Almost. I have sent a full draft following external feedback and review (next stage: copy-editing). All going well, it will be out in November 2019.
I thank James Georgalakis for inviting me to speak at the inaugural event of IDS’ new Evidence into Policy and Practice Series, and the audience for giving extra meaning to my story about the politics of ‘evidence-based based policymaking’. The talk (using powerpoint) and Q&A is here:
James invited me to respond to some of the challenges raised to my talk – in his summary of the event – so here it is.
I’m working on a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, leaving some of the story open to interpretation. As a result, much of the meaning of this story – and, in particular, the focus on limiting participation – depends on the audience.
For example, consider the impact of the same story on audiences primarily focused on (a) scientific evidence and policy, or (b) participation and power.
Normally, when I talk about evidence and policy, my audience is mostly people with scientific or public health backgrounds asking why do policymakers ignore scientific evidence? I am usually invited to ruffle feathers, mostly by challenging a – remarkably prevalent – narrative that goes like this:
In that context, I suggest that there are many claims to policy-relevant knowledge, policymakers have to ignore most information before making choices, and they are not in control of the policy process for which they are ostensibly in charge.
Limiting participation as a strategic aim
Then, I say to my audience that – if they are truly committed to maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy – they will need to consider how far they will go to get what they want. I use the metaphor of an ethical ladder in which each rung offers more influence in exchange for dirtier hands: tell stories and wait for opportunities, or demonise your opponents, limit participation, and humour politicians when they cherry-pick to reinforce emotional choices.
It’s ‘show don’t tell’ but I hope that the take-home point for most of the audience is that they shouldn’t focus so much on one aim – maximising the use of scientific evidence – to the detriment of other important aims, such as wider participation in politics beyond a reliance on a small number of experts. I say ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ but invite the audience to reflect on which prizes they should seek, and the trade-offs between them.
Limited participation – and ‘windows of opportunity’ – as an empirical finding
I did suggest that most policymaking happens away from the sphere of ‘exciting’ and ‘unruly’ politics. Put simply, people have to ignore almost every issue almost all of the time. Each time they focus their attention on one major issue, they must – by necessity – ignore almost all of the others.
For me, the political science story is largely about the pervasiveness of policy communities and policymaking out of the public spotlight.
The logic is as follows. Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. They delegate the rest to bureaucrats at lower levels of government. Bureaucrats lack specialist knowledge, and rely on other actors for information and advice. Those actors trade information for access. In many cases, they develop effective relationships based on trust and a shared understanding of the policy problem.
Trust often comes from a sense that everyone has proven to be reliable. For example, they follow norms or the ‘rules of the game’. One classic rule is to contain disputes within the policy community when actors don’t get what they want: if you complain in public, you draw external attention and internal disapproval; if not, you are more likely to get what you want next time.
For me, this is key context in which to describe common strategic concerns:
Where is the power analysis in all of this?
I rarely use the word power directly, partly because – like ‘politics’ or ‘democracy’ – it is an ambiguous term with many interpretations (see Box 3.1). People often use it without agreeing its meaning and, if it means everything, maybe it means nothing.
However, you can find many aspects of power within our discussion. For example, insider and outsider strategies relate closely to Schattschneider’s classic discussion in which powerful groups try to ‘privatise’ issues and less powerful groups try to ‘socialise’ them. Agenda setting is about using resources to make sure issues do, or do not, reach the top of the policy agenda, and most do not.
These aspects of power sometimes play out in public, when:
However, they are no less important when they play out routinely:
In other words, the word ‘power’ is often hidden because the most profound forms of power often seem to be hidden.
In the context of our discussion, power comes from the ability to define some evidence as essential and other evidence as low quality or irrelevant, and therefore define some people as essential or irrelevant. It comes from defining some issues as exciting and worthy of our attention, or humdrum, specialist and only relevant to experts. It is about the subtle, unseen, and sometimes thoughtless ways in which we exercise power to harness people’s existing beliefs and dominate their attention as much as the transparent ways in which we mobilise resources to publicise issues. Therefore, to ‘maximise the use of evidence’ sounds like an innocuous collective endeavour, but it is a highly political and often hidden use of power.
This post provides (a generous amount of) background for my ANZSOG talk Teaching evidence based policy to fly: transferring sound policies across the world.
The event’s description sums up key conclusions in the literature on policy learning and policy transfer:
In this post, I connect these conclusions to broader themes in policy studies, which suggest that:
As usual, I suggest that we focus less on how we think we’d like to do it, and more on how people actually do it.
Policy transfer describes the use of evidence about policy in one political system to help develop policy in another. Taken at face value, it sounds like a great idea: why would a government try to reinvent the wheel when another government has shown how to do it?
Therefore, wouldn’t it be nice if I turned up to the lecture, equipped with a ‘blueprint’ for ‘evidence based’ policy transfer, and declared how to do it in a series of realistic and straightforward steps? Unfortunately, there are three main obstacles:
Instead, policy learning is a political process – involving the exercise of power to determine what and how to learn – and it is difficult to separate policy transfer from the wider use of evidence and ideas in policy processes.
Let’s take each of these points in turn, before reflecting on their implications for any X-step guide:
3 reasons why ‘evidence based’ does not describe policymaking
Therefore, it is unclear how one government can, or should, generate evidence of another government’s policy success.
The generation of policy transfer lessons is a highly political process in which actors adapt to this need to prioritise information while competing with each other. They exercise power to: prioritise some information and downplay the rest, define the nature of the policy problem, and evaluate the success of another government’s solutions. There is a strong possibility that policymakers will import policy solutions without knowing if, and why, they were successful.
We should not treat ‘policy transfer’ as separate from the policy process in which policymakers and influencers engage. Rather, the evidence of international experience competes with many other sources of ideas and evidence within a complex policymaking system.
The literature on ‘policy learning’ tells a similar story
Studies of the use of evaluation evidence (perhaps to answer the question: was this policy successful?) have long described policymakers using the research process for many different purposes, from short term problem-solving and long-term enlightenment, to putting off decisions or using evidence cynically to support an existing policy.
We should therefore reject the temptation to (a) equate ‘policy learning’ with a simplistic process that we might associate with teachers transmitting facts to children, or (b) assume that adults simply change their beliefs when faced with new evidence. Rather, Dunlop and Radaelli describe policy learning as a political process in the following ways:
1.It is collective and rule-bound
Individuals combine cognition and emotion to process information, in organisations with rules that influence their motive and ability to learn, and in wider systems, in which many actors cooperate and compete to establish the rules of evidence gathering and analysis, or policymaking environments that constrain or facilitate their action.
2.’Evidence based’ is one of several types of policy learning
3.The process can be ‘dysfunctional’: driven by groupthink, limited analysis, and learning how to dominate policymaking, not improve policy.
Their analysis can produce relevant take-home points such as:
What does the literature on transfer tell us?
‘Policy transfer’ can describe a spectrum of activity:
In that context, some of the literature focuses on warning against unsuccessful policy transfer caused by factors such as:
However, other studies highlight some major qualifications:
The use of evidence to spread policy innovation requires a combination of profound political and governance choices
When encouraging policy diffusion within a political system, choices about: (a) what counts as ‘good’ evidence of policy success have a major connection to (b) what counts as good governance.
For example, consider these ideal-types or models in table 1:
In one scenario, we begin by relying primarily on RCT evidence (multiple international trials) and import a relatively fixed model, to ensure ‘fidelity’ to a proven intervention and allow us to measure its effect in a new context. This choice of good evidence limits the ability of subnational policymakers to adapt policy to local contexts.
In another scenario, we begin by relying primary on governance principles, such as to respect local discretion as well as incorporate practitioner and user experience as important knowledge claims. The choice of governance model relates closely to a less narrow sense of what counts as good evidence, but also a more limited ability to evaluate policy success scientifically.
In other words, the political choice to privilege some forms of evidence is difficult to separate from another political choice to privilege the role of one form of government.
Telling a policy transfer story: 11 questions to encourage successful evidence based policy transfer
In that context, these steps to evidence-informed policy transfer serve more to encourage reflection than provide a blueprint for action. I accept that 11 is less catchy than 10.
Points 1-3 represent the classic and necessary questions from policy studies: (1) ‘what is policy?’ (2) ‘how much did policy change?’ and (3) why? Until we have a good answer, we do not know how to draw comparable lessons. Learning from another government’s policy choices is no substitute for learning from more meaningful policy change.
4. Was the project introduced in a country or region which is sufficiently comparable? Comparability can relate to the size and type of country, the nature of the problem, the aims of the borrowing/ lending government and their measures of success.
5. Was it introduced nationwide, or in a region which is sufficiently representative of the national experience (it is not an outlier)?
6. How do we account for the role of scale, and the different cultures and expectations in each policy field?
Points 4-6 inform initial background discussions of case study reports. We need to focus on comparability when describing the context in which the original policy developed. It is not enough to state that two political systems are different. We need to identify the relevance and implications of the differences, from another government’s definition of the problem to the logistics of their task.
7. Has the project been evaluated independently, subject to peer review and/ or using measures deemed acceptable to the government?
8. Has the evaluation been of a sufficient period in proportion to the expected outcomes?
9. Are we confident that this project has been evaluated the most favourably – i.e. that our search for relevant lessons has been systematic, based on recognisable criteria (rather than reputations)?
10. Are we identifying ‘Good practice’ based on positive experience, ‘Promising approaches’ based on positive but unsystematic findings, ‘Research–based’ or based on ‘sound theory informed by a growing body of empirical research’, or ‘Evidence–based’, when ‘the programme or practice has been rigorously evaluated and has consistently been shown to work’?
Points 7-10 raise issues about the relationships between (a) what evidence we should use to evaluate success or potential, and (b) how long we should wait to declare success.
11. What will be the relationship between evidence and governance?
Should we identify the same basic model and transfer it uniformly, tell a qualitative story about the model and invite people to adapt it, or focus pragmatically on an eclectic range of evidential sources and focus on the training of the actors who will implement policy?
Information technology has allowed us to gather a huge amount of policy-relevant information across the globe. However, it has not solved the limitations we face in defining policy problems clearly, gathering evidence on policy solutions systematically, and generating international lessons that we can use to inform domestic policy processes.
This rise in available evidence is not a substitute for policy analysis and political choice. These choices range from how to adjudicate between competing policy preference, to how to define good evidence and good government. A lack of attention to these wider questions helps explain why – at least from some perspectives – policy transfer seems to fail.
Today, I’m helping to deliver a new course – Engaging Policymakers Training Programme – piloted by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the UCL. Right now, it’s for UCL staff (and mostly early career researchers). My bit is about how we can better understand the policy process so that we can engage in it more effectively. I have reproduced the brief guide below (for my two 2-hour sessions as part of a wider block). If anyone else is delivering something similar, please let me know. We could compare notes.
This module will be delivered in two parts to combine theory and practice
Policy theories provide a wealth of knowledge about the role of evidence in policymaking systems. They prompt us to understand and respond to two key dynamics:
In this seminar, we discuss how to respond effectively to these dynamics. We focus on unresolved issues:
The format will be relatively informal. Cairney will begin by making some introductory points (not a powerpoint driven lecture) and encourage participants to relate the three questions to their research and engagement experience.
Gateway to further reading:
In this seminar, we move from abstract theory and general advice to concrete examples and specific strategies. Each participant should come prepared to speak about their research and present a theoretically informed policy analysis in 3 minutes (without the aid of powerpoint). Their analysis should address:
After each presentation, each participant should be prepared to ask questions about the problem raised and the strategy to engage. Finally, to encourage learning, we will reflect on the memorability and impact of presentations.
Powerpoint: Paul Cairney A4UE UCL 2017