All going well, it will be out in November 2019. We are now at the proofing stage.
It can be quite daunting to produce a policy analysis paper or blog post for the first time. You learn about the constraints of political communication by being obliged to explain your ideas in an unusually small number of words. The short word length seems good at first, but then you realise that it makes your life harder: how can you fit all your evidence and key points in? The answer is that you can’t. You have to choose what to say and what to leave out.
You also have to make this presentation ‘not about you’. In a long essay or research report you have time to show how great you are, to a captive audience. In a policy paper, imagine that you are trying to get the attention and support from someone that may not know or care about the issue you raise. In a blog post, your audience might stop reading at any point, so every sentence counts.
There are many guides out there to help you with the practical side, including the broad guidance I give you in the module guide, and Bardach’s 8-steps. In each case, the basic advice is to (a) identify a policy problem and at least one feasible solution, and (b) tailor the analysis to your audience.
Be concise, be smart
So, for example, I ask you to keep your analysis and presentations super-short on the assumption that you have to make your case quickly to people with 99 other things to do. What can you tell someone in a half-page (to get them to read all 2 pages)? Could you explain and solve a problem if you suddenly bumped into a government minister in a lift/ elevator?
It is tempting to try to tell someone everything you know, because everything is connected and to simplify is to describe a problem simplistically. Instead, be smart enough to know that such self-indulgence won’t impress your audience. They might smile politely, but their eyes are looking at the elevator lights.
Your aim is not to give a full account of a problem – it’s to get someone important to care about it.
Your aim is not to give a painstaking account of all possible solutions – it’s to give a sense that at least one solution is feasible and worth pursuing.
Your guiding statement should be: policymakers will only pay attention to your problem if they think they can solve it, and without that solution being too costly.
I don’t like to give you too much advice because I want you to be creative about your presentation; to be confident enough to take chances and feel that I’ll reward you for making the leap. At the very least, you have three key choices to make about how far you’ll go to make a point:
For our purposes, there are no wrong answers to these questions. Instead, I want you to make and defend your decisions. That is the aim of your policy paper ‘reflection’: to ‘show your work’.
You still have some room to be creative: tell me what you know about policy theory and British politics and how it informed your decisions. Here are some examples, but it is up to you to decide what to highlight:
Be a blogger
With a blog post, your audience is wider. You are trying to make an argument that will capture the attention of a more general audience (interested in politics and policy, but not a specialist) that might access your post from Twitter/ Facebook or via a search engine. This produces a new requirement, to: present a ‘punchy’ title which sums up the whole argument in under 140 characters (a statement is often better than a vague question); to summarise the whole argument in (say) 100 words in the first paragraph (what is the problem and solution?); and, to provide more information up to a maximum of 500 words. The reader can then be invited to read the whole policy analysis.
The style of blog posts varies markedly, so you should consult many examples before attempting your own (compare the LSE with The Conversation and newspaper columns to get a sense of variations in style). When you read other posts, take note of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, many posts associated with newspapers introduce a personal or case study element to ground the discussion in an emotional appeal. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it causes the reader to scroll down quickly to find the main argument. Consider if it is as, or more, effective to make your argument more direct and easy to find as soon as someone clicks the link on their phone. Many academic posts are too long (well beyond your 500 limit), take too long to get to the point, and do not make explicit recommendations, so you should not merely emulate them. You should also not just chop down your policy paper – this is about a new kind of communication.
Be reflective once again
Hopefully, by the end, you will appreciate the transferable life skills. I have generated some uncertainty about your task to reflect the sense among many actors that they don’t really know how to make a persuasive case and who to make it to. We can follow some basic Bardach-style guidance, but a lot of this kind of work relies on trial-and-error. I maintain a short word count to encourage you to get to the point, and I bang on about ‘stories’ in our module to encourage you to make a short and persuasive story to policymakers.
This process seems weird at first, but isn’t it also intuitive? For example, next time you’re in my seminar, measure how long it takes you to get bored and look forward to the weekend. Then imagine that policymakers have the same attention span as you. That’s how long you have to make your case!
See also: Professionalism online with social media
Here is the advice that my former lecturer, Professor Brian Hogwood, gave in 1992. Has the advice changed much since then?
In Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure, I argue that evaluation is party political. Parties compete to describe policies as successes or failures based on their beliefs and their selective use of evidence. There is often a lot of room for debate because the aims of policymakers are not always clear. In this post, I argue that this room still exists even if a policymaker’s aims appear to be clear. The complication is that a policy aim consists of an explicit statement of intent plus an often-implicit set of assumptions about what that statement of intent means in practice. This complication is exploited by parties in the same way as they exploit ambiguities and their selective use of evidence.
Let’s take the example of class sizes in Scottish schools, partly because it is often highlighted by opposition parties as a clear example of policy failure. The SNP manifesto 2007 (p52) seems crystal clear:
We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less (sic)
Further, the SNP Scottish Government did not appear to fulfil the spirit of its commitment. There is some wiggle room because it does not say all classes or set a deadline, but it is reasonable to assume that the pledge refers to extensive progress by 2011 (the end of the parliamentary session). Indeed, the lack of progress was seized upon by opposition parties, who seemed to be partly responsible for the removal of the Education Secretary from her post in 2009. The issue arose again at the end of 2013 when average class sizes appeared to be higher than when the pledge was made.
My magic trick will be to persuade you that, in an important way, the reduction of class sizes was not the SNP’s aim. What I mean is this:
Consequently, a key question about policy success is this: how far would you go to achieve it in each case? Would you sacrifice one aim for another? How do you prioritise a large set of aims which may not be compatible with each other? Would you accept the unintended consequences of a too-rigid attachment to a policy aim? Or, would you set a broad strategy and accept that implementing authorities should have considerable say in how to carry it out?
In this sense, it is possible to succeed and fail simultaneously – either by successfully achieving a narrow policy aim but with unintended consequences, or by accepting a level of defeat for the greater good.*
*Or, I suppose, if you are not of the bright-side persuasion, you can fail and fail.
Further Reading: class sizes
Policy success is in the eye of the beholder. The evaluation of success is political in several ways. It can be party political, when election campaigns focus on the record of the incumbent government. Policy decisions produce winners and losers, prompting disputes about success between actors with different aims. Evaluation can be political in subtler but as-important ways, involving scientific disputes about:
In this more technical-looking discussion, the trade-off is between the selection of a large mixture of measures that are hard to work with, or a small number of measures that are handpicked and represent no more than crude proxies for success.
Evaluation is political because we set the agenda with the measures we use, by prompting a focus on some aims at the expense of others. A classic example is the aim to reduce healthcare waiting times, which represent a small part of health service activity but generate disproportionate attention and action, partly because outcomes are relatively visible and easy to measure. Many policies are implemented and evaluated using such proxies: the government publishes targets to provide an expectation of implementer behaviour; and, regulatory bodies exist to monitor compliance.
Let’s consider success in terms of the aims of the person responsible for the policy. It raises four interesting issues:
Traditionally, these responsibility issues were played out in top-down and bottom-up discussions of policy implementation. For the sake of simplicity, the ‘top’ is the policymaker at the heart of central government and we try to explain success or failure according to the extent to which policy implementation met these criteria:
1. The policy’s objectives are clear, consistent and well communicated and understood.
2. The policy will work as intended when implemented.
3. The required resources are committed to the programme.
4. Policy is implemented by skilful and compliant officials.
5. Success does not depend on cooperation from many bodies.
6. Support from influential groups is maintained.
7. Demographic and socioeconomic conditions, and unpredictable events beyond the control of policymakers, do not significantly undermine the process.
Such explanations for success still have some modern day traction, such as in recommendations by the Institute for Government:
Alternatively, ‘bottom-up’ studies prompted a shift of analysis, towards a larger number of organisations which made policy as they carried it out – and had legitimate reasons to diverge from the aims set at the ‘top’. Indeed, central governments might encourage a bottom up approach, by setting a broad strategy and accepting that other bodies will implement policy in their own way. However, this is difficult to do in Westminster systems, where government success is measured in terms of ministerial and party manifesto aims.
Examples of success and failure?
Many implementation studies focus on failure, including Pressman and Wildavsky’s ‘How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland’ and Marsh & Rhodes’ focus on the ‘implementation gap’ during the Thatcher Government era (1979-90).
In contrast, the IFG report focuses on examples of success, derived partly from a vote by UK political scientists, including: the national minimum wage, Scottish devolution, and privatisation.
Note the respondents’ reasons for declaring success, based on a mix of their personal values and their assessment of process, political and programmatic factors. They declare success in very narrow terms, as the successful delivery in the short term.
So, privatisation is a success because the government succeeded in raising money, boosting its popularity and international reputation – not because we have established that the nationalized industries work better in the private sector.
Similarly, devolution was a declared a success because it solved a problem (local demand for self-autonomy), not because devolved governments are better at making policy or their policies have improved the lives of the Scottish population (Neil McGarvey and I discuss this here).
Individual policy instruments like the smoking ban are often treated in similar ways – we declare instant success when the bill passes and public compliance is high, then consider the longer term successes (less smoking, less secondhand smoke) later.
Further reading and watching: (1) Can a Policy Fail and Succeed at the Same Time?
Why should you read and watch this case study? I hesitate to describe UK tobacco control as a success because it instantly looks like I am moralising, and because it is based on a narrow set of policymaking criteria rather than an outcome in the population (it is up to you to decide if the UK’s policies are appropriate and its current level of smoking and health marks policy success). However, it represents a way to explore success in terms of several ‘causal factors’ (Peter John) that arise in each 1000 Words post: institutions, networks, socioeconomic conditions and ideas. Long term tobacco control ‘success’ happened because:
The ‘take home’ message here is that ‘success’ depends as much on a policy environment conducive to change as the efficacy of political instruments and leadership qualities of politicians.
Update September 2019
I have now written up this UK tobacco discussion in this book:
Paul Cairney (2019) ‘The transformation of UK tobacco control’ in (eds) Mallory Compton and Paul ‘t Hart Great Policy Successes: How Governments Get It Right in a Big Way at Least Some of the Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Preview PDF