Tag Archives: Kingdon

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: entrepreneurial policy analysis

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview and connects to ‘Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs’.

The idea of a ‘policy entrepreneur’ is important to policy studies and policy analysis.

Let’s begin with its positive role in analysis, then use policy studies to help qualify its role within policymaking environments.

The take-home-messages are to

  1. recognise the value of entrepreneurship, and invest in relevant skills and strategies, but
  2. not overstate its spread or likely impact, and
  3. note the unequal access to political resources associated with entrepreneurs.

Box 11.3 UPP 2nd ed entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship and policy analysis

Mintrom identifies the intersection between policy entrepreneurship and policy analysis, to highlighting the benefits of ‘positive thinking’, creativity, deliberation, and leadership.

He expands on these ideas further in So you want to be a policy entrepreneur?:

Policy entrepreneurs are energetic actors who engage in collaborative efforts in and around government to promote policy innovations. Given the enormous challenges now facing humanity, the need is great for such actors to step forward and catalyze change processes” (Mintrom, 2019: 307).

Although many entrepreneurs seem to be exceptional people, Mintrom (2019: 308-20) identifies:

  1. Key attributes to compare
  • ‘ambition’, to invest resources for future reward
  • ‘social acuity’, to help anticipate how others are thinking
  • ‘credibility’, based on authority and a good track record
  • ‘sociability’, to empathise with others and form coalitions or networks
  • ‘tenacity’, to persevere during adversity
  1. The skills that can be learned
  • ‘strategic thinking’, to choose a goal and determine how to reach it
  • ‘team building’, to recognise that policy change is a collective effort, not the responsibility of heroic individuals (compare with Oxfam)
  • ‘collecting evidence’, and using it ‘strategically’ to frame a problem and support a solution
  • ‘making arguments’, using ‘tactical argumentation’ to ‘win others to their cause and build coalitions of supporters’ (2019: 313)
  • ‘engaging multiple audiences’, by tailoring arguments and evidence to their beliefs and interests
  • ‘negotiating’, such as by trading your support in this case for their support in another
  • ‘networking’, particularly when policymaking authority is spread across multiple venues.
  1. The strategies built on these attributes and skills.
  • ‘problem framing’, such as to tell a story of a crisis in need of urgent attention
  • ‘using and expanding networks’, to generate attention and support
  • ‘working with advocacy coalitions’, to mobilise a collection of actors who already share the same beliefs
  • ‘leading by example’, to signal commitment and allay fears about risk
  • ‘scaling up change processes’, using policy innovation in one area to inspire wider adoption.

p308 Mintrom for 750 words

Overall, entrepreneurship is ‘tough work’ requiring ‘courage’, but necessary for policy disruption, by: ‘those who desire to make a difference, who recognize the enormous challenges now facing humanity, and the need for individuals to step forward and catalyze change’ (2019: 320; compare with Luetjens).

Entrepreneurship and policy studies

  1. Most policy actors fail

It is common to relate entrepreneurship to stories of exceptional individuals and invite people to learn from their success. However, the logical conclusion is that success is exceptional and most policy actors will fail.

A focus on key skills takes us away from this reliance on exceptional actors, and ties in with other policy studies-informed advice on how to navigate policymaking environments (see ‘Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs’, these ANZSOG talks, and box 6.3 below)

box 6.3

However, note the final sentence, which reminds us that it is possible to invest a huge amount of time and effort in entrepreneurial skills without any of that investment paying off.

  1. Even if entrepreneurs succeed, the explanation comes more from their environments than their individual skills

The other side of the entrepreneurship coin is the policymaking environment in which actors operate.

Policy studies of entrepreneurship (such as Kingdon on multiple streams) rely heavily on metaphors on evolution. Entrepreneurs are the actors most equipped to thrive within their environments (see Room).

However, Kingdon uses the additional metaphor of ‘surfers waiting for the big wave’, which suggests that their environments are far more important than them (at least when operating on a US federal scale – see Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach).

Entrepreneurs may be more influential at a more local scale, but the evidence of their success (independent of the conditions in which they operate) is not overwhelming. So, self-aware entrepreneurs know when to ‘surf the waves’ or try to move the sea.

  1. The social background of influential actors

Many studies of entrepreneurs highlight the stories of tenacious individuals with limited resources but the burning desire to make a difference.

The alternative story is that political resources are distributed profoundly unequally. Few people have the resources to:

  • run for elected office
  • attend elite Universities, or find other ways to develop the kinds of personal networks that often relate to social background
  • develop the credibility built on a track record in a position of authority (such as in government or science).
  • be in the position to invest resources now, to secure future gains, or
  • be in an influential position to exploit windows of opportunity.

Therefore, when focusing on entrepreneurial policy analysis, we should encourage the development of a suite of useful skills, but not expect equal access to that development or the same payoff from entrepreneurial action.

See also:

Compare these skills with the ones we might associate with ‘systems thinking

If you want to see me say these depressing things with a big grin:

 

 

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Policy in 500 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis and Policy Entrepreneurs

NASA launch

In a previous post, I ask: if the policy cycle does not exist, what do we do? In this artificial policy cycle world, ‘comprehensively rational’ policymakers combine their values with evidence to define policy problems and their aims, ‘neutral’ bureaucracies produce many possible solutions consistent with those aims, and policymakers select the ‘best’ or most ‘evidence based’ solution, setting in motion a cycle of stages including legitimation, implementation, evaluation, and the choice to maintain or change policy.

In the real world, policymaking is not so simple, and three ‘stages’ seem messed up:

  • Defining problems. There is too much going on in the world, and too much information about problems. So, policymakers have to ignore most problems and most ways to understand them. They use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ short-cuts to help them pay attention to a manageable number of issues and address problems without fully understanding them. Problems get attention based on how they are ‘framed’: actors use evidence to reduce uncertainty, and persuasion to reduce ambiguity (they focus our minds on one way to understand a problem).
  • Producing solutions. When policymaker attention lurches to a problem, it’s too late to produce a new solution that is technically feasible (will it work as intended?) and politically feasible (is it acceptable to enough people in the ‘community’?). While attention lurches quickly, feasible solutions take time to develop.
  • Making choices. The willingness and ability of policymakers to select a solution is fleeting, based on their beliefs, perception of the ‘national mood’, and the feedback they receive from interest groups and political parties.

Don’t think of these things as linear ‘stages’. Instead, they are independent ‘streams’ which have to come together during a brief ‘window of opportunity’. All key factors – heightened attention to a problem (problem stream), an available and feasible solution (policy stream), and the motive to select it (politics stream) – must come together at the same time, or the opportunity is lost. If you think of the streams as water, the metaphor suggests that when they come together they are hard to separate.  Instead, a ‘window of opportunity’ is like a space launch in which policymakers will abort the mission unless every factor is just right.

So, what do we do in the absence of a policy cycle?

Policy entrepreneurs’ know how to respond. They use persuasion to frame problems, help develop feasible solutions, wait for the right time to present them, and know how to adapt to their environment to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’.

Take home message for students. It is easy to dismiss the policy cycle, and find better explanations, but don’t stop there. Consider how to turn this insight into action. If policymaking is so messy, how should people respond? Studying ‘entrepreneurs’ helps us identify strategies to influence the policy process, but how could elected policymakers justify such a weird-looking process? Finally, look at many case studies to see how scholars describe MSA. It’s a flexible metaphor, but is there a coherent literature with common themes?

Next steps for reading:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis – an expanded version of this introductory post

What is a policy entrepreneur? – describes various ways in which policy scholars define ‘entrepreneur’

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs – a blog post and paper on how entrepreneurs deal with ‘organized anarchy’

Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis? – introduces an article by Michael Jones and me on MSA studies

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2016) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, 44, 1, 37-58 PDF (Annex to Cairney Jones 2016) (special issue of PSJ)

Paul Cairney and Nikos Zahariadis (2016) ‘Multiple streams analysis’ in Zahariadis, N. (eds) Handbook of Public Policy Agenda-Setting (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF see also

There is also a chapter on MSA and ideas in Understanding Public Policy.

If you are feeling really energetic, you can read the source texts:

Kingdon J (1984) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies New York: Harper Collins

Cohen, M., March, J. and Olsen, J. (1972) ‘A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 17, 1, 1-25

Picture source: NASA Deep Space Gateway to Open Opportunities for Distant Destinations

 

 

 

 

 

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Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

This post is one part of a series – called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories and it summarizes this article (PDF).

Policy entrepreneurs’ invest their time wisely for future reward, and possess key skills that help them adapt particularly well to their environments. They are the agents for policy change who possess the knowledge, power, tenacity, and luck to be able to exploit key opportunities. They draw on three strategies:

1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence.

Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.

Table 1

2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution.

So, you produce your solution then chase problems.

Table 2

3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes.

For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.

Table 3

It all adds up to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

Full paper: Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

(Note: the previous version was friendlier and more focused on entrepreneurs)

For more on ‘multiple streams’ see:

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2016) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, 44, 1, 37-58 PDF (Annex to Cairney Jones 2016) (special issue of PSJ)

Paul Cairney and Nikos Zahariadis (2016) ‘Multiple streams analysis: A flexible metaphor presents an opportunity to operationalize agenda setting processes’ in Zahariadis, N. (eds) Handbook of Public Policy Agenda-Setting (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF see also

I use a space launch metaphor in the paper. If you prefer different images, have a look at 5 images of the policy process. If you prefer a watery metaphor (it’s your life, I suppose), click Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis

For more on entrepreneurs:

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Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

Cairney jones psj pic

John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).

In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 1. ‘Universal’ concepts.

Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.

  1. Ambiguity and competition for attention.
  • There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can often be dominated by one ‘frame’.
  • There are many problems to solve, but few reach the top of the policy agenda.
  • There are many possible solutions to problems, but very few gain attention and even fewer gain support.
  1. Decision-making processes are neither ‘comprehensively rational’ nor ‘linear’.
  • New information is difficult to gather and subject to manipulation.
  • Actors have limited resources such as time and cognitive ability. This limitation forces people to make choices before they have considered all possibilities and made sure that their preferences are clear.
  • The policy process does not follow a policy cycle with ordered stages, in which (i) a policymaker identifies a problem, (ii) a bureaucracy produces many possible solutions, and (iii) the policymaker selects the best solution according to her aims and values.

These ‘universal’ insights underpin MSA’s specific contribution, in which Kingdon draws on the ‘garbage can model’ to suggest that we think of these three ‘stages’ (metaphorically) as independent streams which must come together at the same time, during a ‘window of opportunity’ before any major policy change will take place:

  1. Problem stream – attention lurches to a policy problem.
  2. Policy stream – a solution to that problem is available.
  3. Politics stream – policymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 2. New theories and perspectives.

Let’s take one example of Kingdon’s influence: on the early development of punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). In their own ways, MSA and PET are both ‘evolutionary’ theories, although they identify different kinds of evolutionary metaphors or processes, and present somewhat different implications:

  • Kingdon uses the evolutionary metaphor partly to help explain slow and gradual policy development despite lurches of attention and the importance of windows of opportunity. Note the importance of the idea of ‘feasibility’ and ‘softening’, as potential policy solutions emerge from the ‘policy primeval soup’. Kingdon is describing the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community, which challenges the notion that policies will change whenever attention lurches to a new problem. On the contrary, a feasible solution must exist, and these solutions take a lot of time to become both technically and politically feasible, before policymakers develop the motive and opportunity to adopt them.
  • Baumgartner and Jones identify the conditions under which Kingdon’s picture of slow progress, producing ‘partial mutations’ should be replaced by their identification of fast, disruptive, ‘pure mutation’. For example, major ‘policy punctuations’ may occur when issues break out of one policymaking ‘venue’. In such cases, more radical change may be acceptable to the policymakers – in other venues – that are less committed to existing policies and, therefore, less likely to select a policy solution only when it has been ‘softened’.

Such examples (explored in more depth in our article, and in my article on evolutionary policy theory) highlight the potential to trace the long term intellectual development of policy theory back to influential scholars such as Kingdon.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 1. How useful is the metaphor?

Michael and I identify a blessing and a curse, related to two aspects of Kingdon’s original work:

  1. The barriers to entry are low. If you are looking for an easy way into policy theory, you can read some of Kingdon’s book and feel you have gained some insight.
  2. The metaphor is flexible. You don’t have to learn a huge codebook or set of rules before you dive into empirical analysis.

The blessing is that both factors allow a lot of material to be produced in diverse and perhaps innovative ways. The curse is that it is difficult to see the accumulated results from all that effort. If the MSA is there to help explain one case, and one case only, then all is well. If we want more – to compare a lot of cases in a meaningful way – we have a problem.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 2. How have other scholars used the metaphor?

Michael Jones and his colleagues identified a huge number of MSA studies: over 300 applications, in over 40 countries, in 10 years. However, they also identify a high proportion of theoretical superficiality: scholars mention Kingdon, but do not go into much detail on the meaning of key MSA concepts, or explain how they used those concepts in a meaningful way to explain policy or policymaking.

Michael and I zoomed in to focus on the ‘state of the art’, to see how the best studies used MSA. We found some interesting work, particularly in studies which extended Kingdon’s original focus on the US federal government (in the 1980s) to subnational and supranational studies, and used MSA to explain developments in many other countries. The best work identified how the MSA related to wider policy theory discussions and/or how we might adapt MSA to deal with new cases. However, we also found a lot of applications which made cursory reference to theory or the MSA literature, or studies which used MSA largely as a way to identify their own models.

It all adds up to a lot of activity but it is difficult to know how to sum up its value. The flexibility of the MSA has allowed people to take it in all sorts of directions, but also to use it in a way that is difficult to relate to Kingdon’s original study or important new developments (put forward by scholars such as Zahariadis).

Where do we go from here? Some simple rules for you to consider.

So, we propose three simple rules to help maintain MSA flexibility but allow us to accumulate empirical insights or encourage conceptual development: demonstrate proficiency with MSA; speak to MSA; and, speak to broader policy research.

In other words, a lot has been written about MSA and policy theory since 1984. The world has changed, and so too have the ways in which we describe it. So, put simply, it would be weird if people continued to produce scholarly research based simply on one book written in the 80s and little else (you might be surprised about how much of this approach we found, and how few people explained MSA concepts before presenting their empirical analysis).

We don’t call for a set of rigid rules to allow systematic comparison (although I really like the suggestion by a colleague, presented with tongue firmly in cheek, that we have become the ‘multiple streams Taliban’). Instead, at the very least, we encourage people not to submit Kingdon-inspired articles for review until they have read and digested a lot of the MSA literature. That way, we’ll be able to go beyond the sense that we are all using the same conceptual descriptions without knowing if we mean the same thing or if my results can be compared usefully with yours.

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Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Analysis: A New Research Agenda?

It is the 30 year anniversary of Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. The book’s influence can be measured by its citations (over 12000), but I wonder about its broader influence. For example, is Kingdon’s analysis used to inform policy theory as a whole, or one part of it? Is it used to structure research and help explain the results, or merely remembered fondly as the source of a great metaphor?

In a new paper, I explore this question in three ways:

  1. Outlining its key tenets, focusing on the extent to which multiple streams analysis contains ‘universal’ insights or insights specific to the US federal system. This part is based on a blog post, part of a larger series summarizing policy theories and concepts.
  2. Identifying its place in the broader literature, focusing in particular on its contribution to ‘evolutionary’ theory. This part is based on another blog post and article on evolutionary policy theory.
  3. Examining 41 serious articles on MSA (i.e. they don’t just nod to Kingdon), to try to identify the literature’s development, particularly in the last 10 years. Most of the articles focus on the US and EU, and the sample is split between national/ international (28) and subnational (13).

Preliminary categories

  1. Conceptual revisions to reflect the object of study (14). The biggest category reflects the rising application of MSA to non-US policymaking (one of the most studied arenas in the world) and/ or non-national jurisdictions. Some studies overlap between, for example, EU and subnational studies. Six focus on the EU (3) or member states within the EU (3).
  2. Straightforward applications as part of multiple-theory approaches, or case studies which use MSA as a part of a broad sweep of the literature (7).   The case studies make reference to the MSA as one of several relevant theories, but with Kingdon’s model at centre stage, or providing a key insight.
  3. Straightforward ‘replications’ with no other theories mentioned (5). A case study uses the MSA to structure and help explain policy change in a detailed case study, without challenging Kingdon’s analysis or suggesting conceptual revision.
  4. Major conceptual revisions (5) Cases in which there is so much conceptual revision that the MSA becomes difficult to compare with the new approach.
  5. Direct theory development and hypothesis testing (4).
  6. Accounts for practitioners, advocating reform or providing advice on the right time to propose solutions (3).
  7. Work which cites or engages superficially with MSA (3).

Overall, we may get the sense of a generally self-contained literature, in which case study authors either: do not speak to the wider literature, present models that are difficult to compare with others; or use MSA primarily to focus on new objects of study.

However, as a group, they raise important issues on comparative policymaking, and some new conceptual issues may arise. For example, two argue that, in the EU, ‘ambiguity’ extends from issue framing to not knowing which directorate is responsible for policy – opening up the potential for entrepreneurs to assert a primary jurisdiction or venue shop.

Six studies (4 of the EU or member states in the EU, and 2 of US states), focus on distinctive ‘policy streams’ (where policy solutions are developed), reflecting the importance of policy diffusion or transfer. They highlight the role of a federal or supranational body, or a transnational policy community, at the centre of the policy stream, suggesting that many solutions originate outside the political system under study. In these cases, the idea of a ‘policy transfer window’ could help combine two literatures: MSA, which originally did not recognise this external role, and the transfer literature, which often focuses on how rather than why governments import policies. Studies can combine a focus on the role of external organisations or networks in the production of the ideas in the policy stream, and the need for a shift of attention combined with some receptivity to import the policy idea, before transfer takes place.

Three studies of subnational policymaking suggest that a policy entrepreneur can be more effective at a smaller scale of government – and more able to influence or direct all three streams. They highlight the potential for a hypothesis along the lines of: ‘the three streams are more independent at the federal or supranational level; at local levels, they are more open to influence or coordination by exceptional individuals’.

Three studies focus on little-studied areas. Zhu examines the extent to which a policy theory derived from studies of the US can be used to explain policymaking in China. The case demonstrates that, while some ‘universal’ concepts travel well, they do not tell us much about the policy processes of other countries.

Such discussions might prompt us to revisit some key issues in Kingdon’s research:

  • How large are policy windows? Do they open up to allow specific policy solutions, or major reform programmes?
  • How specific are the solutions that couple with problems and politics? Several studies suggest that policy change can happen when only a vague policy solution has been produced and adopted. Consequently, a further process of ‘coupling’ may be required (perhaps at another at level of government) when a more detailed solution must be found. How can we conceptualise the process? Do we seek to conceptualise policymaking going on simultaneously in multiple arenas, or identify a series of policy windows in different jurisdictions as key decisions are made at different points?

I discuss these issues in greater depth in this paper, which combines an 8000 word discussion with a very generous 5000 word annex: Cairney Kingdon Singapore 9.10.14 final . It’s part of a 2-day Kingdon workshop organised by Michael Howlett. That’s why I’m going to Singapore.

 

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Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

In policy studies, we talk about the rare occasions when some problems or policy solutions ‘take off’ suddenly or when an ‘idea’s time seems to come’. Indeed, one aim of Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams analysis’ is to show us that ideas come and go, only to be adopted if the time is right: when attention to a problem is high, a well-thought-out idea exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it. Only then will policy change in a meaningful way.

If only life were so simple. Instead, look again at that word ‘idea’. It means at least two things: a specific policy solution to a clearly defined problem, or a potentially useful but vague way of thinking about a complex and perhaps intractable (or, at least, ‘wicked’) problem. If it is the latter, the ‘window of opportunity’ may not produce the sort of policy change we might expect. Instead, we may see a groundswell of attention to, and support for, a policy solution that is very difficult to ‘operationalise’. We may find that everyone agrees on the broad solution, but no-one agrees on the detail, and we spend years making very little progress.

This is the danger with several potential solutions which highlight the possibility of addressing: the fall-out from austerity and reduced budgets; the need to reduce demand for acute public services by addressing socio-economic problems at an early stage; the need to ‘join up’ a range of government responsibilities; and, a desire to move away from unhelpful short term targets towards more long term and meaningful measures of policy success. Several solutions are currently in good currency, including: the social investment model, the wellbeing agenda, prevention (or preventative spending) and early intervention.

In each case, there may be a window of opportunity to promote such solutions, but the following obstacles arise:

  • Each example represents an idea, or way of thinking about things like public expenditure, that could either underpin new ways of thinking within government, become faddish before being rejected, or provide a gloss to justify decisions already made.
  • If the former, it could take decades for this way of thinking to become ‘institutionalised’, turned into ‘standard operating procedures’ and detailed rules to coordinate action across the public sector (suggesting that it requires meaningful, sustained cross-party support).
  • During this time, governments will still face hard choices about which areas are worthy of the most investment. In each case, the aim is vague, the evidence is often weak, it is difficult to compare the return from investments in different public services, and the process has a tendency to revert to a political exercise to determine priorities. In the face of uncertainty, policymakers may revert to tried and trusted rules to make decisions, and reject the more risky, new approach, with uncertain measures and outcomes.
  • The budget process is, in many ways, separate from a focus on social investment, activity and outcomes – largely because it remains an exercise to guarantee spending on established services and departments, or to reduce spending on some services at the margins.
  • There is a level of unpredictability in politics that makes such long term investment problematic – particularly when investment in one area, with quiet winners, comes at the expense of another service, with vocal losers (as demonstrated by any move to close a local hospital, rural school or university department). A tension between long term central planning and short term electoral issues often produces incremental and non-strategic changes, in which services receive ‘disinvestment’ and are allowed to wither.

To some extent, these issues may be addressed well during regular interactions between governments and their ‘social partners’, such as when governments, business and unions get together to produce something akin to a framework in which other policy decisions are made. In that sense, group-government relations represent a form of ‘institutional memory’. Governments and politicians come and go, but group-government relations represent a sense of continuity. This could be the main way to keep social investment on government agendas, as a salient topic or, perhaps more powerfully, as a way of thinking that is taken for granted and questioned rarely, even when new parties enter office.

Yet, there are problems with this ‘corporatist’ aim if it refers to government-wide group-government relations, since policy networks tend to develop on a ‘sectoral and subsectoral’ scale. Governments tend to deal with complex government by breaking it down into manageable chunks. Consequently, for example, medical and teaching unions could engage as one of many trades unions in concert with business, but they tend to speak mostly to education and health departments, in areas with minimal union-business links. Further, such groups tend to be more concerned with the targets and priorities identified at sectoral levels. They may like the idea of soft targets and long term, more meaningful, outcome measures, but have to address short term targets; they may pay attention to cross-sectoral aims when they can, but focus most of their attention on particular fields and priorities specific to their work.

The Scottish Government case

The issues I described are not unique to one government. Yet, some governments also face distinctive problems. For example, in Scotland, as part of the UK, there are specific issues around the links between policy instruments, shared responsibility, and joined up thinking:

  • The Scottish Government remains part of a UK process in which monetary and fiscal policies are determined largely by the Treasury, with the Scottish Government’s primary role to spend and invest.
  • Its position raises awkward questions about the consistency of policies, when spending decisions based on a ‘universalism’ narrative cannot be linked directly to the idea that redistribution should be achieved through taxation. The Scottish Government may be overseeing a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (universal free services with no means testing) as long as taxation is not sufficiently redistributive.
  • These issues have not become acute since devolution, partly because the Scottish Government budget has been high, and the independence agenda has postponed some difficult debates on new budget priorities. However, they are likely to become more pressing as budgets fall and organisations compete for scarcer resources.

Current issues: more powers, more accountability?

These issues are important right now, because the Smith Commission is currently considering the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament/ Government:

  • A focus on policies such as ‘prevention’ should prompt us to consider how to align priorities and powers. The parallel is with economic policy, in which a key concern relates to the alignment of fiscal powers with monetary union. With prevention, we should ask what’ more powers’ would be used for. For example, would the Scottish Government seek to address health and education inequalities by addressing income inequalities? If so, what powers could be devolved to address this issue without undermining that broader question of macroeconomic coherence?
  • A focus on shared powers raises new issues about accountability. As things stand, accountability is already a problem in relation to outcomes based measures and the devolution of policies to local public bodies. In a ‘Westminster’ style system, we are used to the idea of government accountability to the public via ministers accounting to Parliament, or directly via elections. Yet, if the responsibility for outcomes is further devolved, and outcomes measures span multiple elections, how can we hold governments to account in a meaningful way? Or, as importantly, if elected policymakers still feel bound by these short-term accountability mechanisms, how can we possibly expect them to commit to policies with short term costs, with pay-offs that may only begin to show fruit after they have retired from office?
  • These issues are further exacerbated by a shared powers model, in which we don’t know where UK government responsibility ends and Scottish Government responsibility begins.

This sort of discussion may prompt us to re-examine the idea of a ‘window of opportunity’ for change, at least when we are discussing vague solutions to complex problems. A window may produce a broad change in policymaker commitment to a policy solution, but that event may only represent the beginning of a long, drawn out process of policy change. We often talk about ‘policy entrepreneurs’ lying in wait to present their pet solutions when the time is right – but, in this case, ‘solution’ may be a rather misleading description of a broad agenda, in which everyone can agree on the aims, but not the objectives.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution

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Evolutionary theory is prevalent in policymaking studies and it can be useful if we overcome some initial barriers. First, ‘evolution’ comes with a lot of baggage when we move from a discussion of animals to people. We can blame ‘social-Darwinism’ for the racist/ sexist idea that some people are more evolved than others.

Second, the word ‘evolution’ is used frequently in daily life, and academic studies, without a clear sense of its meaning. When it is used loosely in everyday language, it refers to a long term, gradual process of change. However, evolution can also refer to quick, dramatic change; the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ is that long spells of stability and gradual change are interrupted by relatively short but profound bursts of instability. When we get into the details of studies, there are other sources of potential confusion about, for example, the nature of evolution (does it refer to advancement as well as change?) and the nature of ‘selection’ (do species simply respond blindly to their environments or help create them?).

This sort of confusion can be found in the study of public policy where evolution can refer to a wide range of things, including:

  • the cumulative, long-term development of policy solutions;
  • major disruptions in the way that policy makers think about, and try to solve, policy problems;
  • the maintenance or radical reform of policy-making institutions;
  • ‘emergent’ behaviour within complex systems
  • the trial-and-error strategies adopted by actors, such as policy entrepreneurs, when adapting to their environment;
  • the coming together of multiple factors to create the conditions for major policy change (which can be a creative, ‘window of opportunity’ style process, or a destructive, failure-related ‘perfect storm’ style process).

The most prominent theories of politics and policymaking draw on references to evolution in different ways. For example:

Multiple Streams Analysis (Kingdon). Although policymaker attention may lurch from one problem to another, problems will not be addressed until policy solutions have evolved sufficiently within a policy community and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt them. ‘Evolution’ and the ‘policy primeval soup’ describe the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community.

Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (Baumgartner and Jones). ‘Incremental’ policy change in most cases is accompanied by ‘seismic’ change in a small number of cases – an outcome consistent with ‘power laws’ found in the natural and social worlds. Kingdon’s picture of slow progress producing partial mutations is replaced by Baumgartner and Jones’ fast, disruptive, pure mutation.

Complexity theory. People, institutions and their environments are interacting constantly to produce rather unpredictable outcomes (or outcomes that may ‘emerge’ locally, in the absence of central control). This might be broken down into three steps:

  • Institutions, as sets of rules and norms, represent ways for people to retain certain ideas and encourage particular forms of behaviours.
  • Complex systems represent (partly) a large number of overlapping and often interdependent institutions.
  • New behaviours and rules arise from the interaction between multiple institutions and the actors involved.

In other words, different ‘worlds’ are in constant collision, producing new ways of thinking and behaviour that ‘emerge’ from these interactions. They are then passed down through the generations, but in an imperfect way, allowing new forms of thinking and behaviour to emerge.

To describe these processes as ‘evolutionary’, we should use the language of evolution – variation, selection and retention – to describe and explain outcomes. The idea in the natural world is that certain beings (including humans) want to do at least two things: (1) pass on their genes; (2) cooperate with others to secure resources and share them out to their kith and kin. In the political world, the equivalent is passing on ‘memes’ (as described in the 70s by Richard Dawkins) – the ideas (beliefs, ways of thinking) that we use to understand the world and act within it:

  • ‘Variation’ refers to the different rules adopted by different social groups to foster the collective action required to survive.
  • ‘Selection’ describes the interaction between people and their environments; particular environments may provide an advantage to some groups over others and encourage certain behaviours (or, at least, some groups may respond by adapting their behaviour to their environment).
  • ‘Retention’ describes the ways in which people pass on their genes (memes) to ensure the reproduction of their established rules (we might call them ‘institutions’).

The distinctive aspect of applying evolutionary theory to policymaking relates to the idea of passing on memes through the generations. In nature, we think of passing on genes through the generations as a process that takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years. Passing on memes through the ‘policy generations’ is more like the study of fruit flies (months), viruses or bacteria (days or weeks). Ways of thinking, and emerging behaviour, change constantly as people interact with each other, articulating different beliefs and rules and producing new forms of thinking, rules and behaviour. Big jumps in ways of thinking may be associated with generational shifts, but that can take place, for example, as one generation of scientists retires (as described by Kuhn) or, more quickly still, one generation of experts is replaced (within government circles) by another (as described by Hall).

I have discussed in other ‘1000 words’ posts what happens when theories, derived from cases studies of US politics, are applied to other countries and cases. ‘Evolutionary theory’ is more difficult to track, because it is a body of disparate work, loosely related to work in natural science, applied in a non-coordinated way. The same can be said for studies of complexity theory.

To read more, see ‘What is evolutionary theory and how does it inform policy studies?’ PDF, weblink or Green.

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