Tag Archives: multi-centric governance

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

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

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

To demonstrate these links, we present:

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

Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland: background and development

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

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

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

What problem would MUP help to solve?

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

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

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

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

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

What happened next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third, policymakers do not control the policy process.

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

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

The study of framing

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

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

The Narrative Policy Framework

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

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

Social Construction and Policy Design

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

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

Multi-centric policymaking

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

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

The role of evidence in MUP

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Who influences policy change?

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

According to the Advocacy Coalition Framework:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem stream

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

Policy stream

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

Politics stream

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast

You can listen directly here:

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

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

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Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition

All going well, it will be out in November 2019. We are now at the proofing stage.

I have included below the summaries of the chapters (and each chapter should also have its own entry (or multiple entries) in the 1000 Words and 500 Words series).

2nd ed cover

titlechapter 1chapter 2chapter 3chapter 4.JPG

chapter 5

chapter 6chapter 7.JPG

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10

chapter 11

chapter 12

chapter 13

 

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

The IAD provides a language, and way of thinking, about the ways in which different institutions foster collective action. The language is so complicated that I have cheated by summarising key terms in this box (and describing polycentric governance in a different post) to stay within the 1000 words limit:

IAD box 2.2.19

Governing the Commons

For me, the best way to understand the IAD is through the lens of Governing the Commons (and the research agenda it inspired), which explains how to rethink ‘tragedies of the commons’ and encourage better management of common pool resources (CPRs).

Ostrom rejects the uncritical use of rational choice games to conclude – too quickly – that disastrous collective action problems are inevitable unless we ‘privatize’ commons or secure major government intervention (which is tricky anyway when global problems require international cooperation). The tragedy of the commons presents a too-bleak view of humanity, in which it would be surprising to find cooperation even when the fate of the world is in human hands.

Alternatively, what if there is evidence that people often work collectively and effectively without major coercion? People are social beings who share information, build trust by becoming known as reliable and predictable, and come together to produce, monitor and enforce rules for the group’s benefit. They produce agreements with each other that could be enforced if necessary.

The IAD helps us analyse these cooperative arrangements. Ostrom describes 8 ‘design principles’ of enduring and effective CPR management shared by many real world examples:

  1. CPRs have clear boundaries. Users know what they are managing, and can identify legitimate users.
  2. The rules suit local conditions. Users know what they (a) are expected to contribute to management and (b) receive from CPRs.
  3. The actors affected by the rules help shape them (at low cost).
  4. CPR monitors are users or accountable to users. They monitor (a) the conduct of users and (b) the state of the CPR. The costs of mutual monitoring are low, and their consequences felt quickly.
  5. The penalties for rule-breaking are low if the choice is a one-off and understandable under the circumstances (to avoid alienating the user). The penalties are high if the choice is part of a pattern which makes other users feel like ‘suckers’, or if rule-breaking would be catastrophic.
  6. Conflict resolution is frequent, rapid and low cost.
  7. Users have the right to self-organise without too much outside interference.
  8. Many projects are connected geographically and at different scales – local, regional, national – in ways that do not undermine individual projects.

These design principles help explain why some communities manage CPRs successfully. They allow users to share the same commitment and expect the long-term benefits to be worthwhile.

However, Ostrom stressed that there is no blueprint – no hard and fast rules – to CPR management. There are three particular complications:

  1. Trust

Good management requires high trust to encourage norms of reciprocity. Trust is crucial to minimizing the costs of compliance monitoring and enforcement. Trust may develop when participants communicate regularly, share an understanding of their common interests, reciprocate each other’s cooperation, and have proven reliable in the past.

Design principles are important to developing trust and solidarity, but so are evolutionary’ changes to behaviour. Actors have often learned about rule efficacy – to encourage cooperation and punish opportunism – through trial-and-error over a long period, beginning with simple, low-cost operational rules producing quick wins.

  1. Rules, rules on rules, more rules, then even more rules

Institutions contain a large, complicated set of rules that serve many different purposes, and need to be understood and analysed in different ways.

Different purposes include:

  • how many actors are part of an action situation, and the role they play
  • what they must/ must not do
  • who is eligible to participate
  • who can move from one role to another
  • who controls membership, and how
  • how many participants are involved in a choice
  • what will happen if there is no agreement
  • how to manage and communicate information
  • the rewards or sanctions
  • the range of acceptable actions or outcomes from action.

 

We also need to analyse the relative costs and simplicity of different rules, and the rules about the other rules, including

  • ‘operational’ rules on day-to-day issues (such as specific payoffs/ sanctions for behaviour)
  • ‘collective choice’ rules about how to make those rules
  • ‘constitutional’ rules on who can decide those rules and who can monitor and enforce, and
  • ‘metaconstitutional’ analysis of how to design these constitutions with reference to the wider political and social context.

 

  1. The world is too complex to break down into simple pieces

By now, you may be thinking that the IAD – and analysis of resource management – is complicated. This is true, partly because each case study – of the physical conditions and social practices regarding resource management – is different in some way. We can use the IAD to compare experiences, but accept that a profoundly successful scheme in one context may fail miserably in another.

Simplicity versus complexity: the world is complex, but should our analysis follow suit?

Indeed, this is why we need to think about rational choice games and the IAD simultaneously, to understand the analytical trade-offs.

Game theory laboratory experiments – built on simple rules and relatively small numbers of parameters – produce parsimonious analysis and results that we can understand relatively easily.

We may reject simple games as unrealistic, but what if we take this criticism to its extreme?

IAD in-depth field studies embrace complexity to try to understand the key dimensions of each study’s context. When we put them all together, there are too many concepts, variables, global applications, and variations-by-context, to contain in a simple theory.

The IAD addresses this trade off by offering a language to help organize research, encouraging people to learn it then use it to apply many different theories to explain different parts of the whole picture.

In other words, it is OK to reject simple models as unrealistic, but to embrace real-world complexity may require a rather complicated language.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD (the older post for the 1st edition)

Policy Concepts in 100 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

 

 

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Policy Concept in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

Many theories in this 1000 words series describe multiple policymaking venues. They encourage us to give up on the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful national central government. Instead, there are many venues in which to make authoritative choices, each contributing to what we call policy.

The word ‘multi-centric’ (coined by Professor Tanya Heikkila, with me and Dr Matt Wood) does not suggest that every venue is of equal importance or power. Rather, it prompts us not to miss something important by focusing too narrowly on one single (alleged) centre of authority.

To some extent, multi-centric policymaking results from choice. Many federal political systems have constitutions that divide power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or give some protection to subnational governments. Many others have become ‘quasi-federal’ more organically, by sharing responsibilities with supranational and subnational governments. In such cases, there is explicit choice to distribute power and share responsibility for making policy (albeit with some competition to assert power or shuffle-off responsibility).

However, for the most part, this series helps explain the necessity of multi-centric policymaking with reference to two concepts:

  1. Bounded rationality. Policymakers are only able to pay attention to – and therefore understand and seek to control – a tiny proportion of their responsibilities.
  2. Complex policymaking environments. Policymakers operate in an environment over which they have limited understanding and even less control. It contains many policymakers and influencers spread across many venues, each with their own institutions, networks, ideas (and ways to frame policy), and responses to socio-economic context and events.

Both factors combine to provide major limits to single central government control. Elected policymakers deal with bounded rationality by prioritising some issues and, necessarily, delegating responsibility for the rest. Delegation may be inside or outside of central government.

1000 Words theories describing multi-centric government directly

Multi-level governance describes the sharing of power vertically, between many levels of government, and horizontally, between many governmental, quasi-non-governmental and non-governmental organisations. Many studies focus on the diffusion of power within specific areas like the European Union – highlighting choice – but the term ‘governance’ has a wider connection to the necessity of MLG.

For example, part of MLG’s origin story is previous work to help explain the pervasiveness of policy networks:

  • Policymakers at the ‘top’ ask bureaucrats to research and process policy on their behalf
  • Civil servants seek information and advice from actors outside of government
  • They often form enduring relationships built on factors such as trust.
  • Such policymaking takes place away from a notional centre – or at least a small core executive – and with limited central attention.

Polycentricity describes (a) ‘many decision centers’ with their own separate authority, (b) ‘operating under an overarching set of rules’, but with (c) a sense of ‘spontaneous order’ in which no single centre controls the rules or outcomes. Polycentric governance describes ‘policymaking centres with overlapping authority; they often work together to make decisions, but may also engage in competition or conflict’.

This work on polycentric governance comes primarily from the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework that helps compare the effectiveness of institutions designed to foster collective action. For example, Ostrom identifies the conditions under which non-governmental institutions can help manage ‘common pool resources’ effectively, while IAD-inspired studies of municipal governance examine how many ‘centres’ can cooperate as or more effectively than a single central government.

Complexity theory has a less clear origin story, but we can identify key elements of complex systems:

  • They are greater than the sum of their parts
  • They amplify or dampen policymaking activity, so the same action can have a maximal or no impact
  • Small initial choices can produce major long term momentum
  • There are regularities of behaviour despite the ever-present potential for instability
  • They exhibit ‘emergence’. Local outcomes seem to defy central direction.

Systems contain many actors interacting with many other actors. They follow and reproduce rules, which help explain long periods of regular behaviour. Or, many actors and rules collide when they interact, producing the potential for many bursts of instability. In each case, the system is too large and unpredictable to be subject to central control.

1000 Words theories describing multi-centric government indirectly

Many other theories in this series describe multi-centric policymaking – or aspects of it – without using this term directly. Examples include:

Punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that (a) policymakers at the ‘centre’ of government could pay attention to, and influence, most issues, but (b) they can only focus on a small number and must ignore the rest. Very few issues reach the ‘macropolitical’ agenda. Multiple policymaking organisations process the rest out of the public spotlight.

Multiple streams analysis turns the notion of a policy cycle on its head, and emphasises serendipity over control. Policy does not change until three things come together at the right ‘window of opportunity’: attention to a problem rises, a feasible solution exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to act. Modern MSA studies show that such windows exist at multiple levels of government.

The advocacy coalition framework describes the interaction between many policymakers and influencers. Coalitions contain actors from many levels and types of government, cooperating and competing within subsystems (see networks). They are surrounded by a wider context – over which no single actor has direct control – that provides the impetus for ‘shocks’ to each coalition.

In such accounts, the emphasis is on high levels of complexity, the potential for instability, and the lack of central control over policymaking and policy outcomes. The policy process is not well described with reference to a small group of policymakers at the heart of government.

The implications for strategy and accountability

Making Policy in a Complex World explores the implications of multi-centric policymaking for wider issues including:

  1. Accountability. How do we hold elected policymakers to account if we no longer accept that there is a single government to elect and scrutinise? See MLG for one such discussion.
  2. Strategy. How can people act effectively in a policy process that seems too complex to understand fully? See this page on ‘evidence based policymaking’

Further Reading:

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Policy in 500 words

5 images of the policy process

[right click for the audio]

Making Policy in a Complex World (preview PDF ) also provides a short explainer of key terms as follows:

multicentric box 1

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