We often use the metaphor of ‘tools’ to describe the ways in which people use public policy analysis. For some, the suggestion is that – like a hammer and chisel – anyone could pick them up and use them. Yet, let’s think about that metaphor some more:
Anyone can use a hammer and chisel, but many people lop of their fingers or break things while doing so.
You use a hammer and chisel for a particular purpose, such as to create a sculpture. We can all whack a bit of stone with a blunt object, but it takes skill to turn it into something worth your attention.
Many tools require training before you should use them: power tools, lasers, MRIs, the screws to insert frames into broken bones, and so on.
My argument is this: you wouldn’t trust a political scientist to make you a piece of art, fix your window, do your laser eyesight correction, or scan your brain, because it is generally not a good idea to pick up and use these tools without training. So, have a quick think about who you would trust with policy tools if they just picked them out of the shed and used them for the first time.
What sort of training do you need to use policy analysis tools effectively?
Let me give you three examples, bearing in mind that the tools metaphor will get annoying soon:
It offers a simple way to turn evidence into policy: you use evidence to identify a problem, provide a range of feasible evidence-based solutions, choose the best solution, then legitimise, implement, and evaluate the solution. However, you soon find that the cycle is the equivalent of, say, a manual carpet sweeper. The technology has moved on, and we now have a much improved understanding of the policy process. In empirical policy analysis, the cycle remains as a way to begin our discussion before identifying more useful concepts and theories.
Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know about the state of the art of the technology we use.
It too offers a simple way into the subject. Further, it remains a well-respected and much-used tool for analysis. Let’s say it is like the X-ray. It has been used for decades and it remains a key tool in medicine (and security). You need some training to operate it and, crucially, your training would not stop at ‘here is how we used it in the 1980s’.
In other words, many people pick up Kingdon’s classic book and apply its simple insights without much reference to 3 decades of conceptual advance (much contemporary MSA was developed by other people) and hundreds of other empirical applications.
Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to keep up to date with the ways in which people use the technology.
This is a fairly common exercise: people pick and choose concepts, adapt them to produce their models, and apply different concepts in different ways. If you are optimistic, you will think of something like a Dremel which has the same starting point/ base unit and dozens of compatible attachments. If, like me, you are not so optimistic, you imagine a frying pan radio or an X-ray machine glued onto the side of an MRI. It can be fruitful to combine the insights of concepts and theories, but not without thinking about the trade-offs and the compatibility between concepts (which prompts some scholars to identify one kind of tool to replace another).
Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know how compatible each tool is with the other, and if one is used to replace another.
This last point is crucial if you want to go beyond using a tool for a one-off project, to compare your insights and lessons with other people. Many people will want to know how you fared when you used the same tools/ approach/ language as them, and you can learn from each other’s experiences. Indeed, the aim of theory is to produce comparable and, if possible, generalisable insights, Relatively few people will want to learn from someone who glues an X-ray to an MRI, and it will be difficult to generalise from the experience.
The upshot is that you can indeed pick up some policy analysis tools and use them to improve your understanding of the world. Indeed, I encourage you to do so in this series of posts which outlines the concepts you are most likely to see stocked in Home Depot.
However, I also suggest that you use them as the first step of your project (or engage the help of more qualified people), since most of these concepts come with a training manual that can take years to read.
Think of policy theory as an antidote to our fixation on elections, as a focus on what happens in between. We often point out that elections can produce a change in the governing party without prompting major changes in policy and policymaking, partly because most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from elected policymakers. Elections matter but, in policy studies, they do not represent the centre of the universe.
Imagine a simple definition: ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’. Then consider these questions. Does policy include what policymakers say they will do (e.g. in manifestos) as well as what they actually do? Does it include the policy outcome if it does not match the original aim? What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Does public policy include what policymakers decide to not do? Is it still ‘public policy’ when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name?
Usually we know that something has changed because the government has passed legislation, but policy is so much more: spending, economic penalties or incentives (taxes and subsidies), social security payments and sanctions, formal and informal regulations, public education, organisations and staffing, and so on. So, we need to sum up this mix of policies, asking: is there an overall and coherent aim, or a jumble of policy instruments? Can we agree on the motives of policymakers when making these policies? Does policy impact seem different when viewed from the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’? Does our conclusion change when we change statistical measures?
We know that policy evaluation is political because left/right wing political parties and commentators argue as much about a government’s success as its choices. Yet, it cannot be solved by scientists identifying objective or technical measures of success, because there is political choice in the measures we use and much debate about the best measures. Measurement also involves (frequently) a highly imperfect proxy, such as by using waiting times to measure the effectiveness of a health service. We should also note the importance of perspective: should we measure success in terms of the aims of elected policymakers, the organisations carrying out policy, or the people who are most affected? What if many policymakers were involved, or their aims were not clear? What if their aim was to remain popular, or have an easy time in the legislature, not to improve people’s lives? What if it improved the lives of some, but hurt others?
Imagine this simple advice to policymakers: identify your aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is ‘legitimised’ by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement, and then evaluate the policy. If only life were so simple. Instead, think of policymaking as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes. Then note that it is often impossible in practice to know when one stage begins and another ends. Finally, imagine that the order of stages is completely messed up, such as when we have a solution long before a problem arises.
A classic reference point is the ‘ideal-type’ of comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality which helps elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility. In the real world, we identify ‘bounded rationality’, challenge all of the assumptions of comprehensive rationality, and wonder what happens next. The classic debate focused on the links between bounded rationality and incrementalism. Our current focus is on ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ responses to the need to make decisions quickly without comprehensive information: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable; but also making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.
Most policy theories use the word ‘actor’ simply to describe the ability of people and organisations to deliberate and act to make choices. Many talk about the large number of actors involved in policymaking, at each level and across many levels of policymaking. Some discuss a shift, in many countries since the early post-war period, from centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors
In political science, ‘institution’ refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour. Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions. Others are less visible, such as the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’. So, for example, ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracies could have very different formal rules but operate in very similar ways in practice. These rules develop in different ways in many parts of government, prompting us to consider what happens when many different actors develop different expectations of politics and policymaking. For example, it might help explain a gap between policies made in one organisation and implemented by another. It might cause government policy to be contradictory, when many different organisations produce their own policies without coordinating with others. Or, governments may contribute to a convoluted statute book by adding to laws and regulations without thinking how they all fit together.
Put simply, ‘policy network’ describes the relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the actors who seek to influence them. It can also describe a notional venue – a ‘subsystem’ – in which this interaction takes place. Although the network concept is crucial to most policy theories, it can be described using very different concepts,and with reference to different political systems. For example, in the UK, we might describe networks as a consequence of bounded rationality: elected policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places
Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas (or shared beliefs). These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. Classic power debates inform current discussions of ‘agenda setting’ and ‘framing’. Debates began with the idea that we could identify the powerful by examining ‘key political choices’: the powerful would win and benefit from the outcomes at the expense of other actors. The debate developed into discussions of major barriers to the ‘key choices’ stage: actors may exercise power to persuade/ reinforce the popular belief that the government should not get involved, or to keep an issue off a government agenda by drawing attention to other issues. This ability to persuade depends on the resources of actors, but also the beliefs of the actors they seek to influence.
Context’ describes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a country’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and social attitudes. This wider context is in addition to the ‘institutional’ context, when governments inherit the laws and organisations of their predecessors. Important ‘game changing’ events can be routine, such as when elections produce new governments with new ideas, or unanticipated, such as when crises or major technological changes prompt policymakers to reconsider existing policies. In each case, we should consider the extent to which policymaking is in the control of policymakers. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – think for example of a ‘demographic timebomb’ – but governments show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important. This question of policymaker control is also explored in discussions of ‘complexity theory’, which highlights the unpredictability of policymaking, limited central government control, and a tendency for policy outcomes to ‘emerge’ from activity at local levels.
For example, policymakers often recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on. Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame. Or, for example, we might use policy theory to inform current discussions of evidence-based policymaking, saying to scientists that they will only be influential if they go beyond the evidence to make manipulative emotional appeals.
