Tag Archives: Knowledge

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Barry Hindess (1977) Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. This post started off as 750 words before growing.

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Barry Hindess (1977) Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences (Harvester)

‘If the claims of philosophy to a special kind of knowledge can be shown to be without foundation, if they are at best dogmatic or else incoherent, then methodology is an empty and futile pursuit and its prescriptions are vacuous’ (Hindess, 1977: 4).

This book may seem like a weird addition to a series on policy analysis.

However, it follows the path set by Carol Bacchi, asking whose interests we serve when we frame problems for policy analysis, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, asking whose research counts when we do so.

One important answer is that the status of research and the framing of the problem result from the exercise of power, rather than the objectivity of analysts and natural superiority of some forms of knowledge.

In other posts on ‘the politics of evidence based policymaking’, I describe some frustrations among many scientists that their views on a hierarchy of knowledge based on superior methods are not shared by many policymakers.  These posts can satisfy different audiences: if you have a narrow view of what counts as good evidence, you can focus on the barriers between evidence and policy; if you have a broader view, you can wonder why those barriers seem higher for other forms of knowledge (e.g. Linda Tuhiwai Smith on the marginalisation of indigenous knowledge).

In this post, I encourage you to go a bit further down this path by asking how people accumulate knowledge in the first place.  For example, see introductory accounts by Chalmers, entertaining debates involving Feyerabend, and Hindess’ book to explore your assumptions about how we know what we know.

My take-home point from these texts is that we are only really able to describe convincingly the argument that we are not accumulating knowledge!

The simple insight from Chalmers’ introduction is that inductive (observational) methods to generate knowledge are circular:

  • we engage inductively to produce theory (to generalise from individual cases), but
  • we use theory to engage in any induction, such as to decide what is important to study, and what observations are relevant/irrelevant, and why.

In other words, we need theories of the world to identify the small number of things to observe (to allow us to filter out an almost unlimited amount of signals from out environments), but we need our observations to generate those theories!

Hindess shows that all claims to knowledge involve such circularity: we employ philosophy to identify the nature of the world (ontology) and how humans can generate valid knowledge of it (epistemology) to inform methodology, to state that scientific knowledge is only valid if it lives up to a prescribed method, then argue that the scientific knowledge validates the methodology and its underlying philosophy (1977: 3-22). If so, we are describing something that makes sense according to the rules and practices of its proponents, not an objective scientific method to help us accumulate knowledge.

Further, different social/ professional groups support different forms of working knowledge that they value for different reasons (such as to establish ‘reliability’ or ‘meaning’). To do so, they invent frameworks to help them theorise the world, such as to describe the relationship between concepts (and key concepts such as cause and effect). These frameworks represent a useful language to communicate about our world rather than simply existing independently of it and corresponding to it.

Hindess’ subsequent work explored the context in which we exercise power to establish the status of some forms of knowledge over others, to pursue political ends rather than simply the ‘objective’ goals of science. As described, it is as relevant now as it was then.

How do these ideas inform policy analysis?

Perhaps, by this stage, you are thinking: isn’t this a relativist argument, concluding that we should never assert the relative value of some forms of knowledge over others (like astronomy versus astrology)?

I don’t think so. Rather, it invites us to do two more sensible things:

  1. Accept that different approaches to knowledge may be ‘incommensurable’.
  • They may not share ‘a common set of perceptions’ (or even a set of comparable questions) ‘which would allow scientists to choose between one paradigm and the other . . . there will be disputes between them that cannot all be settled by an appeal to the facts’ (Hindess, 1988: 74)
  • If so, “there is no possibility of an extratheoretical court of appeal which can ‘validate’ the claims of one position against those of another” (Hindess, 1977: 226).
  1. Reject the sense of self-importance, and hubris, which often seems to accompany discussions of superior forms of knowledge. Don’t be dogmatic. Live by the maxim ‘don’t be an arse’. Reflect on the production, purpose, value, and limitations of our knowledge in different contexts (which Spiegelhalter does well).

On that basis, we can have honest discussions about why we should exercise power in a political system to favour some forms of knowledge over others in policy analysis, reflecting on:

  1. The relatively straightforward issue of internal consistency: is an approach coherent, and does it succeed on its own terms?
  • For example, do its users share a clear language, pursue consistent aims with systematic methods, find ways to compare and reinforce the value of each other’s findings, while contributing to a thriving research agenda (as discussed in box 13.3 below)?
  • Or, do they express their aims in other ways, such as to connect research to emancipation, or value respect for a community over the scientific study of that community?
  1. The not straightforward issue of overall consistency: how can we compare different forms of knowledge when they do not follow each other’s rules or standards?
  • g. what if one approach is (said to be) more rigorous and the other more coherent?
  • g. what if one produces more data but another produces more ownership?

In each case, the choice of criteria for comparison involves political choice (as part of a series of political choices), without the ability – described in relation to ‘cost benefit analysis’ – to translate all relevant factors into a single unit.

  1. The imperative to ‘synthesise’ knowledge.

Spiegelhalter provides a convincing description of the benefits of systematic review and ‘meta-analysis’ within a single, clearly defined, scientific approach containing high agreement on methods and standards for comparison.

However, this approach is not applicable directly to the review of multiple forms of knowledge.

So, what do people do?

  • E.g. some systematic reviewers apply the standards of their own field to all others, which (a) tends to produce the argument that very little high quality evidence exists because other people are doing it wrongly, and (b) perhaps exacerbates a tendency for policymakers to attach relatively low value to such evaluations.
  • E.g. policy analysts are more likely to apply different criteria: is it available, understandable, ‘usable’, and policy relevant (e.g. see ‘knowledge management for policy’)?

Each approach is a political choice to include/ exclude certain forms of knowledge according to professional norms or policymaking imperatives, not a technical process to identify the most objective information. If you are going to do it, you should at least be aware of what you are doing.

box 13.3 2nd ed UPP for HIndess post

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

Please see the  Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. The reference to 750 words is increasingly misleading.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies 2nd edition (London: Zed Books)

 ‘Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its cope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated?’ (Smith, 2012: 10; see also 174-7)

Many texts in this series highlight the politics of policy analysis, but few (such as Bacchi) identify the politics of the research that underpins policy analysis.

You can find some discussion of these issues in the brief section on ‘co-production’, in wider studies of co-produced research and policy, and ‘evidence based policymaking’, and in posts on power and knowledge and feminist institutionalism. However, the implications rarely feed into standard policy analysis texts. This omission is important, because the production of knowledge – and the exercise of power to define whose knowledge counts – is as political as it gets.

Smith (2012) demonstrates this point initially by identifying multiple, often hidden, aspects of politics and power that relate to ‘research’ and ‘indigenous peoples’:

 

  1. The term ‘indigenous peoples’ is contested, and its meaning-in-use can range from
  • positive self-identification, to highlight common international experiences and struggles for self-determination but distinctive traditions; other terms include ‘First Nations’ in Canada or, in New Zealand, ‘Maori’ as opposed to ‘Pakeha’ (the colonizing population) (2012: 6)
  • negative external-identification, including – in some cases – equating ‘indigenous’ (or similar terms) with ‘dirtiness, savagery, rebellion and, since 9/11, terrorism’ (2012: xi-xii).

 

  1. From the perspective of ‘the colonized’, “the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism” (2012: 1; 21-6). Western research practices (and the European ‘Enlightenment’) reflect and reinforce political practices associated with colonial rule (2012: 2; 23).

To the colonized, the ways in which academic research has been implicated in the throes of imperialism remains a painful memory’ (2012: back cover).

“The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (2012: xi).

 

  1. People in indigenous communities describe researchers who exploit ‘their culture, their knowledge, their resources’ (and, in some cases, their bodies) to bolster their own income, career or profession (2012: xi; 91-4; 102-7), in the context of a long history of subjugation and slavery that makes such practices possible (2012: 21-6; 28-9; 176-7), and “justified as being for ‘the good of mankind’” (2012: 26).

 

 

  1. Western researchers think – hubristically – that they can produce a general understanding of the practices and cultures of indigenous peoples (e.g. using anthropological methods). Instead, they produce – irresponsibly or maliciously – negative and often dehumanizing images that feed into policies ‘employed to deny the validity of indigenous peoples’ claim to existence’ and solve the ‘indigenous problem’ (2012: 1; 8-9; 26-9; 62-5; 71-2; 81-91; 94-6).

For example, research contributes to a tendency for governments to

  • highlight, within indigenous communities, indicators of inequality (in relation to factors such as health, education, crime, and family life), and relate it to
  • indigenous cultures and low intelligence, rather than
  • the ways in which colonial legacy and current policy contributes to poverty and marginalisation (2012: 4; 12; compare with Social Construction and Policy Design).

 

  1. Western researchers’ views on how to produce high-quality scientific evidence lead them to ‘see indigenous peoples, their values and practices as political hindrances that get in the way of good research’ (2012: xi; 66-71; compare with ‘hierarchy of evidence’). Similarly, the combination of a state’s formal laws and unwritten rules and assumptions can serve to dismiss indigenous community knowledge as not meeting evidential standards (2012: 44-9).

 

  1. Many indigenous researchers need to negotiate the practices and expectations of different groups, such as if they are portrayed as:
  • ‘insiders’ in relation to an indigenous community (and, for example, expected by that community to recognise the problems with Western research traditions)
  • ‘outsiders’, by (a) an indigenous community in relation to their ‘Western education’ (2012: 5), or (b) by a colonizing state commissioning insider research
  • less technically proficient or less likely to maintain confidentiality than a ‘non-indigenous researcher’ (2012: 12)

Can policy analysis be informed by a new research agenda?

In that context, Smith (2012: xiii; 111-25) outlines a new agenda built on the recognition that research is political and connected explicitly to political and policy aims (2012: xiii; compare with Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies)

At its heart is a commitment to indigenous community ‘self-determination’, ‘survival’, ‘recovery’, and ‘development’, aided by processes such as social movement mobilization and decolonization (2012: 121). This agenda informs the meaning of ethical conduct, signalling that research:

  • serves explicit political goals and requires researchers to reflect on their role as activists in an emancipatory project, in contrast to the disingenuous argument that science or scientists are objective (2012: 138-42; 166-77; 187-8; 193-5; 198-215; 217-26)
  • is not ‘something done only by white researchers to indigenous peoples’ (2012: 122),
  • is not framed so narrowly, in relation to specific methods or training, that it excludes (by definition) most indigenous researchers, community involvement in research design, and methods such as storytelling (2012: 127-38; 141; for examples of methods, see 144-63; 170-1)
  • requires distinctive methods and practices to produce knowledge, reinforced by mutual support during the nurturing of such practices
  • requires a code of respectful conduct that extends ‘beyond issues of individual consent and confidentiality’) (2012: 124; 179-81).

Wider context: informing the ‘steps’ to policy analysis

This project informs directly the ‘steps’ to policy analysis described in Bardach, Weimer and Vining, and Mintrom, including:

Problem definition

Mintrom describes the moral and practical value of engaging with stakeholders to help frame policy problems and design solutions (as part of a similarly-worded aim to transform and improve the world).

However, Smith (2012: 228-32; 13) describes such a profound gulf, in the framing of problems, that cannot be bridged simply via consultation or half-hearted ‘co-production’ exercises.

For example, if a government policy analyst relates poor health to individual and cultural factors in indigenous communities, and people in those communities relate it to colonization, land confiscation, minimal self-determination, and an excessive focus on individuals, what could we realistically expect from set-piece government-led stakeholder analyses built on research that has already set the policy agenda (compare with Bacchi)?

Rather, Smith (2012: 15-16) describes the need, within research practices, for continuous awareness of, and respect for, a community’s ‘cultural protocols, values and behaviours’ as part of ‘an ethical and respectful approach’. Indeed, the latter could have mutual benefits which underpin the long-term development of trust: a community may feel less marginalised by the analysis-to-policy process, and future analysts may be viewed with less suspicion.

Even so, a more respectful policy process is not the same as accepting that some communities may benefit more from writing about their own experiences than contributing to someone else’s story. Writing about the past, present, and future is an exercise of power to provide a dominant perspective with which to represent people and problems (2012: 29-41; 52-9)

Analysing and comparing solutions

Imagine a cost-benefit analysis designed to identify the most efficient outcomes by translating all of the predicted impacts on people into a single unit of analysis (such as a dollar amount, or quality-adjusted-life-years). Assumptions include that we can: (a) assign the same value to a notionally similar experience, and (b) produce winners from policy and compensate losers.

Yet, this calculation hinges on the power to decide how we should understand such experiences and place relative values on outcomes, and to take a calculation of their value to one population and generalise it to others. Smith’s analysis suggests that such processes will not produce outcomes that we can describe honestly as societal improvements. Rather, they feed into a choice to produce winners from policy and fail to compensate losers in an adequate or appropriate manner.

See also:

  1. In relation to policy theories

This post – Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies – provides a tentative introduction to the ways in which many important approaches can inform policy theories, such as by

The 2nd edition of Understanding Public Policy summarises these themes as follows:

p49 2nd ed UPPp50 2nd ed UPP

  1. In relation to policy analysis

If you look back to the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview, you will see that a popular way to address policy issues is through the ‘coproduction’ of research and policy, perhaps based on a sincere commitment to widen a definition of useful knowledge/ ways of thinking and avoid simply making policy from the ‘centre’ or ‘top down’.

Yet, the post you are now reading, summarising Decolonizing Methodologies, should prompt us to question the extent to which a process could be described sincerely as ‘coproduction’ if there is such an imbalance of power and incongruence of ideas between participants.

Although many key texts do not discuss ‘policy analysis’ directly, they provide ways to reflect imaginatively on this problem. I hope that I am not distorting their original messages, but please note that the following are my stylized interpretations of key texts.

Audre Lorde (2018*) The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (Penguin) (*written from 1978-82)

Lorde Masters Tools

One issue with very quick client-oriented policy analysis is that it encourages analysts to (a) work with an already-chosen definition of the policy problem, and (b) use well-worn methods to collect information, including (c) engaging with ideas and people with whom they are already familiar.

Some forms of research and policy analysis may be more conducive to challenging existing frames and encouraging wider stakeholder engagement. Still, compare this mild shift from the status quo with a series of issues and possibilities identified by Lorde (2018):

  • Some people are so marginalised and dismissed that they struggle to communicate – about the ways in which they are oppressed, and how they might contribute to imagining a better world – in ways that would be valued (or even noticed) during stakeholder consultation (2018: 1-5 ‘Poetry is not a luxury’).
  • The ‘european-american male tradition’ only allows for narrowly defined (‘rational’) means of communication (2018: 6-15 ‘Uses of the Erotic’)

A forum can be designed ostensibly to foster communication and inclusivity, only to actually produce the opposite, by signalling to some participants that

  • they are a token afterthought, whose views and experiences are – at best – only relevant to a very limited aspect of a wide discussion, and
  • their differences will be feared, not celebrated, becoming a source of conflict, not mutual nurture or cooperation.

It puts marginalised people in the position of having to work hard simply to be heard. They learn that powerful people are only willing to listen if others do the work for them, because (a) they are ignorant of experiences other than their own, and/or (b) they profess ignorance strategically to suck the energy from people whose views they fear and do not understand. No one should feel immune from such criticism even if they profess to be acting with good intentions (2018: 16-21 ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’).

  • The correct response to racism is anger. Therefore, do not prioritise (a) narrow rules of civility, or the sensibilities of the privileged, if (b) your aim is to encourage conversations with people who are trying to express the ways in which they deal with overwhelming and continuous hatred, violence, and oppression (2018: 22-35, ‘Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’)

Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2014) Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (Routledge)

Sousa cover

Imagine global policy processes and policy analysis, in which some countries and international organisations negotiate agreements, influenced (or not) by critical social movements in pursuit of social justice. Santos (2014) identifies a series of obstacles including:

  • A tendency for Western (as part of the Global North) ways of thinking to dominate analysis, at the expense of insights from the Global South (2014: viii), producing
  • A tendency for ‘Western centric’ ideas to inform the sense that some concepts and collective aims – such as human dignity and human rights – can be understood universally, rather than through the lens of struggles that are specific to some regions (2014: 21; 38)
  • A lack of imagination or willingness to imagine different futures and conceptions of social justice (2014: 24)

Consequently, actors may come together to discuss major policy change on ostensibly the same terms, only for some groups to – intentionally and unintentionally – dominate thought and action and reinforce the global inequalities they propose to reduce.

Sarah Ahmed (2017) Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press)

Ahmed cover.jpg

Why might your potential allies in ‘coproduction’ be suspicious of your motives, or sceptical about the likely outcomes of such an exchange? One theme throughout Smith’s (2012) book is that people often co-opt key terms (such as ‘decolonizing’) to perform the sense that they care about social change, to try to look like they are doing something important, while actually designing ineffective or bad faith processes to protect the status of themselves or their own institution or profession.

Ahmed (2017: 103) describes comparable initiatives – such as to foster ‘equality and diversity’ – as a public relations exercise for organisations, rather than a sincere desire to do the work. Consequently, there is a gap ‘between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality’ (2017: 90). Indeed, the aim may be to project a sense of transformation to hinder that transformation (2017: 90), coupled with a tendency to use a ‘safe’ and non-confrontational language (‘diversity’) to project the sense that we can only push people so far, at the expense of terms such as ‘racism’ that would signal challenge, confrontation, and a commitment to high impact (2017: chapter 4).

..

Putting these insights together suggests that a stated commitment to co-produced research and policy might begin with good intentions. Even so, a commitment to sincere engagement does not guarantee an audience or prevent you from exacerbating the very problems you profess to solve.

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Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

ch5 box

New institutionalism’ describes regular patterns of behaviour and the rules, norms, practices, and relationships that influence such behaviour. This influence can range from direct enforcement by the state to an individual’s perception of a need to conform to norms.

Institutions can be formal, well understood, and written down (such as when enshrined in a constitution, legislation, or regulations).

They can also be informal, unwritten, and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation. They ‘exist in the minds of the participants and sometimes are shared as implicit knowledge rather than in an explicit and written form’ (Ostrom, 2007: 23). Therefore, the rules followed implicitly may contradict the rules described explicitly.

Feminist research helps us understand the relationship between such institutions and power, to advance ‘the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research’.

If we understand institutions broadly as formal rules and informal norms, we can find many ways in which to explore the existence and enforcement of inequalities, such as by:

In other words, such action can involve the direct and visible exercise of power, often reflected in the formal rules of political systems. Or, it can be part of the ‘hidden life of institutions’ that requires much more analysis and effort to see and challenge.

Such insights help to advance other common variants of new institutionalism, including:

  • Historical. The well-established dominance of elected positions by men is maintained via ‘path dependent’ processes (such as the incumbency effect).
  • Rational choice. Men and women may adopt the same ‘calculus’ approach to action, but face very different rewards and punishments.
  • Discursive. The use of discourse to reinforce ‘racial or gendered stereotypes’ may help maintain social inequalities.
  • Network. The ‘velvet triangle’ describes the policy networks of ‘feminist bureaucrats, trusted academics, and organized voices in the women’s movement’ that develop partly because women are excluded routinely from the positions of power.

Crucially, these insights also help us understand the expectations- or implementation-gaps that arise when people try to reform political practices and policymaking in complex or multi-centric systems.  A policy change such as gender mainstreaming may seem straightforward and instant when viewed in relation to formal institutions, such as a statutory duty combined with a strategic plan adopted across government. However, it also represents the first step in a highly uncertain and problematic process to address the informal, unwritten, ill-understood, everyday, taken-for-granted (and often fiercely guarded) sources of inequality that are reflected in policy and practice as a whole.

Note: this post summarizes a new section in Chapter 5 of Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition (compare with Lowndes). I benefited greatly from advice by Professor Fiona Mackay during its writing.

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

 

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Beware the well-intentioned advice of unusually successful academics

This post – by Dr Kathryn Oliver and me – originally appeared on the LSE Impact Blog. I have replaced the picture of a thumb up with a cat hanging in there. 

Many academics want to see their research have an impact on policy and practice, and there is a lot of advice on how to seek it. It can be helpful to take advice from experienced and successful people. However, is this always the best advice? Guidance based on best practice and success stories in particular, often reflect unequal access to policymakers, institutional support, and credibility attached to certain personal characteristics.

To take stock of the vast amount of advice being offered to academics, we decided to compare it with the more systematic analyses available in the peer-reviewed literature, on the ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy, and policy studies. This allowed us to situate this advice in a wider context, see whether it was generalisable across settings and career stages, and to think through the inconsistencies and dilemmas which underlie these suggestions.

The advice: Top tips on influencing policy

The key themes and individual recommendations we identified from the 86 most-relevant publications are:

  1. Do high quality research: Use well-established research designs, methods, or metrics.
  2. Make your research relevant and readable: Provide easily-understandable, clear, relevant and high-quality research. Aim for the general reader. Produce good stories based on emotional appeals or humour.
  3. Understand the policymaking context. Note the busy and constrained lives of policy actors. Maximise established ways to engage, such as in advisory committees. Be pragmatic, accepting that research rarely translates directly into policy.
  4. Be ‘accessible’ to policymakers. This may involve discussing topics beyond your narrow expertise. Be humble, courteous, professional, and recognise the limits to your skills.
  5. Decide if you want to be an ‘issue advocate’. Decide whether to simply explain the evidence, remain an ‘honest broker, or recommend specific policy options. Negative consequences may include peer criticism, being seen as an academic lightweight, being used to add legitimacy to a policy position, and burnout.
  6. Build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers: Relationship-building requires investment and skills, but working collaboratively is often necessary. Academics could identify policy actors to provide insights into policy problems, act as champions for their research, and identify the most helpful policy actors.
  7. Be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is. Be a daring, persuasive scientist, comfortable in policy environments and available when needed. Or, seek brokers to act on your behalf.
  8. Reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working? Academics may enjoy the work or are passionate about the issue. Even so, keep track of when and how you have had impact, and revise your practices continuously.

hang-in-there-baby

Inconsistencies and dilemmas

This advice tends not to address wider issues. For example, there is no consensus over what counts as good evidence for policy, or therefore how best to communicate good evidence. We know little about how to gain the wide range of skills that researchers and policymakers need to act collectively, including to: produce evidence syntheses, manage expert communities, ‘co-produce’ research and policy with a wide range of stakeholders, and be prepared to offer policy recommendations as well as scientific advice. Further, a one-size fits-all model won’t help researchers navigate a policymaking environment where different venues have different cultures and networks. Researchers therefore need to decide what policy engagement is for—to frame problems or simply measure them according to an existing frame—and how far researchers should go to be useful and influential. If academics need to go ‘all in’ to secure meaningful impact, we need to reflect on the extent to which they have the resources and support to do so. This means navigating profound dilemmas:

Source: The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics

 

Can academics try to influence policy? The financial costs of seeking impact are prohibitive for junior or untenured researchers, while women and people of colour may be more subject to personal abuse. Such factors undermine the diversity of voices available.

How should academics influence policy? Many of these new required skills – such as storytelling – are not a routine part of academic training, and may be looked down on by our colleagues.  

What is the purpose of academics engagement in policymaking? To go beyond tokenistic and instrumental engagement is to build genuine rapport with policymakers, which may require us to co-produce knowledge and cede some control over the research process. It involves a fundamentally different way of doing public engagement: one with no clear aim in mind other than to listen and learn, with the potential to transform research practices and outputs.

Where is the evidence that this advice helps us improve impact?

The existing advice offered to academics on how to create impact is – although often well-meaning – not based on systematic research or comprehensive analysis of empirical evidence. Few advice-givers draw clearly on key literatures on policymaking or evidence use. This leads to significant misunderstandings, which can have potentially costly repercussions for research, researchers and policy.  These limitations matter, as they lead to advice which fails to address core dilemmas for academics—whether to engage, how to engage, and why—which have profound implications for how scientists and universities should respond to the calls for increased impact.

Most tips focus on individual experience, whereas engagement between research and policy is driven by systemic factors. Many of the tips may be sensible and effective, but often only within particular settings. The advice is likely to be useful mostly to a relatively similar group of people who are confident and comfortable in policy environments, and have access and credibility within policy arenas. Thus, the current advice and structures may help reproduce and reinforce existing power dynamics and an underrepresentation of people who do not fit a very narrow mould.

The overall result may be that each generation of scientists has to fight the same battles, and learn the same lessons over again. Our best response as a profession is to interrogate current advice, shape and frame it, and to help us all to find ways to navigate the complex practical, political, moral and ethical challenges associated with being researchers today. The ‘how to’ literature can help, but only if authors are cognisant of their wider role in society and complex policymaking systems.

This blog post is based on the authors’ co-written articles, The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics, published in Palgrave Communications, and ‘How should academics engage in policymaking to achieve impact?’  published in Political Studies Review 

About the authors

Kathryn Oliver is Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (@oliver_kathryn ). Her interest is in how knowledge is produced, mobilized and used in policy and practice, and how this affects the practice of research. She co-runs the research collaborative Transforming Evidence with Annette Boaz. https://transformure.wordpress.com and her writings can be found here: https://kathrynoliver.wordpress.com

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling, UK (@Cairneypaul).  His research interests are in comparative public policy and policy theories, which he uses to explain the use of evidence in policy and policymaking, in one book (The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making, 2016), several articles, and many, many blog posts: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/

See also:

  1. Adam Wellstead, Paul Cairney, and Kathryn Oliver (2018) ‘Reducing ambiguity to close the science-policy gap’, Policy Design and Practice, 1, 2, 115-25 PDF
  2. Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS), DOI: 10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x PDF AM
  3. Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, 76, 3, 399–402 DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

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Emotion and reason in politics: the rational/ irrational distinction

In ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers’, Richard Kwiatkowski and I use the distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts ‘provocatively’. I sort of wish we had been more direct, because I have come to realise that:

  1. My attempts to communicate with sarcasm and facial gestures may only ever appeal to a niche audience, and
  2. even if you use the scare quotes – around a word like ‘irrational’ – to denote the word’s questionable use, it’s not always clear what I’m questioning, because
  3. you need to know the story behind someone’s discussion to know what they are questioning.*

So, here are some of the reference points I’m using when I tell a story about ‘irrationality’:

1. I’m often invited to be the type of guest speaker that challenges the audience, it is usually a scientific audience, and the topic is usually evidence based policymaking.

So, when I say ‘irrational’, I’m speaking to (some) scientists who think of themselves as rational and policymakers as irrational, and use this problematic distinction to complain about policy-based evidence, post-truth politics, and perhaps even the irrationality of voters for Brexit. Action based on this way of thinking would be counterproductive. In that context, I use the word ‘irrational’ as a way into some more nuanced discussions including:

  • all humans combine cognition and emotion to make choices; and,
  • emotions are one of many sources of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ that help us make some decisions very quickly and often very well.

In other words, it is silly to complain that some people are irrational, when we are all making choices this way, and such decision-making is often a good thing.

2. This focus on scientific rationality is part of a wider discussion of what counts as good evidence or valuable knowledge. Examples include:

  • Policy debates on the value of bringing together many people with different knowledge claims – such as through user and practitioner experience – to ‘co-produce’ evidence.
  • Wider debates on the ‘decolonization of knowledge’ in which narrow ‘Western’ scientific principles help exclude the voices of many populations by undermining their claims to knowledge.

3. A focus on rationality versus irrationality is still used to maintain sexist and racist caricatures or stereotypes, and therefore dismiss people based on a misrepresentation of their behaviour.

I thought that, by now, we’d be done with dismissing women as emotional or hysterical, but apparently not. Indeed, as some recent racist and sexist coverage of Serena Williams demonstrates, the idea that black women are not rational is still tolerated in mainstream discussion.

4. Part of the reason that we can only conclude that people combine cognition and emotion, without being able to separate their effects in a satisfying way, is that the distinction is problematic.

It is difficult to demonstrate empirically. It is also difficult to assign some behaviours to one camp or the other, such as when we consider moral reasoning based on values and logic.

To sum up, I’ve been using the rational/irrational distinction explicitly to make a simple point that is relevant to the study of politics and policymaking:

  • All people use cognitive shortcuts to help them ignore almost all information about the world, to help them make decisions efficiently.
  • If you don’t understand and act on this simple insight, you’ll waste your time by trying to argue someone into submission or giving them a 500-page irrelevant report when they are looking for one page written in a way that makes sense to them.

Most of the rest has been mostly implicit, and communicated non-verbally, which is great when you want to keep a presentation brief and light, but not if you want to acknowledge nuance and more serious issues.

 

 

 

 

*which is why I’m increasingly interested in Riker’s idea of heresthetics, in which the starting point of a story is crucial. We can come to very different conclusions about a problem and its solution by choosing different starting points, to accentuate one aspect of a problem and downplay another, even when our beliefs and preferences remain basically the same.

 

 

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, Storytelling

Writing a policy paper and blog post #POLU9UK

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

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

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

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Be concise, be smart

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

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

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

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

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

Be creative

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

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

Be reflective

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

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

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

Be a blogger

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

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

Be reflective once again

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

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

See also: Professionalism online with social media

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

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