Tag Archives: facts

The role of evidence in UK policymaking after Brexit

We are launching a series of papers on evidence and policy in Palgrave Communications. Of course, we used Brexit as a hook, to tap into current attention to instability and major policy change. However, many of the issues we discuss are timeless and about surprising levels of stability and continuity in policy processes, despite periods of upheaval.

In my day, academics would build their careers on being annoying, and sometimes usefully annoying. This would involve developing counterintuitive insights, identifying gaps in analysis, and challenging a ‘common wisdom’ in political studies. Although not exactly common wisdom, the idea of ‘post truth’ politics, a reduction in respect for ‘experts’, and a belief that Brexit is a policymaking game-changer, are great candidates for some annoyingly contrary analysis.

In policy studies, many of us argue that things like elections, changes of government, and even constitutional changes are far less important than commonly portrayed. In media and social media accounts, we find hyperbole about the destabilising and changing impact of the latest events. In policy studies, we often stress stability and continuity.  My favourite old example regards the debates from the 1970s about electoral reform. While some were arguing that first-past-the-post was a disastrous electoral system since it produces swings of government, instability, and incoherent policy change, Richardson and Jordan would point out surprisingly high levels of stability and continuity.

Finer and Jordan Cairney

In part, this is because the state is huge, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny part of it, and therefore most of it is processed as a low level of government, out of the public spotlight.

UPP p106

These insights still have profound relevance today, for two key reasons.

  1. The role of experts is more important than you think

This larger process provides far more opportunities for experts than we’d associate with ‘tip of the iceberg’ politics.

Some issues are salient. They command the interest of elected politicians, and those politicians often have firm beliefs that limit the ‘impact’ of any evidence that does not support their beliefs.

However, most issues are not salient. They command minimal interest, they are processed by other policymakers, and those policymakers are looking for information and advice from reliable experts.

Indeed, a lot of policy studies highlight the privileged status of certain experts, at the expense of most members of the public (which is a useful corrective to the story, associated with Brexit, that the public is too emotionally driven, too sceptical of experts, and too much in charge of the future of constitutional change).

So, Brexit will change the role of experts, but expect that change to relate to the venue in which they engage, and the networks of which they are a part, more than the practices of policymakers. Much policymaking is akin to an open door to government for people with useful information and a reputation for being reliable in their dealings with policymakers.

  1. Provide less evidence for more impact

If the problem is that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, the solution is not to bombard them with a huge amount of evidence. Instead, assume that they seek ways to ignore almost all information while still managing to make choices. The trick may be to provide just enough information to prompt demand for more, not oversupply evidence on the assumption that you have only one chance for influence.

With Richard Kwiatkoswki, I draw on policy and psychology studies to help us understand how to supply evidence to anyone using ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways to limit their attention, information processing, and thought before making decisions.

Our working assumption is that policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Their solutions often seem to be driven more by their emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, partly because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach. If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss our criticism as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, restating the need for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, and naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive.

Instead, try out these strategies:

  1. Develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking

Instead of automatically bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond pragmatically, to pursue the kinds of evidence informed policymaking that is realistic in a complex and constantly changing policymaking environment.

  1. Tailor framing strategies to policymaker cognition

The usual advice is to minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation, and use strategies tailored to the ways in which people pay attention to, and remember information.

The less usual advice includes:

  • If policymakers are combining cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals.
  • If policymakers are making quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and a clear moral.
  • If policymakers are reflecting a ‘group emotion’, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with the ‘lens’ through which actors in those coalitions understand the world.
  1. Identify the right time to influence individuals and processes

Understand what it means to find the right time to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’.

‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, which involves how open they are to, say, new arguments and evidence.

Or, timing refers to a ‘window of opportunity’ when political conditions are aligned. I discuss the latter in a separate paper on effective ‘policy entrepreneurs’.

  1. Adapt to real-world organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear

Politicians may appear confident of policy and with a grasp of facts and details, but are (a) often vulnerable and therefore defensive or closed to challenging information, and/ or (b) inadequate in organisational politics, or unable to change the rules of their organisations.

So, develop pragmatic strategies: form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.

  1. Recognise that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups.

Identifying only the biases in our competitors may help mask academic/ scientific examples of group-think, and it may be counterproductive to use euphemistic terms like ‘low information’ to describe actors whose views we do not respect. This is a particular problem for scholars if they assume that most people do not live up to their own imagined standards of high-information-led action (often described as a ‘deficit model’ of engagement).

It may be more effective to recognise that: (a) people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves.; and, (b) a fundamental aspect of evolutionary psychology is that people need to get on with each other, so showing simple respect – or going further, to ‘mirror’ that person’s non-verbal signals – can be useful even if it looks facile.

This leaves open the ethical question of how far we should go to identify our biases, accept the need to work with people whose ways of thinking we do not share, and how far we should go to secure their trust without lying about one’s beliefs.

At the very least, we do not suggest these 5 strategies as a way to manipulate people for personal gain. They are better seen as ways to use psychology to communicate well. They are also likely to be as important to policy engagement regardless of Brexit. Venues may change quickly, but the ways in which people process information and make choices may not.


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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, UK politics and policy

Writing a policy paper and blog post #POLU9UK

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

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

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


Be concise, be smart

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

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

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

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

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

Be creative

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

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

Be reflective

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

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

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

Be a blogger

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

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

Be reflective once again

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

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

See also: Professionalism online with social media

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







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

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

A key theme of some of the early analysis of Brexit is that many voters followed their feelings rather than paying attention to facts*.

For some people, this is just a part of life: to describe decision-making as ‘rational’ is to deny the inevitable use of heuristics, gut feelings, emotions, and deeply held beliefs.

For others, it is indicative of a worrying ‘post-truth politics’, or a new world in which campaigners play fast and loose with evidence and say anything to win, while experts are mistrusted and ignored or excluded from debates, and voters don’t get the facts they need to make informed decisions.

One solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement.

Another is more pragmatic: let’s work out how to maximise the effectiveness of experts and evidence in political debate. So far, we know more about what doesn’t work. For example:

  • Don’t simply supply people with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely to demand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

I’m honestly not sure how to tell good stories to capture the public imagination (beyond that time I put the word ‘shite’ in a title) but, for example, we have a lot to learn from traditional media (and from some of the most effective academics who write for them) and from scholars who study story-telling and discourse (although, ironically, discourse analysis is often one of the most jargon-filled areas in the Academy).

We have been here before (in policy studies)

This issue of agenda setting is a key feature in current discussions of (the alleged lack of) evidence-based policymaking. Many academics, in areas such as health and environmental policy, bemoan the inevitability of ‘policy based evidence’. Some express the naïve view that policymakers should think like scientists and/ or that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts.

Yet, a more pragmatic solution is to work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate. Only then can we produce evidence-based strategies based on how the world works rather than how we would like it to work.

See also:

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

Evidence-based policymaking: lecture and Q&A

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

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking (London: Palgrave Pivot) PDF

Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

* Then, many people on twitter vented their negative feelings about other people expressing their feelings.


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

Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy?

A key argument in policy studies is that it is impossible to separate facts and values when making policy. We often treat our beliefs as facts, or describe certain facts as objective, but perhaps only to simplify our lives or support a political strategy (a ‘self-evident’ fact is very handy for an argument). People make empirical claims infused with their values and often fail to realise just how their values or assumptions underpin their claims.

This is not an easy argument to explain. One strategy is to use extreme examples to make the point. For example, Herbert Simon points to Hitler’s Mein Kampf as the ultimate example of value-based claims masquerading as facts. We can also draw on some embarrassing historic academic research which states that the evidence exists to show that men are more intelligent than women and some races are demonstrably superior to others. In such cases, we would point out, for example, that the design of the research helped produce such conclusions: our values underpin our assumptions about how to measure intelligence or other measures of superiority.

‘Wait a minute, though’ (you might say). “What about simple examples in which you can state facts with relative certainty – such as the statement ‘there are 449 words in this post’”. ‘Fair enough’, I’d say (you will have to speak with a philosopher to get a better debate about the meaning of your 449 words claim). But this statement doesn’t take you far in policy terms. Instead, you’d want to say that there are too many or too few words, before you decided what to do about it.

In that sense, we have the most practical explanation of the unclear fact/ value distinction: the use of facts in policy is to underpin evaluations based on values. For example, we might point to the routine uses of data to argue that a public service is in ‘crisis’ or that there is a public health related epidemic. We might argue that people only talk about ‘policy problems’ they think we have a duty to solve them.

Or, facts and values often seem the hardest to separate when we evaluate the success and failure of policy solutions, since the measures used for evaluation are as political as any other part of the policy process. The gathering and presentation of facts is inherently a political exercise, and our use of facts to encourage a policy response is inseparable from our beliefs about how they world should work.

To think further about the relevance of this discussion, see this post on policy evaluation, this page on the use of evidence in policymaking, this book by Douglas, and this short commentary on ‘honest brokers’ by Jasanoff.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), UK politics and policy

Fact: Social Construction is Briliant

dawkins tweet


A very short note on Richard Dawkins’ tweet because I am easily distracted. I’m going to call all these facts, which means that they are not facts (although we might call them self-evident):

1. Fact: no one is omniscient.

2. Fact: we can’t perceive or know everything at once (that’s point 1 said in a different way).

3. Fact: we pay attention to some facts and ignore others.

4. Fact: no two people have the same fingerprints (unless they do – it’s just an analogy).

5. Fact: no two people pay the same attention to the same facts.

6. Fact: so, each person perceives the world in a different way, based on the things to which they pay attention and ignore.

7. Fact: this prior knowledge informs their belief system which influences the ways in which they gather facts.

8. Fact: people generally gain this knowledge is particular settings, including schools. They are given facts and often asked to accept them on trust. You don’t go to school and the teacher says ‘what do you think about gravity?’. They say ‘this is a fact and you’ll damn well believe it, sonny/ missy’.

9. Fact: different groups present facts in different ways, so people learn in different ways and different groups end up perceiving the real world in all sorts of different ways. Then they go on twitter and often make an arse of themselves during aimless arguments.

10. Fact: you can make all these points without concluding that all opinions are equally valid. My belief is what counts, mate – socially constructed or not (fact: the assertion that I am right is an exercise of power to put the idiots in their place).

11. Fact: people who talk about social construction aren’t all arses using big words to look clever. Some of them are, but you would expect that with the law of averages (fact).

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