John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).
In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.
Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.
Ambiguity and competition for attention.
There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can often be dominated by one ‘frame’.
There are many problems to solve, but few reach the top of the policy agenda.
There are many possible solutions to problems, but very few gain attention and even fewer gain support.
Decision-making processes are neither ‘comprehensively rational’ nor ‘linear’.
New information is difficult to gather and subject to manipulation.
Actors have limited resources such as time and cognitive ability. This limitation forces people to make choices before they have considered all possibilities and made sure that their preferences are clear.
The policy process does not follow a policy cycle with ordered stages, in which (i) a policymaker identifies a problem, (ii) a bureaucracy produces many possible solutions, and (iii) the policymaker selects the best solution according to her aims and values.
These ‘universal’ insights underpin MSA’s specific contribution, in which Kingdon draws on the ‘garbage can model’ to suggest that we think of these three ‘stages’ (metaphorically) as independent streams which must come together at the same time, during a ‘window of opportunity’ before any major policy change will take place:
Problem stream – attention lurches to a policy problem.
Policy stream – a solution to that problem is available.
Politics stream – policymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy.
MSA’s intellectual contribution: 2. New theories and perspectives.
Let’s take one example of Kingdon’s influence: on the early development of punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). In their own ways, MSA and PET are both ‘evolutionary’ theories, although they identify different kinds of evolutionary metaphors or processes, and present somewhat different implications:
Kingdon uses the evolutionary metaphor partly to help explain slow and gradual policy development despite lurches of attention and the importance of windows of opportunity. Note the importance of the idea of ‘feasibility’ and ‘softening’, as potential policy solutions emerge from the ‘policy primeval soup’. Kingdon is describing the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community, which challenges the notion that policies will change whenever attention lurches to a new problem. On the contrary, a feasible solution must exist, and these solutions take a lot of time to become both technically and politically feasible, before policymakers develop the motive and opportunity to adopt them.
Baumgartner and Jones identify the conditions under which Kingdon’s picture of slow progress, producing ‘partial mutations’ should be replaced by their identification of fast, disruptive, ‘pure mutation’. For example, major ‘policy punctuations’ may occur when issues break out of one policymaking ‘venue’. In such cases, more radical change may be acceptable to the policymakers – in other venues – that are less committed to existing policies and, therefore, less likely to select a policy solution only when it has been ‘softened’.
MSA’s empirical contribution: 1. How useful is the metaphor?
Michael and I identify a blessing and a curse, related to two aspects of Kingdon’s original work:
The barriers to entry are low. If you are looking for an easy way into policy theory, you can read some of Kingdon’s book and feel you have gained some insight.
The metaphor is flexible. You don’t have to learn a huge codebook or set of rules before you dive into empirical analysis.
The blessing is that both factors allow a lot of material to be produced in diverse and perhaps innovative ways. The curse is that it is difficult to see the accumulated results from all that effort. If the MSA is there to help explain one case, and one case only, then all is well. If we want more – to compare a lot of cases in a meaningful way – we have a problem.
MSA’s empirical contribution: 2. How have other scholars used the metaphor?
Michael Jones and his colleagues identified a huge number of MSA studies: over 300 applications, in over 40 countries, in 10 years. However, they also identify a high proportion of theoretical superficiality: scholars mention Kingdon, but do not go into much detail on the meaning of key MSA concepts, or explain how they used those concepts in a meaningful way to explain policy or policymaking.
Michael and I zoomed in to focus on the ‘state of the art’, to see how the best studies used MSA. We found some interesting work, particularly in studies which extended Kingdon’s original focus on the US federal government (in the 1980s) to subnational and supranational studies, and used MSA to explain developments in many other countries. The best work identified how the MSA related to wider policy theory discussions and/or how we might adapt MSA to deal with new cases. However, we also found a lot of applications which made cursory reference to theory or the MSA literature, or studies which used MSA largely as a way to identify their own models.
It all adds up to a lot of activity but it is difficult to know how to sum up its value. The flexibility of the MSA has allowed people to take it in all sorts of directions, but also to use it in a way that is difficult to relate to Kingdon’s original study or important new developments (put forward by scholars such as Zahariadis).
Where do we go from here? Some simple rules for you to consider.
So, we propose three simple rules to help maintain MSA flexibility but allow us to accumulate empirical insights or encourage conceptual development: demonstrate proficiency with MSA; speak to MSA; and, speak to broader policy research.
In other words, a lot has been written about MSA and policy theory since 1984. The world has changed, and so too have the ways in which we describe it. So, put simply, it would be weird if people continued to produce scholarly research based simply on one book written in the 80s and little else (you might be surprised about how much of this approach we found, and how few people explained MSA concepts before presenting their empirical analysis).
We don’t call for a set of rigid rules to allow systematic comparison (although I really like the suggestion by a colleague, presented with tongue firmly in cheek, that we have become the ‘multiple streams Taliban’). Instead, at the very least, we encourage people not to submit Kingdon-inspired articles for review until they have read and digested a lot of the MSA literature. That way, we’ll be able to go beyond the sense that we are all using the same conceptual descriptions without knowing if we mean the same thing or if my results can be compared usefully with yours.
Some public health policies have changed radically in the post-war period. The extent of change varies considerably, from issue to issue, and country to country. For example, the UK has one of the most comprehensive tobacco control regimes in the world, but China does not. While the UK has changed its post-war tobacco policy radically, the same amount of policy change cannot be found in alcohol (or in newer concerns such as sugar, saturated fat and salt in food). While public health policy is often quite similar across the UK, there have been significant differences, in timing and/ or content, in devolved and UK Government policies.
My interest is in the extent to which we explain these developments in (broadly) the same way. With colleagues, Donley Studlar and Hadii Mamudu, I focus on the extent to which actors, in favour of tobacco or alcohol control, operate within a ‘policy environment’ conducive to their aims.
What makes a conducive policy environment?
Institutions. Policymaking responsibility has shifted, to a government department sympathetic to the policy, and following rules which enable its successful delivery.
Networks. The balance of power within departments has shifted in favour of public health and medical, not industry, groups.
Socioeconomics. Social behaviour (e.g. there is a low number of smokers/ drinkers and amount of smoking/ drinking) and attitudes to control have become more in line with policy aims, and there are fewer economic penalties to public health controls (e.g. a loss of tax revenue or economic activity).
Ideas and ‘framing’. There is now an acceptance of the scientific evidence on unhealthy behaviour within government, control is high on its agenda, and it now ‘frames’ the issue in terms of a pressing public health problem (rather than, say, an economic good).
This broad focus can help us explain a range of global, national and subnational developments in public health policy, including:
Global Tobacco Policy
There is a policy environment conducive to tobacco control at a global level – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, led by the World Health Organisation – and in many ‘leading’ countries, but not in most countries. Consequently, most countries in the world have signed the FCTC but this is not yet reflected in policy outcomes.
Hadii Mamudu, Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2015) ‘Global Public Policy: does the new venue for transnational tobacco control challenge the old way of doing things?’ forthcoming in Public Administration. ‘Green’ version: Mamudu Cairney Studlar Global Public Policy FCTC 6.11.14
Paul Cairney and Haddii Mamudu (2014) ‘The Global Tobacco Control ‘Endgame’: change the policy environment to implement the FCTC’ Journal of Public Health Policy, Advance Access doi: 10.1057/jphp.2014.18
Donley Studlar and Paul Cairney (2014) ‘Conceptualizing Punctuated and Non-Punctuated Policy Change: Tobacco Control in Comparative Perspective’, International Review of Administrative Sciences, 80, 3, 513-31
UK Tobacco and Alcohol Policy.
UK Tobacco control is now far more comprehensive than alcohol control.
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 Policy, 6, 3, 308-323
Multi-level Policymaking: tobacco control in EU, UK and devolved government.
Although the EU provides some common standards, they are followed more or less enthusiastically by member states. Although key policies, such as the ban on smoking in public places, exist in all parts of the UK, it is important to explain the ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change in each territory.
Bossman Asare, Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2009) ‘Federalism and Multilevel Governance in Tobacco Policy: The European Union, the United Kingdom and the Devolved UK Institutions’, Journal of Public Policy, 29, 1, 79-102 PDFPaywall Green
Paul Cairney (2009) ‘The Role of Ideas in Policy Transfer: The Case of UK Smoking Bans since Devolution’, Journal of European Public Policy, 16, 3, 471-488 PDFPaywall Green
Paul Cairney (2007) ‘A Multiple Lens Approach to Policy Change: the Case of Tobacco Policy in the UK’, British Politics, 2, 1, 45-68 PDFPaywall (plus corrected table) Green
Paul Cairney (2007) ‘Using Devolution to Set the Agenda? Venue shift and the smoking ban in Scotland’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9,1, 73-89 PDFPaywall Green (it’s also stored by a US University here)
For the broader argument on ‘evolutionary theory, see:
It is the 30 year anniversary of Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. The book’s influence can be measured by its citations (over 12000), but I wonder about its broader influence. For example, is Kingdon’s analysis used to inform policy theory as a whole, or one part of it? Is it used to structure research and help explain the results, or merely remembered fondly as the source of a great metaphor?
In a new paper, I explore this question in three ways:
Identifying its place in the broader literature, focusing in particular on its contribution to ‘evolutionary’ theory. This part is based on another blog post and article on evolutionary policy theory.
Examining 41 serious articles on MSA (i.e. they don’t just nod to Kingdon), to try to identify the literature’s development, particularly in the last 10 years. Most of the articles focus on the US and EU, and the sample is split between national/ international (28) and subnational (13).
Conceptual revisions to reflect the object of study (14). The biggest category reflects the rising application of MSA to non-US policymaking (one of the most studied arenas in the world) and/ or non-national jurisdictions. Some studies overlap between, for example, EU and subnational studies. Six focus on the EU (3) or member states within the EU (3).
Straightforward applications as part of multiple-theory approaches, or case studies which use MSA as a part of a broad sweep of the literature (7). The case studies make reference to the MSA as one of several relevant theories, but with Kingdon’s model at centre stage, or providing a key insight.
Straightforward ‘replications’with no other theories mentioned (5). A case study uses the MSA to structure and help explain policy change in a detailed case study, without challenging Kingdon’s analysis or suggesting conceptual revision.
Major conceptual revisions (5) Cases in which there is so much conceptual revision that the MSA becomes difficult to compare with the new approach.
Direct theory development and hypothesis testing (4).
Accounts for practitioners, advocating reform or providing advice on the right time to propose solutions (3).
Work which cites or engages superficially with MSA (3).
Overall, we may get the sense of a generally self-contained literature, in which case study authors either: do not speak to the wider literature, present models that are difficult to compare with others; or use MSA primarily to focus on new objects of study.
However, as a group, they raise important issues on comparative policymaking, and some new conceptual issues may arise. For example, two argue that, in the EU, ‘ambiguity’ extends from issue framing to not knowing which directorate is responsible for policy – opening up the potential for entrepreneurs to assert a primary jurisdiction or venue shop.
Six studies (4 of the EU or member states in the EU, and 2 of US states), focus on distinctive ‘policy streams’ (where policy solutions are developed), reflecting the importance of policy diffusion or transfer. They highlight the role of a federal or supranational body, or a transnational policy community, at the centre of the policy stream, suggesting that many solutions originate outside the political system under study. In these cases, the idea of a ‘policy transfer window’ could help combine two literatures: MSA, which originally did not recognise this external role, and the transfer literature, which often focuses on how rather than why governments import policies. Studies can combine a focus on the role of external organisations or networks in the production of the ideas in the policy stream, and the need for a shift of attention combined with some receptivity to import the policy idea, before transfer takes place.
Three studies of subnational policymaking suggest that a policy entrepreneur can be more effective at a smaller scale of government – and more able to influence or direct all three streams. They highlight the potential for a hypothesis along the lines of: ‘the three streams are more independent at the federal or supranational level; at local levels, they are more open to influence or coordination by exceptional individuals’.
Three studies focus on little-studied areas. Zhu examines the extent to which a policy theory derived from studies of the US can be used to explain policymaking in China. The case demonstrates that, while some ‘universal’ concepts travel well, they do not tell us much about the policy processes of other countries.
Such discussions might prompt us to revisit some key issues in Kingdon’s research:
How large are policy windows? Do they open up to allow specific policy solutions, or major reform programmes?
How specific are the solutions that couple with problems and politics? Several studies suggest that policy change can happen when only a vague policy solution has been produced and adopted. Consequently, a further process of ‘coupling’ may be required (perhaps at another at level of government) when a more detailed solution must be found. How can we conceptualise the process? Do we seek to conceptualise policymaking going on simultaneously in multiple arenas, or identify a series of policy windows in different jurisdictions as key decisions are made at different points?
I discuss these issues in greater depth in this paper, which combines an 8000 word discussion with a very generous 5000 word annex: Cairney Kingdon Singapore 9.10.14 final . It’s part of a 2-day Kingdon workshop organised by Michael Howlett. That’s why I’m going to Singapore.
In policy studies, we talk about the rare occasions when some problems or policy solutions ‘take off’ suddenly or when an ‘idea’s time seems to come’. Indeed, one aim of Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams analysis’ is to show us that ideas come and go, only to be adopted if the time is right: when attention to a problem is high, a well-thought-out idea exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it. Only then will policy change in a meaningful way.
If only life were so simple. Instead, look again at that word ‘idea’. It means at least two things: a specific policy solution to a clearly defined problem, or a potentially useful but vague way of thinking about a complex and perhaps intractable (or, at least, ‘wicked’) problem. If it is the latter, the ‘window of opportunity’ may not produce the sort of policy change we might expect. Instead, we may see a groundswell of attention to, and support for, a policy solution that is very difficult to ‘operationalise’. We may find that everyone agrees on the broad solution, but no-one agrees on the detail, and we spend years making very little progress.
This is the danger with several potential solutions which highlight the possibility of addressing: the fall-out from austerity and reduced budgets; the need to reduce demand for acute public services by addressing socio-economic problems at an early stage; the need to ‘join up’ a range of government responsibilities; and, a desire to move away from unhelpful short term targets towards more long term and meaningful measures of policy success. Several solutions are currently in good currency, including: the social investment model, the wellbeing agenda, prevention (or preventative spending) and early intervention.
In each case, there may be a window of opportunity to promote such solutions, but the following obstacles arise:
Each example represents an idea, or way of thinking about things like public expenditure, that could either underpin new ways of thinking within government, become faddish before being rejected, or provide a gloss to justify decisions already made.
If the former, it could take decades for this way of thinking to become ‘institutionalised’, turned into ‘standard operating procedures’ and detailed rules to coordinate action across the public sector (suggesting that it requires meaningful, sustained cross-party support).
During this time, governments will still face hard choices about which areas are worthy of the most investment. In each case, the aim is vague, the evidence is often weak, it is difficult to compare the return from investments in different public services, and the process has a tendency to revert to a political exercise to determine priorities. In the face of uncertainty, policymakers may revert to tried and trusted rules to make decisions, and reject the more risky, new approach, with uncertain measures and outcomes.
The budget process is, in many ways, separate from a focus on social investment, activity and outcomes – largely because it remains an exercise to guarantee spending on established services and departments, or to reduce spending on some services at the margins.
There is a level of unpredictability in politics that makes such long term investment problematic – particularly when investment in one area, with quiet winners, comes at the expense of another service, with vocal losers (as demonstrated by any move to close a local hospital, rural school or university department). A tension between long term central planning and short term electoral issues often produces incremental and non-strategic changes, in which services receive ‘disinvestment’ and are allowed to wither.
To some extent, these issues may be addressed well during regular interactions between governments and their ‘social partners’, such as when governments, business and unions get together to produce something akin to a framework in which other policy decisions are made. In that sense, group-government relations represent a form of ‘institutional memory’. Governments and politicians come and go, but group-government relations represent a sense of continuity. This could be the main way to keep social investment on government agendas, as a salient topic or, perhaps more powerfully, as a way of thinking that is taken for granted and questioned rarely, even when new parties enter office.
Yet, there are problems with this ‘corporatist’ aim if it refers to government-wide group-government relations, since policy networks tend to develop on a ‘sectoral and subsectoral’ scale. Governments tend to deal with complex government by breaking it down into manageable chunks. Consequently, for example, medical and teaching unions could engage as one of many trades unions in concert with business, but they tend to speak mostly to education and health departments, in areas with minimal union-business links. Further, such groups tend to be more concerned with the targets and priorities identified at sectoral levels. They may like the idea of soft targets and long term, more meaningful, outcome measures, but have to address short term targets; they may pay attention to cross-sectoral aims when they can, but focus most of their attention on particular fields and priorities specific to their work.
The Scottish Government case
The issues I described are not unique to one government. Yet, some governments also face distinctive problems. For example, in Scotland, as part of the UK, there are specific issues around the links between policy instruments, shared responsibility, and joined up thinking:
The Scottish Government remains part of a UK process in which monetary and fiscal policies are determined largely by the Treasury, with the Scottish Government’s primary role to spend and invest.
Its position raises awkward questions about the consistency of policies, when spending decisions based on a ‘universalism’ narrative cannot be linked directly to the idea that redistribution should be achieved through taxation. The Scottish Government may be overseeing a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (universal free services with no means testing) as long as taxation is not sufficiently redistributive.
These issues have not become acute since devolution, partly because the Scottish Government budget has been high, and the independence agenda has postponed some difficult debates on new budget priorities. However, they are likely to become more pressing as budgets fall and organisations compete for scarcer resources.
Current issues: more powers, more accountability?
These issues are important right now, because the Smith Commission is currently considering the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament/ Government:
A focus on policies such as ‘prevention’ should prompt us to consider how to align priorities and powers. The parallel is with economic policy, in which a key concern relates to the alignment of fiscal powers with monetary union. With prevention, we should ask what’ more powers’ would be used for. For example, would the Scottish Government seek to address health and education inequalities by addressing income inequalities? If so, what powers could be devolved to address this issue without undermining that broader question of macroeconomic coherence?
A focus on shared powers raises new issues about accountability. As things stand, accountability is already a problem in relation to outcomes based measures and the devolution of policies to local public bodies. In a ‘Westminster’ style system, we are used to the idea of government accountability to the public via ministers accounting to Parliament, or directly via elections. Yet, if the responsibility for outcomes is further devolved, and outcomes measures span multiple elections, how can we hold governments to account in a meaningful way? Or, as importantly, if elected policymakers still feel bound by these short-term accountability mechanisms, how can we possibly expect them to commit to policies with short term costs, with pay-offs that may only begin to show fruit after they have retired from office?
These issues are further exacerbated by a shared powers model, in which we don’t know where UK government responsibility ends and Scottish Government responsibility begins.
This sort of discussion may prompt us to re-examine the idea of a ‘window of opportunity’ for change, at least when we are discussing vague solutions to complex problems. A window may produce a broad change in policymaker commitment to a policy solution, but that event may only represent the beginning of a long, drawn out process of policy change. We often talk about ‘policy entrepreneurs’ lying in wait to present their pet solutions when the time is right – but, in this case, ‘solution’ may be a rather misleading description of a broad agenda, in which everyone can agree on the aims, but not the objectives.
the proliferation of rules, regulations and public bodies
a crowded arena with blurry boundaries between policymakers and the actors who influence them; and
general uncertainty when people interact in unpredictable ways within a changeable policy environment.
Complex government is difficult to understand, control, influence and hold to account.
This brief article considers it from various perspectives: scholars trying to conceptualise it; policymakers trying to control or adapt to it; and, scientists, interest groups and individuals trying to influence it.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.
Policymaking in Scotland #POLU9SP
A series of lectures on policymaking, written up as blog posts with further reading.