Tag Archives: Bounded rationality

Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers

By Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski

Use psychological insights to inform communication strategies

Policymakers cannot pay attention to all of the things for which they are responsible, or understand all of the information they use to make decisions. Like all people, there are limits on what information they can process (Baddeley, 2003; Cowan, 2001, 2010; Miller, 1956; Rock, 2008).

They must use short cuts to gather enough information to make decisions quickly: the ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds of information, and the ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, values, beliefs, habits, schemata, scripts, and what is familiar, to make decisions quickly. Unlike most people, they face unusually strong pressures on their cognition and emotion.

Policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, often in highly charged political atmospheres, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Perhaps their solutions seem to be driven more by their values and emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, often because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach.

If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss criticism from researchers as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, we suggest that restating the need for ‘rational’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive, and declaring ‘policy based evidence’ defeatist.

We use psychological insights to recommend a shift in strategy for advocates of the greater use of evidence in policy. The simple recommendation, to adapt to policymakers’ ‘fast thinking’ (Kahneman, 2011) rather than bombard them with evidence in the hope that they will get round to ‘slow thinking’, is already becoming established in evidence-policy studies. However, we provide a more sophisticated understanding of policymaker psychology, to help understand how people think and make decisions as individuals and as part of collective processes. It allows us to (a) combine many relevant psychological principles with policy studies to (b) provide several recommendations for actors seeking to maximise the impact of their evidence.

To ‘show our work’, we first summarise insights from policy studies already drawing on psychology to explain policy process dynamics, and identify key aspects of the psychology literature which show promising areas for future development.

Then, we emphasise the benefit of pragmatic strategies, to develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking while recognising that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups. Instead of bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond effectively. Instead of identifying only the biases in our competitors, and masking academic examples of group-think, let’s reject our own imagined standards of high-information-led action. This more self-aware and humble approach will help us work more successfully with other actors.

On that basis, we provide three recommendations for actors trying to engage skilfully in the policy process:

  1. Tailor framing strategies to policymaker bias. If people are cognitive misers, minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation. If policymakers combine cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals. If policymakers make quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and moral. If policymakers reflect a ‘group emotion’, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with those beliefs.
  2. Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ to influence individuals and processes. ‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, depending on their current way of thinking, or to act while political conditions are aligned.
  3. Adapt to real-world ‘dysfunctional’ organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear. Form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.

These tips are designed to produce effective, not manipulative, communicators. They help foster the clearer communication of important policy-relevant evidence, rather than imply that we should bend evidence to manipulate or trick politicians. We argue that it is pragmatic to work on the assumption that people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves. To persuade them to change course requires showing simple respect and seeking ways to secure their trust, rather than simply ‘speaking truth to power’. Effective engagement requires skilful communication and good judgement as much as good evidence.

This is the introduction to our revised and resubmitted paper to the special issue of Palgrave Communications The politics of evidence-based policymaking: how can we maximise the use of evidence in policy? Please get in touch if you are interested in submitting a paper to the series.

Full paper: Cairney Kwiatkowski Palgrave Comms resubmission CLEAN 14.7.17

Leave a comment

Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Policy Process

We talk a lot about ‘the policy process’ without really saying what it is. If you are new to policy studies, maybe you think that you’ll learn what it is eventually if you read enough material. This would be a mistake! Instead, when you seek a definition of the policy process, you’ll find two common responses:

  1. Many will seek to define policy or public policy instead of ‘the policy process’.
  2. Some will describe the policy process as a policy cycle with stages.

Both responses seem inadequate: one avoids giving an answer, and another gives the wrong answer!

However, we can combine elements of each approach to give you just enough of a sense of ‘the policy process’ to continue reading the full ‘1000 words’ series:

1. The beauty of the ‘what is policy?’ question …

… is that we don’t give you an answer. It may seem frustrating at first to fail to find a definitive answer, but eventually you’ll accept this problem! The more important outcome is to use the ‘what is policy?’ question to develop analytical skills, to allow you to define policy in more specific circumstances (such as, what are the key elements of policy in this case study?), and ask more useful and specific questions about policy and policymaking. So, look at the questions we need to ask if we begin with the definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’: does action include statements of intent? Do we include unintended policy outcomes? Are all policymakers in government? What about the things policymakers choose not to do? And so on.

2. The beauty of the policy cycle approach …

… is that it provides a simple way to imagine policy ‘dynamics’, or events and choices producing a never-ending sequence of other events and choices. Look at the stages model to identify many different tasks within one ‘process’, and to get the sense that policymaking is continuous and often ‘its own cause’. It’s not a good description of what actually happens, but it describes what some might like to happen, and used by many governments to describe what they do. Consequently, we can’t simply ignore it, at least without providing a better description, a better plan, and a better way for governments to justify what they do.

There are more complicated but better ways of describing policymaking dynamics

This picture is the ‘policy process’ equivalent of my definition of public policy. It captures the main elements of the policy process described – albeit in different ways – by most policy theories in this series. I present it here to give you enough of an answer – to ‘what is the policy process?’ – to help you ask more questions.

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

In the middle is ‘policy choice’

At the heart of most policy theory is ‘bounded rationality’, which describes (a) the cognitive limits of all people, and (b) how policymakers overcome such limits to make decisions (in the absence of NZT). In short, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to action, but these are provocative terms to prompt further reading (on, for example, ‘evidence-based policymaking’).

‘Rational’ describes goal-oriented activity: people may have limits to their attention and ‘information processing’, but they find systematic ways to respond, by setting goals and producing criteria to find the best information. ‘Irrational’ describes aspects of psychology: people draw on habit, emotions, their ‘gut’ or intuition, well-established beliefs, and their familiarity with information to make often-almost-instant decisions.

Surrounding choice is what we’ll call the ‘policy environment’

Environment is a metaphor we’ll use to describe the combination of key elements of the policy process which (a) I describe separately in further 1000 words posts, and (b) policy theories bring together to produce an overall picture of policy dynamics.

There are 5 or 6 key elements. In the picture are 6, reflecting the way Tanya Heikkila and I describe it (and the fact that I had 7 boxes to fill). In real life, I describe 5 because I have 5 digits on each hand. If you are Count Tyrone Rugen you have more choice.

Policy environments are made up of:

  1. A wide range of actors (which can be individuals and organisations with the ability to deliberate and act) making or influencing policy at many levels and types of government.
  2. Institutions, defined as the rules followed by actors. Some are formal, written down, and easy to identify. Others are informal, reproduced via processes like socialisation, and difficult to spot and describe.
  3. Networks, or the relationships between policymakers and influencers. Some are wide open, competitive, and contain many actors. Others are relatively closed, insulated from external attention, and contain few actors.
  4. Ideas, or the beliefs held and shared by actors. There is often a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion, constraining or facilitating the progress of new ‘ideas’ as policy solutions.
  5. Context and events. Context describes the policy conditions – including economic, social, demographic, and technological factors – that provide the context for policy choice, and are often outside of the control of policymakers. Events can be routine and predictable, or unpredictable ‘focusing’ events that prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

This picture is only the beginning of analysis, raising further questions that will make more sense when you read further, including: should policymaker choice be at the centre of this picture? Why are there arrows in the cycle but not in my picture? Should we describe complex policymaking ‘systems’ rather than ‘environments’? How exactly does each element in the ‘policy environment’ or ‘system’ relate to the other?

The answer to the final question can only be found in each theory of the policy process, and each theory describes this relationship in a different way. Let’s not worry about that just now! We’ll return to this issue at the end, when thinking about how to combine the insights of many theories.




1 Comment

Filed under 1000 words, public policy

Tips for policy success: learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’ and exploit ‘windows of opportunity’

Policy influence is impossible to find if you don’t know where to look. Policies theories can help you look in the right places, but they take time to understand.

It’s not realistic to expect people with their own day jobs – such as scientists producing policy-relevant knowledge in other fields – to take the time to use the insights it takes my colleagues a full-time career to appreciate.

So, we need a way to explain those insights in a way that people can pick up and use when they engage in the policy process for the first time. That’s why Chris Weible and I asked a group of policy theory experts to describe the ‘state of the art’ in their field and the practical lessons that they offer.

None of these abstract theories provide a ‘blueprint’ for action (they were designed primarily to examine the policy process scientifically). Instead, they offer one simple insight: you’ll save a lot of energy if you engage with the policy process that exists, not the one you want to see.

Then, they describe variations on the same themes, including:

  1. There are profound limits to the power of individual policymakers: they can only process so much information, have to ignore almost all issues, and therefore tend to share policymaking with many other actors.
  2. You can increase your chances of success if you work with that insight: identify the right policymakers, the ‘venues’ in which they operate, and the ‘rules of the game’ in each venue; build networks and form coalitions to engage in those venues; shape agendas by framing problems and telling good stories, design politically feasible solutions, and learn how to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for their selection.

Learn from ‘multiple streams’ analysis

Streams pic and textMy paper on the ‘multiple streams approach’ shows what happens in the absence of two things you might want to see: ‘rational’ and ‘evidence based’ policymaking which takes place in a policy cycle with linear stages. If you act according to that hope, you’ll likely say the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time. It would be better to adapt to the following implications of an agenda setting process in which framing is more important than evidence, and solutions chase problems (table 1).

Tablle 1 MSA

Learn the meaning of timing and windows of opportunity

Most people would associate ‘timing’ with the idiom ‘be in the right place at the right time’. In agenda setting it means two more important things:

  1. Learning the right time to exploit emotional thinking in policymakers to help generate attention to a policy problem, not waiting for their attention to shift naturally.
  2. Producing policy solutions first, then waiting for the right time to attach them to problems. If a policy cycle existed, policymakers would identify a problem then spark of a series of stages, to select a solution, implement, and evaluate it. In the real world, policymaker attention often shifts before a feasible solution can be developed.

Learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’

So, successful ‘policy entrepreneurs’ ‘lie in wait in and around government with their solutions at hand, waiting for problems to float by to which they can attach their solutions, waiting for a development in the political stream they can use to their advantage’ (Kingdon 1984: 165–6). Entrepreneurs are the elected policymakers or unelected influencers with the knowledge, power, tenacity and luck to be able to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ when: attention rises to a problem, a feasible solution is available, and policymakers have the motive to select it.

Learn if you can be the Queen of Makaha, Poseidon, or Cnut

Policy entrepreneurs seem to have particular skills or strategies, to frame issues well, build networks, and lead coalitions. However, Kingdon described them as ‘surfers waiting for the big wave’, which suggests that their environment is more important than their action. He was describing a large US political system in which different actors tended to be involved in different ‘streams’ or parts of policymaking (such as a President raising problems, and a bureaucracy coordinating solutions), no one was powerful enough to bring them together, and it took a lot of time for policy solutions to ‘soften’ or change enough to become acceptable to many actors in the system.

In modern studies, we can see some key differences: policymaking at a smaller scale seems to allow ‘entrepreneurs’ more opportunities to propose solutions and generate attention to problems; and, it seems possible to short-circuit the need to ‘soften’ policies by finding sympathetic audiences in different ‘venues’ or importing solutions that have a reputation for working elsewhere. Yet, most of MSA’s abstract insights remain ‘universal’, inviting us to  adopt a counterintuitive strategy of producing solutions then chasing problems, and focus on framing and persuasion to reduce ambiguity and generate demand for evidence, rather than producing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty in the hope that scientific evidence will win the day or speak for itself.

The full draft paper is here: Practical lessons from the study of agenda setting: combine evidence with emotional appeals to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’

See also: Three ways to explain the politics of evidence-based policymaking

Original streams pic


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy

Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?

“There is extensive health and public health literature on the ‘evidence-policy gap’, exploring the frustrating experiences of scientists trying to secure a response to the problems and solutions they raise and identifying the need for better evidence to reduce policymaker uncertainty. We offer a new perspective by using policy theory to propose research with greater impact, identifying the need to use persuasion to reduce ambiguity, and to adapt to multi-level policymaking systems”.

We use this table to describe how the policy process works, how effective actors respond, and the dilemmas that arise for advocates of scientific evidence: should they act this way too?

We summarise this argument in two posts for:

The Guardian If scientists want to influence policymaking, they need to understand it

Sax Institute The evidence policy gap: changing the research mindset is only the beginning

The article is part of a wider body of work in which one or both of us considers the relationship between evidence and policy in different ways, including:

Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review PDF

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (PDF)

Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J. and Thomas, J. (2014a) ‘A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers’ BMC health services research, 14 (1), 2. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6963/14/2

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T., & Innvær, S. (2014b) ‘New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature’, Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34 http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1478-4505-12-34.pdf

Paul Cairney (2016) Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks in Evidence and Policy

Many of my blog posts explore how people like scientists or researchers might understand and respond to the policy process:

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

When presenting evidence to policymakers, engage with the policy process that exists, not the process you wish existed

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking?

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

Psychology Based Policy Studies: 5 heuristics to maximise the use of evidence in policymaking

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts?

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

There are more posts like this on my EBPM page

I am also guest editing a series of articles for the Open Access journal Palgrave Communications on the ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’ and we are inviting submissions throughout 2017.

There are more details on that series here.

And finally ..

… if you’d like to read about the policy theories underpinning these arguments, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words and 500 words.




Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points

These notes are for my brief panel talk at the European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’: Evidence and Analysis in EU Policy-Making: Concepts, Practice and Governance. As you can see from the programme description, the broader theme is about how EU institutions demonstrate their legitimacy through initiatives such as stakeholder participation and evidence-based policymaking (EBPM). So, part of my talk is about what happens when EBPM does not exist.

The post is a slightly modified version of my (recorded) talk for Open Society Foundations (New York) but different audiences make sense of these same basic points in very different ways.

  1. Recognise that the phrase ‘evidence-based policy-making’ means everything and nothing

The main limitation to ‘evidence-based policy-making’ is that no-one really knows what it is or what the phrase means. So, each actor makes sense of EBPM in different ways and you can tell a lot about each actor by the way in which they answer these questions:

  • Should you use restrictive criteria to determine what counts as ‘evidence’? Some actors equate evidence with scientific evidence and adhere to specific criteria – such as evidence-based medicine’s hierarchy of evidence – to determine what is scientific. Others have more respect for expertise, professional experience, and stakeholder and service user feedback as sources of evidence.
  • Which metaphor, evidence based or informed is best? ‘Evidence based’ is often rejected by experienced policy participants as unrealistic, preferring ‘informed’ to reflect pragmatism about mixing evidence and political calculations.
  • How far do you go to pursue EBPM? It is unrealistic to treat ‘policy’ as a one-off statement of intent by a single authoritative actor. Instead, it is made and delivered by many actors in a continuous policymaking process within a complicated policy environment (outlined in point 3). This is relevant to EU institutions with limited resources: the Commission often makes key decisions but relies on Member States to make and deliver, and the Parliament may only have the ability to monitor ‘key decisions’. It is also relevant to stakeholders trying to ensure the use of evidence throughout the process, from supranational to local action.
  • Which actors count as policymakers? Policymaking is done by ‘policymakers’, but many are unelected and the division between policymaker/ influencer is often unclear. The study of policymaking involves identifying networks of decision-making by elected and unelected policymakers and their stakeholders, while the actual practice is about deciding where to draw the line between influence and action.
  1. Respond to ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ thought.

Comprehensive rationality’ describes the absence of ambiguity and uncertainty when policymakers know what problem they want to solve and how to solve it, partly because they can gather and understand all information required to measure the problem and determine the effectiveness of solutions.

Instead, we talk of ‘bounded rationality’ and how policymakers deal with it. They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, habits, and familiarity, make decisions quickly.

I say ‘irrational’ provocatively, to raise a key strategic question: do you criticise emotional policymaking (describing it as ‘policy based evidence’) and try somehow to minimise it, adapt pragmatically to it, or see ‘fast thinking’ more positively in terms of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’? Regardless, policymakers will think that their heuristics make sense to them, and it can be counterproductive to simply criticise their alleged irrationality.

  1. Think about how to engage in complex systems or policy environments.

Policy cycle’ describes the idea that there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, and pursuing their goals in a series of clearly defined and well-ordered stages, such as: agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation. In this context, one might identify how to influence a singular point of central government decision.

However, a cycle model does not describe policymaking well. Instead, we tend to identify the role of less ordered and more unpredictable complex systems, or policy environments containing:

  • A wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government. Scientists and practitioners are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience.
  • A proliferation of rules and norms maintained by different levels or types of government. Support for particular ‘evidence based’ solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem.
  • Important relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ – that takes time to learn.
  • A tendency for certain ‘core beliefs’ or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion.
  • Policy conditions and events that can reinforce stability or prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift, but major policy change is rare.

For stakeholders, an effective engagement strategy is not straightforward: it takes time to know ‘where the action is’, how and where to engage with policymakers, and with whom to form coalitions. For the Commission, it is difficult to know what will happen to policy after it is made (although we know the end point will not resemble the starting point). For the Parliament, it is difficult even to know where to look.

  1. Recognise that EBPM is only one of many legitimate ‘good governance’ principles.

There are several principles of ‘good’ policymaking and only one is EBPM. Others relate to the value of pragmatism and consensus building, combining science advice with public values, improving policy delivery by generating ‘ownership’ of policy among key stakeholders, and sharing responsibility with elected national and local policymakers.

Our choice of which principle and forms of evidence to privilege are inextricably linked. For example, some forms of evidence gathering seem to require uniform models and limited local or stakeholder discretion to modify policy delivery. The classic example is a programme whose value is established using randomised control trials (RCTs). Others begin with local discretion, seeking evidence from stakeholders, professional groups, service user and local practitioner experience. This principle seems to rule out the use of RCTs, at least as a source of a uniform model to be rolled out and evaluated. Of course, one can try to pursue both approaches and a compromise between them, but the outcome may not satisfy advocates of either approach to EBPM or help produce the evidence that they favour.

  1. Decide how far you’ll go to achieve EBPM.

These insights should prompt us to see how far we are willing, and should, go to promote the use of certain forms of evidence in policymaking

  • If policymakers and the public are emotional decision-makers, should we seek to manipulate their thought processes by using simple stories with heroes, villains, and clear but rather simplistic morals?
  • If policymaking systems are so complex, should stakeholders devote huge amounts of resources to make sure they’re effective at each stage?
  • Should proponents of scientific evidence go to great lengths to make sure that EBPM is based on a hierarch of evidence? There is a live debate on science advice to government on the extent to which scientists should be more than ‘honest brokers’.
  • Should policymakers try to direct the use of evidence in policy as well as policy itself?

Where we go from there is up to you

The value of policy theory to this topic is to help us reject simplistic models of EBPM and think through the implications of more sophisticated and complicated processes. It does not provide a blueprint for action (how could it?), but instead a series of questions that you should answer when you seek to use evidence to get what you want. They are political choices based on value judgements, not issues that can be resolved by producing more evidence.



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Policymaking in the UK: do you really know who is in charge and who to blame? #POLU9UK

This week, we continue with the idea of two stories of British politics. In one, the Westminster model-style story, the moral is that the centralisation of power produces clear lines of accountability: you know who is in charge and, therefore, the heroes or villains. In another, the complex government story, the world seems too messy and power too diffuse to know all the main characters.

Although some aspects of these stories are specific to the UK, they relate to some ‘universal’ questions and concepts that we can use to identify the limits to centralised power. Put simply, some rather unrealistic requirements for the Westminster story include:

  1. You know what policy is, and that it is made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.
  2. Those actors possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe.
  3. They can turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way.

If life were that simple, I wouldn’t be asking you to read the following blog posts (underlined) which complicate the hell out of our neat story:

You don’t know what policy is, and it is not only made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.

We don’t really know what government policy is. In fact, we don’t even know how to define ‘public policy’ that well. Instead, a definition like ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ raises more issues than it settles: policy is remarkably difficult to identify and measure; it is made by many actors inside, outside, and sort of inside/outside government; the boundary between the people influencing and making policy is unclear; and, the study of policy is often about the things governments don’t do.

Actors don’t possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe

It’s fairly obvious than no-one possesses all possible information about policy problems and the likely effects of proposed solutions. It’s not obvious what happens next. Classic discussions identified a tendency to produce ‘good enough’ decisions based on limited knowledge and cognitive ability, or to seek other measures of ‘good’ policy such as their ability to command widespread consensus (and no radical movement away from such policy settlements). Modern discussions offer us a wealth of discussions of the implications of ‘bounded rationality’, but three insights stand out:

  1. Policymakers pay disproportionate attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. There is great potential for punctuations in policy/ policymaking when their attention lurches, but most policy is made in networks in the absence of such attention.
  2. Policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways to make decisions with limited information. The way they frame problems limits their attention to a small number of possible solutions, and that framing can be driven by emotional/ moral choices backed up with a selective use of evidence.
  3. It is always difficult to describe this process as ‘evidence-based policymaking’ even when policymakers have sincere intentions.

Policymakers cannot turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way

The classic way to describe straightforward policymaking is with reference to a policy cycle and its stages. This image of a cycle was cooked up by marketing companies trying to sell hula hoops to policymakers and interest groups in the 1960s. It is not an accurate description of policymaking (but spirographs are harder to sell).

Instead, for decades we have tried to explain the ‘gap’ between the high expectations of policymakers and the actual – often dispiriting- outcomes, or wonder if policymakers really have such high expectations for success in the first place (or if they prefer to focus on how to present any of their actions as successful). This was a key topic before the rise of ‘multi-level governance’ and the often-deliberate separation of central government action and expected outcomes.

The upshot: in Westminster systems do you really know who is in charge and who to blame?

These factors combine to generate a sense of complex government in which it is difficult to identify policy, link it to the ‘rational’ processes associated with a small number of powerful actors at the heart of government, and trace a direct line from their choices to outcomes.

Of course, we should not go too far to argue that governments don’t make a difference. Indeed, many ministers have demonstrated the amount of damage (or good) you can do in government. Still, let’s not assume that the policy process in the UK is anything like the story we tell about Westminster.

Seminar questions

In the seminar, I’ll ask you reflect on these limits and what they tell us about the ‘Westminster model’. We’ll start by me asking you to summarise the main points of this post. Then, we’ll get into some examples in British politics.

Try to think of some relevant examples of what happens when, for example, minsters seem to make quick and emotional (rather than ‘evidence based’) decisions: what happens next? Some obvious examples – based on our discussions so far – include the Iraq War and the ‘troubled families’ agenda, but please bring some examples that interest you.

In group work, I’ll invite you to answer these questions:

  1. What is UK government policy on X? Pick a topic and tell me what government policy is.
  2. How did the government choose policy? When you decide what government policy is, describe how it made its choices.
  3. What were the outcomes? When you identify government policy choices, describe their impact on policy outcomes.

I’ll also ask you to identify at least one blatant lie in this blog post.

1 Comment

Filed under POLU9UK, Uncategorized

British politics, Brexit and UK sovereignty: what does it all mean? #POLU9UK

 This is the first of 10 blog posts for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK. They will be a fair bit longer than the blog posts I asked you to write. I have also recorded a short lecture to go with it (OK, 22 minutes isn’t short).

In week 1 we’ll identify all that we think we knew about British politics, compare notes, then throw up our hands and declare that the Brexit vote has changed what we thought we knew.

I want to focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty. People voted Leave/ Remain for all sorts of reasons, and bandied around all sorts of ways to justify their position, but the idea of sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ is central to the Leave argument and this module.

For our purposes, it relates to broader ideas about the images we maintain about who makes key decisions in British politics, summed up by the phrases ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the ‘Westminster model’, and challenged by terms such as ‘bounded rationality’, ‘policy communities’, ‘multi-level governance’, and ‘complex government’.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

UK sovereignty relates strongly to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. In practice, one party tends to dominate Parliament, and the elected government tends to dominate that party, but the principle remains important.

So, ‘taking back control’ is about responding, finally, to the sense that (a) the UK’s entry to the European Union from 1972 (when it signed the accession treaty) involved giving up far more sovereignty than most people expected, and (b) the European Union’s role has strengthened ever since, at the further expense of parliamentary sovereignty.

The Westminster Model

This idea of parliamentary sovereignty connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is designed to work.

Our main task is to examine how well the WM: (a) describes what actually happens in British politics, and (b) represents what should happen in British politics. We can separate these two elements analytically but they influence each other in practice. For example, I ask what happens when elected policymakers know their limits but have to pretend that they don’t.

What should happen in British politics?

Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.

The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.

In other words, the WM narrative suggests that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.

Pause for further reading: at this point, consider how this WM story links to a wider discussion of centralised policymaking (in particular, read the 1000 Words post on the policy cycle).

What actually happens?

One way into this discussion is to explore modern discussions of disenchantment with distant political elites who seem to operate in a bubble and not demonstrate their accountability to the public. For example, there is a literature on the extent to which MPs are likely to share the same backgrounds: white, male, middle class, and educated in private schools and Oxford or Cambridge. Or, the idea of a ‘Westminster bubble’ and distant ‘political class’ comes up in discussions of constitutional change (including the Scottish referendum debate), and was exacerbated during the expenses scandal in 2009.

Another is to focus on the factors that undermine this WM image of central control: maybe Westminster political elites are remote, but they don’t control policy outcomes. Instead, there are many factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process. We will focus on these challenges throughout the course:

Challenge 1. Bounded rationality

Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore them? Much of the ‘1000 Words’ series explores the general implications of bounded rationality.

Challenge 2. Policy communities

Ministers don’t quite ignore issues; they delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.

In fact, this argument developed partly in response to discussions in the 1970s about the potential for plurality elections to cause huge swings in party success, and therefore frequent changes of government and reversals of government policy. Rather, scholars such as Jordan and Richardson identified policy continuity despite changes of government (although see Richardson’s later work).

Challenge 3. Multi-level governance

‘Multi-level’ refers to a tendency for the UK government to share policymaking responsibility with international, EU, devolved, and local governments.

‘Governance’ extends the logic of policy communities to identify a tendency to delegate or share responsibility with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations (quangos).

So, MLG can describe a clear separation of powers at many levels and a fairly coherent set of responsibilities in each case. Or, it can describe a ‘patchwork quilt’ of relationships which is difficult to track and understand. In either case, we identify ‘polycentricity’ or the presence of more than one ‘centre’ in British politics.

Challenge 4. Complex government

The phrase ‘complex government’ can be used to describe the complicated world of public policy, with elements including:

    • the huge size and reach of government – most aspects of our lives are regulated by the state
    • the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making
    • the blurry boundaries between the actors who make policy and those who seek to influence and/ or implement it (public policy results from their relationships and interactions)
    • the multi-level nature of policymaking
  • the complicated network of interactions between policy actors and many different ‘institutions’


  • the complexity of the statute book and the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.


Overall, these factors generate a sense of complex government that challenges the Westminster-style notion of accountability. How can we hold elected ministers to account if:

  1. they seem to have no hope of paying attention to much of complex government, far less control it
  2. there is so much interaction with unpredictable effects
  3. we don’t understand enough about how this process works to know if ministers are acting effectively?

Challenge 5. The policy environment and unpredictable events

Further, such governments operate within a wider environment in which conditions and events are often out of policymakers’ control. For example, how do they deal with demographic change or global economic crisis? Policymakers have some choice about the issues to which they pay attention, and the ways in which they understand and address them. However, they do not control that agenda or policy outcomes in the way we associate with the WM image of central control.

How has the UK government addressed these challenges?

We can discuss two key themes throughout the course:

  1. UK central governments have to balance two stories of British politics. One is the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control. Another is the need to construct an image of governing competence, and most governments do so by portraying an image of power and central control!
  2. This dynamic contributes to state reform. There has been a massive build-up and partial knock-down of the ‘welfare state’ in the post-war period (please have a think about the key elements). This process links strongly to that idea of pragmatism versus central control: governments often reform the state to (a) deliver key policy outcomes (the development of the welfare state and aims such as full employment), or (b) reinvigorate central control (for example, to produce a ‘lean state’ or ‘hollowing state’).

What does this discussion tell us about our initial discussion of Brexit?

None of these factors help downplay the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they prompt us to think harder about the meaning, in practice, of parliamentary sovereignty and the Westminster model which underpins ongoing debates about the UK-EU relationship. In short, we can explore the extent to which a return to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ describes little more than principles not evidence in practice. Such principles are important, but let’s also focus on what actually happens in British politics.


1 Comment

Filed under POLU9UK, UK politics and policy