Tag Archives: agenda setting

We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

Here is the dilemma for ‘evidence-based’ ‘troubled families’ policy: there are many indicators of ‘policy based evidence’ but few (if any) feasible and ‘evidence based’ alternatives.

Viewed from the outside, TF looks like a cynical attempt to produce a quick fix to the London riots, stigmatise vulnerable populations, and hoodwink the public into thinking that the central government is controlling local outcomes and generating success.

Viewed from the inside, it is a pragmatic policy solution, informed by promising evidence which needs to be sold in the right way. For the UK government there may seem to be little alternative to this policy, given the available evidence, the need to do something for the long term and to account for itself in a Westminster system in the short term.

So, in this draft paper, I outline this disconnect between interpretations of ‘evidence based policy’ and ‘policy based evidence’ to help provide some clarity on the pragmatic use of evidence in politics:

cairney-offshoot-troubled-families-ebpm-5-9-16

See also:

Governments think it’s OK to use bad evidence to make good policy: the case of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

In each of these posts, I note that it is difficult to know how, for example, social policy scholars should respond to these issues – but that policy studies help us identify a choice between strategies. In general, pragmatic strategies to influence the use of evidence in policy include: framing issues to catch the attention or manipulate policymaker biases, identifying where the ‘action’ is in multi-level policymaking systems, and forming coalitions with like-minded and well-connected actors. In other words, to influence rather than just comment on policy, we need to understand how policymakers would respond to external evaluation. So, a greater understanding the routine motives of policymakers can help produce more effective criticism of its problematic use of evidence. In social policy, there is an acute dilemma about the choice between engagement, to influence and be influenced by policymakers, and detachment to ensure critical distance. If choosing the latter, we need to think harder about how criticism of PBE makes a difference.

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, UK politics and policy

Governments think it’s OK to use bad evidence to make good policy: the case of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’

The UK Government’s ‘troubled families’ policy appears to be a classic top-down, evidence-free, and quick emotional reaction to crisis. It developed after riots in England (primarily in London) in August 2011. Within one week, and before announcing an inquiry into them, then Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech linking behaviour directly to ‘thugs’ and immorality – ‘people showing indifference to right and wrong…people with a twisted moral code…people with a complete absence of self-restraint’ – before identifying a breakdown in family life as a major factor (Cameron, 2011a).

Although the development of parenting programmes was already government policy, Cameron used the riots to raise parenting to the top of the agenda:

We are working on ways to help improve parenting – well now I want that work accelerated, expanded and implemented as quickly as possible. This has got to be right at the top of our priority list. And we need more urgent action, too, on the families that some people call ‘problem’, others call ‘troubled’. The ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids …Now that the riots have happened I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme …with a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country.

Cameron reinforced this agenda in December 2011 by stressing the need for individuals and families to take moral responsibility for their actions, and for the state to intervene earlier in their lives to reduce public spending in the long term:

Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations. We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money…but now we’ve come up the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…that is around £75,000 per family.

The policy – primarily of expanding the provision of ‘family intervention’ approaches – is often described as a ‘classic case of policy based evidence’: policymakers cherry pick or tell tall tales about evidence to justify action. It is a great case study for two reasons:

  1. Within this one programme are many different kinds of evidence-use which attract the ire of academic commentators, from an obviously dodgy estimate and performance management system to a more-sincere-but-still-criticised use of evaluations and neuroscience.
  2. It is easy to criticise the UK government’s actions but more difficult to say – when viewing the policy problem from its perspective – what the government should do instead.

In other words, it is useful to note that the UK government is not winning awards for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) in this area, but less useful to deny the politics of EBPM and hold it up to a standard that no government can meet.

The UK Government’s problematic use of evidence

Take your pick from the following ways in which the UK Government has been criticised for its use of evidence to make and defend ‘troubled families’ policy.

Its identification of the most troubled families: cherry picking or inventing evidence

At the heart of the programme is the assertion that we know who the ‘troubled families’ are, what causes their behaviour, and how to stop it. Yet, much of the programme is built on a value judgements about feckless parents, and tipping the balance from support to sanctions, and unsubstantiated anecdotes about key aspects such as the tendency of ‘worklessness’ or ‘welfare dependency’ to pass from one generation to another.

The UK government’s target of almost 120000 families was based speculatively on previous Cabinet Office estimates in 2006 that about ‘2% of families in England experience multiple and complex difficulties’. This estimate was based on limited survey data and modelling to identify families who met five of seven criteria relating to unemployment, poor housing, parental education, the mental health of the mother, the chronic illness or disability of either parent, an income below 60% of the median, and an inability to by certain items of food or clothing.

It then gave locally specific estimates to each local authority and asked them to find that number of families, identifying households with: (1) at least one under-18-year-old who has committed an offense in the last year, or is subject to an ASBO; and/ or (2) has been excluded from school permanently, or suspended on three consecutive terms, in a Pupil Referral Unit, off the school roll, or has over 15% unauthorised absences over three consecutive terms; and (3) an adult on out of work benefits.

If the household met all three criteria, they would automatically be included. Otherwise, local authorities had the discretion to identify further troubled families meeting two of the criteria and other indicators of concerns about ‘high costs’ of late intervention such as, ‘a child who is on a Child Protection Plan’, ‘Families subject to frequent police call-outs or arrests’, and ‘Families with health problems’ linked to mental health, addiction, chronic conditions, domestic abuse, and teenage pregnancy.

Its measure of success: ‘turning around’ troubled families

The UK government declared almost-complete success without convincing evidence. Success ‘in the last 6 months’ to identify a ‘turned around family’ is measured in two main ways: (1) the child no longer having three exclusions in a row, a reduction in the child offending rate of 33% or ASB rate of 60%, and/or the adult entering a relevant ‘progress to work’ programme; or (2) at least one adult moving from out of work benefits to continuous employment. It was self-declared by local authorities, and both parties had a high incentive to declare it: local authorities received £4000 per family payments and the UK government received a temporary way to declare progress without long term evidence.

The declaration is in stark contrast to an allegedly suppressed report to the government which stated that the programme had ‘no discernible effect on unemployment, truancy or criminality’. This lack of impact was partly confirmed by FOI requests by The Guardian – demonstrating that at least 8000 families received no intervention, but showed improvement anyway – and analysis by Levitas and Crossley which suggests that local authorities could only identify families by departing from the DCLG’s initial criteria.

Its investment in programmes with limited evidence of success

The UK government’s massive expansion of ‘family intervention projects’, and related initiatives, is based on limited evidence of success from a small sample of people from a small number of pilots. The ‘evidence for the effectiveness of family intervention projects is weak’ and a government-commissioned systematic review suggests that there are no good quality evaluations to demonstrate (well) the effectiveness or value-for-money of key processes such as coordinated service provision. The impact of other interventions, previously with good reputations, has been unclear, such as the Family Nurse Partnership imported from the US which so far has produced ‘no additional short-term benefit’. Overall, Crossley and Lambert suggest that “the weight of evidence surrounding ‘family intervention’ and similar approaches, over the longue durée, actually suggests that the approach doesn’t work”. There is also no evidence to support its heroic claim that spending £10000 per family will save £65000.

Its faith in sketchy neuroscientific evidence on the benefits of early intervention

The government is driven partly by a belief in the benefits of early intervention in the lives of children (from 0-3, or even before birth), which is based partly on the ‘now or never’ argument found in key reviews by Munro and Allen (one and two).

normal brain

Policymakers take liberties with neuroscientific evidence to emphasise the profound effect of stress on early brain development (measured, for example, by levels of cortisol found in hair samples). These accounts underpinning the urgency of early intervention are received far more critically in fields such as social science, neuroscience, and psychology. For example, Wastell and White find no good quality scientific evidence behind the comparison of child brain development reproduced in Allen’s reports.

Now let’s try to interpret and explain these points partly from a government perspective

Westminster politics necessitates this presentation of ‘prevention’ policies

If you strip away the rhetoric, the troubled families programme is a classic attempt at early intervention to prevent poor outcomes. In this general field, it is difficult to know what government policy is – what it stands for and how you measure its success. ‘Prevention’ is vague, plus governments make a commitment to meaningful local discretion and the sense that local actors should be guided by a combination of the evidence of ‘what works’ and its applicability to local circumstances.

This approach is not tolerated in Westminster politics, built on the simple idea of accountability in which you know who is in charge and therefore to blame! UK central governments have to maintain some semblance of control because they know that people will try to hold them to account in elections and general debate. This ‘top down’ perspective has an enduring effect: although prevention policy is vague, individual programmes such as ‘troubled families’ contain enough detail to generate intense debate on central government policy and performance and contain elements which emphasise high central direction, including sustained ministerial commitment, a determination to demonstrate early success to justify a further rollout of policy, and performance management geared towards specific measurable outcomes – even if the broader aim is to encourage local discretion.

This context helps explain why governments appear to exploit crises to sell existing policies, and pursue ridiculous processes of estimation and performance measurement. They need to display strength, show certainty that they have correctly diagnosed a problem and its solution, and claim success using the ‘currency’ of Westminster politics – and they have to do these things very quickly.

Consequently, for example, they will not worry about some academics complaining about policy based evidence – they are more concerned about their media and public reception and the ability of the opposition to exploit their failures – and few people in politics have the time (that many academics take for granted) to wait for research. This is the lens through which we should view all discussions of the use of evidence in politics and policy.

Unequivocal evidence is impossible to produce and we can’t wait forever

The argument for evidence-based-policy rather than policy-based-evidence suggests that we know what the evidence is. Yet, in this field in particular, there is potential for major disagreement about the ‘bar’ we set for evidence.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

For some, it relates to a hierarchy of evidence in which randomised control trials (RCTs) and their systematic review are at the top: the aim is to demonstrate that an intervention’s effect was positive, and more positive than another intervention or non-intervention. This requires experiments: to compare the effects of interventions in controlled settings, in ways that are directly comparable with other experiments.

As table 1 suggests, some other academics do not adhere to – and some reject – this hierarchy. This context highlights three major issues for policymakers:

  1. In general, when they seek evidence, they find this debate about how to gather and analyse it (and the implications for policy delivery).
  2. When seeking evidence on interventions, they find some academics using the hierarchy to argue the ‘evidence for the effectiveness of family intervention projects is weak’. This adherence to a hierarchy to determine research value also doomed to failure a government-commissioned systematic review: the review applied a hierarchy of evidence to its analysis of reports by authors who did not adhere to the same model. The latter tend to be more pragmatic in their research design (and often more positive about their findings), and their government audience rarely adheres to the same evidential standard built on a hierarchy. In the absence of someone giving ground, some researchers will never be satisfied with the available evidence and elected policymakers are unlikely to listen to them.
  3. The evidence generated from RCTs is often disappointing. The so-far-discouraging experience of the Family Nurse Partnership has a particularly symbolic impact, and policymakers can easily pick up a general sense of uncertainty about the best policies in which to invest.

So, if your main viewpoint is academic, you can easily conclude that the available evidence does not yet justify massive expansion in the troubled families programme (perhaps you might prefer the Scottish approach of smaller scale piloting, or for the government to abandon certain interventions altogether).

However, if you are a UK government policymaker feeling the need to act – and knowing that you always have to make decisions despite uncertainty – you may also feel that there will never be enough evidence on which to draw. Given the problems outlined above, you may as well act now than wait for years for little to change.

The ends justify the means

Policymakers may feel that the ends of such policies – investment in early intervention by shifting funds from late intervention – may justify the means, which can include a ridiculous oversimplification of evidence. It may seem almost impossible for governments to find other ways to secure the shift, given the multiple factors which undermine its progress.

Governments sometimes hint at this approach when simplifying key figures – effectively to argue that late intervention costs £9bn while early intervention will only cost £448m – to reinforce policy change: ‘the critical point for the Government was not necessarily the precise figure, but whether a sufficiently compelling case for a new approach was made’.

