In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:
Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.
Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:
‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.
I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:
Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.
Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.
Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.
Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:
A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.
In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.
There are many ways that people relate to their government. People may vote for their formal representatives through elections. Through referendums and initiatives, people can vote directly to shape public policy. More indirect ways include through informal representation via political parties or interest groups and associations.
This blog addresses another extremely important way to relate government via “advocacy coalitions.”
What are advocacy coalitions?
Advocacy coalitions are alliances of people around a shared policy goal. People associated with the same advocacy coalition have similar ideologies and worldviews and wish to change a given policy (concerning health, environmental, or many other issues) in the same direction.
Advocacy coalitions can include anyone regularly seeking to influence a public policy, such as elected and government officials, members of political parties or interest groups, scientists, journalists, or members of trade unions and non-for-profit/ ‘third sector’ organizations.
The coalition is an informal network of allies that usually operate against an opposing coalition consisting of people who advocate for different policy directions. As one coalition tries to outmaneuver the other, the result is a game of political one-upmanship of making and unmaking public policies that can last years to decades.
Political debates over normative issues endure for a long time, advocacy coalitions have the ability to span levels of government from local to national, and they integrate traditional points of influence in a political system, from electoral politics to regulatory decision-making.
How to think about coalitions and their settings
Consider the context in which political debates over policy issues occur. Context might include the socio-cultural norms and rules that shape what strategies might be affected and the usefulness of political resources.
The ACF elevates the importance of context from an overlooked set of opportunities and constraints to a set of factors that should be considered as conditioning political behavior. We can develop coalition strategies and identify key political resources, but their utility and effectiveness will be contextually driven and will change over time. That is, what works for political influence today might not work in the future.
How to become involved in an advocacy coalition?
People engage in politics differently based on a range of factors, including how important the issue is to them, their available time, skills, and resources, and general motivations.
People with less time or knowledge can engage in coalitions as “auxiliary participants.”
Individuals for whom an issue is of high relevance, or those who see their major expertise in a specific subsystem, might want to shape coalition politics and strategies decisively and become “principal participants.”
People wanting to mitigate conflict might choose to play a “policy broker” role
People championing ideas can play the role of “policy entrepreneurs.”
General citizens can see themselves playing the role of a “political soldier” contributing to their cause when called upon by the leaders of any coalition.
How do coalitions form and maintain themselves?
Underlying the coalition concept is an assumption that people are most responsive to threats to what they care about. Coalitions form because of these threats that might come from a rival’s proposed policy solutions, a particular characterization of problems, and from major events (e.g., a disaster). Motivated by fundamental values, the chronic presence of threats from opponents is another reason that coalitions persist. People stay mobilized because they know that, if they disengage, people with whom they disagree may influence societal outcomes.
How to identify an advocacy coalition?
There is no single way to identify a coalition, but here are four strategies to try.
Look for people holding formal elected or unelected positions in government with authority and an interest to affect a public policy issue.
Identify people from outside of government participating in the policy process (e.g., rulemaking, legislative hearings, etc.).
Identify people with influential reputations that often seek to influence government through more informal means (e.g., blogging).
Uncover those individuals who are not currently mobilized but who might be in the future, for example by identifying who is threatened or who could benefit from the policy decision.
These four strategies emphasize formal competences and informal relations, and the motivations that actors might have to participate in an issue.
This blog is more about how to think about relations between people and government and less on identifying concrete strategies for influencing government. Political strategies are not applicable all the time and vary in degree of success and failure based on a gamut of factors.
The best we can do is to offer ways of thinking about political engagement, such as through the ideas that are summarized here and then trust people to assess their current situation, and act in effective ways.
In September, we will begin a one-year UKERC project examining current and future energy policy and multi-level policymaking and its impact on ‘energy systems’. This is no mean feat, since the meaning of policy, policymaking (or the ‘policy process’), and ‘system’ are not clear, and our description of the components parts of an energy system and a complex policymaking system may differ markedly. So, one initial aim is to provide some way to turn a complex field of study into something simple enough to understand and engage with.
We do so by focusing on ‘multi-level policymaking’ – which can encompass concepts such as multi-level governance and intergovernmental relations – to reflect the fact that the responsibility for policies relevant to energy are often Europeanised, devolved, and shared between several levels of government. Brexit will produce a major effect on energy and non-energy policies, and prompt the UK and devolved governments to produce relationships, but we all need more clarity on the dynamics of current arrangements before we can talk sensibly about the future. To that end, we pursue three main work packages:
1. What is the ‘energy policymaking system’ and how does it affect the energy system?
Chaudry et al (2009: iv) define the UK energy system as ‘the set of technologies, physical infrastructure, institutions, policies and practices located in and associated with the UK which enable energy services to be delivered to UK consumers’. UK policymaking can have a profound impact, and constitutional changes might produce policy change, but their impacts require careful attention. So, we ‘map’ the policy process and the effect of policy change on energy supply and demand. Mapping sounds fairly straightforward but contains a series of tasks whose level of difficulty rises each time:
Identify which level or type of government is responsible – ‘on paper’ and in practice – for the use of each relevant policy instrument.
Identify how these actors interact to produce what we call ‘policy’, which can range from statements of intent to final outcomes.
Identify an energy policy process containing many actors at many levels, the rules they follow, the networks they form, the ‘ideas’ that dominate discussion, and the conditions and events (often outside policymaker control) which constrain and facilitate action. By this stage, we need to draw on particular policy theories to identify key venues, such as subsystems, and specific collections of actors, such as advocacy coalitions, to produce a useful model of activity.
2. Who is responsible for action to reduce energy demand?
Energy demand is more challenging to policymakers than energy supply because the demand side involves millions of actors who, in the context of household energy use, also constitute the electorate. There are political tensions in making policies to reduce energy demand and carbon where this involves cost and inconvenience for private actors who do not necessarily value the societal returns achieved, and the political dynamics often differ from policy to regulate industrial demand. There are tensions around public perceptions of whose responsibility it is to take action – including local, devolved, national, or international government agencies – and governments look like they are trying to shift responsibility to each other or individuals and firms.
So, there is no end of ways in which energy demand could be regulated or influenced – including energy labelling and product/building standards, emissions reduction measures, promotion of efficient generation, and buildings performance measures – but it is an area of policy which is notoriously diffuse and lacking in co-ordination. So, for the large part, we consider if Brexit provides a ‘window of opportunity’ to change policy and policymaking by, for example, clarifying responsibilities and simplifying relationships.
3: Does Brexit affect UK and devolved policy on energy supply?
It is difficult for single governments to coordinate an overall energy mix to secure supply from many sources, and multi-level policymaking adds a further dimension to planning and cooperation. Yet, the effect of constitutional changes is highly uneven. For example, devolution has allowed Scotland to go its own way on renewable energy, nuclear power and fracking, but Brexit’s impact ranges from high to low. It presents new and sometimes salient challenges for cooperation to supply renewable energy but, while fracking and nuclear are often the most politically salient issues, Brexit may have relatively little impact on policymaking within the UK.
We explore the possibility that renewables policy may be most impacted by Brexit, while nuclear and fracking are examples in which Brexit may have a minimal direct impact on policy. Overall, the big debates are about the future energy mix, and how local, devolved, and UK governments balance the local environmental impacts of, and likely political opposition to, energy development against the economic and energy supply benefits.
This is a post for my talk at the ‘Politheor: European Policy Network’ event Write For Impact: Training In Op-Ed Writing For Policy Advocacy. There are other speakers with more experience of, and advice on, ‘op-ed’ writing. My aim is to describe key aspects of politics and policymaking to help the audience learn why they should write op-eds in a particular way for particular audiences.
