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Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

Policy and Politics Journal

Paul Cairney Paul Cairney

The ‘multiple streams approach’ (MSA) is one of policy scholarship’s biggest successes. Kingdon’s original is one the highest cited books in policy studies, and there is a thriving programme of empirical application and theoretical refinement.

Yet, I argue that its success is built on shaky foundations because its alleged strength – its flexible metaphor of streams and windows of opportunity – is actually its weakness. Most scholars describe MSA superficially, fail to articulate the meaning of its metaphor, do not engage with state of the art developments, and struggle to apply its concepts systematically to empirical research. These limitations create an acute scientific problem: most scholars apply MSA without connecting it to a coherent research agenda.

In my recent article in Policy & Politics, I seek to solve this problem in three ways.

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Introducing our 2018 Policy & Politics special issue on Practical Lessons from Policy Theories

Policy and Politics Journal

Christopher M. Weible and Paul Cairney

Introducing our 2018 Policy & Politics special issue on Practical Lessons from Policy Theories, published in April now available online and in print. (Free to access online until 31 May)

Professors Christopher. M. Weible from the University of Colorado, Denver and Paul Cairney from the University of Stirling talk in the video below about their motivation for producing a special issue on drawing practical lessons from policy theories, and why their subject is so important.

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Practical Lessons from Policy Theories

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

These links to blog posts (the underlined headings) and tweets (with links to their full article) describe a new special issue of Policy and Politics, published in April 2018 and free to access until the end of May.

Weible Cairney abstract

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

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How you want your presentation to go, versus how it goes.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art


At Broad

At Six Flags MM

At a novelty sweet shop at Citywalk

At the Hollywood Museum

On the walk of fame

At the Getty Museum

At the California Academy of Sciences

At the de Young Museum, San Francisco

… It’s more of a comment than a question …

At the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In retrospect, this constant search for new photos for a joke that became tired by photo 3 could have ruined the trip, but it totally didn’t. No room for The Thinker, though. This look would be welcome during a presentation.

See also:

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Policy concepts in 1000 words: Institutional memory

Guest post by Jack Corbett, Dennis Grube, Heather Lovell and Rodney Scott

Democratic governance is defined by the regular rotation of elected leaders. Amidst the churn, the civil service is expected to act as the repository of received wisdom about past policies, including assessments of what works and what doesn’t. The claim is that to avoid repeating the same mistakes we need to know what happened last time and what were the effects. Institutional memory is thus central to the pragmatic task of governing.

What is institutional memory? And, how is it different to policy learning?

Despite increasing recognition of the role that memory can or should play in the policy process, the concept has defied easy scholarly definition.

In the classic account, institutional memory is the sum total of files, procedures and knowledge held by an organisation. Christopher Pollitt, who has pioneered the study of institutional memory, refers to the accumulated knowledge and experience of staff, technical systems, including electronic databases and various kinds of paper records, the management system, and the norms and values of the organizational culture, when talking about institutional memory. In this view, which is based on the key principles of the new institutionalism, memory is essentially an archive.

The problem with this definition is that it is hard to distinguish the concept from policy learning (see also here). If policy learning is in part about increasing knowledge about policy, including correcting for past mistakes, then we could perhaps conceive of a continuum from learning to memory with an inflection point where one starts and the other stops. But, this is easier to imagine than it is to measure empirically. It also doesn’t acknowledge the forms memories take and the ways memories are contested, suppressed and actively forgotten.

In our recent contribution to this debate (see here and here) we define memories as ‘representations of the past’ that actors draw on to narrate what has been learned when developing and implementing policy. When these narratives are embedded in processes they become ‘institutionalised’. It is this emphasis on embedded narratives that distinguishes institutional memory from policy learning. Institutional memory may facilitate policy learning but equally some memories may prohibit genuine adaptation and innovation. As a result, while there is an obvious affinity between the two concepts it is imperative that they remain distinct avenues of inquiry. Policy learning has unequivocally positive connotations that are echoed in some conceptualisations of institutional memory (i.e. Pollitt). But, equally, memory (at least in a ‘static’ form) can be said to provide administrative agents with an advantage over political principals (think of the satirical Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister fame). The below table seeks to distinguish between these two conceptualisations of institutional memory:

Key debates: Is institutional memory declining?

The scholar who has done the most to advance our understanding of institutional memory in government is Christopher Pollitt. His main contention is that institutional memory has declined over recent decades due to: the high rotation of staff in the civil service, changes in IT systems which prevent proper archiving, regular organisational restructuring, rewarding management skills above all others, and adopting new management ‘fads’ that favour constant change as they become popular. This combination of factors has proven to be a perfect recipe for the loss of institutional memory within organisations.  The result is a contempt for the past that leads to repeated policy failure.

We came to a different view. Our argument is that one of the key reasons why institutional memory is said to have declined is that it has been conceptualised in a ‘static’ manner more in keeping with an older way of doing government. This practice has assumed that knowledge on a given topic is held centrally (by government departments) and can be made explicit for the purpose of archiving. But, if government doesn’t actually work this way (see relevant posts on networks here) then we shouldn’t expect it to remember this way either. Instead of static repositories of summative documents holding a singular ‘objective’ memory, we propose a more ‘dynamic’ people-centred conceptualisation that sees institutional memory as a composite of intersubjective memories open to change. This draws to the fore the role of actors as crucial interpreters of memory, combining the documentary record with their own perspectives to create a story about the past. In this view, institutional memory has not declined, it is simply being captured in a fundamentally different way.

Corbett et al memory

Key debates: How can an institution improve how it remembers?

How an institution might improve its memory is intrinsically linked to how memory is defined and whether or not it is actually in decline. If we follow Pollitt’s view that memory is about the archive of accumulated knowledge that is being ignored or deliberately dismantled by managerialism then the answer involves returning to an older way of doing government that placed a higher value on experience. By putting a higher value on the past as a resource institutions would reduce staff turnover, stop regular restructures and changes in IT systems, etc. For those of us who work in an institution where restructuring and IT changes are the norm, this solution has obvious attractions. But, would it actually improve memory? Or would it simply make it easier to preserve the status quo (a process that involves actively forgetting disruptive but generative innovations)?

Our definition, relying as it does on a more dynamic conceptualisation of memory, is sceptical about the need to improve practices of remembering. But, if an institution did want to remember better we would favour increasing the opportunity for actors within an institution to reflect on and narrate the past. One example of this might be a ‘Wikipedia’ model of memory in which the story of a policy, it success and failure, is constructed by those involved, highlighting points of consensus and conjecture.

Additional reading:

 Corbett J, Grube D, Lovell H, Scott R. “Singular memory or institutional memories? Toward a dynamic approach”. Governance. 2018;00:1–19.

 Pollitt, C. 2009. “Bureaucracies Remember, Post‐Bureaucratic Organizations Forget?” Public Administration 87 (2): 198-218.

Pollitt, C. 2000. “Institutional Amnesia: A Paradox of the ‘Information Age’?” Prometheus 18 (1): 5-16.


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POLU9RM Asking the right research question

When I supervise dissertation students, I try to get them to do things in a specific order:

  • get the research question right
  • write an abstract to see if you can answer it (and explain how you structure the dissertation to allow you to answer it)
  • write the introduction to see if you can explain the whole rationale for your dissertation before you do most of the research.

Now, I don’t want to get into a big debate with the deviants who want to write or rewrite their introductions at the end. You can do what you like, pal.

Instead, I want to emphasise the benefits of the early investment. If you get the research question spot-on, in relation to the introduction, you can do the following:

  • make your project manageable from the start, without learning the hard way that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew
  • save a remarkably hellish amount of time on your ‘literature review’ by producing a clear sense of what is relevant/ to be skipped over
  • boast to your friends that you finished on time.

There is some good advice out there on designing a question to speak to a big question and a narrow research project at the same time.

For example, most of my projects follow roughly the same format: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why?

We can then narrow it down in several ways:

  • Choose, say, tobacco policy (quite specific) versus health policy (very broad indeed)
  • Choose one political system or one region, or limit your comparison of systems
  • Choose one time period
  • Choose what aspect of change you want to explain.

The latter is often the most important, because (in my case) it can make the difference between (a) feeling the need to explain many, many theories to give the whole picture (an impossible task) or (b) narrowing down theory selection by focusing on a small number of causes/ dynamics.

Ideally, the question should be super-important and sophisticated, but a dissertation also takes a lot of time and attention. So, my best advice is to choose a question to which you actually want to know the answer. If so, you should end up very satisfied in your result. If you don’t find the question interesting, you may come to resent your dissertation.

A final thought is that students often don’t know what question to ask, and they talk quite broadly about a very general topic. In such cases, it’s important to work with your supervisor until you’re both happy with the final result. My most memorable example is a student who, above all else, wanted to write about Beyoncé (and it worked out very well indeed).

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People come to my show for the joy of being hoodwinked

Ladies and gents, roll up, roll up, as I offer to you a fantastic and surprising story. You’ll think you’re seeing one story. Then you’ll think it’s another. Actually it’s another story entirely.

Our story begins to be about a circus owner, before appearing to turn into a story about giving voice to people once considered to be deviants.

Yet, it would fail at both tales, because to romanticize historic circus owners would be wrong (and it couldn’t be clearer that the film is not a biopic) and to really give voice to so many people would require a different film entirely.

Instead, we have a fairly safe and conventional film in which the main characters are white, male, heterosexual, and going on the usual voyage of self discovery.

As such, its popularity can be ensured by appealing widely to a fairly conventional family audience without being too threatening to the people buying the tickets.

Yet, there is an unusually radical morality tale hidden within this safe morality tale if you conclude eventually that the white male heroes are not heroic at all.

At first glance, you think you’re being asked to root for them as they go on a journey at great risk to themselves for the benefit of other people.

At second glance, they act out of selfishness and ignorance, yet still do well despite their faults because, for them, the rewards are unusually high and the stakes will always be relatively low.

The main character is PT Barnum. At first, there is a lot to root for. He emerges from poverty after showing much tenacity and imagination. In the process, he sticks it to the upper classes – symbolised by Charity Barnum’s violently oppressive father – and shows that anyone from humble beginnings can end up rich and famous if they have a big enough chip on their shoulder.

Yet, really, his is a story of male hubris and selfishness, in which he manipulates the people he claims to care for, and takes all sorts of risks which affect the people around him more than himself. He is in the remarkably privileged position – afforded to very few other characters – to be able to fail then succeed; to emerge as the wise hero at the end.

The superficial moral is to treat people with respect, and be thankful for the love of a small group of people around you (a message handed to him by the heroically supportive Charity). The deeper moral is that our hero is not to be admired for his actions. Our main character is a clown who (*spoiler alert*) emerged victorious despite his faults. He did not get there on merit.

The second main character is Phillip Carlyle, a rich white man putting on theatrical plays and drinking a lot until he inherits massive wealth from his father. At first glance, he is cast in the heroic role of a man willing to give it all up for his dreams and for love. Yet, his economic position never really seems in doubt, wavering from super wealthy to merely wealthy.

More importantly, he appears heroic because he is (eventually) willing to undermine his social position to form a relationship with a black woman, Anne Wheeler.

Yet, Phillip quickly serves as the film’s representation of the ignorance of white men who do not understand the unequal negative effects, or unintended consequences, of collective positive action.

For him, the choice is simple: to declare their love, be defiant, and not care about the reactions of other people (including his racist and classist parents).

This act exposes his ignorance and prompts Anne to explain that she would bear the brunt of their decision. She would be continuously vulnerable to violence and abuse (and would have to choose to be totally reliant on a white man for support and protection, despite having no previous life experience prompting her to trust white men). She knows this because it is a constant part of her life experience, of which he is blissfully ignorant.

[The importance of racism to this story is reinforced in three brief scenes with WD Wheeler, Anne’s brother. In one scene, he warns correctly about the likely hostile and violent reaction of a white audience to black performers, even though Barnum clearly designs his recruitment of performers to shock.

In another, his brief knowing smile confirms to Anne their belief that black people will be excluded from their visit to the Queen, because exclusion has been their routine experience

In another, he punches a white man – part of a mob – who threatens him and calls him a ‘spook’].

This context does not occur to Charles at all. Then, when she explains, he dismisses her concerns (albeit melodically) before she rejects him.

In the end, Anne decides (*spoiler alert*)  that a lifetime of external abuse for her is preferable to his horrible death, which really makes her the hero.

By the end, the two main male characters are totally delighted because their lives turned out brilliantly despite their ignorance and hubris. So, the film provides a realistic moral from a deliberately unrealistic premise.

🎤🎵🎶🎼 It also has some brilliant songs which make me cry every time I see it. I’ve seen it 7 times so far and I’ve lined up 2 more visits. I honestly don’t know why it’s so good, but I love it. Love it. Absolutely love it. If you go, sit in the front section. It has better sound and you can weep liberally and have a little dance when no one’s looking.

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