Tag Archives: complexity theory

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: complex systems and systems thinking

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview and connects to previous posts on complexity. The first 750 words tick along nicely, then there is a picture of a cat hanging in there baby to signal where it can all go wrong. I updated it (22.6.20) to add category 11.

There are a million-and-one ways to describe systems and systems thinking. These terms are incredibly useful, but also at risk of meaning everything and therefore nothing (compare with planning and consultation).

Let’s explore how the distinction between policy studies and policy analysis can help us clarify the meaning of ‘complex systems’ and ‘systems thinking’ in policymaking.

For example, how might we close a potentially large gap between these two stories?

  1. Systems thinking in policy analysis.
  • Avoid the unintended consequences of too-narrow definitions of problems and processes (systems thinking, not simplistic thinking).
  • If we engage in systems thinking effectively, we can understand systems well enough to control, manage, or influence them.
  1. The study of complex policymaking systems.
  • Policy emerges from complex systems in the absence of: (a) central government control and often (b) policymaker awareness.
  • We need to acknowledge these limitations properly, to accept our limitations, and avoid the mechanistic language of ‘policy levers’ which exaggerate human or government control.

See also: Systems science and systems thinking for public health: a systematic review of the field

Six meanings of complex systems in policy and policymaking

Let’s begin by trying to clarify many meanings of complex system and relate them to systems thinking storylines.

For example, you will encounter three different meanings of complex system in this series alone, and each meaning presents different implications for systems thinking:

  1. A complex policymaking system

Policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from policymaking systems in the absence of central government control. As such, we should rely less on central government driven targets (in favour of local discretion to adapt to environments), encourage trial-and-error learning, and rethink the ways in which we think about government ‘failure’ (see, for example, Hallsworth on ‘system stewardship’, the OECD on ‘Systemic Thinking for Policy Making‘, and this thread)

  • Systems thinking is about learning and adapting to the limits to policymaker control.

  1. Complex policy problems

Dunn (2017:  73) describes the interdependent nature of problems:

Subjectively experienced problems – crime, poverty, unemployment, inflation, energy, pollution, health, security – cannot be decomposed into independent subsets without running the risk of producing an approximately right solution to the wrong problem. A key characteristic of systems of problems is that the whole is greater – that is, qualitatively different – than the simple sum of its parts” (contrast with Meltzer and Schwartz on creating a ‘boundary’ to make problems seem solveable).

  • Systems thinking is about addressing policy problems holistically.
  1. Complex policy mixes

What we call ‘policy’ is actually a collection of policy instruments. Their overall effect is ‘non-linear’, difficult to predict, and subject to emergent outcomes, rather than cumulative (compare with Lindblom’s hopes for incrementalist change).

This point is crucial to policy analysis: does it involve a rethink of all instruments, or merely add a new instrument to the pile?

  • Systems thinking is about anticipating the disproportionate effect of a new policy instrument.

These three meanings are joined by at least three more (from Munro and Cairney on energy systems):

  1. Socio-technical systems (Geels)

Used to explain the transition from unsustainable to sustainable energy systems.

  • Systems thinking is about identifying the role of new technologies, protected initially in a ‘niche’, and fostered by a supportive ‘social and political environment’.
  1. Socio-ecological systems (Ostrom)

Used to explain how and why policy actors might cooperate to manage finite resources.

  • Systems thinking is about identifying the conditions under which actors develop layers of rules to foster trust and cooperation.
  1. The metaphor of systems

Used by governments – rather loosely – to indicate an awareness of the interconnectedness of things.

  • Systems thinking is about projecting the sense that (a) policy and policymaking is complicated, but (b) governments can still look like they are in control.

Five more meanings of systems thinking

Now, let’s compare these storylines with a small sample of wider conceptions of systems thinking:

  1. The old way of establishing order from chaos

Based on the (now-diminished) faith in science and rational management techniques to control the natural world for human benefit (compare Hughes and Hughes on energy with Checkland on ‘hard’ v ‘soft’ systems approaches, then see What you need as an analyst versus policymaking reality and Radin on the old faith in rationalist governing systems).

  • Systems thinking was about the human ability to turn potential chaos into well-managed systems (such as ‘large technical systems’ to distribute energy)
  1. The new way of accepting complexity but seeking to make an impact

Based on the idea that we can identify ‘leverage points’, or the places that help us ‘intervene in a system’ (see Meadows then compare with Arnold and Wade).

  • Systems thinking is about the human ability to use a small shift in a system to produce profound changes in that system.
  1. A way to rethink cause-and-effect

Based on the idea that current research methods are too narrowly focused on linearity rather than the emergent properties of systems of behaviour (for example, Rutter et al on how to analyse the cumulative effect of public health interventions, and Greenhalgh on responding more effectively to pandemics).

  • Systems thinking is about rethinking the ways in which governments, funders, or professions conduct policy-relevant research on social behaviour.

  1. A way of thinking about ourselves

Embrace the limits to human cognition, and accept that all understandings of complex systems are limited.

  • Systems thinking is about developing the ‘wisdom’ and ‘humility’ to accept our limited knowledge of the world.

11. The performance of systems thinking

Policymakers can use the language of systems thinking, to give the impression that they are thinking and acting differently, but without backing up their words with tangible changes to policy instruments.

hang-in-there-baby

 

How can we clarify systems thinking and use it effectively in policy analysis?

Now, imagine you are in a room of self-styled systems thinkers, and that no-one has yet suggested a brief conversation to establish what you all mean by systems thinking. I reckon you can make a quick visual distinction by seeing who looks optimistic.

I’ll be the morose-looking guy sitting in the corner, waiting to complain about ambiguity, so you would probably be better off sitting next to Luke Craven who still ‘believes in the power of systems thinking’.

If you can imagine some amalgam of these pessimistic/ optimistic positions, perhaps the conversation would go like this:

  1. Reasons to expect some useful collaboration.

Some of these 10 discussions seem to complement each other. For example:

  • We can use 3 and 9 to reject one narrow idea of ‘evidence-based policymaking’, in which the focus is on (a) using experimental methods to establish cause and effect in relation to one policy instrument, without showing (b) the overall impact on policy and outcomes (e.g. compare FNP with more general ‘families’ policy).
  • 1-3 and 10 might be about the need for policy analysts to show humility when seeking to understand and influence complex policy problems, solutions, and policymaking systems.

In other words, you could define systems thinking in relation to the need to rethink the ways in which we understand – and try to address – policy problems. If so, you can stop here and move on to the next post. There is no benefit to completing this post.

  1. Reasons to expect the same old frustrating discussions based on no-one defining terms well enough (collectively) to collaborate effectively (beyond using the same buzzwords).

Although all of these approaches use the language of complex systems and systems thinking, note some profound differences:

Holding on versus letting go.

  • Some are about intervening to take control of systems or, at least, make a disproportionate difference from a small change.
  • Some are about accepting our inability to understand, far less manage, these systems.

Talking about different systems.

  • Some are about managing policymaking systems, and others about social systems (or systems of policy problems), without making a clear connection between both endeavours.

For example, if you use approach 9 to rethink societal cause-and-effect, are you then going to pretend that you can use approach 7 to do something about it? Or, will our group have a difficult discussion about the greater likelihood of 6 (metaphorical policymaking) in the context of 1 (the inability of governments to control the policymaking systems we need to solve the problems raised by 9).

In that context, the reason that I am sitting in the corner, looking so morose, is that too much collective effort goes into (a) restating, over and over and over again, the potential benefits of systems thinking, leaving almost no time for (b) clarifying systems thinking well enough to move on to these profound differences in thinking. Systems thinking has not even helped us solve these problems with systems thinking.

See also:

Why systems thinkers and data scientists should work together to solve social challenges

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Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition

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

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

2nd ed cover

titlechapter 1chapter 2chapter 3chapter 4.JPG

chapter 5

chapter 6chapter 7.JPG

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10

chapter 11

chapter 12

chapter 13

 

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Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

The ‘Ecology of Games Framework’ (EG) combines insights from many approaches to analyze ‘institutional complexity’ and ‘complex institutional systems’.

The focus is on actors learning how to secure ‘mutually beneficial outcomes’, cooperating to produce and deliver agreed solutions, and bargaining within a system over which no actor has control. Therefore, it is worth reading the posts on game theory, the IAD, and SES first (especially if, like me, you associated ‘game’ with tig, then Monopoly, then The Wire).

Dz3Hmy2VsAAoO72.png

Insights from three key approaches

EG connects Norton’s ‘ecology of games’, the IAD, and insights from complexity theory to reinforce the idea that institutional arrangements are not simple and orderly.

In simple games, we need only analyse the interaction between a small number of actors with reference to one set of self-contained rules providing clear sanctions or payoffs. In real world policymaking, many different games take place at the same time in different venues.

Some policy games may be contained within a geographical area – such as California – but there are no self-contained collective action problems:

  • Examples such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecology’ or ‘environmental’ policies command a collection of interdependent policies relating to issues like local planning, protected species, water management, air pollution, transport, energy use, and contributors to such policies or policy problems in other areas of government (such as public services).
  • Each contributor to policy may come from different institutions associated with many policymaking venues spread across many levels and types of government.

Consequently, many games interact with each other. The same actor might participate in multiple games subject to different rules. Further, each game produces ‘externalities’ for the others; the ‘payoffs’ to each game are connected and complicated.

A focus on ‘complex adaptive systems’ suggests that central governments do not have the resources to control – or understand fully – interaction at this frequency and scale. Rather, policymaking influences are:

  • Internal to the game, when actors (a) follow and shape the rules of each institution, and (b) learn through trial and error.
  • External to the game, when physical resources change, or central levels of government change the resources of local actors.

Insights from the wider literature

The EG brings in wider insights – from theories in the 500 and 1000 Words series – to analyse this process. Examples include:

Consequently, we have come a long way from simple assumptions about human behaviour outlined in our first post in this series.

As with the IAD, the EG emphasis is on (a) finding solutions to complex (largely environmental) policy problems, with reference to (b) initiatives consistent with self-organising systems such as ‘collaborative governance’. Like most posts in this series, it rejects a naïve attachment to a single powerful central government. Policymaking is multi-centric, and solutions to complex problems will emerge in that context.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD (the older post for the 1st edition)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

 

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Taking lessons from policy theory into practice: 3 examples

Notes for ANZSOG/ ANU Crawford School/ UNSW Canberra workshop. Powerpoint here. The recording of the lecture (skip to 2m30) and Q&A is here (right click to download mp3 or dropbox link):

The context for this workshop is the idea that policy theories could be more helpful to policymakers/ practitioners if we could all communicate more effectively with each other. Academics draw general and relatively abstract conclusions from multiple cases. Practitioners draw very similar conclusions from rich descriptions of direct experience in a smaller number of cases. How can we bring together their insights and use a language that we all understand? Or, more ambitiously, how can we use policy theory-based insights to inform the early career development training that civil servants and researchers receive?

The first step is to translate policy theories into a non-technical language by trying to speak with an audience beyond our immediate peers (see for example Practical Lessons from Policy Theories).

However, translation is not enough. A second crucial step is to consider how policymakers and practitioners are likely to make sense of theoretical insights when they apply them to particular aims or responsibilities. For example:

  1. Central government policymakers may accept the descriptive accuracy of policy theories emphasising limited central control, but not the recommendation that they should let go, share power, and describe their limits to the public.
  2. Scientists may accept key limitations to ‘evidence based policymaking’ but reject the idea that they should respond by becoming better storytellers or more manipulative operators.
  3. Researchers and practitioners struggle to resolve hard choices when combining evidence and ‘coproduction’ while ‘scaling up’ policy interventions. Evidence choice is political choice. Can we do more than merely encourage people to accept this point?

I discuss these examples below because they are closest to my heart (especially example 1). Note throughout that I am presenting one interpretation about: (1) the most promising insights, and (2) their implications for practice. Other interpretations of the literature and its implications are available. They are just a bit harder to find.

Example 1: the policy cycle endures despite its descriptive inaccuracy

cycle

The policy cycle does not describe and explain the policy process well:

  • If we insist on keeping the cycle metaphor, it is more accurate to see the process as a huge set of policy cycles that connect with each other in messy and unpredictable ways.
  • The cycle approach also links strongly to the idea of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which a small group of policymakers and analysts are in full possession of the facts and full control of the policy process. They carry out their aims through a series of stages.

Policy theories provide more descriptive and explanatory usefulness. Their insights include:

  • Limited choice. Policymakers inherit organisations, rules, and choices. Most ‘new’ choice is a revision of the old.
  • Limited attention. Policymakers must ignore almost all of the policy problems for which they are formally responsible. They pay attention to some, and delegate most responsibility to civil servants. Bureaucrats rely on other actors for information and advice, and they build relationships on trust and information exchange.
  • Limited central control. Policy may appear to be made at the ‘top’ or in the ‘centre’, but in practice policymaking responsibility is spread across many levels and types of government (many ‘centres’). ‘Street level’ actors make policy as they deliver. Policy outcomes appear to ‘emerge’ locally despite central government attempts to control their fate.
  • Limited policy change. Most policy change is minor, made and influenced by actors who interpret new evidence through the lens of their beliefs. Well-established beliefs limit the opportunities of new solutions. Governments tend to rely on trial-and-error, based on previous agreements, rather than radical policy change based on a new agenda. New solutions succeed only during brief and infrequent windows of opportunity.

However, the cycle metaphor endures because:

  • It provides a simple model of policymaking with stages that map onto important policymaking functions.
  • It provides a way to project policymaking to the public. You know how we make policy, and that we are in charge, so you know who to hold to account.

In that context, we may want to be pragmatic about our advice:

  1. One option is via complexity theory, in which scholars generally encourage policymakers to accept and describe their limits:
  • Accept routine error, reduce short-term performance management, engage more in trial and error, and ‘let go’ to allow local actors the flexibility to adapt and respond to their context.
  • However, would a government in the Westminster tradition really embrace this advice? No. They need to balance (a) pragmatic policymaking, and (b) an image of governing competence.
  1. Another option is to try to help improve an existing approach.

Further reading (blog posts):

The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

Making Sense of Policymaking: why it’s always someone else’s fault and nothing ever changes

Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government

Example 2: how to deal with a lack of ‘evidence based policymaking’

I used to read many papers on tobacco policy, with the same basic message: we have the evidence of tobacco harm, and evidence of which solutions work, but there is an evidence-policy gap caused by too-powerful tobacco companies, low political will, and pathological policymaking. These accounts are not informed by theories of policymaking.

I then read Oliver et al’s paper on the lack of policy theory in health/ environmental scholarship on the ‘barriers’ to the use of evidence in policy. Very few articles rely on policy concepts, and most of the few rely on the policy cycle. This lack of policy theory is clear in their description of possible solutions – better communication, networking, timing, and more science literacy in government – which does not describe well the need to respond to policymaker psychology and a complex policymaking environment.

So, I wrote The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking and one zillion blog posts to help identify the ways in which policy theories could help explain the relationship between evidence and policy.

Since then, the highest demand to speak about the book has come from government/ public servant, NGO, and scientific audiences outside my discipline. The feedback is generally that: (a) the book’s description sums up their experience of engagement with the policy process, and (b) maybe it opens up discussion about how to engage more effectively.

But how exactly do we turn empirical descriptions of policymaking into practical advice?

For example, scientist/ researcher audiences want to know the answer to a question like: Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? and so I focus on three conversation starters:

  1. they have a broader view on what counts as good evidence (see ANZSOG description)
  2. they have to ignore almost all information (a nice way into bounded rationality and policymaker psychology)
  3. they do not understand or control the process in which they seek to use evidence (a way into ‘the policy process’)

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

We can then consider many possible responses in the sequel What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

Examples include:

  • ‘How to do it’ advice. I compare tips for individuals (from experienced practitioners) with tips based on policy concepts. They are quite similar-looking tips – e.g. find out where the action is, learn the rules, tell good stories, engage allies, seek windows of opportunity – but I describe mine as 5 impossible tasks!
  • Organisational reform. I describe work with the European Commission Joint Research Centre to identify 8 skills or functions of an organisation bringing together the supply/demand of knowledge.
  • Ethical dilemmas. I use key policy theories to ask people how far they want to go to privilege evidence in policy. It’s fun to talk about these things with the type of scientist who sees any form of storytelling as manipulation.

Further reading:

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

A 5-step strategy to make evidence count

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

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions

Example 3: how to encourage realistic evidence-informed policy transfer

This focus on EBPM is useful context for discussions of ‘policy learning’ and ‘policy transfer’, and it was the focus of my ANZOG talk entitled (rather ambitiously) ‘teaching evidence-based policy to fly’.

I’ve taken a personal interest in this one because I’m part of a project – called IMAJINE – in which we have to combine academic theory and practical responses. We are trying to share policy solutions across Europe rather than explain why few people share them!

For me, the context is potentially overwhelming:

So, when we start to focus on sharing lessons, we will have three things to discover:

  1. What is the evidence for success, and from where does it come? Governments often project success without backing it up.
  2. What story do policymakers tell about the problem they are trying to solve, the solutions they produced, and why? Two different governments may be framing and trying to solve the same problem in very different ways.
  3. Was the policy introduced in a comparable policymaking system? People tend to focus on political system comparability (e.g. is it unitary or federal?), but I think the key is in policymaking system comparability (e.g. what are the rules and dominant ideas?).

To be honest, when one of our external assessors asked me how well I thought I would do, we both smiled because the answer may be ‘not very’. In other words, the most practical lesson may be the hardest to take, although I find it comforting: the literature suggests that policymakers might ignore you for 20 years then suddenly become very (but briefly) interested in your work.

 

The slides are a bit wonky because I combined my old ppt to the Scottish Government with a new one for UNSW Paul Cairney ANU Policy practical 22 October 2018

I wanted to compare how I describe things to (1) civil servants (2) practitioners/ researcher (3) me, but who has the time/ desire to listen to 3 powerpoints in one go? If the answer is you, let me know and we’ll set up a Zoom call.

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The global study of governance and public policy

Cairney GPP Iran

I was invited by Dr Emamian from the Governance and Policy Think Tank to deliver this short lecture at the first ‘governance and public policy conference’ in Iran. I was unable to attend, so recorded a set of short video presentations supplemented by blog discussion. The topics to be covered include the importance of a scholarly network for policy studies, the need for a set of core policy concepts to act as a technical language for that network, and the need to apply that language to explain shifts in government and regulation towards ‘regulatory governance’.

Please note that my choice to record the videos in my garden (while I look up) seemed good at the time, for some very good reasons that I won’t get into. However, you will see that I become increasingly cold and annoyed at being cold. I can only apologize for my face and the fact that I was too cold to remember to put on my professional voice.

Using shared concepts in a scholarly network of policy researchers

Our aim may be to produce a global network of policy scholars, in two main ways:

  1. To foster meetings and discussion, such as via this conference and others such as the ICPP and ECPR
  2. To make sure that we are talking about the same thing. Most of the theories to which I refer are based on studies of countries like the US and UK. Their prominence contributes to a ‘global north’ perspective which can be useful in the abstract but with uncertain applicability across the globe.

For example, when considering the applicability of US-inspired theories, think about their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of a political system, in which leaders in many levels and types of government are elected regularly, there is a constitution guaranteeing a division of powers across legislative-executive-judicial branches and between federal/subnational levels, and people describe a ‘pluralist’ system in which many groups mobilise and counter-mobilise to influence policy.

What happens when we stop taking this political context for granted? Do these theories remain as relevant?

Which concepts do we use?

I describe two main abstract concepts then invite you to think about how to apply them in more concrete circumstances.

  1. Bounded rationality, not comprehensive rationality.

No-one can understand fully the world in which we live. Individuals can only understand and pay attention to a tiny part of key aspects of the world such as political systems.

Indeed, a handy phrase to remember is that almost all people must ignore almost everything almost all of the time.

Yet, they must make choices despite uncertainty, perhaps by adopting ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. In other words, we may see all human choices as flawed when compared with an ideal of perfect decision-making. On the other hand, we may marvel at the ways in which humans make often-good choices despite their limitations.

Individual policymakers use two short-cuts to gather enough information to make choices:

  • ‘Rational’, in which they adopt measures to ensure that they have good enough information to inform decisions. For example, they prioritise certain written sources of information and draw on people they consider to be experts.
  • ‘Irrational’, in which they rely on things like gut instinct, habit, and emotion to make snap decisions.

In that context, policy scholarship involves the study of how people make and influence those choices. One part is about the role of evidence, in which people produce information to reduce uncertainty about the nature of the world. However, the more important study is of how people understand the world in the first place. As policy scholars, we focus on ambiguity, to describe the many ways in which people choose to understand the same problems, and the exercise of power to influence those choices.

  1. A complex policymaking environment, not a policy cycle.

Things get more complicated when we move from the analysis of (a) key individuals to (b) the interaction between many individuals and organisations in a complex policymaking ‘system’ or ‘environment’. Policy scholars describe this environment in many different ways, using different concepts, but we can identify a core set of terms on which to focus:

  • Actors. There are many policy influencers and policymakers in many authoritative venues spread across many levels and types of government.
  • Institutions. Each venue has its own rules, including the formal, written-down, and easy to understand rules, versus the informal norms, cultures, and practices which are difficult to identify and describe.
  • Networks. Policymakers and influencers form relationships based on factors such as trust, authority, and the exchange of resources such as information and support.
  • Ideas. People communicate their beliefs, about policy problems and potential solutions, within a wider understanding of the world (often described as a paradigm or hegemony). Some of that understanding is taken-for-granted and not described, and people limit their analysis and argument according to the ways in which they think other people see the world.
  • Socioeconomic context and events. Policymakers often have to respond to policy conditions and events over which they have limited control, such geographic, demographic, and economic factors. These factors help produce non-routine ‘events’ alongside more predictable events such as elections (or other means to ensure a change of government).

In that context, policy scholarship focuses on producing theories to explain what happens when policymakers have limited control over their political systems and policymaking environments.

How far do these concepts travel?

As you can see, these concepts are widely applicable because they are abstract. What happens when we try to apply them to specific countries or case studies? For example:

  1. We talk about policymakers using cognitive, moral, and emotional shortcuts, but those shortcuts can vary profoundly across the globe.
  2. Each political system has a different collection of authoritative venues, formal and informal rules of politics, networks of power, ways to describe how the world works and should work, and socioeconomic context.

This is where our global network becomes valuable, to help us describe how we make sense of the same concepts in very different ways, and consider the extent to which such discussions are comparable.

Example: how do governments address an ‘era of governance’?

One way to foster such discussion is to consider how governments address the limits to their powers. These limits are described in many different ways, from a focus on ‘complexity’ and policy outcomes which ‘emerge’ from local activity (despite attempts by central governments to control outcomes), to a focus on the shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’.

As policy scholars, we can make several useful distinctions to describe these dynamics, such as to separate an actual shift in policymaking from government to governance, versus a shift in the way we now describe government.

Or, we can separate how governments can, do, and should address the limits to their powers.

I’d say that most policy scholarship focuses on how governments operate: how they actually address problems and what are the – intended and unintended – consequences.

However, these studies are trying to describe the tensions between what governments can do, given the limits I describe, and what they think they should do, given their position of authority and their need to describe their success.

For example, some systems may be more conducive to the support for ‘polycentric governance’, in which many authoritative venues cooperate to address problems, while others are built on the idea of central control and the concentration of authority in a small group of actors.

Therefore, the study of actual policymaking and outcomes will vary markedly according to the ways in which government actors feel they need to assert an image of control over a policy environment which is almost immune to control.

Perhaps an ‘era of governance’ describes some recognition by many governments that they need to find new ways to address their limited control over policy outcomes, both domestically and globally. However, an enduring theme in political science and policy studies is that we do not explain policymaking well if we restrict our attention to the ‘rational’ decisions of a small number of actors. Let’s not make too many assumptions about their power and motive.

Further reading:

The New Policy Sciences

How to Communicate Effectively with Policymakers

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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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.

 

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Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.

  • How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
  • How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
  • How do we persuade other people to act on that information?

To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.

Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.

We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.

As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!

Remember King Canute (Cnut)

King Canute

Source

If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:

  1. We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
  2. Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
  3. Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?

The two stories

This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.

One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:

  1. Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
  2. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Another is about the profound limits to the WM:

  1. No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
  2. If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.

What is the moral of these stories?

For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.

For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).

Who would buy that story though? We need someone to blame!

Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:

There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.

There is UKspecific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.

How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?

Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:

  • Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
  • Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
  • Referring to CG and wondering if it makes sense to blame anyone in particular. It’s the whole damn system! Government is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.

For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?

The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:

  • They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
  • They often deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by making quick emotional and moral choices about ‘target populations’ before thinking through the consequences
  • In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
  • In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
  • Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
  • They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.

We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?

Illustrative example: (1) troubled families

I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:

  • It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
  • It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
  • But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
  • We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
  • So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.

Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention

If you are still interested by this stage, look at this issue in its broader context, of the desire of governments to intervene early in the lives of (say) families to prevent bad things happening. With Emily St Denny, I ask why governments seem to make a sincere commitment to this task but fall far shorter than they expected. The key passage is here:

“Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems (Rittell and Webber, 1973) which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution”.

Group exercise.

Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:

  • Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
  • Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
  • Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?

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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.

 

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Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government?

Two recent news features sum up the role of emotion and ‘chaos’ in policymaking.

The first is ‘Irritation and anger’ may lead to Brexit, says influential psychologist in The Telegraph. The headline suggests that people may vote Leave for emotional reasons, rather than with reference to a more ‘rational’ process in which people identify the best evidence and use it to weight up the short and long term consequences of action.

Yet, the article confirms that we’re all at it! To be human is to use emotional, gut-level, and habitual thinking to turn a complex world, with too much information, into a good enough decision in a necessary short amount of time.

In debate, evidence is mentioned a lot, but only to praise the evidence backing my decision and rejecting yours. Or, you only trust the evidence from people you trust. If you trust the evidence from certain scientists, you stress their scientific credentials. If not, you find some from other experts. Or, if all else is lost, you reject experts as condescending elites with a hidden agenda. Or, you say simply that they can’t be that clever if they agree with smarmy Cameron/ Johnson.

Lesson 1: you can see these emotional and manipulative approaches to policymaking play out in the EU referendum. Don’t assume that policymaking behind closed doors, on other issues, is any different.

The second feature is Lost in Transit: chaos in government research in The Economist.

It describes a Sense about Science report which (a) was commissioned ‘following a spate of media stories about government research being suppressed or delayed’, and (b) finds that ‘The UK government spends around £2.5 billion a year on research for policy, but does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them have been published’.

The Economist reports the perhaps-unexpected result of the inquiry:

But the main gripe is the sheer disorganisation of it all. The report’s afterword states that “Sir Stephen looked for suppression and found chaos”.

Such accounts reflect the two contradictory stories that we often tell about government. The first relates to the Westminster model of democratic accountability which helps concentrate power at the centre of government: if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame.

The second, regarding complex government, describes a complicated world of public policy in which no-one seems to be in control. For example, we make reference to: the huge size and reach of government; the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making; the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy; the multi-level nature of policymaking; and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.

The problem with the first story is that (a) although it is easy to tell during elections and inquiries, (b) you always struggle to find it when you actually study government.

The problem with the second is that, (a) although it seems realistic when you study government, (b) few people will buy it when they are seeking to hold ministers and governments to account. This problem may be exacerbated by the terms of reference of reports: few will accept a pragmatic response, based on the second story of complexity, if you start out by using the first story of central control to say that you will track down and solve the problem!

Lesson 2: if you assume central control you will find chaos (and struggle to produce feasible recommendations to deal with it). The manipulation of evidence takes place in a complex policymaking system over which no individual or ‘core executive’ has control. Indeed, no single person or organisation could even pay attention to all that goes on within government. This insight requires pragmatic inquiries and solutions, not the continuous reassertion of central control and discovery of ‘chaos’.

It might be possible to develop a third lesson if we put these two together. One part of the EU debate reflects our inability to understand EU policymaking and relate it to the relatively clear processes in the UK, in which you know who is in charge and therefore who to blame. The EU seems less democratic because it is so complex and remote. Yet, if we follow this other story about complexity in the UK, we often find that UK politics is also difficult to follow. Its image does not describe reality.

Lesson 3: when you find policymaking complexity in the EU, don’t assume it is any better in the UK! Instead, try to compare like with like.

See also

I expand on both lessons in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking

Cock-up, not conspiracy, conceals evidence for policy

Government buries its own research – and that’s bad for democracy

The rationality paradox of Nudge: rational tools of government in a world of bounded rationality

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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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12 things to know about studying public policy

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

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

Think of policy theory as an antidote to our fixation on elections, as a focus on what happens in between. We often point out that elections can produce a change in the governing party without prompting major changes in policy and policymaking, partly because most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from elected policymakers. Elections matter but, in policy studies, they do not represent the centre of the universe.

2. Public policy is difficult to define.

Imagine a simple definition: ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’. Then consider these questions. Does policy include what policymakers say they will do (e.g. in manifestos) as well as what they actually do? Does it include the policy outcome if it does not match the original aim? What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Does public policy include what policymakers decide to not do? Is it still ‘public policy’ when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name?

3. Policy change is difficult to see and measure.

Usually we know that something has changed because the government has passed legislation, but policy is so much more: spending, economic penalties or incentives (taxes and subsidies), social security payments and sanctions, formal and informal regulations, public education, organisations and staffing, and so on. So, we need to sum up this mix of policies, asking: is there an overall and coherent aim, or a jumble of policy instruments? Can we agree on the motives of policymakers when making these policies? Does policy impact seem different when viewed from the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’? Does our conclusion change when we change statistical measures?

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

We know that policy evaluation is political because left/right wing political parties and commentators argue as much about a government’s success as its choices. Yet, it cannot be solved by scientists identifying objective or technical measures of success, because there is political choice in the measures we use and much debate about the best measures. Measurement also involves (frequently) a highly imperfect proxy, such as by using waiting times to measure the effectiveness of a health service. We should also note the importance of perspective: should we measure success in terms of the aims of elected policymakers, the organisations carrying out policy, or the people who are most affected? What if many policymakers were involved, or their aims were not clear? What if their aim was to remain popular, or have an easy time in the legislature, not to improve people’s lives? What if it improved the lives of some, but hurt others?

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

Imagine this simple advice to policymakers: identify your aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is ‘legitimised’ by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement, and then evaluate the policy. If only life were so simple. Instead, think of policymaking as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes. Then note that it is often impossible in practice to know when one stage begins and another ends. Finally, imagine that the order of stages is completely messed up, such as when we have a solution long before a problem arises.

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

A classic reference point is the ‘ideal-type’ of comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality which helps elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility. In the real world, we identify ‘bounded rationality’, challenge all of the assumptions of comprehensive rationality, and wonder what happens next. The classic debate focused on the links between bounded rationality and incrementalism. Our current focus is on ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ responses to the need to make decisions quickly without comprehensive information: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable; but also making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.

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

Most policy theories use the word ‘actor’ simply to describe the ability of people and organisations to deliberate and act to make choices. Many talk about the large number of actors involved in policymaking, at each level and across many levels of policymaking. Some discuss a shift, in many countries since the early post-war period, from centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors

8. We talk of institutions, but not buildings.

In political science, ‘institution’ refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour.  Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions. Others are less visible, such as the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’. So, for example, ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracies could have very different formal rules but operate in very similar ways in practice. These rules develop in different ways in many parts of government, prompting us to consider what happens when many different actors develop different expectations of politics and policymaking.  For example, it might help explain a gap between policies made in one organisation and implemented by another. It might cause government policy to be contradictory, when many different organisations produce their own policies without coordinating with others. Or, governments may contribute to a convoluted statute book by adding to laws and regulations without thinking how they all fit together.

9. We have 100 ways to describe policy networks.

Put simply, ‘policy network’ describes the relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the actors who seek to influence them. It can also describe a notional venue – a ‘subsystem’ – in which this interaction takes place. Although the network concept is crucial to most policy theories, it can be described using very different concepts,and with reference to different political systems. For example, in the UK, we might describe networks as a consequence of bounded rationality: elected policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places

10. We struggle to separate power from ideas.

Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas (or shared beliefs). These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. Classic power debates inform current discussions of ‘agenda setting’ and ‘framing’. Debates began with the idea that we could identify the powerful by examining ‘key political choices’: the powerful would win and benefit from the outcomes at the expense of other actors. The debate developed into discussions of major barriers to the ‘key choices’ stage: actors may exercise power to persuade/ reinforce the popular belief that the government should not get involved, or to keep an issue off a government agenda by drawing attention to other issues. This ability to persuade depends on the resources of actors, but also the beliefs of the actors they seek to influence.

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

Context’ describes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a country’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and social attitudes. This wider context is in addition to the ‘institutional’ context, when governments inherit the laws and organisations of their predecessors. Important ‘game changing’ events can be routine, such as when elections produce new governments with new ideas, or unanticipated, such as when crises or major technological changes prompt policymakers to reconsider existing policies. In each case, we should consider the extent to which policymaking is in the control of policymakers. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – think for example of a ‘demographic timebomb’ – but governments show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important. This question of policymaker control is also explored in discussions of ‘complexity theory’, which highlights the unpredictability of policymaking, limited central government control, and a tendency for policy outcomes to ‘emerge’ from activity at local levels.

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

For example, policymakers often recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on. Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame. Or, for example, we might use policy theory to inform current discussions of evidence-based policymaking, saying to scientists that they will only be influential if they go beyond the evidence to make manipulative emotional appeals.

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

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

You can also download the video here or stream:

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

 

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

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

I’m sure that policy theory, based on political science, improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking (EBPM), particularly when compared to atheoretical accounts in disciplines such as health and environmental sciences. Below, I present two key messages: respond to ambiguity as much as uncertainty, and focus on complexity, not linearity.

I’m less sure that I can offer more realistic advice about how people with full time jobs outside of lobbying can engage in policymaking.

So, in this post, I outline some broad implications, but note that my advice has major behavioural, ethical, and resource implications that may not always be feasible or attractive to scientists engaged primarily in science.

I can now tell a good story about the limits to EBPM studies when they are based primarily on the perspectives of health and environmental scientists. First, I provide a caricature of some scientists who express high frustration with politicians:

‘We know what the evidence is, so why won’t they do anything about it?’

‘Why do they only select the ‘evidence’ that suits their personal agendas?’

‘Evidence-based policy? More like policy-based evidence, am I right guys?’.

Second, I point to the problems with their proposed solutions:

  • A focus on the better supply of evidence only helps reduce uncertainty, not ambiguity. You won’t persuade policymakers to act just by providing more evidence or reducing a 100000 word report to 1000 words.
  • Instead of complaining about cynical or unscientific policymakers, recognise how unrealistic it is to expect one magic moment in which the policymaker in charge ‘gets it’ then sets in motion a radically new policy direction. Such hopes are based on the idea of a ‘linear’ policy process with well-ordered stages of decision making.

In short, policy theory helps improve such discussions by identifying important ways to think about policy, trying to clarify how policymakers think, and providing evidence of the ways in which policy processes work, rather than how we would like them to work (in some cases, with reference to ‘evidence based medicine’). This is the first step towards better advice on how to adapt to and seek to influence that process with evidence.

It’s harder to tell a good story about what you do with these new insights, particularly when we consider the implications on the scientific profession.

Let’s start with two key recommendations based on insights from policy studies:

  1. Focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty

Policymakers use two short cuts to turn infinite information into a manageable decision

  • ‘rational’: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable.
  • ‘irrational’: making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.

So, a strategy to reduce scientific uncertainty by producing more, and more accessible, evidence only addresses one short cut. Further, it may often be ineffective, because policymakers are more likely to accept ‘evidence’ from a wider range of sources. We know that not everyone reads, understands, prioritises, or appreciates the beauty of, a well-crafted peer-reviewed academic journal article. So, it is sensible to seek new ways to present information, using shorter reports and employing ‘knowledge brokers’, but also to recognise the limits to such processes when policymaking remains so competitive and policymakers draw on knowledge that they (not you) trust.

Policy advocates also need solutions based on ambiguity, to reflect a tendency for policymakers to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Many policy theories can be adapted to give advice on that basis:

  • combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention (punctuated equilibrium)
  • tell stories which manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (narrative policy framework)
  • produce ‘feasible’ policy solutions and exploit a time when policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it (multiple streams)
  • interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (advocacy coalition framework).
  1. Focus on complexity, not linearity

Too many studies in (for example) health sciences portray policymaking with reference to a simple cycle with well-ordered stages and a single event in which ‘the evidence’ informs a game-changing decision made by an easily identifiable person in authority. In contrast, policy studies identify messier policymaking which takes place in a volatile policy environment, exhibiting:

  1. a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  2. a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  3. close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and influential actors
  4. a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  5. shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

This bigger picture shifts our analysis and gives us more realistic ways in which to adapt, to work out: where the action is; which actors are making the most important decisions; the rules of engagement with those actors; the best way to present an argument tailored to their specific beliefs; the language they use to establish criteria for feasible policies; how to identify and work with powerful allies with privileged access to policymakers; and, how to use crises or vivid events to prompt lurches of policymaker attention.

There are three main problems with such advice

  1. Manipulation is a dirty word

Options A and B require you to be manipulative. I don’t really mean ‘Machiavellian’, but rather be prepared to propose simple messages, designed to influence debate, by expressing greater scientific certainty than you may be comfortable with and/ or with reference to emotionally-charged discussions that have little to do with your evidence.

It is customary for scientists to express uncertainty and a desire not to go ahead of the evidence. Yet, you are competing with people who do not have such sensibilities. They don’t play by your rules, and many will not even know that such rules exist. Further, they will win even though they are less knowledgeable than you. While you go back to produce and check ‘the evidence’, they will recognise that you need to make an impact now, with what you have, while the issue is salient and policymakers feel they have to act despite high uncertainty.

On the other hand, if you become an advocate, you may lose a key resource: some people think that you are an objective scientist, devoted to the truth. It is a legitimate strategy to choose to remain aloof from policymaking, to maintain your personal image and that of your profession. Fair enough, if you recognise that it is a choice with likely consequences.

It was a choice faced by advocates of tobacco control, many of whom felt that they had to go beyond the evidence to compete with powerful tobacco companies. It is a choice faced by organisations such as Public Health England, faced with their belief that too-many people think cigarettes and e-cigarettes are equally harmful, and the need to choose between saying ‘more evidence is needed’ (taking themselves out of the debate, and perhaps reinforcing the effects of poor public knowledge) or that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful (to influence behaviour while they gather more evidence). It is also a choice faced by food scientists competing to influence policy on GM food with (a) certain companies protecting their business, and (b) groups warning about Frankenstein foods.

2. It seems like a full time job

Options C and D require you to engage in policy advocacy for years, if not decades, to build up enough knowledge of the people involved (who is worth knowing? Who are your allies? What arguments work with certain people?) and know when to push a policy solution. There is not a clear professional incentive to engage in such activity. University incentives are changing, in countries such as the UK, but I’d still hesitate to advise a younger colleague to go for ‘impact’ instead of publishing another article in a prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal.

3. Policymakers don’t always act according to this advice

Policymakers will recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of policy theories such as complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on.

Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame.

Policymakers often maintain two faces simultaneously: the public face, to compete in elections and assert an image of control, and the less public face, to negotiate with many actors and make pragmatic choices. So, for example, there is high potential for them to produce ‘good politics, bad policy’ decisions, and you should not automatically admonish them whenever they reject the choice to produce ‘bad politics, good policy’. You’ll likely just piss them off and make them more reluctant to take your advice next time.

All three concerns produce a major dilemma about how to engage

Imagine a reaction to this well-meaning advice: you need to simplify evidence, and manipulate people or debates, when you engage in high level salient debates, while knowing that the big decisions take place elsewhere; you will have to influence different people with different arguments further down the line; it might take you years to work out who best to influence; and, by then, it might be too late.

Suddenly, the original advice – produce short reports, employ knowledge brokers, engage in academic-practitioner workshops – seems pretty attractive.

So, it may take more time to produce feasible advice based on the implications of policy theory. In the meantime, at least this discussion should help us clarify why there is a gap between scientific evidence and policymaking, and prompt some pragmatic advice: do it right or don’t do it at all; if you engage half-heartedly in the policy process, expect little reward; and, policy influence requires an investment that many scientists may be unwilling or unable to fund (and many investments will not pay off).

See also:

This post is one of many on EBPM. The full list is here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/

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How does ‘complexity thinking’ improve our understanding of politics and policymaking?

Presentation to ‘A jurisprudence of complexity? Rethinking the relationship between law and society’, University of Lancaster, 25th September 2015

It is customary to describe complexity theory as new, exciting, and interdisciplinary. Its advocates suggest that it offers a new way of seeing the world, a scientific paradigm to replace ‘reductionism’, a way for many academic disciplines to use the same language to explain key processes, and the potential for an impressively broad and rich empirical base. Robert Geyer and I explore these themes in the introduction and conclusion to our edited Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy.

In this short discussion, I present a more critical discussion of these high expectations, examining how they translate into something new for political and policy science, and asking: what does complexity theory offer policy studies? I suggest that its focus on greater interdisciplinarity is potentially misleading, that its theoretical appeal may be more about conceptual consolidation than novelty, and that it may take some time to demonstrate its empirical value in relation to more established theories. We can use this discussion to draw parallels between the study of policy and legal processes.

Interdisciplinarity: a language that spreads across disciplines?

Complexity theory can be sold as a way to encourage interdisciplinarity: if we all have the same theoretical outlook, use the same language, and perhaps even use the same research methods, we can combine disciplinary approaches to tackle major social and environmental problems. Yet, there are three obstacles worth discussing:

First, it is possible that we can only maintain a similar language if it is highly abstract or superficially similar. The danger is that the same words mean different things in each discipline, and that we may not always appreciate major differences in reference points. I often get this impression when speaking with natural scientists about complexity ideas in physics and biology. In some cases, we have found interesting differences in language that are easily resolved – such as that ‘first’ order change means almost no change in policy studies (with reference to Hall) but major change in physics (akin to Hall’s 3rd order, Kuhnian change) – and others that are more difficult to overcome, such as the meaning of ‘chaos’ and the role of deterministic arguments (which seem more useful to explain natural rather than social systems).

In complexity, a key difference may be in the discussion of ‘emergence’ in the absence of a central brain or central control. In cell biology we can witness completely local interaction without a centre. In politics, there is a centre – central government – and our focus is on emergence despite its role. These are different processes which require different explanation.

Second, at least for me, complexity theory makes most sense when grounded in a well-established literature. As I discuss below, its value to policy studies may be to consolidate a range of concepts rather than provide a completely new way of thinking. The drawback is that, if this process is also necessary in each discipline, the necessity to make specific sense of complexity in each discipline undermines a general understanding: it takes time and training to become sufficiently aware of the relevant literature in each discipline; and, the translation involves using well-established concepts in one discipline that mean little in another.

Third, there are major differences of approach and understanding even within single disciplines. For example, when I wrote a policy focused piece on complexity in 2012, each reviewer noted the profound absence of discussion of particular individuals (such as Prigogine) or schools (such as Santa Fe or Brussels) without noting the same absences. Put me in a room with 5 other political scientists, interested in complexity, and I’m not sure how long it would take us to agree our terms.

A new way of looking at the world?

A lot of complexity’s claims to novelty come from a sense that complexity theory is ‘anti-reductionist’. In some subjects, it marks a major challenge to the old ways of doing science, in which, for example, we establish general laws or study individual parts of larger systems.

In the social sciences, there have been decades-long debates about the use of systems to explain social and political behaviour, and a greater sense of anti-reductionism – and ‘post-positivism’ – for some time. There may be examples in political science in which scholars identify simple regularities or trends in behaviour, but also a tradition of case study analysis to generate rich descriptions of specific decisions and events. It may therefore be more difficult to establish the sense that complexity is a new way of thinking, rather than simply the right way to think.

A newISH way of looking at the world?

Perhaps a more important ‘new’ way of seeing the world comes from complexity theory’s ability to bring together many strands of the political science literature into one framework, with reference to four main components of complex systems and their relevance to, for example, the limits to central government control.

Negative and positive feedback

First, ‘negative and positive feedback’ describes the suggestion that, in complex systems, some inputs of energy are dampened while others are amplified. Thus, small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects. This process can be linked to Jones and Baumgartner’s work on information processing. The cognitive ability of policymakers, and their ability to gather information, is limited. They can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible. They have to ignore most and promote a few to the top of their agenda. They receive the same amount of information over time, ignoring most for long periods (negative feedback) and paying disproportionate attention to some (positive feedback). Consequently, the controlling capacity of the centre is limited to the small number of issues to which policymakers pay particular attention or energetically seek to solve.

Strange attractors: regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change

Second, positive and negative feedback extends to other parts of the system. For example, the instructions of central governments may be dampened or amplified by actors responsible for policy delivery. Much depends on the patterns of attention paid by policymakers at the ‘centre’. In theory, they could pay attention to, and influence, any part of the system. However, to do so, they have to ignore most other parts. Consequently, all rules that develop in institutions or policy networks could be challenged at any time, but most tend not to be. In this sense, ‘strange attractors’ describes the tendency for regular patterns of policymaking behaviour to persist in most cases despite the ever-present potential for policy instability (again, this is a feature of Baumgartner and Jones’ work).

Sensitivity to initial conditions and ‘path dependence’

Third, ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ describes the tendency for events and decisions made in the distant past to contribute to the formation of institutions that influence current practices. When a commitment to a policy is established it produces ‘increasing returns’ over time: as people adapt to, and build ‘institutions’ around, the initial decision, it becomes increasingly costly to choose a different path. Initial choices are reinforced when the rules governing systemic behaviour become established and difficult to change. As a result the bulk of policy is repetitive: most policy decisions are based on legislation that already exists, most public expenditure is devoted to activities that continue by routine, and policy implementation continues long after policymakers have lost interest. ‘Critical juncture’ begins to describe the infrequent and often dramatic series of events or decisions that challenge such routines.

‘Emergence’ from the interaction between elements at a local level

The idea of ‘emergence’, in policy studies, can relate to attempts by central governments to control the system (or, in some cases, encourage ‘localism’). Emergence refers to behaviour which results from local interaction, based on locally define rules, with an emphasis on the extent to which local behaviour takes place despite central government policies or rules.

This concept resonates with the well-established literature on policy implementation and governance. For example, Lipsky frames local behaviour in terms of the limits to which actors can meet central demands, and the extent to which they draw on their own judgement and professional training when interacting with service users. Local actors face so many targets, rules and laws that no public agency or official can be expected to fulfil them all. In fact, many may be too vague or even contradictory, requiring ‘street level bureaucrats’ to choose some over others. Or, central governments may introduce performance measures which limit the discretion of delivery organizations but relate to a small part of government business.

The theme of emergence has also been a key feature of modern accounts of ‘governance’. They examine how governments have sought to respond to limited central control, particularly during the peak of New Public Management (NPM) which describes the application of private business methods to government (including attempts to secure order through hierarchical management structures and targets for public bodies to meet). They often note that central governments struggle to maintain order and, in many cases, have exacerbated their limited control by introducing a wide range of new public service delivery functions which rely on public bodies and organisations in the third and private sectors for their success.

Newish normative advice for policymakers

The same point about newishness can be said for complexity theory’s practical or normative advice: it is justified in a new (and often convincing) way, but the advice itself is not new. Complexity theory’s focus on the lack of central government control on local behaviour and policy outcomes can be linked closely to the need to be pragmatic in government, to act with a sense of realism regarding what policymakers can achieve.

If policymakers deny their reliance on other actors to help them understand and adapt to their policy-making environment, they are doomed to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. Instead, central government policymakers should embrace interdependence, to pursue more pragmatic solutions based on increasing the freedom of local actors to learn and adapt to environmental signals, such as the responses they get from service users. To address the ever-presence of uncertainty, they should make greater use of trial and error policy making. To address the inevitable gap between policymakers’ aims and policy outcomes, they should change their expectations and the way they think about policy success and evaluation.

These are the kinds of recommendations provide by Lindlom 55 years ago (when policymakers were men):

Making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists, nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes.

Such advice may be used by policymakers in parts of the UK and Scottish Governments, although without reference to the intricacies of complexity theory.

What is its original empirical base?

A large part of our handbook is devoted to chapters which outline new ways of thinking in a range of disciplines, or discuss the benefits of particular methods such as agent based modelling. Some chapters discuss empirical case studies, but without giving us the ability to combine their insights to help produce accumulated knowledge (at least in a straightforward way). For people seeking a payoff in terms of a bank of empirical case studies, complexity theory may seem like a source of as-yet-untapped potential. It is reasonable for scholars to wonder if we will ever get beyond a focus on new thinking and methods, towards a series of studies which can be linked to each other in a meaningful way.

The rise of systematic reviews of the literature perhaps magnify this problem, either because (a) there is now some evidence of accumulated knowledge in more established theories, or (b) the reviews show how difficult it is to accumulate knowledge when empirical studies make only vague reference to a common theory and struggle to ‘operationalise’ key concepts in a way that can be compared meaningfully to other studies (examples include multiple streams analysis – Jones et al, and Cairney and Jonessocial construction theory, and the advocacy coalition framework).

Conclusion: what is complexity theory useful for?

And yet we persist with complexity theory perhaps because, if we rejected theories on the basis of the concerns I raise, we would have no theories left.

More positively, for me, it offers a way of thinking about, organising, and explaining empirical studies. For example, Emily St Denny and I are working on a book/ papers in which we use the language of complexity to explore the interaction between new policy solutions/ ideas and the old ways of doing things in policymaking systems. Although it is not easy to compare our results with others, it is valuable to use a complexity framework to provide detailed understanding of cases, and to use multiple viewpoints – zooming in to examine the perception of actors, or zooming out to observe systems and their environments – to understand the same processes.

Instead of leading to the rejection of complexity theory, these concerns prompt us to explore common topics with people in other disciplines carefully, and perhaps to reduce the claims we make about theoretical and empirical novelty while we do so. For example, the way Robert and I describe Thomas Webb’s chapter ties it closely to the themes in politics and policymaking that I discussed:

‘He draws on complexity terms, such as emergence and contingency, to argue that the legal process cannot be boiled down to a set of simple laws and rules to be implemented by government bodies such as the courts. Rather, people interpret rules and interact with each other to produce outcomes that are difficult to predict with reference to the statute book’.

Complexity also helps us think about practical problems, such as our ability to be pragmatic (and, as Robert would say, ‘humble’) or somehow manage or influence emergent behaviour (this is an immediate concern in some discussions, such as discussed by Tara Fenwick in relation to education and the classroom).

In politics, perhaps the biggest practical question relates to traditional notions of democratic accountability: how can governments let go of order and claim to be in control enough to take responsibility for their actions? Perhaps in politics and law, we may start to wonder if the law is actually made by legislators, or in practice, and how we should respond. Complexity theory doesn’t answer the question – and the literature sometimes seems to provide contradictory advice – but it gives us a useful language in which to discuss it.

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How to present policy analysis to many audiences #POLU9SP

This is the only week in which I will encourage you to find advice on policy analysis by using a search engine like Google. However, you need to do it with a critical eye. You will find two kinds of advice, only one of which is useful in a straightforward way:

  1. Most of the advice will tell you to be concise, to keep it short for a busy audience, readable, to minimise jargon, and up-to-date, to give the impression of comprehensive research. This advice is sound.
  2. Some will get you to organise the advice as if the policy process were ordered into a series of discrete stages, akin to a policy cycle. This advice can be problematic.

A key message of this course is that policy processes are more like complex systems than ordered cycles. Therefore, good policy analysis should reflect on policymaking as much as policy. There is no point in coming up with a well-researched analysis of a problem and a brilliant solution if, for example, you recommend it to someone without the willingness or ability to pay attention to it or use it.

We can reinforce this point with reference to the previous lecture’s focus on 5 key concepts common to policy theories:

  1. There are many actors involved in policymaking, at multiple levels. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that you can make a recommendation effectively by only speaking to one policymaker or organisation, or only seeing the problem through their eyes.
  2. Many ‘institutions’ have their own ‘standard operating procedures’ or rules which take time to understand and influence.
  3. Many policymakers or departments have a well-established or powerful clientele which you should take into account.
  4. Your analysis might be a quick response to major social change or a key event, not a process in which you have years to plan.
  5. Your analysis may be more persuasive if couched in a language that tends to dominate discussion or with reference to the entrenched beliefs of policymakers or key participants.

Or, we can make the point with reference to the implications of complexity theory, discussed in the last lecture:

  • In complex systems, it is unwise to expect ‘law-like behaviour’; a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Policymaking systems are difficult to control and analysts should be prepared for the possibility that their policy interventions do not have the desired effect. Governments may be learning that they cannot simply make a policy and expect successful implementation by using a top-down, centrally driven policy strategy.
  • Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must learn and adapt quickly.

Complexity, the Scottish approach, and policy analysis

The advice that tends to come from complexity studies is generally consistent with the ‘Scottish approach’ that we have begun to discuss: rely less on short term and rigid targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment; encourage trial-and-error projects that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly; and, set broad or realistic parameters for success and failure. However, policymakers are also under pressure to act to solve emerging problems and take responsibility for national strategies.

This context makes policy analysis tricky: you want to recognise the ways in which governments understand their policymaking task, and seek to operate for the long term, but also the pressures they are under to act quickly and take control.

Bardach’s 8 steps

One text which tries to combine policy analysis with a recognition of policymaking context is Eugene Bardach’s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis. His steps to policy analysis provide one (but not the only) way to structure your coursework in a way that combines empirical analysis and political awareness:

  1. ‘Define the problem’ involves the selective use of information (and eye-catching statistics), ideology, and persuasion, to help your problem compete with others.
  2. ‘Assemble some evidence’ involves ‘hustling’ relevant data in an efficient way.
  3. ‘Construct the alternatives’ involves generating politically feasible policy solutions.
  4. ‘Select the criteria’ involves recognising the political nature of policy evaluation, which is influenced by the measures you choose to determine success.
  5. ‘Project the outcomes’ involves predicting only relevant outcomes; the ones that key actors care about (such as cost savings or value for money).
  6. ‘Confront the trade-offs’ can involve working out how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs.
  7. ‘Decide’ involves looking at your case to see if it is persuasive.
  8. ‘Tell your story’ involves tailoring your case to the biases of your audience. A policy analysis is not for everyone. It is a case made to a specific audience, or several stories for different audiences.

Examples in Scotland

You should think about possible examples as soon as possible, and we can discuss your ideas in lectures this week and tutorials in week 3. Possible examples include:

  • Why and how would you introduce more class testing in compulsory education? In this case, you could identify the relevance of the Scottish system of education, the moves in the 1990s to reject testing, and the role and influence of education unions or the teaching profession, and weigh these factors against the need to be seen to be responding to things like a perceived decline in pupil attainment and major inequalities in attainment.
  • Can you make a case for private sector delivery in the Scottish NHS? The NHS was a key feature of the independence debate. Would it be feasible for any party to propose more private sector delivery? If only the Conservatives would try, how would you recommend they do it?
  • How would you structure your advice on fracking to the current SNP-led Scottish Government?

The coursework

It will be difficult for you to reflect on all of these factors in each piece of coursework, particularly since the blog needs to be eye-catching and the policy analysis needs to be short. However, you will have more space to explain your reasoning in the oral presentation and explore the politics of policymaking, and explain policy change, in the longer essay. This combination of exercises will, I hope, give you the chance to communicate similar information to different audiences, and reflect on how you do it.

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Key theories in policymaking: how to explain what is going on in Scotland #POLU9SP

This is quite a long read and I will likely spread the discussion over more than one lecture. In this post I provide the ‘universal’ concepts to consider, and we can discuss in the lecture how they apply specifically to Scottish policymaking.

In week 1, we discussed the concept of ‘bounded rationality’ and theories which explore its implications. What happens when policymakers do not have the ability to gather all relevant information and make policy in an orderly way? They focus on a small number of issues and ignore or delegate the rest, their attention lurches from issue to issue, they make quick and often emotional decisions, and they are susceptible to persuasion and simple stories which exploit their emotions and biases and reinforce their beliefs.

We then discussed the ‘universal’ and territorial aspects of such theories: all policymakers face these limitations, but a Scottish frame of reference influences the kinds of issues which receive most attention and the stories that gain most traction.

So far, our conceptual focus has been on the role of key individuals: the policymakers in charge, and the actors who seek influence. This week, we extend the analysis to the ‘environments’ or ‘systems’ in which they operate. Most theories combine this dual focus on:

  1. the cognitive limits of policymakers and the ways in which they think, and
  2. the conditions under which they make choices, including: the rules they follow, the networks in which they participate, the socioeconomic context in which they operate, and their deeply held beliefs.

There are too many relevant concepts and theories to cover in one lecture, and I wouldn’t expect you to become familiar with all of them by the end of the year (in fact, it would be better to have an inside-out knowledge of one).

Instead, as an introduction to the study of policymaking, we can discuss the concepts that most theories have in common, and look at one example of a theory – complexity theory – which can be used to consolidate several discussions.

Key questions in policy theory

These concepts can be turned into the questions we should ask when we try to understand and explain the environment in which ‘boundedly rational’ policymakers make choices:

  • Actors. Which actors are involved in policymaking, and at what level of government do they operate?

This is not an easy question to answer if we accept the need to focus on more than just the elected people in ministerial posts. There may be thousands of actors involved in policymaking, and ‘actors’ is a very broad term which includes individuals or organisations, including private companies, interest groups and governments bodies.

A common argument in policy theory is that we have witnessed a shift since the early post-war period, characterised by centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors.

  • Institutions. What rules or ‘standard operating procedures’ have developed within policymaking organisations and how do they influence the development of policy?

The term ‘institution’ is often used loosely to describe important organisations such as governments or legislatures. Really, it refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour.  Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions or the ‘standing orders’ of parliaments. Others are less visible – the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’ – and may only be understood following in-depth study of particular organisations.

These rules develop in different ways in many parts of government, prompting us to consider what happens when many different actors develop different expectations of politics and policymaking.  For example, it might help explain a gap between policies made in one organisation and implemented by another. It might cause government policy to be contradictory, when many different organisations produce their own policies without coordinating with others. Or, governments may contribute to a convoluted statute book by adding to laws and regulations without thinking how they all fit together. Such problems may be magnified when policymaking is multi-level.

  • Networks or ‘subsystems’. What is the balance of power between ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups?

In week 1, we linked the formation of policy networks to bounded rationality: ministers and senior civil servants delegate, and more junior civil servants form relationships with the actors giving them information and advice. In some cases, we can identify close relationships based, for example, on a shared understanding of the policy problem and an adherence to unwritten ‘rules of the game’. In others, these networks are large, there are many actors involved, there is less incentive to follow the same rules (such as to keep discussions relatively quiet), and there is more competition to ‘frame’ the problem to be solved.

  • Context and events. How does the socio-economic and political context influence policy? Which events have prompted or undermined policy development?

‘Context’ describes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a country’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and social attitudes. This wider context is in addition to the ‘institutional’ context, when governments inherit the laws and organisations of their predecessors.

Important ‘game changing’ events can be routine, such as when elections produce new governments with new ideas, or unanticipated, such as when crises or major technological changes prompt policymakers to reconsider existing policies.

In each case, we should consider the extent to which policymaking is in the control of policymakers. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – examples include major demographic change (such as an ageing population), the role of technology in driving healthcare demand, climate change, extreme events, and ‘globalisation’. Yet, governments often show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important.

  • Ideas.  What is the role of beliefs, knowledge, evidence and learning in shaping the way that policymakers understand and seek to solve problems?

‘Ideas’ is a quite-vague term to describe beliefs, or ways of thinking, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems. There are three kinds of inter-related ideas to discuss. First, an idea can be a policy solution: ‘I have an idea’ to solve a policy problem. Second, ideas relate to persuasion as a resource in the policy process. Actors can use money and other sources of power to influence policy, but also argument and manipulation. Third, ideas refer to shared beliefs or a shared language used by policy participants: the ‘core beliefs’, ‘paradigms’, ‘hegemonic’ ideas, or ‘monopolies’ of ideas that are often so important because people take them for granted.

The latter provides the context in which people use arguments and persuasion and within which certain policy solutions are conceivable. So, not everyone has the same opportunity to raise attention to problems and propose their favoured solutions. Some can exploit a dominant understanding of the policy problem, while others have to work harder to challenge existing beliefs. A focus on ideas is a focus on power: to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; and, to keep some issues on the agenda at the expense of others.

Using theory to bring these concepts together

Any one of these elements could be used to explain why the policy process is ‘complex’ and so difficult to understand and predict. Or, many theories try to explain how the policy process works by describing the interaction between all of those elements: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

One example is complexity theory, which discusses the properties of complex policymaking systems:

  1. The same amount of activity can have no effect or a huge effect. For example, someone presenting the same information may be ignored by policymakers or receive disproportionate attention.
  2. Decisions made in the past can produce a long term momentum or ‘path dependence’. For example, the current ‘welfare state’ or national health service can be traced at least as far back as the 1940s.
  3. Policymaking involves long periods of organizational inactivity followed by bursts of activity in some areas. Policy can remain the same for decades, only to change dramatically and quickly.
  4. ‘Systemic’ behaviour results from the interaction between actors who share information and follow particular rules. Policymaking behaviour often seems to ‘emerge’ from local interaction and despite the efforts of central governments to control it.

Complexity theory is a good example to consider because it helps us think about the ways in which you might present policy advice when you have to take into account the vagaries of policymaking. We can discuss this link between theory and advice in the next lecture.

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Now that the SNP dominates Scottish politics, it should it have a vision for Scottish Government

This is the claim made in different ways by Scotland’s dream team of Andrew Tickell and Chris Deerin. For Tickell, it’s time to stop gloating about wiping out Scottish Labour and start talking about what the SNP stands for in policy terms. For Deerin, it’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to demonstrate what she has achieved in government rather than in party politics; to show that the SNP has any ideas worthy of its popularity.

deerin policy

In this post, I’ll show you that the Scottish Government has a vision. It might seem bland and motherhood/ apple pie, and maybe almost no one has heard of it, but if you accept it then the questions raised by Tickell and Deerin will seem off-target and unambitious. Instead, there is another, far less discussed, problem that is so big that it goes to the heart of our political system, but so abstract that only the die-hards will want to read further. I’ll put in a picture of Joe Pesci (in JFK) here to suggest that talking about the whole system of government might be entertaining.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

The Scottish Government’s vision

Since 2007, the SNP Government has presented a ‘ten year vision’ which includes:

  • a ‘core purpose – to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth’; linked to
  • a ‘purpose framework’, with targets gauging its economic growth, productivity, labour market participation, population, income inequality, regional inequality and (emissions based) sustainability;
  • five ‘strategic objectives’: Enabling businesses and people to increase their wealth and more people to share fairly in that wealth, Helping people to sustain and improve their health, especially in disadvantaged communities, ensuring better, local and faster access to health care, Helping communities to flourish, becoming stronger, safer places to live, offering improved opportunities and a better quality of life, Expanding opportunities to succeed from nurture through to lifelong learning ensuring higher and more widely shared achievements, and Improving Scotland’s natural and built environment and the sustainable use and enjoyment of it.
  • sixteen ‘National Outcomes’ and fifty ‘National Indicators’ of progress towards the fulfilment of its vision.

It also has a clear narrative of how it wants to make policy. Its ‘governance’ strategy is based on a desire to delegate or share policymaking responsibility with key stakeholders in the public, private and third sectors. So, it has set up or reinforced local partnerships, charged with turning a broad vision into something that can be delivered according to the politics and circumstances of local areas. It talks about making sure that service users are at the heart of designing public services. It has also developed a desire to harness high levels of pre-referendum participation by stating its broad aims and inviting the public to help make sense of them. Or, it talks about a new era in which governments no longer do policy to people but with them – which translates into, for example, going into a consultation or meeting without having a fixed Scottish Government position or knowing what the outcome will be. Maybe it will also experiment with other ways to foster participation, such as citizen assemblies or juries or civic forums.

Why this vision is so important

This is a bland vision which includes aims that most people would struggle to criticise. That’s what makes it so important. It’s the kind of vision that political parties try to come up with, using a new mix of words, at every Scottish election. It generates so much cross-party support that it can relied upon as a reference point for the long term. So, for example, when we identify current major inequalities in health or education attainment, we can make reference to the long term vision and ask if there has been stagnation or progress. Then, when we think about that progress, we can point to meaningful outcomes (e.g. increases in community wellbeing) rather than just adherence to arbitrary inputs (e.g. teacher numbers) or outputs (e.g. meeting waiting times). It allows us to come up with more realistic measure of progress than 8-month or annual anniversaries in power – and, as such provides an antidote (albeit only for the few people seeking one) to the usual party political evaluations provided by politicians.

It also allows us to measure progress or decline in one area in relation to another, so that we don’t just extrapolate from one good or bad experience to produce a misleading overall picture. Maybe it even gives you a reference point for debates on, for example, the idea that policymaking remains excessively centralist (or the opposite). Certainly, it presents a realistic response to complex government: it helps elected governments recognise their limited abilities to centralise power to deliver their promises. Within this vision is the sense that elected policymakers are one of many groups of actors with the ability to influence outcomes. To assert otherwise is to mislead the electorate.

In short, even if you put the finest minds on the case – perhaps a collection of party worthies, civil servants, scientists, economists, philosophers, novelists, and poets – I doubt they could come up with a markedly better vision for Scottish policy.

Why this vision is incompatible with the way we understand politics

The bigger problem with this sort of vision is that it is, in important ways, the enemy of the kind of politics that we hold most dear. This can be a positive thing, if a technocratic vision makes up for some of the worst excesses of representative government and party politics. For example, parties don’t really have long term visions – they pretend to have them to win elections. They try to come up with new words to describe what is pretty much the Scottish Government position anyway, but without the sense that any party can promise to be in government long enough to see it through.

Parties also produce manifestos with much more specific aims which scupper long term visions – such as when they make silly short term promises on police officer or teacher or nurse numbers or hospital waiting times, which distort long term justice, education and health policy planning by limiting choice and putting short term aims on inputs/ outputs further up the agenda than long term outcomes. Or, parties make very firm commitments to policy decisions – which makes a nonsense of the idea that politicians and civil servants go into a room without knowing what the outcome will be. Or, more generally, they give the sense, during electoral competition, that central government makes the decisions and is accountable for everything that happens – which goes against the idea that the Scottish Government can delegate and share responsibility with local bodies.

But the adherence to a non-party-specific vision can also take us too far in the other direction. The worrying thing may not be that representative government distorts politics – since it’s the best form of politics we have – but that the alternative distorts representative government. Consider, for example, the implication of the Scottish Government sharing responsibility with everyone – local public bodies, stakeholders, service users – for long term outcomes. With that system, how can you decide how well things are going or who is to blame when things go badly? Sharing responsibility with so many people means not taking the blame (unless we are scapegoating or holding to account some individuals when they appear to be incompetent). It means that the call for an 8-month progress report is too easy to bat away. It means that the Scottish Parliament will struggle to hold the Scottish Government to account for policy progress, and that the electorate will struggle to reward or punish elected governments for what goes on in their name.

If you want the SNP to have a vision, and win elections, keep it bland

Beyond Scottish independence, we know roughly what the SNP wants and that it will take far longer to achieve than in the space of a few elections. We might want some milestones along the way, but also recognise that ‘quick wins’ are not the same as important wins.

In that sense, if you value representative government and party competition, it seems OK to accept that the presentation of a vision is a means to an end to win a game. You don’t bare your soul in a manifesto. You tell people that everything will be OK: the long term vision is already there and we are the most competent group of people to ensure its progress. The SNP is very good at this. It won the 2011 election on the back of it. It is one unheralded part of the SNP’s strategy to remain popular and in government: maintaining an image of governing competence by presenting a bland vision and avoiding major mistakes. It shouldn’t be underrated, particularly since it has allowed the SNP to remain Teflon in the face of a growing number of specific criticisms of its record.

The worrying bit

In short, if any political party tried to sell me another vision in its manifesto, or a new leader tried to claim the credit for policy progress in 8 months, I would take an instant distrust to them (in contrast to the politicians that live to stick it to other politicians – at least you know where you stand).

The only problem is that I don’t really know what I want from them instead, beyond a bland commitment to make society fairer. I know that they can only do so much in government, that they are part of a larger complex system, that their influence on policy outcomes is limited, and that they shouldn’t really take the bulk of the credit or blame for what happens. I know that their manifestos shouldn’t be too specific because some promises have a bewitching effect on debates and distorting effect on policy. Beyond hoping for competent and trustworthy people who seem to share my outlook on life, I’m not sure what else to root for. That seems much more of a problem to me than the lack of a political party’s soul or a leader’s 8-month narrative.

See also:

The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

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

Scotland’s Future Political System

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The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

westminster-times

A common argument in British politics is that the UK Government has exacerbated its own ‘governance problem’. A collection of post-war reforms, many of which were perhaps designed to reinforce central control, has produced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. This outcome presents major problems for the ‘Westminster’ narrative of central government and ministerial accountability to the public via Parliament. If ministers are not in control of their departments, how can we hold them to account in a meaningful way?

Yet, in many cases, it is misleading to link these outcomes to specific decisions or points in time, since many aspects of the ‘governance problem’ are universal: policymakers can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible; they do not have enough information to make decisions without major uncertainty; policy problems are too multi-faceted and ‘cross-cutting’ to allow policymaking without ambiguity; there is an inescapable logic to delegating decisions to ‘policy communities’ which may not talk to each other or account meaningfully to government; and, delivery bodies will always have discretion in the way they manage competing government demands.

In this context, policymaking systems can be described usefully as complex systems, in which behaviour is always difficult to predict, and outcomes often seem to emerge in the absence of central control. Further, the literature on complexity provides some advice about how governments should operate within complex systems. Unfortunately, much of this literature invites policymakers to give up on the idea that they can control policy processes and outcomes. While this may be a pragmatic response, it does not deal well with the need for elected policymakers to account for their actions in a very particular way. What seems sensible to one audience may be indefensible to another. In particular, the language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability.

What we need is a response that sets out a governmental acknowledgement of the limits to its powers, combined with the sense that we can still hold elected policymakers to account in a meaningful way. Ideally, this response should be systematic enough to allow us to predict when ministers will take responsibility for their actions, redirect attention to other accountable public bodies, and/ or identify the limited way in which they can be held responsible for certain outcomes. Beyond this ideal, we may settle for a government strategy based on explicit trade-offs between pragmatism, in which governments acknowledge the effect of administrative devolution (or, in the case of local authorities, political devolution), and meaningful representation, in which they maintain some degree of responsibility for decisions made in their name.

The aim of this paper is to draw lessons from the Scottish experience, which demonstrates an attempt to mix strategic responsibility with an element of flexibility and delegation. While we should not exaggerate the coherence of government strategies, we can meaningfully describe a ‘Scottish policy style’, identified in empirical studies, and a ‘Scottish approach’ as a self-styled description of policymaking by the Scottish Government. Further, the Scottish context is comparable enough to the UK to offer lessons. Although much of the rhetoric of ‘new Scottish politics’ suggests that it is markedly different from ‘old Westminster’, it has inherited a Westminster-style focus on government accountability to the public via Parliament (and an assumption that ‘the government governs’). Although Scotland is smaller, and the Scottish Government is able to design a governance style based on greater personal contact with interest groups and public bodies, this only serves to reinforce the importance of ‘universal’ problems when the problems that arise in Scotland resemble those faced in the UK. Overall, Scottish policymaking demonstrates that many problems related to ‘governance’ cannot be solved. Rather, the Scottish experience prompts us to identify important trade-offs between the delegation of administrative functions and the maintenance of central accountability.

To explain these issues, the paper first summarises the main ways in which UK governments have allegedly exacerbated governance problems. Second, it separates this focus on specific outcomes from the universal constraints on central control common to all complex policymaking systems. Third, it contrasts the practical advice that arises from a focus on complexity theory with the political imperative, in Westminster systems, to present policy outcomes as the responsibility of ministers. Fourth, it identifies the balance struck between accountability and delegation by the Scottish Government since 2007, and the transferable lessons to other systems.

The paper is here: Cairney Governance Complexity Accountability Scotland 20.11.14

Some of the wider issues are discussed here:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

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

Sharing professional and academic knowledge: The role of academic-practitioner workshops (on turning policy and complexity theories into something consistent with Westminster politics)

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum (3000 words and a lecture)

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country (LSE 1200 words)

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Why does public health policy change?

Some public health policies have changed radically in the post-war period. The extent of change varies considerably, from issue to issue, and country to country. For example, the UK has one of the most comprehensive tobacco control regimes in the world, but China does not. While the UK has changed its post-war tobacco policy radically, the same amount of policy change cannot be found in alcohol (or in newer concerns such as sugar, saturated fat and salt in food). While public health policy is often quite similar across the UK, there have been significant differences, in timing and/ or content, in devolved and UK Government policies.

My interest is in the extent to which we explain these developments in (broadly) the same way. With colleagues, Donley Studlar and Hadii Mamudu, I focus on the extent to which actors, in favour of tobacco or alcohol control, operate within a ‘policy environment’ conducive to their aims.

What makes a conducive policy environment?

  1. Institutions. Policymaking responsibility has shifted, to a government department sympathetic to the policy, and following rules which enable its successful delivery.
  2. Networks. The balance of power within departments has shifted in favour of public health and medical, not industry, groups.
  3. Socioeconomics. Social behaviour (e.g. there is a low number of smokers/ drinkers and amount of smoking/ drinking) and attitudes to control have become more in line with policy aims, and there are fewer economic penalties to public health controls (e.g. a loss of tax revenue or economic activity).
  4. Ideas and ‘framing’. There is now an acceptance of the scientific evidence on unhealthy behaviour within government, control is high on its agenda, and it now ‘frames’ the issue in terms of a pressing public health problem (rather than, say, an economic good).

This broad focus can help us explain a range of global, national and subnational developments in public health policy, including:

Global Tobacco Policy

There is a policy environment conducive to tobacco control at a global level – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, led by the World Health Organisation – and in many ‘leading’ countries, but not in most countries. Consequently, most countries in the world have signed the FCTC but this is not yet reflected in policy outcomes.

Blog posts and pages:

Global Tobacco Control

The Tobacco ‘Endgame’

The WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC): What would have to change to ensure effective policy implementation?*

Articles and Book

Hadii Mamudu, Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2015) ‘Global Public Policy: does the new venue for transnational tobacco control challenge the old way of doing things?’ forthcoming in Public Administration. ‘Green’ version: Mamudu Cairney Studlar Global Public Policy FCTC 6.11.14

Paul Cairney, Donley Studlar and Haddii Mamudu (2012) Global Tobacco Control: Power, Policy, Governance and Transfer (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Paul Cairney and Haddii Mamudu (2014) ‘The Global Tobacco Control ‘Endgame’: change the policy environment to implement the FCTC’ Journal of Public Health Policy, Advance Access doi: 10.1057/jphp.2014.18

Donley Studlar and Paul Cairney (2014) ‘Conceptualizing Punctuated and Non-Punctuated Policy Change: Tobacco Control in Comparative Perspective’, International Review of Administrative Sciences, 80, 3, 513-31

UK Tobacco and Alcohol Policy.

UK Tobacco control is now far more comprehensive than alcohol control.

After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Next?*

Alcohol: the Harmful versus Healthy Debate

Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK?

Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2014) ‘Public Health Policy in the United Kingdom: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Brewing?’ World Medical and Health Policy, 6, 3, 308-323

Multi-level Policymaking: tobacco control in EU, UK and devolved government.

Although the EU provides some common standards, they are followed more or less enthusiastically by member states. Although key policies, such as the ban on smoking in public places, exist in all parts of the UK, it is important to explain the ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change in each territory.

Bossman Asare, Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2009) ‘Federalism and Multilevel Governance in Tobacco Policy: The European Union, the United Kingdom and the Devolved UK Institutions’, Journal of Public Policy, 29, 1, 79-102 PDF Paywall Green

Paul Cairney (2009) ‘The Role of Ideas in Policy Transfer: The Case of UK Smoking Bans since Devolution’, Journal of European Public Policy, 16, 3, 471-488 PDF Paywall Green

Paul Cairney (2007) ‘A Multiple Lens Approach to Policy Change: the Case of Tobacco Policy in the UK’, British Politics, 2, 1, 45-68 PDF Paywall (plus corrected table) Green

Paul Cairney (2007) ‘Using Devolution to Set the Agenda? Venue shift and the smoking ban in Scotland’,  British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9,1, 73-89 PDF Paywall Green (it’s also stored by a US University here)

For the broader argument on ‘evolutionary theory, see:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘What is Evolutionary Theory and How Does it Inform Policy Studies?’ Policy and Politics, 41, 2, 279-98

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum

This is the 3000 word experimental-album post, and there is also a shorter radio-edit single for the LSE blog. I discussed these issues at my inaugural lecture and the audio is available here:

There was a no vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Almost immediately, David Cameron announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin would take charge of the process to turn broad UK party promises on further devolution into a more detailed plan. I discuss the main issues regarding that plan here, but in this post I want to focus more on the bigger picture, to link the discussion of Scottish devolution to academic work on the ‘universal’ challenges that all governments face:

  • Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland?
  • Can anyone control or influence that process?
  • If not, can we hold them to account?
  • To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?
  • Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

My aim is not to deny that Scottish politics is distinctive, but to argue that its political system, and policy process, shares the same ‘complex government’ features as any country. This may provide a useful sense of perspective after a long period of excitement about one aspect of British politics – which has produced the idea that (a) people know how the Scottish policy process would work after a yes or no vote, and (b) that major constitutional change produces a major change in policy and policymaking. I don’t think that either of those beliefs is true.

I also use the ‘will life go on?’ question, partly to be sarcastic, and partly to show that government and society have an auto-pilot function: while we have been obsessed with the referendum, 500,000 public employees in Scotland have continued delivering public policies out of the public spotlight, and citizens have continued to interact with public services.

In short, my aim is to show you the links between two separate-looking concerns:

Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland and the UK?

You might get the impression from the debate on the referendum that one side knows how Scottish policymaking works; that if you vote yes or no, you guarantee a particular outcome or, at least, guard against a bad outcome. Yet, the policy process is too complex to for anyone understand fully – from the citizen, dipping in and out of political debate, to the policymaker trying to make a difference, and the academics, still confused after decades of study.

Instead, politicians and campaigners find ways to simplify the process enough to understand and explain, while academics like me develop a language to show why we couldn’t possibly understand the process. We focus on five elements which, on their own, show the complexity of policymaking and, combined, make us thoroughly confused:

  1. ‘Bounded rationality’ suggests that policymakers do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, possibilities, solutions, or consequences of their actions. Instead, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics to produce good-enough decisions. They may be ‘goal-oriented’, but also use emotional, intuitive and often unreliable ‘heuristics’ to make decisions quickly. Their attention may lurch dramatically from one issue to another, and they may draw on quick, emotional judgements to treat different social groups as deserving of government benefits or sanctions.
  2. Institutions are the rules, norms, and practices that influence political behaviour. Some are visible and widely understood – such as constitutions – and others are informal, often only understood by a small number of people. These are the rules that organisations develop to run a complex world into something understandable and manageable. Yet, different rules develop in many parts of government, or government ‘silos’, often with little reference to each other. This can produce: unpredictable outcomes when people follow often contradictory rules when they interact; a multiplicity of accountability and performance management processes which do not ‘join up’; and, a convoluted statute book, made more complex by the interaction between laws and regulations designed for devolved, UK and EU matters.
  3. Policy networks show us how policymakers deal with their ability to pay attention to only a fraction of the things for which they are responsible. We begin with the huge reach and responsibilities of governments, producing the potential for ministerial ‘overload’. Governments divide responsibilities into broad sectors and specialist subsectors, and senior policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants. ‘Policy community’ describes the relationships that often develop between the actors responsible for policy decisions and the participants, such as interest groups (and businesses, public sector organisations, and other types of government body), with which they engage. For example, civil servants seek information from groups. Or, they seek legitimacy for their policies through group ‘ownership’. Groups use their resources – based on what they provide (expertise, advice, research) and/ or who they represent (a large membership; an important profession; a high status donor or corporation) – to secure regular access to government. In some cases, the relationships between policymakers and participants endure, they ‘co-produce’ policy, and we use the term ‘governance’ to describe a messy world in which it is difficult to attribute outcomes simply to the decisions of governments. Multi-level governance describes this messy process involving the blurry boundaries between policy produced by elected policymakers and civil servants, and the influence of a wide range of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies.
  4. Ideas are beliefs or ways of thinking. Some ways of thinking are accepted to such an extent that they are taken for granted or rarely challenged (we often call them ‘paradigms’). Others regard new ways of thinking, or new solutions to problems, and the persuasion necessary to prompt other actors to rethink their beliefs. The policy process involves actors competing to raise attention to problems and propose their favoured solutions. Not everyone has the same opportunity. Some can exploit a dominant understanding of the policy problem, while others have to work harder to challenge existing beliefs. A focus on ideas is a focus on power: to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; and, to keep some issues on the agenda at the expense of others.
  5. Context describes a policymaker’s environment. It includes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a political system’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass behaviour. It can refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs – when they enter office. Or, we may identify events, either routine, such as elections, or unanticipated, including social or natural crises or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. In each case, we consider if a policymaker’s environment is in her control and how it influences her decisions. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – examples include major demographic change, the role of technology in driving healthcare demand, climate change, extreme events, and ‘globalisation’. Yet, governments have shown that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time.

