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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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Institutionalising preventive health: what are the key issues for Public Health England?

By Paul Cairney (University of Stirling, blue shirt), John Boswell (University of Southampton, check), Richard Gleave (Public Health England, tie), and Kathryn Oliver (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, black jacket). This post first appeared on the University of Stirling public policy blog and University of Bristol IEUREKA! blog.

group photo for PHE

On the 12th June, at the invitation of Richard Gleave (Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer, PHE)Professor Paul Cairney (University of Stirling) and Dr John Boswell (University of Southampton) led a discussion on ‘institutionalising’ preventive health with senior members of PHE. It follows a similar event in Scotland, to inform the development of Public Health Scotland, and the PHE event enjoyed contributions from key members of NHS Health Scotland. Cairney and Boswell drew on their published work – co-authored with Dr Kathryn Oliver (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and Dr Emily St Denny (University of Stirling) – to examine the role of evidence in policy and the lessons from comparable experiences in other public health agencies (in England, New Zealand and Australia). This post summarises their presentation and reflections from the workshop (gathered using the Chatham House rule).

The Academic Argument

Governments face two major issues when they try to improve population health and reduce health inequalities:

  1. Should they ‘mainstream’ policies – to help prevent ill health and reduce health inequalities – across government and/ or maintain a dedicated government agency?
  2. Should an agency ‘speak truth to power’ and seek a high profile to set the policy agenda?

Our research provides three messages to inform policy and practice:

  1. When governments have tried to mainstream ‘preventive’ policies, they have always struggled to explain what prevention means and reform services to make them more preventive than reactive.
  2. Public health agencies could set a clearer and more ambitious policy agenda. However, successful agencies keep a low profile and make realistic demands for policy change. In the short term, they measure success according to their own survival and their ability to maintain the positive attention of policymakers.
  3. Advocates of policy change often describe ‘evidence based policy’ as the answer. However, a comparison between (a) specific tobacco policy change and (b) very general prevention policy shows that the latter’s ambiguity hinders the use of evidence for policy. Governments use three different models of evidence-informed policy. These models are internally consistent but they draw on assumptions and practices that are difficult to mix and match. Effective evidence use requires clear aims driven by political choice.

Overall, they warn against treating any response – (a) the idiom ‘prevention is better than cure’, (b) setting up a public health agency, or (c) seeking ‘evidence based policy’ – as a magic bullet. Major public health changes require policymakers to define their aims, and agencies to endure long enough to influence policy and encourage the consistent use of models of evidence-informed policy. To do so, they may need to act like prevention ninjas, operating quietly and out of the public spotlight, rather than seeking confrontation and speaking truth to power.

The Workshop Discussion

The workshop discussion highlighted an impressive level of agreement between the key messages of the presentation and the feedback from most members of the PHE audience.

One aspect of this agreement was predictable, since Boswell et al’s article describes PHE as a relative success story and bases its analysis of prevention ‘ninjas’ on interviews with PHE staff. However, this strategy is subject to frequent criticism. PHE has to manage the way it communicates with multiple audiences, which is a challenge in itself.  One key audience is a public health profession in which most people see their role as to provoke public debate, shine a light on corporate practices (contributing to the ‘commercial determinants of health’), and criticise government inaction. In contrast, PHE often seeks to ensure that quick wins are not lost, must engage with a range of affected interests, and uses quiet diplomacy to help maintain productive relationships with senior policymakers. Four descriptions of this difference in outlook and practice stood out:

  1. Walking the line. Many PHE staff gauge how well they are doing in relation to the criticism they receive. Put crudely, they may be doing well politically if they are criticised equally by proponents of public health intervention and vocal opponents of the ‘nanny state’.
  2. Building and maintaining relationships. PHE staff recognise the benefit of following the rules of the game within government, which include not complaining too loudly in public if things do not go your way, expressing appreciation (or at least a recognition of policy progress) if they do, and being a team player with good interpersonal skills rather than simply an uncompromising advocate for a cause. This approach may be taken for granted by interest groups, but tricky for public health researchers who seek a sense of critical detachment from policymakers.
  3. Managing expectations. PHE staff recognise the need to prioritise their requirements from government. Phrases such as ‘health in all policies’ often suggest the need to identify a huge number of crucial, and connected, policy changes. However, a more politically feasible strategy is to identify a small number of discrete priorities on which to focus intensely.
  4. Linking national and local. PHE staff who work closely with local government, the local NHS, and other partners, described how they can find it challenging to link ‘place-based’ and ‘national policy area’ perspectives.  Local politics are different from national politics, though equally important in implementation and practice.

There was also high agreement on how to understand the idea of ‘evidence based’ or ‘evidence informed’ policymaking (EBPM). Most aspects of EBPM are not really about ‘the evidence’. Policy studies often suggest that, to improve evidence use requires advocates to:

  • find out where the action is, and learn the rules and language of debate within key policymaking venues, and
  • engage routinely with policymakers, to help them understand their audience, build up trust based on an image of scientific credibility and personal reliability, and know when to exploit temporary opportunities to propose policy solutions.
  • To this we can add the importance of organisational morale and a common sense of purpose, to help PHE staff operate effectively while facing unusually high levels of external scrutiny and criticism. PHE staff are in the unusual position of being (a) part of the meetings with ministers and national leaders, and (b) active at the front-line with professionals and key publics.

In other words, political science-informed policy studies, and workshop discussions, highlighted the need for evidence advocates to accept that they are political actors seeking to win policy arguments, not objective scientists simply seeking the truth. Scientific evidence matters, but only if its advocates have the political skills to know how to communicate and when to act.

Although there was high agreement, there was also high recognition of the value of internal reflection and external challenge. In that context, one sobering point is that, although PHE may be relatively successful now (it has endured for some time), we know that government agencies are vulnerable to disinvestment and major reform. This vulnerability underpins the need for PHE staff to recognise political reality when they pursue evidence-informed policy change. Put bluntly, they often have to strike a balance between two competing pressures – being politically effective or insisting on occupying the moral high ground – rather than assuming that the latter always helps the former.

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Why Boris Johnson is so important to Scottish independence

Why is the presence of Boris Johnson so important to the prospect of Scottish independence? Why is it so important to the fate of the Scottish Conservatives? How are both questions connected?

One way to answer these questions is to think back to the relative success of the Scottish Conservatives in the most recent elections in Westminster and Holyrood. During this period, the party’s Scottish strategy was simple and effective:

  1. Focus on its leader in Scotland – Ruth Davidson – and downplay the party.
  2. Focus almost exclusively on opposing a second referendum on Scottish independence.
  3. Promote Ruth Davidson’s image – as a competent, reliable, and therefore trustworthy leader – to give weight to its message on the referendum.

Another is to remember that some key UK factors helped facilitate this approach:

  1. UK Prime Ministers – David Cameron and Theresa May – were relatively respectful towards Scottish political actors and relatively sympathetic to the Scottish context.
  2. Until the Brexit debate and its aftermath, they were often able to project a sense of order and use it to highlight a set of relatively consistent rules, norms, and expectations about how politics should work.

In that context, think about the extent to which any of these factors now hold:

  1. Boris Johnson will often overshadow the Scottish party and its leader, reinforcing the old association between (a) support for constitutional change, and (b) opposition to the Conservatives.
  2. He will likely slip up, either by appearing to favour a second Scottish referendum on impulse, or by opposing it in an unhelpful way.
  3. His reputation for incompetent buffoonery may seem cute to his supporters, but embarrassing and damaging to Scottish Conservatives.
  4. He is already on record as being disrespectful to the Scottish case, and will be under relatively high pressure to ‘stand up for England’ in the way that the SNP has become known as ‘standing up for Scotland’.
  5. All bets are off in relation to the idea that there is a standard way to deal with demands for things like referendums.

Put more simply, the person in charge of telling the SNP not to be so gung ho, unreasonable, or obsessed with national identity and independence from an external authority, will be Boris Johnson.

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Annual Policy & Politics prizewinners announced!

Two ginger guys have won an award.

Policy and Politics Journal


Competition winners pictured: Madeleine Pill, Valeria Guarneros-Meza, Christopher M. Weible & Paul Cairney 

Written by Sarah Ayres, Steve Martin and Felicity Matthews, Co-Editors of Policy & Politics

The Bleddyn Davies Best Early Career prize has been awarded to: Madeleine Pill and Valeria Guarneros-Meza for their article on Local governance under austerity: hybrid organisations and hybrid officers  

In this excellent paper, Madeleine Pill & Valeria Guarneros-Meza explore what austerity means for participation in city governance. 

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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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