Tag Archives: complexity theory

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).

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy