Tag Archives: multi-centric policymaking

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:

You can also listen on Spotify or iTunes via Anchor

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

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

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

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Contradictions in policy and policymaking

It would be a mistake to equate public policy with whatever a government says it is doing (or wants to do).

The most obvious, but often unhelpful, explanation for this statement is that politicians are not sincere when making policy promises, or not competent enough to see them through.

This focus on sincerity and ‘political will’ can be useful, but only scratches the surface of explanation.

The bigger source of explanation comes from the routine, pervasive, and inevitable contradictions of policy and policymaking.

The basic idea of contradictory aims and necessary trade-offs

I want to eat crisps and lose weight, but making a commitment to both does not achieve both. Rather, I cycle between each aim, often unpredictably, producing what might appear to be an inconsistent approach to my wellbeing.

These problems only get worse when more people and aims are involved. Indeed, a general description of ‘politics’ regards trying to find ways to resolve the many different preferences of many people in the same society. These preferences are intransitive, prompting policy actors to try to manipulate choice situations, or produce effective stories or narratives, to encourage one choice over another. Even if successful in once case, the overall impact of political action is not consistent.

The inevitable result of politics is that policymakers want to prioritise many policy aims and the aims that undermine them. When they pursue many contradictory aims, they have to make trade-offs and prioritise some aims over others.  Sometimes, this choice is explicit. Sometimes, you have to work out what a government’s real priorities are when they seem sincerely committed to so many things. If so, we should not deduce government policy overall from specific statements and policies.

This basic idea plays out in many different ways, including:

  • Policymakers need to address many contradictory demands

Contradictions are inevitable when policymakers seek to offer policy benefits to many different groups for different reasons. Some benefits are largely rhetorical, others more substantive.

  • Ambiguity allows policy actors to downplay contradictions (temporarily) when generating support.

Contradictions are masked by ambiguity, such as when many different actors support the same vague ambition for very different reasons.

  • Policy silos contribute to contradictory action

Contradictions are exacerbated by inevitable and pervasive policy silos or ‘communities’ that seem immune to ‘holistic’ government. They multiply when governments have many departments pursuing many different aims. There may be a vague hope for joined-up policy, but a strong rationale for policy communities to specialise and become insulated.

The power to make policies – or create or amend policy instruments – is spread across many different venues of authority. If so, a key aim – stated often – is to find ways to cooperate to avoid contradictory policies and practices. The logical consequence of this distribution of powers, and the continuous search for meaningful cooperation, is that such contradictions are routine features, not bugs, of political systems.

Contradictions are a feature of organisational and systemic rules and norms, in which the rules on paper are not the rules in use.

  • Policymaking systems exacerbate contradictions

Contradictions emerge from  complex policymaking systems, in which unexpected outcomes emerge despite central government action.

Some of these outcomes simply emerge from routine policy delivery, when the actors carrying out policy have different ideas than the actors sending them instructions. Or, implementing actors do not have the resources or clarity to do what they think they are being told.

Examples of contradictions in policy and policymaking

Most governments are committed rhetorically (and often sincerely) to the public health agenda ‘Health in All Policies’ but also the social and economic policies that undermine it. The same goes for the more general aim of ‘prevention’.

Governments and organisations promote anti-racist policies (or softer-sounding equality, diversity, and inclusion policies) while reproducing racist institutions and practices.

In these kinds of cases, it is tempting to conclude that governments make promises energetically as a substitute for – not a signal of – action.

Levin et al note that the governments seeking to reduce climate change are also responsible for its inevitability.

The US and EU have subsidised the production and/or encouraged the sale of tobacco (to foster economic aims) at the same time as seeking tobacco control and discouraging smoking (to foster public health aims).

Governments seek to combine contradictory ways to encourage centralism/ localism and the use of evidence for policy.

Further reading

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Policy in 500 words

Few theories and concepts in these series use this term, but many help to explain many elements of policy and policymaking contradictions.

See also this note on policymaking in Scotland, also containing the not-entirely-helpful crisp analogy.

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: How to deal with ambiguity

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series. It draws on this 500 Words post, then my interpretation of co-authored work with Drs Emily St Denny and John Boswell (which I would be delighted to share if it gets published). It trails off at the end.

In policy studies, ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem. There are many ways to frame issues as problems. However, only some frames receive high policymaker attention, and policy change relates strongly to that attention. Resolving ambiguity in your favour is the prize.

Policy studies focus on different aspects of this dynamic, including:

  1. The exercise of power, such as of the narrator to tell stories and the audience to engage with or ignore them.
  2. Policy learning, in which people collaborate (and compete) to assign concrete meaning to abstract aims.
  3. A complex process in which many policymakers and influencers are cooperating/ competing to define problems in many policymaking centres.

They suggest that resolving ambiguity affects policy in different ways, to influence the:

The latter descriptions, reflecting multi-centric policymaking, seem particularly relevant to major contemporary policy problems – such as global public health and climate crises – in which cooperation across (and outside of) many levels and types of government is essential.

Resolving ambiguity in policy analysis texts

This context helps us to interpret common (Step 1) advice in policy analysis textbooks: define a policy problem for your client, using your skills of research and persuasion but tailoring your advice to your client’s interests and beliefs. Yet, gone are the mythical days of elite analysts communicating to a single core executive in charge of formulating and implementing all policy instruments. Many analysts engage with many centres producing (or co-producing) many instruments. Resolving ambiguity in one centre does not guarantee the delivery of your aims across many.

Two ways to resolve ambiguity in policy analysis

Classic debates would highlight two different responses:

  • ‘Top down’ accounts see this issue through the lens of a single central government, examining how to reassert central control by minimising implementation gaps.

Policy analysis may focus on (a) defining the policy problem, and (b) ensuring the implementation of its solution.

  • ‘Bottom up’ accounts identify the inevitability (and legitimacy) of policy influence in multiple centres. Policy analysis may focus on how to define the problem in cooperation with other centres, or to set a strategic direction and encourage other centres to make sense of it in their context.

This terminology went out of fashion, but note the existence of each tendency in two ideal-type approaches to contemporary policy problems:

1. Centralised and formalised approaches.

Seek clarity and order to address urgent policy problems. Define the policy problem clearly, translate that definition into strategies for each centre, and develop a common set of effective ‘tools’ to ensure cooperation and delivery.

Policy analysis may focus on technical aspects, such as how to create a fine-detail blueprint for action, backed by performance management and accountability measures that tie actors to specific commitments.

The tagline may be: ambiguity is a problem to be solved, to direct policy actors towards a common goal.

2. Decentralised, informal, collaborative approaches.

Seek collaboration to make sense of, and address, problems. Reject a single definition of the problem, encourage actors in each centre (or in concert) to deliberate to make sense of problems together, and co-create the rules to guide a continuous process of collective behaviour.

Policy analysis may focus on how to contribute to a collaborative process of sense-making and rule-making.

The tagline may be: ambiguity presents an opportunity to energise policy actors, to harness the potential for innovation arising from deliberation.

Pick one approach and stick with it?

Describing these approaches in such binary terms makes the situation – and choice between approaches – look relatively straightforward. However, note the following issues:

  • Many policy sectors (and intersectoral agendas) are characterised by intense disagreement on which choice to make. These disagreements intersect with others (such as when people seek not only transformative policy change to solve global problems, but also equitable process and outcomes).
  • Some sectors seem to involve actors seeking the best of both worlds (centralise and localise, formalise and deliberate) without recognising the trade-offs and dilemmas that arise.
  • I have described these options as choices, but did not establish if anyone is in the position to make or contribute to that choice.

In that context, resolving ambiguity in your favour may still be the prize, but where would you even begin?

Further reading

Well, that was an unsatisfying end to the post, eh? Maybe I’ll write a better one when some things are published. In the meantime, some of these papers and posts explore some of these issues:

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Policy learning to reduce inequalities: a practical framework

This post first appeared on LSE BPP on 16.11.2020 and it describes the authors’ published work in Territory, Politics, Governance (for IMAJINE)

While policymakers often want to learn how other governments have responded to certain policies, policy learning is characterized by contestation. Policymakers compete to define the problem, set the parameters for learning, and determine which governments should take the lead. Emily St.DennyPaul Cairney, and Sean Kippin discuss a framework that would encourage policy learning in multilevel systems.

Governments face similar policy problems and there is great potential for mutual learning and policy transfer. Yet, most policy research highlights the political obstacles to learning and the weak link between research and transfer. One solution may be to combine academic insights from policy research with practical insights from people with experience of learning in political environments. In that context, our role is to work with policy actors to produce pragmatic strategies to encourage realistic research-informed learning.

Pragmatic policy learning

Producing concepts, research questions, and methods that are interesting to both academics and practitioners is challenging. It requires balancing different approaches to gathering and considering ‘evidence’ when seeking to solve a policy problem. Practitioners need to gather evidence quickly, focusing on ‘what works’ or positive experiences from a small number of relevant countries. Policy scholars may seek more comprehensive research and warn against simple solutions. Further, they may do so without offering a feasible alternative to their audience.

To bridge these differences and facilitate policy learning, we encourage a pragmatic approach to policy learning that requires:

  • Seeing policy learning through the eyes of participants, to understand how they define and seek to solve this problem;
  • Incorporating insights from policy research to construct a feasible approach;
  • Reflecting on this experience to inform research.

Our aim is not ‘evidence-based policymaking’. Rather, it is to incorporate the fact that researchers and evidence form only one small component of a policymaking system characterized by complexity. Additionally, policy actors enjoy less control over these systems than we might like to admit. Learning is therefore best understood as a contested process in which actors combine evidence and beliefs to define policy problems, identify technically and politically feasible solutions, and negotiate who should be responsible for their adoption and delivery in multilevel policymaking systems. Taking seriously the contested, context-specific, and political nature of policymaking is crucial for producing effective advice from which to learn.

Policy learning to reduce inequalities

We apply these insights as part of the EU Horizon 2020 project Integrative Mechanisms for Addressing Spatial Justice and Territorial Inequalities in Europe (IMAJINE). Its overall aim is to research how national and territorial governments across the European Union pursue ‘spatial justice’ and try to reduce inequalities.

Our role is to facilitate policy learning and consider the transfer of policy solutions from successful experiences. Yet, we are confronted by the usual challenges. They include the need to: identify appropriate exemplars from where to draw lessons; help policy practitioners control for differences in context; and translate between academic and practitioner communities.

Additionally, we work on an issue – inequality – which is notoriously ambiguous and contested. It involves not only scientific information about the lives and experiences of people, but also political disagreement about the legitimate role of the state in intervening in people’s lives or redistributing of resources. Developing a policy learning framework that is able to generate practically useful insights for policy actors is difficult but key to ensuring policy effectiveness and coherence.

Drawing on work we carried out for the Scottish Government’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls on approaches to reducing inequalities in relation to gender mainstreaming, we apply the IMAJINE framework to support policy learning. The IMAJINE framework guides such academic–practitioner analysis in four steps:

Step 1: Define the nature of policy learning in political systems.

Preparing for learning requires taking into account the interaction between:

  • Politics, in which actors contest the nature of problems and the feasibility of solutions;
  • Bounded rationality, which requires actors to use organizational and cognitive shortcuts to gather and use evidence;
  • ‘Multi-centric’ policymaking systems, which limit a single central government’s control over choices and outcomes.

These dynamics play out in different ways in each territory, which means that the importers and exporters of lessons are operating in different contexts and addressing inequalities in different ways. Therefore, we must ask how the importers and exporters of lessons: define the problem, decide what policies are feasible, establish which level of government should be responsible for policy and identify criteria to evaluate policy success.

Step 2: Map policymaking responsibilities for the selection of policy instruments.

The Council of Europe defines gender mainstreaming as ‘the (re)organisation, improvement, development and evaluation of policy processes, so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies at all levels and at all stages’.

Such definitions help explain why mainstreaming approaches often appear to be incoherent. To map the sheer weight of possible measures, and the spread of responsibility across many levels of government (such as local, Scottish, UK and EU), is to identify a potentially overwhelming scale of policymaking ambition. Further, governments tend to address this potential by breaking policymaking into manageable sectors. Each sector has its own rules and logics, producing coherent policymaking in each ‘silo’ but a sense of incoherence overall, particularly if the overarching aim is a low priority in government. Mapping these dynamics and responsibilities is necessary to ensure lessons learned can be effectively applied in similarly complex domestic systems.

Step 3: Learn from experience.

Policy actors want to draw lessons from the most relevant exemplars. Often, they will have implicit or explicit ideas concerning which countries they would like to learn more from. Negotiating which cases to explore, so that it takes into consideration both policy actors’ interests and the need to generate appropriate and useful lessons, is vital.

In the case of mainstreaming, we focused on three exemplar approaches, selected by members of our audience according to perceived levels of ambition: maximal (Sweden), medial (Canada) and minimal (the UK, which controls aspects of Scottish policy). These cases were also justified with reference to the academic literature which often uses these countries as exemplars of different approaches to policy design and implementation.

Step 4: Deliberate and reflect.

Work directly with policy participants to reflect on the implications for policy in their context. Research has many important insights on the challenges to and limitations of policy learning in complex systems. In particular, it suggests that learning cannot be comprehensive and does not lead to the importation of a well-defined package of measures. Bringing these sorts of insights to bear on policy actors’ practical discussions of how lessons can be drawn and applied from elsewhere is necessary, though ultimately insufficient. In our experience so far, step 4 is the biggest obstacle to our impact.

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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 in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

The ‘Ecology of Games Framework’ (EG) combines insights from many approaches to analyze ‘institutional complexity’ and ‘complex institutional systems’.

The focus is on actors learning how to secure ‘mutually beneficial outcomes’, cooperating to produce and deliver agreed solutions, and bargaining within a system over which no actor has control. Therefore, it is worth reading the posts on game theory, the IAD, and SES first (especially if, like me, you associated ‘game’ with tig, then Monopoly, then The Wire).

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Insights from three key approaches

EG connects Norton’s ‘ecology of games’, the IAD, and insights from complexity theory to reinforce the idea that institutional arrangements are not simple and orderly.

In simple games, we need only analyse the interaction between a small number of actors with reference to one set of self-contained rules providing clear sanctions or payoffs. In real world policymaking, many different games take place at the same time in different venues.

Some policy games may be contained within a geographical area – such as California – but there are no self-contained collective action problems:

  • Examples such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecology’ or ‘environmental’ policies command a collection of interdependent policies relating to issues like local planning, protected species, water management, air pollution, transport, energy use, and contributors to such policies or policy problems in other areas of government (such as public services).
  • Each contributor to policy may come from different institutions associated with many policymaking venues spread across many levels and types of government.

Consequently, many games interact with each other. The same actor might participate in multiple games subject to different rules. Further, each game produces ‘externalities’ for the others; the ‘payoffs’ to each game are connected and complicated.

A focus on ‘complex adaptive systems’ suggests that central governments do not have the resources to control – or understand fully – interaction at this frequency and scale. Rather, policymaking influences are:

  • Internal to the game, when actors (a) follow and shape the rules of each institution, and (b) learn through trial and error.
  • External to the game, when physical resources change, or central levels of government change the resources of local actors.

Insights from the wider literature

The EG brings in wider insights – from theories in the 500 and 1000 Words series – to analyse this process. Examples include:

Consequently, we have come a long way from simple assumptions about human behaviour outlined in our first post in this series.

As with the IAD, the EG emphasis is on (a) finding solutions to complex (largely environmental) policy problems, with reference to (b) initiatives consistent with self-organising systems such as ‘collaborative governance’. Like most posts in this series, it rejects a naïve attachment to a single powerful central government. Policymaking is multi-centric, and solutions to complex problems will emerge in that context.

See also:

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

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

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

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

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

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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