All going well, it will be out in November 2019. We are now at the proofing stage.
I thank James Georgalakis for inviting me to speak at the inaugural event of IDS’ new Evidence into Policy and Practice Series, and the audience for giving extra meaning to my story about the politics of ‘evidence-based based policymaking’. The talk (using powerpoint) and Q&A is here:
James invited me to respond to some of the challenges raised to my talk – in his summary of the event – so here it is.
I’m working on a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, leaving some of the story open to interpretation. As a result, much of the meaning of this story – and, in particular, the focus on limiting participation – depends on the audience.
For example, consider the impact of the same story on audiences primarily focused on (a) scientific evidence and policy, or (b) participation and power.
Normally, when I talk about evidence and policy, my audience is mostly people with scientific or public health backgrounds asking why do policymakers ignore scientific evidence? I am usually invited to ruffle feathers, mostly by challenging a – remarkably prevalent – narrative that goes like this:
In that context, I suggest that there are many claims to policy-relevant knowledge, policymakers have to ignore most information before making choices, and they are not in control of the policy process for which they are ostensibly in charge.
Limiting participation as a strategic aim
Then, I say to my audience that – if they are truly committed to maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy – they will need to consider how far they will go to get what they want. I use the metaphor of an ethical ladder in which each rung offers more influence in exchange for dirtier hands: tell stories and wait for opportunities, or demonise your opponents, limit participation, and humour politicians when they cherry-pick to reinforce emotional choices.
It’s ‘show don’t tell’ but I hope that the take-home point for most of the audience is that they shouldn’t focus so much on one aim – maximising the use of scientific evidence – to the detriment of other important aims, such as wider participation in politics beyond a reliance on a small number of experts. I say ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ but invite the audience to reflect on which prizes they should seek, and the trade-offs between them.
Limited participation – and ‘windows of opportunity’ – as an empirical finding
I did suggest that most policymaking happens away from the sphere of ‘exciting’ and ‘unruly’ politics. Put simply, people have to ignore almost every issue almost all of the time. Each time they focus their attention on one major issue, they must – by necessity – ignore almost all of the others.
For me, the political science story is largely about the pervasiveness of policy communities and policymaking out of the public spotlight.
The logic is as follows. Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. They delegate the rest to bureaucrats at lower levels of government. Bureaucrats lack specialist knowledge, and rely on other actors for information and advice. Those actors trade information for access. In many cases, they develop effective relationships based on trust and a shared understanding of the policy problem.
Trust often comes from a sense that everyone has proven to be reliable. For example, they follow norms or the ‘rules of the game’. One classic rule is to contain disputes within the policy community when actors don’t get what they want: if you complain in public, you draw external attention and internal disapproval; if not, you are more likely to get what you want next time.
For me, this is key context in which to describe common strategic concerns:
Where is the power analysis in all of this?
I rarely use the word power directly, partly because – like ‘politics’ or ‘democracy’ – it is an ambiguous term with many interpretations (see Box 3.1). People often use it without agreeing its meaning and, if it means everything, maybe it means nothing.
However, you can find many aspects of power within our discussion. For example, insider and outsider strategies relate closely to Schattschneider’s classic discussion in which powerful groups try to ‘privatise’ issues and less powerful groups try to ‘socialise’ them. Agenda setting is about using resources to make sure issues do, or do not, reach the top of the policy agenda, and most do not.
These aspects of power sometimes play out in public, when:
However, they are no less important when they play out routinely:
In other words, the word ‘power’ is often hidden because the most profound forms of power often seem to be hidden.
In the context of our discussion, power comes from the ability to define some evidence as essential and other evidence as low quality or irrelevant, and therefore define some people as essential or irrelevant. It comes from defining some issues as exciting and worthy of our attention, or humdrum, specialist and only relevant to experts. It is about the subtle, unseen, and sometimes thoughtless ways in which we exercise power to harness people’s existing beliefs and dominate their attention as much as the transparent ways in which we mobilise resources to publicise issues. Therefore, to ‘maximise the use of evidence’ sounds like an innocuous collective endeavour, but it is a highly political and often hidden use of power.
This post provides (a generous amount of) background for my ANZSOG talk Teaching evidence based policy to fly: transferring sound policies across the world.
The event’s description sums up key conclusions in the literature on policy learning and policy transfer:
In this post, I connect these conclusions to broader themes in policy studies, which suggest that:
As usual, I suggest that we focus less on how we think we’d like to do it, and more on how people actually do it.
Policy transfer describes the use of evidence about policy in one political system to help develop policy in another. Taken at face value, it sounds like a great idea: why would a government try to reinvent the wheel when another government has shown how to do it?
Therefore, wouldn’t it be nice if I turned up to the lecture, equipped with a ‘blueprint’ for ‘evidence based’ policy transfer, and declared how to do it in a series of realistic and straightforward steps? Unfortunately, there are three main obstacles:
Instead, policy learning is a political process – involving the exercise of power to determine what and how to learn – and it is difficult to separate policy transfer from the wider use of evidence and ideas in policy processes.
Let’s take each of these points in turn, before reflecting on their implications for any X-step guide:
3 reasons why ‘evidence based’ does not describe policymaking
Therefore, it is unclear how one government can, or should, generate evidence of another government’s policy success.
The generation of policy transfer lessons is a highly political process in which actors adapt to this need to prioritise information while competing with each other. They exercise power to: prioritise some information and downplay the rest, define the nature of the policy problem, and evaluate the success of another government’s solutions. There is a strong possibility that policymakers will import policy solutions without knowing if, and why, they were successful.
We should not treat ‘policy transfer’ as separate from the policy process in which policymakers and influencers engage. Rather, the evidence of international experience competes with many other sources of ideas and evidence within a complex policymaking system.
The literature on ‘policy learning’ tells a similar story
Studies of the use of evaluation evidence (perhaps to answer the question: was this policy successful?) have long described policymakers using the research process for many different purposes, from short term problem-solving and long-term enlightenment, to putting off decisions or using evidence cynically to support an existing policy.
We should therefore reject the temptation to (a) equate ‘policy learning’ with a simplistic process that we might associate with teachers transmitting facts to children, or (b) assume that adults simply change their beliefs when faced with new evidence. Rather, Dunlop and Radaelli describe policy learning as a political process in the following ways:
1.It is collective and rule-bound
Individuals combine cognition and emotion to process information, in organisations with rules that influence their motive and ability to learn, and in wider systems, in which many actors cooperate and compete to establish the rules of evidence gathering and analysis, or policymaking environments that constrain or facilitate their action.
2.’Evidence based’ is one of several types of policy learning
3.The process can be ‘dysfunctional’: driven by groupthink, limited analysis, and learning how to dominate policymaking, not improve policy.
Their analysis can produce relevant take-home points such as:
What does the literature on transfer tell us?
‘Policy transfer’ can describe a spectrum of activity:
In that context, some of the literature focuses on warning against unsuccessful policy transfer caused by factors such as:
However, other studies highlight some major qualifications:
The use of evidence to spread policy innovation requires a combination of profound political and governance choices
When encouraging policy diffusion within a political system, choices about: (a) what counts as ‘good’ evidence of policy success have a major connection to (b) what counts as good governance.
For example, consider these ideal-types or models in table 1:
In one scenario, we begin by relying primarily on RCT evidence (multiple international trials) and import a relatively fixed model, to ensure ‘fidelity’ to a proven intervention and allow us to measure its effect in a new context. This choice of good evidence limits the ability of subnational policymakers to adapt policy to local contexts.
In another scenario, we begin by relying primary on governance principles, such as to respect local discretion as well as incorporate practitioner and user experience as important knowledge claims. The choice of governance model relates closely to a less narrow sense of what counts as good evidence, but also a more limited ability to evaluate policy success scientifically.
In other words, the political choice to privilege some forms of evidence is difficult to separate from another political choice to privilege the role of one form of government.
Telling a policy transfer story: 11 questions to encourage successful evidence based policy transfer
In that context, these steps to evidence-informed policy transfer serve more to encourage reflection than provide a blueprint for action. I accept that 11 is less catchy than 10.
Points 1-3 represent the classic and necessary questions from policy studies: (1) ‘what is policy?’ (2) ‘how much did policy change?’ and (3) why? Until we have a good answer, we do not know how to draw comparable lessons. Learning from another government’s policy choices is no substitute for learning from more meaningful policy change.
4. Was the project introduced in a country or region which is sufficiently comparable? Comparability can relate to the size and type of country, the nature of the problem, the aims of the borrowing/ lending government and their measures of success.
5. Was it introduced nationwide, or in a region which is sufficiently representative of the national experience (it is not an outlier)?
6. How do we account for the role of scale, and the different cultures and expectations in each policy field?
Points 4-6 inform initial background discussions of case study reports. We need to focus on comparability when describing the context in which the original policy developed. It is not enough to state that two political systems are different. We need to identify the relevance and implications of the differences, from another government’s definition of the problem to the logistics of their task.
7. Has the project been evaluated independently, subject to peer review and/ or using measures deemed acceptable to the government?
8. Has the evaluation been of a sufficient period in proportion to the expected outcomes?
9. Are we confident that this project has been evaluated the most favourably – i.e. that our search for relevant lessons has been systematic, based on recognisable criteria (rather than reputations)?
10. Are we identifying ‘Good practice’ based on positive experience, ‘Promising approaches’ based on positive but unsystematic findings, ‘Research–based’ or based on ‘sound theory informed by a growing body of empirical research’, or ‘Evidence–based’, when ‘the programme or practice has been rigorously evaluated and has consistently been shown to work’?
Points 7-10 raise issues about the relationships between (a) what evidence we should use to evaluate success or potential, and (b) how long we should wait to declare success.
11. What will be the relationship between evidence and governance?
Should we identify the same basic model and transfer it uniformly, tell a qualitative story about the model and invite people to adapt it, or focus pragmatically on an eclectic range of evidential sources and focus on the training of the actors who will implement policy?
Information technology has allowed us to gather a huge amount of policy-relevant information across the globe. However, it has not solved the limitations we face in defining policy problems clearly, gathering evidence on policy solutions systematically, and generating international lessons that we can use to inform domestic policy processes.
This rise in available evidence is not a substitute for policy analysis and political choice. These choices range from how to adjudicate between competing policy preference, to how to define good evidence and good government. A lack of attention to these wider questions helps explain why – at least from some perspectives – policy transfer seems to fail.
The EBPM talks begin with a discussion of the same three points: what counts as evidence, why we must ignore most of it (and how), and the policy process in which policymakers use some of it. However, the framing of these points, and the ways in which we discuss the implications, varies markedly by audience. So, in this post, I provide a short discussion of the three points, then show how the audience matters (referring to the city as a shorthand for each talk).
The overall take-home points are highly practical, in the same way that critical thinking has many practical applications (in other words, I’m not offering a map, toolbox, or blueprint):
3 ways to describe the use of evidence in policymaking
However, it only remains a valence issue when we refuse to define evidence and justify what counts as good evidence. After that, you soon see the political choices emerge. A reference to evidence is often a shorthand for scientific research evidence, and good often refers to specific research methods (such as randomised control trials). Or, you find people arguing very strongly in the almost-opposite direction, criticising this shorthand as exclusionary and questioning the ability of scientists to justify claims to superior knowledge. Somewhere in the middle, we find that a focus on evidence is a good way to think about the many forms of information or knowledge on which we might make decisions, including: a wider range of research methods and analyses, knowledge from experience, and data relating to the local context with which policy would interact.
So, what begins as a valence issue becomes a gateway to many discussions about how to understand profound political choices regarding: how we make knowledge claims, how to ‘co-produce’ knowledge via dialogue among many groups, and the relationship between choices about evidence and governance.
There is far more information about the world than we are able to process. A focus on evidence gaps often gives way to the recognition that we need to find effective ways to ignore most evidence.
There are many ways to describe how individuals combine cognition and emotion to limit their attention enough to make choices, and policy studies (to all intents and purposes) describe equivalent processes – described, for example, as ‘institutions’ or rules – in organisations and systems.
One shortcut between information and choice is to set aims and priorities; to focus evidence gathering on a small number of problems or one way to define a problem, and identify the most reliable or trustworthy sources of evidence (often via evidence ‘synthesis’). Another is to make decisions quickly by relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and existing knowledge or familiarity with evidence.
Either way, agenda setting and problem definition are political processes that address uncertainty and ambiguity. We gather evidence to reduce uncertainty, but first we must reduce ambiguity by exercising power to define the problem we seek to solve.
Policy textbooks (well, my textbook at least!) provide a contrast between:
Overall, policy theories have much to offer people with an interest in evidence-use in policy, but primarily as a way to (a) manage expectations, to (b) produce more realistic strategies and less dispiriting conclusions. It is useful to frame our aim as to analyse the role of evidence within a policy process that (a) we don’t quite understand, rather than (b) we would like to exist.
The events themselves
Below, you will find a short discussion of the variations of audience and topic. I’ll update and reflect on this discussion (in a revised version of this post) after taking part in the events.
Social science and policy studies: knowledge claims, bounded rationality, and policy theory
For Auckland and Wellington A, I’m aiming for an audience containing a high proportion of people with a background in social science and policy studies. I describe the discussion as ‘meta’ because I am talking about how I talk about EBPM to other audiences, then inviting discussion on key parts of that talk, such as how to conceptualise the policy process and present conceptual insights to people who have no intention of deep dives into policy theory.
I often use the phrase ‘I’ve read it, so you don’t have to’ partly as a joke, but also to stress the importance of disciplinary synthesis when we engage in interdisciplinary (and inter-professional) discussion. If so, it is important to discuss how to produce such ‘synthetic’ accounts.
I tend to describe key components of a policymaking environment quickly: many policy makers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government, institutions, networks, socioeconomic factors and events, and ideas. However, each of these terms represents a shorthand to describe a large and diverse literature. For example, I can describe an ‘institution’ in a few sentences, but the study of institutions contains a variety of approaches.
Academic-practitioner discussions: improving the use of research evidence in policy
For Wellington B and Melbourne, the audience is an academic-practitioner mix. We discuss ways in which we can encourage the greater use of research evidence in policy, perhaps via closer collaboration between suppliers and users.
Discussions with scientists: why do policymakers ignore my evidence?
Sydney UNSW focuses more on researchers in scientific fields (often not in social science). I frame the question in a way that often seems central to scientific researcher interest: why do policymakers seem to ignore my evidence, and what can I do about it?
Then, I tend to push back on the idea that the fault lies with politics and policymakers, to encourage researchers to think more about the policy process and how to engage effectively in it. If I’m trying to be annoying, I’ll suggest to a scientific audience that they see themselves as ‘rational’ and politicians as ‘irrational’. However, the more substantive discussion involves comparing (a) ‘how to make an impact’ advice drawn from the personal accounts of experienced individuals, giving advice to individuals, and (b) the sort of advice you might draw from policy theories which focus more on systems.
Background post: What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?
Early career researchers: the need to build ‘impact’ into career development
Canberra UNSW is more focused on early career researchers. I think this is the most difficult talk because I don’t rely on the same joke about my role: to turn up at the end of research projects to explain why they failed to have a non-academic impact. Instead, my aim is to encourage intelligent discussion about situating the ‘how to’ advice for individual researchers into a wider discussion of policymaking systems.
Similarly, Brisbane A and B are about how to engage with practitioners, and communicate well to non-academic audiences, when most of your work and training is about something else entirely (such as learning about research methods and how to engage with the technical language of research).
2. European Health Forum Gastein 2018 ‘Policy in Evidence’ (from 6 minutes)
|Evidence-based policymaking and the new policy sciences|
Notes for the #transformURE event hosted by Nuffield, 25th September 2018
I like to think that I can talk with authority on two topics that, much like a bottle of Pepsi and a pack of Mentos, you should generally keep separate:
The problem, when you put together those statements, is that you need to understand the role of evidence within a policy process that we don’t really understand.
It’s an OK conclusion if you just want to declare that the world is complicated, but not if you seek ways to change it or operate more effectively within it.
Put less gloomily:
Put even less gloomily, it is not too difficult to extract/ synthesise key insights from policy theories, explain their relevance, and use them to inform discussions about how to promote your preferred form of evidence use.
The only remaining problem is that, although the resultant advice looks quite straightforward, it is far easier said than done. The proposed actions are more akin to the Labours of Hercules than [PAC: insert reference to something easier].
So far so good, until you consider the effort it would take to achieve any of these things: you may need to devote the best part of your career to these tasks with no guarantee of success.
Put more positively, it is better to be equipped with these insights, and to appreciate the limits to our actions, than to think we can use top tips to achieve ‘research impact’ in a more straightforward way.
Kathryn Oliver and I describe these ‘how to’ tips in this post and, in this article in Political Studies Review, use a wider focus on policymaking environments to produce a more realistic sense of what individual researchers – and research-producing organisations – could achieve.
There is some sensible-enough advice out there for individuals – produce good evidence, communicate it well, form relationships with policymakers, be available, and so on – but I would exercise caution when it begins to recommend being ‘entrepreneurial’. The opportunities to be entrepreneurial are not shared equally, most entrepreneurs fail, and we can likely better explain their success with reference to their environment than their skill.
Note: I wrote the following discussion (last year) to be a Nature Comment but it was not to be!
Nature articles on evidence-based policymaking often present what scientists would like to see: rules to minimise bias caused by the cognitive limits of policymakers, and a simple policy process in which we know how and when to present the best evidence. What if neither requirement is ever met? Scientists will despair of policymaking while their competitors engage pragmatically and more effectively.
Alternatively, if scientists learned from successful interest groups, or by using insights from policy studies, they could develop three ‘take home messages’: understand and engage with policymaking in the real world; learn how and when evidence ‘wins the day’; and, decide how far you should go to maximise the use of scientific evidence. Political science helps explain this process, and new systematic and thematic reviews add new insights.   
Understand and engage with policymaking in the real world
Scientists are drawn to the ‘policy cycle’, because it offers a simple – but misleading – model for engagement with policymaking. It identifies a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’ of government, perhaps giving the impression that scientists should identify the correct ‘stages’ in which to engage (such as ‘agenda setting’ and ‘policy formulation’) to ensure the best use of evidence at the point of authoritative choice. This is certainly the image generated most frequently by health and environmental scientists when they seek insights from policy studies.
Yet, this model does not describe reality. Many policymakers, in many levels and types of government, adopt and implement many measures at different times. For simplicity, we call the result ‘policy’ but almost no modern policy theory retains the linear policy cycle concept. In fact, it is more common to describe counterintuitive processes in which, for example, by the time policymaker attention rises to a policy problem at the ‘agenda setting’ stage, it is too late to formulate a solution. Instead, ‘policy entrepreneurs’ develop technically and politically feasible solutions then wait for attention to rise and for policymakers to have the motive and opportunity to act.
Experienced government science advisors recognise this inability of the policy cycle image to describe real world policymaking. For example, Sir Peter Gluckman presents an amended version of this model, in which there are many interacting cycles in a kaleidoscope of activity, defying attempts to produce simple flow charts or decision trees. He describes the ‘art and craft’ of policy engagement, using simple heuristics to deal with a complex and ‘messy’ policy system.
Policy studies help us identify two such heuristics or simple strategies.
First, respond to policymaker psychology by adapting to the short cuts they use to gather enough information quickly: ‘rational’, via trusted sources of oral and written evidence, and ‘irrational’, via their beliefs, emotions, and habits. Policy theories describe many interest group or ‘advocacy coalition’ strategies, including a tendency to combine evidence with emotional appeals, romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents, or tell simple emotional stories with a hero and moral to exploit the biases of their audience.
Second, adapt to complex ‘policy environments’ including: many policymakers at many levels and types of government, each with their own rules of evidence gathering, network formation, and ways of understanding policy problems and relevant socioeconomic conditions. For example, advocates of international treaties often find that the evidence-based arguments their international audience takes for granted become hotly contested at national or subnational levels (even if the national government is a signatory), while the same interest groups presenting the same evidence of a problem can be key insiders in one government department but ignored in another.
Learn the conditions under which evidence ‘wins the day’ in policymaking
Consequently, the availability and supply of scientific evidence, on the nature of problems and effectiveness of solutions, is a necessary but insufficient condition for evidence-informed policy. Three others must be met: actors use scientific evidence to persuade policymakers to pay attention to, and shift their understanding of, policy problems; the policy environment becomes broadly conducive to policy change; and, actors exploit attention to a problem, the availability of a feasible solution, and the motivation of policymakers, during a ‘window of opportunity’ to adopt specific policy instruments.10
Tobacco control represents a ‘best case’ example (box 1) from which we can draw key lessons for ecological and environmental policies, giving us a sense of perspective by highlighting the long term potential for major evidence-informed policy change. However, unlike their colleagues in public health, environmental scientists have not developed a clear sense of how to produce policy instruments that are technically and politically feasible, so the delivery of comparable policy change is not inevitable.
Box 1: Tobacco policy as a best case and cautionary tale of evidence-based policymaking
Tobacco policy is a key example – and useful comparator for ecological and environmental policies – since it represents a best case scenario and cautionary tale. On the one hand, the scientific evidence on the links between smoking, mortality, and preventable death forms the basis for modern tobacco control policy. Leading countries – and the World Health Organisation, which oversees the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – frame tobacco use as a public health ‘epidemic’ and allow their health departments to take the policy lead. Health departments foster networks with public health and medical groups at the expense of the tobacco industry, and emphasise the socioeconomic conditions – reductions in (a) smoking prevalence, (b) opposition to tobacco control, and (c) economic benefits to tobacco – most supportive of tobacco control. This framing, and conducive policymaking environment, helps give policymakers the motive and opportunity to choose policy instruments, such as bans on smoking in public places, which would otherwise seem politically infeasible.
On the other hand, even in a small handful of leading countries such as the UK, it took twenty to thirty years to go from the supply of the evidence to a proportionate government response: from the early evidence on smoking in the 1950s prompting major changes from the 1980s, to the evidence on passive smoking in the 1980s prompting public bans from the 2000s onwards. In most countries, the production of a ‘comprehensive’ set of policy measures is not yet complete, even though most signed the FCTC.
Decide how far you’ll go to maximise the use of scientific evidence in policymaking
These insights help challenge the naïve position that, if policymaking can change to become less dysfunctional, scientists can be ‘honest brokers’ and expect policymakers to use their evidence quickly, routinely, and sincerely. Even in the best case scenario, evidence-informed change takes hard work, persistence, and decades to achieve.
Since policymaking will always appear ‘irrational’ and complex’, scientists need to think harder about their role, then choose to engage more effectively or accept their lack of influence.
To deal with ‘irrational’ policymakers, they should combine evidence with persuasion, simple stories, and emotional appeals, and frame their evidence to make the implications consistent with policymakers’ beliefs.
To deal with complex environments, they should engage for the long term to work out how to form alliances with influencers who share their beliefs, understand in which ‘venues’ authoritative decisions are made and carried out, the rules of information processing in those venues, and the ‘currency’ used by policymakers when they describe policy problems and feasible solutions. In other words, develop skills that do not come with scientific training, avoid waiting for others to share your scientific mindset or respect for scientific evidence, and plan for the likely eventuality that policymaking will never become ‘evidence based’.
This approach may be taken for granted in policy studies, but it raises uncomfortable dilemmas regarding how far scientists should go, to maximise the use of scientific evidence in policy, using persuasion and coalition-building.
These dilemmas are too frequently overshadowed by claims – more comforting to scientists – that politicians are to blame because they do not understand how to generate, analyse, and use the best evidence. Scientists may only become effective in politics if they apply the same critical analysis to themselves.
Since 2016, my most common academic presentation to interdisciplinary scientist/ researcher audiences is a variant of the question, ‘why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?’
I tend to provide three main answers.
Few policymakers know or care about the criteria developed by some scientists to describe a hierarchy of scientific evidence. For some scientists, at the top of this hierarchy is the randomised control trial (RCT) and the systematic review of RCTs, with expertise much further down the list, followed by practitioner experience and service user feedback near the bottom.
Yet, most policymakers – and many academics – prefer a wider range of sources of information, combining their own experience with information ranging from peer reviewed scientific evidence and the ‘grey’ literature, to public opinion and feedback from consultation.
While it may be possible to persuade some central government departments or agencies to privilege scientific evidence, they also pursue other key principles, such as to foster consensus driven policymaking or a shift from centralist to localist practices.
Consequently, they often only recommend interventions rather than impose one uniform evidence-based position. If local actors favour a different policy solution, we may find that the same type of evidence may have more or less effect in different parts of government.
Many scientists articulate the idea that policymakers and scientists should cooperate to use the best evidence to determine ‘what works’ in policy (in forums such as INGSA, European Commission, OECD). Their language is often reminiscent of 1950s discussions of the pursuit of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in policymaking.
The key difference is that EBPM is often described as an ideal by scientists, to be compared with the more disappointing processes they find when they engage in politics. In contrast, ‘comprehensive rationality’ is an ideal-type, used to describe what cannot happen, and the practical implications of that impossibility.
The ideal-type involves a core group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’, identifying their values or the problems they seek to solve, and translating their policies into action to maximise benefits to society, aided by neutral organisations gathering all the facts necessary to produce policy solutions. Yet, in practice, they are unable to: separate values from facts in any meaningful way; rank policy aims in a logical and consistent manner; gather information comprehensively, or possess the cognitive ability to process it.
Instead, Simon famously described policymakers addressing ‘bounded rationality’ by using ‘rules of thumb’ to limit their analysis and produce ‘good enough’ decisions. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory uses bounded rationality to show that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, which limits their control of the many decisions made in their name.
More recent discussions focus on the ‘rational’ short cuts that policymakers use to identify good enough sources of information, combined with the ‘irrational’ ways in which they use their beliefs, emotions, habits, and familiarity with issues to identify policy problems and solutions (see this post on the meaning of ‘irrational’). Or, they explore how individuals communicate their narrow expertise within a system of which they have almost no knowledge. In each case, ‘most members of the system are not paying attention to most issues most of the time’.
This scarcity of attention helps explain, for example, why policymakers ignore most issues in the absence of a focusing event, policymaking organisations make searches for information which miss key elements routinely, and organisations fail to respond to events or changing circumstances proportionately.
In that context, attempts to describe a policy agenda focusing merely on ‘what works’ are based on misleading expectations. Rather, we can describe key parts of the policymaking environment – such as institutions, policy communities/ networks, or paradigms – as a reflection of the ways in which policymakers deal with their bounded rationality and lack of control of the policy process.
Scientists often appear to be drawn to the idea of a linear and orderly policy cycle with discrete stages – such as agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, policy maintenance/ succession/ termination – because it offers a simple and appealing model which gives clear advice on how to engage.
Indeed, the stages approach began partly as a proposal to make the policy process more scientific and based on systematic policy analysis. It offers an idea of how policy should be made: elected policymakers in central government, aided by expert policy analysts, make and legitimise choices; skilful public servants carry them out; and, policy analysts assess the results with the aid of scientific evidence.
Yet, few policy theories describe this cycle as useful, while most – including the advocacy coalition framework , and the multiple streams approach – are based on a rejection of the explanatory value of orderly stages.
Policy theories also suggest that the cycle provides misleading practical advice: you will generally not find an orderly process with a clearly defined debate on problem definition, a single moment of authoritative choice, and a clear chance to use scientific evidence to evaluate policy before deciding whether or not to continue. Instead, the cycle exists as a story for policymakers to tell about their work, partly because it is consistent with the idea of elected policymakers being in charge and accountable.
Some scholars also question the appropriateness of a stages ideal, since it suggests that there should be a core group of policymakers making policy from the ‘top down’ and obliging others to carry out their aims, which does not leave room for, for example, the diffusion of power in multi-level systems, or the use of ‘localism’ to tailor policy to local needs and desires.
Now go to: