Tag Archives: advocacy coalition framework

Three lessons from a comparison of fracking policy in the UK and Switzerland

What do we learn about UK hydraulic fracturing for shale energy (‘fracking’) policy and policymaking by comparing it to Switzerland?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

Cairney Fischer Ingold Fracking UK Switzerland 18.01.16

 

 

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Filed under agenda setting, Fracking, public policy, UK politics and policy

12 things to know about studying public policy

Here is a blog post on 12 things to know about studying public policy. Please see the end of the post if you would like to listen to or watch my lecture on this topic.

  1. There is more to politics than parties and elections.

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.

2. Public policy is difficult to define.

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?

3. Policy change is difficult to see and measure.

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?

4. There is no objective way to identify policy success.

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?

5. There is no ‘policy cycle’ with well-ordered stages.

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.

6. Policymakers are ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’.

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.

7. We talk of actors, but not on stage.

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

8. We talk of institutions, but not buildings.

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.

9. We have 100 ways to describe policy networks.

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

10. We struggle to separate power from ideas.

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.

11. We talk a lot about ‘context’ and events, and sometimes about ‘complexity’ and ‘emergence’.

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.

12. It can inform real world policymaking, but you might not like the advice.

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.

For more information, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

To listen to the lecture (about 50 minutes plus Q&A), you can download here or stream:

You can also download the video here or stream:

To be honest, there is little gain to watching the lecture, unless you want to laugh at my posture & shuffle and wonder if I have been handcuffed.

 

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Filed under 1000 words, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

People engage in politics to further their beliefs – but what do they believe?

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.

See Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework

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Fracking policy in the UK: all out for shale?

This post is based on a paper that I co-authored with Manuel Fischer and Karin Ingold: Cairney Fischer Ingold fracking in the UK for Zurich workshop 23 Jan 2015 (updated version: Weible et al book UK Chapter Cairney et al (including tables and appendix) 2016). See also a draft Fracking UK timeline

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. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security for our country’. Chancellor George Osborne also wrote a detailed letter to ministers asking them to make policy implementation a ‘personal priority.’

For the UK Government, fracking has three main benefits: ‘energy security, decarbonisation and economic growth’. It has shown clear support for test drilling to assess the economic feasibility of fracking. It has reinforced this support with a range of policies:

Yet, in two crucial ways, it has not gone all out for shale. First, it is part of a loose coalition of organisations which, ‘on average’, is tentatively pro-fracking. The coalition includes UK government bodies; government agencies monitoring adherence to regulations; the three main UK political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat (at least while in coalition government); the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the House of Commons, currently with a government majority; private energy companies (Cuadrilla, IGas Energy, Centrica, Total, Shell, National Grid) and industry groups (United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group, Oil & Gas UK, Chemical Industries Association; the NGO, No Hot Air; and, groups generating and sharing research: Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Geological Survey, CNG Services, Geological Society, Policy Exchange. The common element to this coalition is a wish to approve test drills, to get a better sense of the economic potential of shale gas (which only depends partly on production potential – note the currently low oil and gas prices), and support extensive regulation. Only some members of this coalition favour the ‘all out’ strategy. This coalition competes with an anti-fracking coalition which, while much smaller number, has a less equivocal political position. It includes the Green Party, NGOs such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Frack off, Friends of the Earth, and WWF UK, and, a research group, Tyndall Centre Manchester.

Second, it has not taken a centralist approach to energy security. Instead, it shares power across several levels of government. It has overall responsibility for energy policy, and retains ownership of mineral and gas resources, but has not centralised many aspects of fracking policy which are made by: devolved governments, responsible for developing national planning guidelines (Scotland will also soon receive powers on licensing); local authorities charged with granting planning permission for individual drilling sites; and public bodies responsible for ensuring environmental protection and health and safety. It also shares responsibility for environmental policy with the European Union. The UK has taken responsibility for strategic issues, related to energy security, the generation of evidence to address the economic viability and environmental uncertainty regarding fracking, the tax and incentives regime, and the UK-wide system granting energy companies the right to operate to extract minerals, but not the decision to approve drill sites in local areas. This is reflected in its rather convoluted ‘roadmap’ for private companies, which involves at least 15 steps and interaction with government and a large number of public bodies, culminating in the need to satisfy local authorities that they should drill in their area (public bodies, such as environment agencies also implement a complex mix of EU, UK and devolved regulations).

Currently, the result is that we don’t quite know what will happen, particularly since devolved and local governments are much more hesitant to approve actual development in their areas. The UK government may be ostensibly ‘all out for shale’, but this is not reflected in key decisions on the ground.

On this basis, we could expect one of three things. First, as events proceed and local areas begin to make decisions on individual sites, the anti-fracking coalition may swell, to reflect a growth in opposition or the decision of local authorities to reject planning applications. This is particularly likely if incidents such as tremors/ earthquakes should happen again close to test drilling sites. Second, the majority coalition may swell, but change further, to reflect an important degree of hesitant and prudent pro-fracking attitudes that are not sufficient to produce commercial fracking. Or, third, the majority coalition becomes more in favor of fracking, perhaps following the development of test drills and the gathering of evidence that suggests that regulations are sufficient and the commercial potential of shale gas is more certain. The latter outcome is by no means certain.

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Scottish Independence and the Devil Shift

Intuitively speaking, the Scottish independence debate reinforces the idea of the ‘devil shift’ in politics. Sabatier, Hunter and McLaughlin used this phrase in 1987 to describe how advocacy coalitions (people who share the same beliefs and, to some extent, coordinate their behaviour) assess the behaviour of their opponents in ‘high conflict situations’: ‘anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive’.

They argue that, if each coalition acted simply in a ‘rational’ way – basing their decisions on a combination of information gathering and reason – they would develop a good sense of perspective when engaging their opponents. Instead, people also use short cuts to gather information and make decisions, and this has an effect on the way that they see their opponents.

For example, people may regret losses more than they value gains, so they feel that their opponents ‘win’ more disputes, or that their own wins over their opponents are less substantial than their losses. Further, the emotional stakes are high, and people within coalitions may be more likely to feel that their opponents are more malicious or ‘evil’ than we, as outside observers, would think. This may be exacerbated by any defeat, which people may attribute to the power of their opponents rather than the power of their opponent’s arguments. They pursue 4 main hypotheses:

  1. ‘Actors will impugn the motives and/or reasonableness of their opponents while perceiving themselves to be reasonable people acting out of concern for the public welfare’.
  2. ‘Actors will evaluate their opponents’ behavior in harsher terms than will most members of their policy community, while evaluating their own behavior in more favorable terms’.
  3. ‘Actors will perceive their opponents to be more influential, and themselves to be less influential, than will most members of their policy community’.
  4. ‘The amount of distortion (or “devil shift”) is correlated with the distance between one’s beliefs and those of one’s opponents’.

I said ‘intuitively speaking’, because this just ‘chimes’ with my impression of a lot of the debate so far. We are used to political parties and campaign managers demonising their opponents as a strategy, knowing that their actual views are more sensible when they remove the public mask. What I’m not used to is ordinarily sensible people – some of them, shock horror, are academics – leaving reason at the door when describing the ideas or characteristics of their opponents (no, not you – I didn’t mean you). Too many people seem willing to demonise and overestimate the power of the people representing each campaign; to eulogise their own beliefs and predict the apocalypse if the vote goes the wrong way.

But maybe that’s because I’ve gotten in with a bad crowd and/ or I spend too much time on social media (which exacerbates a tendency to speak before thinking things through).

If we are being a bit more scientific about it, how would we demonstrate this ‘devil shift’. It’s not easy to go beyond intuition to produce something worth pursuing as a student dissertation or publishing in an academic journal. For example, Sabatier et al suggest that it is difficult to measure the strength and consistency of beliefs in coalitions without a large survey – and they go to great lengths to produce data to inform their hypotheses. I wonder if something similar is now possible to pursue using a combination of deduction and the gathering of data from places such as social media. This is yet another example of a study that I would like to see rather than one I would like to do.

See also: a discussion of a different kind of link between the church and the debate http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-29036613

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

‘Complex government’ relates to many factors:

  • the size and multi-level nature of government
  • the proliferation of rules, regulations and public bodies
  • a crowded arena with blurry boundaries between policymakers and the actors who influence them; and
  • general uncertainty when people interact in unpredictable ways within a changeable policy environment.

Complex government is difficult to understand, control, influence and hold to account.

This brief article considers it from various perspectives: scholars trying to conceptualise it; policymakers trying to control or adapt to it; and, scientists, interest groups and individuals trying to influence it.

Cairney Complex Government 14.5.14 (submitted to a special issue – ‘Complex Government’ – in Public Money and Management)

See also: Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself?

Let’s begin with a simple – and deliberately naïve – prescription for evidence based policymaking (EBPM): there should be a much closer link between (a) the process in which scientists and knowledge brokers identify major policy problems, and (b) the process in which politicians make policy decisions. We should seek to close the ‘evidence-policy gap’. The evidence should come first and we should bemoan the inability of policymakers to act accordingly. I discuss why that argument is naïve here and here, but in terms of the complexity of policy processes and the competing claims for knowledge-based policy. This post is about the link between EBPM and psychology.

Let’s consider the role of two types of thought process common to all people, policymakers included: (a) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly; and (b) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour. As Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (p 20) puts it: ‘System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations … often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration’

The naïve description of EBPM requires System 2 (‘slow’) thinking, but what happens if most policymaking is characterised by System 1 (‘fast’)? The answer is ‘a whole bunch of cognitive shortcuts’, including:

  • the ‘availability heuristic’, when people relate the size, frequency or probability of a problem to how easy it is to remember or imagine
  • the ‘representativeness heuristic’, when people overestimate the probability of vivid events
  • ‘prospect theory’, when people value losses more than equivalent gains
  • ‘framing effects’, based on emotional and moral judgements
  • confirmation bias
  • optimism bias, or unrealistic expectations about our aims working out well when we commit to them
  • status quo bias
  • a tendency to use exemplars of social groups to represent general experience; and
  • a ‘need for coherence’ and to establish patterns and causal relationships when they may not exist (see Paul Lewis, p 7).

The ‘availability heuristic’ may also be linked to more recent studies of ‘processing fluency’ – which suggests that people’s decisions are influenced by their familiarity with things; with the ease in which they process information (see Alter and Oppenheimer, 2009). Fluency can take several forms, including conceptual, perceptual, and linguistic. For example, people may pay more attention to an issue or statement if they already possess some knowledge of it and find it easy to understand or recall. They may pay attention to people when their faces seem familiar and find fewer faults with systems they comprehend. They may place more value on things they find familiar, such as their domestic currency, items that they own compared to items they would have to buy, or the stocks of companies with more pronounceable names – even if they are otherwise identical. Or, their ability to imagine things in an abstract or concrete form may relate to their psychological ‘distance’ from it.

Is fast thinking bad thinking? Views from psychology

Alter and Oppenheimer use these insights to warn policymakers against taking the wrong attitude to regulation or spending based on flawed assessments of risk – for example, they might spend disproportionate amounts of money on projects designed to address risks with which they are most familiar (Slovic suggests that feelings towards risk may even be influenced by the way in which it is described, for example as a percentage versus a 1 in X probability). Alter and Oppenheimer also worry about medical and legal judgements swayed by fluid diagnoses and stories. Haidt argues that the identification of the ‘intuitive basis of moral judgment’ can be used to help policymakers ‘avoid mistakes’ or allow people to develop ‘programs’ or an ‘environment’ to ‘improve the quality of moral judgment and behavior’. These studies compare with arguments focusing on the positive role of emotions of decision-making, either individually (Frank) or as part of social groups, with emotional responses providing useful information in the form of social cues (Van Kleef et al).

Is fast thinking bad thinking? Views from the political and policy sciences

Social Construction Theory suggests that policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution. They ‘socially construct’ their target populations to argue that they are deserving either of governmental benefits or punishments. Schneider and Ingram (forthcoming) argue that the outcomes of social construction are often dysfunctional and not based on a well-reasoned, goal-oriented strategy: ‘Studies have shown that rules, tools, rationales and implementation structures inspired by social constructions send dysfunctional messages and poor choices may hamper the effectiveness of policy’.

However, not all policy scholars make such normative pronouncements. Indeed, the value of policy theory is often to show that policy results from the interaction between large numbers of people and institutions. So, the actions of a small number of policymakers would not be the issue; we need to know more about the cumulative effect of individual emotional decision making in a collective decision-making environment – in organisations, networks and systems. For example:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework suggests that people engage in coordinated activity to cooperate with each other and compete with other coalitions, based on their shared beliefs and a tendency to demonise their opponents. In some cases, there are commonly accepted ways to interpret the evidence. In others, it is a battle of ideas.
  • Multiple Streams Analysis and Punctuated Equilibrium Theory focus on uncertainty and ambiguity, exploring the potential for policymaker attention to lurch dramatically from one problem or ‘image’ (the way the problem is viewed or understood). They identify the framing strategies – of actors such as ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘venue shoppers’ and ‘monopolists’ – based on a mixture of empirical facts and ‘emotional appeals’.
  • The Narrative Policy Framework combines a discussion of emotion with the identification of narrative strategies. Each narrative has a setting, characters, plot and moral. They can be compared to marketing, as persuasion based more on appealing to an audience’s beliefs (or exploiting their thought processes) than the evidence. People will pay attention to certain narratives because they are boundedly rational, seeking shortcuts to gather sufficient information – and prone to accept simple stories that seem plausible, confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/ or come from a source they trust.

In each case, we might see our aim as going beyond the simple phrase: ‘the evidence doesn’t speak for itself’. If ‘fast thinking’ is pervasive in policymaking, then ‘the evidence’ may only be influential if it can be provided in ways that are consistent with the thought processes of certain policymakers – such as by provoking a strong emotional reaction (to confirm or challenge biases), or framing messages in terms that are familiar to (and can be easily processed by) policymakers.

These issues are discussed further in these posts:

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

And at more length in these papers:

PSA 2014 Cairney Psychology Policymaking 7.4.14

Cairney PSA 2014 EBPM 5.3.14

See also: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Evidence alone won’t bring about social change

Discover Society (Delaney and Henderson) Risk and Choice in the Scottish Independence debate

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