A key rule in writing is to ‘know your audience’, but it’s easier said than done if you seek many sympathetic audiences in many parts of a complex policy process. Two simple rules should help make this process somewhat clearer:
Learn how policymakers simplify their world, and
Learn how policy environments influence their attention and choices.
We can use the same broad concepts to help explain both processes, in which many policymakers and influencers interact across many levels and types of government to produce what we call ‘policy’:
Policymaker psychology: tell an evidence-informed story
Policymakers receive too much information, and seek ways to ignore most of it while making decisions. To do so, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ means: selecting a limited number of regular sources of information, and relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and familiarity with information. In other words, your audience combines cognition and emotion to deal with information, and they can ignore information for long periods then quickly shift their attention towards it, even if that information has not really changed.
Consequently, an op-ed focusing solely ‘the facts’ can be relatively ineffective compared to an evidence-informed story, perhaps with a notional setting, plot, hero, and moral. Your aim shifts from providing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty about a problem, to providing a persuasive reason to reduce ambiguity. Ambiguity relates to the fact that policymakers can understand a policy problem in many different ways – such as tobacco as an economic good, issue of civil liberties, or public health epidemic – but often pay exclusive attention to one.
So, your aim may be to influence the simple ways in which people understand the world, to influence their demand for more information. An emotional appeal can transform a factual case, but only if you know how people engage emotionally with information. Sometimes, the same story can succeed with one audience but fail with another.
Institutions: learn the ‘rules of the game’
Institutions are the rules people use in policymaking, including the formal, written down, and well understood rules setting out who is responsible for certain issues, and the informal, unwritten, and unclear rules informing action. The rules used by policymakers can help define the nature of a policy problem, who is best placed to solve it, who should be consulted routinely, and who can safely be ignored. These rules can endure for long periods and become like habits, particularly if policymakers pay little attention to a problem or why they define it in a particular way.
Networks and coalitions: build coalitions and establish trust
Such informal rules, about how to understand a problem and who to speak with about it, can be reinforced in networks of policymakers and influencers.
‘Policy community’ partly describes a sense that most policymaking is processed out of the public spotlight, often despite minimal high level policymaker interest. Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policymaking to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government, and policymakers have ‘standard operating procedures’ that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others
‘Policy community’ also describes a sense that the network seems fairly stable, built on high levels of trust between participants, based on factors such as reliability (the participant was a good source of information, and did not complain too much in public about decisions), a common aim or shared understanding of the problem, or the sense that influencers represent important groups.
So, the same policy case can have a greater impact if told by a well trusted actor in a policy community. Or, that community member may use networks to build key coalitions behind a case, use information from the network to understand which cases will have most impact, or know which audiences to seek.
Ideas: learn the ‘currency’ of policy argument
This use of networks relates partly to learning the language of policy debate in particular ‘venues’, to learn what makes a convincing case. This language partly reflects a well-established ‘world view’ or the ‘core beliefs’ shared by participants. For example, a very specific ‘evidence-based’ language is used frequently in public health, while treasury departments look for some recognition of ‘value for money’ (according to a particular understanding of how you determine VFM). So, knowing your audience is knowing the terms of debate that are often so central to their worldview that they take them for granted and, in contrast, the forms of argument that are more difficult to pursue because they are challenging or unfamiliar to some audiences. Imagine a case that challenges completely someone’s world view, or one which is entirely consistent with it.
Socioeconomic factors and events: influence how policymakers see the outside world
Some worldviews can be shattered by external events or crises, but this is a rare occurrence. It may be possible to generate a sense of crisis with reference to socioeconomic changes or events, but people will interpret these developments through the ‘lens’ of their own beliefs. In some cases, events seem impossible to ignore but we may not agree on their implications for action. In others, an external event only matters if policymakers pay attention to them. Indeed, we began this discussion with the insight that policymakers have to ignore almost all such information available to them.
Know your audience revisited: practical lessons from policy theories
To take into account all of these factors, while trying to make a very short and persuasive case, may seem impossible. Instead, we might pick up some basic rules of thumb from particular theories or approaches. We can discuss a few examples from ongoing work on ‘practical lessons from policy theories’.
Storytelling for policy impact
If you are telling a story with a setting, plot, hero, and moral, it may be more effective to focus on a hero than villain. More importantly, imagine two contrasting audiences: one is moved by your personal and story told to highlight some structural barriers to the wellbeing of key populations; another is unmoved, judges that person harshly, and thinks they would have done better in their shoes (perhaps they prefer to build policy on stereotypes of target populations). ‘Knowing your audience’ may involve some trial-and-error to determine which stories work under which circumstances.
Appealing to coalitions
Or, you may decide that it is impossible to write anything to appeal to all relevant audiences. Instead, you might tailor it to one, to reinforce its beliefs and encourage people to act. The ‘advocacy coalition framework’ describes such activities as routine: people go into politics to translate their beliefs into policy, they interpret the world through those beliefs, and they romanticise their own cause while demonising their opponents. If so, would a bland op-ed have much effect on any audience?
Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence. Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.
By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution. So, you produce your solution then chase problems.
When your environment changes, your strategy changes. For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.
On the day, we can use such concepts to help us think through the factors that you might think about while writing op-eds, even though it is very unlikely that you would mention them in your written work.
What do we learn about UK hydraulic fracturing for shale energy (‘fracking’) policy and policymaking by comparing it to Switzerland?
Current UK policy outcomes do not seem so different from a country in which anti-fracking actors are successful
The UK Government looks like it is as strongly pro-fracking as it can possibly be. Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared: ‘we’re going all out for shale‘ and Chancellor George Osborne oversaw many policies to encourage initial exploration and investment. Yet, the UK’s outcomes – no commercial fracking – are not so different from Switzerland, in which the most affected Cantons have introduced moratoriums or bans. These moratoriums are now in place in Scotland and Wales, and the UK Government has yet to overturn an English local authority decision to withhold planning permission for development.
The UK does not live up to its ‘top down’, ‘majoritarian’ reputation
These outcomes often seem surprising because the UK government has a reputation built on a misleading image of ‘majoritarian’ (Westminster) democracies in which central governments hoard power and impose policies from the top down. So, for example, as soon as Cameron declared himself ‘all out for shale’, you’d be forgiven for thinking he could flick a switch and make it so.
This is what makes the Switzerland comparison so relevant: it has the opposite image, of a consensus democracy with a federalist structure and participative politics. Switzerland has an established culture of direct and regular participation via referendums. Direct-democratic instruments oblige public authorities to negotiate policy solutions with minority groups. Federalism offers ‘veto points’ and allows actors to defy a policy solution favoured by central government.
Yet, the difference in policymaking does not reflect the difference in these images (if anything, Swiss policy has been far more quick and decisive).
The main reason for the lack of difference is that these reputations only tell one part of the story. The most visible aspects of political systems may differ, but central governments routinely devolve policymaking and/ or negotiate political settlements in less visible subsystems. The contentious, high profile statements and subsequent disputes may represent the most visible part of policymaking, but the negotiation of settlements out of the public spotlight is far more common and routine.
The UK policy process is more competitive, less consensual (but not in the way you might think)
So, we find differences in UK and Swiss policymaking, but they are far more subtle than you’d expect if you focused on high profile events and reputations. They happen in subsystems, in which coalitions of pro- and anti-fracking actors share information to influence the policy agenda.
Normally, you would expect actors to share certain information with their allies and withhold it from their competitors (such as political information on how best to ‘frame’ the issue and lobby governments), or to only share certain types of information (such as when coalitions compete to interpret technical or scientific information). However, this effect is far more pronounced in the UK, in which there is more competition and less trust. So, the ‘majoritarian’ UK seems to produce a more competitive policy process even though it shares with Switzerland a tendency to make policy in subsystems, often out of the public spotlight.
You can read more in this draft paper, which also describes how we use the same theory (Advocacy Coalition Framework) and method (survey data and documentary analysis) to compare policy and policymaking systematically in two ‘most different’ countries:
Think of policy theory as an antidote to our fixation on elections, as a focus on what happens in between. We often point out that elections can produce a change in the governing party without prompting major changes in policy and policymaking, partly because most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from elected policymakers. Elections matter but, in policy studies, they do not represent the centre of the universe.
Imagine a simple definition: ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’. Then consider these questions. Does policy include what policymakers say they will do (e.g. in manifestos) as well as what they actually do? Does it include the policy outcome if it does not match the original aim? What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Does public policy include what policymakers decide to not do? Is it still ‘public policy’ when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name?
Usually we know that something has changed because the government has passed legislation, but policy is so much more: spending, economic penalties or incentives (taxes and subsidies), social security payments and sanctions, formal and informal regulations, public education, organisations and staffing, and so on. So, we need to sum up this mix of policies, asking: is there an overall and coherent aim, or a jumble of policy instruments? Can we agree on the motives of policymakers when making these policies? Does policy impact seem different when viewed from the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’? Does our conclusion change when we change statistical measures?
We know that policy evaluation is political because left/right wing political parties and commentators argue as much about a government’s success as its choices. Yet, it cannot be solved by scientists identifying objective or technical measures of success, because there is political choice in the measures we use and much debate about the best measures. Measurement also involves (frequently) a highly imperfect proxy, such as by using waiting times to measure the effectiveness of a health service. We should also note the importance of perspective: should we measure success in terms of the aims of elected policymakers, the organisations carrying out policy, or the people who are most affected? What if many policymakers were involved, or their aims were not clear? What if their aim was to remain popular, or have an easy time in the legislature, not to improve people’s lives? What if it improved the lives of some, but hurt others?
Imagine this simple advice to policymakers: identify your aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is ‘legitimised’ by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement, and then evaluate the policy. If only life were so simple. Instead, think of policymaking as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes. Then note that it is often impossible in practice to know when one stage begins and another ends. Finally, imagine that the order of stages is completely messed up, such as when we have a solution long before a problem arises.
A classic reference point is the ‘ideal-type’ of comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality which helps elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility. In the real world, we identify ‘bounded rationality’, challenge all of the assumptions of comprehensive rationality, and wonder what happens next. The classic debate focused on the links between bounded rationality and incrementalism. Our current focus is on ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ responses to the need to make decisions quickly without comprehensive information: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable; but also making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.
Most policy theories use the word ‘actor’ simply to describe the ability of people and organisations to deliberate and act to make choices. Many talk about the large number of actors involved in policymaking, at each level and across many levels of policymaking. Some discuss a shift, in many countries since the early post-war period, from centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors
In political science, ‘institution’ refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour. Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions. Others are less visible, such as the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’. So, for example, ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracies could have very different formal rules but operate in very similar ways in practice. These rules develop in different ways in many parts of government, prompting us to consider what happens when many different actors develop different expectations of politics and policymaking. For example, it might help explain a gap between policies made in one organisation and implemented by another. It might cause government policy to be contradictory, when many different organisations produce their own policies without coordinating with others. Or, governments may contribute to a convoluted statute book by adding to laws and regulations without thinking how they all fit together.
Put simply, ‘policy network’ describes the relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the actors who seek to influence them. It can also describe a notional venue – a ‘subsystem’ – in which this interaction takes place. Although the network concept is crucial to most policy theories, it can be described using very different concepts,and with reference to different political systems. For example, in the UK, we might describe networks as a consequence of bounded rationality: elected policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, 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. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places
Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas (or shared beliefs). These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. Classic power debates inform current discussions of ‘agenda setting’ and ‘framing’. Debates began with the idea that we could identify the powerful by examining ‘key political choices’: the powerful would win and benefit from the outcomes at the expense of other actors. The debate developed into discussions of major barriers to the ‘key choices’ stage: actors may exercise power to persuade/ reinforce the popular belief that the government should not get involved, or to keep an issue off a government agenda by drawing attention to other issues. This ability to persuade depends on the resources of actors, but also the beliefs of the actors they seek to influence.
Context’ describes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a country’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and social attitudes. This wider context is in addition to the ‘institutional’ context, when governments inherit the laws and organisations of their predecessors. Important ‘game changing’ events can be routine, such as when elections produce new governments with new ideas, or unanticipated, such as when crises or major technological changes prompt policymakers to reconsider existing policies. In each case, we should consider the extent to which policymaking is in the control of policymakers. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – think for example of a ‘demographic timebomb’ – but governments show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important. This question of policymaker control is also explored in discussions of ‘complexity theory’, which highlights the unpredictability of policymaking, limited central government control, and a tendency for policy outcomes to ‘emerge’ from activity at local levels.
For example, policymakers often recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on. Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame. Or, for example, we might use policy theory to inform current discussions of evidence-based policymaking, saying to scientists that they will only be influential if they go beyond the evidence to make manipulative emotional appeals.
The Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) is associated strongly with the idea that people engage in the policy process to turn their beliefs into public policies, by forming coalitions with like-minded people and competing with coalitions of people with different beliefs. The early literature breaks beliefs into three distinct categories:
‘Core’ are fundamental and unlikely to change (like a ‘religious conversion’) but too broad to guide detailed policy (such as one’s views on human nature).
‘Policy core’ are more specific but still unlikely to change.
‘Secondary Aspects’ relate to the implementation of policy. They are the most likely to change, as people learn about the effects of, say, regulations versus economic incentives.
The notional idea is that there is a ‘hierarchy’ of beliefs, from strongest to weakest. Core beliefs can relate to something like the nature of people (are their motives pure or evil?), or beliefs that are held so firmly and routinely that they might almost be taken for granted. As importantly, it is difficult to link these beliefs to coordinated behaviour (‘hey, we both think that people are misanthropists – let’s form a coalition’). Instead, we focus on ‘policy core’ as the deeply held beliefs that might underpin cooperation and conflict.
I was speaking with Chris Weible and colleagues about this recently, at a comparative workshop on the ACF, saying that I would use the example of state/ market as a policy core belief, since this basic left/right distinction can underpin a discussion of the role of government (for example, let’s have a large regulatory state or a minimal state). Since we were talking about hydraulic fracturing/ fracking, I thought this underpinned a lot of the discussion. Yet, of course, at the core of something like fracking is something else – the balance between a pro-business/ economic argument and a pro-environment argument, which may represent the fundamental cleavage in a subsystem. Each subsystem may also have its own fundamental cleavage which, in some way, overlaps with the state/market. The latter could perhaps be considered more of a core belief, since it spreads across so many subsystems – and may underpin debates across the political system as a whole. It is difficult to say for sure, and it is not something that we can conclude easily, even following general discussion.
In other words, it is difficult to assign these things precisely to the three categories. Instead we might think of a spectrum in which there is a degree of fluidity between categories despite a notional hierarchy.
This sort of conceptual uncertainty happens all the time in the policy sciences, and the ACF is no worse off than other theories. More importantly, like other theories, a framework provides a basic language that, if shared by a group of people, can be used to think through conceptual discussions such as these, to come to some sort of agreement, and use that agreement to underpin academic cooperation, in which we produce a range of case studies (using a variety of methods) and compare our insights, to help us better understand our own cases. At times, it looks like the initial concepts become a casualty of that cooperation. Yet, in our recent experience, it helped us focus on more important issues and generate the sense that we were working together to produce some important comparative work.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.