Tag Archives: Policy

Taking lessons from policy theory into practice: 3 examples

Notes for ANZSOG/ ANU Crawford School/ UNSW Canberra workshop. Powerpoint here. The recording of the lecture (skip to 2m30) and Q&A is here (right click to download mp3 or dropbox link):

The context for this workshop is the idea that policy theories could be more helpful to policymakers/ practitioners if we could all communicate more effectively with each other. Academics draw general and relatively abstract conclusions from multiple cases. Practitioners draw very similar conclusions from rich descriptions of direct experience in a smaller number of cases. How can we bring together their insights and use a language that we all understand? Or, more ambitiously, how can we use policy theory-based insights to inform the early career development training that civil servants and researchers receive?

The first step is to translate policy theories into a non-technical language by trying to speak with an audience beyond our immediate peers (see for example Practical Lessons from Policy Theories).

However, translation is not enough. A second crucial step is to consider how policymakers and practitioners are likely to make sense of theoretical insights when they apply them to particular aims or responsibilities. For example:

  1. Central government policymakers may accept the descriptive accuracy of policy theories emphasising limited central control, but not the recommendation that they should let go, share power, and describe their limits to the public.
  2. Scientists may accept key limitations to ‘evidence based policymaking’ but reject the idea that they should respond by becoming better storytellers or more manipulative operators.
  3. Researchers and practitioners struggle to resolve hard choices when combining evidence and ‘coproduction’ while ‘scaling up’ policy interventions. Evidence choice is political choice. Can we do more than merely encourage people to accept this point?

I discuss these examples below because they are closest to my heart (especially example 1). Note throughout that I am presenting one interpretation about: (1) the most promising insights, and (2) their implications for practice. Other interpretations of the literature and its implications are available. They are just a bit harder to find.

Example 1: the policy cycle endures despite its descriptive inaccuracy

cycle

The policy cycle does not describe and explain the policy process well:

  • If we insist on keeping the cycle metaphor, it is more accurate to see the process as a huge set of policy cycles that connect with each other in messy and unpredictable ways.
  • The cycle approach also links strongly to the idea of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which a small group of policymakers and analysts are in full possession of the facts and full control of the policy process. They carry out their aims through a series of stages.

Policy theories provide more descriptive and explanatory usefulness. Their insights include:

  • Limited choice. Policymakers inherit organisations, rules, and choices. Most ‘new’ choice is a revision of the old.
  • Limited attention. Policymakers must ignore almost all of the policy problems for which they are formally responsible. They pay attention to some, and delegate most responsibility to civil servants. Bureaucrats rely on other actors for information and advice, and they build relationships on trust and information exchange.
  • Limited central control. Policy may appear to be made at the ‘top’ or in the ‘centre’, but in practice policymaking responsibility is spread across many levels and types of government (many ‘centres’). ‘Street level’ actors make policy as they deliver. Policy outcomes appear to ‘emerge’ locally despite central government attempts to control their fate.
  • Limited policy change. Most policy change is minor, made and influenced by actors who interpret new evidence through the lens of their beliefs. Well-established beliefs limit the opportunities of new solutions. Governments tend to rely on trial-and-error, based on previous agreements, rather than radical policy change based on a new agenda. New solutions succeed only during brief and infrequent windows of opportunity.

However, the cycle metaphor endures because:

  • It provides a simple model of policymaking with stages that map onto important policymaking functions.
  • It provides a way to project policymaking to the public. You know how we make policy, and that we are in charge, so you know who to hold to account.

In that context, we may want to be pragmatic about our advice:

  1. One option is via complexity theory, in which scholars generally encourage policymakers to accept and describe their limits:
  • Accept routine error, reduce short-term performance management, engage more in trial and error, and ‘let go’ to allow local actors the flexibility to adapt and respond to their context.
  • However, would a government in the Westminster tradition really embrace this advice? No. They need to balance (a) pragmatic policymaking, and (b) an image of governing competence.
  1. Another option is to try to help improve an existing approach.

