Tag Archives: Political commentators

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

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk. This post will appear in The Guardian’s Political Science blog. It is based on his book The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking, launched by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and developed on his EBPM webpage.

‘Evidence-based policymaking’ is now central to the agenda of scientists: academics need to demonstrate that they are making an ‘impact’ on policy, and scientists want to close the ‘evidence-policy gap’. The live debate on energy policy is one of many examples in which scientists bemoan a tendency for policymakers to produce  ideological rather than ‘evidence based’ decisions, and seek ways to change their minds.

Yet, they will fail if they do not understand how the policy process works. To do so requires us to reject two romantic notions: (1) that policymakers will ever think like scientists; and, (2) that there is a clearly identifiable point of decision at which scientists can contribute evidence to key policymakers to make a demonstrable impact.

To better understand how policymakers think, we need a full account of ‘bounded rationality’. This phrase partly describes the fact that policymakers can only gather limited information before they make decisions quickly. They will have made a choice before you have a chance to say ‘more research is needed’! To do so, they use two short cuts: ‘rational’ ways to gather quickly the best evidence on solutions to meet their goals, and ‘irrational’ ways – including drawing on emotions and gut feeling – to identify problems even more quickly.

This insight shows us one potential flaw in academic strategies. The most common response to bounded rationality in scientific articles is to focus on the supply of evidence: develop a hierarchy of evidence which privileges the systematic review of randomised control trials, generate knowledge, and present it in a form that is understandable to policymakers. We need to pay more attention to the demand for evidence, following lurches of policymaker attention, often driven by quick and emotional decisions. For example, there is no point in taking the time to make evidence-based solutions easier to understand if policymakers are not (or no longer) interested. Instead, successful advocates recognize the value of emotional appeals and simple stories to generate attention to a problem.

To identify when and how to contribute evidence, we need to understand the complicated environment in which policy takes place. There is no ‘policy cycle’ in which to inject scientific evidence at the point of decision. Rather, the policy process is messy and often unpredictable, and better described as a complex system in which, for example, the same injection of evidence can have no effect or a major effect. It contains: many actors presenting evidence to influence policymakers in many levels and types of government; networks which are often close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others; and, a language within policymaking institutions indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ (such as ‘value for money’). Social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, or even prompt policymakers to change completely the ways in which they understand a policy problem. However, while lurches of attention are common, changes to well-established ways of thinking in government are rare, or take place only in the long term.

This insight shows us a second potential flaw in academic strategies: the idea that research ‘impact’ can be described as a set-piece event, separable from the policy process as a whole. It compares with the kind of advice – develop a long-term strategy – that we would generate from policy studies: invest in the time to find out (a) where the ‘action is’, and (b) how you can boost your influence as part of a coalition of like-minded actors looking of opportunities to raise attention to problems and push your solutions.

Unfortunately, these insights mostly help us identify what not to do. Further, the alternatives may be difficult to accept (how many scientists would make manipulative or emotional appeals to generate attention to their research?) or deliver (who has the time to conduct research and seek meaningful influence?). However, by engaging with these practical and ethical dilemmas, that the policy process creates for advocates of scientific evidence, we can help produce strategies better suited to the complex real world than a simple process that we wish existed.

Pivot cover



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

In UK and Scottish politics, should you assume that people are stupid?

Political commentators often make fun of other political commentators when they complain that the public is stupid. Yet, maybe we all do something similar – assume that most people make quick, emotional and habitual decisions to turn a complex world into a series of simple actions. In that sense, the ‘realistic’ political campaigns (and some policies) favoured by such commentators may be based just as much on the ‘stupidity’ of the target audience.

In Scottish politics, there is a lot of fun to be had (if you like that sort of thing) while taking the piss out of Yes supporters who argue that No supporters were manipulated into their decision. For example, if only No supporters could see through media and partisan manipulation they’d come to a different conclusion. The argument here is that such Yes supporters are implying that temporary No supporters are stupid, since they are more open to manipulation than their critics. Only Yes supporters can see through the lies.

In UK politics, the same fun can be had (if you like that sort of thing) with certain Labour supporters who can’t quite believe that they lost the election, or blame it on people who support Labour values in public but vote Conservative in private. There are also some offshoot debates, often led by John Rentoul, about the idea that the ‘wrong people were voting Labour’ under Blair or that current supporters of Jeremy Corbyn deny the truth about why Labour lost the UK General Election. The debate is not quite the same, but you can detect a similar suggestion that left-wing Labour supporters blame current Conservative supporters for not seeing through the cynicism of Tory campaigns.

In both cases, the proposed solution may be a cold dose of realism about the beliefs of the British public: instead of complaining that too many people are naïve or stupid and hold the wrong beliefs (or are ‘delusional’), try to work with their beliefs to produce a campaign that works for them.

You can see why this approach would present some fairly heated debates, since the counterargument is that you should not accept public beliefs when you consider them repugnant (such as in relation to migration) or dangerously misguided (such as in relation to the causes of the financial crisis or the ways in which parties justify austerity measures, often in relation to the misleading analogy of balancing the household books, which exacerbate socio-economic inequalities).

In time, this pragmatic argument may underpin the second referendum on Scottish independence (who knows?).

In the meantime, it is at the heart of the Labour leadership, in which the heroic/left-wing/ ideologue Jeremy Corbyn is pitted against the three more cynical/ pragmatic/ realistic candidates who want to compete with the Conservatives in part by engaging with their arguments rather than dismissing them as stupid and cynical.

What should we do when people are ‘stupid’

In each case, there are two constants that we should always bear in mind:

  1. Ideas aren’t stupid. Many people focus too much on the stupidity of arguments or ideas when they should really identify the tendency for people to believe them. I don’t want to get into a big philosophical thing about this, but ideas aren’t simply good/ bad and they don’t spread on their own – they need some people to propose them and others to accept them. Your choice is a mix of (a) giving credit to the people who know how to get good ideas going; and/ or (b) assigning blame to the gullible fools that accept them.
  2. People aren’t stupid, but they are open to manipulation. People have a tendency to accept simple stories that chime with their beliefs (and other stuff – Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow sums up a lot of this kind of argument, but see here and here if you want something more free but less good).

All that remains is to decide what to do about it:

(a) do you start with the assumption that people inevitably have cognitive biases that can be manipulated (particularly when they make snap decisions), to get them to do what you want;


(b) do you assume that people can overcome many cognitive biases, try to educate them, or otherwise help them to think more carefully about issues to make well-considered intelligent decisions?

I don’t know the answer to that question ….

All I’ll point out is that I have (hopefully) reframed the initial premise of this post. Now, it’s the fun-makers and realists who think that people are stupid (the a people). Now, our original villains are really the heroes who have faith in the public to think harder and make the right decision next time (the b people).

except to say that sneering doesn’t help.

A final thought on the strategies of realists is that many of them sneer a lot at the people they think are naïve. This doesn’t just seem rude and annoying – it’s also counterproductive, because politics is often as much about process as outcome. If everyone enters and leaves debates in a respectful way, the losers may be content with a poor outcome. If the winners spend their time sneering at their opponents, and Lording their victories over the losers, it just exposes the very divisions they claim to want to prevent.

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Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy