Tag Archives: agenda setting

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Defining policy problems and choosing solutions

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview.

When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:

  1. ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
  2. ‘knowledge in the process’, to foster policy analysis (analysis for policy)

The idea is that both elements are analytically separable but mutually informative: policy analysis is crucial to solving real policy problems, policy studies inform the feasibility of analysis, the study of policy analysts informs policy studies, and so on.

Both elements focus on similar questions – such as What is policy? – and explore their descriptive (what do policy actors do?) and prescriptive (what should they do?) implications.

  1. What is the policy problem?

Policy studies tend to describe problem definition in relation to framing, narrative, social construction, power, and agenda setting.

Actors exercise power to generate attention for their preferred interpretation, and minimise attention to alternative frames (to help foster or undermine policy change, or translate their beliefs into policy).

Policy studies incorporate insights from psychology to understand (a) how policymakers might combine cognition and emotion to understand problems, and therefore (b) how to communicate effectively when presenting policy analysis.

Policy studies focus on the power to reduce ambiguity rather than simply the provision of information to reduce uncertainty. In other words, the power to decide whose interpretation of policy problems counts, and therefore to decide what information is policy-relevant.

This (unequal) competition takes place within a policy process over which no actor has full knowledge or control.

The classic 5-8 step policy analysis texts focus on how to define policy problems well, but they vary somewhat in their definition of doing it well (see also C.Smith):

  • Bardach recommends using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention
  • Weimer and Vining and Mintrom recommend beginning with your client’s ‘diagnosis’, placing it in a wider perspective to help analyse it critically, and asking yourself how else you might define it (see also Bacchi, Stone)
  • Melzer and Schwartz and Dunn identify additional ways to contextualise your client’s definition, such as by generating a timeline to help ‘map’ causation or using ‘problem-structuring methods’ to compare definitions and avoid making too many assumptions on a problem’s cause.
  • Thissen and Walker compare ‘rational’ and ‘argumentative’ approaches, treating problem definition as something to be measured scientifically or established rhetorically (see also Riker).

These approaches compare with more critical accounts that emphasise the role of power and politics to determine whose knowledge is relevant (L.T.Smith) and whose problem definition counts (Bacchi, Stone). Indeed, Bacchi and Stone provide a crucial bridge between policy analysis and policy studies by reflecting on what policy analysts do and why.

  1. What is the policy solution?

In policy studies, it is common to identify counterintuitive or confusing aspects of policy processes, including:

  • Few studies suggest that policy responses actually solve problems (and many highlight their potential to exacerbate them). Rather, ‘policy solutions’ is shorthand for proposed or alleged solutions.
  • Problem definition often sets the agenda for the production of ‘solutions’, but note the phrase solutions chasing problems (when actors have their ‘pet’ solutions ready, and they seek opportunities to promote them).

Policy studies: problem definition informs the feasibility and success of solutions

Generally speaking, to define the problem is to influence assessments of the feasibility of solutions:

  • Technical feasibility. Will they work as intended, given the alleged severity and cause of the problem?
  • Political feasibility. Will they receive sufficient support, given the ways in which key policy actors weigh up the costs and benefits of action?

Policy studies highlight the inextricable connection between technical and political feasibility. Put simply, (a) a ‘technocratic’ choice about the ‘optimality’ of a solution is useless without considering who will support its adoption, and (b) some types of solution will always be a hard sell, no matter their alleged effectiveness (Box 2.3 below).

In that context, policy studies ask: what types of policy tools or instruments are actually used, and how does their use contribute to policy change? Measures include the size, substance, speed, and direction of policy change.

box 2.3 2nd ed UPP

In turn, problem definition informs: the ways in which actors will frame any evaluation of policy success, and the policy-relevance of the evidence to evaluate solutions. Simple examples include:

  • If you define tobacco in relation to: (a) its economic benefits, or (b) a global public health epidemic, evaluations relate to (a) export and taxation revenues, or (b) reductions in smoking in the population.
  • If you define ‘fracking’ in relation to: (a) seeking more benefits than costs, or (b) minimising environmental damage and climate change, evaluations relate to (a) factors such as revenue and effective regulation, or simply (b) how little it takes place.

Policy analysis: recognising and pushing boundaries

Policy analysis texts tend to accommodate these insights when giving advice:

  • Bardach recommends identifying solutions that your audience might consider, perhaps providing a range of options on a notional spectrum of acceptability.
  • Smith highlights the value of ‘precedent’, or relating potential solutions to previous strategies.
  • Weimer and Vining identify the importance of ‘a professional mind-set’ that may be more important than perfecting ‘technical skills’
  • Mintrom notes that some solutions are easier to sell than others
  • Melzer and Schwartz describe the benefits of making a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
  • Dunn warns against too-narrow forms of ‘evidence based’ analysis which undermine a researcher’s ability to adapt well to the evidence-demands of policymakers
  • Thissen and Walker relate solution feasibility to a wide range of policy analysis ‘styles’

Still, note the difference in emphasis.

Policy analysis education/ training may be about developing the technical skills to widen definitions and apply many criteria to compare solutions.

Policy studies suggest that problem definition and a search for solutions takes place in an environment where many actors apply a much narrower lens and are not interested in debates on many possibilities (particularly if they begin with a solution).

I have exaggerated this distinction between each element, but it is worth considering the repeated interaction between them in practice: politics and policymaking provide boundaries for policy analysis, analysis could change those boundaries, and policy studies help us reflect on the impact of analysts.

I’ll take a quick break, then discuss how this conclusion relates to the idea of ‘entrepreneurial’ policy analysis.

Further reading

Understanding Public Policy (2020: 28) describes the difference between governments paying for and actually using the ‘tools of policy formulation’. To explore this point, see ‘The use and non-use of policy appraisal tools in public policy making‘ and The Tools of Policy Formulation.

p28 upp 2nd ed policy tools

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Rachel Meltzer and Alex Schwartz (2019) Policy Analysis as Problem Solving

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. This post might well represent the largest breach of the ‘750 words’ limit, so please get comfortable. I have inserted a picture of a cat hanging in there baby after the main (*coughs*) 1400-word summary. The rest is bonus material, reflecting on the links between this book and the others in the series.

Meltzer Schwartz 2019 cover

Rachel Meltzer and Alex Schwartz (2019) Policy Analysis as Problem Solving (Routledge)

We define policy analysis as evidence-based advice giving, as the process by which one arrives at a policy recommendation to address a problem of public concern. Policy analysis almost always involves advice for a client’ (Meltzer and Schwartz, 2019: 15).

Meltzer and Schwartz (2019: 231-2) describe policy analysis as applied research, drawing on many sources of evidence, quickly, with limited time, access to scientific research, or funding to conduct a lot of new research (2019: 231-2). It requires:

  • careful analysis of a wide range of policy-relevant documents (including the ‘grey’ literature often produced by governments, NGOs, and think tanks) and available datasets
  • perhaps combined with expert interviews, focus groups, site visits, or an online survey (see 2019: 232-64 on methods).

Meltzer and Schwartz (2019: 21) outline a ‘five-step framework’ for client-oriented policy analysis. During each step, they contrast their ‘flexible’ and ‘iterative’ approach with a too- rigid ‘rationalistic approach’ (to reflect bounded, not comprehensive, rationality):

  1. ‘Define the problem’.

Problem definition is a political act of framing, not an exercise in objectivity (2019: 52-3). It is part of a narrative to evaluate the nature, cause, size, and urgency of an issue (see Stone), or perhaps to attach to an existing solution (2019: 38-40; compare with Mintrom).

In that context, ask yourself ‘Who is defining the problem? And for whom?’ and do enough research to be able to define it clearly and avoid misunderstanding among you and your client (2019: 37-8; 279-82):

  • Identify your client’s resources and motivation, such as how they seek to use your analysis, the format of analysis they favour, their deadline, and their ability to make or influence the policies you might suggest (2019: 49; compare with Weimer and Vining).
  • Tailor your narrative to your audience, albeit while recognising the need to learn from ‘multiple perspectives’ (2019: 40-5).
  • Make it ‘concise’ and ‘digestible’, not too narrowly defined, and not in a way that already closes off discussion by implying a clear cause and solution (2019: 51-2).

In doing so:

  • Ask yourself if you can generate a timeline, identify key stakeholders, and place a ‘boundary’ on the problem.
  • Establish if the problem is urgent, who cares about it, and who else might care (or not) (2019 : 46).
  • Focus on the ‘central’ problem that your solution will address, rather than the ‘related’ and ‘underlying’ problems that are ‘too large and endemic to be solved by the current analysis’ (2019: 47).
  • Avoid misdiagnosing a problem with reference to one cause. Instead, ‘map’ causation with reference to (say) individual and structural causes, intended and unintended consequences, simple and complex causation, market or government failure, and/ or the ability to blame an individual or organisation (2019: 48-9).
  • Combine quantitative and qualitative data to frame problems in relation to: severity, trends in severity, novelty, proximity to your audience, and urgency or crisis (2019: 53-4).