Further reading (blog posts):

The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

Making Sense of Policymaking: why it’s always someone else’s fault and nothing ever changes

Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government

Example 2: how to deal with a lack of ‘evidence based policymaking’

I used to read many papers on tobacco policy, with the same basic message: we have the evidence of tobacco harm, and evidence of which solutions work, but there is an evidence-policy gap caused by too-powerful tobacco companies, low political will, and pathological policymaking. These accounts are not informed by theories of policymaking.

I then read Oliver et al’s paper on the lack of policy theory in health/ environmental scholarship on the ‘barriers’ to the use of evidence in policy. Very few articles rely on policy concepts, and most of the few rely on the policy cycle. This lack of policy theory is clear in their description of possible solutions – better communication, networking, timing, and more science literacy in government – which does not describe well the need to respond to policymaker psychology and a complex policymaking environment.

So, I wrote The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking and one zillion blog posts to help identify the ways in which policy theories could help explain the relationship between evidence and policy.

Since then, the highest demand to speak about the book has come from government/ public servant, NGO, and scientific audiences outside my discipline. The feedback is generally that: (a) the book’s description sums up their experience of engagement with the policy process, and (b) maybe it opens up discussion about how to engage more effectively.

But how exactly do we turn empirical descriptions of policymaking into practical advice?

For example, scientist/ researcher audiences want to know the answer to a question like: Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? and so I focus on three conversation starters:

  1. they have a broader view on what counts as good evidence (see ANZSOG description)
  2. they have to ignore almost all information (a nice way into bounded rationality and policymaker psychology)
  3. they do not understand or control the process in which they seek to use evidence (a way into ‘the policy process’)

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

We can then consider many possible responses in the sequel What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

Examples include:

  • ‘How to do it’ advice. I compare tips for individuals (from experienced practitioners) with tips based on policy concepts. They are quite similar-looking tips – e.g. find out where the action is, learn the rules, tell good stories, engage allies, seek windows of opportunity – but I describe mine as 5 impossible tasks!
  • Organisational reform. I describe work with the European Commission Joint Research Centre to identify 8 skills or functions of an organisation bringing together the supply/demand of knowledge.
  • Ethical dilemmas. I use key policy theories to ask people how far they want to go to privilege evidence in policy. It’s fun to talk about these things with the type of scientist who sees any form of storytelling as manipulation.

Further reading:

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

A 5-step strategy to make evidence count

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

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions

Example 3: how to encourage realistic evidence-informed policy transfer

This focus on EBPM is useful context for discussions of ‘policy learning’ and ‘policy transfer’, and it was the focus of my ANZOG talk entitled (rather ambitiously) ‘teaching evidence-based policy to fly’.

I’ve taken a personal interest in this one because I’m part of a project – called IMAJINE – in which we have to combine academic theory and practical responses. We are trying to share policy solutions across Europe rather than explain why few people share them!

For me, the context is potentially overwhelming:

So, when we start to focus on sharing lessons, we will have three things to discover:

  1. What is the evidence for success, and from where does it come? Governments often project success without backing it up.
  2. What story do policymakers tell about the problem they are trying to solve, the solutions they produced, and why? Two different governments may be framing and trying to solve the same problem in very different ways.
  3. Was the policy introduced in a comparable policymaking system? People tend to focus on political system comparability (e.g. is it unitary or federal?), but I think the key is in policymaking system comparability (e.g. what are the rules and dominant ideas?).

To be honest, when one of our external assessors asked me how well I thought I would do, we both smiled because the answer may be ‘not very’. In other words, the most practical lesson may be the hardest to take, although I find it comforting: the literature suggests that policymakers might ignore you for 20 years then suddenly become very (but briefly) interested in your work.

 

The slides are a bit wonky because I combined my old ppt to the Scottish Government with a new one for UNSW Paul Cairney ANU Policy practical 22 October 2018

I wanted to compare how I describe things to (1) civil servants (2) practitioners/ researcher (3) me, but who has the time/ desire to listen to 3 powerpoints in one go? If the answer is you, let me know and we’ll set up a Zoom call.

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), IMAJINE, Policy learning and transfer

The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking: ANZSOG talks

This post introduces a series of related talks on ‘the politics of evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) that I’m giving as part of larger series of talks during this ANZOG-funded/organised trip.

The EBPM talks begin with a discussion of the same three points: what counts as evidence, why we must ignore most of it (and how), and the policy process in which policymakers use some of it. However, the framing of these points, and the ways in which we discuss the implications, varies markedly by audience. So, in this post, I provide a short discussion of the three points, then show how the audience matters (referring to the city as a shorthand for each talk).

The overall take-home points are highly practical, in the same way that critical thinking has many practical applications (in other words, I’m not offering a map, toolbox, or blueprint):

  • If you begin with (a) the question ‘why don’t policymakers use my evidence?’ I like to think you will end with (b) the question ‘why did I ever think they would?’.
  • If you begin by taking the latter as (a) a criticism of politics and policymakers, I hope you will end by taking it as (b) a statement of the inevitability of the trade-offs that must accompany political choice.
  • We may address these issues by improving the supply and use of evidence. However, it is more important to maintain the legitimacy of the politicians and political systems in which policymakers choose to ignore evidence. Technocracy is no substitute for democracy.

3 ways to describe the use of evidence in policymaking

  1. Discussions of the use of evidence in policy often begin as a valence issue: who wouldn’t want to use good evidence when making policy?

However, it only remains a valence issue when we refuse to define evidence and justify what counts as good evidence. After that, you soon see the political choices emerge. A reference to evidence is often a shorthand for scientific research evidence, and good often refers to specific research methods (such as randomised control trials). Or, you find people arguing very strongly in the almost-opposite direction, criticising this shorthand as exclusionary and questioning the ability of scientists to justify claims to superior knowledge. Somewhere in the middle, we find that a focus on evidence is a good way to think about the many forms of information or knowledge on which we might make decisions, including: a wider range of research methods and analyses, knowledge from experience, and data relating to the local context with which policy would interact.

So, what begins as a valence issue becomes a gateway to many discussions about how to understand profound political choices regarding: how we make knowledge claims, how to ‘co-produce’ knowledge via dialogue among many groups, and the relationship between choices about evidence and governance.

  1. It is impossible to pay attention to all policy relevant evidence.

There is far more information about the world than we are able to process. A focus on evidence gaps often gives way to the recognition that we need to find effective ways to ignore most evidence.

There are many ways to describe how individuals combine cognition and emotion to limit their attention enough to make choices, and policy studies (to all intents and purposes) describe equivalent processes – described, for example, as ‘institutions’ or rules – in organisations and systems.

One shortcut between information and choice is to set aims and priorities; to focus evidence gathering on a small number of problems or one way to define a problem, and identify the most reliable or trustworthy sources of evidence (often via evidence ‘synthesis’). Another is to make decisions quickly by relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and existing knowledge or familiarity with evidence.

Either way, agenda setting and problem definition are political processes that address uncertainty and ambiguity. We gather evidence to reduce uncertainty, but first we must reduce ambiguity by exercising power to define the problem we seek to solve.

  1. It is impossible to control the policy process in which people use evidence.

Policy textbooks (well, my textbook at least!) provide a contrast between:

  • The model of a ‘policy cycle’ that sums up straightforward policymaking, through a series of stages, over which policymakers have clear control. At each stage, you know where evidence fits in: to help define the problem, generate solutions, and evaluate the results to set the agenda for the next cycle.
  • A more complex ‘policy process’, or policymaking environment, of which policymakers have limited knowledge and even less control. In this environment, it is difficult to know with whom engage, the rules of engagement, or the likely impact of evidence.

Overall, policy theories have much to offer people with an interest in evidence-use in policy, but primarily as a way to (a) manage expectations, to (b) produce more realistic strategies and less dispiriting conclusions. It is useful to frame our aim as to analyse the role of evidence within a policy process that (a) we don’t quite understand, rather than (b) we would like to exist.

The events themselves

Below, you will find a short discussion of the variations of audience and topic. I’ll update and reflect on this discussion (in a revised version of this post) after taking part in the events.

Social science and policy studies: knowledge claims, bounded rationality, and policy theory

For Auckland and Wellington A, I’m aiming for an audience containing a high proportion of people with a background in social science and policy studies. I describe the discussion as ‘meta’ because I am talking about how I talk about EBPM to other audiences, then inviting discussion on key parts of that talk, such as how to conceptualise the policy process and present conceptual insights to people who have no intention of deep dives into policy theory.

I often use the phrase ‘I’ve read it, so you don’t have to’ partly as a joke, but also to stress the importance of disciplinary synthesis when we engage in interdisciplinary (and inter-professional) discussion. If so, it is important to discuss how to produce such ‘synthetic’ accounts.

I tend to describe key components of a policymaking environment quickly: many policy makers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government, institutions, networks, socioeconomic factors and events, and ideas. However, each of these terms represents a shorthand to describe a large and diverse literature. For example, I can describe an ‘institution’ in a few sentences, but the study of institutions contains a variety of approaches.

Background post: I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience?

Academic-practitioner discussions: improving the use of research evidence in policy

For Wellington B and Melbourne, the audience is an academic-practitioner mix. We discuss ways in which we can encourage the greater use of research evidence in policy, perhaps via closer collaboration between suppliers and users.

Discussions with scientists: why do policymakers ignore my evidence?

Sydney UNSW focuses more on researchers in scientific fields (often not in social science).  I frame the question in a way that often seems central to scientific researcher interest: why do policymakers seem to ignore my evidence, and what can I do about it?

Then, I tend to push back on the idea that the fault lies with politics and policymakers, to encourage researchers to think more about the policy process and how to engage effectively in it. If I’m trying to be annoying, I’ll suggest to a scientific audience that they see themselves as ‘rational’ and politicians as ‘irrational’. However, the more substantive discussion involves comparing (a) ‘how to make an impact’ advice drawn from the personal accounts of experienced individuals, giving advice to individuals, and (b) the sort of advice you might draw from policy theories which focus more on systems.

Background post: What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

Early career researchers: the need to build ‘impact’ into career development

Canberra UNSW is more focused on early career researchers. I think this is the most difficult talk because I don’t rely on the same joke about my role: to turn up at the end of research projects to explain why they failed to have a non-academic impact.  Instead, my aim is to encourage intelligent discussion about situating the ‘how to’ advice for individual researchers into a wider discussion of policymaking systems.

Similarly, Brisbane A and B are about how to engage with practitioners, and communicate well to non-academic audiences, when most of your work and training is about something else entirely (such as learning about research methods and how to engage with the technical language of research).

Background posts:

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Tips from the ‘how to’ literature from the science community

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’

See also:

European Health Forum Gastein 2018 ‘Policy in Evidence’ (from 6 minutes)

https://webcasting.streamdis.eu/Mediasite/Play/8143157d976146b4afd297897c68be5e1d?catalog=62e4886848394f339ff678a494afd77f21&playFrom=126439&autoStart=true

 

See also:

Evidence-based policymaking and the new policy sciences

 

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Managing expectations about the use of evidence in policy

Notes for the #transformURE event hosted by Nuffield, 25th September 2018

I like to think that I can talk with authority on two topics that, much like a bottle of Pepsi and a pack of Mentos, you should generally keep separate:

  1. When talking at events on the use of evidence in policy, I say that you need to understand the nature of policy and policymaking to understand the role of evidence in it.
  2. When talking with students, we begin with the classic questions ‘what is policy?’ and ‘what is the policy process’, and I declare that we don’t know the answer. We define policy to show the problems with all definitions of policy, and we discuss many models and theories that only capture one part of the process. There is no ‘general theory’ of policymaking.

The problem, when you put together those statements, is that you need to understand the role of evidence within a policy process that we don’t really understand.

It’s an OK conclusion if you just want to declare that the world is complicated, but not if you seek ways to change it or operate more effectively within it.

Put less gloomily:

  • We have ways to understand key parts of the policy process. They are not ready-made to help us understand evidence use, but we can use them intelligently.
  • Most policy theories exist to explain policy dynamics, not to help us adapt effectively to them, but we can derive general lessons with often-profound implications.

Put even less gloomily, it is not too difficult to extract/ synthesise key insights from policy theories, explain their relevance, and use them to inform discussions about how to promote your preferred form of evidence use.

The only remaining problem is that, although the resultant advice looks quite straightforward, it is far easier said than done. The proposed actions are more akin to the Labours of Hercules than [PAC: insert reference to something easier].

They include:

  1. Find out where the ‘action’ is, so that you can find the right audience for your evidence. Why? There are many policymakers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government.
  2. Learn and follow the ‘rules of the game’. Why? Each policymaking venue has its own rules of engagement and evidence gathering, and the rules are often informal and unwritten.
  3. Gain access to ‘policy networks’. Why? Most policy is processed at a low level of government, beyond the public spotlight, between relatively small groups of policymakers and influencers. They build up trust as they work together, learning who is reliable and authoritative, and converging on how to use evidence to understand the nature and solution to policy problems.
  4. Learn the language. Why? Each venue has its own language to reflect dominant ideas, beliefs, or ways to understand a policy problem. In some arenas, there is a strong respect for a ‘hierarchy’ of evidence. In others, they key reference point may be value for money. In some cases, the language reflects the closing-off of some policy solutions (such as redistributing resources from one activity to another).
  5. Exploit windows of opportunity. Why? Events, and changes in socioeconomic conditions, often prompt shifts of attention to policy issues. ‘Policy entrepreneurs’ lie in wait for the right time to exploit a shift in the motive and opportunity of a policymaker to pay attention to and try to solve a problem.

So far so good, until you consider the effort it would take to achieve any of these things: you may need to devote the best part of your career to these tasks with no guarantee of success.

Put more positively, it is better to be equipped with these insights, and to appreciate the limits to our actions, than to think we can use top tips to achieve ‘research impact’ in a more straightforward way.

Kathryn Oliver and I describe these ‘how to’ tips in this post and, in this article in Political Studies Review, use a wider focus on policymaking environments to produce a more realistic sense of what individual researchers – and research-producing organisations – could achieve.

There is some sensible-enough advice out there for individuals – produce good evidence, communicate it well, form relationships with policymakers, be available, and so on – but I would exercise caution when it begins to recommend being ‘entrepreneurial’. The opportunities to be entrepreneurial are not shared equally, most entrepreneurs fail, and we can likely better explain their success with reference to their environment than their skill.

hang-in-there-baby

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

Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?

Since 2016, my most common academic presentation to interdisciplinary scientist/ researcher audiences is a variant of the question, ‘why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?’

I tend to provide three main answers.

1. Many policymakers have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence

Few policymakers know or care about the criteria developed by some scientists to describe a hierarchy of scientific evidence. For some scientists, at the top of this hierarchy is the randomised control trial (RCT) and the systematic review of RCTs, with expertise much further down the list, followed by practitioner experience and service user feedback near the bottom.

Yet, most policymakers – and many academics – prefer a wider range of sources of information, combining their own experience with information ranging from peer reviewed scientific evidence and the ‘grey’ literature, to public opinion and feedback from consultation.

While it may be possible to persuade some central government departments or agencies to privilege scientific evidence, they also pursue other key principles, such as to foster consensus driven policymaking or a shift from centralist to localist practices.

Consequently, they often only recommend interventions rather than impose one uniform evidence-based position. If local actors favour a different policy solution, we may find that the same type of evidence may have more or less effect in different parts of government.

2. Policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence and almost every decision taken in their name

Many scientists articulate the idea that policymakers and scientists should cooperate to use the best evidence to determine ‘what works’ in policy (in forums such as INGSA, European Commission, OECD). Their language is often reminiscent of 1950s discussions of the pursuit of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in policymaking.

The key difference is that EBPM is often described as an ideal by scientists, to be compared with the more disappointing processes they find when they engage in politics. In contrast, ‘comprehensive rationality’ is an ideal-type, used to describe what cannot happen, and the practical implications of that impossibility.

The ideal-type involves a core group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’, identifying their values or the problems they seek to solve, and translating their policies into action to maximise benefits to society, aided by neutral organisations gathering all the facts necessary to produce policy solutions. Yet, in practice, they are unable to: separate values from facts in any meaningful way; rank policy aims in a logical and consistent manner; gather information comprehensively, or possess the cognitive ability to process it.

Instead, Simon famously described policymakers addressing ‘bounded rationality’ by using ‘rules of thumb’ to limit their analysis and produce ‘good enough’ decisions. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory uses bounded rationality to show that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, which limits their control of the many decisions made in their name.

More recent discussions focus on the ‘rational’ short cuts that policymakers use to identify good enough sources of information, combined with the ‘irrational’ ways in which they use their beliefs, emotions, habits, and familiarity with issues to identify policy problems and solutions (see this post on the meaning of ‘irrational’). Or, they explore how individuals communicate their narrow expertise within a system of which they have almost no knowledge. In each case, ‘most members of the system are not paying attention to most issues most of the time’.

This scarcity of attention helps explain, for example, why policymakers ignore most issues in the absence of a focusing event, policymaking organisations make searches for information which miss key elements routinely, and organisations fail to respond to events or changing circumstances proportionately.

In that context, attempts to describe a policy agenda focusing merely on ‘what works’ are based on misleading expectations. Rather, we can describe key parts of the policymaking environment – such as institutions, policy communities/ networks, or paradigms – as a reflection of the ways in which policymakers deal with their bounded rationality and lack of control of the policy process.

3. Policymakers do not control the policy process (in the way that a policy cycle suggests)

Scientists often appear to be drawn to the idea of a linear and orderly policy cycle with discrete stages – such as agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, policy maintenance/ succession/ termination – because it offers a simple and appealing model which gives clear advice on how to engage.

Indeed, the stages approach began partly as a proposal to make the policy process more scientific and based on systematic policy analysis. It offers an idea of how policy should be made: elected policymakers in central government, aided by expert policy analysts, make and legitimise choices; skilful public servants carry them out; and, policy analysts assess the results with the aid of scientific evidence.

Yet, few policy theories describe this cycle as useful, while most – including the advocacy coalition framework , and the multiple streams approach – are based on a rejection of the explanatory value of orderly stages.

Policy theories also suggest that the cycle provides misleading practical advice: you will generally not find an orderly process with a clearly defined debate on problem definition, a single moment of authoritative choice, and a clear chance to use scientific evidence to evaluate policy before deciding whether or not to continue. Instead, the cycle exists as a story for policymakers to tell about their work, partly because it is consistent with the idea of elected policymakers being in charge and accountable.

Some scholars also question the appropriateness of a stages ideal, since it suggests that there should be a core group of policymakers making policy from the ‘top down’ and obliging others to carry out their aims, which does not leave room for, for example, the diffusion of power in multi-level systems, or the use of ‘localism’ to tailor policy to local needs and desires.

Now go to:

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

Further Reading

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

The politics of evidence-based policymaking: maximising the use of evidence in policy

Images of the policy process

How to communicate effectively with policymakers

Forthcoming special issue in Policy and Politics called ‘Practical lessons from policy theories’, which includes my discussion of how to be a ‘policy entrepreneur’.

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, Public health, public policy

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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Filed under 500 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling

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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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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