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I was knocked off my motorbike in 1996

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

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

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

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

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Classic 5-step advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box 2. Dunn (2017) Public Policy Analysis

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

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

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

Box 4. Mintrom (2012) Contemporary Policy Analysis

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

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

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

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

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: entrepreneurial policy analysis

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

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

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

The take-home-messages are to

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

Box 11.3 UPP 2nd ed entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship and policy analysis

Mintrom identifies the intersection between policy entrepreneurship and policy analysis, to highlighting 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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