Tag Archives: blogging

Five advantages of blogging

This is my third ‘hey, let’s blog’ event, so it finally dawned on me to write a blog post about it. See also Fiona Miller’s account of the Stirling event.

I don’t know much about blogging research, so will focus on my personal experience of its advantages. One frequent academic argument against blogging is that it takes you away from more important parts of the job, such as teaching and research. My argument is that it helps you do both things more effectively.

See also the accounts of the disadvantages, which often relate to the ways in which they make you vulnerable to personal abuse on social media (examples 1, 2, 3).

Advantage 1: Clarity

Writing a blog has improved my academic writing. When you blog, you write for a non-specialist audience. You use less jargon or explain its meaning and value. You assume that people will not read your work unless you front-load the ‘reveal’. You need a catchy and tweetable title, to provide a ‘hook’ in the first sentence, and to show your work in a few hundred words (perhaps to encourage people to read more of your work). When you develop these skills, you can use them while writing journal article titles, abstracts, and introductions.

If you like, you can also write a blog post instead of relying on the paper/ powerpoint combo for workshops and conferences, since a 4-paper panel at conferences is usually an endurance test, and a blog post reminds you to say why people should be interested in the paper (e.g. recent examples on evidence/ policy and Scottish independence).

Advantage 2: Timeliness

It can take years for people to read an article you publish in a top journal. Sometimes the article is worth the wait. In other cases, I think it’s best to see this work as part of a package in which the article is one of the last things to appear. There is a good case to be made for taking your time to get articles right, but a less good case to keep it a secret while you do so.

Advantage 3: Exposure

It’s now common to say that we make better links with practitioners and policymakers by making our writing more accessible (short, punchy, and one click away). In my experience, the biggest payoff has been with other academics. Politics colleagues will mention my blog (and textbook) more than my articles. I can also use introductory blog posts to communicate ideas with colleagues in other disciplines – and/ or in other countries – without expecting them to do weeks of homework on the foundational texts. In each case, it works partly because we struggle to find the time to read, and appreciate a short story. Indeed, my articles are one click away on my website, but very, very, very, very few people read them.

However, you don’t need a personal blog. In fact, my most exposureyish posts have been elsewhere, including two in the Guardian’s political science blog (on evidence-based policymaking, and (with Kathryn Oliver) the dilemmas that arise when we seek it), some on the LSE blog (I tried really hard to compare tobacco and alcohol policy – look! There’s a video!), and many in The Conversation.

Advantage 4: Teaching and Learning

Teaching. The most-used page of my website hosts a series of 1000 Word summaries of policy concepts (the ‘policy cycle’ got 26000 hits in 2016). I use them, like a gateway drug, to teach undergraduate and MPP modules: they can get a feel for the concept quickly then do further reading. They now come with podcasts, which I use instead of lectures (for workshops). Other academics also use the podcasts, particularly when their students are new to policy studies (e.g. David P. Carter).

Learning. I also ask my students to write blog posts as part of their coursework, to help them learn how to write in a concise and punchy way for a non-academic audience. In most cases, students excel at this kind of work, as part of a package of assessment in which they learn how to communicate the same insights in many different ways.

Advantage 5: Unexpected benefits

When I started blogging I didn’t really know what it was for. I used to copy and paste my article abstracts, or complain about David Cameron’s handling of Scottish independence. This was at a time in which colleagues at my former University were reticent about self-publicity, and sending round a link to a new journal article via the departmental email was pushing it a bit. Now, self-promotion seems to be part of the job, and we might expect some benefits without really knowing what they’ll be. For example, my links with some very interesting people in places like the European Commission and Alliance for Useful Evidence have arisen largely from blogging.

We all have different things that tickle us in life. For me, the most tickling part of the unexpected benefit of blogging is that I now (almost!) top the following google searches: policy cycle, multiple streams, advocacy coalition framework, punctuated equilibrium theory, the politics of evidence based policymaking, and the psychology of policymaking. I’m also doing my best to push out the other Paul Cairney from the first page of google, but Wikipedia is getting in the way. The more serious point is that a personal blog might need to generate attention through social media first, before it catches fire and rises up the search engine pages.

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Folksy wisdom, Uncategorized

Writing a policy paper and blog post #POLU9UK

It can be quite daunting to produce a policy analysis paper or blog post for the first time. You learn about the constraints of political communication by being obliged to explain your ideas in an unusually small number of words. The short word length seems good at first, but then you realise that it makes your life harder: how can you fit all your evidence and key points in? The answer is that you can’t. You have to choose what to say and what to leave out.

You also have to make this presentation ‘not about you’. In a long essay or research report you have time to show how great you are, to a captive audience. In a policy paper, imagine that you are trying to get the attention and support from someone that may not know or care about the issue you raise. In a blog post, your audience might stop reading at any point, so every sentence counts.

There are many guides out there to help you with the practical side, including the broad guidance I give you in the module guide, and Bardach’s 8-steps. In each case, the basic advice is to (a) identify a policy problem and at least one feasible solution, and (b) tailor the analysis to your audience.

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Be concise, be smart

So, for example, I ask you to keep your analysis and presentations super-short on the assumption that you have to make your case quickly to people with 99 other things to do. What can you tell someone in a half-page (to get them to read all 2 pages)? Could you explain and solve a problem if you suddenly bumped into a government minister in a lift/ elevator?

It is tempting to try to tell someone everything you know, because everything is connected and to simplify is to describe a problem simplistically. Instead, be smart enough to know that such self-indulgence won’t impress your audience. They might smile politely, but their eyes are looking at the elevator lights.

Your aim is not to give a full account of a problem – it’s to get someone important to care about it.

Your aim is not to give a painstaking account of all possible solutions – it’s to give a sense that at least one solution is feasible and worth pursuing.

Your guiding statement should be: policymakers will only pay attention to your problem if they think they can solve it, and without that solution being too costly.

Be creative

I don’t like to give you too much advice because I want you to be creative about your presentation; to be confident enough to take chances and feel that I’ll reward you for making the leap. At the very least, you have three key choices to make about how far you’ll go to make a point:

  1. Who is your audience? Our discussion of the limits to centralised policymaking suggest that your most influential audience will not necessarily be a UK government minister – but who else would it be?
  2. How manipulative should you be? Our discussions of ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ suggest that policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information and make choices. So, do you appeal to their desire to set goals and gather a lot of scientific information and/or make an emotional and manipulative appeal?
  3. Are you an advocate or an ‘honest broker’? Contemporary discussions of science advice to government highlight unresolved debates about the role of unelected advisors: should you simply lay out some possible solutions or advocate one solution strongly?

Be reflective

For our purposes, there are no wrong answers to these questions. Instead, I want you to make and defend your decisions. That is the aim of your policy paper ‘reflection’: to ‘show your work’.

You still have some room to be creative: tell me what you know about policy theory and British politics and how it informed your decisions. Here are some examples, but it is up to you to decide what to highlight:

  • Show how your understanding of policymaker psychology helped you decide how to present information on problems and solutions.
  • Extract insights from policy theories, such as from punctuated equilibrium theory on policymaker attention, multiple streams analysis on timing and feasibility, or the NPF on how to tell persuasive stories.
  • Explore the implications of the lack of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and absence of a ‘policy cycle’: feasibility is partly about identifying the extent to which a solution is ‘doable’ when central governments have limited powers. What ‘policy style’ or policy instruments would be appropriate for the solution you favour?

Be a blogger

With a blog post, your audience is wider. You are trying to make an argument that will capture the attention of a more general audience (interested in politics and policy, but not a specialist) that might access your post from Twitter/ Facebook or via a search engine. This produces a new requirement, to: present a ‘punchy’ title which sums up the whole argument in under 140 characters (a statement is often better than a vague question); to summarise the whole argument in (say) 100 words in the first paragraph (what is the problem and solution?); and, to provide more information up to a maximum of 500 words. The reader can then be invited to read the whole policy analysis.

The style of blog posts varies markedly, so you should consult many examples before attempting your own (compare the LSE with The Conversation and newspaper columns to get a sense of variations in style). When you read other posts, take note of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, many posts associated with newspapers introduce a personal or case study element to ground the discussion in an emotional appeal. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it causes the reader to scroll down quickly to find the main argument. Consider if it is as, or more, effective to make your argument more direct and easy to find as soon as someone clicks the link on their phone. Many academic posts are too long (well beyond your 500 limit), take too long to get to the point, and do not make explicit recommendations, so you should not merely emulate them. You should also not just chop down your policy paper – this is about a new kind of communication.

Be reflective once again

Hopefully, by the end, you will appreciate the transferable life skills. I have generated some uncertainty about your task to reflect the sense among many actors that they don’t really know how to make a persuasive case and who to make it to. We can follow some basic Bardach-style guidance, but a lot of this kind of work relies on trial-and-error. I maintain a short word count to encourage you to get to the point, and I bang on about ‘stories’ in our module to encourage you to make a short and persuasive story to policymakers.

This process seems weird at first, but isn’t it also intuitive? For example, next time you’re in my seminar, measure how long it takes you to get bored and look forward to the weekend. Then imagine that policymakers have the same attention span as you. That’s how long you have to make your case!

See also: Professionalism online with social media

Here is the advice that my former lecturer, Professor Brian Hogwood, gave in 1992. Has the advice changed much since then?

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Folksy wisdom, POLU9UK

Q. Should PhD students blog? A. Yes.

I wish I could go back and rewrite everything I have published, including my PhD. If I knew then what I know now: I would get to the point quicker and describe its importance to a far wider audience than my supervisor and a few dedicated journal readers. To do so, I would exhibit the skills you develop when you write frequently for an ‘intelligent lay’ audience.

These are the writing traits that I think you develop when just writing for academics:

  1. You assume a specialist audience, familiar with key terms. So, you use jargon as shorthand without explaining its meaning. The downside is that the jargon often doesn’t have a particularly clear meaning. When you blog, you assume a non-specialist audience. You use less jargon, or you explain its meaning and value.
  2. You treat the exercise as a detective novel with a big reveal: a nice, vague opening discussion (passive tense optional), a main body of text to build up the suspense, and finally the big twist at the end. Ta da! Wow, I didn’t see that coming. When you blog, you assume that people will not read your work unless you front-load the reveal. You have a catchy and tweetable title, you provide a hook in the first sentence, and you only have a few hundred words in which to show your work (and encourage people to read the longer report).
  3. Or, you describe your hypotheses in a way that suggests that even you don’t know what will happen. Wow – I confirmed that hypothesis! Who knew? When you blog, it seems more sensible to use the language of hypotheses (or an equivalent) more simply, to explain what factors are most important to your explanation.

You can develop this skill by using a personal blog to describe your research progress and the value of your findings. However, it is also worth blogging in at least two other venues:

  1. Somewhere like the LSE blog, or Democratic Audit, in which the editors will try to summarise your argument in a short opening statement. This is very handy for you: did they summarise the main argument? If so, good. If not, look again to see if you explained it well.
  2. Somewhere like The Conversation, in which the editors will try to mess around with the title (to encourage more traffic) and wording (to make it punchier and quotable). This is a good exercise in which you can think about how far you want to go. Are you confident enough in your research to make such stark statements? Or, do you want to obfuscate and fill the argument with caveats? If the latter, you can think about the extent to which your argument is clear and defendable (it may well be – sometimes caveats and humility can be good!).

I also encourage advanced undergraduates and taught postgraduates to produce a blog post (albeit unpublished) alongside an essay or policy paper, because it is difficult to be concise, and the exercise helps develop a good life skill. Even without the blog exercise, I’d still encourage dissertation students (at the start of their research) to write up their argument/ plan/ work in a half-page document, so that we can see if it adds up to a coherent argument. You can do the same thing with a blog post, with the added (potential) benefit of some feedback from outside sources.

See also: there are resource sites which go into far more aspects of the writing process, such as medium.com/@Write4Research and patthomson.wordpress.com

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, PhD