During this process, interrogate your own biases or assumptions and how they might affect your analysis (2019: 50).

2. ‘Identify potential policy options (alternatives) to address the problem’.

Common sources of ideas include incremental changes from current policy, ‘client suggestions’, comparable solutions (from another time, place, or policy area), reference to common policy instruments, and ‘brainstorming’ or ‘design thinking’ (2019: 67-9; see box 2.3 and 7.1, below, from Understanding Public Policy).

box 2.3 2nd ed UPP

Identify a ‘wide range’ of possible solutions, then select the (usually 3-5) ‘most promising’ for further analysis (2019: 65). In doing so:

  • be careful not to frame alternatives negatively (e.g. ‘death tax’ – 2019: 66)
  • compare alternatives in ‘good faith’ rather than keeping some ‘off the table’ to ensure that your preferred solution looks good (2019: 66)
  • beware ‘ best practice’ ideas that are limited in terms of (a) applicability (if made at a smaller scale, or in a very different jurisdiction), and (b) evidence of success (2019: 70; see studies of policy learning and transfer)
  • think about how to modify existing policies according to scale or geographical coverage, who to include (and based on what criteria), for how long, using voluntary versus mandatory provisions, and ensuring oversight (2019: 71-3)
  • consider combinations of common policy instruments, such as regulations and economic penalties/ subsidies (2019: 73-7)
  • consider established ways to ‘brainstorm’ ideas (2019: 77-8)
  • note the rise of instruments derived from the study of psychology and behavioural public policy (2019: 79-90)
  • learn from design principles, including ‘empathy’, ‘co-creating’ policy with service users or people affected, ‘prototyping’ (2019: 90-1)

box 7.1

3. ‘Specify the objectives to be attained in addressing the problem and the criteria to  evaluate  the  attainment  of  these  objectives  as  well as  the  satisfaction  of  other  key  considerations  (e.g.,  equity,  cost, equity, feasibility)’.

Your objectives relate to your problem definition and aims: what is the problem, what do you want to happen when you address it, and why?

  • For example, questions to your client may include: what is your organization’s ‘mission’, what is feasible (in terms of resources and politics), which stakeholders to you want to include, and how will you define success (2019: 105; 108-12)?

In that values-based context, your criteria relate to ways to evaluate each policy’s likely impact (2019: 106-7). They should ensure:

  • Comprehensiveness. E.g. how many people, and how much of their behaviour, can you influence while minimizing the ‘burden’ on people, businesses, or government? (2019: 113-4)
  • Mutual Exclusiveness. In other words, don’t have two objectives doing the same thing (2019: 114).

Common criteria include (2019: 116):

  1. Effectiveness. The size of its intended impact on the problem (2019: 117).
  2. Equity (fairness). The impact in terms of ‘vertical equity’ (e.g. the better off should pay more), ‘horizontal equity’ (e.g. you should not pay more if unmarried), fair process, fair outcomes, and ‘intergenerational’ equity (e.g. don’t impose higher costs on future populations) (2019: 118-19).
  3. Feasibility (administrative, political, and technical). The likelihood of this policy being adopted and implemented well (2019: 119-21)
  4. Cost (or financial feasibility). Who would bear the cost, and their willingness and ability to pay (2019: 122).
  5. Efficiency. To maximise the benefit while minimizing costs (2019: 122-3).

 

4. ‘Assess the outcomes of the policy options in light of the criteria and weigh trade-offs between the advantages and disadvantages of the options’.

When explaining objectives and criteria,

  • ‘label’ your criteria in relation to your policy objectives (e.g. to ‘maximize debt reduction’) rather than using generic terms (2019: 123-7)
  • produce a table – with alternatives in rows, and criteria in columns – to compare each option
  • quantify your policies’ likely outcomes, such as in relation to numbers of people affected and levels of income transfer, or a percentage drop in the size of the problem, but also
  • communicate the degree of uncertainty related to your estimates (2019: 128-32; see Spiegelhalter)

Consider using cost-benefit analysis to identify (a) the financial and opportunity cost of your plans (what would you achieve if you spent the money elsewhere?), compared to (b) the positive impact of your funded policy (2019: 141-55).

  • The principle of CBA may be intuitive, but a thorough CBA process is resource-intensive, vulnerable to bias and error, and no substitute for choice. It requires you to make a collection of assumptions about human behaviour and likely costs and benefits, decide whose costs and benefits should count, turn all costs and benefits into a single measure, and imagine how to maximise winners and compensate losers (2019: 155-81; compare Weimer and Vining with Stone).
  • One alternative is cost-effectiveness analysis, which quantifies costs and relates them to outputs (e.g. number of people affected, and how) without trying to translate them into a single measure of benefit (2019: 181-3).
  • These measures can be combined with other thought processes, such as with reference to ‘moral imperatives’, a ‘precautionary approach’, and ethical questions on power/ powerlessness (2019: 183-4).

 

5. ‘Arrive at a recommendation’.

Predict the most likely outcomes of each alternative, while recognising high uncertainty (2019: 189-92). If possible,

  • draw on existing, comparable, programmes to predict the effectiveness of yours (2019: 192-4)
  • combine such analysis with relevant theories to predict human behaviour (e.g. consider price ‘elasticity’ if you seek to raise the price of a good to discourage its use) (2019: 193-4)
  • apply statistical methods to calculate the probability of each outcome (2019: 195-6), and modify your assumptions to produce a range of possibilities, but
  • note Spiegelhalter’s cautionary tales and anticipate the inevitable ‘unintended consequences’ (when people do not respond to policy in the way you would like) (2019: 201-2)
  • use these estimates to inform a discussion on your criteria (equity, efficiency, feasibility) (2019: 196-200)
  • present the results visually – such as in a ‘matrix’ – to encourage debate on the trade-offs between options
  • simplify choices by omitting irrelevant criteria and options that do not compete well with others (2019: 203-10)
  • make sure that your recommendation (a) flows from the analysis, and (b) is in the form expected by your client (2019: 211-12)
  • consider making a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups (2019: 212).

 

hang-in-there-baby

 

Policy analysis in a wider context

Meltzer and Schwartz’s approach makes extra sense if you have already read some of the other texts in the series, including:

  1. Weimer and Vining, which represents an exemplar of an X-step approach informed heavily by the study of economics and application of economic models such as cost-benefit-analysis (compare with Radin’s checklist).
  2. Geva-May on the existence of a policy analysis profession with common skills, heuristics, and (perhaps) ethics (compare with Meltzer and Schwartz, 2019: 282-93)
  3. Radin, on:
  • the proliferation of analysts across multiple levels of government, NGOs, and the private sector (compare with Meltzer and Schwartz, 2019: 269-77)
  • the historic shift of analysis from formulation to all notional stages (contrast with Meltzer and Schwartz, 2019: 16-7 on policy analysis not including implementation or evaluation)
  • the difficulty in distinguishing between policy analysis and advocacy in practice (compare with Meltzer and Schwartz, 2019: 276-8, who suggest that actors can choose to perform these different roles)
  • the emerging sense that it is difficult to identify a single client in a multi-centric policymaking system. Put another way, we might be working for a specific client but accept that their individual influence is low.
  1. Stone’s challenge to
  • a historic tendency for economics to dominate policy analysis,
  • the applicability of economic assumptions (focusing primarily on individualist behaviour and markets), and
  • the pervasiveness of ‘rationalist’ policy analysis built on X-steps.

Meltzer and Schwartz (2019: 1-3) agree that economic models are too dominant (identifying the value of insights from ‘other disciplines – including design, psychology, political science, and sociology’).

However, they argue that critiques of rational models exaggerate their limitations (2019: 23-6). For example:

  • these models need not rely solely on economic techniques or quantification, a narrow discussion or definition of the problem, or the sense that policy analysis should be comprehensive, and
  • it is not problematic for analyses to reflect their client’s values or for analysts to present ambiguous solutions to maintain wide support, partly because
  • we would expect the policy analysis to form only one part of a client’s information or strategy.

Further, they suggest that these critiques provide no useful alternative, to help guide new policy analysts. Yet, these guides are essential:

to be persuasive, and credible, analysts must situate the problem, defend their evaluative criteria, and be able to demonstrate that their policy recommendation is superior, on balance, to other alternative options in addressing the problem, as defined by the analyst. At a minimum, the analyst needs to present a clear and defensible ranking of options to guide the decisions of the policy makers’ (Meltzer and Schwartz, 2019: 4).

Meltzer and Schwartz (2019: 27-8) then explore ways to improve a 5-step model with insights from approaches such as ‘design thinking’, in which actors use a similar process – ‘empathize, define the problem, ideate, prototype, test and get feedback from others’ – to experiment with policy solutions without providing a narrow view on problem definition or how to evaluate responses.

Policy analysis and policy theory

One benefit to Meltzer and Schwartz’s approach is that it seeks to incorporate insights from policy theories and respond with pragmatism and hope. However, I think you also need to read the source material to get a better sense of those theories, key debates, and their implications. For example:

  1. Meltzer and Schwartz (2019: 32) note correctly that ‘incremental’ does not sum up policy change well. Indeed, Punctuated Equilibrium Theory shows that policy change is characterised by a huge number of small and a small number of huge changes.
  • However, the direct implications of PET are not as clear as they suggest. Baumgartner and Jones have both noted that they can measure these outcomes and identify the same basic distribution across a political system, but not explain or predict why particular policies change dramatically.
  • It is useful to recommend to policy analysts that they invest some hope in major policy change, but also sensible to note that – in the vast majority of cases – it does not happen.
  • On his point, see Mintrom on policy analysis for the long term, Weiss on the ‘enlightenment’ function of research and analysis, and Box 6.3 (from Understanding Public Policy), on the sense that (a) we can give advice to ‘budding policy entrepreneurs’ on how to be effective analysts, but (b) should note that all their efforts could be for nothing.

box 6.3

  1. Meltzer and Schwartz (2019: 32-3) tap briefly into the old debate on whether it is preferable to seek radical or incremental change. For more on that debate, see chapter 5 in the 1st ed of Understanding Public Policy in which Lindblom notes that proposals for radical/ incremental changes are not mutually exclusive.
  2. Perhaps explore the possible tension between Meltzer and Schwartz’s (2019: 33-4) recommendation that (a) policy analysis should be ‘evidence-based advice giving’, and (b) ‘flexible and open-ended’.
  • I think that Stone’s response would be that phrases such as ‘evidence based’ are not ‘flexible and open-ended’. Rather, they tend to symbolise a narrow view of what counts as evidence (see also Smith, and Hindess).
  • Further, note that the phrase ‘evidence based policymaking’ is a remarkably vague term (see the EBPM page), perhaps better seen as a political slogan than a useful description or prescription of policymaking.

 

Finally, if you read enough of these policy analysis texts, you get a sense that many are bunched together even if they describe their approach as new or distinctive.

  • Indeed, Melzer and Schwarz (2019: 22-3) provide a table (containing Bardach and Patashnik, Patton et al, Stokey and Zeckhauser, Hammond et al, and Weimer & Vining) of ‘quite similar’ X-step approaches.
  • Weimer and Vining also discuss the implications of policy theories and present the sense that X-step policy analysis should be flexible and adaptive.
  • Many texts – including Radin, and Smith (2016) – focus on the value of case studies to think through policy analysis in particular contexts, rather than suggesting that we can produce a universal blueprint.

However, as Geva-May might suggest, this is not a bad thing if our aim is to generate the sense that policy analysis is a profession with its own practices and heuristics.

 

 

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Policy in 500 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

See also the original – and now 6 years old – 1000 Words post.

This 500 Words version is a modified version of the introduction to chapter 9 in the 2nd edition of Understanding Public Policy.  

UPP p147 PET box

 Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) tells a story of complex systems that are stable and dynamic:

  • Most policymaking exhibits long periods of stability, but with the ever-present potential for sudden instability.
  • Most policies stay the same for long periods. Some change very quickly and dramatically.

We can explain this dynamic with reference to bounded rationality: since policymakers cannot consider all issues at all times, they ignore most and promote relatively few to the top of their agenda.

This lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change, while intense periods of attention to some issues prompts new ways to frame and solve policy problems.

Some explanation comes from the power of participants, to (a) minimize attention and maintain an established framing, or (b) expand attention in the hope of attracting new audiences more sympathetic to new ways of thinking.

Further explanation comes from policymaking complexity, in which the scale of conflict is too large to understand, let alone control.

The original PET story

The original PET story – described in more detail in the 1000 Words version – applies two approaches – policy communities and agenda setting – to demonstrate stable relationships between interest groups and policymakers:

  • They endure when participants have built up trust and agreement – about the nature of a policy problem and how to address it – and ensure that few other actors have a legitimate role or interest in the issue.
  • They come under pressure when issues attract high policymaker attention, such as following a ‘focusing event’ or a successful attempt by some groups to ‘venue shop’ (seek influential audiences in another policymaking venue). When an issue reaches the ‘top’ of this wider political agenda it is processed in a different way: more participants become involved, and they generate more ways to look at (and seek to solve) the policy.

The key focus is the competition to frame or define a policy problem (to exercise power to reduce ambiguity). The successful definition of a policy problem as technical or humdrum ensures that issues are monopolized and considered quietly in one venue. The reframing of that issue as crucial to other institutions, or the big political issues of the day, ensures that it will be considered by many audiences and processed in more than one venue (see also Schattschneider).

The modern PET story

The modern PET story is about complex systems and attention.

Its analysis of bounded rationality and policymaker psychology remains crucial, since PET measures the consequences of the limited attention of individuals and organisations.

However, note the much greater quantification of policy change across entire political systems (see the Comparative Agendas Project).

PET shows how policy actors and organisations contribute to ‘disproportionate information processing’, in which attention to information fluctuates out of proportion to (a) the size of policy problems and (b) the information on problems available to policymakers.

It also shows that the same basic distribution of policy change – ‘hyperincremental’ in most cases, but huge in some – is present in every political system studied by the CAP (summed up by the image below)

True et al figure 6.2

See also:

5 images of the policy process

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Deborah Stone (2012) Policy Paradox

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. This post is 750 words plus a bonus 750 words plus some further reading that doesn’t count in the word count even though it does.

Stone policy paradox 3rd ed cover

Deborah Stone (2012) Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making 3rd edition (Norton)

‘Whether you are a policy analyst, a policy researcher, a policy advocate, a policy maker, or an engaged citizen, my hope for Policy Paradox is that it helps you to go beyond your job description and the tasks you are given – to think hard about your own core values, to deliberate with others, and to make the world a better place’ (Stone, 2012: 15)

Stone (2012: 379-85) rejects the image of policy analysis as a ‘rationalist’ project, driven by scientific and technical rules, and separable from politics. Rather, every policy analyst’s choice is a political choice – to define a problem and solution, and in doing so choosing how to categorise people and behaviour – backed by strategic persuasion and storytelling.

The Policy Paradox: people entertain multiple, contradictory, beliefs and aims

Stone (2012: 2-3) describes the ways in which policy actors compete to define policy problems and public policy responses. The ‘paradox’ is that it is possible to define the same policies in contradictory ways.

‘Paradoxes are nothing but trouble. They violate the most elementary principle of logic: something can’t be two different things at once. Two contradictory interpretations can’t both be true. A paradox is just such an impossible situation, and political life is full of them’ (Stone, 2012: 2).

This paradox does not refer simply to a competition between different actors to define policy problems and the success or failure of solutions. Rather:

  • The same actor can entertain very different ways to understand problems, and can juggle many criteria to decide that a policy outcome was a success and a failure (2012: 3).
  • Surveys of the same population can report contradictory views – encouraging a specific policy response and its complete opposite – when asked different questions in the same poll (2012: 4; compare with Riker)

Policy analysts: you don’t solve the Policy Paradox with a ‘rationality project’

Like many posts in this series (Smith, Bacchi, Hindess), Stone (2010: 9-11) rejects the misguided notion of objective scientists using scientific methods to produce one correct answer (compare with Spiegelhalter and Weimer & Vining). A policy paradox cannot be solved by ‘rational, analytical, and scientific methods’ because:

Further, Stone (2012: 10-11) rejects the over-reliance, in policy analysis, on the misleading claim that:

  • policymakers are engaging primarily with markets rather than communities (see 2012: 35 on the comparison between a ‘market model’ and ‘polis model’),
  • economic models can sum up political life, and
  • cost-benefit-analysis can reduce a complex problem into the sum of individual preferences using a single unambiguous measure.

Rather, many factors undermine such simplicity:

  1. People do not simply act in their own individual interest. Nor can they rank-order their preferences in a straightforward manner according to their values and self-interest.
  • Instead, they maintain a contradictory mix of objectives, which can change according to context and their way of thinking – combining cognition and emotion – when processing information (2012: 12; 30-4).
  1. People are social actors. Politics is characterised by ‘a model of community where individuals live in a dense web of relationships, dependencies, and loyalties’ and exercise power with reference to ideas as much as material interests (2012: 10; 20-36; compare with Ostrom, more Ostrom, and Lubell; and see Sousa on contestation).
  2. Morals and emotions matter. If people juggle contradictory aims and measures of success, then a story infused with ‘metaphor and analogy’, and appealing to values and emotions, prompts people ‘to see a situation as one thing rather than another’ and therefore draw attention to one aim at the expense of the others (2012: 11; compare with Gigerenzer).

Policy analysis reconsidered: the ambiguity of values and policy goals

Stone (2012: 14) identifies the ambiguity of the criteria for success used in 5-step policy analyses. They do not form part of a solely technical or apolitical process to identify trade-offs between well-defined goals (compare Bardach, Weimer and Vining, and Mintrom). Rather, ‘behind every policy issue lurks a contest over conflicting, though equally plausible, conceptions of the same abstract goal or value’ (2012: 14). Examples of competing interpretations of valence issues include definitions of:

  1. Equity, according to: (a) which groups should be included, how to assess merit, how to identify key social groups, if we should rank populations within social groups, how to define need and account for different people placing different values on a good or service, (b) which method of distribution to use (competition, lottery, election), and (c) how to balance individual, communal, and state-based interventions (2012: 39-62).
  2. Efficiency, to use the least resources to produce the same objective, according to: (a) who determines the main goal and how to balance multiple objectives, (a) who benefits from such actions, and (c) how to define resources while balancing equity and efficiency – for example, does a public sector job and a social security payment represent a sunk cost to the state or a social investment in people? (2012: 63-84).
  3. Welfare or Need, according to factors including (a) the material and symbolic value of goods, (b) short term support versus a long term investment in people, (c) measures of absolute poverty or relative inequality, and (d) debates on ‘moral hazard’ or the effect of social security on individual motivation (2012: 85-106)
  4. Liberty, according to (a) a general balancing of freedom from coercion and freedom from the harm caused by others, (b) debates on individual and state responsibilities, and (c) decisions on whose behaviour to change to reduce harm to what populations (2012: 107-28)
  5. Security, according to (a) our ability to measure risk scientifically (see Spiegelhalter and Gigerenzer), (b) perceptions of threat and experiences of harm, (c) debates on how much risk to safety to tolerate before intervening, (d) who to target and imprison, and (e) the effect of surveillance on perceptions of democracy (2012: 129-53).

Policy analysis as storytelling for collective action

Actors use policy-relevant stories to influence the ways in which their audience understands (a) the nature of policy problems and feasibility of solutions, within (b) a wider context of policymaking in which people contest the proper balance between state, community, and market action. Stories can influence key aspects of collective action, including:

  1. Defining interests and mobilising actors, by drawing attention to – and framing – issues with reference to an imagined social group and its competition (e.g. the people versus the elite; the strivers versus the skivers) (2012: 229-47)
  2. Making decisions, by framing problems and solutions (2012: 248-68). Stone (2012: 260) contrasts the ‘rational-analytic model’ with real-world processes in which actors deliberately frame issues ambiguously, shift goals, keep feasible solutions off the agenda, and manipulate analyses to make their preferred solution seem the most efficient and popular.
  3. Defining the role and intended impact of policies, such as when balancing punishments versus incentives to change behaviour, or individual versus collective behaviour (2012: 271-88).
  4. Setting and enforcing rules (see institutions), in a complex policymaking system where a multiplicity of rules interact to produce uncertain outcomes, and a powerful narrative can draw attention to the need to enforce some rules at the expense of others (2012: 289-310).
  5. Persuasion, drawing on reason, facts, and indoctrination. Stone (2012: 311-30) highlights the context in which actors construct stories to persuade: people engage emotionally with information, people take certain situations for granted even though they produce unequal outcomes, facts are socially constructed, and there is unequal access to resources – held in particular by government and business – to gather and disseminate evidence.
  6. Defining human and legal rights, when (a) there are multiple, ambiguous, and intersecting rights (in relation to their source, enforcement, and the populations they serve) (b) actors compete to make sure that theirs are enforced, (c) inevitably at the expense of others, because the enforcement of rights requires a disproportionate share of limited resources (such as policymaker attention and court time) (2012: 331-53)
  7. Influencing debate on the powers of each potential policymaking venue – in relation to factors including (a) the legitimate role of the state in market, community, family, and individual life, (b) how to select leaders, (c) the distribution of power between levels and types of government – and who to hold to account for policy outcomes (2012: 354-77).

Key elements of storytelling include:

  1. Symbols, which sum up an issue or an action in a single picture or word (2012:157-8)
  2. Characters, such as heroes or villain, who symbolise the cause of a problem or source of solution (2012:159)
  3. Narrative arcs, such as a battle by your hero to overcome adversity (2012:160-8)
  4. Synecdoche, to highlight one example of an alleged problem to sum up its whole (2012: 168-71; compare the ‘welfare queen’ example with SCPD)
  5. Metaphor, to create an association between a problem and something relatable, such as a virus or disease, a natural occurrence (e.g. earthquake), something broken, something about to burst if overburdened, or war (2012: 171-78; e.g. is crime a virus or a beast?)
  6. Ambiguity, to give people different reasons to support the same thing (2012: 178-82)
  7. Using numbers to tell a story, based on political choices about how to: categorise people and practices, select the measures to use, interpret the figures to evaluate or predict the results, project the sense that complex problems can be reduced to numbers, and assign authority to the counters (2012:183-205; compare with Speigelhalter)
  8. Assigning Causation, in relation to categories including accidental or natural, ‘mechanical’ or automatic (or in relation to institutions or systems), and human-guided causes that have intended or unintended consequences (such as malicious intent versus recklessness)
  • ‘Causal strategies’ include to: emphasise a natural versus human cause, relate it to ‘bad apples’ rather than systemic failure, and suggest that the problem was too complex to anticipate or influence
  • Actors use these arguments to influence rules, assign blame, identify ‘fixers’, and generate alliances among victims or potential supporters of change (2012: 206-28).

Wider Context and Further Reading: 1. Policy analysis

This post connects to several other 750 Words posts, which suggest that facts don’t speak for themselves. Rather, effective analysis requires you to ‘tell your story’, in a concise way, tailored to your audience.

For example, consider two ways to establish cause and effect in policy analysis:

One is to conduct and review multiple randomised control trials.

Another is to use a story of a hero or a villain (perhaps to mobilise actors in an advocacy coalition).

  1. Evidence-based policymaking

Stone (2012: 10) argues that analysts who try to impose one worldview on policymaking will find that ‘politics looks messy, foolish, erratic, and inexplicable’. For analysts, who are more open-minded, politics opens up possibilities for creativity and cooperation (2012: 10).

This point is directly applicable to the ‘politics of evidence based policymaking’. A common question to arise from this worldview is ‘why don’t policymakers listen to my evidence?’ and one answer is ‘you are asking the wrong question’.

  1. Policy theories highlight the value of stories (to policy analysts and academics)

Policy problems and solutions necessarily involve ambiguity:

  1. There are many ways to interpret problems, and we resolve such ambiguity by exercising power to attract attention to one way to frame a policy problem at the expense of others (in other words, not with reference to one superior way to establish knowledge).
  1. Policy is actually a collection of – often contradictory – policy instruments and institutions, interacting in complex systems or environments, to produce unclear messages and outcomes. As such, what we call ‘public policy’ (for the sake of simplicity) is subject to interpretation and manipulation as it is made and delivered, and we struggle to conceptualise and measure policy change. Indeed, it makes more sense to describe competing narratives of policy change.

box 13.1 2nd ed UPP

  1. Policy theories and storytelling

People communicate meaning via stories. Stories help us turn (a) a complex world, which provides a potentially overwhelming amount of information, into (b) something manageable, by identifying its most relevant elements and guiding action (compare with Gigerenzer on heuristics).

The Narrative Policy Framework identifies the storytelling strategies of actors seeking to exploit other actors’ cognitive shortcuts, using a particular format – containing the setting, characters, plot, and moral – to focus on some beliefs over others, and reinforce someone’s beliefs enough to encourage them to act.

Compare with Tuckett and Nicolic on the stories that people tell to themselves.

 

 

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Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition

All going well, it will be out in November 2019. We are now at the proofing stage.

I have included below the summaries of the chapters (and each chapter should also have its own entry (or multiple entries) in the 1000 Words and 500 Words series).

2nd ed cover

titlechapter 1chapter 2chapter 3chapter 4.JPG

chapter 5

chapter 6chapter 7.JPG

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10

chapter 11

chapter 12

chapter 13

 

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Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.

Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), but also social groups and individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).

Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.

In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:

Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.

Example 2. ‘Epistemic violencedescribes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.

It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas

Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything

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Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Further reading:

For a longer discussion, see Fostering Evidence-informed Policy Making: Uncertainty Versus Ambiguity (PDF)

Or, if you fancy it in French: Favoriser l’élaboration de politiques publiques fondées sur des données probantes : incertitude versus ambiguïté (PDF)

Framing

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty

How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies

Here is the relevant opening section in UPP:

p234 UPP ambiguity

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