Can anyone control or influence that process? If not, can we hold them to account?

Each of these five elements could contribute to a sense of complexity. When combined, they suggest that the world of policymaking is too complex to predict or fully understand. They expose slogans such as ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government as attempts to give the appearance of order to policymaking when we know that policymakers can only pay attention to a small portion of the issues for which they are responsible.

The idea of ‘complex government’ can be used to reject the idea – associated with the ‘Westminster model’ – that power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people in central government. Instead, governments develop strategies to deal with the fact that their powers are rather limited in practice.

Consequently, there is a profoundly important tension between the reality of complex government and the assertion of government control and accountability. Policymakers have to justify their activities with regard to the idea of accountability to the public via ministers and Parliament. We expect ministers to deliver on their promises, and few are brave enough to admit their limitations.

Complex government also prompts us to consider how we can hold policymakers to account if the vast majority of the population does not understand how the policy process works; if policy outcomes seem to emerge in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways, or the allegation of complexity is used to undermine popular participation or obscure accountability. The aim of political reformers, to go beyond representative government and produce more participatory forms of democracy, may solve a general sense of detachment by the political class, and aid the transparency of some aspects of policymaking, but it will not solve this bigger problem.

To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?

Right now, the Scottish Government faces the same task as a large number of countries:

  1. In the aftermath of economic crisis, and reduced budgets, it has to consider how to deliver similar levels of public services – including health, education, emergency services, and housing – at lower cost.
  2. It also seeks to reduce inequalities – albeit without the policy levers that could make the biggest difference.
  3. It needs to find a balance, to address an inescapable trade-off between a degree of uniformity of national policies and local discretion. People understand this problem in different ways; some bemoan the ‘fragmentation’ of public services and the potential for a ‘postcode lottery’, while others identify more positive notions of flexible government, the potential for innovation, and the value of ‘community-led’ policies or individualised, ‘co-produced’, services.
  4. It needs to find a way to ‘join up’ its public services – to make, for example, health speak to education, social work and policing.

As in many countries, one potential solution to all four problems is the idea of ‘prevention’ or ‘early intervention’. Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ are terms used by many governments, and in many policy studies, to describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage. The argument is that too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, and unemployment (and newer problems relating to climate change and anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Yet, as in all countries, it cannot simply make this happen, for three main reasons:

  • Inequalities are often described as ‘wicked’ problems because they seem intractable – because governments do not appear to have the means, or perhaps the ability and willingness, to solve them. For example, health inequalities could be caused largely by income inequality, which the Scottish Government would struggle to address, and the UK Government may be unwilling to address radically. Or, we have a mix of solutions, from the often-innocuous (more spending on pre-school education), to the sensitive (restricting the use of alcohol and tobacco) and the downright controversial (preventing crime before it happens).
  • We are back to the idea of complex government – to address social and economic problems at this scale requires something akin to complete central government control over policies and outcomes. Instead, governments try to find ways to cooperate with a wide range of actors to secure some of their aims while dealing with the unintended consequences of their policies.
  • No one is quite sure what ‘early intervention’ or ‘prevention’ is. It sounds intuitive but, when you get into the details and need to produce a detailed plan, ambiguity and uncertainty replace intuition and a shared understanding of what to do.

So, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this process and they face the same problems as any government: the ability to pay attention to only a small proportion of issues, or to a small proportion of public service activity; the tendency for problems to be processed in government ‘silos’ (by one part of government, not communicating well with others); the potential for policymakers, in different departments or levels of government, to understand and address the policy problem in very different ways; and, ‘complexity’, which suggests that policy outcomes often ‘emerge’ from local action in the absence of central control.

These problems can only be addressed in a limited way by government strategies based on: the use of accountability and performance measures; the encouragement of learning and cooperation between public bodies; and, the development of a professional culture in which many people are committed to the same policy approach.

Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

The Scottish Government addresses this problem in two potentially-distinctive ways:

  • Policymaking culture. Many studies explore the idea of a ‘Scottish policy style’, which refers to the ways in which the Scottish Government makes policy following consultation and negotiation with pressure participants such as interest groups, local government organisations and unions
  • Administrative organisation. Many studies explore a distinctive ‘governance’ style, or a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to other organisations in a meaningful way. It sets a broad national strategy, the National Performance Framework, invites local bodies to produce policies consistent with it, and measures performance using broad, long term outcomes. For example, it now encourages local authorities to cooperate with a range of other bodies in the public sector (including health, enterprise, police, fire and transport), private and ‘third’ sector (mostly voluntary or charitable organisations) via established ‘Community Planning Partnerships’ (CPPs), to produce a ‘strategic vision’ for each local area.

In both cases, we usually find that the comparator is ‘Westminster’. Scotland can do things differently (at least when funding is not a problem) because it is smaller, which allows its government to develop closer relationships with key actors, and develop relatively high levels of trust in other bodies to deliver public services.

So, yes, in the context of all that I have said about governments facing the same challenges, and addressing them in similar ways, the Scottish Government has some distinctive policymaking elements.

What about the Scottish Parliament and other bodies?

Yet, consider the effect of this distinctiveness on the rest of the political system. My description of the policy process should already give the sense that it is driven primarily by government, and that parliament and ‘the people’ don’t play much of a role. What if policymaking follows its current trajectory, with more powers devolved to local authorities and a range of bodies involved in CPPs?

  1. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.
  2. A second consequence of devolving more power locally is interest groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.
  3. These trends may prompt a new agenda on local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.

Conclusion

The conclusion is that, if we focus on the wider policymaking and political process, we should get a stronger sense that a Yes vote or major further devolution would not produce radical change. The idea of giving a Scottish Government the powers to make radical changes to inequalities, public services, and outcomes, should take second stage to the idea that all governments are constrained by a lack of resources to make a quick and fundamental difference to the economy and society. No-one really understands the policy process, and no-one is in the position to control it. Rather, people pay attention to a small number of issues, and work with a large number of other people to negotiate some changes in some areas. This process involves major trade-offs, and the knowledge that attention to a small number of priorities means ignoring the rest.

So, too, should we be sceptical about the idea of a new era of popular participation, sweeping the nation and changing the way we do politics in Scotland. Even the Scottish Parliament struggles to know what happens in the Scottish Government and beyond. Even well-resourced interest groups struggle to keep track of an increasingly devolved system. So, what chance would citizens have if they did not devote their whole lives to politics? We should encourage popular participation, as the right thing to do, but without creating false expectations about the results.

Final note: in the Q&A I mention the Gilmore Girls. To follow up the reference,  see

https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/democracy-max/

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Filed under agenda setting, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Scottish Independence: Will Anything Really Change?

Some issues are territorial. Others are universal.

I like to tell people that very little will change after an event such as an election or referendum. While we focus on the exciting world of party politics, elections, campaigns and a referendum, the humdrum world of policymaking goes on, often unnoticed. Indeed, one partly causes the other: our attention to a small number of high profile people allows a large number of people to carry on, delivering public policy, out of the spotlight. Some issues receive huge amounts of attention, and policy might change if there is a problem that can be solved and the solution is not too expensive or controversial. Others receive almost no attention – yet, life goes on, and policy is often delivered in much the same way as in the past. When we elect governments, or choose a completely new kind of government, we expect ministers to solve problems for us. Yet, they can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the things for which they are responsible. No individual, or small group of people at the heart of government, has the ability to understand or control the complex government of which it is in charge. In Scotland, regardless of a Yes or No vote, one of those key issues is about how to organise, deliver and reform public services. It demonstrates two main problems that you find in any study of government and policymaking. First, there is an inescapable trade-off between a desire to harmonise national policies and to encourage local discretion. Policymakers and policy participants understand this problem in different ways; some bemoan the ‘fragmentation’ of public services and the potential for a ‘postcode lottery’, while others identify more positive notions of flexible government, the potential for innovation, and the value of ‘community-led’ policies or individualised, ‘co-produced’, services. Second, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this trade-off. They do not simply choose a level of fragmentation. Instead, they face the same problems as any government: the ability to pay attention to only a small proportion of issues, or to a small proportion of public service activity; the tendency for problems to be processed in government ‘silos’ (by one part of government, not communicating well with others); the potential for policymakers, in different departments or levels of government, to understand and address the policy problem in very different ways; and, ‘complexity’, which suggests that policy outcomes often ‘emerge’ from local action in the absence of central control. These problems can only be addressed in a limited way by government strategies based on: the use of accountability and performance measures; the encouragement of learning and cooperation between public bodies; and, the development of a professional culture in which many people are committed to the same policy approach. In our new paper, my colleagues Emily St Denny, Siabhainn Russell and I look at how the Scottish Government addresses these ‘universal’ problems. We describe its reputation for making policy in a distinctive way; its reputation for pursuing a consultative and cooperative style when it makes and implements policy. It works with a wide range of bodies to build support for its policy aims. Its policy delivery involves a broad national strategy combined with a commitment to trust bodies such as local authorities to meet its aims. In turn, local authorities work with a wide range of bodies in the public, voluntary and private sector to produce shared aims relevant to their local areas. This approach could help address problems associated with ‘silos’, ‘ambiguity’ and local discretion, if policy is ‘co-produced’ and ‘owned’ by national and local bodies. On the other hand, the ‘Scottish Approach’ implies a decision to encourage discretion, the production of a meaningful degree of local policymaking, and perhaps even the acceptance that some policies may ‘emerge’ in the absence of central direction and traditional accountability measures. To show how complicated government is, we select problems and strategies that seem more likely to exacerbate these ‘universal’ problems more than others. We outline two policy areas, on prevention and transition, which cut across many government departments, involve many levels of government (local, Scottish, UK, and perhaps EU) and types of government (including education, social work, health and police authorities), and seem particularly difficult to define and manage. In both cases, the problem is not one of disagreement. In fact, there is a widespread commitment to both issues, and to achieve a ‘decisive shift to prevention’ in particular. Rather, the problem is often one of ambiguity – for example, people are not quite sure what prevention means in practice, when applied to different kinds of policy problem – or ‘fragmentation’, when a range of public bodies have to work together to produce more specific aims and objectives. These ‘universal’ points are important when we consider Scottish policymaking in the context of constitutional change: a shift of policymaking responsibility from the UK to Scotland may reduce one aspect of complex government – such as the link between the social security system (currently reserved to the UK) and public services – but many would still remain. In cases such as prevention, Scottish independence could have an impact on budget and policy priorities. It would not, however, solve the problem of how to define and address a cross-cutting and ambiguous problem. That problem would remain, and life would go on regardless of a Yes and No vote. The paper is here: Cairney Russell St Denny ECPR 19.8.14

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Filed under public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics