Tag Archives: Policy

Who can you trust during the coronavirus crisis?

By Paul Cairney and Adam Wellstead, based on this paper.

Trust is essential during a crisis. It is necessary for cooperation. Cooperation helps people coordinate action, to reduce the need for imposition. It helps reduce uncertainty in a complex world. It facilitates social order and cohesiveness. In a crisis, almost-instant choices about who to trust or distrust make a difference between life and death.

Put simply, we need to trust: experts to help us understand and address the problem, governments to coordinate policy and make choices about levels of coercion, and each other to cooperate to minimise infection.

Yet, there are three unresolved problems with understanding trust in relation to coronavirus policy.

  1. What does trust really mean?

Trust is one of those words that could mean everything and nothing. We feel like we understand it intuitively, but would also struggle to define it well enough to explain how exactly it works. For example, in social science, there is some agreement on the need to describe individual motivation, social relationships, and some notion of the ‘public good’:

  • the production of trust helps boost the possibility of cooperation, partly by
  • reducing uncertainty (low information about a problem) and ambiguity (low agreement on how to understand it) when making choices, partly by
  • helping you manage the risk of making yourself vulnerable when relying on others, particularly when
  • people demonstrate trustworthiness by developing a reputation for competence, honesty, and/ or reliability, and
  • you combine cognition and emotion to produce a disposition to trust, and
  • social and political rules facilitate this process, from the formal and well-understood rules governing behaviour to the informal rules and norms shaping behaviour.

As such, trust describes your non-trivial belief in the reliability of other people, organisations, or processes. It facilitates the kinds of behaviour that are essential to an effective response to the coronavirus, in which we need to:

  1. Make judgements about the accuracy of information underpinning our choices to change behaviour (such as from scientific agencies).
  2. Assess the credibility of the people with whom we choose to cooperate or take advice (such as more or less trust in each country’s leadership).
  3. Measure the effectiveness of the governments or political systems to which we pledge our loyalty.

Crucially, in most cases, people need to put their trust in actions or outcomes caused by people they do not know, and the explanation for this kind of trust is very different to trusting people you know.

  1. What does trust look like in policymaking?

Think of trust as a mechanism to boost cooperation and coalition formation, help reduce uncertainty, and minimise the ‘transactions costs’ of cooperation (for example, monitoring behaviour, or producing or enforcing contracts). However, uncertainty is remarkably high because the policy process is not easy to understand. We can try to understand the ‘mechanisms’ of trust, to boost cooperation, with reference to these statements about trustees and the trusted:

  1. Individuals need to find ways to make choices about who to trust and distrust.
  2. However, they must act within a complex policymaking environment in which they have minimal knowledge of what will happen and who will make it happen.
  3. To respond effectively, people seek ways to cooperate with others systematically, such as by establishing formal and informal rules.

People seeking to make and influence policy must act despite uncertainty about the probability of success or risk of failure. In a crisis, it happens almost instantly. People generate beliefs about what they want to happen and how their reliance on others can help it happen. This calculation depends on:

  • Another person or organisation’s reputation for being trustworthy, allowing people the ability to increase certainty when they calculate the risk of engagement.
  • The psychology of trust and perceptions of another actor’s motives. To some extent, people gather information and use logic to determine someone’s competence. However, they also use gut feeling or emotion to help them decide to depend on someone else. They may also trust a particular source if the cognitive load is low, such as because (a) the source is familiar (e.g. a well-known politician or a celebrity, or oft-used source), or (b) the information is not challenging to remember or accept.

If so, facilitators of trust include:

  • People share the same characteristics, such as beliefs, norms, or expectations.
  • Some people have reputations for being reliable, predictable, honest, competent, and/ or relatively selfless.
  • Good experiences of previous behaviour, including repeated interactions that foster rewards and help predict future risk (with face to face contact often described as particularly helpful).
  • People may trust people in a position of authority (or the organisation or office), such as an expert or policymaker (although perhaps the threat of rule enforcement is better understood as a substitute for trust, and in practice it is difficult to spot the difference).

High levels of trust are apparent when effective practices – built on reciprocity, emotional bonds, and/ or positive expectations – become the norms or formalised and written down for all to see and agree. High levels of distrust indicate a need to deter the breach of agreements, by introducing expectations combined with sanctions for not behaving as expected.

  1. Who should you trust?

These concepts do not explain fully why people trust particular people more than others, or help us determine who you should trust during a crisis.

Rather, first, they help us reflect on the ways in which people have been describing their own thought processes (click here, and scroll to ‘Limiting the use of evidence’), such as trusting an expert source because they: (a) have a particular scientific background, (b) have proven to be honest and reliable in the past, (c) represent a wider scientific profession/ community, (d) are part of a systematic policymaking machinery, (e) can be held to account for their actions, (f) are open about the limits to their knowledge, and/or (g) engage critically with information to challenge simplistic rushes to judgement. Overall, note how much trust relates to our minimal knowledge about their research skills, prompting us to rely on an assessment of their character or status to judge their behaviour. In most cases, this is an informal process in which people may not state (or really know) why they trust or distrust someone so readily.

Then, we can reflect on who we trust, and why, and if we should change how we make such calculations during a crisis like the coronavirus. Examples include:

  • A strong identity with a left or right wing cause might prompt us only to trust people from one political party. This thought process may be efficient during elections and debates, but does it work so well during a crisis necessitating so high levels of cross-party cooperation?
  • People may be inclined to ignore advice because they do not trust their government, but maybe (a) high empathy for their vulnerable neighbours, and (b) low certainty about the impact of their actions, should prompt them to trust in government advice unless they have a tangible reason not to (while low empathy helps explain actions such as hoarding).
  • Government policy is based strongly on the extent to which policymakers trust people to do the right thing. Most debates in liberal democracies relate to the idea that (a) people can be trusted, so give advice and keep action voluntary, or cannot be trusted, so make them do the right thing, and that (b) citizens can trust their government. In other words, it must be a reciprocal relationship (see the Tweets in Step 3).

Finally, governments make policy based on limited knowledge and minimal control of the outcomes, and they often respond with trial-and-error strategies. The latter is fine if attention to policy is low and trust in government sufficiently high. However, in countries like the UK and US, each new choice prompts many people to question not only the competence of leaders but also their motivation. This is a worrying development for which everyone should take some responsibility.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

The coronavirus and evidence-informed policy analysis (short version)

The coronavirus and evidence-informed policy analysis (long version)



Filed under 1000 words, 750 word policy analysis, Public health, public policy

The coronavirus and evidence-informed policy analysis (short version)

The coronavirus feels like a new policy problem that requires new policy analysis. The analysis should be informed by (a) good evidence, translated into (b) good policy. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that either of those things are straightforward. There are simple-looking steps to go from defining a problem to making a recommendation, but this simplicity masks the profoundly political process that must take place. Each step in analysis involves political choices to prioritise some problems and solutions over others, and therefore prioritise some people’s lives at the expense of others.

The very-long version of this post takes us through those steps in the UK, and situates them in a wider political and policymaking context. This post is shorter, and only scratches the surface of analysis.

5 steps to policy analysis

  1. Define the problem.

Perhaps we can sum it up as: (a) the impact of this virus and illness will be a level of death and illness that could overwhelm the population and exceed the capacity of public services, so (b) we need to contain the virus enough to make sure it spreads in the right way at the right time, so (c) we need to encourage and make people change their behaviour (primarily via hygiene and social distancing). However, there are many ways to frame this problem to emphasise the importance of some populations over others, and some impacts over others.

  1. Identify technically and politically feasible solutions.

Solutions are not really solutions: they are policy instruments that address one aspect of the problem, including taxation and spending, delivering public services, funding research, giving advice to the population, and regulating or encouraging changes to social behaviour. Each new instrument contributes an existing mix, with unpredictable and unintended consequences. Some instruments seem technically feasible (they will work as intended if implemented), but will not be adopted unless politically feasible (enough people support their introduction). Or vice versa. This dual requirement rules out a lot of responses.

  1. Use values and goals to compare solutions.

Typical judgements combine: (a) broad descriptions of values such as efficiency, fairness, freedom, security, and human dignity, (b) instrumental goals, such as sustainable policymaking (can we do it, and for how long?), and political feasibility (will people agree to it, and will it make me more or less popular or trusted?), and (c) the process to make choices, such as the extent to which a policy process involves citizens or stakeholders (alongside experts) in deliberation. They combine to help policymakers come to high profile choices (such as the balance between individual freedom and state coercion), and low profile but profound choices (to influence the level of public service capacity, and level of state intervention, and therefore who and how many people will die).

  1. Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.

It is difficult to envisage a way for the UK Government to publicise all of the thinking behind its choices (Step 3) and predictions (Step 4) in a way that would encourage effective public deliberation. People often call for the UK Government to publicise its expert advice and operational logic, but I am not sure how they would separate it from their normative logic about who should live or die, or provide a frank account without unintended consequences for public trust or anxiety. If so, one aspect of government policy is to keep some choices implicit and avoid a lot of debate on trade-offs. Another is to make choices continuously without knowing what their impact will be (the most likely scenario right now).

  1. Make a choice, or recommendation to your client.

Your recommendation or choice would build on these four steps. Define the problem with one framing at the expense of the others. Romanticise some people and not others. Decide how to support some people, and coerce or punish others. Prioritise the lives of some people in the knowledge that others will suffer or die. Do it despite your lack of expertise and profoundly limited knowledge and information. Learn from experts, but don’t assume that only scientific experts have relevant knowledge (decolonise; coproduce). Recommend choices that, if damaging, could take decades to fix after you’ve gone. Consider if a policymaker is willing and able to act on your advice, and if your proposed action will work as intended. Consider if a government is willing and able to bear the economic and political costs. Protect your client’s popularity, and trust in your client, at the same time as protecting lives. Consider if your advice would change if the problem seemed to change. If you are writing your analysis, maybe keep it down to one sheet of paper (in other words, fewer words than in this post up to this point).

Policy analysis is not as simple as these steps suggest, and further analysis of the wider policymaking environment helps describe two profound limitations to simple analytical thought and action.

  1. Policymakers must ignore almost all evidence

The amount of policy relevant information is infinite, and capacity is finite. So, individuals and governments need ways to filter out almost all of it. Individuals combine cognition and emotion to help them make choices efficiently, and governments have equivalent rules to prioritise only some information. They include: define a problem and a feasible response, seek information that is available, understandable, and actionable, and identify credible sources of information and advice. In that context, the vague idea of trusting or not trusting experts is nonsense, and the larger post highlights the many flawed ways in which all people decide whose expertise counts.

  1. They do not control the policy process.

Policymakers engage in a messy and unpredictable world in which no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a policy recommendation into an outcome.

  • There are many policymakers and influencers spread across a political system. For example, consider the extent to which each government department, devolved governments, and public and private organisations are making their own choices that help or hinder the UK government approach.
  • Most choices in government are made in ‘subsystems’, with their own rules and networks, over which ministers have limited knowledge and influence.
  • The social and economic context, and events, are largely out of their control.

The take home messages (if you accept this line of thinking)

  1. The coronavirus is an extreme example of a general situation: policymakers will always have very limited knowledge of policy problems and control over their policymaking environment. They make choices to frame problems narrowly enough to seem solvable, rule out most solutions as not feasible, make value judgements to try help some more than others, try to predict the results, and respond when the results do not match their hopes or expectations.
  2. This is not a message of doom and despair. Rather, it encourages us to think about how to influence government, and hold policymakers to account, in a thoughtful and systematic way that does not mislead the public or exacerbate the problem we are seeing. No one is helping their government solve the problem by saying stupid shit on the internet (OK, that last bit was a message of despair).


Further reading:

The longer report sets out these arguments in much more detail, with some links to further thoughts and developments.

This series of ‘750 words’ posts summarises key texts in policy analysis and tries to situate policy analysis in a wider political and policymaking context. Note the focus on whose knowledge counts, which is not yet a big feature of this crisis.

These series of 500 words and 1000 words posts (with podcasts) summarise concepts and theories in policy studies.

This page on evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) uses those insights to demonstrate why EBPM is  a political slogan rather than a realistic expectation.

These recorded talks relate those insights to common questions asked by researchers: why do policymakers seem to ignore my evidence, and what can I do about it? I’m happy to record more (such as on the topic you just read about) but not entirely sure who would want to hear what.


Filed under 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer, POLU9UK, Prevention policy, Psychology Based Policy Studies, Public health, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy

The coronavirus and evidence-informed policy analysis (long version)

This is the long version. It is long. Too long to call a blog post. Let’s call it a ‘living document’ that I will update and amend as new developments arise. In most cases, I am adding tweets, so the date of the update is embedded. If I add a new section, I will add a date. The short version is shorter.

The coronavirus feels like a new policy problem. Governments already have policies for public health crises, but the level of uncertainty about the spread and impact of this virus seems to be taking it to a new level of policy, media, and public attention. The UK Government’s Prime Minister calls it ‘the worst public health crisis for a generation’.

As such, there is no shortage of opinions on what to do, but there is a shortage of well-considered opinions, producing little consensus. Many people are rushing to judgement and expressing remarkably firm opinions about the best solutions, but their contributions add up to contradictory evaluations, in which:

  • the government is doing precisely the right thing or the completely wrong thing,
  • we should listen to this expert saying one thing or another expert saying the opposite.

Lots of otherwise-sensible people are doing what they bemoan in politicians: rushing to judgement, largely accepting or sharing evidence only if it reinforces that judgement, and/or using their interpretation of any new development to settle scores with their opponents.

Yet, anyone who feels, without uncertainty, that they have the best definition of, and solution to, this problem is a fool. If people are also sharing bad information and advice, they are dangerous fools. Further, as Professor Madley puts it (in the video below), ‘anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen over the next six months is lying’.

In that context, how can we make sense of public policy to address the coronavirus in a more systematic way?

Studies of policy analysis and policymaking do not solve a policy problem, but they at least give us a language to think it through.

  1. Let’s focus on the UK as an example, and use common steps in policy analysis, to help us think through the problem and how to try to manage it.
  • In each step, note how quickly it is possible to be overwhelmed by uncertainty and ambiguity, even when the issue seems so simple at first.
  • Note how difficult it is to move from Step 1, and to separate Step 1 from the others. It is difficult to define the problem without relating it to the solution (or to the ways in which we will evaluate each solution).
  1. Let’s relate that analysis to research on policymaking, to understand the wider context in which people pay attention to, and try to address, important problems that are largely out of their control.

Throughout, note that I am describing a thought process as simply as I can, not a full examination of relevant evidence. I am highlighting the problems that people face when ‘diagnosing’ policy problems, not trying to diagnose it myself. To do so, I draw initially on common advice from the key policy analysis texts (summaries of the texts that policy analysis students are most likely to read) that simplify the process a little too much. Still, the thought process that it encourages took me hours alone (spread over three days) to produce no real conclusion. Policymakers and advisers, in the thick of this problem, do not have that luxury of time or uncertainty.

See also: Boris Johnson’s address to the nation in full (23.3.20) and press conference transcripts

Step 1 Define the problem


Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Provide a diagnosis of a policy problem, using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention.
  • Identify its severity, urgency, cause, and our ability to solve it. Don’t define the wrong problem, such as by oversimplifying.
  • Problem definition is a political act of framing, as part of a narrative to evaluate the nature, cause, size, and urgency of an issue.
  • Define the nature of a policy problem, and the role of government in solving it, while engaging with many stakeholders.
  • ‘Diagnose the undesirable condition’ and frame it as ‘a market or government failure (or maybe both)’.

Coronavirus as a physical problem is not the same as a coronavirus policy problem. To define the physical problem is to identify the nature, spread, and impact of a virus and illness on individuals and populations. To define a policy problem, we identify the physical problem and relate it (implicitly or explicitly) to what we think a government can, and should, do about it. Put more provocatively, it is only a policy problem if policymakers are willing and able to offer some kind of solution.

This point may seem semantic, but it raises a profound question about the capacity of any government to solve a problem like an epidemic, or for governments to cooperate to solve a pandemic. It is easy for an outsider to exhort a government to ‘do something!’ (or ‘ACT NOW!’) and express certainty about what would happen. However, policymakers inside government:

  1. Do not enjoy the same confidence that they know what is happening, or that their actions will have their intended consequences, and
  2. Will think twice about trying to regulate social behaviour under those circumstances, especially when they
  3. Know that any action or inaction will benefit some and punish others.

For example, can a government make people wash their hands? Or, if it restricts gatherings at large events, can it stop people gathering somewhere else, with worse impact? If it closes a school, can it stop children from going to their grandparents to be looked after until it reopens? There are 101 similar questions and, in each case, I reckon the answer is no. Maybe government action has some of the desired impact; maybe not. If you agree, then the question might be: what would it really take to force people to change their behaviour?

See also: Coronavirus has not suspended politics – it has revealed the nature of power (David Runciman)

The answer is: often too much for a government to consider (in a liberal democracy), particularly if policymakers are informed that it will not have the desired impact.

If so, the UK government’s definition of the policy problem will incorporate this implicit question: what can we do if we can influence, but not determine (or even predict well) how people behave?

Uncertainty about the coronavirus plus uncertainty about policy impact

Now, add that general uncertainty about the impact of government to this specific uncertainty about the likely nature and spread of the coronavirus:

A summary of this video suggests:

  • There will be an epidemic (a profound spread to many people in a short space of time), then the problem will be endemic (a long-term, regular feature of life) (see also UK policy on coronavirus COVID-19 assumes that the virus is here to stay).
  • In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to produce ‘herd immunity’ is for most people to be infected and recover

[Note: there is much debate on whether ‘herd immunity’ is or is not government policy. Much of it relates to interpretation, based on levels of trust/distrust in the UK Government, its Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister’s special adviser. I discuss this point below under ‘trial and error policymaking’. See also Who can you trust during the coronavirus crisis? ]

  • The ideal spread involves all well people sharing the virus first, while all vulnerable people (e.g. older, and/or with existing health problems that affect their immune systems) protected in one isolated space, but it won’t happen like that; so, we are trying to minimise damage in the real world.
  • We mainly track the spread via deaths, with data showing a major spike appearing one month later, so the problem may only seem real to most people when it is too late to change behaviour.
  • A lot of the spread will happen inside homes, where the role of government is minimal (compared to public places). So, for example, the impact of school closures could be good (isolation) or make things worse (children spreading the virus to vulnerable relatives) (see also ‘we don’t know [if the UKG decision not to close schools] was brilliant or catastrophic’). [Update 18.3.20: as it turned out, the First Minister’s argument for closing Scottish schools was that there were too few teachers available).
  • The choice in theory is between a rapid epidemic with a high peak, or a slowed-down epidemic over a longer period, but ‘anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen over the next six months is lying’.
  • Maybe this epidemic will be so memorable as to shift social behaviour, but so much depends on trying to predict (badly) if individuals will actually change (see also Spiegelhalter on communicating risk).

None of this account tells policymakers what to do, but at least it helps them clarify three key aspects of their policy problem:

  1. The impact of this virus and illness could overwhelm the population, to the extent that it causes mass deaths, causes a level of illness that exceeds the capacity of health services to treat, and contributes to an unpredictable amount of social and economic damage.
  2. We need to contain the virus enough to make sure it (a) spreads at the right speed and/or (b) peaks at the right time. The right speed seems to be: a level that allows most people to recover alone, while the most vulnerable are treated well in healthcare settings that have enough capacity. The right time seems to be the part of the year with the lowest demand on health services (e.g. summer is better than winter). In other words, (a) reduce the size of the peak by ‘flattening the curve’, and/or (b) find the right time of year to address the peak, while (c) anticipating more than one peak.

My impression is that the most frequently-expressed aim is (a) …

… while the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer also seems to be describing (b):

  1. We need to encourage or coerce people to change their behaviour, to look after themselves (e.g. by handwashing) and forsake their individual preferences for the sake of public health (e.g. by self-isolating or avoiding vulnerable people). Perhaps we can foster social trust and empathy to encourage responsible individual action. Perhaps people will only protect others if obliged to do so (compare Stone; Ostrom; game theory).

From uncertainty to ambiguity

If you are still with me, I reckon you would have worded those aims slightly differently, right? There is some ambiguity about these broad intentions, partly because there is some uncertainty, and partly because policymakers need to set rather vague intentions to generate the highest possible support for them. However, vagueness is not our friend during a crisis involving such high anxiety. Further, they are only delaying the inevitable choices that people need to make to turn a complex multi-faceted problem into something simple enough to describe and manage. The problem may be complex, but our attention focuses only on a small number of aspects, at the expense of the rest. Examples that have arisen, so far, include to accentuate:

  1. The health of the whole population or people who would be affected disproportionately by the illness.
  • For example, the difference in emphasis affects the health advice for the relatively vulnerable (and the balance between exhortation and reassurance)

  1. Inequalities in relation to health, socio-economic status (e.g. income, gender, race, ethnicity), or the wider economy.
  • For example, restrictive measures may reduce the risk of harm to some, but increase the burden on people with no savings or reliable sources of income.
  • For example, some people are hoarding large quantities of home and medical supplies that (a) other people cannot afford, and (b) some people cannot access, despite having higher need.
  • For example, social distancing will limit the spread of the virus (see the nascent evidence), but also produce highly unequal forms of social isolation that increase the risk of domestic abuse (possibly exacerbated by school closures) and undermine wellbeing. Or, there will be major policy changes, such as to the rules to detain people under mental health legislation, regarding abortion, or in relation to asylum.

  • For example, governments cannot ignore the impact of their actions on the economy, however much they emphasise mortality, health, and wellbeing. Most high-profile emphasis was initially on the fate of large and small businesses, and people with mortgages, but a long period of crisis will a tip the balance from low income to unsustainable poverty (even prompting Iain Duncan Smith to propose policy change), and why favour people who can afford a mortgage over people scraping the money together for rent?

  1. A need for more communication and exhortation, or for direct action to change behaviour.
  2. The short term (do everything possible now) or long term (manage behaviour over many months).

  1. How to maintain trust in the UK government when (a) people are more or less inclined to trust a the current part of government and general trust may be quite low, and (b) so many other governments are acting differently from the UK.

  • For example, note the visible presence of the Prime Minister, but also his unusually high deference to unelected experts such as (a) UK Government senior scientists providing direct advice to ministers and the public, and (b) scientists drawing on limited information to model behaviour and produce realistic scenarios (we can return to the idea of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ later). This approach is not uncommon with epidemics/ pandemics (LD was then the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer):

  • For example, note how often people are second guessing and criticising the UK Government position (and questioning the motives of Conservative ministers).
  1. How policy in relation to the coronavirus relates to other priorities (e.g. Brexit, Scottish independence, trade, education, culture)

7. Who caused, or who is exacerbating, the problem? The answers to such questions helps determine which populations are most subject to policy intervention.

  • For example, people often try to lay blame for viruses on certain populations, based on their nationality, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or behaviour (e.g. with HIV).
  • For example, the (a) association between the coronavirus and China and Chinese people (e.g. restrict travel to/ from China; e.g. exacerbate racism), initially overshadowed (b) the general role of international travellers (e.g. place more general restrictions on behaviour), and (c) other ways to describe who might be responsible for exacerbating a crisis.

See also: ‘Othering the Virus‘ by Marius Meinhof

Under ‘normal’ policymaking circumstances, we would expect policymakers to resolve this ambiguity by exercising power to set the agenda and make choices that close off debate. Attention rises at first, a choice is made, and attention tends to move on to something else. With the coronavirus, attention to many different aspects of the problem has been lurching remarkably quickly. The definition of the policy problem often seems to be changing daily or hourly, and more quickly than the physical problem. It will also change many more times, particularly when attention to each personal story of illness or death prompts people to question government policy every hour. If the policy problem keeps changing in these ways, how could a government solve it?

Step 2 Identify technically and politically feasible solutions


Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Identify the relevant and feasible policy solutions that your audience/ client might consider.
  • Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).
  • Provide ‘plausible’ predictions about the future effects of current/ alternative policies.
  • Identify many possible solutions, then select the ‘most promising’ for further analysis.
  • Identify how governments have addressed comparable problems, and a previous policy’s impact.

Policy ‘solutions’ are better described as ‘tools’ or ‘instruments’, largely because (a) it is rare to expect them to solve a problem, and (b) governments use many instruments (in different ways, at different times) to make policy, including:

  1. Public expenditure (e.g. to boost spending for emergency care, crisis services, medical equipment)
  2. Economic incentives and disincentives (e.g. to reduce the cost of business or borrowing, or tax unhealthy products)
  3. Linking spending to entitlement or behaviour (e.g. social security benefits conditional on working or seeking work, perhaps with the rules modified during crises)
  4. Formal regulations versus voluntary agreements (e.g. making organisations close, or encouraging them to close)
  5. Public services: universal or targeted, free or with charges, delivered directly or via non-governmental organisations
  6. Legal sanctions (e.g. criminalising reckless behaviour)
  7. Public education or advertising (e.g. as paid adverts or via media and social media)
  8. Funding scientific research, and organisations to advise on policy
  9. Establishing or reforming policymaking units or departments
  10. Behavioural instruments, to ‘nudge’ behaviour (seemingly a big feature in the UK , such as on how to encourage handwashing).

As a result, what we call ‘policy’ is really a complex mix of instruments adopted by one or more governments. A truism in policy studies is that it is difficult to define or identify exactly what policy is because (a) each new instrument adds to a pile of existing measures (with often-unpredictable consequences), and (b) many instruments designed for individual sectors tend, in practice, to intersect in ways that we cannot always anticipate. When you think through any government response to the coronavirus, note how every measure is connected to many others.

Further, it is a truism in public policy that there is a gap between technical and political feasibility: the things that we think will be most likely to work as intended if implemented are often the things that would receive the least support or most opposition. For example:

  1. Redistributing income and wealth to reduce socio-economic inequalities (e.g. to allay fears about the impact of current events on low-income and poverty) seems to be less politically feasible than distributing public services to deal with the consequences of health inequalities.
  2. Providing information and exhortation seems more politically feasible than the direct regulation of behaviour. Indeed, compared to many other countries, the UK Government seems reluctant to introduce ‘quarantine’ style measures to restrict behaviour.

Under ‘normal’ circumstances, governments may be using these distinctions as simple heuristics to help them make modest policy changes while remaining sufficiently popular (or at least looking competent). If so, they are adding or modifying policy instruments during individual ‘windows of opportunity’ for specific action, or perhaps contributing to the sense of incremental change towards an ambitious goal.

Right now, we may be pushing the boundaries of what seems possible, since crises – and the need to address public anxiety – tend to change what seems politically feasible. However, many options that seem politically feasible may not be possible (e.g. to buy a lot of extra medical/ technology capacity quickly), or may not work as intended (e.g. to restrict the movement of people). Think of technical and political feasibility as necessary but insufficient on their own, which is a requirement that rules out a lot of responses.

Step 3 Use value-based criteria and political goals to compare solutions


Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Typical value judgements relate to efficiency, equity and fairness, the trade-off between individual freedom and collective action, and the extent to which a policy process involves citizens in deliberation.
  • Normative assessments are based on values such as ‘equality, efficiency, security, democracy, enlightenment’ and beliefs about the preferable balance between state, communal, and market/ individual solutions
  • ‘Specify the objectives to be attained in addressing the problem and the criteria  to  evaluate  the  attainment  of  these  objectives  as  well as  the  satisfaction  of  other  key  considerations  (e.g.,  equity,  cost, equity, feasibility)’.
  • ‘Effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and administrative efficiency’ are common.
  • Identify (a) the values to prioritise, such as ‘efficiency’, ‘equity’, and ‘human dignity’, and (b) ‘instrumental goals’, such as ‘sustainable public finance or political feasibility’, to generate support for solutions.
  • Instrumental questions may include: Will this intervention produce the intended outcomes? Is it easy to get agreement and maintain support? Will it make me popular, or diminish trust in me even further?

Step 3 is the most simple-looking but difficult task. Remember that it is a political, not technical, process. It is also a political process that most people would like to avoid doing (at least publicly) because it involves making explicit the ways in which we prioritise some people over others. Public policy is the choice to help some people and punish or refuse to help others (and includes the choice to do nothing).

Policy analysis texts describe a relatively simple procedure of identifying criteria and producing a table (with a solution in each row, and criteria in each column) to compare the trade-offs between each solution. However, these criteria are notoriously difficult to define, and people resolve that problem by exercising power to decide what each term means, and whose interests should be served when they resolve trade-offs. For example, see Stone on whose needs come first, who benefits from each definition of fairness, and how technical-looking processes such as ‘cost benefit analysis’ mask political choices.

Right now, the most obvious and visible trade-off, accentuated in the UK, is between individual freedom and collective action, or the balance between state, communal, and market/ individual solutions. In comparison with many countries (and China and Italy in particular), the UK Government seems to be favouring individual action over state quarantine measures. However, most trade-offs are difficult to categorise

  1. What should be the balance between efforts to minimise the deaths of some (generally in older populations) and maximise the wellbeing of others? This is partly about human dignity during crisis, how we treat different people fairly, and the balance of freedom and coercion.
  2. How much should a government spend to keep people alive using intensive case or expensive medicines, when the money could be spent improving the lives of far more people? This is partly about human dignity, the relative efficiency of policy measures, and fairness.

If you are like me, you don’t really want to answer such questions (indeed, even writing them looks callous). If so, one way to resolve them is to elect policymakers to make such choices on our behalf (perhaps aided by experts in moral philosophy, or with access to deliberative forums). To endure, this unusually high level of deference to elected ministers requires some kind of reciprocal act:

See also: We must all do everything in our power to protect lives (UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care)

Still, I doubt that governments are making reportable daily choices with reference to a clear and explicit view of what the trade-offs and priorities should be, because their choices are about who will die, and their ability to predict outcomes is limited.

See also: Media experts despair at Boris Johnson’s coronavirus campaign (Sonia Sodha)

Step 4 Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.


Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Focus on the outcomes that key actors care about (such as value for money), and quantify and visualise your predictions if possible. Compare the pros and cons of each solution, such as how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs.
  • ‘Assess the outcomes of the policy options in light of the criteria and weigh trade-offs between the advantages and disadvantages of the options’.
  • Estimate the cost of a new policy, in comparison with current policy, and in relation to factors such as savings to society or benefits to certain populations. Use your criteria and projections to compare each alternative in relation to their likely costs and benefits.
  • Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).
  • Short deadlines dictate that you use ‘logic and theory, rather than systematic empirical evidence’ to make predictions efficiently.
  • Monitoring is crucial because it is difficult to predict policy success, and unintended consequences are inevitable. Try to measure the outcomes of your solution, while noting that evaluations are contested.

It is difficult to envisage a way for the UK Government to publicise the thinking behind its choices (Step 3) and predictions (Step 4) in a way that would encourage effective public deliberation, rather than a highly technical debate between a small number of academics:

Further, people often call for the UK Government to publicise its expert advice and operational logic, but I am not sure how they would separate it from their normative logic, or provide a frank account without unintended consequences for public trust or anxiety. If so, government policy involves (a) to keep some choices implicit to avoid a lot of debate on trade-offs, and (b) to make general statements about choices when they do not know what their impact will be.

Step 5 Make a recommendation to your client


Common advice in policy analysis texts:

  • Examine your case through the eyes of a policymaker. Keep it simple and concise.
  • Make a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
  • Client-oriented advisors identify the beliefs of policymakers and tailor accordingly.
  • ‘Unless your client asks you not to do so, you should explicitly recommend one policy’

I now invite you to make a recommendation (step 5) based on our discussion so far (steps 1-4). Define the problem with one framing at the expense of the others. Romanticise some people and not others. Decide how to support some people, and coerce or punish others. Prioritise the lives of some people in the knowledge that others will suffer or die. Do it despite your lack of expertise and profoundly limited knowledge and information. Learn from experts, but don’t assume that only scientific experts have relevant knowledge (decolonise; coproduce). Recommend choices that, if damaging, could take decades to fix after you’ve gone. Consider if a policymaker is willing and able to act on your advice, and if your proposed action will work as intended. Consider if a government is willing and able to bear the economic and political costs. Protect your client’s popularity, and trust in your client, at the same time as protecting lives. Consider if your advice would change if the problem would seem to change. If you are writing your analysis, maybe keep it down to one sheet of paper (and certainly far fewer words than in this post). Better you than me.

Please now watch this video before I suggest that things are not so simple.

Would that policy analysis were so simple

Imagine writing policy analysis in an imaginary world, in which there is a single powerful ‘rational’ policymaker at the heart of government, making policy via an orderly series of stages.

cycle and cycle spirograph 18.2.20

Your audience would be easy to identify at each stage, your analysis would be relatively simple, and you would not need to worry about what happens after you make a recommendation for policy change (since the selection of a solution would lead to implementation).  You could adopt a simple 5 step policy analysis method, use widely-used tools such as cost-benefit analysis to compare solutions, and know where the results would feed into the policy process.

Studies of policy analysts describe how unrealistic this expectation tends to be (Radin, Brans, Thissen).

Table for coronavirus 750

For example, there are many policymakers, analysts, influencers, and experts spread across political systems, and engaging with 101 policy problems simultaneously, which suggests that it is not even clear how everyone fits together and interacts in what we call (for the sake of simplicity) ‘the policy process’.

Instead, we can describe real world policymaking with reference to two factors.

The wider policymaking environment: 1. Limiting the use of evidence

First, policymakers face ‘bounded rationality’, in which they only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of available facts, are unable to separate those facts from their values (since we use our beliefs to evaluate the meaning of facts), struggle to make clear and consistent choices, and do not know what impact they will have. The consequences can include:

  • Limited attention, and lurches of attention. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, and policymaking organizations struggle to process all policy-relevant information. They prioritize some issues and information and ignore the rest.
  • Power and ideas. Some ways of understanding and describing the world dominate policy debate, helping some actors and marginalizing others.
  • Beliefs and coalitions. Policymakers see the world through the lens of their beliefs. They engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy, form coalitions with people who share them, and compete with coalitions who don’t.
  • Dealing with complexity. They engage in ‘trial-and-error strategies’ to deal with uncertain and dynamic environments (see the new section on trial-and-error- at the end).
  • Framing and narratives. Policy audiences are vulnerable to manipulation when they rely on other actors to help them understand the world. People tell simple stories to persuade their audience to see a policy problem and its solution in a particular way.
  • The social construction of populations. Policymakers draw on quick emotional judgements, and social stereotypes, to propose benefits to some target populations and punishments for others.
  • Rules and norms. Institutions are the formal rules and informal understandings that represent a way to narrow information searches efficiently to make choices quickly.
  • Learning. Policy learning is a political process in which actors engage selectively with information, not a rational search for truth.

Evidence-based or expert-informed policymaking

Put simply, policymakers cannot oversee a simple process of ‘evidence-based policymaking’. Rather, to all intents and purposes:

  1. They need to find ways to ignore most evidence so that they can focus disproportionately on some. Otherwise, they will be unable to focus well enough to make choices. The cognitive and organisational shortcuts, described above, help them do it almost instantly.
  2. They also use their experience to help them decide – often very quickly – what evidence is policy-relevant under the circumstances. Relevance can include:
  • How it relates to the policy problem as they define it (Step 1).
  • If it relates to a feasible solution (Step 2).
  • If it is timely, available, understandable, and actionable.
  • If it seems credible, such as from groups representing wider populations, or from people they trust.
  1. They use a specific shortcut: relying on expertise.

However, the vague idea of trusting or not trusting experts is a nonsense, largely because it is virtually impossible to set a clear boundary between relevant/irrelevant experts and find a huge consensus on (exactly) what is happening and what to do. Instead, in political systems, we define the policy problem or find other ways to identify the most relevant expertise and exclude other sources of knowledge.

In the UK Government’s case, it appears to be relying primarily on expertise from its own general scientific advisers, medical and public health advisers, and – perhaps more controversially – advisers on behavioural public policy.

box 7.1

Right now, it is difficult to tell exactly how and why it relies on each expert (at least when the expert is not in a clearly defined role, in which case it would be irresponsible not to consider their advice). Further, there are regular calls on Twitter for ministers to be more open about their decisions.

However, don’t underestimate the problems of identifying why we make choices, then justifying one expert or another (while avoiding pointless arguments), or prioritising one form of advice over another. Look, for example, at the kind of short-cuts that intelligent people use, which seem sensible enough, but would receive much more intense scrutiny if presented in this way by governments:

  • Sophisticated speculation by experts in a particular field, shared widely (look at the RTs), but questioned by other experts in another field:

  • Experts in one field trusting certain experts in another field based on personal or professional interaction:

  • Experts in one field not trusting a government’s approach based on its use of one (of many) sources of advice:

  • Experts representing a community of experts, criticising another expert, for misrepresenting the amount of expert scepticism of government experts (yes, I am trying to confuse you):

  • Expert debate on how well policymakers are making policy based on expert advice

  • Finding quite-sensible ways to trust certain experts over others, such as because they can be held to account in some way (and may be relatively worried about saying any old shit on the internet):

There are many more examples in which the shortcut to expertise is fine, but not particularly better than another shortcut (and likely to include a disproportionately high number of white men with STEM backgrounds).

Update: of course, they are better than the volume trumps expertise approach:

Further, in each case, we may be receiving this expert advice via many other people, and by the time it gets to us the meaning is lost or reversed (or there is some really sophisticated expert analysis of something rumoured – not demonstrated – to be true):

For what it’s worth, I tend to favour experts who:

(a) establish the boundaries of their knowledge, (b) admit to high uncertainty about the overall problem:

(c) (in this case) make it clear that they are working on scenarios, not simple prediction

(d) examine critically the too-simple ideas that float around, such as the idea that the UK Government should emulate ‘what works’ somewhere else

(e) situate their own position (in Prof Sridhar’s case, for mass testing) within a broader debate

However, note that most of these experts are from a very narrow social background, and from very narrow scientific fields (first in modelling, then likely in testing), despite the policy problem being largely about (a) who, and how many people, a government should try to save, and (b) how far a government should go to change behaviour to do it. It is understandable to defer in this way during a crisis, but it also contributes to a form of ‘depoliticisation’ that masks profound choices that benefit some people and leave others vulnerable to harm.

See also: COVID-19: a living systematic map of the evidence

See also: To what extent does evidence support decision making during infectious disease outbreaks? A scoping literature review

See also: Rights and responsibilities in the Coronavirus pandemic

The wider policymaking environment: 2. Limited control

Second, policymakers engage in a messy and unpredictable world in which no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a policy recommendation into an outcome. I normally use the following figure to think through the nature of a complex and unwieldy policymaking environment of which no ‘centre’ of government has full knowledge or control.

image policy process round 2 25.10.18

It helps us identify (further) the ways in which we can reject the idea that the UK Prime Minister and colleagues can fully understand and solve policy problems:

Actors. The environment contains many policymakers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government (‘venues’).

For example, consider how many key decisions that (a) have been made by organisations not in the UK central government, and (b) are more or less consistent with its advice, including:

  • Devolved governments announcing their own healthcare and public health responses.
  • Public sector employers initiating or encouraging at-home working (and many Universities moving quickly from in-person to online teaching)
  • Private organisations cancelling cultural and sporting events.

Context and events. Policy solutions relate to socioeconomic context and events which can be impossible to ignore and out of the control of policymakers. The coronavirus, and its impact on so many aspects on population health and wellbeing, is an extreme example of this problem.

Networks, Institutions, and Ideas. Policymakers and influencers operate in subsystems (specialist parts of political systems). They form networks or coalitions built on the exchange of resources or facilitated by trust underpinned by shared beliefs or previous cooperation. Many different parts of government have practices driven by their own formal and informal rules. Formal rules are often written down or known widely. Informal rules are the unwritten rules, norms and practices that are difficult to understand, and may not even be understood in the same way by participants. Political actors relate their analysis to shared understandings of the world – how it is, and how it should be – which are often so established as to be taken for granted. These dominant frames of reference establish the boundaries of the political feasibility of policy solutions.  These kinds of insights suggest that most policy decisions are considered, made, and delivered in the name of – but not in the full knowledge of – government ministers.

Trial and error policymaking in complex policymaking systems (17.3.20)

There are many ways to conceptualise this policymaking environment, but few theories provide specific advice on what to do, or how to engage effectively in it. One notable exception is the general advice that comes from complexity theory, including:

  • Law-like behaviour is difficult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Policymaking systems are difficult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
  • Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies.  An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
  • Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.

On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:

  1. Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
  2. To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.
  3. Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure (although see this example and this comment).
  4. Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’.

In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.

[See also: Complex systems and systems thinking]

Now, just imagine the UK Government taking that advice right now. I think it is fair to say that it would be condemned continuously (even more so than right now). Maybe that is because it is the wrong way to make policy in times of crisis. Maybe it is because too few people are willing and able to accept that the role of a small group of people at the centre of government is necessarily limited, and that effective policymaking requires trial-and-error rather than a single, fixed, grand strategy to be communicated to the public. The former highlights policy that changes with new information and perspective. The latter highlights errors of judgement, incompetence, and U-turns. In either case, the advice is changing as estimates of the coronavirus’ impact change:

I think this tension, in the way that we understand UK government, helps explain some of the criticism that it faces when changing its advice to reflect changes in its data or advice. This criticism becomes intense when people also question the competence or motives of ministers (and even people reporting the news) more generally, leading to criticism that ranges from mild to outrageous:

For me, this casual reference to a government policy to ‘cull the heard of the weak’ is outrageous, but you can find much worse on Twitter. It reflects wider debate on whether ‘herd immunity’ is or is not government policy. Much of it relates to interpretation of government statements, based on levels of trust/distrust in the UK Government, its Prime Minister and Secretaries of State, and the Prime Minister’s special adviser

However, I think that some of it is also about:

1. Wilful misinterpretation (particularly on Twitter). For example, in the early development and communication of policy, Boris Johnson was accused (in an irresponsibly misleading way) of advocating for herd immunity rather than restrictive measures.

See: Here is the transcript of what Boris Johnson said on This Morning about the new coronavirus (Full Fact)

full fact coronavirus

Below is one of the most misleading videos of its type. Look at how it cuts each segment into a narrative not provided by ministers or their advisors (see also this stinker):

2. The accentuation of a message not being emphasised by government spokespeople.

See for example this interview, described by Sky News as: The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has told Sky News that about 60% of people will need to become infected with coronavirus in order for the UK to enjoy “herd immunity”. You might be forgiven for thinking that he was on Sky extolling the virtues of a strategy to that end (and expressing sincere concerns on that basis). Yet, he was saying nothing of the sort. Rather, when prompted, he discussed herd immunity in relation to the belief that COVID-19 will endure long enough to become as common as seasonal flu.


See also British government wants UK to acquire coronavirus ‘herd immunity’, writes Robert Peston and live debates on whether or not ‘herd immunity’ was the goal of the UK government:

A more careful forensic analysis will try to relate each government choice to the ways in which key advisory bodies (such as the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, NERVTAG) received and described evidence on the current nature of the problem:

In some cases, maybe people are making the argument that trial-and-error is the best way to respond quickly, and adapt quickly, in a crisis but that the UK Government version is not what, say, the WHO thinks of as good kind of adaptive response. It is not possible to tell, at least from the general ways in which they justify acting quickly.

See also the BBC’s provocative question (which I expect to be replaced soon):

The take home messages

  1. The coronavirus is an extreme example of a general situation: policymakers will always have very limited knowledge of policy problems and control over their policymaking environment. They make choices to frame problems narrowly enough to seem solvable, rule out most solutions as not feasible, make value judgements to try help some more than others, try to predict the results, and respond when the results to not match their hopes or expectations.
  2. This is not a message of doom and despair. Rather, it encourages us to think about how to influence government, and hold policymakers to account, in a thoughtful and systematic way that does not mislead the public or exacerbate the problem we are seeing.

Further reading, until I can think of a better conclusion:

This series of ‘750 words’ posts summarises key texts in policy analysis and tries to situate policy analysis in a wider political and policymaking context. Note the focus on whose knowledge counts, which is not yet a big feature of this crisis.

These series of 500 words and 1000 words posts (with podcasts) summarise concepts and theories in policy studies.

This page on evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) uses those insights to demonstrate why EBPM is  a political slogan rather than a realistic expectation.

These recorded talks relate those insights to common questions asked by researchers: why do policymakers seem to ignore my evidence, and what can I do about it? I’m happy to record more (such as on the topic you just read about) but not entirely sure who would want to hear what.

See also: Advisers, Governments and why blunders happen? (Colin Talbot)

See also: Pandemic Science and Politics (Daniel Sarewitz)




Filed under 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer, POLU9UK, Prevention policy, Psychology Based Policy Studies, Public health, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: what you need as an analyst versus policymaking reality

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview. Note for the eagle eyed: you are not about to experience déjà vu. I’m just using the same introduction.

When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:

  1. ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
  2. ‘knowledge in the process’, to foster policy analysis (analysis for policy)

The lines between each approach are blurry, and each element makes less sense without the other. However, the distinction is crucial to help us overcome the major confusion associated with this question:

Does policymaking proceed through a series of stages?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that you can find about 40 blog posts (of 500 and 1000 words) which compare (a) a stage-based model called the policy cycle, and (b) the many, many policy concepts and theories that describe a far messier collection of policy processes.


In a nutshell, most policy theorists reject this image because it oversimplifies a complex policymaking system. The image provides a great way to introduce policy studies, and serves a political purpose, but it does more harm than good:

  1. Descriptively, it is profoundly inaccurate (unless you imagine thousands of policy cycles interacting with each other to produce less orderly behaviour and less predictable outputs).
  2. Prescriptively, it gives you rotten advice about the nature of your policymaking task (for more on these points, see this chapter, article, article, and series).

Why does the stages/ policy cycle image persist? Two relevant explanations


  1. It arose from a misunderstanding in policy studies

In another nutshell, Chris Weible and I argue (in a secret paper) that the stages approach represents a good idea gone wrong:

  • If you trace it back to its origins, you will find Lasswell’s description of decision functions: intelligence, recommendation, prescription, invocation, application, appraisal and termination.
  • These functions correspond reasonably well to a policy cycle’s stages: agenda setting, formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, and maintenance, succession or termination.
  • However, Lasswell was imagining functional requirements, while the cycle seems to describe actual stages.

In other words, if you take Lasswell’s list of what policy analysts/ policymakers need to do, multiple it by the number of actors (spread across many organisations or venues) trying to do it, then you get the multi-centric policy processes described by modern theories. If, instead, you strip all that activity down into a single cycle, you get the wrong idea.

  1. It is a functional requirement of policy analysis

This description should seem familiar, because the classic policy analysis texts appear to describe a similar series of required steps, such as:

  1. define the problem
  2. identify potential solutions
  3. choose the criteria to compare them
  4. evaluate them in relation to their predicted outcomes
  5. recommend a solution
  6. monitor its effects
  7. evaluate past policy to inform current policy.

However, these texts also provide a heavy dose of caution about your ability to perform these steps (compare Bardach, Dunn, Meltzer and Schwartz, Mintrom, Thissen and Walker, Weimer and Vining)

In addition, studies of policy analysis in action suggest that:

  • an individual analyst’s need for simple steps, to turn policymaking complexity into useful heuristics and pragmatic strategies,

should not be confused with

What you need versus what you can expect

Overall, this discussion of policy studies and policy analysis reminds us of a major difference between:

  1. Functional requirements. What you need from policymaking systems, to (a) manage your task (the 5-8 step policy analysis) and (b) understand and engage in policy processes (the simple policy cycle).
  2. Actual processes and outcomes. What policy concepts and theories tell us about bounded rationality (which limit the comprehensiveness of your analysis) and policymaking complexity (which undermines your understanding and engagement in policy processes).

Of course, I am not about to provide you with a solution to these problems.

Still, this discussion should help you worry a little bit less about the circular arguments you will find in key texts: here are some simple policy analysis steps, but policymaking is not as ‘rational’ as the steps suggest, but (unless you can think of an alternative) there is still value in the steps, and so on.

See also:

The New Policy Sciences


Filed under 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, public policy

Can A Government Really Take Control Of Public Policy?

This post first appeared on the MIHE blog to help sell my book.

During elections, many future leaders give the impression that they will take control of public policy. They promise major policy change and give little indication that anything might stand in their way.

This image has been a major feature of Donald Trump’s rhetoric on his US Presidency. It has also been a feature of campaigns for the UK withdrawal from the European Union (‘Brexit’) to allow its leaders to take back control of policy and policymaking. According to this narrative, Brexit would allow (a) the UK government to make profound changes to immigration and spending, and (b) Parliament and the public to hold the UK government directly to account, in contrast to a distant EU policy process less subject to direct British scrutiny.

Such promises are built on the false image of a single ‘centre’ of government, in which a small number of elected policymakers take responsibility for policy outcomes. This way of thinking is rejected continuously in the modern literature. Instead, policymaking is ‘multi-centric’: responsibility for policy outcomes is spread across many levels and types of government (‘centres’), and shared with organisations outside of government, to the extent that it is not possible to simply know who is in charge and to blame. This arrangement helps explain why leaders promise major policy change but most outcomes represent a minor departure from the status quo.

Some studies of politics relate this arrangement to the choice to share power across many centres. In the US, a written constitution ensures power sharing across different branches (executive, legislative, judicial) and between federal and state or local jurisdictions. In the UK, central government has long shared power with EU, devolved, and local policymaking organisations.

However, policy theories show that most aspects of multi-centric governance are necessary. The public policy literature provides many ways to describe such policy processes, but two are particularly useful.

The first approach is to explain the diffusion of power with reference to an enduring logic of policymaking, as follows:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is always in danger of becoming unmanageable. Policymakers manage complexity by breaking the state’s component parts into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across many parts of government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. They pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. They delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government.
  • Most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

This description suggests that senior elected politicians are less important than people think, their impact on policy is questionable, and elections may not provide major changes in policy. Most decisions are taken in their name but without their intervention.

A second, more general, approach is to show that elected politicians deal with such limitations by combining cognition and emotion to make choices quickly. Although such action allows them to be decisive, they occur within a policymaking environment over which governments have limited control. Government bureaucracies only have the coordinative capacity to direct policy outcomes in a small number of high priority areas. In most other cases, policymaking is spread across many venues, each with their own rules, networks, ways of seeing the world, and ways of responding to socio-economic factors and events.

In that context, we should always be sceptical when election candidates and referendum campaigners (or, in many cases, leaders of authoritarian governments) make such promises about political leadership and government control.

A more sophisticated knowledge of policy processes allows us to identify the limits to the actions of elected policymakers, and develop a healthier sense of pragmatism about the likely impact of government policy. The question of our age is not: how can governments take back control? Rather, it is: how can we hold policymakers to account in a complex system over which they have limited knowledge and even less control?

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Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Beryl Radin, B (2019) Policy Analysis in the Twenty-First Century

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. As usual, the 750-word description is more for branding than accuracy.

Beryl Radin (2019) Policy Analysis in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge)

Radin cover 2019

The basic relationship between a decision-maker (the client) and an analyst has moved from a two-person encounter to an extremely complex and diverse set of interactions’ (Radin, 2019: 2).

Many texts in this series continue to highlight the client-oriented nature of policy analysis (Weimer and Vining), but within a changing policy process that has altered the nature of that relationship profoundly.

This new policymaking environment requires new policy analysis skills and training (see Mintrom), and limits the applicability of classic 8-step (or 5-step) policy analysis techniques (2019: 82).

We can use Radin’s work to present two main stories of policy analysis:

  1. The old ways of making policy resembled a club, or reflected a clear government hierarchy, involving:
  • a small number of analysts, generally inside government (such as senior bureaucrats, scientific experts, and – in particular- economists),
  • giving technical or factual advice,
  • about policy formulation,
  • to policymakers at the heart of government,
  • on the assumption that policy problems would be solved via analysis and action.
  1. Modern policy analysis is characterised by a more open and politicised process in which:
  • many analysts, inside and outside government,
  • compete to interpret facts, and give advice,
  • about setting the agenda, and making, delivering, and evaluating policy,
  • across many policymaking venues,
  • often on the assumption that governments have a limited ability to understand and solve complex policy problems.

As a result, the client-analyst relationship is increasingly fluid:

In previous eras, the analyst’s client was a senior policymaker, the main focus was on the analyst-client relationship, and ‘both analysts and clients did not spend much time or energy thinking about the dimensions of the policy environment in which they worked’ (2019: 59). Now, in a multi-centric policymaking environment:

  1. It is tricky to identify the client.
  • We could imagine the client to be someone paying for the analysis, someone affected by its recommendations, or all policy actors with the ability to act on the advice (2019: 10).
  • If there is ‘shared authority’ for policymaking within one political system, a ‘client’ (or audience) may be a collection of policymakers and influencers spread across a network containing multiple types of government, non-governmental actors, and actors responsible for policy delivery (2019: 33).
  • The growth in international cooperation also complicates the idea of a single client for policy advice (2019: 33-4)
  • This shift may limit the ‘face-to-face encounters’ that would otherwise provide information for – and perhaps trust in – the analyst (2019: 2-3).
  1. It is tricky to identify the analyst
  • Radin (2019: 9-25) traces, from the post-war period in the US, a major expansion of policy analysts, from the notional centre of policymaking in federal government towards analysts spread across many venues, inside government (across multiple levels, ‘policy units’, and government agencies) and congressional committees, and outside government (such as in influential think tanks).
  • Policy analysts can also be specialist external companies contracted by organisations to provide advice (2019: 37-8).
  • This expansion shifted the image of many analysts, from a small number of trusted insiders towards many being treated as akin to interest groups selling their pet policies (2019: 25-6).
  • The nature – and impact – of policy analysis has always been a little vague, but now it seems more common to suggest that ‘policy analysts’ may really be ‘policy advocates’ (2019: 44-6).
  • As such, they may now have to work harder to demonstrate their usefulness (2019: 80-1) and accept that their analysis will have a limited impact (2019: 82, drawing on Weiss’ discussion of ‘enlightenment’).

Consequently, the necessary skills of policy analysis have changed:

Although many people value systematic policy analysis (and many rely on economists), an effective analyst does not simply apply economic or scientific techniques to analyse a problem or solution, or rely on one source of expertise or method, as if it were possible to provide ‘neutral information’ (2019: 26).

Indeed, Radin (2019: 31; 48) compares the old ‘acceptance that analysts would be governed by the norms of neutrality and objectivity’ with

(a) increasing calls to acknowledge that policy analysis is part of a political project to foster some notion of public good or ‘public interest’, and

(b)  Stone’s suggestion that the projection of reason and neutrality is a political strategy.

In other words, the fictional divide between political policymakers and neutral analysts is difficult to maintain.

Rather, think of analysts as developing wider skills to operate in a highly political environment in which the nature of the policy issue is contested, responsibility for a policy problem is unclear, and it is not clear how to resolve major debates on values and priorities:

  • Some analysts will be expected to see the problem from the perspective of a specific client with a particular agenda.
  • Other analysts may be valued for their flexibility and pragmatism, such as when they acknowledge the role of their own values, maintain or operate within networks, communicate by many means, and supplement ‘quantitative data’ with ‘hunches’ when required (2019: 2-3; 28-9).

Radin (2019: 21) emphasises a shift in skills and status

The idea of (a) producing new and relatively abstract ideas, based on high control over available information, at the top of a hierarchical organisation, makes way for (b) developing the ability to:

  • generate a wider understanding of organisational and policy processes, reflecting the diffusion of power across multiple policymaking venues
  • identify a map of stakeholders,
  • manage networks of policymakers and influencers,
  • incorporate ‘multiple and often conflicting perspectives’,
  • make and deliver more concrete proposals (2019: 59-74), while recognising
  • the contested nature of information, and the practices sued to gather it, even during multiple attempts to establish the superiority of scientific evidence (2019: 89-103),
  • the limits to a government’s ability to understand and solve problems (2019: 95-6),
  • the inescapable conflict over trade-offs between values and goals, which are difficult to resolve simply by weighting each goal (2019: 105-8; see Stone), and
  • do so flexibly, to recognise major variations in problem definition, attention and networks across different policy sectors and notional ‘stages’ of policymaking (2019: 75-9; 84).

Radin’s (2019: 48) overall list of relevant skills include:

  1. ‘Case study methods, Cost- benefit analysis, Ethical analysis, Evaluation, Futures analysis, Historical analysis, Implementation analysis, Interviewing, Legal analysis, Microeconomics, Negotiation, mediation, Operations research, Organizational analysis, Political feasibility analysis, Public speaking, Small- group facilitation, Specific program knowledge, Statistics, Survey research methods, Systems analysis’

They develop alongside analytical experience and status, from the early career analyst trying to secure or keep a job, to the experienced operator looking forward to retirement (2019: 54-5)

A checklist for policy analysts

Based on these skills requirements, the contested nature of evidence, and the complexity of the policymaking environment, Radin (2019: 128-31) produces a 4-page checklist of – 91! – questions for policy analysts.

For me, it serves two main functions:

  1. It is a major contrast to the idea that we can break policy analysis into a mere 5-8 steps (rather, think of these small numbers as marketing for policy analysis students, akin to 7-minute abs)
  2. It presents policy analysis as an overwhelming task with absolutely no guarantee of policy impact.

To me, this cautious, eyes-wide-open, approach is preferable to the sense that policy analysts can change the world if they just get the evidence and the steps right.

Further Reading:

  1. Iris Geva-May (2005) ‘Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession’, in Geva-May (ed) Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Although the idea of policy analysis may be changing, Geva-May (2005: 15) argues that it remains a profession with its own set of practices and ways of thinking. As with other professions (like medicine), it would be unwise to practice policy analysis without education and training or otherwise learning the ‘craft’ shared by a policy analysis community (2005: 16-17). For example, while not engaging in clinical diagnosis, policy analysts can draw on 5-step process to diagnose a policy problem and potential solutions (2005: 18-21). Analysts may also combine these steps with heuristics to determine the technical and political feasibility of their proposals (2005: 22-5), as they address inevitable uncertainty and their own bounded rationality (2005: 26-34; see Gigerenzer on heuristics). As with medicine, some aspects of the role – such as research methods – can be taught in graduate programmes, while others may be better suited to on the job learning (2005: 36-40). If so, it opens up the possibility that there are many policy analysis professions to reflect different cultures in each political system (and perhaps the venues within each system).

  1. Vining and Weimar’s take on the distinction between policy analysis and policy process research



Filed under 750 word policy analysis, public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: how do policy theories describe policy change?

The 1000 words and 500 words series already show how important but difficult it is to define and measure policy change. In this post, Leanne Giordono and I dig deeper into the – often confusingly different – ways in which different researchers conceptualise this process. We show why there is such variation and provide a checklist of questions to ask of any description of policy change.

Measuring policy change is more difficult than it looks

The measurement of policy change is important. Most ‘what is policy?’ discussions remind us that there can be a huge difference between policy as a (a)  statement of intent, (b) strategy, (c) collection of tools/ instruments and (d) contributor to policy outcomes.

Policy theories remind us that, while politicians and political parties often promise to sweep into office and produce radical departures from the past, most policy change is minor. There is a major gap between stated intention and actual outcomes, partly because policymakers do not control the policy process for which they are responsible. Instead, they inherit the commitments of their predecessors and make changes at the margins.

The 1000 words and 500 words posts suggest that we address this problem of measurement by identifying the use of a potentially large number of policy instruments or policy tools such as regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal.

Then, they suggest that we tell a story of policy change, focusing on (a) what problem policymakers were trying to solve, and the size of their response in relation to the size of the problem, and (b) the precise nature of specific changes, or how each change contributes to the ‘big picture’.

This recommendation highlights a potentially major problem: as researchers, we can produce very different narratives of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data than others.

Three ways to navigate different approaches to imagining and measuring change

Researchers use many different concepts and measures to define and identify policy change. It would be unrealistic – and perhaps unimaginative – to solve this problem with a call for one uniform approach.

Rather, our aim is to help you (a) navigate this diverse field by (b) identifying the issues and concepts that will help you interpret and compare different ways to measure change.

  1. Check if people are ‘showing their work’

Pay close attention to how scholars are defining their terms. For example, be careful with incomplete definitions that rely on a reference to evolutionary change (which can mean so many different things) or incremental change (e.g. does an increment mean small or non-radical)? Or, note that frequent distinctions between minor versus major change seem useful, but we are often trying to capture and explain a confusing mixture of both.

  1. Look out for different questions

Multiple typologies of change often arise because different theories ask and answer different questions:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework distinguishes between minor and major change, associating the former with routine ‘policy-oriented learning’, and the latter with changes in core policy beliefs, often caused by a ‘shock’ associated with policy failure or external events.
  • Innovation and Diffusion models examine the adoption and non-adoption of a specific policy solution over a specific period of time in multiple jurisdictions as a result of learning, imitation, competition or coercion.
  • Classic studies of public expenditure generated four categories to ask if the ‘budgetary process of the United States government is equivalent to a set of temporally stable linear decision rules’. They describe policy change as minor and predictable and explain outliers as deviations from the norm.
  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory identifies a combination of (a) huge numbers of small policy change and (b) small numbers of huge change as the norm, in budgetary and other policy changes.
  • Hall distinguishes between (a) routine adjustments to policy instruments, (b) changes in instruments to achieve existing goals, and (c) complete shifts in goals. He compares long periods in which (1) some ideas dominate and institutions do not change, with (2) ‘third order’ change in which a profound sense of failure contributes to a radical shift of beliefs and rules.
  • More recent scholarship identifies a range of concepts – including layering, drift, conversion, and displacement – to explain more gradual causes of profound changes to institutions.

These approaches identify a range of possible sources of measures:

  1. a combination of policy instruments that add up to overall change
  2. the same single change in many places
  3. change in relation to one measure, such as budgets
  4. a change in ideas, policy instruments and/ or rules.

As such, the potential for confusion is high when we include all such measures under the single banner of ‘policy change’.

  1. Look out for different measures

Spot the different ways in which scholars try to ‘operationalize’ and measure policy change, quantitatively and/ or qualitatively, with reference to four main categories.

  1. Size can be measured with reference to:
  • A comparison of old and new policy positions.
  • A change observed in a sample or whole population (using, for example, standard deviations from the mean).
  • An ‘ideal’ state, such as an industry or ‘best practice’ standard.
  1. Speed describes the amount of change that occurs over a specific interval of time, such as:
  • How long it takes for policy to change after a specific event or under specific conditions.
  • The duration of time between commencement and completion (often described as ‘sudden’ or ‘gradual’).
  • How this speed compares with comparable policy changes in other jurisdictions (often described with reference to ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’).
  1. Direction describes the course of the path from one policy state to another. It is often described in comparison to:
  • An initial position in one jurisdiction (such as an expansion or contraction).
  • Policy or policy change in other jurisdictions (such as via ‘benchmarking’ or ‘league tables’)
  • An ‘ideal’ state (such as with reference to left or right wing aims).
  1. Substance relates to policy change in relations to:
  • Relatively tangible instruments such as legislation, regulation, or public expenditure.
  • More abstract concepts such as in relation to beliefs or goals.

Take home points for students

Be thoughtful when drawing comparisons between applications, drawn from many theoretical traditions, and addressing different research questions.  You can seek clarity by posing three questions:

  1. How clearly has the author defined the concept of policy change?
  2. How are the chosen theories and research questions likely to influence the author’s operationalization of policy change?
  3. How does the author operationalize policy change with respect to size, speed, direction, and/or substance?

However, you should also note that the choice of definition and theory may affect the meaning of measures such as size, speed, direction, and/or substance.



Filed under 1000 words, public policy