Tag Archives: policy change

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

Policy in 500 Words: how much does policy change?

You should get the impression from 1000 words that most policy changes are small or not radically different from the past: Lindblom identifies incrementalism; punctuated equilibrium  highlights a huge number of small changes and small number of huge changes; the ACF compares routine learning by a dominant coalition to a ‘shock’ which prompts new subsystem and policy dynamics; and multiple streams identifies the conditions (rarely met) for major change.

Yet, I just gave you the impression that we don’t know how to define policy. If we can’t define it well, how can we measure it well enough to come to this conclusion so consistently?

Why is the measurement of policy change important?

We miss a lot if we equate policy with statements rather than outputs/ outcomes. We also miss a lot if we equate policy change with the most visible outputs such as legislation. I list 16 different policy instruments, although they tend to be grouped into smaller categories: focusing on regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal; or regulatory/ distributive/ redistributive to suggest that some policy measures are more difficult to ‘sell’ than others.

We also give a limited picture if we equate change with outputs rather than outcomes, since a key insight from policy studies is that there is generally a gap between policymaker expectations and the actual result.

What are the key issues in measurement?

So, as in defining policy change, we need to make choices about what counts as policy in this instance to measure how much it has changed. For example, I have (a) written on one output as a key exemplar of policy change –  legislation to ban smoking in public places for Scotland, England/ Wales, the UK, and (almost) EU – to show that a government is signalling major changes to come, but also (b) situated that policy instrument within a much broader discussion – of many tobacco policies in the UK and across the globe – to examine the extent to which it is already consistent with a well-established direction of travel.

To make such choices we need to consider:

  • Breadth (to give the ‘big picture’) versus depth (to note important details forensically)
  • How much we expect policy to change, given the size of the problem (a big feature in public health studies, which criticise government inaction)
  • How radical policy change looks from the ‘top’ (at the point of central government choice) or the ‘bottom’ (longer-term delivery of policy by other bodies)
  • What policies mean (what problem were policymakers trying to solve?)
  • How consistent ‘policy’ seems when made of often-contradictory instruments

How do we solve the problem?

The problem is that we can produce very different accounts of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data more than others (e.g. during interviews).

500 words p30 UPP

Sometimes, my preferred solution is to compare more than one narrative of policy change. Another is simply to ‘show your work’.

Take home message for students: ‘show your work’ means explaining your logical process and step-by-step choices. Don’t just write that it is difficult to define policy and measure change. Instead, explain how you assess policy change in one important way, why you chose this way, and shine a light on the payoffs to your approach. Read up on how other scholars do it, to learn good practice and how to make your results comparable to theirs. Indeed, part of the benefit of using an established theory, to guide our analysis, is that we can engage in research systematically as a group.


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Filed under 500 words, public policy, Research design

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

This post accompanies a 40 minute lecture (download) which considers ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) through the lens of policy theory. The theory is important, to give us a language with which to understand EBPM as part of a wider discussion of the policy process, while the lens of EBPM allows us to think through the ‘real world’ application of concepts and theories.

To that end, I’ll make three key points:

  1. Definitions and clarity are important. ‘Evidence-based policymaking’, ‘evidence-based policy’ and related phrases such as ‘policy based evidence’ are used incredibly loosely in public debates. A focus on basic questions in policy studies – what is policy, and how can we measure policy change? – helps us clarify the issues, reject superficial debates on ‘evidence-based policy versus policy-based evidence’, and in some cases identify the very different assumptions people make about how policymaking works and should work.
  2. Realistic models are important. Discussing EBPM helps us identify the major flaws in simple models of policymaking such as the ‘policy cycle’. I’ll discuss the insights we gain by considering how policy scholars describe the implications of policymaker ‘bounded rationality’ and policymaking complexity.
  3. Realistic strategies are important. There is a lot of academic discussion of the need to overcome ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy. It is often atheoretical, producing naïve recommendations about improving the supply of evidence and training policymakers to understand it. I identify two more useful (but potentially controversial) strategies: be manipulative and learn where the ‘action’ is.

Definitions and clarity are important, so what is ‘evidence-based policymaking’?

What is Policy? It is incredibly difficult to say what policy is and measure how much it has changed. I use the working definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ to raise important qualifications: (a) it is problematic to conflate what people say they will do and what they actually do; (b) a policy outcome can be very different from the intention; (c) policy is made routinely through cooperation between elected and unelected policymakers and actors with no formal role in the process; (d) policymaking is also about the power not to do something. It is also important to identify the many components or policy instruments that make up policies, including: the level of spending; the use of economic incentives/ penalties; regulations and laws; the use of voluntary agreements and codes of conduct; the provision of public services; education campaigns; funding for scientific studies or advocacy; organisational change; and, the levels of resources/ methods dedicated to policy implementation (2012a: 26).

In that context, we are trying to capture a process in which actors make and deliver ‘policy’ continuously, not identify a set-piece event which provides a single opportunity to use a piece of scientific evidence to prompt a policymaker response.

Who are the policymakers? The intuitive definition is ‘people who make policy’, but there are two important distinctions: (1) between elected and unelected participants, since people such as civil servants also make important decisions; (2) between people and organisations, with the latter used as a shorthand to refer to a group of people making decisions collectively. There are blurry dividing lines between the people who make and influence policy. Terms such as ‘policy community’ suggest that policy decisions are made by a collection of people with formal responsibility and informal influence. Consequently, we need to make clear what we mean by ‘policymakers’ when we identify how they use evidence.

What is evidence? We can define evidence as an argument backed by information. Scientific evidence describes information produced in a particular way. Some describe ‘scientific’ broadly, to refer to information gathered systematically using recognised methods, while others refer to a specific hierarchy of scientific methods, with randomized control trials (RCTs) and the systematic review of RCTs at the top. This is a crucial point:

policymakers will seek many kinds of information that many scientists would not consider to be ‘the evidence’.

This discussion helps identify two key points of potential confusion when people discuss EBPM:

  1. When you describe ‘evidence-based policy’ and EBPM you need to clarify what the policy is and who is making it. This is not just about some elected politicians making announcements.
  2. When you describe ‘evidence’ you need to clarify what counts as evidence and what an ‘evidence-based’ policy response would look like. This point is at the heart of often fruitless discussions about ‘policy based evidence’, which seems to describe almost a dozen alleged mistakes by policymakers (relating to ignoring evidence, using the wrong kinds, and/ or producing a disproportionate response).

Realistic models are important, so what is wrong with the policy cycle?

One traditional way to understand policymaking in the ‘real world’ is to compare it to an ideal-type: what happens when the conditions of the ideal-type are not met? We do this in particular with the ‘policy cycle and ‘comprehensive rationality’.

So, consider this modified ideal-type of EBPM:

  • There is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, breaking down their task into clearly defined and well-ordered stages;
  • Scientists are in a privileged position to help those policymakers make good decisions by getting them as close as possible to the ideal of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which they have the best information available to inform all options and consequences.

So far, so good (although you might stop to consider who is best placed to provide evidence, and who – or which methods of evidence gathering – should be privileged or excluded), but what happens when we move away from the ideal-type? Here are two insights from a forthcoming paper (Cairney Oliver Wellstead 26.1.16).

Lessons from policy theory: 1. Identify multi-level policymaking environments

First, policymaking takes place in less ordered and predictable policy environment, exhibiting:

  • a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  • a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  • close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors
  • a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  • shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

A focus on this bigger picture shifts our attention from the use of scientific evidence by an elite group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’ to its use by a wide range of influential actors in a multi-level policy process. It shows scientists and practitioners that they are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience. Support for particular solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ (such as ‘value for money’) – that takes time to learn. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift. In this context, too many practitioner studies analyse, for example, a singular point of central government decision rather than the longer term process. Overcoming barriers to influence in that small part of the process will not provide an overall solution.

Lessons from policy theory: 2. Policymakers use two ‘shortcuts’ to make decisions

How do policymakers deal with their ‘bounded rationality’? They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, habits, and the familiar to make decisions quickly. Consequently, the focus of policy theories is on the links between evidence, persuasion, and framing (in the wider context of a tendency for certain beliefs to dominate discussion).

Framing refers to the ways in which we understand, portray, and categorise issues. Problems are multi-faceted, but bounded rationality limits the attention of policymakers, and actors compete to highlight one image at the expense of others. The outcome of this process determines who is involved (for example, portraying an issue as technical limits involvement to experts), who is responsible for policy, how much attention they pay, and what kind of solution they favour. For example, tobacco control is more likely when policymakers view it primarily as a public health epidemic rather than an economic good, while ‘fracking’ policy depends on its primary image as a new oil boom or environmental disaster (I discuss both examples in depth here).

Scientific evidence plays a part in this process, but we should not exaggerate the ability of scientists to win the day with reference to evidence. Rather, policy theories signal the strategies that practitioners may have to adopt to increase demand for their evidence:

  • to combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention from one policy image to another (punctuated equilibrium theory)
  • to tell simple stories which are easy to understand, help manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (narrative policy framework)
  • to interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (advocacy coalition framework)
  • to produce a policy solution that is feasible and exploit a time when policymakers have the opportunity to adopt it (multiple streams analysis).

Further, the impact of a framing strategy may not be immediate, even if it appears to be successful. Scientific evidence may prompt a lurch of attention to a policy problem, prompting a shift of views in one venue or the new involvement of actors from other venues. However, for example, it can take years to produce support for an ‘evidence-based’ policy solution, built on its technical and political feasibility (will it work as intended, and do policymakers have the motive and opportunity to select it?).

This discussion helps identify two key points of potential confusion when people discuss the policy cycle and comprehensive rationality:

  1. These concepts are there to help us understand what doesn’t happen. What are the real world implications of the limits to these models?
  2. They do not help you give good advice to people trying to influence the policy process. A focus on going through policymaking ‘stages’ and improving ‘rationality’ is always relevant when you give advice to policymakers. However unrealistic these models are, you would still want to gather the maximum information and go through a process of stages. This is very different from (a) giving advice on how to influence the process, or (b) evaluating the pros and cons of a political system with reference to ideal-types.

Realistic strategies are important, so how far should you go to overcome ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy?

You can’t take the politics out of EBPM. Even the selection of ‘the evidence’ is political (should evidence be scientific, and what counts as scientific evidence?).

Further, providers of scientific evidence face major dilemmas when they seek to maximise the ‘impact’ of their research. Armed with this knowledge of the policy process, how should you seek to engage and influence decisions made within it?

If you are interested in this final discussion, please see the short video here and the follow up blog post: Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

See also:

To bridge the divide between evidence and policy: reduce ambiguity as much as uncertainty



Filed under 1000 words, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Policy change, convergence and divergence since Scottish devolution #POLU9SP

divergence difference

Policy change is already difficult to measure and explain, but in Scottish politics there is an added dimension. It is common to gauge policy change according to the extent to which Scottish Government policy diverges from UK Government policy. This comparison can only take us so far, so I will begin with a discussion of divergence then take us back to Scottish policy change in its own right.

What might cause convergence and divergence?

Here is a list of possible causes, which we can discuss at more depth in the lecture (and can you think of others?):

Reasons for policy divergence (or difference):

  • Different social attitudes
  • Different parties in government
  • Ministers trying to make a difference
  • The larger role of public sector professionals in Scotland
  • Different policy conditions
  • A different policy process or style

Reasons for convergence (or similarity):

  • Public expenditure and borrowing limits
  • Overlaps between reserved and devolved policies
  • A ‘single market’ in the UK and the need to avoid unintended consequences
  • The same party of government
  • A similar role for key professions
  • Incrementalism, inertia, wicked problems and other reasons to limit policy change
  • Similar problems and ways of thinking (and learning)

box 9.2

Policy divergence: ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’

We sometimes describe policy divergence in Scotland as ‘evolution, not revolution’ (although evolution is not the opposite of revolution). In other words, devolution did not produce a radical departure from the past, in the way that we might associate with former Soviet countries. Rather, there is a mix of high profile ‘flagship’ policies mixed with a lot of fairly innocuous updating of the statute book. The big ones from 1999-2007 include:

  • ‘free’ personal care for older people
  • the reduction of higher education tuition fees
  • the abolition of the healthcare internal market
  • mental health legislative reforms
  • the introduction of the single transferable vote in local elections
  • the ‘smoking ban’ (does this example count?)

Then the big SNP government polices included:

  • the abolition of higher education tuition fees (and prescription charges)
  • the minimum unit price on alcohol
  • the reform of criminal justice sentencing
  • the pursuit of renewable energy projects and rejection of new nuclear energy stations
  • the pursuit of new ways to fund capital projects (e.g. schools and hospitals)

So, we have three images of the much-talked-about-before-devolution phrase ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’

The first relates to the idea that Westminster had insufficient time for Scottish legislation, and so devolution would present a new opportunity for policy innovation and new ideas. Yet, perhaps after a honeymoon period, public policy did not appear to change dramatically or mark dramatic policy divergence from the past or the rest of the UK.

The second relates to devolution as a way to avoid policy innovation: to step off the train associated with the constant top-down reform agenda of the UK government. This second image is often a better guide, and we can link it to (a) the idea that devolution in 1979 represented a missed opportunity to cushion the blow of Thatcherism, and (b) current debates on the extent to which devolution can actually protect Scotland from the worst excesses of UK policy (I am paraphrasing the arguments of other people here).

The third relates more to policymaking than policy: ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ may relate to how Scottish institutions process policy than the actual policy outputs and outcomes (the ‘Scottish policy style’ or ‘Scottish approach’). As we have discussed in several lectures, this is not necessarily a small difference (particularly if you focus on Greer/ Jarman’s account of the differences in the use of ‘policy tools’).

Don’t forget existing differences

We miss a lot if we just focus on divergence, because much Scottish policy reinforces or maintains existing policy differences, such as when the Scottish Government reformed its curriculum and addressed teacher-local authority relations. Can you think of other examples?

Don’t forget policy change

We miss a lot of policy change if we only focus on divergence from UK government policy. For example, maybe the governments innovate and emulate each other (they don’t though – see box 9.2).

Or, they do very similar things or don’t quite manage to do different things:

  • Housing stock transfer and (until recently) the ‘right to buy’
  • Policies to address so called ‘anti-social behaviour’
  • Attempts by the Scottish and UK Governments (often in vain) to address ‘wicked problems’ such as social inclusion/ exclusion and socio-economic inequalities
  • Public health reforms such as tobacco control
  • Agricultural and fisheries policies (although can you identify key differences?)
  • Land taxation
  • Policies in development, such as an expansion of pre-school care and the very long gestation of local income tax

box 9.4

In the next lecture, we can also go into more depth on the idea of policy change, to identify a difference between (for example) policy divergence as a set of policy choices and their actual effect.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics