Well, it’s really a set of messages, geared towards slightly different audiences, and summed up by this table:
This academic journal article (in Evidence and Policy) highlights the dilemmas faced by policymakers when they have to make two choices at once, to decide: (1) what is the best evidence, and (2) how strongly they should insist that local policymakers use it. It uses the case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’ to show that it often seems to favour one approach (‘approach 3’) but actually maintains three approaches. What interests me is the extent to which each approach contradicts the other. We might then consider the cause: is it an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or an unintended outcome of complex government?
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:
Each policy aim is part of a wider set of aims which may undermine rather than reinforce each other. In general, for example, spending on one aim comes at the expense of another. In this specific case, another SNP aim was to promote a new relationship with local authorities. It sought to set an overall national strategy and fund programmes via local authorities, but not impose policy outputs or outcomes on implementing bodies. Those two aims could be compatible: the Scottish Government could persuade local authorities to share its aims and spend money on achieving them. Or, they could be contradictory, forcing the Scottish Government to pursue one aim at the expense of another: either imposing policy on local authorities, or accepting the partial loss of one aim to secure a particular relationship with local authorities.
Class sizes are not aims in themselves. Instead, they are means to an end, or headline-grabbing proxy measures for performance. The broader aim is to improve learning and/ or education attainment (and to address learning-based inequalities). Further, local authorities may have their own ideas about how to make this happen, perhaps by spending their ‘class size’ money on a different project with the same broader aim (I have not made up this point – a lot of teaching professionals are not keen on these targets). Again, the Scottish Government has a choice: impose their own aim or trust some local authorities to do things their own way – which might produce a lack of implementation of a specific aim but the pursuit of a broader one.
The assumption is always that nothing will go wrong between the promise and the action. Yet, things almost-always go wrong because policy outcomes are often out of the control of policymakers. We like to pretend that governments are infallible so that we can hold them responsible and blame them for being fallible.
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.
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:
How long we wait to evaluate.
How well-resourced our evaluation should be.
The best way to measure and explain outcomes.
The ‘benchmarks’ to use – should we compare outcomes with the past or other countries?
How we can separate the effect of policy from other causes, in a complex world where randomised-controlled-trials are often difficult to use.
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:
The aims of that policymaker may not be clear. For example, they may not say why they made particular choices, they may have many reasons, their reasons may not be specific enough to be meaningful, and/or they may not be entirely truthful.
Policymaking is a group effort, which magnifies the problem of identifying a single, clear, aim.
Aims are not necessarily noble. Marsh and McConnell describe three types. Process measures success in terms of its popularity among particular groups and its ease of passage through the legislature. Political describes its effect on the government’s popularity. Programmatic describes its implementation in terms of original aims, its effect in terms of intended outcomes, and the extent to which it represented an ‘efficient use of resources’. Elected policymakers may justify their actions in programmatic terms, but be more concerned with politics and process. Or, their aims may be unambitious. We could identify success in their terms but still feel that major problems remain unsolved.
Responsibility is a slippery concept. In a Westminster system, we may hold ministers to be ultimately responsible but, in practice, responsibility is shared with a range of people in various types and levels of government. In multi-level political systems, responsibility may be shared with several elected bodies with their own mandates and claims to pursue distinctive aims.
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:
Understand the past and learn from failure.
Open up the policy process.
Be rigorous in analysis and use of evidence.
Take time and build in scope for iteration and adaptation.
Recognise the importance of individual leadership and strong personal relationships.
Create new institutions to overcome policy inertia.
Build a wider constituency of support.
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.
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 department of health took the policy lead (replacing trade and treasury departments);
tobacco is ‘framed’ as a pressing public health problem, not an economic good;
public health groups are consulted at the expense of tobacco companies;
socioeconomic conditions (including the value of tobacco taxation, and public attitudes to tobacco control) are conducive to policy change;
and, the scientific evidence on the harmful effects of smoking and secondhand smoking are ‘set in stone’ within governments.
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:
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.