costs. Rather, preventive policies involve ‘hard choices’ with political costs, and are akin to capital investment: spend now, and receive benefits in the future. This offer of short term costs for uncertain long-term benefits is not attractive to governments seeking to avoid controversy and reduce state spending.

Cairney, St.Denny, and Mitchell  show how these factors play out in studies of Health in All Policies (HIAP) strategies. On the one hand, HiAP research demonstrates high levels of coherence in relation to its:

  • Story. Treat health as a human right, identify the ‘social determinants of health’ and the ‘upstream’ solutions to reduce inequalities, promote intersectoral action, and seek high political commitment.
  • ‘Playbook’. For example, connect HiAP to current government agendas, focus on ‘win-win’ solutions, avoid the perception of ‘health imperialism’, and foster policy champions.

On the other hand, regular reports of slow progress relates to problems with:

  1. Clarity. The HiAP terminology is abstract and subject to different interpretations. For some, it involves a radical plan to redistribute money and power to reduce health inequalities. For others, it is a vague ambition to encourage collaboration inside and outside of government.
  2. Congruity. Advocates seek to ‘mainstream’ health into all policies, but find low or superficial interest from other sectors, or opposition to public health interference in other government business.
  3. Capacity. Few advocates have made a winning economic case for HiAP investment. Most initiatives are about zero-cost cooperation (undermined by low clarity and congruity).

While these experiences are dispiriting, they were at least predictable, particularly in states that were not conducive to economic redistribution and high state intervention. However, COVID-19 added an ironic twist: it should have prompted governments to connect the dots between health improvement and protection strategies, to address the unequal spread of the NCDs that caused unequal illness and death. Instead, rapid and radical changes to foster health protection came at the expense of health improvement.

These experiences provide cautionary tales to underpin future strategies. They show that vague political agreement – to mainstream health across government – is no guarantee of substantial action, and the production of a new strategy is futile without knowing if it will dovetail with routine government business.

[See also: Why doesn’t evidence win the day?]

The workshop discussion: opportunities and challenges

There were many positive messages peppered throughout our discussions, suggesting that Scottish policy and policymaking is conducive to health improvement  progress. Participants highlighted a lower tendency (than in Westminster) to focus on individual responsibility, in favour of more collectivist solutions. There is political leadership and cross party consensus behind the argument that we need to fix shameful health inequalities.

These positive factors could help to boost a current focus on ‘place’, to foster local collaboration to join-up services to improve wellbeing (such as via well maintained streets, good quality spaces, places to meet, and a sense of belonging and control). People care about what happens in local communities, which could bring together many different NCD-related aims – such as in alcohol, tobacco, gambling, diet, exercise – that would otherwise be siloed.

There is also some enthusiasm to extend a ‘public health approach’ to several policy problems – such as in criminal justice (including knife crime reduction), or housing – if it helps to break down silos (and if enough people know what a public health approach is).

Further, there is enough evidence of success in long-term thinking to think that it could be successful again. One key example is setting a target date of 2034 to produce a ‘tobacco free generation’). The 2034 goal has cross-party commitment and fits the current trajectory of government policy. Having this target allows organisations and the Scottish Parliament to hold the government to account for progress (regardless of the party in government), and allows the government to resist commercial pressure to soften key measures. Compared to ‘prevention’ in general, it comes with more tangible measures of progress that allow policy actors to know if they are on track towards long-term success.

However, our discussion began with general agreement about the challenges of health improvement when governments move from promise to practice, which we relate to three categories:

Clarity

  • The appearance of general agreement (on defining the policy problem) hides the many differences of perspectives and approaches across organisations and professions that undermine discussions of solutions.
  • There are unresolved debates about the policies to prioritise to reduce health inequalities (for example, not everyone favours economic redistribution).
  • It is disingenuous to build false consensus on the idea that health improvement policies reduce costs.

Congruity

  • Key Scottish Government policies have been consistent with HiAP and wider preventive aims. For example, the National Performance Framework is a genuine attempt to move from damaging short-term performance management and policymaking silos. However, it did not change the main drivers of the public sector or change the way that individual public sector players get measured. Short-term and silo-based accountability mechanisms remain within the Scottish Government (and the accountability measures of Scottish Parliament committees), producing contradictory incentives.
  • Policy should be about making health improvement everyone’s business, and changing performance management to be more conducive to prevention. However, acute services are always the priority.
  • Similarly, Community Planning Partnerships are a good idea, but there are not enough resources to back them up.
  • Relationships and trust are at the heart of collaborative policymaking, but there is not enough respect for these skills. There is a tendency to produce ‘hard’ reforms at the expense of more valuable ‘soft’ skills.
  • Third sector organisations often struggle to justify cross-sectoral working if it departs from a narrow description of their activities.
  • A focus on individual activities – for example, smoking, drinking, gambling – takes attention from the interconnectedness of the causes of NCDs. While national level organisations have addressed this issue by focusing on NCDs, progress is more difficult at local community levels.
  • Commercial interests have the power to use existing rules to block policy progress.
  • Wider UK developments may undermine progress further. For example, when making impact assessments, is there a greater UK government focus on business than climate or health?

Capacity

  • Public health policies and organisation do not receive proportionate attention or resources.
  • Each experience of limited progress may undermine the belief that major change is possible.
  • These general problems are exacerbated by constitutional uncertainty. Constitutional debates take up political time and energy, at the expense of the capacity to think long term and design effective policies. Many supporters of Scottish independence want to focus on governing competence and stability, not policies that would court controversy.

Challenging questions for policymakers

We then invited some challenging questions for policymakers, such as to ask how and when will key organisations ‘reboot’ health improvement policies after the COVID-19 emergency response? Or, given there is such political will to support health improvement, would it make more sense to focus on ‘rethinking’ rather than ‘rebooting’ policy delivery?

Participants recognised that COVID-19 caused inevitable delays to the development of Public Health Scotland (PHS, which launched in April 2020). Health improvement work did not stop completely (in PHS or the Scottish Government), and a clear strategic plan – supporting a targeted list priorities (including child poverty, underlying causes of poverty and inequality, and place based approaches) will help to deliver a new programme of work.

However, when prompted to identify areas for concern, individuals provided the following answers from their perspective (in other words, their inclusion does not suggest that the whole group agreed with the following points):

  1. Encourage the Scottish Government to be less directive.

Recognise that we are dealing with a very large system that is less directable in a local community environment. Political leaders need to let go more, to give space to local groupings of policymakers, citizens, and service deliverers. This change requires us to:

  • Get past the idea that only the Scottish Government can make the change (e.g. with legislation)
  • Take different accountability measures seriously (e.g. not focused so much on ministers).
  • Recognise the lack of trust between ministers and local authority leaders, and between many civil servants and council employees, and think about how to build it.

Also, reflect on what happens when the Scottish Government suddenly devotes higher attention and resources to a problem – such as drugs-related deaths – when it becomes a salient political issue. This heavy-handed approach produces immense pressure, unintended consequences, and the sense that you can get your issue higher up the agenda if you create a political storm.

We need to see the progress reports on delivery plans, and reboot the governance and accountability process. The wider agenda on public health reform, embedded across government, seems to have gone. Not all of the public health priorities enjoy the same support (e.g. healthy weight/ diet seems low priority).

The Scottish Government had a good tobacco strategy in 2013, and passed legislation in 2016. After some years of relative inactivity on tobacco, the Scottish Government is moving to enact provisions in legislation passed in 2016. PHS seems less active on tobacco control, such as in relation to: gaps in data on young people smoking and vaping, tracking changes in use of novel tobacco related products, including tobacco in place-based approaches to addiction, and connecting national third sector with PHS in-house expertise (although it has focused more strongly on wider tobacco issues, including how they relate to the underlying causes of poverty and inequality).

It seems – to some workshop participants – that the evidence threshold, required to bring about change, has shifted fundamentally over 10 years. There is a far higher bar to clear before governments will act (relating, in few cases, to anticipating the threat of litigation). Some recent inertia could relate to uncertainty around the (post-Brexit) UK Internal Market Act, but there are emerging signs of greater flexibility. Further, a current PHS focus – on working with stakeholders and citizens to understand the quantitative and qualitative evidence – could help to address that perception of inertia.

A focus on ‘place’ could allow public health professionals to situate evidence-use in a wider context, to reflect on powerful work from local communities on how people experience  and describe the problems they face, to help prioritise issues without requiring loads of scientific evidence. This approach is a priority in PHS’s strategic plan.

  • Support capacity development.

People are so stretched, and the turnover of experienced people (with expertise and connections) is high. There is less opportunity for informal and serendipitous conversation, less capacity for reflection, less of a feeling of being part of something bigger than the day-to-day.

The cross-party commitment is there in principle, but to what extent will it be reflected in delivery? Where are the accountability mechanisms to support the changes associated with ‘whole system’ work (beyond the – often narrower – scrutiny in parliamentary committees)?

Reflections on these discussions

Academics often question the extent to which their engagement with practitioners is fruitful to both parties, or conclude that ‘little is known about what works’. In our case, the value is reflected in a fairly common academic-practitioner (a) focus on health improvement policy, and (b) language to describe the issues involved. Key examples of common topics include:

  1. The search for clarity: how should we understand and frame the problem?

To define the problem is to draw attention to different perspectives that can have distributional consequences.

For example, we described the workshop in relation to ‘health improvement’ in general. Should we describe ‘health inequalities’ in particular? The latter concern is taken for granted by some, but not a priority for others (especially if it involves economic redistribution).

We focused on NCDs, which perhaps draws attention to medical interpretations of the problem and separates the agenda into component parts (e.g. tobacco, alcohol, diet). Do many people, outside of public health, use this language, or is it alienating to most? Would it be better to focus on people and places? Does a focus on ‘place’ (in which health improvement plays one part) solve this problem? Or, does it help to reduce public health as a priority?

  • The search for congruity: identifying limits to Westminster-style accountability and evidence-informed policymaking.  

Policy agendas reflect and reinforce the contradictory pressures that encourage and discourage health improvement.

For example, governments want to pursue a preventive agenda, but also produce the policies that undermine it. They seek a long-term agenda with meaningful measures of change, but undermine it with short-term and narrow measures, producing unintended consequences. Our discussions related this problem to the dilemmas of accountability measures, in which Scottish Government ministers need to let go, to encourage decentralised policymaking, but know that they will still be held to account for whatever happens.

Governments may also seek evidence- or knowledge-informed policymaking, but struggle to connect very different elements. First, people present very different claims to knowledge (such as scientific and experiential) that cannot simply be added together or resolved during ‘co-production’ exercises. Second, they relate these claims to competing ideas on who should gather and use evidence to make policy (e.g. centralise and roll out the same policy versus decentralise and create policy diversity). Any selection of an evidence-informed model of policymaking is political and contested, and not amenable to simple technical solutions.

See also: Maintaining strict adherence to evidence standards is like tying your hands behind your back

  • The search for capacity in complex systems.

Finally, when we talk about the need for more health improvement capacity, what exactly do we mean? One answer is that most participants are not seeking more ‘political will’ or top-down direction. Some seek to avoid the sense that policy change requires major organisational upheavals. Rather, we need to assign more value to the ‘soft’ skills required to built trust and meaningful collaboration across (and outside) the public sector (as described by Carey & Crammond, and Holt et al).

Some use the language of complex systems in a suitably challenging way. Too often, people describe ‘systems thinking’ to highlight control: ‘If we engage in systems thinking effectively, we can understand systems well enough to control, manage, or influence them’. The alternative is to recognise that policy outcomes ‘emerge from complex systems in the absence of: (a) central government control and often (b) policymaker awareness. We need to acknowledge these limitations properly, to accept our limitations’, and act accordingly. Our discussions highlighted the expectation that these systems are less directable in local community environments, requiring a change in expectations and the need to let go. This advice makes sense, and is consistent with the usual advice in complexity studies. However, it will get nowhere as long as everyone expects Scottish Government ministers to be in charge and control of all policy outcomes.

See: The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

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Promoting equity and reducing inequalities: the role of evidence and science

I wrote this (slightly abridged) post for the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab:

Science and evidence are important to policy, and researchers can contribute to programmes that reduce social and economic inequalities. However, without understanding policy processes and how politicians process evidence, researchers will struggle to understand their – sometimes peripheral – role in the bigger picture. The following step-by-step list could help to better grasp and engage with these processes in democratic political systems: 

STEP 1: Embrace the value and necessity of politics.  

Politics should be at the heart of policymaking, helping to find non-violent ways to resolve diverse preferences held by people with different beliefs and interests through mechanisms such as electing people, parties or governments. Democratic mechanisms legitimise policy choices. Thus, trust in scientists – and the evidence they provide – is incomplete without trust in political systems. It is tempting to seek to replace choices by politicians with expert-driven technocracy, but the latter does not provide the same legitimacy.  

STEP 2: Accept that public policy is not, and never will be, evidence-based.  

Treat evidence-based policy as one of many contested phrases masquerading as self-evident aims. Others include follow the science or focus on what works. Each phrase suggests, misleadingly, that we can solve ideological debates with evidence.  

STEP 3: Seek practical lessons from scientific studies of policymaking. 

It is tempting to see scientists as the policy entrepreneurs that use their authority and powers of persuasion to prompt politicians to define and solve problems in better ways. However, policy theories highlight the wider contextual issues that limit politicians’ influence. Core insights include: 

  • Most policy changes are minor. Major change is unusual.  
  • Policymakers cannot pay attention to all issues and information. They use cognitive shortcuts – drawing on their trusted sources, beliefs, and emotions – to ignore most issues and evidence. 
  • Policymakers do not fully understand or control the processes for which they are responsible. Their environments contain policymakers and influencers spread across multiple policymaking venues, each with their own rules, ways of thinking and networks.  

STEP 4: Engage properly with political dilemmas.  

The close analysis of politics and policymaking allows us to identify key dilemmas that cannot be resolved via additional evidence. These dilemmas span diverse aspects of policymaking and implementation procedures. 

First, evidence cannot determine the role that the state plays (or should play) in addressing societal problems. Neoliberal approaches recommend low state intervention in favour of individual responsibility and market forces, while social justice approaches favour state intervention to address structural factors out of the control of individuals. Each approach produces major differences in the demand for evidence of a policy problem and assessment of what solutions work. 

Second, questions on the delegation of state responsibilities are not addressed via traditional evidence-gathering mechanisms. Political systems are multi-centric, with different levels and types of government taking responsibility for parts of a larger programme. Some seek a technocratic or optimal distribution of these responsibilities. However, the process to determine responsibility is highly contested, relating more to demands for territorial autonomy (or turf wars). Governments also delegate tasks to other organisations, producing a distribution of policymaking that defies simple coordination. This delegation of responsibilities requires researchers to understand where the action is and how to engage effectively in relevant systems.  

Third, there is no standard way to combine multiple sources of policy-relevant knowledge. Some scientists assert a hierarchy of knowledge: randomised control trials (RCTs) are gold, scientific expertise is bronze, and practitioner or service user experience would not make the podium. Other political actors prioritise the knowledge from people who deliver or receive services. Some seek compromise, to combine policy-relevant insights. However, their deliberations still involve choices, including whether policymaking should be centralised to roll out ‘evidence based’ solutions built on RCTs, or decentralised to allow local communities to draw on many knowledge sources in policy design.  

Finally, evidence cannot settle the debate between the maintenance of science’s image vs. the development of science’s influence over policy. In some political systems, scientists face dilemmas when their principles contradict the rules of government. Science emphasises transparency and independence to foster institutional trust and the credibility of evidence. Governments often require secrecy and informal rule-following to foster trust in advisers. Researchers must navigate this perspective mismatch when engaging with policymakers. 

Evidence-informed equity policies: two competing visions

The dynamics highlighted in these steps may vary across policy sectors. However, regardless of sector, a choice can be made between two methods of seeking evidence-informed policies to reduce inequalities. These methods are: 

  • A non-confrontational, technocratic project: offering radical change through non-radical action, mainstreaming equity initiatives into current arrangements and using a playbook to make continuous progress. This method is attractive because governments often project a sincere-looking rhetorical commitment to reducing inequalities. Yet, we find a tendency for radical aims to be co-opted to serve the practices that protect the status quo.  
  • A challenging political project: offering radical change through overtly political action and contestation, and translating rhetoric into substance by keeping the reduction of inequalities high on the agenda. In this case, there is no clear guide for action. Rather, participants accept that the impact of research-informed political action is uncertain and often unrewarding.  

Overall, the implications of policy engagement for researchers are profound. Too many evidence-to-policy initiatives are built on the misplaced idea that scientists can remain objective when engaging in politics. This leads to the equally implausible focus on detailed playbooks to replace political problems with technocratic solutions. Embracing the value of politics, and the inescapably political nature of research engagement, is the first step in considering a more realistic alternative. It requires engagement with the policy processes that exist, not the ones that scientists would rather see. 

References 

Cairney, P., 2016. The Politics of Evidence-based Policy Making. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Cairney, P. and Oliver, K., 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 15(35). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x 

Cairney, P. et al., 2022. Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy. Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16487239616498 

Oliver, K. et al., 2022. What works to promote research-policy engagement? Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16420918447616  

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We are recruiting a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling

Update 16.6.22 The panel received 87 applications, with around 25 applicants having substantial track records in teaching and research. As such, around 20 people did not make the shortlist despite being appointable at our grade 7 or 8 level. We also received applications from many early career applicants who showed great future potential but were relatively unable to show how they would ‘hit the ground running’ in terms of this particular post. In that context, not making the shortlist is primarily a sign of the competitiveness of the field at this level.

‘The Division of History, Heritage and Politics wishes to appoint a suitably qualified and experienced Grade 7/8 Lecturer in International Politics. International Politics is a core element of our interdisciplinary research in relation to politics, including human rights and justice, and policy, including climate change, energy, security, resource conflict, and health. The appointee will pursue a programme of research, including research outputs and funding applications, in that context. We are open to applicants with regional specialisms (such as European or Asian politics). We also welcome a critical focus on gendered and racialised dimensions of international politics’.

Please see our Vacancy page for the full details: https://www.stir.ac.uk/about/work-at-stirling/list/details/?jobId=3088&jobTitle=Lecturer%20in%20International%20Politics

I am one of the pre-interview contacts and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. These notes are also there to address a potentially major imbalance in the informal side to recruitment: if you do not have the contacts and networks that help give you the confidence to seek information (on the things not mentioned in the further particulars), here is the next best thing: the information I would otherwise give you on the phone. This approach is also handy under the current circumstances, in which (a) the vacancy will run for a short period (28 days, with a deadline of 7th June, and interviews on 20th June), because (b) we need someone to start in September.

Here are some general tips on the application and interview processes.

The application process:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • You should keep the cover letter short to show your skills at concise writing (I suggest 1-page). Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD and have some publications – so what makes your CV stand out?
  • We take teaching very seriously. Within our division, we plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback.
  • You might think generally about how you would contribute to teaching and learning in that context. In particular, you should think about how, for example, you would deliver large undergraduate modules (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, modules closer to your expertise. However, please also note that your main initial contribution is specific:

The appointee will contribute to our successful Masters Programme in International Conflict and Cooperation (ICC) and BA programmes in International Politics, as well as doctoral and dissertation supervision. An ability to deliver the introductory undergraduate module Introduction to International Politics (POLU9X3), as well as design an advanced undergraduate and ICC module, is essential. The ability to teach qualitative and quantitative research methods is welcome’.

The interview process

The shortlisting should be finished by around the 13th June so, all going well, you will know if you have reached the interview stage by 14th June. The interviews will take place – on Teams – on 20th June. 

The interview stage

By the interview stage, here are the things that you should normally know:

  • The teaching and research specialisms of the division and their links to cross-divisional research.
  • The kinds of courses that the division would expect you to teach.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you want to come and work at Stirling. ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should think about it in advance. We recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ faculty, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’ and ‘I need a job’). Since it is the first question, your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division or faculty, since this is likely to be a featured question too.

  • Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks.
  • Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

The interview format

For open-ended contracts, we tend to combine (a) presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with (b) interviews in the afternoon. They will almost certainly be on Teams. The usual expectation is that if you can’t make the date, you can’t get the job. In addition:

  • We recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is five members: one subject specialist from the Division (in this case, me), one member of the Faculty (in this case, our Head of Division), the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, a senior manager of the University (in the chair), and a senior academic in another Faculty.
  • So, only 1 member of your panel will be a specialist in Politics. This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success in a way that a wider audience will appreciate. For example, you would have to explain the significance of a single-author article in the top-rated journal in your field.

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (nerves), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager, and the research question from the divisional representative. There are often more men than women on the panel (although no more than 3 to 2), and they are often all-white panels, but I hope that we are providing other more useful ‘signals’ about our commitment to equality and diversity.

I am happy to answer your questions, via email in the first instance  p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk

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Save the Date: Conference on Policy Process Research, January 10-14, Denver, USA

Save the Date: January 10 – 14 2023 | Denver, CO USA
Advancing Policy Process Theories and Methods
Call for papers, roundtables panels, and workshops coming soon!
The Conference on Policy Process Research (COPPR) mission is to advance the scholarship of policy process theory and methods. It embraces a broad interpretation of theories and methods, supporting a plurality of theoretical perspectives. It welcomes both emergent and established theories and methods and questions of what it means to conduct science and engage with our communities. COPPR seeks to support both established and emerging research communities and build bridges among them. COPPR includes critical assessments of the lessons learned from the past, challenges to contemporary boundaries, proposals for innovative research agendas, and arguments of what our future should be. 
Find Out More
COPPR targets seven components of policy process research:
Advancing research within policy process theories and methods;
Developing connections between different theories and methods;
Establishing a critical, constructive, creative, and congenial culture;  
Enlarging the network among policy process researchers, particularly among under-represented and minority communities;
Mentoring students and early career researchers;
Learning from our history and supporting innovative and emergent ideas for our future;
Engaging the challenges facing society and developing scholarship that advances human dignity.  

COPPR ORGANIZERS & SPONSORS
CO-COORDINATORS
Tanya Heikkila and Chris Weible, University of Colorado Denver; Michael D. Jones, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

JOURNAL SPONSORS
Policy & Politics
Policy Studies Journal


ORGANIZING COMMITTEE
Gwen Arnold, University of California, Davis
Paul Cairney, University of Stirling
Claire Dunlop, University of Exeter, UK
Raul Pacheco-Vega, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO)
Evangelia Petridou, Mid Sweden University
Osmany Porto de Oliveira, Federal University of São Paulo, São Paulo
Caroline Schlaufer, University of Bern
Saba Siddiki, Syracuse University
Mallory SoRelle, Duke University
Samuel Workman, West Virginia University

INSTITUTIONAL SPONSORS
School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver
Center for Policy and Democracy, University of Colorado Denver
University of Tennessee, Knoxville Department of Political Science
Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee
Linda and Peter deLeon Fund for Policy and Democracy

LOCATION
The COPPR 2023 is hosted by the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver, in Denver, U.S.A. Denver is the capital of Colorado and the second-largest city in the Mountain West region of the United States. Known as “The Mile-High City”, Denver sits at an altitude of 5,280 feet (1,600 m) above sea level and lies where the Great Plains give way to the Rocky Mountains. Denver is home to nearly 700,000 people in a fast-growing metropolitan area of nearly 3.5 million people. The city embraces its cowboy and mining past but also looks toward the future with a thriving innovative economy, vibrant arts scene, dozens of great outdoor festivals, and distinct neighborhoods, each offering a unique experience. You’ll find everything a cosmopolitan city has to offer, including spectacular views of, and easy access to, the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Downtown Denver and the campus is approximately 26 miles from the airport and takes 40 minutes by light rail. Information about recommended lodging will be provided in fall 2022.

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Call for papers for a JEPP Special Issue, ‘The politics of policy analysis: theoretical insights on real world problems’

Note: this call will appear shortly on the JEPP page. See also my 750 words series on policy analysis.

For a special edition of the Journal of European Public Policy, we invite proposals for papers that reflect on the theory and practice of policy analysis. This special issue will include state of the art articles on the politics of policy analysis, and empirical studies that use theoretical insights to analyse and address real world problems.

Policy analysis is not a rationalist, technocratic, centrally managed, or ‘evidence based’ process to solve policy problems. Rather, critical policy analysis and mainstream policy studies describe contemporary policy analysis as a highly contested (but unequal) process in which many policymakers, analysts, and influencers cooperate or compete across many centres of government. Further, governments are not in the problem solving business. Instead, they inherit policies that address some problems and create or exacerbate others, benefit some groups and marginalize others, or simply describe problems as too difficult to solve. The highest profile problems, such as global public health and climate change, require the kinds of (1) cooperation across many levels of government (and inside and outside of government), and (2) attention to issues of justice and equity, of which analysts could only dream.

This description of policymaking complexity presents a conundrum. On the one hand, there exist many five-step guides to analysis, accompanied by simple stage-based descriptions of policy processes, but they describe what policy actors would need or like to happen rather than policymaking reality. On the other, policy theory-informed studies are essential to explanation, but not yet essential reading for policy analysts. Policy theorists may be able to describe policy processes – and the role of policy analysts – more accurately than simple guides, but do not offer a clear way to guide action. Practitioner audiences are receptive to accurate descriptions of policymaking reality, but also want a take-home message that they can pick up and use in their work. Critical policy analysts may appreciate insights on the barriers to policy and policymaking change, but only if there is equal attention to how to overcome them.

We seek contributions that engage with this conundrum. We welcome papers which use theories, concepts and frameworks that are considered the policy studies mainstream, but also contributions from critical studies that use research to support marginalized populations as they analyse contemporary policy problems. We focus on Europe broadly defined, but welcome contributions with  direct lessons from any other region.

Potential themes include but are not limited to:

  • State of the art articles that use insights from policy theories and/ or critical policy analysis to guide the study and practice of policy analysis
  • Articles that situate the analysis of contemporary policy problems within a wider policymaking context, to replace wishful thinking with more feasible (but equally ambitious) analysis
  • Articles that engage critically with contemporary themes in policy analysis and design, such as how to encourage ‘entrepreneurial’ policy analysis, foster ‘co-production’ during policy analysis and design, or engage in ‘systems thinking’ without relying on jargon and gimmicks.
  • Articles that engage with the unrealistic idea of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ to produce more feasible (and less technocratic) images of evidence-informed policymaking.

Expressions of interest consisting of a title, author(s) names and affiliation, and a short abstract (no more than 300 words) should be sent to p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk by Feb 28th 2022. Successful authors should have a full article draft for submission into the JEPP review process by August 30th 2022.

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We are recruiting a temporary lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling

Please see our Vacancy page for the details: https://www.stir.ac.uk/about/work-at-stirling/list/details/?jobId=2841&jobTitle=Lecturer%20in%20International%20Politics

I am one of the pre-interview contacts and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. These notes are also there to address a potentially major imbalance in the informal side to recruitment: if you do not have the contacts and networks that help give you the confidence to seek information (on the things not mentioned in the further particulars), here is the next best thing: the information I would otherwise give you on the phone.

This approach is also handy under the current circumstances, in which (a) the vacancy will run for a short period (deadline: 29th November), because (b) we need someone to start in January.

In contrast to most of the positions I have described on this blog , this post is temporary (12 months, beginning in January). It arises from (very welcome) grant success, which prompted us to rejuggle our teaching and administration at short notice (the essential criteria and descriptions are narrower than usual because we have in mind some very specific teaching requirements).

Here are some general tips on the application and interview processes.

The application process:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • You should keep the cover letter short to show your skills at concise writing (I suggest 1-page). Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD – so what makes your CV stand out?
  • We take teaching very seriously. Within our division, we plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback.
  • You might think generally about how you would contribute to teaching and learning in that context. In particular, you should think about how, for example, you would deliver large undergraduate modules (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, modules closer to your expertise. However, please also note that your main contribution is specific:
  • Dissertation supervision at Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels;
  • Coordinating and delivering specialist modules in the Undergraduate programme (including the advanced module POLU9PE Global Political Economy, and one other advanced module)
  • Coordinating and delivering the International Conflict and Cooperation (ICC) Postgraduate taught programme (ICCPP02 International Organisations)

The interview process

The shortlisting is on the 10th December. All going well, you will know if you have reached the interview stage by the 13th. The interviews will take place on the 16th December (morning). 

The interview stage

Here is how I would describe an open ended lectureship. By the interview stage, here are the things that you should normally know:

  • The teaching and research specialisms of the division and their links to cross-divisional research.
  • The kinds of courses that the division would expect you to teach.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you want to come and work at Stirling. ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should think about it in advance. We recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ faculty, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’). We will see through a generic response and, since it is the first question, your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division or faculty, since this is likely to be a featured question too.

  • Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks.
  • Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

Here is how I would qualify that advice for this post.  With this post, we are likely to focus relatively intensely on specific questions regarding the likely teaching, so please do not feel that you should research the history of the University as preparation.

The interview format

For open-ended contracts, we tend to combine (a) presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with (b) interviews in the afternoon. However, in this case, we will ask you to present briefly to the interview panel.

“Please prepare a 10-minute presentation (with no obligation to use powerpoint) on this question: How would your teaching experience contribute to this Lectureship? Please focus on:

  • coordinating and delivering the advanced undergraduate module Global Political Economy
  • what other advanced undergraduate module you could deliver (based on your research expertise)
  • coordinating and delivering the postgraduate taught module International Organisations
  • supervising undergraduate dissertations in international politics”

In addition:

  • We recommend keeping the (online, via Teams) presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in teaching, research, and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University (but this one is more focused).
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is four members, including: one subject specialist from the Division (me), one member of the Faculty (our Head of Division), the Head of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and a senior academic in another Faculty.
  • In other words, only 1 member of your panel will be a subject specialist in Politics (and, in this case, not International Politics). This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success in a way that a wider audience will appreciate.

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (although they are written on Teams), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager. There are often more men than women on the panel (I think this one will be 50-50), and they are often all-white panels, but we are committed to making such routine imbalances a thing of the past.

Please email – p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk – if you have further questions.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: How to deal with ambiguity

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series. It draws on this 500 Words post, then my interpretation of co-authored work with Drs Emily St Denny and John Boswell (which I would be delighted to share if it gets published). It trails off at the end.

In policy studies, ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem. There are many ways to frame issues as problems. However, only some frames receive high policymaker attention, and policy change relates strongly to that attention. Resolving ambiguity in your favour is the prize.

Policy studies focus on different aspects of this dynamic, including:

  1. The exercise of power, such as of the narrator to tell stories and the audience to engage with or ignore them.
  2. Policy learning, in which people collaborate (and compete) to assign concrete meaning to abstract aims.
  3. A complex process in which many policymakers and influencers are cooperating/ competing to define problems in many policymaking centres.

They suggest that resolving ambiguity affects policy in different ways, to influence the:

The latter descriptions, reflecting multi-centric policymaking, seem particularly relevant to major contemporary policy problems – such as global public health and climate crises – in which cooperation across (and outside of) many levels and types of government is essential.

Resolving ambiguity in policy analysis texts

This context helps us to interpret common (Step 1) advice in policy analysis textbooks: define a policy problem for your client, using your skills of research and persuasion but tailoring your advice to your client’s interests and beliefs. Yet, gone are the mythical days of elite analysts communicating to a single core executive in charge of formulating and implementing all policy instruments. Many analysts engage with many centres producing (or co-producing) many instruments. Resolving ambiguity in one centre does not guarantee the delivery of your aims across many.

Two ways to resolve ambiguity in policy analysis

Classic debates would highlight two different responses:

  • ‘Top down’ accounts see this issue through the lens of a single central government, examining how to reassert central control by minimising implementation gaps.

Policy analysis may focus on (a) defining the policy problem, and (b) ensuring the implementation of its solution.

  • ‘Bottom up’ accounts identify the inevitability (and legitimacy) of policy influence in multiple centres. Policy analysis may focus on how to define the problem in cooperation with other centres, or to set a strategic direction and encourage other centres to make sense of it in their context.

This terminology went out of fashion, but note the existence of each tendency in two ideal-type approaches to contemporary policy problems:

1. Centralised and formalised approaches.

Seek clarity and order to address urgent policy problems. Define the policy problem clearly, translate that definition into strategies for each centre, and develop a common set of effective ‘tools’ to ensure cooperation and delivery.

Policy analysis may focus on technical aspects, such as how to create a fine-detail blueprint for action, backed by performance management and accountability measures that tie actors to specific commitments.

The tagline may be: ambiguity is a problem to be solved, to direct policy actors towards a common goal.

2. Decentralised, informal, collaborative approaches.

Seek collaboration to make sense of, and address, problems. Reject a single definition of the problem, encourage actors in each centre (or in concert) to deliberate to make sense of problems together, and co-create the rules to guide a continuous process of collective behaviour.

Policy analysis may focus on how to contribute to a collaborative process of sense-making and rule-making.

The tagline may be: ambiguity presents an opportunity to energise policy actors, to harness the potential for innovation arising from deliberation.

Pick one approach and stick with it?

Describing these approaches in such binary terms makes the situation – and choice between approaches – look relatively straightforward. However, note the following issues:

  • Many policy sectors (and intersectoral agendas) are characterised by intense disagreement on which choice to make. These disagreements intersect with others (such as when people seek not only transformative policy change to solve global problems, but also equitable process and outcomes).
  • Some sectors seem to involve actors seeking the best of both worlds (centralise and localise, formalise and deliberate) without recognising the trade-offs and dilemmas that arise.
  • I have described these options as choices, but did not establish if anyone is in the position to make or contribute to that choice.

In that context, resolving ambiguity in your favour may still be the prize, but where would you even begin?

Further reading

Well, that was an unsatisfying end to the post, eh? Maybe I’ll write a better one when some things are published. In the meantime, some of these papers and posts explore some of these issues:

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Policy in 500 words and Policy Analysis in 750 words: writing about policy

This post is a shortened version of The Politics of Policy Analysis Annex A. It shows how to use insights from policy process research in policy analysis and policymaking coursework (much like the crossover between Scooby-Doo and Batman). It describes a range of exercises, including short presentations, policy analysis papers, blog posts, and essays. In each case, it explains the rationale for each exercise and the payoff to combining them.

If you prefer me to describe these insights less effectively, there is also a podcast:

[See also Writing About Policy 2: Write Harder, which describes how to write a 10000 word dissertation]

One step to combining policy analysis and policy process research is to modify the former according to the insights of the latter. In other words, consider how a ‘new policy sciences’ inspired policy analysis differs from the analyses already provided by 5-step guides.

It could turn out that the effects of our new insights on a policy briefing could be so subtle that you might blink and miss them. Or, there are so many possibilities from which to choose that it is impossible to provide a blueprint for new policy science advice. Therefore, I encourage students to be creative in their policy analysis and reflective in their assessment of their analysis. Our aim is to think about the skills you need to analyse policy, from producing or synthesising evidence, to crafting an argument based on knowing your audience, and considering how your strategy might shift in line with a shifting context.

To encourgage creativity, I set a range of tasks so that students can express themselves in different ways, to different audiences, with different constraints. For example, we can learn how to be punchy and concise from a 3-minute presentation or 500-word blog, and use that skill to get to the point more quickly in policy analysis or clarify the research question in the essay.

The overall effect should be that students can take what they have learned from each exercise and use it for the others.

In each section below, I reproduce the ways in which I describe this mix of coursework to students then, in each box, note the underlying rationale.

1. A 3-minute spoken presentation to your peers in a seminar.

In 3 minutes, you need to identify a problem, describe one or more possible solutions, and end your presentation in a convincing way. For example, if you don’t make a firm recommendation, what can you say to avoid looking like you are copping out? Focus on being persuasive, to capture your audience’s imagination. Focus on the policy context, in which you want to present a problem as solvable (who will pay attention to an intractable problem?) but not make inflated claims about how one action can solve a major problem. Focus on providing a memorable take home message.

The presentation can be as creative as you wish, but it should not rely on powerpoint in the room. Imagine that none of the screens work or that you are making your pitch to a policymaker as you walk along the street: can you make this presentation engaging and memorable without any reference to someone else’s technology? Can you do it without just reading out your notes? Can you do it well in under 3 minutes? We will then devote 5 minutes to questions from the audience about your presentation. Being an active part of the audience – and providing peer review – is as important as doing a good presentation of your own.

BOX A1: Rationale for 3-minute presentation.

If students perform this task first (before the coursework is due), it gives them an initial opportunity to see how to present only the most relevant information, and to gauge how an audience responds to their ideas. Audience questions provide further peer-driven feedback. I also plan a long seminar to allow each student (in a group of 15-20 people) to present, then ask all students about which presentation they remember and why. This exercise helps students see that they are competing with each other for limited policymaker attention, and learn from their peers about what makes an effective pitch. Maybe you are wondering why I discourage powerpoint. It’s largely because it will cause each presenter to go way over time by cramming in too much information, and this problem outweighs the benefit of being able to present an impressive visualisation. I prefer to encourage students to only tell the audience what they will remember (by only presenting what they remember).

2. A policy analysis paper, and 3. A reflection on your analysis

Provide a policy analysis paper which has to make a substantive argument or recommendation in approximately two pages (1000 words), on the assumption that busy policymakers won’t read much else before deciding whether or not to pay attention to the problem and your solutions. Then provide a reflection paper (also approximately 1000 words) to reflect your theoretical understanding of the policy process. You can choose how to split the 2000 word length, between analysis and reflection. You can give each exercise 1000 each (roughly a 2-page analysis), provide a shorter analysis and more reflection, or widen the analysis and reject the need for conceptual reflection. The choice is yours to make, as long as you justify your choice in your reflection.

When writing policy analysis, I ask you to keep it super-short on the assumption that you have to make your case quickly to people with 99 other things to do. For example, what can you tell someone in one paragraph or a half-page to get them to read all 2 pages?  It is tempting to try to tell someone everything you know, because everything is connected and to simplify is to describe a problem simplistically. Instead, be smart enough to know that such self-indulgence won’t impress your audience. In person, they might smile politely, but their eyes are looking at the elevator lights. In writing, they can skim your analysis or simply move on. So, use these three statements to help you focus less on your need to supply information and more on their demand:

  1. Your aim is not to give a full account of a problem. It is to get powerful people to care about it.
  2. Your aim is not to give a painstaking account of all possible solutions. It is to give a sense that at least one solution is feasible and worth pursuing.
  3. Your guiding statement should be: policymakers will only pay attention to your problem if they think they can solve it, and without that solution being too costly.

Otherwise, I don’t like to give you too much advice because I want you to be creative about your presentation; to be confident enough to take chances and feel that you’ll see the reward of making a leap. At the very least, you have three key choices to make about how far you’ll go to make a point:

  1. Who is your audience? Our discussion of the limits to centralised policymaking suggest that your most influential audience will not necessarily be an elected policymaker, but who else would it be?
  2. How ‘manipulative’ should you be? Our discussions of ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ suggest that policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information and make choices. So, do you appeal to their desire to set goals and gather a lot of scientific information, make an emotional appeal, or rely on Riker-style heresthetics?
  3. What is your role? Contemporary discussions of science advice to government highlight unresolved debates about the role of unelected advisors: should you simply lay out some possible solutions or advocate one solution strongly?

For our purposes, there are no wrong answers to these questions. Instead, I want you to make and defend your decisions. That is the aim of your policy paper ‘reflection’: to ‘show your work’. You still have some room to be creative in your reflection: tell me what you know about policy theory and how it informed your decisions. Here are some examples, but it is up to you to decide what to highlight:

  1. Show how your understanding of policymaker psychology helped you decide how to present information on problems and solutions.
  2. Extract insights from policy theories, such as from punctuated equilibrium theory on policymaker attention, multiple streams analysis on timing and feasibility, or the NPF on how to tell persuasive stories.
  3. Explore the implications of the lack of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and absence of a ‘policy cycle’: feasibility is partly about identifying the extent to which a solution is ‘doable’ when central governments have limited powers. What ‘policy style’ or policy instruments would be appropriate for the solution you favour?

I use the following questions to guide the marking on the policy paper: Tailored properly to a clearly defined audience? Punchy and concise summary? Clearly defined problem? Good evidence or argument behind the solution? Clear recommendations backed by a sense that the solution is feasible? Evidence of substantial reading, accompanied by well explained further reading?

In my experience of marking, successful students gave a very clear and detailed account of the nature and size of the policy problem. The best reports used graphics and/ or statistics to describe the problem in several ways. Some identified a multi-faceted problem – such as in health outcomes, and health inequalities – without presenting confusing analysis. Some were able to present an image of urgency, to separate this problem from the many others that might grab policymaker attention. Successful students presented one or more solutions which seemed technically and/ or politically feasible. By technically feasible, I mean that there is a good chance that the policy will work as intended if implemented. For example, they provided evidence of its success in a comparable country (or in the past) or outlined models designed to predict the effects of specific policy instruments. By politically feasible, I mean that you consider how open your audience would be to the solution, and how likely the suggestion is to be acceptable to key policymakers. Some students added to a good discussion of feasibility by comparing the pros/ cons of different scenarios. In contrast, some relatively weak reports proposed solutions which were vague, untested, and/ or not likely to be acted upon.

BOX A2: Rationale for policy analysis and reflection

Students already have 5-step policy analysis texts at their disposal, and they give some solid advice about the task. However, I want to encourage students to think more about how their knowledge of the policy process will guide their analysis. First, what do you do if you think that one audience will buy your argument, and another reject it wholeheartedly? Just pretend to be an objective analyst and put the real world in the ‘too hard’ pile? Or, do you recognise that policy analysts are political actors and make your choices accordingly? For me, an appeal to objectivity combined with insufficient recognition of the ways in which people respond emotionally to information, is a total cop-out. I don’t want to contribute to a generation of policy analysts who provide long, rigorous, and meticulous reports that few people read and fewer people use. Instead, I want students to show me how to tell a convincing story with a clear moral, or frame policy analysis to grab their audience’s attention and generate enthusiasm to try to solve a problem. Then, I want them to reflect on how they draw the line between righteous persuasion and unethical manipulation.

Second, how do you account for policymaking complexity? You can’t assume that there is a cycle in which a policymaker selects a solution and it sets in train a series of stages towards successful implementation. Instead, you need to think about the delivery of your policy as much as the substance. Students have several choices. In some cases, they will describe how to deliver policy in a multi-level or multi-centric environment, in which, say, a central government actor will need to use persuasion or cooperation rather than command-and-control. Or, if they are feeling energetic, they might compare a top-down delivery option with support for Ostrom-style polycentric arrangements. Maybe they’ll recommend pilots and/ or trial and error, to monitor progress continuously instead of describing a one-shot solution.  Maybe they’ll reflect on multiple streams analysis and think about how you can give dependable advice in a policy process containing some serendipity. Who knows? Policy process research is large and heterogeneous, which opens the possibility for some creative solutions that I won’t be able to anticipate in advance.

4. One kind of blog post (for the policy analysis)

Write a short and punchy blog post which recognises the need to make an argument succinctly and grab attention with the title and first sentence/ paragraph, on the assumption that your audience will be reading it on their phone and will move on to something else quickly. In this exercise, your blog post is connected to your policy analysis. Think, for example, about how you would make the same case for a policy solution to a wider ‘lay’ audience. Or, use the blog post to gauge the extent to which your client could sell your policy solution. If they would struggle, should you make this recommendation in the first place?

Your blog post audience is wider than your policy analysis audience. You are trying to make an argument that will capture the attention of a larger group of people who are interested in politics and policy, but without being specialists. They will likely access your post from Twitter/ Facebook or via a search engine. This constraint produces a new requirement, to: present a punchy title which sums up the whole argument in under 280 characters (a statement is often better than a vague question); to summarise the whole argument in approximately 100 words in the first paragraph (what is the problem and solution?); then, to provide more information up to a maximum of 500 words. The reader can then be invited to read the whole policy analysis.

The style of blog posts varies markedly, so you should consult many examples before attempting your own (for example, compare the LSE with The Conversation and newspaper blogs to get a sense of variations in style). When you read other posts, take note of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, many posts associated with newspapers introduce a personal or case study element to ground the discussion in an emotional appeal. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it causes the reader to scroll down quickly to find the main argument. Perhaps ironically, I recommend storytelling but I often skim past people’s stories. Many academic posts are too long (well beyond your 500 limit), take too long to get to the point, and do not make explicit recommendations, so you should not emulate them. You should aim to be better than the scholars whose longer work you read. You should not just chop down your policy analysis to 500 words; you need a new kind of communication.

Hopefully, by the end of this fourth task, you will appreciate the transferable life skills. I have generated some uncertainty about your task to reflect the sense among many actors that they don’t really know how to make a persuasive case and who to make it to. We can follow some basic Bardach-style guidance, but a lot of this kind of work relies on trial-and-error. I maintain a short word count to encourage you to get to the point, and I bang on about ‘stories’ in modules to encourage you to present a short and persuasive story to policymakers.

This process seems weird at first, but isn’t it also intuitive? For example, next time you’re in my seminar, measure how long it takes you to get bored and look forward to the weekend. Then imagine that policymakers have the same attention span as you. That’s how long you have to make your case! Policymakers are not magical beings with an infinite attention span. In fact, they are busier and under more pressure than us, so you need to make your pitch count.

BOX A3: Rationale for blog post 1

This exercise forces students to make their case in 500 words. It helps them understand the need to communicate in different ways to different audiences. It suggests that successful communication is largely about knowing how your audience consumes information, rather than telling people all you know. I gauge success according to questions such as: Punchy and eye grabbing title? Tailored to an intelligent ‘lay’ audience rather than a specific expert group? Clearly defined problem? Good evidence or argument behind the solution? Clear recommendations backed by a sense that the solution is feasible? Well embedded weblinks to further relevant reading?

5. Writing a theory-informed essay

I tend to set this simple-looking question for coursework in policy modules: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why? Students get to choose the policy issue, timeframe, political system, and relevant explanatory concepts.

On the face of it, it looks very straightforward. Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:

  1. We spend a lot of time in class agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy
  2. There are many possible measures of policy change
  3. There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics.

I try to encourage some creativity when solving this problem, but also advise students to keep their discussion as simple and jargon-free as possible (often by stretching an analogy with competitive diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).

Choosing a format: the initial advice

  1. Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
  2. Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in a particular era, after an event or constitutional change, or after a change in government).
  3. Select one or more policy concepts or theory to help structure your discussion and help explain how and why policy has changed.

For example, a question might be: What is tobacco policy in the UK, how much has it changed since the 1980s, and why? I use this example because I try to answer that question myself, even though some of my work is too theory-packed to be a good model for a student essay (Cairney, 2007 is essentially a bad model for students).

Choosing a format: the cautionary advice

You may be surprised about how difficult it is to answer a simple question like ‘what is policy?’ and I will give you a lot of credit for considering how to define and measure it; by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and information sharing, and/ or by considering the difference between, say, policy as a statement of intent or a long term outcome. In turn, a good description and explanation of policy change is difficult. If you are feeling ambitious, you can go further, to compare, say, two issues (such as tobacco and alcohol) or places (such UK Government policy and the policy of another country), but sometimes a simple and narrow discussion can be more effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but one theory may do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic or concepts to use.

BOX A4: Rationale for the essay

The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between differentperspectives on policy theory and analysis. For example, in a blog and policy analysis paper they try to generate attention to a policy problem and advocate a solution. Then, they draw on policy theories and concepts to reflect on their papers, highlighting (say): the need to identify the most important audience; the importance of framing issues with a mixture of evidence and emotional appeals; and, the need to present ‘feasible’ solutions.

The reflection can provide a useful segue to the essay, since we’re already identifying important policy problems, advocating change, reflecting on how best to encourage it – such as by presenting modest objectives – and then, in the essay, trying to explain (say) why governments have not taken that advice in the past. Their interest in the policy issue can prompt interest in researching the issue further; their knowledge of the issue and the policy process can help them develop politically-aware policy analysis. All going well, it produces a virtuous circle.

BOX A5: Rationale for blog post 2

I get students to do the analysis/reflection/blog combination in the first module, and an essay/ blog combo in the second module. The second blog post has a different aim. Students use the 500 words to present a jargon-free analysis of policy change. The post represents a useful exercise in theory translation. Without it, students tend to describe a large amount of jargon because I am the audience and I understand it. By explaining the same thing to a lay audience, they are obliged to explain key developments in a plain language. This requirement should also help them present a clearer essay, because people (academics and students) often use jargon to cover the fact that they don’t really know what they are saying.

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Creeping crisis: the UK government’s response to COVID-19 (and the role of experts)

These are my presentation notes on the UK government’s initial response to COVID-19, as part of the ‘The Role of Experts’ panel at the Creeping Crisis conference. I draw on articles and blog posts stored in my COVID-19 page. You can find more on the idea of a COVID-19 creeping crisis in Hiding in Plain Sight: Conceptualizing the Creeping Crisis:

In December 2019, a new Coronavirus emerged in China. As little was known about the immediate consequences of the virus, the world paid scant attention. That hardly changed when China announced that the outbreak of the virus was dangerous and subsequently locked down its entire population, bringing its juggernaut economy to a sudden halt. When the first cases emerged in one European country, other countries did not take any measures. When the World Health Organization branded Europe as the new hot spot of the pandemic, the United States did not react. When the first deaths were registered on the U.S. West Coast, the New York City mayor admonished his citizens to stick with their routines (keep going to restaurants!). The COVID‐19 crisis crept up on countries, cities, and hospitals. It arrived in full view, yet still surprised politicians, hospital administrators, pundits, business owners, and citizens

(Boin et al, 2020: 2).

A creeping crisis is a threat to widely shared societal values or life‐sustaining systems that evolves over time and space, is foreshadowed by precursor events, subject to varying degrees of political and/or societal attention, and impartially or insufficiently addressed by authorities

(Boin et al, 2020: 7).

Our conference’s aim is to answer two broad questions, adapted as follows:

  1. What are the main lessons to learn from the initial UK government response?
  2. What are the main research challenges for our community?

Q1 Lessons from initial research: analysing policy failures

From The UK government’s COVID‑19 policy: assessing evidence‑informed policy analysis in real time and What have we learned so far from the government’s COVID-19 policy?

By late March 2020, COVID-19 prompted almost-unprecedented policy change, towards state intervention, at a speed and magnitude that seemed unimaginable before 2020. Yet, many have criticised the UK government’s response as slow and insufficient, contributing to the UK’s internationally high number of excess deaths.

Initial criticisms include that ministers did not:

  • Take COVID-19 seriously enough in relation to existing evidence, when its devastating effect was apparent in China in January and Italy from February
  • Act as quickly as other countries to test for infection to limit its spread
  • Introduce swift-enough measures to close schools, businesses, and major social events.
  • Secure enough personal protective equipment (PPE), testing capacity, and an effective test-trace-and-isolate system.
  • Respond to the right epidemic (assuming that COVID-19 could be treated like influenza)
  • Pursue an elimination strategy to minimise its spread until a vaccine could be developed.
  • Use the right models and data to estimate the R (rate of transmission) and ‘doubling time’ of cases (which suggested locking down earlier).

Q1 Lessons from Parliament: failure and success

A new report by the House of Commons Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees describes Covid-19 as ‘the biggest crisis our country has faced in generations’, which disrupted our lives to an extent few predicted’. Its ‘lessons learned to date’ are similarly negative, although there are some positive lessons on vaccine development and roll-out (the following points appear in the Executive Summary).

Negative lessons

To explain why ‘in 2020 the UK did significantly worse in terms of covid deaths than many countries’:

  • Poor pandemic preparedness. UK planning was based on influenza, not more relevant experiences such as SARS.
  • Insufficient initial action, to pursue ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’. The initial UK policy response was based on fatalism. It assumed that infection spread was inevitable and that people would not tolerate lockdown or ‘social distancing’ measures. It should have intervened more quickly when it emerged that there was no feasible alternative to lockdown. Its subsequent actions show that the UK public supported and followed lockdown measures.
  • Groupthink and an inability to learn from best practice. The rejection of lessons from ‘East and South East Asian countries’ by policymakers and their scientific advisers reflects a wider problem of groupthink:

‘The fact that the UK approach reflected a consensus between official scientific advisers and the Government indicates a degree of groupthink that was present at the time which meant we were not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere as we should have been’.

  • Limited capacity to test, trace and isolate. The government gave up too early on community testing before eventually ramping up capacity. Then, the establishment of its NHS Test and Trace was chaotic, largely because it established a new centralised system rather than relying on more-established local capacity. Test and trace policy did not deliver on its aim to develop an alternative to prevent further lockdowns. The test and trace system is now good, but is not accompanied by an effective compensation model to allow people to isolate.
  • Insufficient National Health Service (NHS) capacity. The government acted quickly and well to boost emergency hospital capacity, but without ensuring the maintenance of equally important core services (e.g. cancer treatment).
  • Failure to protect social care. Policymakers and scientific advisers were too late to recognise the impact of discharging people from hospitals to social care ‘without adequate testing or rigorous isolation’ (again, without learning from international practice).
  • Excessive ministerial optimism underpinned the rejection of science advice. Ministers paid insufficient attention to scientific advice on the need for further lockdowns to address surges of infection in Autumn 2020.
  • Lack of attention to inequitable outcomes. ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities’ faced  disproportionately (a) high rates of death and illness, (b) low access to PPE, and (c) low access to safe housing and working conditions. ‘People with learning disabilities and autistic people’ faced (a) higher mortality risk (exacerbated by inappropriate ‘do not resuscitate’ orders), (b) lower access to essential care services, and (c) diminished contact with family members and carers.

Positive lessons

  • The vaccine rollout was a success. The UK vaccine programme was ‘one of the most effective in Europe and, for a country of our size one of the most effective in the world’. It resulted from major and early investment in research and development, an effective regulatory response, and a Vaccines Taskforce led with authority.
  • Its research on COVID-19 treatment is world-leading.

Q2. Research challenges for a research and practice community

There are many different research challenges based on what researchers want to do, including:

Using research to change the minds of policymakers: COVID-19 crisis strategy

One specific criticism is that UK ministers and their advisers defined the COVID-19 policy problem incorrectly. They sought a shift of approach from (a) managing a chronic and seasonal problem, to (b) pursuing an elimination strategy until a vaccine was available, but expressed continual frustration about their lack of impact on government policy and official advice (a complaint captured partly by the idea of ‘groupthink’).

Summary of UKG definition of the policy problem (from here)

1. The UK Government’s COVID-19 Policy: What Does “Guided by the Science” Mean in Practice?

2. COVID-19: effective policymaking depends on trust in experts, politicians, and the public

These articles help to explain this relative lack of ‘impact’ by most potential-expert-advisers:

First, to all intents and purposes, policymakers need to find ways to ignore almost all information. One way is to rely on a small number of trusted experts. Guided by the science means by our scientific advisers.

Second, a classic categorisation of interest group strategy and status helps to categorise the role and status of expert advisers.

  • An insider strategy follows the ‘rules of the game’, including: accept a government’s definition of the problem (or right to define it), be pragmatic, present modest demands, and don’t criticise the outcomes in public.
  • Non-governmental advisers may learn – and largely follow – similar rules.
  • Some advisers are also civil servants, expected to follow additional – formal and informal – rules associated with their conduct in government.
  • One example of a formal rule isto defend a distinction between (a) officials giving evidence and advice and (b) ministers making policy.
  • Informal rules may describe how to conduct yourself in discussion (in ways that contrast with the idea of maverick scientists speaking truth to power at all costs)

Third, governments assign status to groups based on their resources, policy positions, and willingness to pursue an insider strategy.

  • Core insiders (senior government science advisers) are consulted regularly in relation to the general problem. They know and follow the rules, and can navigate complex policy processes.
  • Specialist insiders (such as members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE) provide advice on specific issues. They appear sensitive to informal rules when speaking in public, and may have some navigation skills.
  • Peripheral insiders are consulted cosmetically, and few have enough experience of engagement to learn and follow the rules.
  • Outsiders may be of no use to government and/or reject the rules of the game. Many prefer the rules or principles that they associate with their profession, including transparency, visibility, responsibility, integrity, independence, and accountability.

Take-home message. This dynamic suggests that a vague criticism of groupthink, or push for the reform of advisory systems, will not address the routine assignment of core insider status to very few people. Ministers will identify good reasons to trust very few advisers, and have virtually no incentive to listen to external critics.

‘some experts remain core insiders if they advise on policies that they do not necessarily support, while outsiders have the freedom to criticize the policy they were unable to influence’

Using research to change the minds of policymakers: COVID-19 and inequalities

A more general criticism is that governments (such as the UK) do not back up their ‘Health in All Policies’ rhetoric with substantive action. HiAP focuses on the ‘social determinants’ of health and health inequalities:

‘significant and persistent disparities in health outcomes caused by structural inequities in social and economic factors, including employment opportunities, the law and the justice systems, education, housing, neighborhood environments, and transportation. These elements are otherwise known as the social determinants of heath. The opportunity or lack of opportunity to be healthy is too often associated with a person’s socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual identity, or disability’

(Bliss et al., 2016: S88).

 The future of public health policymaking after COVID-19 explores how HiAP advocates seek (largely in vain) to use policy theory insights to challenge the lack of policy progress, such as via framing and coalition building strategies, and seeking ‘windows of opportunity’ to act. One challenge for this kind of work is that policy theories are designed largely to explain policymaking constraints, not to help overcome them:

‘relatively abstract policy theories will rarely provide concrete advice of how to act and what to do in all given contexts. There are too many variables in play to make this happen. The complexity of policy processes, its continuously changing nature, and its diversity across contexts, prevent precise prediction for policy actors seeking influence or policy change’

(Weible and Cairney, 2018: 186)

Q2. Research challenges for policy scholars

The most relevant challenge is to juggle three different statements on policy learning:

  1. We should encourage certain kinds of research-informedpolicy learning’.

The House of Commons report (discussed in Q1) is a good example of exhortation to learn from – and perhaps adopt – ‘international best practice’. It is part of a collection of continuous and energetic calls for the UK Government to learn from the policies of more successful countries such as South Korea. Indeed, Dominic Cummings (former Special Adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson) declared that: ‘Essentially if we just cut and pasted what they were doing in Singapore or Taiwan or whatever, and just said that’s our policy everything would have been better’ (Oral evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 26.5.21).

  • Few accounts describe how to do it.

Very few accounts provide enough (a) clarity to describe convincingly what and how to learn, or (b) awareness of political and policymaking reality, to present plausible claims.

This lack of clarity is apparent in published academic articles that claim – misleadingly – to facilitate policy learning or transfer: Intra-crisis learning and prospective policy transfer in the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Learning (and ‘policy transfer’) is a political act. We need to understand why governments will not learn from most other governments.

This work-in-progress presents three questions to guide policy learning, followed by a simple distinction between (a) what policy analysts or designers may seek (an agency-focused approach), and (b) what we would expect to actually happen in complex policymaking environments (a context-focused approach).

1. What is the evidence for one government’s success, and from where does it come?   

  • Policy analysis: seek multiple independent sources of evidence.
  • Policy process: (a) political actors compete to define good evidence and its implications; (b) governance choices (on the extent to which policy is centralised) influence evidence choices.

2. What story do exporters/ importers of policy tell about the problem they seek to solve?

  • Policy analysis: improve comparability by establishing how each government defines the policy problem, establishes the feasibility of solutions, and measures success.
  • Policy process: it is often not possible to determine a policymaker’s motivation, especially when many venues or levels of government contribute to policy.

3. Do they have comparable political and policymaking systems?

  • Policy analysis: identify the comparable features of each political system (e.g. federal/ unitary).
  • Policy process: identify the comparable features of policymaking systems (e.g. actors, institutions, networks, ideas, socioeconomic context).

A quick application of these questions to UK learning from South Korea helps to demonstrate the low likelihood of it happening:

  1. What is the evidence for one government’s success, and from where does it come? UK ministers and scientific advisers expressed scepticism about the long-term success ofcountries – like China and South Korea – who introduced very strong lockdown protocols. Advisers predicted that these countries would minimise a first wave of infection but then open up to cause a much larger second wave. As such, the evidence of success was highly contested.
  2. What story do exporters/ importers of policy tell about the problem they seek to solve? The UK government’s definition of the policy problem (described above) is not conducive to learning from countries like South Korea. It portrayed Korean-style restrictions as politically infeasible (before the UK lockdown).
  3. Do they have comparable political and policymaking systems? Their political system differences are relatively straightforward to identify since, for example, the UK is a liberal democracy with a less established tradition of state intervention in the ways now taken for granted in 2020. It would be difficult to know where to begin to compare their policymaking systems (containing multiple authoritative venues, each with their own institutions, networks, and ideas).

The more general take-home message is to ‘beware the insufficient analysis of the connection between functional requirements and policymaking dynamics. Too often, researchers highlight what they need from governments to secure policy change, while policy theories identify the low likelihood that governments can meet that need’.

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Coco

Coco died yesterday, peacefully, at home, with people who loved her. She had a short but good life. She was lovely.

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The ‘Scottish approach’ to Policymaking

This post first appeared on the CCC blog.

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In his chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Paul Cairney examines the alleged distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking. These comparisons tend to be with UK government, which ignores the opportunity for wider comparative assessment.

The phrase ‘Scottish approach’ is one of several descriptions of the distinctiveness of Scottish Government policymaking.

First, academics use the phrase ‘Scottish policy style’ to describe the Scottish Government’s reputation for two practices: a consultation style with stakeholders that is relatively inclusive and consensual; and, a governance style that places unusually high levels of trust in the public bodies that deliver policy.

Second, the first Scottish Government Permanent Secretary John Elvidge used the phrase ‘Scottish model of government’ to describe the potential for joined-up or ‘holistic’ government. The model would exploit its relatively small size, and central position in a dense network of public sector and third sector bodies. Ministers and their equivalents in the civil service would have briefs spanning traditional departmental boundaries and come together regularly to coordinate national strategies. They would foster a long-term focus on policy outcomes and reject a tendency to set restrictive and damaging short-term targets. For example, the National Performance Framework (NPF) identifies a broad purpose and strategic objectives which map on to performance measures and agreements with public sector bodies to align their objectives with the NPF.

Third, his successor Peter Housden took forward the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ with reference to three broad principles: to seek improvement in public services via collaborative government; to focus on people’s ‘assets’ (rather than ‘deficits’) when designing policy; and to co-produce policy with the public sector, stakeholders, and service users.

Overall, the ‘Scottish approach’ began as a broad idea about how to govern by consensus in a new era of devolved politics, then developed into a way to pursue: holistic government, an outcomes-based measure of policy success, greater local authority discretion in the delivery of national objectives, and several governance principles built primarily on localism and the further inclusion of service users in the design of public policy.

Is the ‘Scottish approach’ distinctive?

The claim to Scottish distinctiveness tends to relate to a contrast with UK policymaking, which is problematic in two main ways.

First, it downplays the importance of international trends which influence UK and Scottish government. For example, most of these policymaking aims are summed up in the phrase ‘new public governance’ (NPG). NPG describes an international shift of ideas to seek alternatives to the relatively top-down and centralist ‘new public management’ (NPM), and it includes the emphasis on coproduction and collaboration so central to Scottish Government rhetoric.

Second, the Scottish and UK governments both face similar pressures that contribute to rather contradictory policymaking styles. On the one hand, they act pragmatically to recognise the limits to central government powers and harness the benefits of working in partnership with other bodies. On the other hand, they must project an image of governing competence based on strong central control. The overall result in both governments is a tendency to juggle two very different approaches to policymaking.

The chapter discusses two key examples of this contradiction at the heart of policymaking.

The first is a focus on ‘evidence based policymaking’. Each government juggles three ways to use evidence to inform policy and practice: a centralised model, a decentralised model, and a compromise model to combine both elements.

The second example relates these approaches to leadership, in which each model fosters different skills, such as to manage change from the top down, or ‘let go’ and foster collaboration, or provide a mix of direction and encouragement. In each case, the need to maintain democratic accountability via national governments creates a series of potential contradictions, in which policy is driven by the centre but in partnership with local bodies; encouraging those bodies to experiment and take risks, but also intervening to manage risk.

It concludes that the ‘Scottish approach’ should be seen primarily as ‘a statement of aspiration; an attempt to put distance between the Scottish Government and its image of UK government policymaking’. For any government, there is always a major gap between such aspirations and policymaking reality.

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’ was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

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The Gerry Adams Novelty Mugs on Twitter Test

Today’s equivalent is: how long ago could you have predicted that people would accuse the Scottish Government First Minister of having secret hairdos during a global pandemic?

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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…

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We are recruiting a temporary lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling

Please see our Vacancy page for the details: https://www.stir.ac.uk/about/work-at-stirling/list/details/?jobId=2353&jobTitle=Lecturer%20in%20Public%20Policy

I am the pre-interview contact point and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. These notes are also there to address a potentially major imbalance in the informal side to recruitment: if you do not have the contacts and networks that help give you the confidence to seek information (on the things not mentioned in the further particulars), here is the next best thing: the information I would otherwise give you on the phone.

This approach is also handy under the current circumstances, in which (a) the vacancy will run for a short period (deadline: 19th July), while (b) many relevant members of staff are taking ‘annual leave’ (mine is 13-29 July).

In contrast to most of the positions I have described on this blog , this post is temporary (12 months, beginning in September). It is grant funded (IMAJINE) until 2021, with a vacancy arising following the successful departure of Dr Emily St Denny to the University of Copenhagen. As such, the essential criteria and descriptions of teaching are narrower than usual because we are approaching the final year of a 5-year research project and the main teaching responsibility is to lead the MPP programme and core modules. There is a more-than-zero chance of extending the contract, but it would not be responsible of me to raise your hopes. In other words, if thinking about applying, you should assume that the post is temporary.

Here are some tips on the application and interview processes.

The application process:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • You should keep the cover letter short to show your skills at concise writing (I suggest 1-page). Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD – so what makes your CV stand out?
  • We take teaching very seriously. Within our division, we plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback.
  • You might think about how you would contribute to teaching and learning in that context. In particular, you should think about how, for example, you would deliver large undergraduate modules (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, modules closer to your expertise.
  • However, please also note that your main contribution would be to running the core MPP. You can find MPP01 and MPP03 modules guides here, to get a sense of the programme (but please note that the module guides will change somewhat this year, partly to update our approach, and partly to address our current reality).

The interview process

The shortlisting is on the 30th July. All going well, you will know if you have reached the interview stage by the 31st. The interviews will take place on the 5th August (morning).

By the interview stage, you should have a conversation with me to make sure that you are well prepared. For example, here are the things that you really should know at that stage:

  • The teaching and research specialisms of the division and their links to cross-divisional research.
  • The kinds of courses that the division would expect you to teach.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you want to come and work at Stirling. ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should think about it in advance. We recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ faculty, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’). We will see through a generic response in a heartbeat and, since it is the first question, your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division or faculty, since this is likely to be a featured question too.

  • Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks.
  • Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

[Note: I wrote that text for open-ended posts with much higher stakes and a longer-term focus. With this post, we are likely to focus relatively intensely on specific questions regarding the likely teaching and research, so please do not feel that you should research the history of the University, or conduct a bunch of BBC interviews, as preparation]

The interview format

For open-ended contracts, we tend to combine (a) presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with (b) interviews in the afternoon. However, in this case, I suspect that we will ask you to present briefly to the interview panel. I can let you know when we speak beforehand (and the details will be in the invite). In any case:

  • We recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in teaching, research, and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is four or five members, including: one subject specialist from the Division (me), one member of the Faculty (our Head of Division), the Head of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and a senior academic in another Faculty.
  • In other words, only 1 member of your panel will be a subject specialist in Politics (me). This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success in a way that a wider audience will appreciate. For example, you would have to explain the significance of a single-author article in the APSR!

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (nerves), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager. There are often more men than women on the panel (I think this one will be 50-50), and they are often all-white panels, but we are committed to making such routine imbalances a thing of the past.

I am happy to answer your questions. We can try email first – p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk – and then phone or skype if you prefer.

 

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4. Uncertainty and hesitancy during initial UK coronavirus responses

Vallance (17.3.20: q114) ‘I do not think any of us have seen anything like this. It is a first in not just a generation but potentially the first for 100 years. None of us has seen this. … This is a daily changing and unique situation where we are learning as we go along’.

Early UK discussions are characterized by the expression of uncertainty about what was happening (based on limited data and the questionable accuracy of the most-used model), and hesitancy about how quickly and substantively to respond. This combination of uncertainty and hesitancy informs continuous discussions about why the UK appeared to pursue a lockdown too late, contributing to an unusually high number of excess deaths.

However, it is worth keeping them separate – analytically – to compare uncertainty about (a) what is happening, and (b) what ministers and the public are willing to do about it (as described in the previous post, in relation to problem definition), which inform hesitancy in different ways. Either way, the wider context is that the UK government eventually introduced measures on social regulation that would have seemed unthinkable in the UK before 2020.

The NERVTAG notes show how much uncertainty there was in January 2020, with initial assessments of low risk before the virus spread to other countries and then the UK. Even by the early stages, and still in March, there was some hesitancy about recommending quarantine-style measures, and a tendency to focus on low impact or low social compliance as a way to reject new measures.

  • Compare with Freedman 7.6.20 (‘Where the science went wrong. Sage minutes show that scientific caution, rather than a strategy of “herd immunity”, drove the UK’s slow response to the Covid-19 pandemic).

The oral evidence to the Health and Social Care committee

In the first oral evidence session in March, Whitty (5.3.20: q1) was still describing the virus in relation to China and only providing an initial mild warning that the chances of containment in China (followed by minimal global spread) are ‘slim to zero’ since it is ‘highly likely that there is some level of community transmission of this virus in the UK now’.

Similarly, Willett (Director for Acute Care, NHS England) (17.3.20: q175) described the sense that there was no perceived emergency (in WHO and UK statements) by the end of January, followed by the sense that information, advice, and policy was changing ‘literally every few days’.

The initial oral evidence shows that the science advice was primarily about how to inform and persuade people to change their behavior, focusing heavily on regular handwashing, followed by exhortations to self-isolate at home if feeling symptoms.

Whitty (5.3.20: 2-4) describes delaying the peak of the epidemic via ‘changes to society’ to (a) avoid it coinciding with ‘winter pressures on the NHS’ and boost the capacity to respond, (b) understand the virus better, and (c) hope that it ‘if you move into spring and summer, the natural rate of transmission may go down’ (as with respiratory viruses ‘like flu, colds and coughs’, in which people are less often in small enclosed spaces).

These early discussions emphasise the need for parliamentary and public discussion on more impositional measures, but with no strong push for anything like a lockdown (and, for example, some concern about the measures in South Korea not being acceptable in the UK – Whitty, 5.3.20: q5).

Even on 17.3.20, Vallance (q72) was describing waiting 2-3 weeks to find out the effect of the Prime Minister’s 16.3.20 message, hoping that it could keep the number of ‘excess deaths’ down to 20000 (and Vallance and Whitty had been describing pre-lockdown measures as quite extreme). The same day, Stevens (and Powis, National Medical Director, NHS England) described the PM’s hope that people would act according to the ‘good judgment and altruistic instincts of the British people’ without the need to impose social distancing (17.3.20: q176).

COVID-19 policy in the UK: oral evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee (5th March- 3rd June 2020)

  1. The need to ramp up testing (for many purposes)
  2. The inadequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE)
  3. Defining the policy problem: ‘herd immunity’, long term management, and the containability of COVID-19
  4. Uncertainty and hesitancy during initial UK coronavirus responses
  5. Confusion about the language of intervention and stages of intervention
  6. The relationship between science, science advice, and policy
  7. Lower profile changes to policy and practice
  8. Race, ethnicity, and the social determinants of health

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Summary of NERVTAG minutes, January-March 2020

NERVTAG is the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, reporting to PHE (Public Health England).

It began a series of extraordinary meetings on the coronavirus from 13th January 2020 (normally it meets once per year), summarized in Table 1.

In January, it agreed with PHE that the risk to the UK population was ‘very low’, rising to ‘low’ (by this stage, the rate of human-to-human infection was unclear). It focused primarily on (a) developments in the city of Wuhan (population: 11m) and then other parts of China, and (b) advice to UK travellers to China, then (c) giving advice for the NHS on how to define a case of COVID-19 in relation to symptoms (primarily fever) and a history of travel to an affected area. From the end of January, it began to discuss personal protective equipment (PPE) frequently, without describing the need to modify PHE advice significantly (and was not responsible for securing supply).

In February, it agreed (on the 21st) that the risk to the UK population was ‘moderate’. It responded to questions from COBR (Cabinet Office civil contingencies committee, convened to discuss national emergencies) on the most effective public preventive efforts, prioritizing frequent and effective hand washing and advising against face masks for members of the public with no symptoms. In response to questions from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), it described a ‘Reasonable Worst Case’ in the UK (to inform scenario modelling) as an 85% infection of the population, with half of those affected showing symptoms, then suggested that an estimate of 4% (of those with symptoms) needing hospital care ‘seems low’, while 25% (of the 4%) requiring respiratory support ‘seems high’.

In March, it advised that voluntary self-isolation should be 7-14 days after ‘illness onset’, depending ‘on desired balance between containment and social disruption at the particular stage of the epidemic’. It should be longer during the ‘containment’ phase (‘In the current situation NERVTAG would prefer this period to be towards the longer end of the range’) but could be shorter when transmission is so widespread that someone infected represents a decreasing share of the infected population (‘an increased proportion of people may still be infectious when they end self-isolation but they will constitute a decreasing proportion of all infectious people’, 6.3.20: 2).

Throughout, members of NERVTAG focused quite heavily on what seemed feasible to suggest, informing initial thoughts on:

  1. Handwashing advice. Initially it warned against too nuanced messages to the public, such as on the amount of time to wash.
  2. Face mask use. It identified (in multiple discussions) the unclear benefits if someone is well, plus the unlikely widespread public compliance, coupled with limited public training in their hygienic use and disposal (and the possibility that mask use in the UK ‘may add to fear and anxiety’ – 28.1.20: 8)
  3. Voluntary self-isolation. It expressed uncertainty about public compliance, and the difficulty of knowing when the illness begins and infectiousness ends.
  4. Port of entry screening, assuming a low impact since it would miss most cases.

[Note: please use the PDF if the tables look a bit weird below]

NERVTAG table 1aNERVTAG table 1b

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Evidence & Policy insights during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Evidence & Policy Blog

Kat Smith and Paul Cairney

The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the roles that evidence and expertise can play in policy and practice. Understanding the nature of these debates, and developing tools to help decision-makers navigate them, is the focus of the Evidence & Policy community. In this post, we consider how our reflections on the field’s key insights help us understand the role evidence is playing in the UK’s response to the current pandemic:


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Welcome to the Evidence & Policy blog: Our reflections on the field

Evidence & Policy Blog

Kat Smith and Paul Cairney

This new blog helps make the insights within Evidence & Policy accessible to all. In this opening post, the current Editors reflect on what they feel are some of the key insights about the interplay between evidence and policy:


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I was knocked off my motorbike in 1996

I was going at 60mph on the M8 East. Fast enough to be life threatening, but not fast enough to stop a car from overtaking and hitting my front wheel before it sped off. I broke my helmet and my wrist, which never fully recovered. Later on, the doctors gave me morphine and the nurses told me I was lucky to be alive.

For some reason, I thought of my baby daughter and vowed to give up the bike before deciding to crawl off the road. I still remember that split second to this day. If I wake up in the middle of the night to think about it, it’s mostly to relive that moment.

The rest is a blur. I remember the car’s motion but not the car. I remember that a man stopped traffic with his car, to give me time to move. I remember he took me to hospital, but not who he was or what he looked like. I don’t know if I thanked him, and thats the second thing I wake up to think about.

You see, I really want to make sure that I thanked him and that he knows I’m grateful. What are the chances that he might read this and remember, or that he told someone his story and they remember?

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Classic 5-step advice

Policy analysis’ describes the identification of a policy problem and possible solutions.

Classic models of policy analysis are client-oriented. Most texts identify the steps that a policy analysis should follow, from identifying a problem and potential solutions, to finding ways to predict and evaluate the impact of each solution. Each text describes this process in different ways, as outlined in Boxes 1-5. However, for the most part, they follow the same five steps:

  1. Define a policy problem identified by your client.
  2. Identify technically and politically feasible solutions.
  3. Use value-based criteria and political goals to compare solutions.
  4. Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.
  5. Make a recommendation to your client.

Further, they share the sense that analysts need to adapt pragmatically to a political environment. Assume that your audience is not an experienced policy analyst. Assume a political environment in which there is limited attention or time to consider problems, and some policy solutions will be politically infeasible. Describe the policy problem for your audience: to help them see it as something worthy of their energy. Discuss a small number of possible solutions, the differences between them, and their respective costs and benefits. Keep it short with the aid of visual techniques that sum up the issue concisely, to minimise cognitive load and make the problem seem solvable.

Box 1. Bardach (2012) A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis

  1. ‘Define the problem’. Provide a diagnosis of a policy problem, using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention.
  2. ‘Assemble some evidence’. Gather relevant data efficiently.
  3. ‘Construct the alternatives’. Identify the relevant and feasible policy solutions that your audience might consider.
  4. ‘Select the criteria’. 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.
  5. ‘Project the outcomes’. Focus on the outcomes that key actors care about (such as value for money), and quantify and visualise your predictions if possible.
  6. ‘Confront the trade-offs’. Compare the pros and cons of each solution, such as how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs.
  7. ‘Decide’. Examine your case through the eyes of a policymaker.
  8. ‘Tell your story’. Identify your target audience and tailor your case. Weigh up the benefits of oral versus written presentation. Provide an executive summary. Focus on coherence and clarity. Keep it simple and concise. Avoid jargon.

Box 2. Dunn (2017) Public Policy Analysis

  1. What is the policy problem to be solved? Identify its severity, urgency, cause, and our ability to solve it. Don’t define the wrong problem, such as by oversimplifying.
  2. What effect will each potential policy solution have? ‘Forecasting’ methods can help provide ‘plausible’ predictions about the future effects of current/ alternative policies.
  3. Which solutions should we choose, and why? 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 (2017: 6; 205).
  4. What were the policy outcomes? ‘Monitoring is crucial because it is difficult to predict policy success, and unintended consequences are inevitable (2017: 250).
  5. Did the policy solution work as intended? Did it improve policy outcomes? Try to measure the outcomes your solution, while noting that evaluations are contested (2017: 332-41).

Box 3. Meltzer and Schwartz (2019) Policy Analysis as Problem Solving

  1. ‘Define the problem’. Problem definition is a political act of framing, as part of a narrative to evaluate the nature, cause, size, and urgency of an issue.
  2. ‘Identify potential policy options (alternatives) to address the problem’. Identify many possible solutions, then select the ‘most promising’ for further analysis (2019: 65).
  3. 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)’.
  4. ‘Assess the outcomes of the policy options in light of the criteria and weigh trade-offs between the advantages and disadvantages of the options’.
  5. ‘Arrive at a recommendation’. Make a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups (2019: 212).

Box 4. Mintrom (2012) Contemporary Policy Analysis

  1. ‘Engage in problem definition’. Define the nature of a policy problem, and the role of government in solving it, while engaging with many stakeholders (2012: 3; 58-60).
  2. ‘Propose alternative responses to the problem’. Identify how governments have addressed comparable problems, and a previous policy’s impact (2012: 21).
  3. ‘Choose criteria for evaluating each alternative policy response’. ‘Effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and administrative efficiency’ are common (2012: 21).
  4. ‘Project the outcomes of pursuing each policy alternative’. 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.
  5. ‘Identify and analyse trade-offs among alternatives’. Use your criteria and projections to compare each alternative in relation to their likely costs and benefits.
  6. ‘Report findings and make an argument for the most appropriate response’. Client-oriented advisors identify the beliefs of policymakers and tailor accordingly (2012: 22).

Box 5 Weimer and Vining (2017) Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice

  1. ‘Write to Your Client’. Having a client such as an elected policymaker requires you to address the question they ask, by their deadline, in a clear and concise way that they can understand (and communicate to others) quickly (2017: 23; 370-4).
  2. ‘Understand the Policy Problem’. First, ‘diagnose the undesirable condition’. Second, frame it as ‘a market or government failure (or maybe both)’.
  3. ‘Be Explicit About Values’ (and goals). 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.
  4. ‘Specify Concrete Policy Alternatives’. Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).
  5. ‘Predict and Value Impacts’. Short deadlines dictate that you use ‘logic and theory, rather than systematic empirical evidence’ to make predictions efficiently (2017: 27)
  6. ‘Consider the Trade-Offs’. Each alternatives will fulfil certain goals more than others. Produce a summary table to make value-based choices about trade-offs (2017: 356-8).
  7. ‘Make a Recommendation’. ‘Unless your client asks you not to do so, you should explicitly recommend one policy’ (2017: 28).

This is an excerpt from The Politics of Policy Analysis, found here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/policy-analysis-in-750-words/

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: entrepreneurial policy analysis

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview and connects to ‘Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs’.

The idea of a ‘policy entrepreneur’ is important to policy studies and policy analysis.

Let’s begin with its positive role in analysis, then use policy studies to help qualify its role within policymaking environments.

The take-home-messages are to

  1. recognise the value of entrepreneurship, and invest in relevant skills and strategies, but
  2. not overstate its spread or likely impact, and
  3. note the unequal access to political resources associated with entrepreneurs.

Box 11.3 UPP 2nd ed entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship and policy analysis

Mintrom identifies the intersection between policy entrepreneurship and policy analysis, to highlight the benefits of ‘positive thinking’, creativity, deliberation, and leadership.

He expands on these ideas further in So you want to be a policy entrepreneur?:

Policy entrepreneurs are energetic actors who engage in collaborative efforts in and around government to promote policy innovations. Given the enormous challenges now facing humanity, the need is great for such actors to step forward and catalyze change processes” (Mintrom, 2019: 307).

Although many entrepreneurs seem to be exceptional people, Mintrom (2019: 308-20) identifies:

  1. Key attributes to compare
  • ‘ambition’, to invest resources for future reward
  • ‘social acuity’, to help anticipate how others are thinking
  • ‘credibility’, based on authority and a good track record
  • ‘sociability’, to empathise with others and form coalitions or networks
  • ‘tenacity’, to persevere during adversity
  1. The skills that can be learned
  • ‘strategic thinking’, to choose a goal and determine how to reach it
  • ‘team building’, to recognise that policy change is a collective effort, not the responsibility of heroic individuals (compare with Oxfam)
  • ‘collecting evidence’, and using it ‘strategically’ to frame a problem and support a solution
  • ‘making arguments’, using ‘tactical argumentation’ to ‘win others to their cause and build coalitions of supporters’ (2019: 313)
  • ‘engaging multiple audiences’, by tailoring arguments and evidence to their beliefs and interests
  • ‘negotiating’, such as by trading your support in this case for their support in another
  • ‘networking’, particularly when policymaking authority is spread across multiple venues.
  1. The strategies built on these attributes and skills.
  • ‘problem framing’, such as to tell a story of a crisis in need of urgent attention
  • ‘using and expanding networks’, to generate attention and support
  • ‘working with advocacy coalitions’, to mobilise a collection of actors who already share the same beliefs
  • ‘leading by example’, to signal commitment and allay fears about risk
  • ‘scaling up change processes’, using policy innovation in one area to inspire wider adoption.

p308 Mintrom for 750 words

Overall, entrepreneurship is ‘tough work’ requiring ‘courage’, but necessary for policy disruption, by: ‘those who desire to make a difference, who recognize the enormous challenges now facing humanity, and the need for individuals to step forward and catalyze change’ (2019: 320; compare with Luetjens).

Entrepreneurship and policy studies

  1. Most policy actors fail

It is common to relate entrepreneurship to stories of exceptional individuals and invite people to learn from their success. However, the logical conclusion is that success is exceptional and most policy actors will fail.

A focus on key skills takes us away from this reliance on exceptional actors, and ties in with other policy studies-informed advice on how to navigate policymaking environments (see ‘Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs’, these ANZSOG talks, and box 6.3 below)

box 6.3

However, note the final sentence, which reminds us that it is possible to invest a huge amount of time and effort in entrepreneurial skills without any of that investment paying off.

  1. Even if entrepreneurs succeed, the explanation comes more from their environments than their individual skills

The other side of the entrepreneurship coin is the policymaking environment in which actors operate.

Policy studies of entrepreneurship (such as Kingdon on multiple streams) rely heavily on metaphors on evolution. Entrepreneurs are the actors most equipped to thrive within their environments (see Room).

However, Kingdon uses the additional metaphor of ‘surfers waiting for the big wave’, which suggests that their environments are far more important than them (at least when operating on a US federal scale – see Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach).

Entrepreneurs may be more influential at a more local scale, but the evidence of their success (independent of the conditions in which they operate) is not overwhelming. So, self-aware entrepreneurs know when to ‘surf the waves’ or try to move the sea.

  1. The social background of influential actors

Many studies of entrepreneurs highlight the stories of tenacious individuals with limited resources but the burning desire to make a difference.

The alternative story is that political resources are distributed profoundly unequally. Few people have the resources to:

  • run for elected office
  • attend elite Universities, or find other ways to develop the kinds of personal networks that often relate to social background
  • develop the credibility built on a track record in a position of authority (such as in government or science).
  • be in the position to invest resources now, to secure future gains, or
  • be in an influential position to exploit windows of opportunity.

Therefore, when focusing on entrepreneurial policy analysis, we should encourage the development of a suite of useful skills, but not expect equal access to that development or the same payoff from entrepreneurial action.

See also:

Compare these skills with the ones we might associate with ‘systems thinking

If you want to see me say these depressing things with a big grin:

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