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Policy in 500 Words: the Narrative Policy Framework

Most policy theories in this series begin with reference to bounded rationality. Policymakers and influencers can only process a tiny proportion of all policy relevant information. They must find ways to limit their attention, to make choices under political and time pressures. They combine cognition and emotion, or rational and irrational shortcuts. Actors also exercise power to frame issues, to focus the attention of their audience to specific information and ways to interpret issues.

Narrative can be an effective means to that end, but the stories that we tell people compete with the stories they tell to themselves. The same story can motivate some audiences, if it chimes with their beliefs or pulls their heartstrings, but backfire in others, if it grates with their view of the world.

In that context, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) identifies the narrative strategies of actors seeking to exploit other actors’ cognitive biases. A narrative contains four elements:

  1. Setting. It relates to a policymaking context, including institutional and socio-economic factors.
  2. Characters. It contains at least one actor, such as a hero or villain.
  3. Plot. Common story arcs include: heroes going on a journey or facing and overcoming adversity, often relating to villains causing trouble and victims suffering tragedy.
  4. Moral. A story’s take-home point describes the cause of, and solution to, the policy problem.

Empirical NPF studies suggest that narrators are effective when they:

  • use an audience’s fundamental beliefs to influence their more malleable beliefs
  • tie their story to a hero rather than villain
  • help the audience imagine a concrete, not abstract, problem, and
  • connect individual stories to a well understood ‘grand narrative’.

They also compete with others, using stories to: ‘socialise’ or ‘privatise’ issues, romanticize their own coalition’s aim while demonizing others, or encourage governments to distribute benefits to heroic target populations and punishments to villains.

However, narrator success also depends on the audience and context. Particular narratives may only be influential during a window of opportunity in which the audience is receptive to the story, or when the story fits with the audience’s beliefs (think of the same message to left and right wing populations). Indeed, NPF studies suggest that the stories with the biggest short-term impact were on the audiences predisposed to accept them.

It may not seem important that stories have most impact when telling people what they already think, but it could make the difference between thought and action, such as when people turn out to vote or prioritise one problem at the expense of the rest. We may struggle to persuade people to change their minds, but we can encourage them to act by focusing their attention to one belief over another.

Follow up reading

As described, the NPF does not seem too controversial: people tell stories to themselves and each other, and persuasive stories really matter to policymaking. However, note the wider debate about the implications of the NPF’s ‘positivist’ approach in a field often characterised as ‘post-positivist’. This debate – for example in Critical Policy Studies – is a great way into some profound academic differences about (a) the nature of the world, (b) how we can gather knowledge of it, and (c) the methods we should use.

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Monetizing my website

Updated for 2018

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Update December 2018

I kept two silly metrics going this year (while – genuinely – forgetting about the 3p thing in the original post), so it’s £276 (just in case) from this site and £288 from this offer:

I gave the £554 to Hope not Hate. Again, please feel free to set up your own website if you’d like to comment on my choice.

If you’ve come this far, I’d like you to indulge my obsession with the stats on this site (e.g. help me to put my fingers in my ears and shout La La La a lot, to avoid someone telling me that web-traffic stats are no more reliable than…

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Cool guy on a skateboard

At the end of this post is my favourite picture of the year.

I took it by mistake in California.

I was trying to take a free picture of crap Spiderman.

If you go down W Holywood, you can pay $10 for a selfie with yer da dressed up as Spiderman so that he can chat up Catwoman.


I was trying to get a free picture of Spiderman’s dad without attracting their attention.

So I asked my son to pretend to take a picture of him, to zoom into the background.

This is the first go, before we got the good pic.


In the better pic, there is a lot going on.

  1. Spiderman’s dad saying ‘hot enough for you?’ to Catwoman


2. The boy looking glaikit (for photographic purposes of course).


3. And this cool guy – possibly Jesus – going past on a skateboard.


You can also buy crêpes.


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Garden of Earthly Delights

If you want to watch a Chinese 20-minute video equivalent of a Bosch painting, with commentary on politics and the environment, I recommend Zhou Xiaohu’s – Garden of Earthly Delights. You can see it at the White Rabbit Gallery if you don’t mind the flight to Sydney, or here if you don’t mind a few Youku ads:

The part that stuck with me was the discussion of the impossibility of producing adequate rules to settle debates. The first two stills provide a nice antidote to the ‘debate me’ fools you see on twitter or makeshift stalls on University campuses:

garden 1

garden 2

The rest of the stills rehearse the discussions you might have in philosophy of research workshops after debating some clown on a camping chair next to your seminar room:

garden 3Garden 4Garden 5

The final segment does an even better job than Question Time of ridiculing the idea that such debates are anything more than performances for our supporters. Farage and co come close, but there is nothing quite like the image of a giraffe and a weird mask debating through megaphones to highlight the futility of discussion under certain circumstances.

Garden 6Then some figures come along and ruin the environment while some other figures do a bit of dancing. It’s an excellent way to sum up how doomed we all are.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories

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Some rubbish cultural references for lecturers

Reblogged to coincide with all those tweets from lecturers realizing that they are getting old and their cultural references are ancient or inappropriate.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

As an ageing lecturer, I often find that my cultural references generally fall flat with late teenage/ early 20s students. Still, I persevere because I forget which ones are completely pancake, which ones still work if you explain them a little bit, and which ones work again because there has been a film remake. So, here is a repository to help me remember:

Things that still just about work

The Matrix seems to work for just about everything, which means that it works for nothing (‘I remember we talked about it, but what was the point again?’)


A JFK scene sort of works as a vague reference to ‘the whole system’ (but undermines regression analysis of discrete variables)

Joe Pesci JFK the system

Mr Robot might work – eventually – if you don’t have to subscribe to Amazon to get it

mr-robotThings that don’t work

Don’t refer to a ‘sliding doors moment‘ in British politics unless you…

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We are recruiting a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling

I am the pre-interview contact point and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. This advice is designed to mimic – as far as possible – the conversation we might have if you knew me and called me up for an informal conversation. If I’m doing it right, no candidate will be disadvantaged by having no personal or other connection to the University before submission. There is also an update at the end.

Please see our Vacancy page for the details and ‘further particulars’ (FPs). The lectureship is almost certainly an ‘open ended’ contract and we do not have a ‘tenure-track’ system in which you need to prepare for a key hurdle while in post.

There are 10 politics staff in our division, so you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough to act collectively.

Why do we make reference to ‘feminist or post-colonial approaches’ in the FPs?

We now have a 5 women/ 5 men balance but almost all of our staff are white European. The latter sends one signal about our recruitment to date, but we hope that our FPs send another. We are not interested in projecting the sense that we support any staffing imbalances that currently exist. So, we worded the further particulars to ‘signal’ that we have realistic hopes of producing a more diverse and gender-balanced short list. Usually, job adverts will have a pro-forma statement about equalities, but we are trying to go one step further to signal – albeit with rather subtle cues – that we have thought about this issue a bit more; that we’d like to expand our networks and the ways in which our staff approach the study of politics. We are trying to make sure that our current set up does not put off people of colour from applying, signal that we have had some success in recruiting from a subject pool in which there is (I think) a relatively good gender balance, and signal support for research topics that might help expand our current offering.

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’d give you on the phone. However, if you reach interview stage, we really should talk. This post is no substitute for more in-depth questions from a small group of candidates about to take the final step.

We hope to make this kind of informal advice a routine part of the application process, as part of our commitment to innovative best practice and Athena SWAN. Therefore, if you find it useful, but have some advice on how to make it better, please let me know.

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. Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Shortlisted candidates at the SL level will likely be established lecturers with a strong record on publications, income, and leadership, so what makes you stand out? Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD, so what makes your CV stand out?
  • Note that you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough (10 in Politics, as part of a larger Division with History) to act collectively. You can, for example, influence its research direction (as a group, we hold regular 90 minute research workshops for that purpose) and make key contributions to our teaching programme reviews. If so, what would you say?
  • Focus on what you have already done when discussing what you will promise to do over the next five years. Those plans seem more realistic if there is already some sort of track record.
  • 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 in that context. In particular, you should think about how you would deliver large undergraduate courses (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, courses closer to your expertise.
  • There is a lot of advice out there about how to write a cover letter, including describing your teaching and research philosophies. Some of it might be universally applicable, but beware advice geared (for example) towards a US market in which the assumptions and requirements can be very different. I tend to be quite ‘practical’ when reading them at the first stage (as one of several people doing the shortlisting). I am looking for efficient ways to identify who meets/ does not meet the criteria listed in the FPs and, to be honest, at this stage I am more interested in the ‘nuts and bolts’ issues on things like publication record and the specific courses you have taught (topic, size, duration of experience, etc.) than your wider philosophy. My colleague from the Faculty across the lake, Dr Peter Mathews, also describes his process here:

and here

The interview process

By the interview stage, you should almost certainly 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?’ (then perhaps ‘Why this division?’) is almost always 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 (for example, the Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies in our school) or faculty (such as the Faculty of Social Sciences) – since this is likely to be a featured question too. Try not to depend too much on our website though (just in case it’s out of date in some respects).

  • 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 major importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

The presentation plus interview format

In our system there tend to be presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with interviews in the afternoon. The usual expectation is that if you can’t make the date, you can’t get the job (although we can make accommodations to, for example, help you interview via Skype).

  • We recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. If in doubt, keep it short. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • Almost all of the interview panel will not be in the audience for your presentation (I’ll be the likely exception), and they will not be briefed before your interview. So, treat them as separate exercises for separate audiences.
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is five members: one subject specialist from the Division (me), one other member of the Faculty (not necessarily from our division), the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Prof Richard Oram), a senior manager of the University (in the chair), and a senior academic in another Faculty (for example, Dean of Natural Sciences Prof Maggie Cusack).
  • So, it is possible that only 1 member of your panel will be a specialist in Politics. This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success – in your cover note, CV, and interview – 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 or ISQ! Or, if you prefer, you would have to explain why you would publish somewhere more appropriate.

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (nerves!), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager, and the research question from the divisional representative. There are often more men than women on the panel, and they are usually all-white panels, but I hope that we are providing other more useful signals about our commitment to equality and diversity.

I am happy to answer your questions. We can try email first – – and then phone or Zoom if you prefer.

Good luck!


I’ve spoken with a few candidates so far, and here are some things that come up fairly regularly. I’m more direct/ frank on the phone, but you can still get the idea here:

  1. I’m telling potential applicants that it’s not really me they need to impress. Instead, I help them think about how to frame their CV and cover note in relation to (a) what they are good at and (b) what we need. The answer to the ‘why Stirling’ question is often about the good fit between candidate and position.
  2. I’m describing the difference between immediate needs (in a team of about 10) and longer term benefits. For example, it would be good to describe your contribution to learning across many degree subjects, but better to project that you could organise and teach on at least one of our four sub-honours modules (British Isles, Ideologies, Comparative, Political Thinkers) or take on the 3rd year methods course, which is currently, the biggest job of our departing SL. You wouldn’t actually teach/ coordinate more than one, but the ability to do so gives us an idea of your experience (and the difference between someone who has done it or would be doing it for the first time). Another example is research. Interdisciplinarity is great. I am a convert and a big fan. However, more immediately, we need you to show us how you would boost our Unit of Assessment’s submission to the REF.
  3. People occasionally wonder aloud in some way if I’m doing all I can to recruit a woman of colour. Instead, I’m trying to do one small thing to address our context, which can be simplified as follows: (a) if we provide a generic statement of the post and a pro forma on equality and diversity, we often find that about 3/4 of the applicants are men (and almost all of the people contacting me directly are men); (b) if we project just a little bit of self awareness, about half of the applicants are women. The last time we advertised this specific post, more than 3/4 of applicants were men and the shortlist of five was all men.  This time, I expect 50/50. I’m not confident about how to encourage a more ‘level playing field’ for people of colour as effectively, so I’d appreciate any sensible suggestions.
  4.  I have never heard any senior manager rule out the best candidates for immigration reasons.
  5. It’s not cheating to send me an email

See also:

Some older advice about interviews

Previous posts on our recruitment


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The Future of Public Bodies

Guest post by Dr Matthew Wood, Lecturer in Politics and Deputy Director of the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield


On 1st June 2018 over 30 academics and practitioners from around the world came together at the University of Sheffield to debate the future of arm’s length public bodies, specifically the key challenges they face on accountability and stakeholder engagement. Public bodies are organisations carrying out public work on behalf of the government, but are unelected. Accountability and stakeholder engagement are therefore key for public bodies as ways of assuring public trust and confidence.

The event provided an opportunity to discuss findings from Dr Wood’s three-year ESRC Future Leaders research project on public bodies, and an international survey of accountability in public bodies coordinated by Professor Thomas Schillemans. International experts on public bodies attended from Universities in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, and Australia. The event was also attended by representatives from the OECD, UK Cabinet Office, Institute for Government, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Education, and practitioners from Dutch public bodies, among others.

Prior to the event, Dr Wood asked academics and practitioners to send through what they thought were the key issues facing public bodies, and made these the subject of debate and discussion over the two hours. This blog summarises the key points of debate, criticism and themes for future research co-produced between all the attendees.


What are the emerging challenges for accountability and public confidence in public bodies?

 Brexit was identified as a key challenge for public bodies in the UK, given there will be a large number of regulatory responsibilities transferred from the European level in March 2019, which public bodies are likely to be required to implement. Public bodies are therefore likely to take on a range of tasks previously performed by EU decentralised agencies and the European Commission.

In this context, participants noted an increasing problem related to time pressures and lack of resources to ensure stakeholders are able to hold public bodies properly accountable. For example, the legislative timetable in Parliament is so crowded that there is very little time to fully scrutinise work plans and accounts, with potentially significant implications for public confidence. One emergent theme was therefore the question of how to manage time in a context of constrained resources.

 How do accountability relationships shape decision making in public bodies?

Decision making is shaped by formal requirements for information provision, and informal relationships between public bodies, their Boards and parent departments. The international survey findings point to the potential that stronger disciplining powers for departments to sanction public bodies could have a significant positive impact on working relationships by providing clarity and coherence to relationships.

How are conflicts resolved when public bodies have competing accountabilities in two different directions?

 Public bodies are committed to presenting information in a timely and efficient manner, but often they have competing organisations they have to give account to. For example, public bodies may be asked to report to parliamentary select committees, audit offices, and central departments simultaneously on similar issues. This can create confusion about which relationships to prioritise.

One proposed solution to this problem was to refer back to official rules about which organisations are the main ‘principals’ of the public bodies in question. Public bodies have formal arrangements governing which forums they should engage with first and foremost (often departments) and these ought to be a ‘go to’ source of advice in the event of confusion about lines of reporting.

How can public bodies effectively manage public expectations around taking immediate action to assure accountability during crises, and manage their own approach to adverse social media coverage?

 This part of the discussion centred on the need for departments and public bodies to cooperate in managing public expectations. Rather than participating in ‘blame games’, departments and the staff of public bodies should talk to each other in the event of a crisis and share staff time to develop management strategies. Often, there are no clear ‘effective solutions’, because crises are unpredictable and complex, but focusing on common lines to take and coordinating media responses.

Another key point was that accountability has important temporal dimensions. In essence, there are more pressures for accountability to ‘work’ in the aftermath of emergencies and scandals, so flexibility is important and communicating clearly between relevant operational teams and points of contact in public bodies and governments is crucial.

 How do public managers deal with “information overload” and what are its implications for democracy and accountability within arm’s length agencies?

Information overload is a key issue for public bodies, and across the public sector. This part of the discussion made clear that often public bodies provide large amounts of information to meet accountability demands that overwhelms departments and might be seen as unnecessary. However, there was an appreciation that the demands for public bodies to make sure they are covering all the bases means they often feel encouraged to provide extensive information and justification. One suggestion for resolving this tension was to refer back to guidelines on what needs to be provided and for what purpose.

Stakeholder Engagement

How do public bodies and other expert agencies engage with stakeholders within and outside government?

 Dr Wood’s work suggests that agencies can effectively engage with stakeholders through ‘entrepreneurship’ – going beyond formal organisational responsibilities to be proactive in seeking out opportunities to engage stakeholders. They do this through:

  1. Improving website accessibility/readability;
  2. Pro-actively seeking coverage from traditional and non-traditional media outlets;
  3. Face-to-face events with stakeholders;
  4. Close collaboration with stakeholders through informal working groups;
  5. Training exercises with professional audiences and service users;
  6. Internal learning and reform exercises.

Dr Wood presented a typology of ‘entrepreneurship’ strategies developed by his ESRC-funded research, covering ‘technical’ and ‘insulating’ public bodies that cover less of the six criteria, and ‘networking’ and ‘politicised’ public bodies covering more of them. He presented data suggesting ‘politicised’ public bodies are more likely to be viewed as legitimate within parliamentary debates.

One response to this was that ‘entrepreneurship’ might be more relevant for public bodies with more resources available to them. Another critical view was that entrepreneurial strategies cannot be a substitute or ‘smokescreen’ for formal and legal responsibilities, and public bodies need to be wary of straying too far from their legal remit.

What kinds of stakeholder engagement practices do public bodies create? Which are most effective?

 One key example of good practice for stakeholder engagement was the Electoral Commission. The Commission is good at providing very clear explanations of electoral law, its relevance, and why what it does matters for the public good. It presents information in an accessible but authoritative way, in a similar way to the ‘insulating’ approach presented in Dr Wood’s typology. This suggests that a more constrained strategy, focusing on elements of ‘entrepreneurship’ that are specifically relevant to individual public bodies, could be better for securing legitimacy, than one focused on reaching out to various diverse stakeholders.

How do and with which consequences do agencies balance political responsiveness and agency credibility and reputation?

 The discussion highlighted how public bodies need to provide objective and clear information and have a well-defined approach to communicating their remit, responsibilities, and why their work has public benefit, to key audiences. The reputation of public bodies is forged through a strong sense of public purpose and commitment to serving diverse communities. This challenge is particularly relevant internationally, where the discussion highlighted how international public bodies find communicating their expertise and role more difficult.

 How can governments design ALBs to allow them capacity to manage stakeholder engagement in ways that promote collective public good, and address power inequities and representativeness of affected audiences?

 A key theme running through the final discussion was that public bodies should be confident that, despite being unelected, they carry out and advise on crucial political decisions that require extensive consultation and scrutiny. Since government departments often do not have the time or resources to carry out such detailed work, public bodies provide a key function. A key point was to refer back to official guidance about public bodies’ mission and purpose, and to communicate this in an efficient and effective manner.

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