Tag Archives: accountability

The global study of governance and public policy

Cairney GPP Iran

I was invited by Dr Emamian from the Governance and Policy Think Tank to deliver this short lecture at the first ‘governance and public policy conference’ in Iran. I was unable to attend, so recorded a set of short video presentations supplemented by blog discussion. The topics to be covered include the importance of a scholarly network for policy studies, the need for a set of core policy concepts to act as a technical language for that network, and the need to apply that language to explain shifts in government and regulation towards ‘regulatory governance’.

Please note that my choice to record the videos in my garden (while I look up) seemed good at the time, for some very good reasons that I won’t get into. However, you will see that I become increasingly cold and annoyed at being cold. I can only apologize for my face and the fact that I was too cold to remember to put on my professional voice.

Using shared concepts in a scholarly network of policy researchers

Our aim may be to produce a global network of policy scholars, in two main ways:

  1. To foster meetings and discussion, such as via this conference and others such as the ICPP and ECPR
  2. To make sure that we are talking about the same thing. Most of the theories to which I refer are based on studies of countries like the US and UK. Their prominence contributes to a ‘global north’ perspective which can be useful in the abstract but with uncertain applicability across the globe.

For example, when considering the applicability of US-inspired theories, think about their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of a political system, in which leaders in many levels and types of government are elected regularly, there is a constitution guaranteeing a division of powers across legislative-executive-judicial branches and between federal/subnational levels, and people describe a ‘pluralist’ system in which many groups mobilise and counter-mobilise to influence policy.

What happens when we stop taking this political context for granted? Do these theories remain as relevant?

Which concepts do we use?

I describe two main abstract concepts then invite you to think about how to apply them in more concrete circumstances.

  1. Bounded rationality, not comprehensive rationality.

No-one can understand fully the world in which we live. Individuals can only understand and pay attention to a tiny part of key aspects of the world such as political systems.

Indeed, a handy phrase to remember is that almost all people must ignore almost everything almost all of the time.

Yet, they must make choices despite uncertainty, perhaps by adopting ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. In other words, we may see all human choices as flawed when compared with an ideal of perfect decision-making. On the other hand, we may marvel at the ways in which humans make often-good choices despite their limitations.

Individual policymakers use two short-cuts to gather enough information to make choices:

  • ‘Rational’, in which they adopt measures to ensure that they have good enough information to inform decisions. For example, they prioritise certain written sources of information and draw on people they consider to be experts.
  • ‘Irrational’, in which they rely on things like gut instinct, habit, and emotion to make snap decisions.

In that context, policy scholarship involves the study of how people make and influence those choices. One part is about the role of evidence, in which people produce information to reduce uncertainty about the nature of the world. However, the more important study is of how people understand the world in the first place. As policy scholars, we focus on ambiguity, to describe the many ways in which people choose to understand the same problems, and the exercise of power to influence those choices.

  1. A complex policymaking environment, not a policy cycle.

Things get more complicated when we move from the analysis of (a) key individuals to (b) the interaction between many individuals and organisations in a complex policymaking ‘system’ or ‘environment’. Policy scholars describe this environment in many different ways, using different concepts, but we can identify a core set of terms on which to focus:

  • Actors. There are many policy influencers and policymakers in many authoritative venues spread across many levels and types of government.
  • Institutions. Each venue has its own rules, including the formal, written-down, and easy to understand rules, versus the informal norms, cultures, and practices which are difficult to identify and describe.
  • Networks. Policymakers and influencers form relationships based on factors such as trust, authority, and the exchange of resources such as information and support.
  • Ideas. People communicate their beliefs, about policy problems and potential solutions, within a wider understanding of the world (often described as a paradigm or hegemony). Some of that understanding is taken-for-granted and not described, and people limit their analysis and argument according to the ways in which they think other people see the world.
  • Socioeconomic context and events. Policymakers often have to respond to policy conditions and events over which they have limited control, such geographic, demographic, and economic factors. These factors help produce non-routine ‘events’ alongside more predictable events such as elections (or other means to ensure a change of government).

In that context, policy scholarship focuses on producing theories to explain what happens when policymakers have limited control over their political systems and policymaking environments.

How far do these concepts travel?

As you can see, these concepts are widely applicable because they are abstract. What happens when we try to apply them to specific countries or case studies? For example:

  1. We talk about policymakers using cognitive, moral, and emotional shortcuts, but those shortcuts can vary profoundly across the globe.
  2. Each political system has a different collection of authoritative venues, formal and informal rules of politics, networks of power, ways to describe how the world works and should work, and socioeconomic context.

This is where our global network becomes valuable, to help us describe how we make sense of the same concepts in very different ways, and consider the extent to which such discussions are comparable.

Example: how do governments address an ‘era of governance’?

One way to foster such discussion is to consider how governments address the limits to their powers. These limits are described in many different ways, from a focus on ‘complexity’ and policy outcomes which ‘emerge’ from local activity (despite attempts by central governments to control outcomes), to a focus on the shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’.

As policy scholars, we can make several useful distinctions to describe these dynamics, such as to separate an actual shift in policymaking from government to governance, versus a shift in the way we now describe government.

Or, we can separate how governments can, do, and should address the limits to their powers.

I’d say that most policy scholarship focuses on how governments operate: how they actually address problems and what are the – intended and unintended – consequences.

However, these studies are trying to describe the tensions between what governments can do, given the limits I describe, and what they think they should do, given their position of authority and their need to describe their success.

For example, some systems may be more conducive to the support for ‘polycentric governance’, in which many authoritative venues cooperate to address problems, while others are built on the idea of central control and the concentration of authority in a small group of actors.

Therefore, the study of actual policymaking and outcomes will vary markedly according to the ways in which government actors feel they need to assert an image of control over a policy environment which is almost immune to control.

Perhaps an ‘era of governance’ describes some recognition by many governments that they need to find new ways to address their limited control over policy outcomes, both domestically and globally. However, an enduring theme in political science and policy studies is that we do not explain policymaking well if we restrict our attention to the ‘rational’ decisions of a small number of actors. Let’s not make too many assumptions about their power and motive.

Further reading:

The New Policy Sciences

How to Communicate Effectively with Policymakers

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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3 questions about the call for Police Scotland’s Sir Stephen House’s resignation

Scottish Labour has called for Sir Stephen House’s resignation. Its call is on the back of a problem in Police Scotland’s handling of non-emergency calls (to its 101 number) which led to a major delay in finding two people who died in a car crash. Labour’s position is that this is one of many examples of failures in Police Scotland, that it has lost the confidence of the public, and that the service is feeling the strain of reform – so, House’s resignation is necessary to make sure that a review into Police Scotland’s operations will re-establish its reputation (the Scottish Government does not agree).

This position raises some interesting questions to people who remember the days in which ministers would be held responsible for such mistakes.

  1. What happened to ministerial accountability?

Many bodies need to be separated, somehow, from direct ministerial control to ensure their legitimacy. The police force and legal system are key examples: it would not be proper for a justice minister to have direct control over the arrest and prosecution of individuals, for principled reasons in the short term (they could influence the treatment of their supporters or opponents) and long term (to ensure the consistent application of legal principles and operational practices subject to minimal short term political interference).

In such cases, chief executives of government agencies take responsibility for operational decisions, allowing ministers to reject the historic idea that they should resign whenever anything goes wrong in their departments simply because they are ultimately responsible (‘sacrificial accountability’), to decide whether to redirect queries to other bodies, keep Parliament informed routinely of public body activities, explain problems, or promise to intervene.

The accountability landscape remains unclear when ministers devolve decisions to public bodies, with their own means to demonstrate institutional accountability, but also intervene, in an ad hoc way, to deal with institutional crises or address concerns when ‘operational’ and policy matters seem overlap (such as the ‘stop and search’ of teenagers to reduce knife crime, or the use of firearms by police officers). However, it tends to ensure, at least more than in the past, that the buck generally stops with chief executives.

2. Is the chief executive accountable in a meaningful way?

The reasoning behind a decision not to sacrifice ministers is sound: why call for a ministerial resignation every time something goes wrong in a department, particularly when the problem resulted from events, and decisions made by other people, that the minister could not be reasonably expected to anticipate? Such resignations can be disruptive and counterproductive, prompting a period of flux when a new minster has to learn the job from scratch. It also smacks of cynical symbolism – a gesture to the public, to protect the government, which does not solve the real problem.

In such cases, a minister can be accountable in a more meaningful way when s/he intervenes to address the problems caused by other individuals or organisations, introduces reforms to prevent similar problems arising in the future, and keeps Parliament and the public informed.

If we accept this principle, we should apply it to the chief executives of public bodies. Before deciding that they should resign because they are responsible for poor outcomes, we might first establish that: (a) the decisions they made contributed significantly to the problem; and/ or (b) they are not well placed to intervene to solve it (or that someone else is demonstrably better equipped to do the job). Otherwise, such resignations will be unnecessarily disruptive and expensive (since the political removal of a chief executive, without demonstrating incompetence, will likely involve a decent payoff).

Labour’s statement that ‘The Scottish Police Authority has utterly failed to hold Police Scotland to account in any way’ seems to rely on an argument which harks back to the outmoded notion of sacrificial responsibility that we no longer apply to ministers, while the SPA – when expressing support for House – draws on the idea that chief executives should stay in post while they can solve problems.

3. Can House use the same argument favoured by the SNP?

The SNP generally has an effective set of arguments for poor outcomes in devolved policies: we are constrained by decisions made by the UK Government; their decisions undermine the extent to which we can go our own way; and, sometimes we can only mitigate the worst effects, or deal with the unintended consequences of, their policies.

With Police Scotland, the same argument applies to many of the high profile events that have arisen since its reform: we are driven by policies made by the Scottish Government. This includes a major drive to reform the service as a whole, to streamline some services and save money in some areas – and to do it while maintaining the same number of police officers (another high profile decision of the SNP). The decision to keep police numbers at the same level means that all cost savings will come from organisational reform or reductions in support staff, producing inevitable reductions in local capacity when a national service can be concentrated in fewer units. The decision to have a national service also has a knock on effect on the reporting of police practices – so, practices that have been happening for years (such as stop and search practices) now look more significant or become associated with the policies of a single chief executive.

Overall, I am not simply making an argument to support House. For all I know, he may be to blame in these high profile cases – but I have not seen this argument made well or consistently by people calling for his resignation. Rather, I am saying that his critics, calling for his resignation, should present a more reasoned account, addressing the above points, to demonstrate that he is responsible in a meaningful way. The very broad ‘the buck stops with the chief executive’ argument (perhaps coupled with the suggestion that House is a prickly character) seems misguided in this case.

Motion S4M-13800: Hugh Henry, Renfrewshire South, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 21/07/2015

Police Scotland
That the Parliament expresses its shock and sadness at the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill following a car crash on the M9; calls on the Scottish Government to publish, in full and as quickly as possible, the inquiry by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland into call handling at Police Scotland; expresses concern at what it sees as a number of failings by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government’s ministers, including reductions in the number of services and civilian staff and a lack of transparency over armed officers and stop and search policy; considers that incidents such as this recent tragedy have had a negative impact on public confidence in policing; believes that the Scottish Police Authority has proved to be inadequate, and reluctantly concludes that, in the interests of restoring public trust in Police Scotland, the Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House, should resign with immediate effect.

Supported by: Iain Gray, James Kelly, Anne McTaggart, Hanzala Malik, Lewis Macdonald, Michael McMahon, Elaine Murray, John Pentland, Sarah Boyack, Mary Fee, Duncan McNeil, Patricia Ferguson, Claudia Beamish, Graeme Pearson, Cara Hilton, Jayne Baxter, Jenny Marra, Paul Martin, Siobhan McMahon, Drew Smith, Richard Simpson

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The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability


A common argument in British politics is that the UK Government has exacerbated its own ‘governance problem’. A collection of post-war reforms, many of which were perhaps designed to reinforce central control, has produced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. This outcome presents major problems for the ‘Westminster’ narrative of central government and ministerial accountability to the public via Parliament. If ministers are not in control of their departments, how can we hold them to account in a meaningful way?

Yet, in many cases, it is misleading to link these outcomes to specific decisions or points in time, since many aspects of the ‘governance problem’ are universal: policymakers can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible; they do not have enough information to make decisions without major uncertainty; policy problems are too multi-faceted and ‘cross-cutting’ to allow policymaking without ambiguity; there is an inescapable logic to delegating decisions to ‘policy communities’ which may not talk to each other or account meaningfully to government; and, delivery bodies will always have discretion in the way they manage competing government demands.

In this context, policymaking systems can be described usefully as complex systems, in which behaviour is always difficult to predict, and outcomes often seem to emerge in the absence of central control. Further, the literature on complexity provides some advice about how governments should operate within complex systems. Unfortunately, much of this literature invites policymakers to give up on the idea that they can control policy processes and outcomes. While this may be a pragmatic response, it does not deal well with the need for elected policymakers to account for their actions in a very particular way. What seems sensible to one audience may be indefensible to another. In particular, the language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability.

What we need is a response that sets out a governmental acknowledgement of the limits to its powers, combined with the sense that we can still hold elected policymakers to account in a meaningful way. Ideally, this response should be systematic enough to allow us to predict when ministers will take responsibility for their actions, redirect attention to other accountable public bodies, and/ or identify the limited way in which they can be held responsible for certain outcomes. Beyond this ideal, we may settle for a government strategy based on explicit trade-offs between pragmatism, in which governments acknowledge the effect of administrative devolution (or, in the case of local authorities, political devolution), and meaningful representation, in which they maintain some degree of responsibility for decisions made in their name.

The aim of this paper is to draw lessons from the Scottish experience, which demonstrates an attempt to mix strategic responsibility with an element of flexibility and delegation. While we should not exaggerate the coherence of government strategies, we can meaningfully describe a ‘Scottish policy style’, identified in empirical studies, and a ‘Scottish approach’ as a self-styled description of policymaking by the Scottish Government. Further, the Scottish context is comparable enough to the UK to offer lessons. Although much of the rhetoric of ‘new Scottish politics’ suggests that it is markedly different from ‘old Westminster’, it has inherited a Westminster-style focus on government accountability to the public via Parliament (and an assumption that ‘the government governs’). Although Scotland is smaller, and the Scottish Government is able to design a governance style based on greater personal contact with interest groups and public bodies, this only serves to reinforce the importance of ‘universal’ problems when the problems that arise in Scotland resemble those faced in the UK. Overall, Scottish policymaking demonstrates that many problems related to ‘governance’ cannot be solved. Rather, the Scottish experience prompts us to identify important trade-offs between the delegation of administrative functions and the maintenance of central accountability.

To explain these issues, the paper first summarises the main ways in which UK governments have allegedly exacerbated governance problems. Second, it separates this focus on specific outcomes from the universal constraints on central control common to all complex policymaking systems. Third, it contrasts the practical advice that arises from a focus on complexity theory with the political imperative, in Westminster systems, to present policy outcomes as the responsibility of ministers. Fourth, it identifies the balance struck between accountability and delegation by the Scottish Government since 2007, and the transferable lessons to other systems.

The paper is here: Cairney Governance Complexity Accountability Scotland 20.11.14

Some of the wider issues are discussed here:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it?

Sharing professional and academic knowledge: The role of academic-practitioner workshops (on turning policy and complexity theories into something consistent with Westminster politics)

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum (3000 words and a lecture)

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country (LSE 1200 words)


Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy