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Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol

By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes.

There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes.

To demonstrate these links, we present:

  1. A long-read blog post to (a) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing, adopted by the Scottish Government but not the UK Government) to (b) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications. We then added some examples of further reading.
  2. A 45 minute podcast to describe and explain these developments (click below or scroll to the end)

Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland: background and development

Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol was introduced in Scotland in 2018. In 2012, the UK Government had also announced plans to introduce MUP, but within a year dopped the policy following intense industry pressure. What do these two journeys tell us about policy processes?

When MUP was first proposed by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems in 2007, it was a novel policy idea. Public health advocates had long argued that raising the price of alcohol could help tackle harmful consumption. However, conventional tax increases were not always passed onto consumers, so would not necessarily raise prices in the shops (and the Scottish Government did not have such taxation powers). MUP appeared to present a neat solution to this problem. It quickly became a prominent policy goal of public health advocates in Scotland and across the UK, while gaining increasing attention, and support, from the global alcohol policy community.

In 2008, the UK Minister for Health, Dawn Primarolo, had commissioned researchers at the University of Sheffield to look into links between alcohol pricing and harm. The Sheffield team developed economic models to analysis the predicted impact of different systems. MUP was included, and the ‘Sheffield Model’ would go on to play a decisive role in developing the case for the policy.

What problem would MUP help to solve?

Descriptions of the policy problem often differed in relation to each government. In the mid-2000s, alcohol harm had become a political problem for the UK government. Increasing consumption, alongside changes to the night-time economy, had started to gain widespread media attention. In 2004, just as a major liberalisation of the licensing system was underway in England, news stories began documenting the apparent horrors of ‘Binge Britain’: focusing on public drunkenness and disorder, but also growing rates of liver disease and alcohol-related hospital admissions.

In 2004, influential papers such as the Daily Mail began to target New Labour alcohol policy

Politicians began to respond, and the issue became especially useful for the Conservatives who were developing a narrative that Britain was ‘broken’ under New Labour. Labour’s liberalising reforms of alcohol licensing could conveniently be linked to this political framing. The newly formed Alcohol Health Alliance, a coalition set up under the leadership of Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, was also putting pressure on the UK Government to introduce stricter controls. In Scotland, while much of the debate on alcohol focused on crime and disorder, Scottish advocates were focused on framing the problem as one of public health. Emerging evidence showed that Scotland had dramatically higher rates of alcohol-related illness and death than the rest of Europe – a situation strikingly captured in a chart published in the Lancet.

Source: Leon, D. and McCambridge, J. (2006). Liver cirrhosis mortality rates in Britain from 1950 to 2002: an analysis of routine data. Lancet 367

The notion that Scotland faced an especially acute public health problem with alcohol was supported by key figures in the increasingly powerful Scottish National Party (in government since 2007), which, around this time, had developed working relationships with Alcohol Focus Scotland and other advocacy groups.

What happened next?

The SNP first announced that it would support MUP in 2008, but it did not implement this change until 2018. There are two key reasons for the delay:

  1. Its minority government did not achieve enough parliamentary support to pass legislation. It then formed a majority government in 2011, and its legislation to bring MUP into law was passed in 2012.  
  2. Court action took years to resolve. The alcohol industry, which is historically powerful in Scotland, was vehemently opposed. A coalition of industry bodies, led by the Scotch Whisky Association, took the Scottish Government to court in an attempt to prove the policy was illegal. Ultimately, this process would take years, and conclude in rulings by the European Court of Justice (2016), Scottish Court of Session Inner House (2016), and UK Supreme Court (2017) which found in favour of the Scottish Government.

In England, to the surprise of many people, the Coalition Government announced in March 2012 that it too would introduce MUP, specifically to reduce binge drinking and public disorder. This different framing was potentially problematic, however, since the available evidence suggested (and subsequent evaluation has confirmed) that MUP would have only a small impact on crime. Nonetheless, health advocates were happy,  with one stating that ‘I do not mind too much how it was framed. What I mind about is how it measures up’.

Once again, the alcohol industry swung into action, launching a campaign led by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, asking ‘Why should moderate drinkers pay more?’

This public campaign was accompanied by intense behind-the-scenes lobbying, aided by the fact that the leadership of industry groups had close ties to Government and that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beer had the largest membership of any APPG in Westminster. The industry campaign made much of the fact there was little evidence to suggest MUP would reduce crime, but also argued strongly that the modelling produced by Sheffield University was not valid evidence in the first place. A year after the adopting the policy, the UK Government announced a U-turn and MUP was dropped.

How can we use policy theories and concepts to interpret these dynamics?

Here are some examples of using policy theories and concepts as a lens to interpret these developments.

1. What was the impact of evidence in the case for policy change?

While public health researchers often expect (or at least promote) ‘evidence based’ policymaking, insights from research identify three main reasons why policymakers do not make evidence-based choices:

First, many political actors (including policymakers) have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence.

The assessment, promotion, and use of evidence is highly contested, and never speaks for itself.

Second, policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence to make choices.

They address ‘bounded rationality’ by using two cognitive shortcuts: ‘rational’ measures set goals and identify trusted sources, while ‘irrational’ measures use gut instinct, emotions, and firmly held beliefs.

Third, policymakers do not control the policy process.

There is no centralised and orderly policy cycle. Rather, policymaking involves policymakers and influencers spread across many authoritative ‘venues’, with each venue having its own rules, networks, and ways of thinking.

In that context, policy theories identify the importance of contestation between policy actors, and describe the development of policy problems, and how evidence fits in. Approaches include:

The study of framing

The acceptability of a policy solution will often depend on how the problem is described. Policymakers use evidence to reduce uncertainty, or a lack of information around problems and how to solve them. However, politics is about exercising power to reduce ambiguity, or the ability to interpret the same problem in different ways.

By suggesting MUP would solve problems around crime, the UK Government made it easier for opponents to claim the policy wasn’t evidence-based. In Scotland, policymakers and advocates focused on health, where the evidence was stronger. In addition, the SNP’s approach fitted within a wider political independence frame, in which more autonomy meant more innovation.

The Narrative Policy Framework

Policy actors tell stories to appeal to the beliefs (or exploit the cognitive shortcuts) of their audiences. A narrative contains a setting (the policy problem), characters (such as the villain who caused it, or the victim of its effects), plot (e.g. a heroic journey to solve the problem), and moral (e.g. the solution to the problem).

Supporters of MUP tended to tell the story that there was an urgent public health  crisis, caused largely by the alcohol industry, and with many victims, but that higher alcohol prices pointed to one way out of this hole. Meanwhile opponents told the story of an overbearing ‘nanny state’, whose victims – ordinary, moderate drinkers – should be left alone by government.

Social Construction and Policy Design

Policymakers make strategic and emotional choices, to identify ‘good’ populations deserving of government help, and ‘bad’ populations deserving punishment or little help. These judgements inform policy design (government policies and practices) and provide positive or dispiriting signals to citizens.

For example, opponents of MUP rejected the idea that alcohol harms existed throughout the population. They focused instead on dividing the majority of moderate drinkers from irresponsible minority of binge drinkers, suggesting that MUP would harm the former more than help the latter.

Multi-centric policymaking

This competition to frame policy problems takes place in political systems that contain many ‘centres’, or venues for authoritative choice. Some diffusion of power is by choice, such as to share responsibilities with devolved and local governments. Some is by necessity, since policymakers can only pay attention to a small proportion of their responsibilities, and delegate the rest to unelected actors such as civil servants and public bodies (who often rely on interest groups to process policy).

For example, ‘alcohol policy’ is really a collection of instruments made or influenced by many bodies, including (until Brexit) European organisations deciding on the legality of MUP, UK and Scottish governments, as well as local governments responsible for alcohol licensing. In Scotland, this delegation of powers worked in favour of MUP, since Alcohol Focus Scotland were funded by the Scottish Government to help deliver some of their alcohol policy goals, and giving them more privileged access than would otherwise have been the case.

The role of evidence in MUP

In the case of MUP, similar evidence was available and communicated to policymakers, but used and interpreted differently, in different centres, by the politicians who favoured or opposed MUP.

In Scotland, the promotion, use of, and receptivity to research evidence – on the size of the problem and potential benefit of a new solution – played a key role in increasing political momentum. The forms of evidence were complimentary. The ‘hard’ science on a potentially effective solution seemed authoritative (although few understood the details), and was preceded by easily communicated and digested evidence on a concrete problem:

  1. There was compelling evidence of a public health problem put forward by a well-organised ‘advocacy coalition’ (see below) which focused clearly on health harms. In government, there was strong attention to this evidence, such as the Lancet chart which one civil servant described as ‘look[ing] like the north face of the Eiger’. There were also influential ‘champions’ in Government willing to frame action as supporting the national wellbeing.
  2. Reports from Sheffield University appeared to provide robust evidence that MUP could reduce harm, and advocacy was supported by research from Canada which suggested that similar policies there had been successful elsewhere.

Advocacy in England was also well-organised and influential, but was dealing with a larger – and less supportive – Government machine, and the dominant political frame for alcohol harms remained crime and disorder rather than health.

Debates on MUP modelling exemplify these differences in evidence communication and use. Those in favour appealed to econometric models, but sometimes simplifying their complexity and blurring the distinction between projected outcomes and proof of efficacy. Opponents went the other way and dismissed the modelling as mere speculation. What is striking is the extent to which an incredibly complex, and often poorly understand, set of econometric models – and the ’Sheffield Model’ in particular – came to occupy centre stage in a national policy debate. Katikireddi and colleagues talked about this as an example of evidence as rhetoric:

  1. Support became less about engagement with  the econometric modelling, and more an indicator of general concern about alcohol harm and the power of the industry.
  2. Scepticism was often viewed as the ‘industry position’, and an indicator of scepticism towards public health policy more broadly.

2. Who influences policy change?

Advocacy plays a key role in alcohol policy, with industry and other actors competing with public health groups to define and solve alcohol policy problems. It prompts our attention to policy networks, or the actors who make and influence policy.

According to the Advocacy Coalition Framework:

People engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form advocacy coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. The action takes place within a subsystem devoted to a policy issue, and a wider policymaking process that provides constraints and opportunities to coalitions. Beliefs about how to interpret policy problems act as a glue to bind actors together within coalitions. If the policy issue is technical and humdrum, there may be room for routine cooperation. If the issue is highly charged, then people romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.

MUP became a highly charged focus of contestation between a coalition of public health advocates, who saw themselves as fighting for the wellbeing of the wider community (and who believed fundamentally that government had a duty to promote population health), and a coalition of industry actors who were defending their commercial interests, while depicting public health policies as illiberal and unfair.

3. Was there a ‘window of opportunity’ for MUP?

Policy theories – including Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – describe a tendency for policy change to be minor in most cases and major in few. Paradigmatic policy change is rare and may take place over decades, as in the case of UK tobacco control where many different policy instruments changed from the 1980s. Therefore, a major change in one instrument could represent a sea-change overall or a modest adjustment to the overall approach.

Multiple Streams Analysis is a popular way to describe the adoption of a new policy solution such as MUP. It describes disorderly policymaking, in which attention to a policy problem does not produce the inevitable development, implementation, and evaluation of solutions. Rather, these ‘stages’ should be seen as separate ‘streams’.  A ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change occurs when the three ‘streams’ come together:

  • Problem stream. There is high attention to one way to define a policy problem.
  • Policy stream. A technically and politically feasible solution already exists (and is often pushed by a ‘policy entrepreneur’ with the resources and networks to exploit opportunities).
  • Politics stream. Policymakers have the motive and opportunity to choose that solution.

However, these windows open and close, often quickly, and often without producing policy change.

This approach can help to interpret different developments in relation to Scottish and UK governments:

Problem stream

  • The Scottish Government paid high attention to public health crises, including the role of high alcohol consumption.
  • The UK government paid often-high attention to alcohol’s role in crime and anti-social behaviour (‘Binge Britain’ and ‘Broken Britain’)

Policy stream

  • In Scotland, MUP connected strongly to the dominant framing, offering a technically feasible solution that became politically feasible in 2011.
  • The UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s made a surprising bid to adopt MUP in 2012, but ministers were divided on its technical feasibility (to address the problem they described) and its political feasibility seemed to be more about distracting from other crises than public health.

Politics stream

  • The Scottish Government was highly motivated to adopt MUP. MUP was a flagship policy for the SNP; an opportunity to prove its independent credentials, and to be seen to address a national public health problem. It had the opportunity from 2011, then faced interest group opposition that delayed implementation.
  • The Coalition Government was ideologically more committed to defending commercial interests, and to framing alcohol harms as one of individual (rather than corporate) responsibility. It took less than a year for the alcohol industry to successfully push for a UK government U-turn.

As a result, MUP became policy (eventually) in Scotland, but the window closed (without resolution) in England.

Further Reading

Nicholls, J. and Greenaway, J. (2015) ‘What is the problem?: Evidence, politics and alcohol policy in England and Wales, 2010–2014’, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 22.2  https://doi.org/10.3109/09687637.2014.993923

Butler, S., Elmeland, K., Nicholls, J. and Thom, B. (2017) Alcohol, power and public health: a comparative study of alcohol policy. Routledge.

Fitzgerald, N. and Angus, C. (2015) Four nations: how evidence–based are alcohol policies and programmes across the UK?

Holden, C. and Hawkins, B. (2013) ‘Whisky gloss’: the alcohol industry, devolution and policy communities in Scotland. Public Policy and Administration, 28(3), pp.253-273.

Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2014) ‘Public Health Policy in the United Kingdom: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Brewing?’ World Medical and Health Policy6, 3, 308-323 PDF

Niamh Fitzgerald and Paul Cairney (2022) ‘National objectives, local policymaking: public health efforts to translate national legislation into local policy in Scottish alcohol licensing’, Evidence and Policyhttps://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16397418342227PDF

Podcast

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Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol Understanding Public Policy (in 1000 and 500 words)

By James Nicholls and Paul Cairney, for the University of Stirling MPH and MPP programmes. There are strong links between the study of public health and public policy. For example, public health scholars often draw on policy theories to help explain (often low amounts of) policy change to foster population health or reduce health inequalities. Studies include a general focus on public health strategies (such as HiAP) or specific policy instruments (such as a ban on smoking in public places). While public health scholars may seek to evaluate or influence policy, policy theories tend to focus on explaining processes and outcomes,. To demonstrate these links, we present this podcast and blog post to (1) use an initial description of a key alcohol policy instrument (minimum unit pricing in Scotland) to (2) describe the application of policy concepts and theories and reflect on the empirical and practical implications.  Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy (wordpress.com)
  1. Using policy theories to interpret public health case studies: the example of a minimum unit price for alcohol
  2. Policy in 500 Words: policymaking environments and their consequences
  3. Policy in 500 Words: bounded rationality and its consequences
  4. Policy in 500 Words: evolutionary theory
  5. Policy in 500 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework

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Filed under 1000 words, 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, alcohol, alcohol policy, podcast, Public health, public policy, Scottish politics, Social change, UK politics and policy

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Defining policy problems and choosing solutions

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview.

When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:

  1. ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
  2. ‘knowledge in the process’, to foster policy analysis (analysis for policy)

The idea is that both elements are analytically separable but mutually informative: policy analysis is crucial to solving real policy problems, policy studies inform the feasibility of analysis, the study of policy analysts informs policy studies, and so on.

Both elements focus on similar questions – such as What is policy? – and explore their descriptive (what do policy actors do?) and prescriptive (what should they do?) implications.

  1. What is the policy problem?

Policy studies tend to describe problem definition in relation to framing, narrative, social construction, power, and agenda setting.

Actors exercise power to generate attention for their preferred interpretation, and minimise attention to alternative frames (to help foster or undermine policy change, or translate their beliefs into policy).

Policy studies incorporate insights from psychology to understand (a) how policymakers might combine cognition and emotion to understand problems, and therefore (b) how to communicate effectively when presenting policy analysis.

Policy studies focus on the power to reduce ambiguity rather than simply the provision of information to reduce uncertainty. In other words, the power to decide whose interpretation of policy problems counts, and therefore to decide what information is policy-relevant.

This (unequal) competition takes place within a policy process over which no actor has full knowledge or control.

The classic 5-8 step policy analysis texts focus on how to define policy problems well, but they vary somewhat in their definition of doing it well (see also C.Smith):

  • Bardach recommends using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention
  • Weimer and Vining and Mintrom recommend beginning with your client’s ‘diagnosis’, placing it in a wider perspective to help analyse it critically, and asking yourself how else you might define it (see also Bacchi, Stone)
  • Meltzer and Schwartz and Dunn identify additional ways to contextualise your client’s definition, such as by generating a timeline to help ‘map’ causation or using ‘problem-structuring methods’ to compare definitions and avoid making too many assumptions on a problem’s cause.
  • Thissen and Walker compare ‘rational’ and ‘argumentative’ approaches, treating problem definition as something to be measured scientifically or established rhetorically (see also Riker).

These approaches compare with more critical accounts that emphasise the role of power and politics to determine whose knowledge is relevant (L.T.Smith) and whose problem definition counts (Bacchi, Stone). Indeed, Bacchi and Stone provide a crucial bridge between policy analysis and policy studies by reflecting on what policy analysts do and why.

  1. What is the policy solution?

In policy studies, it is common to identify counterintuitive or confusing aspects of policy processes, including:

  • Few studies suggest that policy responses actually solve problems (and many highlight their potential to exacerbate them). Rather, ‘policy solutions’ is shorthand for proposed or alleged solutions.
  • Problem definition often sets the agenda for the production of ‘solutions’, but note the phrase solutions chasing problems (when actors have their ‘pet’ solutions ready, and they seek opportunities to promote them).

Policy studies: problem definition informs the feasibility and success of solutions

Generally speaking, to define the problem is to influence assessments of the feasibility of solutions:

  • Technical feasibility. Will they work as intended, given the alleged severity and cause of the problem?
  • Political feasibility. Will they receive sufficient support, given the ways in which key policy actors weigh up the costs and benefits of action?

Policy studies highlight the inextricable connection between technical and political feasibility. Put simply, (a) a ‘technocratic’ choice about the ‘optimality’ of a solution is useless without considering who will support its adoption, and (b) some types of solution will always be a hard sell, no matter their alleged effectiveness (Box 2.3 below).

In that context, policy studies ask: what types of policy tools or instruments are actually used, and how does their use contribute to policy change? Measures include the size, substance, speed, and direction of policy change.

box 2.3 2nd ed UPP

In turn, problem definition informs: the ways in which actors will frame any evaluation of policy success, and the policy-relevance of the evidence to evaluate solutions. Simple examples include:

  • If you define tobacco in relation to: (a) its economic benefits, or (b) a global public health epidemic, evaluations relate to (a) export and taxation revenues, or (b) reductions in smoking in the population.
  • If you define ‘fracking’ in relation to: (a) seeking more benefits than costs, or (b) minimising environmental damage and climate change, evaluations relate to (a) factors such as revenue and effective regulation, or simply (b) how little it takes place.

Policy analysis: recognising and pushing boundaries

Policy analysis texts tend to accommodate these insights when giving advice:

  • Bardach recommends identifying solutions that your audience might consider, perhaps providing a range of options on a notional spectrum of acceptability.
  • Smith highlights the value of ‘precedent’, or relating potential solutions to previous strategies.
  • Weimer and Vining identify the importance of ‘a professional mind-set’ that may be more important than perfecting ‘technical skills’
  • Mintrom notes that some solutions are easier to sell than others
  • Meltzer and Schwartz describe the benefits of making a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
  • Dunn warns against too-narrow forms of ‘evidence based’ analysis which undermine a researcher’s ability to adapt well to the evidence-demands of policymakers
  • Thissen and Walker relate solution feasibility to a wide range of policy analysis ‘styles’

Still, note the difference in emphasis.

Policy analysis education/ training may be about developing the technical skills to widen definitions and apply many criteria to compare solutions.

Policy studies suggest that problem definition and a search for solutions takes place in an environment where many actors apply a much narrower lens and are not interested in debates on many possibilities (particularly if they begin with a solution).

I have exaggerated this distinction between each element, but it is worth considering the repeated interaction between them in practice: politics and policymaking provide boundaries for policy analysis, analysis could change those boundaries, and policy studies help us reflect on the impact of analysts.

I’ll take a quick break, then discuss how this conclusion relates to the idea of ‘entrepreneurial’ policy analysis.

Further reading

Understanding Public Policy (2020: 28) describes the difference between governments paying for and actually using the ‘tools of policy formulation’. To explore this point, see ‘The use and non-use of policy appraisal tools in public policy making‘ and The Tools of Policy Formulation.

p28 upp 2nd ed policy tools

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Catherine Smith (2016) Writing Public Policy

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. See also ‘Designing and implementing policy writing assessments: A practical guide‘ for a handy list of resources (in the article annex).

Catherine Smith (2016) Writing Public Policy (Oxford University Press)

Smith focuses on the communication of policy analysis within US government. Effective communication requires conceptual and contextual awareness’. Policy actors communicate from a particular viewpoint, representing their role, interests, and objectives.

In government, policy analysts often write (1) on behalf of policymakers, projecting a specific viewpoint, and (2) for policy makers, requiring them to (a) work remarkably quickly to (b) produce concise reports to (c) reflect the need to process information efficiently.

Actors outside government are less constrained by (1), but still need to write in a similar way. Their audience makes quick judgements on presentations: the source of information, its relevance, and if they should read it fully.

‘General Method of Communicating in a Policy Process’

Smith identifies the questions to ask yourself when communicating policy analysis, summarised as follows:

‘Step 1: Prepare’

  • To what policy do I refer?
  • Which audiences are relevant?
  • What is the political context, and the major sites of agreement/ disagreement?
  • How do I frame the problem, and which stories are relevant to my audience?

‘Step 2: Plan’

  • What is this communication’s purpose?
  • What is my story and message?
  • What is my role and interest?
  • ‘For whom does this communication speak?’
  • Who is my audience?
  • What will they learn?
  • What is the context and timeframe?
  • What should be the form, content, and tone of the communication?

‘Step 3. Produce’

  • Make a full draft, seek comments during a review, then revise.

Smith provides two ‘checklists’ to assess such communications:

  1. Effectiveness. Speak with an audience in mind, highlight a well-defined problem and purpose, project authority, and use the right form of communication.
  2. Excellence. Focus on clarity, precision, conciseness, and credibility.

Smith then focuses on specific aspects of this general method, including:

  • Framing involves describing the nature of the problem – its scope, and who is affected – and connecting this definition to current or new solutions.
  • Evaluation requires critical skills to question ‘conventional wisdom’ and assess the selective use of information by others. Use the ‘general method’ to ask how others frame problems and solutions, then provide a fresh perspective (compare with Bacchi).
  • Know the Record involves researching previous solutions. This process reflects the importance of ‘precedent’: telling a story of previous attempts to solve the problem helps provide context for new debates (and project your knowledgeability).
  • Know the Arguments involves engaging with the ideas of your allies and competitors. Understand your own position, make a reasoned argument in relation to others, present a position paper, establish its scope (the big picture or specific issue), and think strategically (and ethically) about how to maximise its impact in current political debates.
  • Inform Policymakers suggests maximising policymaker interest by keeping communication concise, polite, and tailored to a policymaker’s values and interests.
  • Public Comment focuses on the importance of working with administrative officials even after legislation is passed (especially if ‘street level bureaucrats’ make policy as they deliver).

Policy analysis in a wider context

Although Smith does not focus on policy process theories, knowledge of policy processes guides this advice. For example, Smith advises that:

  • There is no linear and orderly policy cycle in which to present written analysis. The policymaking environment is more complex and less predictable than this model suggests (although Smith still distinguishes heavily between legislation to make policy and administration to deliver – compare with the ACF)
  • There is no blueprint or uniform template for writing policy analysis. The mix of policy problems is too diverse to manage with one approach, and ‘context’ may be more important than the ‘content’ of your proposal. Consequently, Smith provides a huge number of real-world examples to highlight the need to adapt policy analysis to the task at hand (see also Bacchi on analysts creating problems as they frame them).
  • Policy communication is not a rational/ technical process. It is a political exercise, built on the use of values to frame and try to solve problems. Analysis takes place in often highly divisive debates. People communicate using stories, and they use framing and persuasion techniques. They need to tailor their arguments to specific audiences, rather than hoping that one document could appeal to everyone (see Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox).
  • Everyone may have the ability to frame issues, but only some policymakers ‘have authority to decide’ to pay attention to and interpret problems (see PET).
  • Communication comes in many forms to reflect many possible venues (such as, in the US context, processes of petition and testimony to public hearings alongside appeals to the executive and legislative branches)

See also: Policy Analysis in 750 words (the overview)

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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

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing

framing main

(podcast download)

‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.

For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.

framing with hands

However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:

timber frame

  1. Intentional framing and cognition.

The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):

  • We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
  • These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
  • We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
  • We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.

In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).

In policy theory, framing studies focus on ambiguity: there are many ways in which we can understand and define the same policy problem (note terms such as ‘problem definition’ and a ‘policy image’). Therefore, actors exercise power to draw attention to, and generate support for, one particular understanding at the expense of others. They do this with simple stories or the selective presentation of facts, often coupled with emotional appeals, to manipulate the ways in which we process information.

  1. Frames as structures

Think about the extent to which we take for granted certain ways to understand or frame issues. We don’t begin each new discussion with reference to ‘first principles’. Instead, we discuss issues with reference to:

(a) debates that have been won and may not seem worth revisiting (imagine, for example, the ways in which ‘socialist’ policies are treated in the US)

(b) other well-established ways to understand the world which, when they seem to dominate our ways of thinking, are often described as ‘hegemonic’ or with reference to paradigms.

In such cases, the timber frame metaphor serves two purposes:

(a) we can conclude that it is difficult but not impossible to change.

(b) if it is hidden by walls, we do not see it; we often take it for granted even though we should know it exists.

Framing the social, not physical, world

These metaphors can only take us so far, because the social world does not have such easily identifiable physical structures. Instead, when we frame issues, we don’t just choose where to look; we also influence how people describe what we are looking at. Or, ‘structural’ frames relate to regular patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking which are more difficult to identify than in a building. Consequently, we do not all describe structural constraints in the same way even though, ostensibly, we are looking at the same thing.

In this respect, for example, the well-known ‘Overton window’ is a sort-of helpful but also problematic concept, since it suggests that policymakers are bound to stay within the limits of what Kingdon calls the ‘national mood’. The public will only accept so much before it punishes you in events such as elections. Yet, of course, there is no such thing as the public mood. Rather, some actors (policymakers) make decisions with reference to their perception of such social constraints (how will the public react?) but they also know that they can influence how we interpret those constraints with reference to one or more proxies, including opinion polls, public consultations, media coverage, and direct action:

JEPP public opinion

They might get it wrong, and suffer the consequences, but it still makes sense to say that they have a choice to interpret and adapt to such ‘structural’ constraints.

Framing, power and the role of ideas

We can bring these two ideas about framing together to suggest that some actors exercise power to reinforce dominant ways to think about the world. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group with greater material resources wins and another loses. It also relates to agenda setting. First, actors may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in private or public places?

Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, actors exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’: more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

cloud punctuated equilibrium

See also What is Policy? and the Policy concepts in 1000 words series

(podcast download)

Policymaking can appear stable for long periods, only to be destabilised profoundly. Most policies can stay the same for long periods while a small number change quickly and dramatically. Or, policy change in one issue may be minimal for decades, followed by profound change which sets policy on an entirely new direction. The aim of Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory is to measure and explain these long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. The key concepts are:

Bounded rationality. Policymakers cannot consider all problems and their solutions at all times. For example, government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. They ignore most and promote few to the top of their agenda.

Disproportionate attention. Policymakers often ignore issues or pay them an unusual amount of attention. The lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change. Intense periods of attention to some issues may prompt new ways to understand and seek to solve old problems.

Power and agenda setting. Some groups try to maintain their privileged position by minimizing attention to the policy solutions which benefit them. Others seek to expand attention, to encourage new audiences and participants, to generate debate and new action.

Framing. Groups compete to influence how a problem is framed (understood, defined, categorized and measured) and therefore solved by policymakers. For example, it may be framed as a problem that has largely been solved, leaving the technical details of implementation to experts, or a crisis which should generate widespread attention and immediate action.

Policy monopolies. Groups may enjoy a ‘monopoly of understanding’ when policymakers accept their preferred way to frame an issue for long periods, perhaps even taking it for granted. This monopoly may be ‘institutionalised’ when rules are created and resources devoted to solving the policy problem on those terms.

Venue shopping. To challenge a monopoly in one venue (such as the executive, or one type of government at a particular level), groups may seek an audience in another (such as the legislature, the courts, or another type or level of government).

In Agendas and Instability (1993; 2009), Baumgartner and Jones, use a case study approach to examine these processes in detail. For example, in postwar US nuclear power, they identify a period of major public attention, focused on the pressing need to solve a policy problem, followed by minimal attention – for decades – when the problem appeared to be solved. The government inspired public enthusiasm for nuclear power as a solution to several problems – including the need to reduce energy bills, minimise dependence on other countries for oil, reduce air pollution, and boost employment and economic activity. This positive image, and general sense that the policy problem was solved, supported the formation of a post-war policy monopoly involving the experts implementing policy. Public, media and most government attention fell and the details of policy were left to certain (mainly private sector) experts, federal agencies and congressional committees. The monopoly was only challenged in the 1970s following environmental activist and scientific concern about nuclear safety. Groups used this new, negative, portrayal of the nuclear solution to generate concerned interest in new venues, including the courts, congressional committees and, particularly following a major accident at Three Mile Island, the public. The policy monopoly – the way in which nuclear power was framed, and the institutions established to implement policy – was destroyed.  Then, a new, negative, image became dominant for decades – and a post-war policy of power plant expansion was replaced by a moratorium and increased regulation. Only recently has the resurgence of nuclear power become a serious possibility.

In The Politics of Attention (2005), Jones and Baumgartner’s focus shifts to more general observations of selective attention (they highlight over ‘400,000 observations collected as part of the Policy Agendas Project’). Policymakers are unwilling to focus on certain issues for ideological and pragmatic reasons (e.g. some solutions may be too unpopular to consider; there is an established view within government about how to address the issue). They are also unable to pay attention because the focus on one issue means ignoring 99 others. Change may require a critical mass of attention to overcome the conservatism of decision makers and shift their attention from competing problems. If levels of external pressure reach this tipping point, they can cause major and infrequent punctuations rather than smaller and more regular policy changes: the burst in attention and communication becomes self-reinforcing; new approaches are considered; different ‘weights’ are applied to the same types of information; policy is driven ideologically by new actors; and/or the ‘new’ issue sparks off new conflicts between political actors. Information processing is therefore characterized by ‘stasis interrupted by bursts of innovation’ and policy responses are unpredictable and episodic rather than continuous. One key example is the annual budget process which, like many other examples of political activity, does not display a ‘normal distribution’ of cases. Instead, it is characterized by a huge number of minimal changes and a small number of huge changes.

The trend in Baumgartner and Jones’ work has been to move from the specific to the ‘universal’; from some cases in one country to many cases in many countries. Their initial assumption was that many of the processes they observed in case studies resulted from the peculiarities of the US system. Yet, concepts such as bounded rationality, selective attention, policy monopolies and venue shopping should be applicable to all political systems. Punctuated equilibrium theory helps us to balance a focus on the specific and the general. We can use these concepts to generate empirical questions about why the policymakers, institutions and venues of specific political systems prompt particular problems and solutions to be addressed and others to be ignored. We can also use them to identify the same overall patterns – based on a mixture of stasis, stability and continuity disrupted by innovation, instability, and change – in many systems.

To read more, click here to get a Green Access version of chapter 9 of this book discussed here.

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