Similarly the vivid comparison of healthy versus neglected brains provides shocking reference points to justify early intervention. Their rhetorical value far outweighs their evidential value. As in all EBPM, the choice for policymakers is to play the game, to generate some influence in not-ideal circumstances, or hope that science and reason will save the day (and the latter tends to be based on hope rather than evidence). So, the UK appeared to follow the US’ example in which neuroscience ‘was chosen as the scientific vehicle for the public relations campaign to promote early childhood programs more for rhetorical, than scientific reasons’, partly because a focus on, for example, permanent damage to brain circuitry is less abstract than a focus on behaviour.

Overall, policymakers seem willing to build their case on major simplifications and partial truths to secure what they believe to be a worthy programme (although it would be interesting to find out which policymakers actually believe the things they say). If so, pointing out their mistakes or alleging lies can often have a minimal impact (or worse, if policymakers ‘double down’ in the face of criticism).

Implications for academics, practitioners, and ‘policy based evidence’

I have been writing on ‘troubled families’ while encouraging academics and practitioners to describe pragmatic strategies to increase the use of evidence in policy.

Palgrave C special

Our starting point is relevant to this discussion – since it asks what we should do if policymakers don’t think like academics:

  • They worry more about Westminster politics – their media and public reception and the ability of the opposition party to exploit their failures – than what academics think of their actions.
  • They do not follow the same rules of evidence generation and analysis.
  • They do not have the luxury of uncertainty and time.

Generally, this is a useful lens through which we should view discussions of the realistic use of evidence in politics and policy. Without being pragmatic – to recognise that policymakers will never think like scientists, and always face different pressures – we might simply declare ‘policy based evidence’ in all cases. Although a commitment to pragmatism does not solve these problems, at least it prompts us to be more specific about categories of PBE, the criteria we use to identify it, if our colleagues share a commitment to those criteria, what we can reasonably expect of policymakers, and how we might respond.

In disciplines like social policy we might identify a further issue, linked to:

  1. A tradition of providing critical accounts of government policy to help hold elected policymakers to account. If so, the primary aim may be to publicise key flaws without engaging directly with policymakers to help fix them – and perhaps even to criticise other scholars for doing so – because effective criticism requires critical distance.
  2. A tendency of many other social policy scholars to engage directly in evaluations of government policy, with the potential to influence and be influenced by policymakers.

It is a dynamic that highlights well the difficulty of separating empirical and normative evaluations when critics point to the inappropriate nature of the programmes as they interrogate the evidence for their effectiveness. This difficulty is often more hidden in other fields, but it is always a factor.

For example, Parr noted in 2009 that ‘despite ostensibly favourable evidence … it has been argued that the apparent benign-welfarism of family and parenting-based antisocial behaviour interventions hide a growing punitive authoritarianism’. The latter’s most extreme telling is by Garrett in 2007, who compares residential FIPs (‘sin bins’) to post-war Dutch programmes resembling Nazi social engineering and criticises social policy scholars for giving them favourable evaluations – an argument criticised in turn by Nixon and Bennister et al.

For present purposes, note Nixon’s identification of ‘an unusual case of policy being directly informed by independent research’, referring to the possible impact of favourable evaluations of FIPs on the UK Government’s move way from (a) an intense focus on anti-social behaviour and sanctions towards (b) greater support. While it would be a stretch to suggest that academics can set government agendas, they can at least enhance their impact by framing their analysis in a way that secures policymaker interest. If academics seek influence, rather than critical distance, they may need to get their hands dirty: seeking to understand policymakers to find alternative policies that still give them what they want.

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

Heresthetics and referendums

Heresthetic(s) describes the importance of the order of choice on political choices. The Scottish referendum process could become a brilliant example ….

William Riker invented the term heresthetics (or heresthetic) to describe the importance of a particular kind of manipulation:

one can help produce a particular choice if one can determine the context of, or order in which people make, choices.

Put simply, if you want to make something happen, it may be better to influence the institutions in which people make decisions, or frame issues to determine which particular aspect of a problem to which people pay attention, than change their minds about their preferences.

The prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence could provide a nice, simple, example of this process.

Ideally, you would want to know about people’s preferences in considerable detail. After all, life is more complicated than binary choices suggest, and people are open to compromise. Yet, we tend to produce very simple binary referendums because they would otherwise be very difficult for most of the public to understand or for policymakers to interpret.

So, the way in which we simply that choice matters (for example, in Scotland, it led to the rejection of a third option – super dee duper mega max devolution – on the ballot paper, and therefore limited the choices of people who might have that third option as their first preference).

So too does the way in which we make several simple choices in a particular order.

Imagine a group of people – crucial to the outcome – whose main preference is that Scotland stays inside the UK in the EU:

  1. In a referendum in which Scotland votes first, this group votes No to Scottish independence on the assumption that the result will best reflect their preferences (helping produce 55% No).
  2. In a referendum in which Scotland votes after the UK (and the UK votes to leave the EU), many people will change their choice even if they have not changed their preferences (they would still prefer to be in the UK and EU, but that is no longer an option). So, some will choose to be in the UK out of the EU, but others will choose out of the UK and in the EU.

So, the order of choice, and the conditions under which we make choices, matters even when people have the same basic preferences. The people who voted No in the first referendum may vote Yes in the second, but still say that their initial choice was correct under the circumstances (and quite right too). Or, there may not be a second opportunity to choose.

This dynamic of choice is true even before we get into the more emotional side (some people will feel let down by the argument that a No vote was to stay in the EU).

Further reading:

If you want the Scottish argument in a less dispassionate form, read this by Alan Massie. If you want something more concise, see this tweet:

If you want more on heresthetic, google William Riker and take it from there.

Or, have a look at my series on policymaking. In two-dozen different ways, these posts identify these issues of framing, rules, and the order of choice. Search, for example, for ‘path dependence’ which describes the often profound long term effects of events and decisions made in a particular order in the past.

Note, of course, that only some choice situations are open to direct manipulation. In our case, I don’t think anyone managed to produce a Leave vote in the EU referendum to get a second crack at Scottish independence 😉

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Policy in 500 Words: if the policy cycle does not exist, what do we do?

It is easy to reject the empirical value of the policy cycle, but difficult to replace it as a practical tool. I identify the implications for students, policymakers, and the actors seeking influence in the policy process.

cycle

A policy cycle divides the policy process into a series of stages:

  • Agenda setting. Identifying problems that require government attention, deciding which issues deserve the most attention and defining the nature of the problem.
  • Policy formulation. Setting objectives, identifying the cost and estimating the effect of solutions, choosing from a list of solutions and selecting policy instruments.
  • Legitimation. Ensuring that the chosen policy instruments have support. It can involve one or a combination of: legislative approval, executive approval, seeking consent through consultation with interest groups, and referenda.
  • Implementation. Establishing or employing an organization to take responsibility for implementation, ensuring that the organization has the resources (such as staffing, money and legal authority) to do so, and making sure that policy decisions are carried out as planned.
  • Evaluation. Assessing the extent to which the policy was successful or the policy decision was the correct one; if it was implemented correctly and, if so, had the desired effect.
  • Policy maintenance, succession or termination. Considering if the policy should be continued, modified or discontinued.

Most academics (and many practitioners) reject it because it oversimplifies, and does not explain, a complex policymaking system in which: these stages may not occur (or occur in this order), or we are better to imagine thousands of policy cycles interacting with each other to produce less orderly behaviour and predictable outputs.

But what do we do about it?

The implications for students are relatively simple: we have dozens of concepts and theories which serve as better ways to understand policymaking. In the 1000 Words series, I give you 25 to get you started.

The implications for policymakers are less simple because they cycle may be unrealistic and useful. Stages can be used to organise policymaking in a simple way: identify policymaker 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. The idea is simple and the consequent advice to policy practitioners is straightforward.  A major unresolved challenge for scholars and practitioners is to describe a more meaningful, more realistic, analytical model to policymakers and give advice on how to act and justify action in the same straightforward way. So, in this article, I discuss how to reconcile policy advice based on complexity and pragmatism with public and policymaker expectations.

The implications for actors trying to influence policymaking can be dispiriting: how can we engage effectively in the policy process if we struggle to understand it? So, in this page (scroll down – it’s long!), I discuss how to present evidence in complex policymaking systems.

Take home message for students. It is easy to describe then assess the policy cycle as an empirical tool, but don’t stop there. Consider how to turn this insight into action. First, examine the many ways in which we use concepts to provide better descriptions and explanations. Then, think about the practical implications. What useful advice could you give an elected policymaker, trying to juggle pragmatism with accountability? What strategies would you recommend to actors trying to influence the policy process?

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Hydraulic fracturing policy in comparative perspective: how typical is the UK experience?

This paper – Cairney PSA 2016 UK fracking 15.3.16– collects insights from the comparative study of ‘fracking’ policy, including a forthcoming book using the ‘Advocacy Coalition Framework’ to compare policy and policymaking in the US, Canada and five European countries (Weible, Heikkila, Ingold and Fischer, 2016), the UK chapter, and offshoot article submissions comparing the UK with Switzerland. It is deliberately brief to reflect the likelihood that, in a 90-minute panel with 5 papers, we will need to keep our initial presentations short and sweet. I am also a member of the no-powerpoint-collective.

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

Category: Fracking

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Evidence-based policymaking: lecture and Q&A

Here is my talk (2 parts) on EBPM at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver 24.2.16 (or download the main talk and Q and A):

You can find more on this topic here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/

ebpm notes Denver 2016

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing

framing main

(podcast download)

‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.

For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.

framing with hands

However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:

timber frame

  1. Intentional framing and cognition.

The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):

  • We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
  • These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
  • We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
  • We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.

In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).

In policy theory, framing studies focus on ambiguity: there are many ways in which we can understand and define the same policy problem (note terms such as ‘problem definition’ and a ‘policy image’). Therefore, actors exercise power to draw attention to, and generate support for, one particular understanding at the expense of others. They do this with simple stories or the selective presentation of facts, often coupled with emotional appeals, to manipulate the ways in which we process information.

  1. Frames as structures

Think about the extent to which we take for granted certain ways to understand or frame issues. We don’t begin each new discussion with reference to ‘first principles’. Instead, we discuss issues with reference to:

(a) debates that have been won and may not seem worth revisiting (imagine, for example, the ways in which ‘socialist’ policies are treated in the US)

(b) other well-established ways to understand the world which, when they seem to dominate our ways of thinking, are often described as ‘hegemonic’ or with reference to paradigms.

In such cases, the timber frame metaphor serves two purposes:

(a) we can conclude that it is difficult but not impossible to change.

(b) if it is hidden by walls, we do not see it; we often take it for granted even though we should know it exists.

Framing the social, not physical, world

These metaphors can only take us so far, because the social world does not have such easily identifiable physical structures. Instead, when we frame issues, we don’t just choose where to look; we also influence how people describe what we are looking at. Or, ‘structural’ frames relate to regular patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking which are more difficult to identify than in a building. Consequently, we do not all describe structural constraints in the same way even though, ostensibly, we are looking at the same thing.

In this respect, for example, the well-known ‘Overton window’ is a sort-of helpful but also problematic concept, since it suggests that policymakers are bound to stay within the limits of what Kingdon calls the ‘national mood’. The public will only accept so much before it punishes you in events such as elections. Yet, of course, there is no such thing as the public mood. Rather, some actors (policymakers) make decisions with reference to their perception of such social constraints (how will the public react?) but they also know that they can influence how we interpret those constraints with reference to one or more proxies, including opinion polls, public consultations, media coverage, and direct action:

JEPP public opinion

They might get it wrong, and suffer the consequences, but it still makes sense to say that they have a choice to interpret and adapt to such ‘structural’ constraints.

Framing, power and the role of ideas

We can bring these two ideas about framing together to suggest that some actors exercise power to reinforce dominant ways to think about the world. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group with greater material resources wins and another loses. It also relates to agenda setting. First, actors may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in private or public places?

Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, actors exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’: more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society.

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