Tag Archives: Politics

Policy Concepts in 500 Words: Social Construction and Policy Design

Why would a democratic political system produce ‘degenerative’ policy that undermines democracy? Social Construction and Policy Design (SCPD) describes two main ways in which policymaking alienates many citizens:

1. The Social Construction of Target Populations

High profile politics and electoral competition can cause alienation:

  1. Political actors compete to tell ‘stories’ to assign praise or blame to groups of people. For example, politicians describe value judgements about who should be rewarded or punished by government. They base them on stereotypes of ‘target populations’, by (a) exploiting the ways in which many people think about groups, or (b) making emotional and superficial judgements, backed up with selective use of facts.
  2. These judgements have a ‘feed-forward’ effect: they are reproduced in policies, practices, and institutions. Such ‘policy designs’ can endure for years or decades. The distribution of rewards and sanctions is cumulative and difficult to overcome.
  3. Policy design has an impact on citizens, who participate in politics according to how they are characterised by government. Many know they will be treated badly; their engagement will be dispiriting.

Some groups have the power to challenge the way they are described by policymakers (and the media and public), and receive benefits behind the scenes despite their poor image. However, many people feel powerless, become disenchanted with politics, and do not engage in the democratic process.

SCTP depicts this dynamic with a 2-by-2 table in which target populations are described positively/ negatively and more or less able to respond:

SCPD 500 words 2 by 2

2. Bureaucratic and expert politics

Most policy issues are not salient and politicised in this way. Yet, low salience can exacerbate problems of citizen exclusion. Policies dominated by bureaucratic interests often alienate citizens receiving services. Or a small elite dominates policymaking when there is high acceptance that (a) the best policy is ‘evidence based’, and (b) the evidence should come from experts.

Overall, SCPD describes a political system with major potential to diminish democracy, containing key actors (a) politicising issues to reward or punish populations or (b) depoliticising issues with reference to science and objectivity. In both cases, policy design is not informed by routine citizen participation.

Take home message for students: SCPD began as Schneider and Ingram’s description of the US political system’s failure to solve major problems including inequality, poverty, crime, racism, sexism, and effective universal healthcare and education. Think about how its key drivers apply elsewhere: (1) some people make and exploit quick and emotional judgements for political gain, and others refer to expertise to limit debate; (2) these judgements inform policy design; and, (3) policy design sends signals to citizens which can diminish or boost their incentive to engage in politics.

For more, see the 1000-word and 5000-word versions. The latter has a detailed guide to further reading.





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How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

Swann Kim

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

Collective Action_1

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

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

What is an ‘institutional collective action’ dilemma?

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

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

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

Collective Action_2

Three ways to improve institutional collaborative governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research suggests policymakers can achieve this by

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

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

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

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

What about collaboration in different institutional contexts?

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

Conclusions and future directions

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

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

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Why Advocacy Coalitions Matter and How to Think about Them

Chris and Karin

This is a guest post by Professor Chris Weible (left) and Professor Karin Ingold (right), discussing how to use insights from the Advocacy Coalition Framework to think about how to engage in policymaking. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

There are many ways that people relate to their government.  People may vote for their formal representatives through elections.  Through referendums and initiatives, people can vote directly to shape public policy.  More indirect ways include through informal representation via political parties or interest groups and associations.

This blog addresses another extremely important way to relate government via “advocacy coalitions.”

What are advocacy coalitions?

Advocacy coalitions are alliances of people around a shared policy goal. People associated with the same advocacy coalition have similar ideologies and worldviews and wish to change a given policy (concerning health, environmental, or many other issues) in the same direction.

Advocacy coalitions can include anyone regularly seeking to influence a public policy, such as elected and government officials, members of political parties or interest groups, scientists, journalists, or members of trade unions and non-for-profit/ ‘third sector’ organizations.

The coalition is an informal network of allies that usually operate against an opposing coalition consisting of people who advocate for different policy directions.  As one coalition tries to outmaneuver the other, the result is a game of political one-upmanship of making and unmaking public policies that can last years to decades.

Political debates over normative issues endure for a long time, advocacy coalitions have the ability to span levels of government from local to national, and they integrate traditional points of influence in a political system, from electoral politics to regulatory decision-making.

How to think about coalitions and their settings

Consider the context in which political debates over policy issues occur. Context might include the socio-cultural norms and rules that shape what strategies might be affected and the usefulness of political resources.

The ACF elevates the importance of context from an overlooked set of opportunities and constraints to a set of factors that should be considered as conditioning political behavior.  We can develop coalition strategies and identify key political resources, but their utility and effectiveness will be contextually driven and will change over time. That is, what works for political influence today might not work in the future.

How to become involved in an advocacy coalition?

People engage in politics differently based on a range of factors, including how important the issue is to them, their available time, skills, and resources, and general motivations.

  • People with less time or knowledge can engage in coalitions as “auxiliary participants.”
  • Individuals for whom an issue is of high relevance, or those who see their major expertise in a specific subsystem, might want to shape coalition politics and strategies decisively and become “principal participants.”
  • People wanting to mitigate conflict might choose to play a “policy broker” role
  • People championing ideas can play the role of “policy entrepreneurs.”
  • General citizens can see themselves playing the role of a “political soldier” contributing to their cause when called upon by the leaders of any coalition.

How do coalitions form and maintain themselves? 

Underlying the coalition concept is an assumption that people are most responsive to threats to what they care about. Coalitions form because of these threats that might come from a rival’s proposed policy solutions, a particular characterization of problems, and from major events (e.g., a disaster). Motivated by fundamental values, the chronic presence of threats from opponents is another reason that coalitions persist. People stay mobilized because they know that, if they disengage, people with whom they disagree may influence societal outcomes.

How to identify an advocacy coalition?

There is no single way to identify a coalition, but here are four strategies to try.

  1. Look for people holding formal elected or unelected positions in government with authority and an interest to affect a public policy issue.
  2. Identify people from outside of government participating in the policy process (e.g., rulemaking, legislative hearings, etc.).
  3. Identify people with influential reputations that often seek to influence government through more informal means (e.g., blogging).
  4. Uncover those individuals who are not currently mobilized but who might be in the future, for example by identifying who is threatened or who could benefit from the policy decision.

These four strategies emphasize formal competences and informal relations, and the motivations that actors might have to participate in an issue.

This blog is more about how to think about relations between people and government and less on identifying concrete strategies for influencing government. Political strategies are not applicable all the time and vary in degree of success and failure based on a gamut of factors.

The best we can do is to offer ways of thinking about political engagement, such as through the ideas that are summarized here and then trust people to assess their current situation, and act in effective ways.

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Practical Lessons from Policy Theories

  1. Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs
  2. How do we get governments to make better decisions?
  3. Why advocacy coalitions matter and how to think about them
  4. How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?
  5. Telling stories that shape public policy
  6. How to navigate complex policy designs
  7. Three ways to encourage policy learning
  8. How to design ‘maps’ for policymakers relying on their ‘internal compass’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our next presentation is at the ECPR in Oslo:



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

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

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

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

So, what should we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), IMAJINE, public policy

Writing an essay on politics, policymaking, and policy change

I tend to set this simple-looking question for coursework in policy modules: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why? Students get to choose the policy issue, timeframe (and sometimes the political system), and relevant explanatory concepts.

On the face of it, it looks super-simple: A+ for everyone!

Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:

  1. We spent a lot of time agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy (explained in 1000 Words and 500 Words)
  2. There are a gazillion possible measures of policy change (1000 Words and 500 Words)
  3. There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics (I describe about 25 in 1000 Words each)

I try to encourage some creativity when solving this problem, but also advise students to keep their discussion as simple and jargon-free as possible (often by stretching an analogy with diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).

Choosing a format: the initial advice

  1. Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
  2. Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in the post-war era, since UK devolution, or since a change in government).
  3. Select one or more policy concept or theory to help structure your discussion and help explain how and why policy has changed.

For example, a question might be: What is tobacco policy in the UK, how much has it changed since the 1980s, and why? I use this example because I try to answer that – UK and global – question myself, even though my 2007 article on the UK is too theory-packed to be a good model for an undergraduate essay.

Choosing a format: the cautionary advice

You may be surprised about how difficult it is to answer a simple question like ‘what is policy?’ and I will give you considerable credit for considering how to define and measure it, by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and ‘nodality’ and/ or by considering the difference between, say, policy as a statement of intent or a long term outcome. In turn, a good description and explanation of policy change is difficult. If you are feeling ambitious, you can go further, to compare, say, two issues (such as tobacco and alcohol) or places (such UK Government policy and the policy of another country), but sometimes a simple and narrow discussion can be as, or more, effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but often one theory will do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic to focus or concepts to use.

Choosing a topic: the ‘joined up’ advice

The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between different perspectives on policy theory and analysis. For example, in a blog and policy analysis paper they try to generate attention to a policy problem and advocate a solution. Then, they draw on policy theories and concepts to reflect on their papers, highlighting (say): the need to identify the most important audience; the importance of framing issues with a mixture of evidence and emotional appeals; and, the need to present ‘feasible’ solutions.

The reflection can provide a useful segue to the essay, since we’re already identifying important policy problems, advocating change, reflecting on how best to encourage it – such as by presenting modest objectives – and then, in the essay, trying to explain (say) why governments have not taken that advice in the past. Their interest in the policy issue can prompt interest in researching the issue further; their knowledge of the issue and the policy process can help them develop politically-aware policy analysis. All going well, it produces a virtuous circle.

Some examples from my pet subject

Let me outline how I would begin to answer the three questions with reference to UK tobacco policy. I’m offering a brief summary of each section rather than presenting a full essay with more detail (partly to hold on to that idea of creativity – I don’t want students to use this description as a blueprint).

What is modern UK tobacco policy?

Tobacco policy in the UK is now one of the most restrictive in the world. The UK government has introduced a large number of policy instruments to encourage a major reduction of smoking in the population. They include: legislation to ban smoking in public places; legislation to limit tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship; high taxes on tobacco products; unequivocal health education; regulations on tobacco ingredients; significant spending on customs and enforcement measures; and, plain packaging measures.

[Note that I selected only a few key measures to define policy. A fuller analysis might expand on why I chose them and why they are so important].

How much has policy changed since the 1980s?

Policy has changed radically since the post-war period, and most policy change began from the 1980s, but it was not until the 2000s onwards that the UK cemented its place as one of the most restrictive countries. The shift from the 1980s relates strongly to the replacement of voluntary agreements and limited measures with limited enforcement with legislative measures and stronger enforcement. The legislation to ban tobacco advertising, passed in 2002, replaced limited bans combined with voluntary agreements to (for example) keep billboards a certain distance from schools. The legislation to ban smoking in public places, passed in 2006 (2005 in Scotland), replaced voluntary measures which allowed smoking in most pubs and restaurants. Plain packaging measures, combined with large and graphic health warnings, replace branded packets which once had no warnings. Health education warnings have gone from stating the facts and inviting smokers to decide, and the promotion of harm reduction (smoke ‘low tar’), to an unequivocal message on the harms of smoking and passive smoking.

[Note that I describe these changes in broad terms. Other articles might ‘zoom’ in on specific instruments to show how exactly they changed]

Why has it changed?

This is the section of the essay in which we have to make a judgement about the type of explanation: should you choose one or many concepts; if many, do you focus on their competing or complementary insights; should you provide an extensive discussion of your chosen theory?

I normally recommend a very small number of concepts or simple discussion, largely because there is only so much you can say in an essay of 2-3000 words.

For example, a simple ‘hook’ is to ask if the main driver was the scientific evidence: did policy change as the evidence on smoking (and then passive smoking) related harm became more apparent? Is it a good case of ‘evidence based policymaking’? The answer may then note that policy change seemed to be 20-30 years behind the evidence [although I’d have to explain that statement in more depth] and set out the conditions in which this driver would have an effect.

In short, one might identify the need for a ‘policy environment’, shaped by policymakers, and conducive to a strong policy response based on the evidence of harm and a political choice to restrict tobacco use. It would relate to decisions by policymakers to: frame tobacco as a public health epidemic requiring a major government response (rather than primarily as an economic good or issue of civil liberties); place health departments or organisations at the heart of policy development; form networks with medical and public health groups at the expense of tobacco companies; and respond to greater public support for control, reduced smoking prevalence, and the diminishing economic value of tobacco.

This discussion can proceed conceptually, in a relatively straightforward way, or with the further aid of policy theories which ask further questions and help structure the answers.

For example, one might draw on punctuated equilibrium theory to help describe and explain shifts of public/media/ policymaker attention to tobacco, from low and positive in the 1950s to high and negative from the 1980s.

Or, one might draw on the ACF to explain how pro-tobacco coalitions helped slow down policy change by interpreting new scientific evidence though the ‘lens’ of well-established beliefs or approaches (examples from the 1950s include filter tips, low tar brands, and ventilation as alternatives to greater restrictions on smoking).

One might even draw on multiple streams analysis to identify a ‘window of opportunity for change (as I did when examining the adoption of bans on smoking in public places).

Any of these approaches will do, as long as you describe and justify your choice well. One cannot explain everything, so it may be better to try to explain one thing well.

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Using psychological insights in politics: can we do it without calling our opponents mental, hysterical, or stupid?

One of the most dispiriting parts of fierce political debate is the casual use of mental illness or old and new psychiatric terms to undermine an opponent: she is mad, he is crazy, she is a nutter, they are wearing tin foil hats, get this guy a straitjacket and the men in white coats because he needs to lie down in a dark room, she is hysterical, his position is bipolar, and so on. This kind of statement reflects badly on the campaigner rather than their opponent.

I say this because, while doing some research on a paper on the psychology of politics and policymaking (this time with Richard Kwiatkowski, as part of this special collection), there are potentially useful concepts that seem difficult to insulate from such political posturing. There is great potential to use them cynically against opponents rather than benefit from their insights.

The obvious ‘live’ examples relate to ‘rational’ versus ‘irrational’ policymaking. For example, one might argue that, while scientists develop facts and evidence rationally, using tried and trusted and systematic methods, politicians act irrationally, based on their emotions, ideologies, and groupthink. So, we as scientists are the arbiters of good sense and they are part of a pathological political process that contributes to ‘post truth’ politics.

The obvious problem with such accounts is that we all combine cognitive and emotional processes to think and act. We are all subject to bias in the gathering and interpretation of evidence. So, the more positive, but less tempting, option is to consider how this process works – when both competing sides act ‘rationally’ and emotionally – and what we can realistically do to mitigate the worst excesses of such exchanges. Otherwise, we will not get beyond demonising our opponents and romanticising our own cause. It gives us the warm and fuzzies on twitter and in academic conferences but contributes little to political conversations.

A less obvious example comes from modern work on the links between genes and attitudes. There is now a research agenda which uses surveys of adult twins to compare the effect of genes and environment on political attitudes. For example, Oskarsson et al (2015: 650) argue that existing studies ‘report that genetic factors account for 30–50% of the variation in issue orientations, ideology, and party identification’. One potential mechanism is cognitive ability: put simply, and rather cautiously and speculatively, with a million caveats, people with lower cognitive ability are more likely to see ‘complexity, novelty, and ambiguity’ as threatening and to respond with fear, risk aversion, and conservatism (2015: 652).

My immediate thought, when reading this stuff, is about how people would use it cynically, even at this relatively speculative stage in testing and evidence gathering: my opponent’s genes make him stupid, which makes him fearful of uncertainty and ambiguity, and therefore anxious about change and conservative in politics (in other words, the Yoda hypothesis applied only to stupid people). It’s not his fault, but his stupidity is an obstacle to progressive politics. If you add in some psychological biases, in which people inflate their own sense of intelligence and underestimate that of their opponents, you have evidence-informed, really shit political debate! ‘My opponent is stupid’ seems a bit better than ‘my opponent is mental’ but only in the sense that eating a cup of cold sick is preferable to eating shit.

I say this as we try to produce some practical recommendations (for scientist and advocates of EBPM) to engage with politicians to improve the use of evidence in policy. I’ll let you know if it goes beyond a simple maxim: adapt to their emotional and cognitive biases, but don’t simply assume they’re stupid.

See also: the many commentaries on how stupid it is to treat your political opponents as stupid

Stop Calling People “Low Information Voters

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