Tag Archives: policy analysis

A 5-step strategy to make evidence count

5 stepsLet’s imagine a heroic researcher, producing the best evidence and fearlessly ‘speaking truth to power’. Then, let’s place this person in four scenarios, each of which combines a discussion of evidence, policy, and politics in different ways.

  1. Imagine your hero presents to HM Treasury an evidence-based report concluding that a unitary UK state would be far more efficient than a union state guaranteeing Scottish devolution. The evidence is top quality and the reasoning is sound, but the research question is ridiculous. The result of political deliberation and electoral choice suggests that your hero is asking a research question that does not deserve to be funded in the current political climate. Your hero is a clown.
  2. Imagine your hero presents to the Department of Health a report based on the systematic review of multiple randomised control trials. It recommends that you roll out an almost-identical early years or public health intervention across the whole country. We need high ‘fidelity’ to the model to ensure the correct ‘dosage’ and to measure its effect scientifically. The evidence is of the highest quality, but the research question is not quite right. The government has decided to devolve this responsibility to local public bodies and/ or encourage the co-production of public service design by local public bodies, communities, and service users. So, to focus narrowly on fidelity would be to ignore political choices (perhaps backed by different evidence) about how best to govern. If you don’t know the politics involved, you will ask the wrong questions or provide evidence with unclear relevance. Your hero is either a fool, naïve to the dynamics of governance, or a villain willing to ignore governance principles.        
  3. Imagine two fundamentally different – but equally heroic – professions with their own ideas about evidence. One favours a hierarchy of evidence in which RCTs and their systematic review is at the top, and service user and practitioner feedback is near the bottom. The other rejects this hierarchy completely, identifying the unique, complex relationship between practitioner and service user which requires high discretion to make choices in situations that will differ each time. Trying to resolve a debate between them with reference to ‘the evidence’ makes no sense. This is about a conflict between two heroes with opposing beliefs and preferences that can only be resolved through compromise or political choice. This is, oh I don’t know, Batman v Superman, saved by Wonder Woman.
  4. Imagine you want the evidence on hydraulic fracturing for shale oil and gas. We know that ‘the evidence’ follows the question: how much can we extract? How much revenue will it produce? Is it safe, from an engineering point of view? Is it safe, from a public health point of view? What will be its impact on climate change? What proportion of the public supports it? What proportion of the electorate supports it? Who will win and lose from the decision? It would be naïve to think that there is some kind of neutral way to produce an evidence-based analysis of such issues. The commissioning and integration of evidence has to be political. To pretend otherwise is a political strategy. Your hero may be another person’s villain.

Now, let’s use these scenarios to produce a 5-step way to ‘make evidence count’.

Step 1. Respect the positive role of politics

A narrow focus on making the supply of evidence count, via ‘evidence-based policymaking’, will always be dispiriting because it ignores politics or treats political choice as an inconvenience. If we:

  • begin with a focus on why we need political systems to make authoritative choices between conflicting preferences, and take governance principles seriously, we can
  • identify the demand for evidence in that context, then be more strategic and pragmatic about making evidence count, and
  • be less dispirited about the outcome.

In other words, think about the positive and necessary role of democratic politics before bemoaning post-truth politics and policy-based-evidence-making.

Step 2. Reject simple models of evidence-based policymaking

Policy is not made in a cycle containing a linear series of separate stages and we won’t ‘make evidence count’ by using it to inform our practices.


You might not want to give up the cycle image because it presents a simple account of how you should make policy. It suggests that we elect policymakers then: identify their 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. Or, policymakers aided by expert policy analysts make and legitimise choices, skilful public servants carry them out, and, policy analysts assess the results using evidence.

One compromise is to keep the cycle then show how messy it is in practice:

However, there comes a point when there is too much mess, and the image no longer helps you explain (a) to the public what you are doing, or (b) to providers of evidence how they should engage in political systems. By this point, simple messages from more complicated policy theories may be more useful.

Or, we may no longer want a cycle to symbolise a single source of policymaking authority. In a multi-level system, with many ‘centres’ possessing their own sources of legitimate authority, a single and simple policy cycle seems too artificial to be useful.

Step 3. Tell a simple story about your evidence

People are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you bombard them with too much evidence. Policymakers already have too much evidence and they seek ways to reduce their cognitive load, relying on: (a) trusted sources of concise evidence relevant to their aims, and (b) their own experience, gut instinct, beliefs, and emotions.

The implication of both shortcuts is that we need to tell simple and persuasive stories about the substance and implications of the evidence we present. To say that ‘the evidence does not speak for itself’ may seem trite, but I’ve met too many people who assume naively that it will somehow ‘win the day’. In contrast, civil servants know that the evidence-informed advice they give to ministers needs to relate to the story that government ministers tell to the public.


Step 4.  Tailor your story to many audiences

In a complex or multi-level environment, one story to one audience (such as a minister) is not enough. If there are many key sources of policymaking authority – including public bodies with high autonomy, organisations and practitioners with the discretion to deliver services, and service users involved in designing services – there are many stories being told about what we should be doing and why. We may convince one audience and alienate (or fail to inspire) another with the same story.

Step 5. Clarify and address key dilemmas with political choice, not evidence

Let me give you one example of the dilemmas that must arise when you combine evidence and politics to produce policy: how do you produce a model of ‘evidence based best practice’ which combines evidence and governance principles in a consistent way? Here are 3 ideal-type models which answer the question in very different ways

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

The table helps us think through the tensions between models, built on very different principles of good evidence and governance.

In practice, you may want to combine different elements, perhaps while arguing that the loss of consistency is lower than the gain from flexibility. Or, the dynamics of political systems limit such choice or prompt ad hoc and inconsistent choices.

I built a lot of this analysis on the experiences of the Scottish Government, which juggles all three models, including a key focus on improvement method in its Early Years Collaborative.

However, Kathryn Oliver and I show that the UK government faces the same basic dilemma and addresses it in similar ways.

The example freshest in my mind is Sure Start. Its rationale was built on RCT evidence and systematic review. However, its roll-out was built more on local flexibility and service design than insistence on fidelity to a model. More recently, the Troubled Families programme initially set the policy agenda and criteria for inclusion, but increasingly invites local public bodies to select the most appropriate interventions, aided by the Early Intervention Foundation which reviews the evidence but does not insist on one-best-way. Emily St Denny and I explore these issues further in our forthcoming book on prevention policy, an exemplar case study of a field in which it is difficult to know how to ‘make evidence count’.

If you prefer a 3-step take home message:

  1. I think we use phrases like ‘impact’ and ‘make evidence count’ to reflect a vague and general worry about a decline in respect for evidence and experts. Certainly, when I go to large conferences of scientists, they usually tell a story about ‘post-truth’ politics.
  2. Usually, these stories do not acknowledge the difference between two different explanations for an evidence-policy gap: (a) pathological policymaking and corrupt politicians, versus (b) complex policymaking and politicians having to make choices despite uncertainty.
  3. To produce evidence with ‘impact’, and know how to ‘make evidence count’, we need to understand the policy process and the demand for evidence within it.

*Background. This is a post for my talk at the Government Economic Service and Government Social Research Service Annual Training Conference (15th September 2017). This year’s theme is ‘Impact and Future-Proofing: Making Evidence Count’. My brief is to discuss evidence use in the Scottish Government, but it faces the same basic question as the UK Government: how do you combine principles of evidence quality and governance principles? In other words, if you were in a position to design an (a) evidence-gathering system and (b) a political system, you’d soon find major points of tension between them. Resolving those tensions involves political choice, not more evidence. Of course, you are not in a position to design both systems, so the more complicated question is: how do you satisfy principles of evidence and governance in a complex policy process, often driven by policymaker psychology, over which you have little control?  Here are 7 different ‘answers’.

Powerpoint Paul Cairney @ GES GSRS 2017

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Evidence based policymaking: 7 key themes

7 themes of EBPM

I looked back at my blog posts on the politics of ‘evidence based policymaking’ and found that I wrote quite a lot (particularly from 2016). Here is a list based on 7 key themes.

1. Use psychological insights to influence the use of evidence

My most-current concern. The same basic theme is that (a) people (including policymakers) are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you (b) bombard them with information, or (c) call them idiots.

Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers (shows how to use psychological insights to promote evidence in policymaking)

Using psychological insights in politics: can we do it without calling our opponents mental, hysterical, or stupid? (yes)

The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself? (older paper, linking studies of psychology with studies of EBPM)

Older posts on the same theme:

Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government? (yes)

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

These complaints about ignoring science seem biased and naïve – and too easy to dismiss

How can we close the ‘cultural’ gap between the policymakers and scientists who ‘just don’t get it’?

2. How to use policy process insights to influence the use of evidence

I try to simplify key insights about the policy process to show to use evidence in it. One key message is to give up on the idea of an orderly policy process described by the policy cycle model. What should you do if a far more complicated process exists?

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking: 3 messages (3 ways to say that you should engage with the policy process that exists, not a mythical process that will never exist)

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs (shows how entrepreneurs are influential in politics)

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking? and What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco and There is no blueprint for evidence-based policy, so what do you do? (3 posts describing the conditions that must be met for evidence to ‘win the day’)

Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it (explains how our knowledge of the policy process helps communicate to policymakers)

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points (presentation to European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’ 2016)

Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do (presentation to Open Society Foundations New York 2016)

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts? (part of a series of videos produced by the European Commission)

3. How to combine principles on ‘good evidence’, ‘good governance’, and ‘good practice’

My argument here is that EBPM is about deciding at the same time what is: (1) good evidence, and (2) a good way to make and deliver policy. If you just focus on one at a time – or consider one while ignoring the other – you cannot produce a defendable way to promote evidence-informed policy delivery.

Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy (summary of and link to our article on this very topic)

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it? (presentation to the Scottish Government on 2016)

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

What Works (in a complex policymaking system)?

How Far Should You Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered?

4. Face up to your need to make profound choices to pursue EBPM

These posts have arisen largely from my attendance at academic-practitioner conferences on evidence and policy. Many participants tell the same story about the primacy of scientific evidence challenged by post-truth politics and emotional policymakers. I don’t find this argument convincing or useful. So, in many posts, I challenge these participants to think about more pragmatic ways to sum up and do something effective about their predicament.

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice? (shows how our knowledge of policymaking clarifies dilemmas about engagement)

The role of ‘standards for evidence’ in ‘evidence informed policymaking’ (argues that a strict adherence to scientific principles may help you become a good researcher but not an effective policy influencer)

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators (you have to make profound ethical and strategic choices when seeking to maximise the use of evidence in policy)

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions (calling yourself an ‘honest broker’ while complaining about ‘post-truth politics’ is a cop out)

What sciences count in government science advice? (political science, obvs)

I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience? (compares the often profoundly different ways in which scientists and political scientists understand and evaluate EBPM – this matters because, for example, we rarely discuss power in scientist-led debates)

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking? (no)

Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: … evidence-based policymaking (how to decide between idealism and pragmatism when engaging in politics)

Realistic ‘realist’ reviews: why do you need them and what might they look like? (if you privilege impact you need to build policy relevance into systematic reviews)

‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact? (describes ways to build evidence advocacy into research design)

The Politics of Evidence (review of – and link to – Justin Parkhurt’s book on the ‘good governance’ of evidence production and use)


5. For students and researchers wanting to read/ hear more

These posts are relatively theory-heavy, linking quite clearly to the academic study of public policy. Hopefully they provide a simple way into the policy literature which can, at times, be dense and jargony.

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

Practical Lessons from Policy Theories (series of posts on the policy process, offering potential lessons for advocates of evidence use in policy)

Writing a policy paper and blog post 

12 things to know about studying public policy

Can you want evidence based policymaking if you don’t really know what it is? (defines each word in EBPM)

Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy? (no, very no)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation) (using evidence to evaluate policy is inevitably political)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning (so is learning from the experience of others)

Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it? (read about it)

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making? (on translating policy theories into useful advice)

The role of evidence in UK policymaking after Brexit (argues that many challenges/ opportunities for evidence advocates will not change after Brexit)

Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK? (it’s not just because there is more evidence of harm)

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking and The politics of evidence-based policymaking: focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty and Revisiting the main ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: focus on ambiguity, not uncertainty and The barriers to evidence based policymaking in environmental policy (early versions of what became the chapters of the book)

6. Using storytelling to promote evidence use

This is increasingly a big interest for me. Storytelling is key to the effective conduct and communication of scientific research. Let’s not pretend we’re objective people just stating the facts (which is the least convincing story of all). So far, so good, except to say that the evidence on the impact of stories (for policy change advocacy) is limited. The major complication is that (a) the story you want to tell and have people hear interacts with (b) the story that your audience members tell themselves.

Combine Good Evidence and Emotional Stories to Change the World

Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

7. The major difficulties in using evidence for policy to reduce inequalities

These posts show how policymakers think about how to combine (a) often-patchy evidence with (b) their beliefs and (c) an electoral imperative to produce policies on inequalities, prevention, and early intervention. I suggest that it’s better to understand and engage with this process than complain about policy-based-evidence from the side-lines. If you do the latter, policymakers will ignore you.

What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

How can you tell the difference between policy-based-evidence and evidence-based-policymaking?

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

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

A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

Note: these issues are discussed in similar ways in many countries. One example that caught my eye today:


All of this discussion can be found under the EBPM category: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/category/evidence-based-policymaking-ebpm/T

See also the special issue on maximizing the use of evidence in policy

Palgrave C special

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, Storytelling, UK politics and policy

Policy in 500 Words: The Policy Process

We talk a lot about ‘the policy process’ without really saying what it is. If you are new to policy studies, maybe you think that you’ll learn what it is eventually if you read enough material. This would be a mistake! Instead, when you seek a definition of the policy process, you’ll find two common responses.

  1. Many will seek to define policy or public policy instead of ‘the policy process’.
  2. Some will describe the policy process as a policy cycle with stages.

Both responses seem inadequate: one avoids giving an answer, and another gives the wrong answer!

However, we can combine elements of each approach to give you just enough of a sense of ‘the policy process’ to continue reading:

  1. The beauty of the ‘what is policy?’ question is that we don’t give you an answer. I give you a working definition to help raise further questions. Look at the questions we need to ask if we begin with the definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’.
  2. The beauty of the policy cycle approach is that it provides a simple way to imagine policy ‘dynamics’, or events and choices producing a sequence of other events and choices. Look at the stages to identify many different tasks within one ‘process’, and to get the sense that policymaking is continuous and often ‘its own cause’.

There are more complicated but better ways of describing policymaking dynamics

This picture is the ‘policy process’ equivalent of my definition of public policy. It captures the main elements of the policy process described (in different ways) by most policy theories. It is there to give you enough of an answer to help you ask the right questions.

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

In the middle is ‘policy choice’. At the heart of most policy theory is ‘bounded rationality’, which describes (a) the cognitive limits of people, and (b) how they overcome those limits to make decisions. They use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to action.

Surrounding choice is what we’ll call the ‘policy environment’, containing: policymakers in many levels and types of government, the ideas or beliefs they share, the rules they follow, the networks they form with influencers, and the ‘structural’ or socioeconomic context in which they operate.

This picture is only the beginning of analysis, raising further questions that will make more sense when you read further, including: should policymaker choice be at the centre of this picture? Why are there arrows (describing the order of choice) in the cycle but not in my picture?

Take home message for students: don’t describe ‘the policy process’ without giving the reader some sense of its meaning. Its definition overlaps with ‘policy’ considerably, but the ‘process’ emphasises modes and dynamics of policymaking, while ‘policy’ emphasises outputs. Then, think about how each policy model or theory tries, in different ways, to capture the key elements of the process. A cycle focuses on ‘stages’ but most theories in this series focus on ‘environments’.






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Policy concepts in 1000 or 500 words

Imagine that your audience is a group of scientists who have read everything and are only interested in something new. You need a new theory, method, study, or set of results to get their attention.

Let’s say that audience is a few hundred people, or half a dozen in each subfield. It would be nice to impress them, perhaps with some lovely jargon and in-jokes, but almost no-one else will know or care what you are talking about.

Imagine that your audience is a group of budding scientists, researchers, students, practitioners, or knowledge-aware citizens who are new to the field and only interested in what they can pick up and use (without devoting their life to each subfield). Novelty is no longer your friend. Instead, your best friends are communication, clarity, synthesis, and a constant reminder not to take your knowledge and frame of reference for granted.

Let’s say that audience is a few gazillion people. If you want to impress them, imagine that you are giving them one of the first – if not the first – ways of understanding your topic. Reduce the jargon. Explain your problem and why people should care about how you try to solve it. Clear and descriptive titles. No more in-jokes (just stick with the equivalent of ‘I went to the doctor because a strawberry was growing in my arse, and she gave me some cream for it’).

At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself lately. As things stand, my most-read post of all time is destined to be on the policy cycle, and most people read it because it’s the first entry on a google search. Most readers of that post may never read anything else I’ve written (over a million words, if I cheat a bit with the calculation). They won’t care that there are a dozen better ways to understand the policy process. I have one shot to make it interesting, to encourage people to read more. The same goes for the half-dozen other concepts (including multiple streams, punctuated equilibrium theory, the Advocacy Coalition Framework) which I explain to students first because I now do well in google search (go on, give it a try!).

I also say this because I didn’t anticipate this outcome when I wrote those posts. Now, a few years on, I’m worried that they are not very good. They were summaries of chapters from Understanding Public Policy, rather than first principles discussions, and lots of people have told me that UPP is a little bit complicated for the casual reader. So, when revising it, I hope to make it better, and by better I mean to appeal to a wider audience without dumping the insights. I have begun by trying to write 500-words posts as, I hope, improvements on the 1000-word versions. However, I am also open to advice on the originals. Which ones work, and which ones don’t? Where are the gaps in exposition? Where are the gaps in content?

This post is 500 words.



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No one will understand British politics and policymaking after Brexit

Let’s be optimistic for a few seconds, and focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ of policy and policymaking. The comparison is between an EU process that is distant and undemocratic and a UK process we can all understand and influence, following the simple phrase ‘if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame’.

The down side is that we don’t know who is in charge, and it’s often futile to try to find a named individual or role to blame. The EU certainly complicates the picture, but don’t be fooled into thinking that we will eventually produce a UK political system that anyone understands.

If giving a lecture, this is the point at which I’d pause for effect and restate the idea that no-one understands the UK policymaking system as a whole [insert meaningful looks here]. Many people know about many parts of the system, but it’s not like a jigsaw puzzle that we’ve completed by working together. At best, it’s like that Dalmatian jigsaw that we started at Christmas before getting drunk and falling out.


Instead, policymakers and commentators tell simple stories about British politics

The dominant story of British politics relates initially to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. This idea connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is perhaps designed to work. Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.

The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.

In other words, the ‘take home message’ of this story is that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.

These stories are more useful for our entertainment than enlightenment

Consider these five factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process.

  1. Bounded rationality. Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore almost all of them?
  2. Policy communities. Ministers delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.
  3. Multi-level governance. The UK government shares policymaking ‘vertically’ (with international, EU, devolved, and local governments) and ‘horizontally’ (with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations).
  4. Complex government. Policymaking ‘emerges’ from the interaction between many actors, institutions, and regulations. In complex policymaking systems, people act without full knowledge of how other people act elsewhere in the system.
  5. Policy environments. Many policy conditions and events are out of policymakers’ control (including demographic, technological, and economic change)

So, for example, the UK government has to juggle two stories of British politics – on the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control, versus the need to construct a strong image of governing competence with reference to control – in the knowledge that one of them is a tall tale.

Brexit will change only one part of that story

None of these factors should prompt us to minimise the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they should prompt us to think harder about the impact of Brexit on ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and ministerial accountability via UK central government control. The phrase ‘you know who is in charge, and who to blame’ will become a more important rallying cry in British politics (when we can no longer blame the EU for British policy), but let’s focus on what actually happens in British politics and recognise how little of it we understand before we decide who to blame.

This post is an amended version of the introductory post for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK which draws on this ‘1000 Words’ series on public policy.


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Writing an essay on politics, policymaking, and policy change

I tend to set this simple-looking question for coursework in policy modules: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why? Students get to choose the policy issue, timeframe (and sometimes the political system), and relevant explanatory concepts.

On the face of it, it looks super-simple: A+ for everyone!

Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:

  1. We spent a lot of time agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy (explained in 1000 Words and 500 Words)
  2. There are a gazillion possible measures of policy change (1000 Words and 500 Words)
  3. There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics (I describe about 25 in 1000 Words each)

I try to encourage some creativity when solving this problem, but also advise students to keep their discussion as simple and jargon-free as possible (often by stretching an analogy with diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).

Choosing a format: the initial advice

  1. Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
  2. Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in the post-war era, since UK devolution, or since a change in government).
  3. Select one or more policy concept or theory to help structure your discussion and help explain how and why policy has changed.

For example, a question might be: What is tobacco policy in the UK, how much has it changed since the 1980s, and why? I use this example because I try to answer that – UK and global – question myself, even though my 2007 article on the UK is too theory-packed to be a good model for an undergraduate essay.

Choosing a format: the cautionary advice

You may be surprised about how difficult it is to answer a simple question like ‘what is policy?’ and I will give you considerable credit for considering how to define and measure it, by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and ‘nodality’ and/ or by considering the difference between, say, policy as a statement of intent or a long term outcome. In turn, a good description and explanation of policy change is difficult. If you are feeling ambitious, you can go further, to compare, say, two issues (such as tobacco and alcohol) or places (such UK Government policy and the policy of another country), but sometimes a simple and narrow discussion can be as, or more, effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but often one theory will do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic to focus or concepts to use.

Choosing a topic: the ‘joined up’ advice

The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between different perspectives on policy theory and analysis. For example, in a blog and policy analysis paper they try to generate attention to a policy problem and advocate a solution. Then, they draw on policy theories and concepts to reflect on their papers, highlighting (say): the need to identify the most important audience; the importance of framing issues with a mixture of evidence and emotional appeals; and, the need to present ‘feasible’ solutions.

The reflection can provide a useful segue to the essay, since we’re already identifying important policy problems, advocating change, reflecting on how best to encourage it – such as by presenting modest objectives – and then, in the essay, trying to explain (say) why governments have not taken that advice in the past. Their interest in the policy issue can prompt interest in researching the issue further; their knowledge of the issue and the policy process can help them develop politically-aware policy analysis. All going well, it produces a virtuous circle.

Some examples from my pet subject

Let me outline how I would begin to answer the three questions with reference to UK tobacco policy. I’m offering a brief summary of each section rather than presenting a full essay with more detail (partly to hold on to that idea of creativity – I don’t want students to use this description as a blueprint).

What is modern UK tobacco policy?

Tobacco policy in the UK is now one of the most restrictive in the world. The UK government has introduced a large number of policy instruments to encourage a major reduction of smoking in the population. They include: legislation to ban smoking in public places; legislation to limit tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship; high taxes on tobacco products; unequivocal health education; regulations on tobacco ingredients; significant spending on customs and enforcement measures; and, plain packaging measures.

[Note that I selected only a few key measures to define policy. A fuller analysis might expand on why I chose them and why they are so important].

How much has policy changed since the 1980s?

Policy has changed radically since the post-war period, and most policy change began from the 1980s, but it was not until the 2000s onwards that the UK cemented its place as one of the most restrictive countries. The shift from the 1980s relates strongly to the replacement of voluntary agreements and limited measures with limited enforcement with legislative measures and stronger enforcement. The legislation to ban tobacco advertising, passed in 2002, replaced limited bans combined with voluntary agreements to (for example) keep billboards a certain distance from schools. The legislation to ban smoking in public places, passed in 2006 (2005 in Scotland), replaced voluntary measures which allowed smoking in most pubs and restaurants. Plain packaging measures, combined with large and graphic health warnings, replace branded packets which once had no warnings. Health education warnings have gone from stating the facts and inviting smokers to decide, and the promotion of harm reduction (smoke ‘low tar’), to an unequivocal message on the harms of smoking and passive smoking.

[Note that I describe these changes in broad terms. Other articles might ‘zoom’ in on specific instruments to show how exactly they changed]

Why has it changed?

This is the section of the essay in which we have to make a judgement about the type of explanation: should you choose one or many concepts; if many, do you focus on their competing or complementary insights; should you provide an extensive discussion of your chosen theory?

I normally recommend a very small number of concepts or simple discussion, largely because there is only so much you can say in an essay of 2-3000 words.

For example, a simple ‘hook’ is to ask if the main driver was the scientific evidence: did policy change as the evidence on smoking (and then passive smoking) related harm became more apparent? Is it a good case of ‘evidence based policymaking’? The answer may then note that policy change seemed to be 20-30 years behind the evidence [although I’d have to explain that statement in more depth] and set out the conditions in which this driver would have an effect.

In short, one might identify the need for a ‘policy environment’, shaped by policymakers, and conducive to a strong policy response based on the evidence of harm and a political choice to restrict tobacco use. It would relate to decisions by policymakers to: frame tobacco as a public health epidemic requiring a major government response (rather than primarily as an economic good or issue of civil liberties); place health departments or organisations at the heart of policy development; form networks with medical and public health groups at the expense of tobacco companies; and respond to greater public support for control, reduced smoking prevalence, and the diminishing economic value of tobacco.

This discussion can proceed conceptually, in a relatively straightforward way, or with the further aid of policy theories which ask further questions and help structure the answers.

For example, one might draw on punctuated equilibrium theory to help describe and explain shifts of public/media/ policymaker attention to tobacco, from low and positive in the 1950s to high and negative from the 1980s.

Or, one might draw on the ACF to explain how pro-tobacco coalitions helped slow down policy change by interpreting new scientific evidence though the ‘lens’ of well-established beliefs or approaches (examples from the 1950s include filter tips, low tar brands, and ventilation as alternatives to greater restrictions on smoking).

One might even draw on multiple streams analysis to identify a ‘window of opportunity for change (as I did when examining the adoption of bans on smoking in public places).

Any of these approaches will do, as long as you describe and justify your choice well. One cannot explain everything, so it may be better to try to explain one thing well.

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Filed under 1000 words, 500 words, POLU9UK, tobacco, tobacco policy, UK politics and policy

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

Here are some notes for my talk to the Scottish Government on Thursday as part of its ‘inaugural ‘evidence in policy week’. The advertised abstract is as follows:

A key aim in government is to produce ‘evidence based’ (or ‘informed’) policy and policymaking, but it is easier said than done. It involves two key choices about (1) what evidence counts and how you should gather it, and (2) the extent to which central governments should encourage subnational policymakers to act on that evidence. Ideally, the principles we use to decide on the best evidence should be consistent with the governance principles we adopt to use evidence to make policy, but what happens when they seem to collide? Cairney provides three main ways in which to combine evidence and governance-based principles to help clarify those choices.

I plan to use the same basic structure of the talks I gave to the OSF (New York) and EUI-EP (Florence) in which I argue that every aspect of ‘evidence based policy making’ is riddled with the necessity to make political choices (even when we define EBPM):


I’ll then ‘zoom in’ on points 4 and 5 regarding the relationship between EBPM and governance principles. They are going to videotape the whole discussion to use for internal discussions, but I can post the initial talk here when it becomes available. Please don’t expect a TED talk (especially the E part of TED).

EBPM and good governance principles

The Scottish Government has a reputation for taking certain governance principles seriously, to promote high stakeholder ‘ownership’ and ‘localism’ on policy, and produce the image of a:

  1. Consensual consultation style in which it works closely with interest groups, public bodies, local government organisations, voluntary sector and professional bodies, and unions when making policy.
  2. Trust-based implementation style indicating a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to public bodies, including local authorities, in a meaningful way

Many aspects of this image were cultivated by former Permanent Secretaries: Sir John Elvidge described a ‘Scottish Model’ focused on joined-up government and outcomes-based approaches to policymaking and delivery, and Sir Peter Housden labelled the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) as an alternative to the UK’s command-and-control model of government, focusing on the ‘co-production’ of policy with local communities and citizens.

The ‘Scottish Approach’ has implications for evidence based policy making

Note the major implication for our definition of EBPM. One possible definition, derived from ‘evidence based medicine’, refers to a hierarchy of evidence in which randomised control trials and their systematic review are at the top, while expertise, professional experience and service user feedback are close to the bottom. An uncompromising use of RCTs in policy requires that we maintain a uniform model, with the same basic intervention adopted and rolled out within many areas. The focus is on identifying an intervention’s ‘active ingredient’, applying the correct dosage, and evaluating its success continuously.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to localism and ‘co-production’.

At the other end of the spectrum is a storytelling approach to the use of evidence in policy. In this case, we begin with key governance principles – such as valuing the ‘assets’ of individuals and communities – and inviting people to help make and deliver policy. Practitioners and service users share stories of their experiences and invite others to learn from them. There is no model of delivery and no ‘active ingredient’.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to ‘evidence based policy’

The Goldilocks approach to evidence based policy making: the improvement method

We can understand the Scottish Government’s often-preferred method in that context. It has made a commitment to:

Service performance and improvement underpinned by data, evidence and the application of improvement methodologies

So, policymakers use many sources of evidence to identify promising, make broad recommendations to practitioners about the outcomes they seek, and they train practitioners in the improvement method (a form of continuous learning summed up by a ‘Plan-Do-Study-Act’ cycle).

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

This approach appears to offer the best of both worlds; just the right mix of central direction and local discretion, with the promise of combining well-established evidence from sources including RCTs with evidence from local experimentation and experience.

Four unresolved issues in decentralised evidence-based policy making

Not surprisingly, our story does not end there. I think there are four unresolved issues in this process:

  1. The Scottish Government often indicates a preference for improvement methods but actually supports all three of the methods I describe. This might reflect an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or the inability to establish a favoured approach.
  2. There is not a single way of understanding ‘improvement methodology’. I describe something akin to a localist model here, but other people describe a far more research-led and centrally coordinated process.
  3. Anecdotally, I hear regularly that key stakeholders do not like the improvement method. One could interpret this as a temporary problem, before people really get it and it starts to work, or a fundamental difference between some people in government and many of the local stakeholders so important to the ‘Scottish approach’.

4. The spectre of democratic accountability and the politics of EBPM

The fourth unresolved issue is the biggest: it’s difficult to know how this approach connects with the most important reference in Scottish politics: the need to maintain Westminster-style democratic accountability, through periodic elections and more regular reports by ministers to the Scottish Parliament. This requires a strong sense of central government and ministerial control – if you know who is in charge, you know who to hold to account or reward or punish in the next election.

In principle, the ‘Scottish approach’ provides a way to bring together key aims into a single narrative. An open and accessible consultation style maximises the gathering of information and advice and fosters group ownership. A national strategic framework, with cross-cutting aims, reduces departmental silos and balances an image of democratic accountability with the pursuit of administrative devolution, through partnership agreements with local authorities, the formation of community planning partnerships, and the encouragement of community and user-driven design of public services. The formation of relationships with public bodies and other organisations delivering services, based on trust, fosters the production of common aims across the public sector, and reduces the need for top-down policymaking. An outcomes-focus provides space for evidence-based and continuous learning about what works.

In practice, a government often needs to appear to take quick and decisive action from the centre, demonstrate policy progress and its role in that progress, and intervene when things go wrong. So, alongside localism it maintains a legislative, financial, and performance management framework which limits localism.

How far do you go to ensure EBPM?

So, when I describe the ‘5 things to do’, usually the fifth element is about how far scientists may want to go, to insist on one model of EBPM when it has the potential to contradict important governance principles relating to consultation and localism. For a central government, the question is starker:

Do you have much choice about your model of EBPM when the democratic imperative is so striking?

I’ll leave it there on a cliff hanger, since these are largely questions to prompt discussion in specific workshops. If you can’t attend, there is further reading on the EBPM and EVIDENCE tabs on this blog, and specific papers on the Scottish dimension

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

Paul Cairney, Siabhainn Russell and Emily St Denny (2016) “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?” Policy and Politics, 44, 3, 333-50

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages




Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, Storytelling