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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 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:

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 – – 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 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?

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:

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 – – 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:


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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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Policy Analysis in 750 words: the old page

I am redesigning the 750 words page. This is the old version.

The posts in this new series summarise key texts in policy analysis. They present the most common advice about how to ‘do’ policy analysis (to identify a policy problem and possible solutions) and situate this advice within the study of politics, power, and public policy.

This combination of ‘how to’ advice and ‘what actually happens’ research allows you to produce policy analyses and reflect on the political and pragmatic choices you need to make. Policy analysis is not a ‘rational’ or ‘technocratic’ process and we should not pretend otherwise. Rather, our aim in this series is to understand policy analysis through the lens of the policy theories that highlight:

  • a competition to frame problems and identify the technical and political feasibility of solutions; in
  • a policymaking environment over which no one has full understanding or control (even if elected policymakers need to project their control to boost their image of governing competence), during which
  • governments add new policy solutions to an existing, complex, mix of solutions (rather than working from a blank canvas).

In that context, you may find that the summaries make more sense with reference to four main themes from the 1000 words and 500 word policy theories series (and this draft document):

  1. How do you define a policy problem, and what types of solutions are available?
  2. How does your chosen solution relate to existing policies?
  3. Who is your audience, and what can you realistically expect them to do?
  4. Who should be involved in the process of policy analysis?

I then add theme (5): Reflecting on your role as a policy analyst.

In each case, I prompt you to reflect on how (a) your knowledge of politics and policy processes, informs (b) the strategies you adopt when constructing policy analysis. The following description is a long read, but I think it provides essential context that could make the difference between effective and ineffective analysis. My MPP students can also note that this page is the same number of words as the policy analysis/ reflection exercise.

  1. How do you define a policy problem, and what types of solutions are available?

The classic introduction to policy analysis is to ask what is policy? and explore the types of policy tools or instruments that may be used to produce policy change.

Modern discussions also incorporate insights from psychology to understand (a) how policymakers might combine cognition and emotion to reduce uncertainty and ambiguity, to understand problems, and therefore (b) how to communicate effectively when presenting policy analysis. This process is about the power to reduce ambiguity rather than simply the provision of information to reduce uncertainty.

In turn, problem definition influences assessments of the – technical and political -feasibility of solutions, and the ways in which actors will frame any evaluation of policy success.

      2. How does your chosen solution relate to existing policies?

Although you may propose the adoption of one (or more) policy instrument, it will likely add to many others. Governments already combine a large number of instruments to make policy, including legislation, expenditure, economic incentives and penalties, education, and various forms of service delivery. Those instruments combine to represent a complex policy mix whose overall effects are not simple to predict. This interaction provides essential context, particularly if you are asked to provide, say, a simple logic model or ‘theory of change’ to describe the likely impact of your new solution.

      3. Who is your audience, and what can you realistically expect them to do?

For example, imagine writing policy analysis in the ideal-type world of a single powerful ‘comprehensively rational’ policymaker at the heart of an orderly policy cycle. Your analysis would be relatively simple, and you would not need to worry about what happens after you make a recommendation for policy change. You could focus on widely-used tools such as cost-benefit analysis and know where the results would feed into the policy process. I have perhaps over-egged this ideal-type pudding, but I think a lot of traditional policy analysis buys into this basic idea and focuses primarily on the science of analysis rather than the political policymaking context in which it takes place.

Then imagine a far messier and less predictable world in which the nature of the policy issue is highly contestedresponsibility for policy is unclear, and no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a recommendation into an outcome. This image is a key feature of policy process theories, which describe:

  • Many policymakers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government (as the venues in which authoritative choice takes place). Consequently, it is not a straightforward task to identify and know your audience, particularly if the problem you seek to solve requires a combination of policy instruments controlled by different actors.
  • Each venue resembles an institution driven by formal and informal rules. Formal rules are written-down or widely-known. Informal rules are unwritten, difficult to understand, and may not even be understood in the same way by participants. Consequently, it is difficult to know if your solution will be a good fit with the standard operating procedures of organisations (and therefore if it is politically feasible or too challenging).
  • Policymakers and influencers operate in ‘subsystems’, forming networks built on resources such as trust or coalitions based on shared beliefs. Effective policy analysis may require you to engage with – or become part of – such networks, to allow you to understand the unwritten rules of the game and encourage your audience to trust the messenger. In some cases, the rules relate to your willingness to accept current losses for future gains, to accept the limited impact of your analysis now in the hope of acceptance at the next opportunity.
  • Actors relate their analysis to shared understandings of the world – how it is, and how it should be – which are often so well-established as to be taken for granted. Common terms include paradigms, hegemons, core beliefs, and monopolies of understandings. These dominant frames of reference give meaning to your policy solution. They prompt you to couch your solutions in terms of, for example, a strong attachment to evidence-based cases in public health, value for money in treasury departments, or with regard to core principles such as liberalism or socialism in different political systems.
  • Your solutions relate to socioeconomic context and the events that seem (a) impossible to ignore and (b) out of the control of policymakers. Such factors range from a political system’s geography, demography, social attitudes, economy, while events can be routine elections or unexpected crises. To some extent, you could see yourself as a policy entrepreneur and treat events opportunistically, as ‘windows of opportunity’ to encourage new solutions. Alternatively, a general awareness of the unpredictability of events can prompt you to be modest in your claims, since the policymaking environment may be more important to outcomes than your favoured policy.

What would you recommend under these conditions?  The terms of your cost-benefit analysis would be contested (at least until there is agreement on what the problem is, and how you would measure the success of a solution). Further, even the most sophisticated ‘evidence based’ analysis of a policy problem will fall flat if uninformed by good analysis of the policy process.

Note that these problems amplify the limitations to policy analysis that are more likely to be described in this series. For example,  Weimer and Vining invest about 200 pages in economic analyses of markets and government, often highlighting a gap between (a) our ability to model and predict economic and social behaviour, and (b) what actually happens when governments intervene. To this, we should add the gap between policymakers’ formal responsibilities versus actual control of policy processes and outcomes.

      4. Who should be involved in the process of policy analysis?

Think of two visions for policy analysis. It should be primarily (1) ‘evidence based’ or (2) ‘coproduced’. While these choices are not mutually exclusive, there are key tensions between them that should not be ignored, such as when we ask:

  • how many people should be involved in policy analysis?
  • whose knowledge counts?
  • who should control policy design?

Perhaps we can only produce a sensible combination of the two if we clarify their often very different implications for policy analysis. Let’s begin with one story for each (see also Approach 1 versus Approach 2) and see where they take us.

One story of ‘evidence based’ policy analysis is that it should be based on the best available evidence of ‘what works’. Often, the description of the ‘best’ evidence relates to the idea that there is a notional hierarchy of evidence (according to the research methods used). At the top would be the systematic review of randomised control trials, and nearer the bottom would be expertise, practitioner knowledge, and stakeholder feedback. This kind of hierarchy has major implications for policy learning and transfer, such as when importing policy interventions from abroad or ‘scaling up’ domestic projects. Put simply, the experimental method is designed to identify the causal effect of a very narrowly defined policy intervention. Its importation or scaling up would be akin to the description of medicine, in which the evidence suggests the causal effect of a specific active ingredient to be administered with the correct dosage. A very strong commitment to a uniform model precludes the processes we might associate with co-production, in which many voices contribute to a policy design to suit a specific context.

One story of ‘co-produced’ policy analysis is that it should be ‘reflexive’ and based on respectful conversations between a wide range of policymakers and citizens. Often, the description is of the diversity of valuable policy relevant information, with scientific evidence considered alongside community voices and normative values. This rejection of a hierarchy of evidence also has major implications for policy learning and transfer. Put simply, a co-production method is designed to identify the positive effect – widespread ‘ownership’ of the problem and commitment to a commonly-agreed solution – of a well-discussed intervention, often in the absence of central government control. Its use would be akin to a collaborative governance mechanism, in which the causal mechanism is perhaps the process used to foster agreement (including to produce the rules of collective action and the evaluation of success) rather than the intervention itself. A very strong commitment to this process precludes the adoption of a uniform model that we might associate with narrowly-defined stories of evidence based policymaking.

      5. Reflecting on your role as a policy analyst

If we take insights from policy theories seriously, we need to incorporate them into policy analysis, to consider policymaker psychology and policymaking context alongside the tools of policy analysis. We also need to consider the role of societal and professional values during the production of policy analysis. In other words, consider the limits to your influence and the ethics of your task.

In that context, I have begun to create a story of policy analysis archetypes to help explain this point in context:

  • The pragmatic policy analystBardach provides a simple, workable 8-step system to present policy analysis to policymakers while subject to time and resource-pressed political conditions (and Dunnis pragmatic for other reasons).
  • The professional, clientoriented policy analystWeimer and Vining provide a similar 7-step client-focused system, but incorporating a greater focus on professional development and economic techniques (such as cost-benefit-analysis) to foster efficiency.
  • The communicative policy analystCatherine Smith focuses on how to write and communicate policy analysis to clients in a political context.
  • The entrepreneurial policy analystMintrom shows how to incorporate insights from studies of policy entrepreneurship.
  • The questioning policy analystBacchi’s aim is to analyse the process in which people give and use such advice and to encourage policy analysts to question their role.
  • The storytelling policy analyst. Stone’s aim is to identify the ways in which people use storytelling and argumentation techniques to define problems and justify solutions.
  • The decolonizing policy analystLinda Tuhiwai Smith does not describe policy analysis directly, but shows how the ‘decolonization of research methods’ informs new approaches to policymaking.
  • The manipulative policy analyst. A discussion of Riker helps us understand the relationship between two aspects of agenda setting: the rules/ procedures to make choice, and the framing of policy problems and solutions.

These descriptions allow you to reflect on your role, as part of a wider political or policymaking system:

  1. Is your primary role to serve and communicate to clients? Is it to get what you want?
  2. Are you primarily seeking to maximise your role as an individual or your part in a wider profession?
  3. What is the balance between the potential benefits of individual ‘entrepreneurship’ and collective ‘co-productive’ processes?
  4. Which policy analysis techniques and forms of knowledge do you prioritise?

The initial list of texts

My aim is to summarise the texts below (based initially on a module guide by Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega and any further suggestions you may have) and incorporate this analysis into the draft document How to write theory-driven policy analysis. See also Writing a Policy Paper. The reference has a weblink when a summary is available.

Eugene Bardach (2012) A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis 5th ed. (CQ Press) (see also A step-by-step policy analysis using Bardach’s Eight Step Model)

Carol Bacchi (2009) Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? (NSW: Pearson Australia)

Eugene Bardach and Erik Patashnik (2015) A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis 5th ed. (International Edition) (CQ Press)

Catherine Smith (2015) Writing Public Policy: A Practical Guide to Communicating in the Policy Making Process (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

David Weimer and Aidan Vining (2017) Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice, 6th Edition (London: Routledge)

Michael Mintrom (2012) Contemporary Policy Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (see also Contemporary Policy Analysis (Mintrom 2012))

Dunn, W. (2017) Public Policy Analysis 6th Ed. (London: Routledge)

Geva-May, I. (2005) ‘Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession’, in Geva-May, I. (ed) Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession (Basingstoke: Palgrave) (scroll down after Radin) (see also Policy analysis as a clinical profession)

Meltzer, R. and Schwartz, A. (2019) Policy Analysis as Problem Solving (London: Routledge)

Radin, B. (2019) Policy Analysis in the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge)

Marleen Brans, Iris Geva-May, and Michael Howlett (2017) Routledge Handbook of Comparative Policy Analysis

Thissen, W. and Walker, W. (Eds.). (2013) Public Policy Analysis (London: Springer)

Please let me know if you see some weird omissions from the list. They should give advice about policy analysis rather than describe the policy process (the latter are covered in the 1000 words and 500 word policy theories series). That said, these are some of the books that I use to widen-out the definition of policy analysis books:

William H. Riker (1986) The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies (London: Zed Books) (also discusses Lorde, Santos)

Barry Hindess (1977) Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Using Statistics and Explaining Risk (Sincerely)

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Deborah Stone (2012) Policy Paradox

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Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

ch5 box

New institutionalism’ describes regular patterns of behaviour and the rules, norms, practices, and relationships that influence such behaviour. This influence can range from direct enforcement by the state to an individual’s perception of a need to conform to norms.

Institutions can be formal, well understood, and written down (such as when enshrined in a constitution, legislation, or regulations).

They can also be informal, unwritten, and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation. They ‘exist in the minds of the participants and sometimes are shared as implicit knowledge rather than in an explicit and written form’ (Ostrom, 2007: 23). Therefore, the rules followed implicitly may contradict the rules described explicitly.

Feminist research helps us understand the relationship between such institutions and power, to advance ‘the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research’.

If we understand institutions broadly as formal rules and informal norms, we can find many ways in which to explore the existence and enforcement of inequalities, such as by:

In other words, such action can involve the direct and visible exercise of power, often reflected in the formal rules of political systems. Or, it can be part of the ‘hidden life of institutions’ that requires much more analysis and effort to see and challenge.

Such insights help to advance other common variants of new institutionalism, including:

  • Historical. The well-established dominance of elected positions by men is maintained via ‘path dependent’ processes (such as the incumbency effect).
  • Rational choice. Men and women may adopt the same ‘calculus’ approach to action, but face very different rewards and punishments.
  • Discursive. The use of discourse to reinforce ‘racial or gendered stereotypes’ may help maintain social inequalities.
  • Network. The ‘velvet triangle’ describes the policy networks of ‘feminist bureaucrats, trusted academics, and organized voices in the women’s movement’ that develop partly because women are excluded routinely from the positions of power.

Crucially, these insights also help us understand the expectations- or implementation-gaps that arise when people try to reform political practices and policymaking in complex or multi-centric systems.  A policy change such as gender mainstreaming may seem straightforward and instant when viewed in relation to formal institutions, such as a statutory duty combined with a strategic plan adopted across government. However, it also represents the first step in a highly uncertain and problematic process to address the informal, unwritten, ill-understood, everyday, taken-for-granted (and often fiercely guarded) sources of inequality that are reflected in policy and practice as a whole.

Note: this post summarizes a new section in Chapter 5 of Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition (compare with Lowndes). I benefited greatly from advice by Professor Fiona Mackay during its writing.

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



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The Scottish Parliament is essential to Scottish democracy, but what kind of democracy is it?

This post first appeared in the Scottish Left Review and Centre on Constitutional Change blog.

The Scottish Parliament is of fundamental importance to Scottish democracy. A well-functioning and effective parliamentary system underpins a well-functioning democratic system.
However, there is no point in pretending that a single body can foster every kind of democracy. Instead, we make choices about the type of democracy we would like to see. More realistically still, we reflect on the type of system that already exists, why it endures, and if there is a realistic chance of reforming it.
To my mind, Scottish devolution reinforced representative and pluralist forms of democracy, with minimal scope for more participatory or deliberative innovations. Further, the Scottish Parliament represents a profoundly important legitimising role even though, in practice, cannot pay attention to more than a tiny proportion of government decisions made ostensibly with its blessing. In this post, I use this argument to provide context for future debates on parliamentary and democratic reforms.
From the establishment of Scottish devolution, a key problem with the idea of a Scottish Parliament has been that it represents all things to all people without a clear sense of the trade-offs or tensions between different aims. New Scottish Parliament elections foster representative democracy and the hope for a more representative body of MSPs. A petitions process, and experimentation with a civic forum and mini-publics, fosters participatory and deliberative democracy. New styles of consultation and cooperation with policy participants, such as interest groups or third sector groups, foster pluralist democracy.
Yet, these activities do not simply come together to produce a marvellous harmony of voices. Rather, democracy is frequently – if not primarily – about people competing to be heard at the others’ expense. Or, one forum competes with another to represent the main hub for democratic expression.
For me, the main tension is between two very different models. The first was summed up by the vague phrase ‘new politics’. The Scottish Parliament would foster participation by coordinating a petitions process, sponsoring the Scottish Civic Forum (SCF) and, perhaps, experimenting with initiatives – such as mini-publics and citizen juries – to explore the extent to which the deliberations of a small group of people could inform wider public and parliamentary debate.
Neil McGarvey and I devoted a full chapter to such topics in the first edition of Scottish Politics in 2008. We wrote largely about the gaps between some people’s expectations and actual practices. The SCF closed after receiving minimal Scottish Parliament and Government support (and interest groups preferred to approach those bodies directly). The petitions process encouraged self-selecting participation – and the chance for small groups of people to set the agenda of a committee for a brief period – but offered little hope for influencing government policy.
Further, almost no other initiatives got off the ground. By 2013, we removed this chapter altogether, simply because there was nothing new to say. The idea of democratic innovations had a new lease of life when the Commission on Parliamentary Reform recommended their greater use, but we should manage our expectations based on the Scottish experience to date.
The second model was a much more traditional and enduring form of representative democracy coupled with the assumption that the government would govern. In this model, the Scottish Parliament plays two profoundly important roles.
First, it provides a forum for representation. In particular, there were explicitly high – and partly fulfilled – hopes that the Scottish Parliament would be more representative of women, coupled with far vaguer and unfulfilled hopes for representationaccording to race or ethnicity, class, age, and disability.
Second, it legitimises Scottish Government policy. To all intents and purposes, it delegates policymaking responsibility to the Scottish Government then holds minsters to account for the ways in which they carry that responsibility. In many cases, the policy is humdrum and routine, with little partisan competition or committee interest. In some, the policy is high salience, with party competition infusing committee attention.
Focusing on the second model allows us to highlight the ways, and extent, to which the Scottish Parliament matters. Consider two descriptions that appear to highlight minimal versus maximal importance.
The first is the classic ‘policy communities’ description of pluralist democracy, inspired by Grant Jordan and Jeremy Richardson’s highly provocative description of a policy process in a post-parliamentary democracy. In many ways, this description highlights the limited role of Parliament by describing the limited role of ministers:
  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is always in danger of becoming unmanageable. There is a highly crowded policymaking environment, in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, ministers manage complexity by breaking the state’s component parts into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across many parts of government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as civil servants, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, civil servants rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government.
  • Most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.
This description of ‘policy communities’ suggests that senior elected politicians are less important than people think, their impact on policy is questionable, and elections and changes of government may not provide the changes in policy that many expect.
Further, it calls into question the importance of MSPs questioning ministers in plenary and committee: they will receive often-minimal information about a small proportion of government business.
This description reinforces practical concerns about the feasibility of parliamentary scrutiny. Scottish Parliament committees have limited resources to scrutinise policy and question ministers effectively; they rarely engage in meaningful or direct contact with civil servants; they struggle to gather information on the work of public bodies; and, local authorities generally argue that they are accountable to their electorates, not Parliament. Periods of coalition majority (1999-2007), minority (2007-11; 2016-) and single party majority (2011-6) government have reinforced this image of a peripheral-looking body. The Scottish Parliament is a powerful body at the heart of accountability on paper, but not in practice.
The second description comes from another classic: David Judge’s The Parliamentary State. He argues that the importance of Parliament is not found in the observance of its ‘powers’ as such, but in examination of, ‘the very process of representation and the legitimation of governmental outputs flowing from that process’.  Any exercise of power by a government is dependent on Parliament granting its consent and legitimacy. Otherwise, policy communities would suffer from a legitimation gap and would be unable to operate to describe their outputs as ‘authoritative’ or ‘binding’.
Thus, for example, government bill teams take great care to anticipate parliamentary reaction, and produce draft legislation accordingly. If so, parliamentary influence exists in the minds and practices of ministers and civil servants, and is not as visible as, say, First Minister’s Questions.
For me, these arguments essentially represent two sides of the same coin.
On one side is intense parliamentary activity that matters. In some cases, MSPs become engaged intensely in plenary and committee discussions, and ministers and civil servants built their expectation of this response into their policy design.
On the other side is the logical consequence to this activity: if MSPs are paying attention to those issues, they have to ignore the rest. The scope of state intervention in our lives, and size of the public sector, is immense, and the Scottish Parliament only has the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of that activity. The anticipated reactions argument can only take us so far when there is so much policy activity that is legitimised by the Scottish Parliament out of awareness.
These insights should inform debates on how we might reform the Scottish Parliament
In that context, other recommendations by the Commission on Parliamentary Reform seem more relevant to Scottish democracy. Discussions of participatory and deliberative democracy are interesting, but they describe a tiny proportion of government business. Representative and pluralist democracy is where the action is.
Some recommendations describe the prospect of a more organised process for scrutiny of ministers. However, others recognise the need to enhance meaningful relationships with other parts of the policy process, including local government and government agencies.
The latter suggestion is crucial to the ways in which Scottish Government has changed over the last decade, to set a broad strategy and invite a large number of public bodies to carry it out, often aided by long term outcomes measures rather than the kinds of short term targets more conducive to straightforward parliamentary scrutiny.
The Scottish Government makes these reforms partly via the choice to share power across the public sector, and partly because it lacks the capacity to control, coordinate, or even understand most of the decisions made in its name. The policy communities argument now extends to the public sector as a whole, rather than central government departments.
If so, the most important democratic reform would be to shift parliamentary attention (somewhat) from high salience set piece debates towards the more routine and humdrum monitoring of the public sector as a whole.
This would be in keeping with the acknowledgement that most decisions made in the name of Scottish ministers, and legitimised by the Scottish Parliament, take place despite minimal ministerial and parliamentary attention.
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