Tag Archives: critical policy studies

What have we learned so far from the UK government’s COVID-19 policy?

This post first appeared on LSE British Politics and Policy (27.11.20) and is based on this article in British Politics.

Paul Cairney assesses government policy in the first half of 2020. He identifies the intense criticism of its response so far, encouraging more systematic assessments grounded in policy research.

In March 2020, COVID-19 prompted policy change in the UK at a speed and scale only seen during wartime. According to the UK government, policy was informed heavily by science advice. Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that, ‘At all stages, we have been guided by the science, and we will do the right thing at the right time’. Further, key scientific advisers such as Sir Patrick Vallance emphasised the need to gather evidence continuously to model the epidemic and identify key points at which to intervene, to reduce the size of the peak of population illness initially, then manage the spread of the virus over the longer term.

Both ministers and advisors emphasised the need for individual behavioural change, supplemented by government action, in a liberal democracy in which direct imposition is unusual and unsustainable. However, for its critics, the government experience has quickly become an exemplar of policy failure.

Initial criticisms include that ministers did not take COVID-19 seriously enough in relation to existing evidence, when its devastating effect was apparent in China in January and Italy from February; act as quickly as other countries to test for infection to limit its spread; or introduce swift-enough measures to close schools, businesses, and major social events. Subsequent criticisms highlight problems in securing personal protective equipment (PPE), testing capacity, and an effective test-trace-and-isolate system. Some suggest that the UK government was responding to the ‘wrong pandemic’, assuming that COVID-19 could be treated like influenza. Others blame ministers for not pursuing an elimination strategy to minimise its spread until a vaccine could be developed. Some criticise their over-reliance on models which underestimated the R (rate of transmission) and ‘doubling time’ of cases and contributed to a 2-week delay of lockdown. Many describe these problems and delays as the contributors to the UK’s internationally high number of excess deaths.

How can we hold ministers to account in a meaningful way?

I argue that these debates are often fruitless and too narrow because they do not involve systematic policy analysis, take into account what policymakers can actually do, or widen debate to consider whose lives matter to policymakers. Drawing on three policy analysis perspectives, I explore the questions that we should ask to hold ministers to account in a way that encourages meaningful learning from early experience.

These questions include:

Was the government’s definition of the problem appropriate?
Much analysis of UK government competence relates to specific deficiencies in preparation (such as shortages in PPE), immediate action (such as to discharge people from hospitals to care homes without testing them for COVID-19), and implementation (such as an imperfect test-trace-and-isolate system). The broader issue relates to its focus on intervening in late March to protect healthcare capacity during a peak of infection, rather than taking a quicker and more precautionary approach. This judgment relates largely to its definition of the policy problem which underpins every subsequent policy intervention.

Did the government select the right policy mix at the right time? Who benefits most from its choices?

Most debates focus on the ‘lock down or not?’ question without exploring fully the unequal impact of any action. The government initially relied on exhortation, based on voluntarism and an appeal to social responsibility. Initial policy inaction had unequal consequences on social groups, including people with underlying health conditions, black and ethnic minority populations more susceptible to mortality at work or discrimination by public services, care home residents, disabled people unable to receive services, non-UK citizens obliged to pay more to live and work while less able to access public funds, and populations (such as prisoners and drug users) that receive minimal public sympathy. Then, in March, its ‘stay at home’ requirement initiated a major new policy and different unequal impacts in relation to the income, employment, and wellbeing of different groups. These inequalities are list in more general discussions of impacts on the whole population.

Did the UK government make the right choices on the trade-offs between values, and what impacts could the government have reasonably predicted?

Initially, the most high-profile value judgment related to freedom from state coercion to reduce infection versus freedom from the harm of infection caused by others. Then, values underpinned choices on the equitable distribution of measures to mitigate the economic and wellbeing consequences of lockdown. A tendency for the UK government to project centralised and ‘guided by the science’ policymaking has undermined public deliberation on these trade-offs between policies. The latter will be crucial to ongoing debates on the trade-offs associated with national and regional lockdowns.

Did the UK government combine good policy with good policymaking?

A problem like COVID-19 requires trial-and-error policymaking on a scale that seems incomparable to previous experiences. It requires further reflection on how to foster transparent and adaptive policymaking and widespread public ownership for unprecedented policy measures, in a political system characterised by (a) accountability focused incorrectly on strong central government control and (b) adversarial politics that is not conducive to consensus seeking and cooperation.

These additional perspectives and questions show that too-narrow questions – such as was the UK government ‘following the science’ – do not help us understand the longer term development and wider consequences of UK COVID-19 policy. Indeed, such a narrow focus on science marginalises wider discussions of values and the populations that are most disadvantaged by government policy.



Filed under COVID-19, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), POLU9UK, Public health, public policy, UK politics and policy

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: policy analysis for marginalized groups in racialized political systems

Note: this post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview.

For me, this story begins with a tweet by Professor Jamila Michener, about a new essay by Dr Fabienne Doucet, ‘Centering the Margins: (Re)defining Useful Research Evidence Through Critical Perspectives’:

Research and policy analysis for marginalized groups

For Doucet (2019: 1), it begins by describing the William T. Grant Foundation’s focus on improving the ‘use of research evidence’ (URE), and the key questions that we should ask when improving URE:

  1. For what purposes do policymakers find evidence useful?

Examples include to: inform a definition of problems and solutions, foster practitioner learning, support an existing political position, or impose programmes backed by evidence (compare with How much impact can you expect from your analysis?).

  1.   Who decides what to use, and what is useful?

For example, usefulness could be defined by the researchers providing evidence, the policymakers using it, the stakeholders involved in coproduction, or the people affected by research and policy (compare with Bacchi, Stone and Who should be involved in the process of policy analysis?).

  1. How do critical theories inform these questions? (compare with T. Smith)

First, they remind us that so-called ‘rational’ policy processes have incorporated research evidence to help:

‘maintain power hierarchies and accept social inequity as a given. Indeed, research has been historically and contemporaneously (mis)used to justify a range of social harms from enslavement, colonial conquest, and genocide, to high-stakes testing, disproportionality in child welfare services, and “broken windows” policing’ (Doucet, 2019: 2)

Second, they help us redefine usefulness in relation to:

‘how well research evidence communicates the lived experiences of marginalized groups so that the understanding of the problem and its response is more likely to be impactful to the community in the ways the community itself would want’ (Doucet, 2019: 3)

In that context, potential responses include to:

  1. Recognise the ways in which research and policy combine to reproduce the subordination of social groups.
  • General mechanisms include: the reproduction of the assumptions, norms, and rules that produce a disproportionate impact on social groups (compare with Social Construction and Policy Design).
  • Specific mechanism include: judging marginalised groups harshly according to ‘Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic’ norms (‘WEIRD’)
  1. Reject the idea that scientific research can be seen as objective or neutral (and that researchers are beyond reproach for their role in subordination).
  2. Give proper recognition to ‘experiential knowledge’ and ‘transdiciplinary approaches’ to knowledge production, rather than privileging scientific knowledge.
  3. Commit to social justice, to help ‘eliminate oppressions and to emancipate and empower marginalized groups’, such as by disrupting ‘the policies and practices that disproportionately harm marginalized groups’ (2019: 5-7)
  4. Develop strategies to ‘center race’, ‘democratize’ research production, and ‘leverage’ transdisciplinary methods (including poetry, oral history and narrative, art, and discourse analysis – compare with Lorde) (2019: 10-22)

See also Doucet, F. (2021) ‘Identifying and Testing Strategies to Improve the Use of Antiracist Research Evidence through Critical Race Lenses

Policy analysis in a ‘racialized polity’

A key way to understand these processes is to use, and improve, policy theories to explain the dynamics and impacts of a racialized political system. For example, ‘policy feedback theory’ (PFT) draws on elements from historical institutionalism and SCPD to identify the rules, norms, and practices that reinforce subordination.

In particular, Michener’s (2019: 424) ‘Policy Feedback in a Racialized Polity’ develops a ‘racialized feedback framework (RFF)’ to help explain the ‘unrelenting force with which racism and White supremacy have pervaded social, economic, and political institutions in the United States’. Key mechanisms include (2019: 424-6):

  1. Channelling resources’, in which the rules, to distribute government resources, benefit some social groups and punish others.
  • Examples include: privileging White populations in social security schemes and the design/ provision of education, and punishing Black populations disproportionately in prisons (2019: 428-32).
  • These rules also influence the motivation of social groups to engage in politics to influence policy (some citizens are emboldened, others alienated).
  1. Generating interests’, in which ‘racial stratification’ is a key factor in the power of interest groups (and balance of power in them).
  2. Shaping interpretive schema’, in which race is a lens through which actors understand, interpret, and seek to solve policy problems.
  3. The ways in which centralization (making policy at the federal level) or decentralization influence policy design.
  • For example, the ‘historical record’ suggests that decentralization is more likely to ‘be a force of inequality than an incubator of power for people of color’ (2019: 433).

Insufficient attention to race and racism: what are the implications for policy analysis?

One potential consequence of this lack of attention to race, and the inequalities caused by racism in policy, is that we place too much faith in the vague idea of ‘pragmatic’ policy analysis.

Throughout the 750 words series, you will see me refer generally to the benefits of pragmatism:

In that context, pragmatism relates to the idea that policy analysis consists of ‘art and craft’, in which analysts assess what is politically feasible if taking a low-risk client-oriented approach.

In this context, pragmatism may be read as a euphemism for conservatism and status quo protection.

In other words, other posts in the series warn against too-high expectations for entrepreneurial and systems thinking approaches to major policy change, but they should not be read as an excuse to reject ambitious plans for much-needed changes to policy and policy analysis (compare with Meltzer and Schwartz, who engage with this dilemma in client-oriented advice).

Connections to blog themes

This post connects well to:

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Filed under 750 word policy analysis, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies

See also three more recent posts:

  1. Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge
  2. Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism
  3. Policy Analysis in 750 words: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies

In this post, let’s begin with a transition from two others: combining theories, and critical policy studies/ the NPF. Both posts raise the same basic question: what is science? This question leads to a series of concerns about the criteria we use to determine which theories are most worthy of our investment, and the extent to which social scientific criteria should emulate those in natural science.

One set of criteria, which you can find in the ‘policy shootout!’, relates to the methods and principles we might associate with some branches of natural science (and use, for example, to support astronomy but not astrology):

  • A theory’s methods should be explained so that they can be replicated by others.
  • Its concepts should be clearly defined, logically consistent, and give rise to empirically falsifiable hypotheses.
  • Its propositions should be as general as possible.
  • It should set out clearly what the causal processes are.
  • It should be subject to empirical testing and revision

If we were to provide a caricature of this approach, we might associate it with other explicit or implicit principles, such as:

  1. The world exists independently of our knowledge of it, and our role is to develop theories to help us understand its properties (for example, discover its general laws).
  2. These principles help us produce objective science: if the methods and results can be replicated, they do not depend on individual scientists.

In other words, the caricature is of a man in a white lab coat gathering knowledge of his object of study while remaining completely separate from it. Such principles are generally difficult to maintain, and relatively tricky in the study of the social world (and it seems increasingly common for one part of PhD training to relate to reflexivity – see what is our role in social scientific research)? However, critical challenges go far beyond this point about false objectivity.

The challenge to objective science: 1. the role of emancipatory research

One aspect of feminist and postcolonial social science is to go beyond the simple rejection of the idea of objective social science: a further key (or perhaps primary) aim is to generate research with emancipatory elements. This may involve producing research questions with explicit normative elements and combining research with recommendations on social and political change.

The challenge to objective science: 2. a rejection of the dominant scientific method?

A second aspect is the challenge to the idea that one dominant conception of scientific method is correct. Instead, one might describe the scientific rules developed by one social group to the exclusion of others. This may involve historical analysis to identify the establishment of an elite white male dominance of science in the ‘West’, and the ‘Western’ dominance of science across the world.

To such scientists, a challenge to these criteria seems ridiculous: why reject the scientific principles that help us produce objective science and major social and technological advances? To their challengers, this response may reflect a desire to protect the rules associated with elite privilege, and to maintain dominance over the language we use to establish which social groups should be respected as the generators of knowledge (the recipients of prestige and funding, and perhaps the actors most influential in policy).

The challenge to objective science: 3. the democratisation of knowledge production

A third is the challenge to the idea that only well-trained scientists can produce valuable knowledge. This may involve valuing the knowledge of lived experience as a provider of new perspectives (particularly when people are in the unusual position to understand and compare their perspective and those of others). It also involves the development of new research methods and principles, combined with a political challenge to the dominance of a small number of scientific methods (for example, see rejections of the hierarchy of knowledge at which the systematic review of randomised control trials is often at the top).

Revisiting the live debate on the NPF and critical/ interpretive studies

This seems like good context for some of the debate on the NPF (see this special issue). One part of the debate may be about fundamentally different ideas about how we do research: do we adhere to specific scientific principles, or reject them in favour of a focus on, for example, generating meaning from statements and actions in particular contexts?

Another part may reflect wider political views on what these scientific principles represent (an elitist and exclusionary research agenda, whose rules reinforce existing privileges) and the role of alternative methods, in which critical policy studies may play an important part. In other words, we may be witnessing such a heated debate because critical theorists see the NPF as symbolic of attempts by some scholars to (a) reassert a politically damaging approach to academic research and (b) treat other forms of research as unscientific.

Where do we go from here?

If so, we have raised the stakes considerably. When I wrote previously about the problems of combining the insights and knowledge from different theories, it often related to the practical problems of research resources and potential for conceptual misunderstanding. Now, we face a more overt political dimension to social research and some fundamentally different understandings of its role by different social groups.

Can these understandings be reconciled, or will they remain ‘incommensurable’, in which we cannot generate agreement on the language to use to communicate research, and therefore the principles on which to compare the relative merits of approaches? I don’t know.

Initial further reading

Paying attention to this intellectual and political challenge provides a good way ‘in’ to reading that may seem relatively unfamiliar, at least for students with (a) some grounding in the policy theories I describe, and (b) looking to expand their horizons.

Possibly the closest link to our focus is when:

First, we know that policy problems do not receive policymaker attention because they are objectively important. Instead, actors compete to define issues and maximise attention to that definition. Second, we do the same when we analyse public policy: we decide which issues are worthy of study and how to define problems. Bacchi (1999) argues that the ‘conventional’ policy theorists (including Simon, Bardach, Lindblom, Wildavsky) try to ‘stand back from the policy process’ to give advice from afar, while others (including Fischer, Drysek, Majone) “recognise the analysts’ necessarily normative involvement in advice giving” (1999: 200). Combining both points, Bacchi argues that feminists should engage in both processes – to influence how policymakers and analysts define issues – to, for example, challenge ‘constructions of problems which work to disempower women’ (1999: 204). This is a topic (how should academics engage in the policy process?) which I follow up in a study of EBPM.

For a wider discussion of feminist studies and methods, see:

  • Fonow and Cook’s ‘pragmatic’ discussion about how to do feminist public policy research based on key principles:

‘Our original analysis of feminist approaches to social science research in women’s studies revealed some commonalities, which we articulated as guiding principles of feminist methodology: first, the necessity of continuously and reflexively attending to the significance of gender and gender asymmetry as a basic feature of all social life, including the conduct of research; second, the centrality of consciousness-raising or debunking as a specific methodological tool and as a general orientation or way of seeing; third, challenging the norm of objectivity that assumes that the subject and object of research can be separated from each other and that personal and/or grounded experiences are unscientific; fourth, concern for the ethical implications of feminist research and recognition of the exploitation of women as objects of knowledge; and finally, emphasis on the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research and research results’ (Fonow and Cook, 2005: 2213).

  • Lovenduski on early attempts to reinterpret political science through the lens of feminist theory/ research.

Note the links between our analysis of power/ideas and institutions as the norms and rules (informal and formal, written and unwritten) which help produce regular patterns of behaviour which benefit some and exclude others (and posts on bounded rationality, EBPM and complexity: people use simple rules to turn a complex world into manageable strategies, but to whose benefit?).

With feminist research comes a shift of focus from sex (as a primarily biological definition) and gender (as a definition based on norms and roles performed by individuals), and therefore the (ideal-type) ‘codes of masculinity and femininity’ which underpin political action and even help define which aspects of public policy are public or private. This kind of research links to box 3.3 in Understanding Public Policy (note that it relates to my discussion of Schattschneider and the privatisation/ socialisation of conflict, which he related primarily to ‘big business’).

box 3.3 gender policy

Then see two articles which continue our theme of combining theories and insights carefully:

  • Kenny’s discussion of feminist institutionalism, which seems like one of many variants of new institutionalism (e.g. this phrase could be found in many discussions of new institutionalism: ‘seemingly neutral institutional processes and practices are in fact embedded in hidden norms and values, privileging certain groups over others’ – Kenny, 2007: 95) but may involve ‘questioning the very foundations and assumptions of mainstream institutional theory’. Kenny argues that few studies of new institutionalism draw on feminist research (‘there has been little dialogue between the two fields’) and, if they were to do so, may produce very different analyses of power and ‘the political’. This point reinforces the problems I describe in combining theories when we ignore the different meanings that people attach to apparently identical concepts.
  • Mackay and Meier’s concern (quoted here) that new institutionalism could be ‘an enabling framework – or an intellectual strait-jacket” for feminist scholarship’. Kenny and Mackay identify similar issues about ‘epistemological incompatibilities’ when we combine approaches such as feminist research and rational choice institutionalism.
  • These approaches receive more coverage in the 2nd edition of Understanding Public Policy, and are summarised in Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

Here is one example of a link between ‘postcolonial’ studies and public policy:

  • Munshi and Kurian’s identify the use of ‘postcolonial filters’ to reinterpret the framing of corporate social responsibility, describing ‘the old colonial strategy of reputation management among elite publics at the expense of marginalized publics’ which reflects a ‘largely Western, top-down way of doing or managing things’. In this case, we are talking about frames as structures or dominant ways to understand the world. Actors exercise power to reinforce a particular way of thinking which benefits some at the expense of others. Munshi and Kurian describe a ‘dominant, largely Western, model of economic growth and development’ which corporations seek to protect with reference to, for example, the ‘greenwashing’ of their activities to divert attention from the extent to which ‘indigenous peoples and poorer communities in a number of developing countries “are generally the victims of environmental degradation mostly caused by resource extractive operations of MNCs in the name of global development”’ (see p516).

It is also worth noting that I have, in some ways, lumped feminism and postcolonialism together when they are separate fields with different (albeit often overlapping and often complementary) traditions. See for example Emejulu’s Beyond Feminism’s White Gaze.

For more discussion, please see

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, feminism, public policy, Social change