Tag Archives: policy theory

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

Swann Kim

This is a guest post by William L. Swann (left) and Seo Young Kim (right), discussing how to use insights from the Institutional Collective Action Framework to think about how to improve collaborative governance. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Collective Action_1

Many public policy problems cannot be addressed effectively by a single, solitary government. Consider the problems facing the Greater Los Angeles Area, a heavily fragmented landscape of 88 cities and numerous unincorporated areas and special districts. Whether it is combatting rising homelessness, abating the country’s worst air pollution, cleaning the toxic L.A. River, or quelling gang violence, any policy alternative pursued unilaterally is limited by overlapping authority and externalities that alter the actions of other governments.

Problems of fragmented authority are not confined to metropolitan areas. They are also found in multi-level governance scenarios such as the restoration of Chesapeake Bay, as well as in international relations as demonstrated by recent global events such as “Brexit” and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. In short, fragmentation problems manifest at every scale of governance, horizontally, vertically, and even functionally within governments.

What is an ‘institutional collective action’ dilemma?

In many cases governments would be better off coordinating and working together, but they face barriers that prevent them from doing so. These barriers are what the policy literature refers to as ‘institutional collective action’ (ICA) dilemmas, or collective action problems in which a government’s incentives do not align with collectively desirable outcomes. For example, all governments in a region benefit from less air pollution, but each government has an incentive to free ride and enjoy cleaner air without contributing to the cost of obtaining it.

The ICA Framework, developed by Professor Richard Feiock, has emerged as a practical analytical instrument for understanding and improving fragmented governance. This framework assumes that governments must match the scale and coerciveness of the policy intervention (or mechanism) to the scale and nature of the policy problem to achieve efficient and desired outcomes.

For example, informal networks (a mechanism) can be highly effective at overcoming simple collective action problems. But as problems become increasingly complex, more obtrusive mechanisms, such as governmental consolidation or imposed collaboration, are needed to achieve collective goals and more efficient outcomes. The more obtrusive the mechanism, however, the more actors’ autonomy diminishes and the higher the transaction costs (monitoring, enforcement, information, and agency) of governing.

Collective Action_2

Three ways to improve institutional collaborative governance

We explored what actionable steps policymakers can take to improve their results with collaboration in fragmented systems. Our study offers three general practical recommendations based on the empirical literature that can enhance institutional collaborative governance.

First, institutional collaboration is more likely to emerge and work effectively when policymakers employ networking strategies that incorporate frequent, face-to-face interactions.

Government actors networking with popular, well-endowed actors (“bridging strategies”) as well as developing closer-knit, reciprocal ties with a smaller set of actors (“bonding strategies”) will result in more collaborative participation, especially when policymakers interact often and in-person.

Policy network characteristics are also important to consider. Research on estuary governance indicates that in newly formed, emerging networks, bridging strategies may be more advantageous, at least initially, because they can provide organizational legitimacy and access to resources. However, once collaboratives mature, developing stronger and more reciprocal bonds with fewer actors reduces the likelihood of opportunistic behavior that can hinder collaborative effectiveness.

Second, policymakers should design collaborative arrangements that reduce transaction costs which hinder collaboration.

Well-designed collaborative institutions can lower the barriers to participation and information sharing, make it easier to monitor the behaviors of partners, grant greater flexibility in collaborative work, and allow for more credible commitments from partners.

Research suggests policymakers can achieve this by

  1. identifying similarities in policy goals, politics, and constituency characteristics with institutional partners
  2. specifying rules such as annual dues, financial reporting, and making financial records reviewable by third parties to increase commitment and transparency in collaborative arrangements
  3. creating flexibility by employing adaptive agreements with service providers, especially when services have limited markets/applications and performance is difficult to measure.

Considering the context, however, is crucial. Collaboratives that thrive on informal, close-knit, reciprocal relations, for example, may be severely damaged by the introduction of monitoring mechanisms that signal distrust.

Third, institutional collaboration is enhanced by the development and harnessing of collaborative capacity.

Research suggests signaling organizational competencies and capacities, such as budget, political support, and human resources, may be more effective at lowering barriers to collaboration than ‘homophily’ (a tendency to associate with similar others in networks). Policymakers can begin building collaborative capacity by seeking political leadership involvement, granting greater managerial autonomy, and looking to higher-level governments (e.g., national, state, or provincial governments) for financial and technical support for collaboration.

What about collaboration in different institutional contexts?

Finally, we recognize that not all policymakers operate in similar institutional contexts, and collaboration can often be mandated by higher-level authorities in more centralized nations. Nonetheless, visible joint gains, economic incentives, transparent rules, and equitable distribution of joint benefits and costs are critical components of voluntary or mandated collaboration.

Conclusions and future directions

The recommendations offered here are, at best, only the tip of the iceberg on valuable practical insight that can be gleaned from collaborative governance research. While these suggestions are consistent with empirical findings from broader public management and policy networks literatures, much could be learned from a closer inspection of the overlap between ICA studies and other streams of collaborative governance work.

Collaboration is a valuable tool of governance, and, like any tool, it should be utilized appropriately. Collaboration is not easily managed and can encounter many obstacles. We suggest that governments generally avoid collaborating unless there are joint gains that cannot be achieved alone. But the key to solving many of society’s intractable problems, or just simply improving everyday public service delivery, lies in a clearer understanding of how collaboration can be used effectively within different fragmented systems.

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Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers

By Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski

Use psychological insights to inform communication strategies

Policymakers cannot pay attention to all of the things for which they are responsible, or understand all of the information they use to make decisions. Like all people, there are limits on what information they can process (Baddeley, 2003; Cowan, 2001, 2010; Miller, 1956; Rock, 2008).

They must use short cuts to gather enough information to make decisions quickly: the ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds of information, and the ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, values, beliefs, habits, schemata, scripts, and what is familiar, to make decisions quickly. Unlike most people, they face unusually strong pressures on their cognition and emotion.

Policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, often in highly charged political atmospheres, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Perhaps their solutions seem to be driven more by their values and emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, often because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach.

If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss criticism from researchers as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, we suggest that restating the need for ‘rational’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive, and declaring ‘policy based evidence’ defeatist.

We use psychological insights to recommend a shift in strategy for advocates of the greater use of evidence in policy. The simple recommendation, to adapt to policymakers’ ‘fast thinking’ (Kahneman, 2011) rather than bombard them with evidence in the hope that they will get round to ‘slow thinking’, is already becoming established in evidence-policy studies. However, we provide a more sophisticated understanding of policymaker psychology, to help understand how people think and make decisions as individuals and as part of collective processes. It allows us to (a) combine many relevant psychological principles with policy studies to (b) provide several recommendations for actors seeking to maximise the impact of their evidence.

To ‘show our work’, we first summarise insights from policy studies already drawing on psychology to explain policy process dynamics, and identify key aspects of the psychology literature which show promising areas for future development.

Then, we emphasise the benefit of pragmatic strategies, to develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking while recognising that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups. Instead of bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond effectively. Instead of identifying only the biases in our competitors, and masking academic examples of group-think, let’s reject our own imagined standards of high-information-led action. This more self-aware and humble approach will help us work more successfully with other actors.

On that basis, we provide three recommendations for actors trying to engage skilfully in the policy process:

  1. Tailor framing strategies to policymaker bias. If people are cognitive misers, minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation. If policymakers combine cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals. If policymakers make quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and moral. If policymakers reflect a ‘group emotion’, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with those beliefs.
  2. Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ to influence individuals and processes. ‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, depending on their current way of thinking, or to act while political conditions are aligned.
  3. Adapt to real-world ‘dysfunctional’ organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear. Form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.

These tips are designed to produce effective, not manipulative, communicators. They help foster the clearer communication of important policy-relevant evidence, rather than imply that we should bend evidence to manipulate or trick politicians. We argue that it is pragmatic to work on the assumption that people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves. To persuade them to change course requires showing simple respect and seeking ways to secure their trust, rather than simply ‘speaking truth to power’. Effective engagement requires skilful communication and good judgement as much as good evidence.

This is the introduction to our revised and resubmitted paper to the special issue of Palgrave Communications The politics of evidence-based policymaking: how can we maximise the use of evidence in policy? Please get in touch if you are interested in submitting a paper to the series.

Full paper: Cairney Kwiatkowski Palgrave Comms resubmission CLEAN 14.7.17

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The impact of multi-level policymaking on the UK energy system

Cairney et al UKERC

In September, we will begin a one-year UKERC-funded project examining current and future energy policy and multi-level policymaking and its impact on ‘energy systems’. This is no mean feat, since the meaning of policy, policymaking (or the ‘policy process’), and ‘system’ are not clear, and our description of the components parts of an energy system and a complex policymaking system may differ markedly. So, one initial aim is to provide some way to turn a complex field of study into something simple enough to understand and engage with.

We do so by focusing on ‘multi-level policymaking’ – which can encompass concepts such as multi-level governance and intergovernmental relations – to reflect the fact that the responsibility for policies relevant to energy are often Europeanised, devolved, and shared between several levels of government. Brexit will produce a major effect on energy and non-energy policies, and prompt the UK and devolved governments to produce relationships, but we all need more clarity on the dynamics of current arrangements before we can talk sensibly about the future. To that end, we pursue three main work packages:

1. What is the ‘energy policymaking system’ and how does it affect the energy system?

Chaudry et al (2009: iv) define the UK energy system as ‘the set of technologies, physical infrastructure, institutions, policies and practices located in and associated with the UK which enable energy services to be delivered to UK consumers’. UK policymaking can have a profound impact, and constitutional changes might produce policy change, but their impacts require careful attention. So, we ‘map’ the policy process and the effect of policy change on energy supply and demand. Mapping sounds fairly straightforward but contains a series of tasks whose level of difficulty rises each time:

  1. Identify which level or type of government is responsible – ‘on paper’ and in practice – for the use of each relevant policy instrument.
  2. Identify how these actors interact to produce what we call ‘policy’, which can range from statements of intent to final outcomes.
  3. Identify an energy policy process containing many actors at many levels, the rules they follow, the networks they form, the ‘ideas’ that dominate discussion, and the conditions and events (often outside policymaker control) which constrain and facilitate action. By this stage, we need to draw on particular policy theories to identify key venues, such as subsystems, and specific collections of actors, such as advocacy coalitions, to produce a useful model of activity.

2. Who is responsible for action to reduce energy demand?

Energy demand is more challenging to policymakers than energy supply because the demand side involves millions of actors who, in the context of household energy use, also constitute the electorate. There are political tensions in making policies to reduce energy demand and carbon where this involves cost and inconvenience for private actors who do not necessarily value the societal returns achieved, and the political dynamics often differ from policy to regulate industrial demand. There are tensions around public perceptions of whose responsibility it is to take action – including local, devolved, national, or international government agencies – and governments look like they are trying to shift responsibility to each other or individuals and firms.

So, there is no end of ways in which energy demand could be regulated or influenced – including energy labelling and product/building standards, emissions reduction measures, promotion of efficient generation, and buildings performance measures – but it is an area of policy which is notoriously diffuse and lacking in co-ordination. So, for the large part, we consider if Brexit provides a ‘window of opportunity’ to change policy and policymaking by, for example, clarifying responsibilities and simplifying relationships.

3: Does Brexit affect UK and devolved policy on energy supply?

It is difficult for single governments to coordinate an overall energy mix to secure supply from many sources, and multi-level policymaking adds a further dimension to planning and cooperation. Yet, the effect of constitutional changes is highly uneven. For example, devolution has allowed Scotland to go its own way on renewable energy, nuclear power and fracking, but Brexit’s impact ranges from high to low. It presents new and sometimes salient challenges for cooperation to supply renewable energy but, while fracking and nuclear are often the most politically salient issues, Brexit may have relatively little impact on policymaking within the UK.

We explore the possibility that renewables policy may be most impacted by Brexit, while nuclear and fracking are examples in which Brexit may have a minimal direct impact on policy. Overall, the big debates are about the future energy mix, and how local, devolved, and UK governments balance the local environmental impacts of, and likely political opposition to, energy development against the economic and energy supply benefits.

For more details, see our 4-page summary

Powerpoint for 13.7.17

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5 images of the policy process

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

A picture tells a thousand words but, in policy studies, those words are often misleading or unclear. The most useful images can present the least useful advice, or capture a misleading metaphor. Images from the most useful theories are useful when you already know the theory, but far more difficult to grasp initially.

So, I present two examples from each, then describe what a compromise image might look like, to combine something that is easy to pick up and use but also not misleading or merely metaphorical.

Why do we need it? It is common practice at workshops and conferences for some to present policy process images on powerpoint and for others to tweet photos of them, generally with little discussion of what they say and how useful they are. I’d like to see as-simple but more-useful images spread this way.

1. The policy cycle


The policy cycle is perhaps the most used and known image. It divides the policy process into a series of stages (described in 1000 words and 500 words). It oversimplifies, and does not explain, a complex policymaking system. We are better to imagine, for example, thousands of policy cycles interacting with each other to produce less orderly behaviour and less predictable outputs.

For students, we have dozens of concepts and theories which serve as better ways to understand policymaking.

Policymakers have more use for the cycle, to tell a story of what they’d like to do: identify 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, then evaluate the policy.

Yet, most presentations from policymakers, advisers, and practitioners modify the cycle image to show how messy life really is:

2. The multiple streams metaphor

NASA launch

The ‘multiple streams’ approach uses metaphor to describe this messier world (described in 1000 words and 500 words). Instead of a linear cycle – in which policymakers define problems, then ask for potential solutions, then select one – we describe these ‘stages’ as independent ‘streams’. Each stream – heightened attention to a problem (problem stream), an available and feasible solution (policy stream), and the motive to select it (politics stream) – must come together during a ‘window of opportunity’ or the opportunity is lost.

Many people like MSA because it contains a flexible metaphor which is simple to pick up and use. However, it’s so flexible that I’ve seen many different ways to visualise – and make sense of – the metaphor, including literal watery streams, which suggest that when they come together they are hard to separate.  There is the Ghostbusters metaphor which shows that key actors (‘entrepreneurs’) help couple the streams. There is also Howlett et al’s attempt to combine the streams and cycles metaphors (reproduced here, and criticised here).

However, I’d encourage Kingdon’s space launch metaphor in which policymakers will abort the mission unless every factor is just right.

3. The punctuated equilibrium graph

True et al figure 6.2

Punctuated equilibrium theory is one of the most important approaches to policy dynamics, now backed up with a wealth of data from the Comparative Agendas Project. The image (in True et al, 2007) describes the result of the policy process rather than the process itself. It describes government budgets in the US, although we can find very similar images from studies of budgets in many other countries and in many measures of policy change.

It sums up a profoundly important message about policy change: we find a huge number of very small changes, and a very small number of huge changes. Compare the distribution of values in this image with the ‘normal distribution’ (the dotted line). It shows a ‘leptokurtic’ distribution, with most values deviating minimally from the mean (and the mean change in each budget item is small), but with a high number of ‘outliers’.

The image helps sum up a key aim of PET, to measure and try to explain long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. One explanation relates to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers have to ignore almost all issues while paying attention to some. The lack of ‘macropolitical’ attention to most issues helps explain stability and continuity, while lurches of attention can help explain instability (although attention can fade before ‘institutions’ feel the need to respond).

Here I am, pointing at this graph:

4. The advocacy coalition framework ‘flow diagram’

ACF diagram

The ACF presents an ambitious image of the policy process, in which we zoom out to consider how key elements fit together in a process containing many actors and levels of government. Like many policy theories, it situates most of the ‘action’ in policy networks or subsystems, showing that some issues involve intensely politicized disputes containing many actors while others are treated as technical and processed routinely, largely by policy specialists, out of the public spotlight.

The ACF suggests that people get into politics to turn their beliefs into policy, form coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with coalitions of actors who share different beliefs. This competition takes place in a policy subsystem, in which coalitions understand new evidence through the lens of their beliefs, and exercise power to make sure that their interpretation is accepted. The other boxes describe the factors – the ‘parameters’ likely to be stable during the 10-year period of study, the partial sources of potential ‘shocks’ to the subsystem, and the need and ability of key actors to form consensus for policy change (particularly in political systems with PR elections) – which constrain and facilitate coalition action.

5. What do we need from a new image?

I recommend an image that consolidates or synthesises existing knowledge and insights. It is tempting to produce something that purports to be ‘new’ but, as with ‘new’ concepts or ‘new’ policy theories, how could we accumulate insights if everyone simply declared novelty and rejected the science of the past?

For me, the novelty should be in the presentation of the image, to help people pick up and use a wealth of policy studies which try to capture two key dynamics:

  1. Policy choice despite uncertainty and ambiguity.

Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues. They use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts to make decisions quickly, despite their limited knowledge of the world, and the possibility to understand policy problems from many perspectives.

  1. A policy environment which constrains and facilitates choice.

Such environments are made up of:

  1. Actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels and types of government
  2. Institutions: a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  3. Networks: relationships between policymakers and influencers
  4. Ideas: a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  5. Context and events: economic, social, demographic, and technological conditions provide the context for policy choice, and routine/ unpredictable events can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

The implications of both dynamics are fairly easy to describe in tables (for example, while describing MSA) and to cobble together quickly in a SmartArt picture:

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

However, note at least three issues with such a visual presentation:

  1. Do we put policymakers and choice at the centre? If so, it could suggest (a bit like the policy cycle) that a small number of key actors are at the ‘centre’ of the process, when we might prefer to show that their environment, or the interaction between many actors, is more important.
  2. Do we show only the policy process or relate it to the ‘outside world’?
  3. There are many overlaps between concepts. For example, we seek to describe the use and reproduction of rules in ‘institutions’ and ‘networks’, while those rules relate strongly to ‘ideas’. Further, ‘networks’ could sum up ‘actors interacting in many levels/ types of government’. So, ideally, we’d have overlapping shapes to denote overlapping relationships and understandings, but it would really mess up the simplicity of the image.

Of course, the bigger issue is that the image I provide is really just a vehicle to put text on a screen (in the hope that it will be shared). At best it says ‘note these concepts’. It does not show causal relationships. It does not describe any substantial interaction between the concepts to show cause and effect (such as, event A prompted policy choice B).

However, if we tried to bring in that level of detail, I think we would quickly end up with the messy process already described in relation to the policy cycle. Or, we would need to provide a more specific and less generally applicable model of policymaking.

So, right now, this image is a statement of intent. I want to produce something better, but don’t yet know what ‘better’ looks like. There is no ‘general theory’ of policymaking, so can we have a general image? Or, like ‘what is policy?’ discussions, do we produce an answer largely to raise more questions?


Here I am, looking remarkably pleased with my SmartArt skills



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Practical Lessons from Policy Theories

Policy influence is impossible to find if you don’t know where to look. Policies theories can help you look in the right places, but they take time to understand.

It’s not realistic to expect people with their own day jobs – such as scientists producing policy-relevant knowledge in other fields – to take the time to use the insights it takes my colleagues a full-time career to appreciate.

So, we need a way to explain those insights in a way that people can pick up and use when they engage in the policy process for the first time. That’s why Chris Weible and I asked a group of policy theory experts to describe the ‘state of the art’ in their field and the practical lessons that they offer.

None of these abstract theories provide a ‘blueprint’ for action (they were designed primarily to examine the policy process scientifically). Instead, they offer one simple insight: you’ll save a lot of energy if you engage with the policy process that exists, not the one you want to see.

Then, they describe variations on the same themes, including:

  1. There are profound limits to the power of individual policymakers: they can only process so much information, have to ignore almost all issues, and therefore tend to share policymaking with many other actors.
  2. You can increase your chances of success if you work with that insight: identify the right policymakers, the ‘venues’ in which they operate, and the ‘rules of the game’ in each venue; build networks and form coalitions to engage in those venues; shape agendas by framing problems and telling good stories, design politically feasible solutions, and learn how to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for their selection.

We aim to present at least one blog post per paper, perhaps in draft before publication, and refined when completed. So far, we have the following:

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

How do we get governments to make better decisions?

Why Advocacy Coalitions Matter and How to Think about Them

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

Telling Stories that Shape Public Policy

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs



Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact?

Two recent articles explore the role of academics in the ‘co-production’ of policy and/or knowledge.

Both papers suggest (I think) that academic engagement in the ‘real world’ is highly valuable, and that we should not pretend that we can remain aloof from politics when producing new knowledge (research production is political even if it is not overtly party political). They also suggest that it is fraught with difficulty and, perhaps, an often-thankless task with no guarantee of professional or policy payoffs (intrinsic motivation still trumps extrinsic motivation).

So, what should we do?

I plan to experiment a little bit while conducting some new research over the next 4 years. For example, I am part of a new project called IMAJINE, and plan to speak with policymakers, from the start to the end, about what they want from the research and how they’ll use it. My working assumption is that it will help boost the academic value and policy relevance of the research.

I have mocked up a paper abstract to describe this kind of work:

In this paper, we use policy theory to explain why the ‘co-production’ of comparative research with policymakers makes it more policy relevant: it allows researchers to frame their policy analysis with reference to the ways in which policymakers frame policy problems; and, it helps them identify which policymaking venues matter, and the rules of engagement within them.  In other words, theoretically-informed researchers can, to some extent, emulate the strategies of interest groups when they work out ‘where the action is’ and how to adapt to policy agendas to maximise their influence. Successful groups identify their audience and work out what it wants, rather than present their own fixed views to anyone who will listen.

Yet, when described so provocatively, our argument raises several practical and ethical dilemmas about the role of academic research. In abstract discussions, they include questions such as: should you engage this much with politics and policymakers, or maintain a critical distance; and, if you engage, should you simply reflect or seek to influence the policy agenda? In practice, such binary choices are artificial, prompting us to explore how to manage our engagement in politics and reflect on our potential influence.

We explore these issues with reference to a new Horizon 2020 funded project IMAJINE, which includes a work package – led by Cairney – on the use of evidence and learning from the many ways in which EU, national, and regional policymakers have tried to reduce territorial inequalities.

So, in the paper we (my future research partner and I), would:

  • Outline the payoffs to this engage-early approach. Early engagement will inform the research questions you ask, how you ask them, and how you ‘frame’ the results. It should also help produce more academic publications (which is still the key consideration for many academics), partly because this early approach will help us speak with some authority about policy and policymaking in many countries.
  • Describe the complications of engaging with different policymakers in many ‘venues’ in different countries: you would expect very different questions to arise, and perhaps struggle to manage competing audience demands.
  • Raise practical questions about the research audience, including: should we interview key advocacy groups and private sources of funding for applied research, as well as policymakers, when refining questions? I ask this question partly because it can be more effective to communicate evidence via policy influencers rather than try to engage directly with policymakers.
  • Raise ethical questions, including: what if policymaker interviewees want the ‘wrong’ questions answered? What if they are only interested in policy solutions that we think are misguided, either because the evidence-base is limited (and yet they seek a magic bullet) or their aims are based primarily on ideology (an allegedly typical dilemma regards left-wing academics providing research for right-wing governments)?

Overall, you can see the potential problems: you ‘enter’ the political arena to find that it is highly political! You find that policymakers are mostly interested in (what you believe are) ineffective or inappropriate solutions and/ or they think about the problem in ways that make you, say, uncomfortable. So, should you engage in a critical way, risking exclusion from the ‘coproduction’ of policy, or in a pragmatic way, to ‘coproduce’ knowledge and maximise your chances of their impact in government?

The case study of territorial inequalities is a key source of such dilemmas …

…partly because it is difficult to tell how policymakers define and want to solve such policy problems. When defining ‘territorial inequalities’, they can refer broadly to geographical spread, such as within the EU Member States, or even within regions of states. They can focus on economic inequalities, inequalities linked strongly to gender, race or ethnicity, mental health, disability, and/ or inequalities spread across generations. They can focus on indicators of inequalities in areas such as health and education outcomes, housing tenure and quality, transport, and engagement with social work and criminal justice. While policymakers might want to address all such issues, they also prioritise the problems they want to solve and the policy instruments they are prepared to use.

When considering solutions, they can choose from three basic categories:

  1. Tax and spending to redistribute income and wealth, perhaps treating economic inequalities as the source of most others (such as health and education inequalities).
  2. The provision of public services to help mitigate the effects of economic and other inequalities (such as free healthcare and education, and public transport in urban and rural areas).
  3. The adoption of ‘prevention’ strategies to engage as early as possible in people’s lives, on the assumption that key inequalities are well-established by the time children are three years old.

Based on my previous work with Emily St Denny, I’d expect that many governments express a high commitment to reduce inequalities – and it is often sincere – but without wanting to use tax/ spending as the primary means, and faced with limited evidence on the effectiveness of public services and prevention. Or, many will prefer to identify ‘evidence-based’ solutions for individuals rather than to address ‘structural’ factors linked to factors such as gender, ethnicity, and class. This is when the production and use of evidence becomes overtly ‘political’, because at the heart of many of these discussions is the extent to which individuals or their environments are to blame for unequal outcomes, and if richer regions should compensate poorer regions.

‘The evidence’ will not ‘win the day’ in such debates. Rather, the choice will be between, for example: (a) pragmatism, to frame evidence to contribute to well-established beliefs, about policy problems and solutions, held by the dominant actors in each political system; and, (b) critical distance, to produce what you feel to be the best evidence generated in the right way, and challenge policymakers to explain why they won’t use it. I suspect that (a) is more effective, but (b) better reflects what most academics thought they were signing up to.

For more on IMAJINE, see New EU study looks at gap between rich and poor and The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

For more on evidence/ policy dilemmas, see Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy


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Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy

Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?

“There is extensive health and public health literature on the ‘evidence-policy gap’, exploring the frustrating experiences of scientists trying to secure a response to the problems and solutions they raise and identifying the need for better evidence to reduce policymaker uncertainty. We offer a new perspective by using policy theory to propose research with greater impact, identifying the need to use persuasion to reduce ambiguity, and to adapt to multi-level policymaking systems”.

We use this table to describe how the policy process works, how effective actors respond, and the dilemmas that arise for advocates of scientific evidence: should they act this way too?

We summarise this argument in two posts for:

The Guardian If scientists want to influence policymaking, they need to understand it

Sax Institute The evidence policy gap: changing the research mindset is only the beginning

The article is part of a wider body of work in which one or both of us considers the relationship between evidence and policy in different ways, including:

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 PDF

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (PDF)

Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J. and Thomas, J. (2014a) ‘A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers’ BMC health services research, 14 (1), 2. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6963/14/2

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T., & Innvær, S. (2014b) ‘New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature’, Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34 http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1478-4505-12-34.pdf

Paul Cairney (2016) Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks in Evidence and Policy

Many of my blog posts explore how people like scientists or researchers might understand and respond to the policy process:

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

When presenting evidence to policymakers, engage with the policy process that exists, not the process you wish existed

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

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

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking?

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

Psychology Based Policy Studies: 5 heuristics to maximise the use of evidence in policymaking

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts?

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

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

There are more posts like this on my EBPM page

I am also guest editing a series of articles for the Open Access journal Palgrave Communications on the ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’ and we are inviting submissions throughout 2017.

There are more details on that series here.

And finally ..

… if you’d like to read about the policy theories underpinning these arguments, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words and 500 words.




Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy