Tag Archives: policy process

Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity

In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
  • Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.

Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:

  • ‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
  • ‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.

I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.

Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.

Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:

A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.

In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.

Further reading:

Framing

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty

How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies

Here is the relevant opening section in UPP:

p234 UPP ambiguity

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The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy

This post describes a new article published in British Politics (Open Access).

In retrospect, I think the title was too subtle and clever-clever. I wanted to convey two meanings: imaginative as a euphemism for ridiculous/ often cynical and to argue that a government has to be imaginative with evidence. The latter has two meanings: imaginative (1) in the presentation and framing of evidence-informed agenda, and (2) when facing pressure to go beyond the evidence and envisage policy outcomes.

So I describe two cases in which its evidence-use seems cynical, when:

  1. Declaring complete success in turning around the lives of ‘troubled families’
  2. Exploiting vivid neuroscientific images to support ‘early intervention’

Then I describe more difficult cases in which supportive evidence is not clear:

  1. Family intervention project evaluations are of limited value and only tentatively positive
  2. Successful projects like FNP and Incredible Years have limited applicability or ‘scalability’

As scientists, we can shrug our shoulders about the uncertainty, but elected policymakers in government have to do something. So what do they do?

At this point of the article it will look like I have become an apologist for David Cameron’s government. Instead, I’m trying to demonstrate the value of comparing sympathetic/ unsympathetic interpretations and highlight the policy problem from a policymaker’s perspective:

Cairney 2018 British Politics discussion section

I suggest that they use evidence in a mix of ways to: describe an urgent problem, present an image of success and governing competence, and provide cover for more evidence-informed long term action.

The result is the appearance of top-down ‘muscular’ government and ‘a tendency for policy to change as is implemented, such as when mediated by local authority choices and social workers maintaining a commitment to their professional values when delivering policy’

I conclude by arguing that ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’ are political slogans with minimal academic value. The binary divide between EBP/ PBE distracts us from more useful categories which show us the trade-offs policymakers have to make when faced with the need to act despite uncertainty.

Cairney British Politics 2018 Table 1

As such, it forms part of a far wider body of work …

In both cases, the common theme is that, although (1) the world of top-down central government gets most attention, (2) central governments don’t even know what problem they are trying to solve, far less (3) how to control policymaking and outcomes.

See also:

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

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?

(found by searching for early intervention)

See also:

Here’s why there is always an expectations gap in prevention policy

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

(found by searching for prevention)

Powerpoint for guest lecture: Paul Cairney UK Government Evidence Policy

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The global study of governance and public policy

Cairney GPP Iran

I was invited by Dr Emamian from the Governance and Policy Think Tank to deliver this short lecture at the first ‘governance and public policy conference’ in Iran. I was unable to attend, so recorded a set of short video presentations supplemented by blog discussion. The topics to be covered include the importance of a scholarly network for policy studies, the need for a set of core policy concepts to act as a technical language for that network, and the need to apply that language to explain shifts in government and regulation towards ‘regulatory governance’.

Please note that my choice to record the videos in my garden (while I look up) seemed good at the time, for some very good reasons that I won’t get into. However, you will see that I become increasingly cold and annoyed at being cold. I can only apologize for my face and the fact that I was too cold to remember to put on my professional voice.

Using shared concepts in a scholarly network of policy researchers

Our aim may be to produce a global network of policy scholars, in two main ways:

  1. To foster meetings and discussion, such as via this conference and others such as the ICPP and ECPR
  2. To make sure that we are talking about the same thing. Most of the theories to which I refer are based on studies of countries like the US and UK. Their prominence contributes to a ‘global north’ perspective which can be useful in the abstract but with uncertain applicability across the globe.

For example, when considering the applicability of US-inspired theories, think about their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of a political system, in which leaders in many levels and types of government are elected regularly, there is a constitution guaranteeing a division of powers across legislative-executive-judicial branches and between federal/subnational levels, and people describe a ‘pluralist’ system in which many groups mobilise and counter-mobilise to influence policy.

What happens when we stop taking this political context for granted? Do these theories remain as relevant?

Which concepts do we use?

I describe two main abstract concepts then invite you to think about how to apply them in more concrete circumstances.

  1. Bounded rationality, not comprehensive rationality.

No-one can understand fully the world in which we live. Individuals can only understand and pay attention to a tiny part of key aspects of the world such as political systems.

Indeed, a handy phrase to remember is that almost all people must ignore almost everything almost all of the time.

Yet, they must make choices despite uncertainty, perhaps by adopting ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. In other words, we may see all human choices as flawed when compared with an ideal of perfect decision-making. On the other hand, we may marvel at the ways in which humans make often-good choices despite their limitations.

Individual policymakers use two short-cuts to gather enough information to make choices:

  • ‘Rational’, in which they adopt measures to ensure that they have good enough information to inform decisions. For example, they prioritise certain written sources of information and draw on people they consider to be experts.
  • ‘Irrational’, in which they rely on things like gut instinct, habit, and emotion to make snap decisions.

In that context, policy scholarship involves the study of how people make and influence those choices. One part is about the role of evidence, in which people produce information to reduce uncertainty about the nature of the world. However, the more important study is of how people understand the world in the first place. As policy scholars, we focus on ambiguity, to describe the many ways in which people choose to understand the same problems, and the exercise of power to influence those choices.

  1. A complex policymaking environment, not a policy cycle.

Things get more complicated when we move from the analysis of (a) key individuals to (b) the interaction between many individuals and organisations in a complex policymaking ‘system’ or ‘environment’. Policy scholars describe this environment in many different ways, using different concepts, but we can identify a core set of terms on which to focus:

  • Actors. There are many policy influencers and policymakers in many authoritative venues spread across many levels and types of government.
  • Institutions. Each venue has its own rules, including the formal, written-down, and easy to understand rules, versus the informal norms, cultures, and practices which are difficult to identify and describe.
  • Networks. Policymakers and influencers form relationships based on factors such as trust, authority, and the exchange of resources such as information and support.
  • Ideas. People communicate their beliefs, about policy problems and potential solutions, within a wider understanding of the world (often described as a paradigm or hegemony). Some of that understanding is taken-for-granted and not described, and people limit their analysis and argument according to the ways in which they think other people see the world.
  • Socioeconomic context and events. Policymakers often have to respond to policy conditions and events over which they have limited control, such geographic, demographic, and economic factors. These factors help produce non-routine ‘events’ alongside more predictable events such as elections (or other means to ensure a change of government).

In that context, policy scholarship focuses on producing theories to explain what happens when policymakers have limited control over their political systems and policymaking environments.

How far do these concepts travel?

As you can see, these concepts are widely applicable because they are abstract. What happens when we try to apply them to specific countries or case studies? For example:

  1. We talk about policymakers using cognitive, moral, and emotional shortcuts, but those shortcuts can vary profoundly across the globe.
  2. Each political system has a different collection of authoritative venues, formal and informal rules of politics, networks of power, ways to describe how the world works and should work, and socioeconomic context.

This is where our global network becomes valuable, to help us describe how we make sense of the same concepts in very different ways, and consider the extent to which such discussions are comparable.

Example: how do governments address an ‘era of governance’?

One way to foster such discussion is to consider how governments address the limits to their powers. These limits are described in many different ways, from a focus on ‘complexity’ and policy outcomes which ‘emerge’ from local activity (despite attempts by central governments to control outcomes), to a focus on the shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’.

As policy scholars, we can make several useful distinctions to describe these dynamics, such as to separate an actual shift in policymaking from government to governance, versus a shift in the way we now describe government.

Or, we can separate how governments can, do, and should address the limits to their powers.

I’d say that most policy scholarship focuses on how governments operate: how they actually address problems and what are the – intended and unintended – consequences.

However, these studies are trying to describe the tensions between what governments can do, given the limits I describe, and what they think they should do, given their position of authority and their need to describe their success.

For example, some systems may be more conducive to the support for ‘polycentric governance’, in which many authoritative venues cooperate to address problems, while others are built on the idea of central control and the concentration of authority in a small group of actors.

Therefore, the study of actual policymaking and outcomes will vary markedly according to the ways in which government actors feel they need to assert an image of control over a policy environment which is almost immune to control.

Perhaps an ‘era of governance’ describes some recognition by many governments that they need to find new ways to address their limited control over policy outcomes, both domestically and globally. However, an enduring theme in political science and policy studies is that we do not explain policymaking well if we restrict our attention to the ‘rational’ decisions of a small number of actors. Let’s not make too many assumptions about their power and motive.

Further reading:

The New Policy Sciences

How to Communicate Effectively with Policymakers

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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Debating the politics of evidence-based policy

Joshua Newman has provided an interesting review of three recent books on evidence/ policy (click here). One of those books is mine: The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (which you can access here).

His review is very polite, for which I thank him. I hope my brief response can be seen in a similarly positive light (well, I had hoped to make it brief). Maybe we disagree on one or two things, but often these discussions are about the things we emphasize and the way we describe similar points.

There are 5 points to which I respond because I have 5 digits on my right hand. I’d like you to think of me counting them out on my fingers. In doing so, I’ll use ‘Newman’ throughout, because that’s the academic convention, but I’d also like to you imagine me reading my points aloud and whispering ‘Joshua’ before each ‘Newman’.

  1. Do we really need to ‘take the debate forward’ so often?

I use this phrase myself, knowingly, to keep a discussion catchy, but I think it’s often misleading. I suggest not to get your hopes up too high when Newman raises the possibility of taking the debate forward with his concluding questions. We won’t resolve the relationship between evidence, politics & policy by pretending to reframe the same collection of questions about the prospect of political reform that people have been asking for centuries. It is useful to envisage better political systems (the subject of Newman’s concluding remarks) but I don’t think we should pretend that this is a new concern or that it will get us very far.

Indeed, my usual argument is that researchers need to do something (such as improve how we engage in the policy process) while we wait for political system reforms to happen (while doubting if they will ever happen).

Further, Newman does not produce any political reforms to address the problems he raises. Rather, for example, he draws attention to Trump to describe modern democracies as ‘not pluralist utopias’ and to identify examples in which policymakers draw primarily on beliefs, not evidence. By restating these problems, he does not solve them. So, what are researchers supposed to do after they grow tired of complaining that the world does not meet their hopes or expectations?

In other words, for me, (a) promoting political change and (b) acting during its absence are two sides of the same coin. We go round and round more often than we take things forward.

  1. What debate are we renaming?

Newman’s ‘we’ve heard it before’ argument seems more useful, but there is a lot to hear and relatively few people have heard it. I’d warn against the assumption that ‘I’ve heard this before’ can ever equal ‘we’ve heard it before’ (unless ‘we’ refers to a tiny group of specialists talking only to each other).

Rather, one of the most important things we can do as academics is to tell the same story to each other (to check if we understand the same story, in the same way, and if it remains useful) and to wider audiences (in a way that they can pick up and use without dedicating their career to our discipline).

Some of our most important insights endure for decades and they sometimes improve in the retelling. We apply them to new eras, and often come to the same basic conclusions, but it seems unhelpful to criticise a lack of complete novelty in individual texts (particularly when they are often designed to be syntheses). Why not use them to occasionally take a step back to discuss and clarify what we know?

Perhaps more importantly, I don’t think Newman is correct when he says that each book retells the story of the ‘research utilization’ literature. I’m retelling the story of policy theory, which describes how policymakers deal with bounded rationality in a complex policymaking environment. Policy theory’s intellectual histories often provide very different perspectives – of the policymaker trying to make good enough decisions, rather than the researcher trying to improve the uptake of their research – than the agenda inspired by Weiss et al (see for example The New Policy Sciences).

  1. Don’t just ‘get political’; understand the policy process

I draw on policy theory because it helps people understand policymaking. It would be a mistake to conclude from my book that I simply want researchers to ‘get political’. Rather, I want them to develop useful knowledge of the policy process in which they might want to engage. This knowledge is not freely available; it takes time to understand the discipline and reflect on policy dynamics.

Yet, the payoff can be profound, if only because it helps people think about the difference between two analytically separate causes of a notional ‘evidence policy gap’: (a) individuals making choices based on their beliefs and limited information (which is relatively easy to understand but also to caricature), and (b) systemic or ‘environmental’ causes (which are far more difficult to conceptualise and explain, but often more useful to understand).

  1. Don’t throw out the ‘two communities’ phrase without explaining why

Newman criticises the phrase ‘two communities’ as a description of silos in policymaking versus research, partly because (a) many policymakers use research frequently, and (b) the real divide is often between users/ non-users of research within policymaking organisations. In short, there are more than two communities.

I’d back up his published research with my anecdotal experience of giving talks to government audiences: researchers and analysts within government are often very similar in outlook to academics and they often talk in the same way as academics about the disconnect between their (original or synthetic) research and its use by their ‘operational’ colleagues.

Still, I’m not sure why Newman concludes that the ‘two communities’ phrase is ‘deeply flawed and probably counter-productive’. Yes, the world is more nuanced and less binary than ‘two communities’ suggests. Yes, the real divide may be harder to spot. Still, as Newman et al suggest: ‘Policy makers and academics should focus on bridging instruments that can bring their worlds closer together’. This bullet point from their article seems, to me, to be the point of using the phrase ‘two communities’. Maybe Caplan used the phrase differently in 1979, but to assert its historic meaning then reject the phrase’s use in modern discussion seems less useful than simply clarifying the argument in ways such as:

  • There is no simple policymaker/ academic divide but, … note the major difference in requirements between (a) people who produce or distribute research without taking action, which allows them (for example) to be more comfortable with uncertainty, and (b) people who need to make choices despite having incomplete information to hand.
  • You might find a more receptive audience in one part of government (e.g. research/ analytical) than another (e.g. operational), so be careful about generalising from singular experiences.
  1. Should researchers engage in the policy process?

Newman says that each book, ‘unfairly places the burden of resolving the problem in the hands of an ill-equipped group of academics, operating outside the political system’.

I agree with Newman when he says that many researchers do not possess the skills to engage effectively in the policy process. Scientific training does not equip us with political skills. Indeed, I think you could read a few of my blog posts and conclude, reasonably, that you would like nothing more to do with the policy process because you’d be more effective by focusing on research.

The reason I put the onus back on researchers is because I am engaging with arguments like the one expressed by Newman (in other words, part of the meaning comes from the audience). Many people conclude their evidence policy discussions by identifying (or ‘reframing’) the problem primarily as the need for political reform. For me, the focus on other people changing to suit your preferences seems unrealistic and misplaced. In that context, I present the counter-argument that it may be better to adapt effectively to the policy process that exists, not the one you’d like to see. Sometimes it’s more useful to wear a coat than complain about the weather.

See also:  The Politics of Evidence 

The Politics of Evidence revisited

 

Pivot cover

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What do we need to know about the politics of evidence-based policymaking?

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

Part 1: What do we need to know about the politics of evidence-based policymaking?

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:

  1. Policymaker psychology. Policymakers combine rational and irrational shortcuts to gather information and make good enough decisions quickly. To appeal to rational shortcuts and minimise cognitive load, we reduce uncertainty by providing syntheses of the available evidence. To appeal to irrational shortcuts and engage emotional interest, we reduce ambiguity by telling stories or framing problems in specific ways.
  2. Complex policymaking environments. These processes take place in the context of a policy environment out of the control of individual policymakers. Environments consist of: many actors in many levels and types of government; engaging with institutions and networks, each with their own informal and formal rules; responding to socioeconomic conditions and events; and, learning how to engage with dominant ideas or beliefs about the nature of the policy problem. In other words, there is no policy cycle or obvious stage in which to get involved.

In this seminar, we discuss how to respond effectively to these dynamics. We focus on unresolved issues:

  1. Effective engagement with policymakers requires storytelling skills, but do we possess them?
  2. It requires a combination of evidence and emotional appeals, but is it ethical to do more than describe the evidence?
  3. The absence of a policy cycle, and presence of an ever-shifting context, requires us to engage for the long term, to form alliances, learn the rules, and build up trust in the messenger. However, do we have and how should we invest the time?

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:

  • Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski (2017) ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies’, Palgrave Communications
  • Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS), DOI: 10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x
  • Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

Part 2: How can we respond pragmatically and effectively to the politics of EBPM?

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:

  1. What policy problem does my research highlight?
  2. What are the most technically and politically feasible solutions?
  3. How should I engage in the policy process to highlight these problems and solutions?

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

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How to write theory-driven policy analysis

Writing theory driven policy analysis 10.11.17

Here is a guide to writing theory-driven policy analysis. Your aim is to identify a policy problem and solution, know your audience, and account for the complexity of policymaking.

At first, it may seem like daunting task to put together policy analysis and policy theory. On its own, policy analysis seems difficult but relatively straightforward: use evidence to identify and measure a policy problem, compare the merits of one or more solution, and make a recommendation on the steps to take us from policy to action.

However, policy process research tells us that people will engage emotionally with that evidence, and that policymakers operate in a complex system of which they have very limited knowledge and control.

So, how can we produce a policy analysis paper to which people will pay attention, and respond positively and effectively, under such circumstances? I focus on developing the critical analysis that will help you produce effective and feasible analysis. To do so, I show how policy analysis forms part of a collection of exercises to foster analysis informed by theory and reflection.

Aims of this document:

  1. Describe the context. There are two fields of study – theory and analysis – which do not always speak to each other. Theory can inform analysis, but it is not always clear how. I show the payoff to theory-driven policy analysis and the difference between it and regular analysis. Note the two key factors that policy analysis should address: your audience will engage emotionally with your analysis, and the feasibility of your solutions depends on the complexity of the policy environment.
  2. Describe how the coursework helps you combine policy theory and policy analysis. Policy analysis is one of four tasks. There is a reflection, to let you ‘show your work’; how your knowledge of policy theory guides your description of a problem and feasible solutions. The essay allows you to expand on theory, to describe how and why policy changes (and therefore what a realistic policy analysis would look like). The blogs encourage new communication skills. In one, you explore how you would expect a policy maker or influencer to sell the recommendations in your policy analysis. In another, you explain complex concepts to a non-academic audience.

Background notes.

I have written this document as if part of a book to be called Teaching Public Policy and co-authored with Dr Emily St Denny.

For that audience, I have two aims: (1) to persuade policy scholars-as-teachers to adopt this kind of coursework in their curriculum; and, (2) to show students how to complete it effectively.

If you prefer shorter advice, see Writing a policy paper and blog post and Writing an essay on politics, policymaking, and policy change.

If you are interested in more background reading, see: The New Policy Sciences (by Paul Cairney and Chris Weible) which describes the need to combine policy theory-driven research with policy analysis; and, Practical Lessons from Policy Theories which describes eight attempts by scholars to translate policy theory into lessons that can be used for policy analysis.

The theories make more sense if you have read the corresponding 1000 Words posts (based on Cairney, 2012). Some of the forthcoming text will look familiar if you read my blog because I am consolidating several individual posts into an overall discussion.

I’m not quite there yet (the chapter is a first draft, a bit scrappy at times, and longer than a chapter should be), so all comments welcome (in the comments bit).

Writing theory driven policy analysis 10.11.17

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

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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.

cycle

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.

how-to-be-heard

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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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy