Tag Archives: Politics

Tips for policy success: learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’ and exploit ‘windows of opportunity’

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.

Learn from ‘multiple streams’ analysis

Streams pic and textMy paper on the ‘multiple streams approach’ shows what happens in the absence of two things you might want to see: ‘rational’ and ‘evidence based’ policymaking which takes place in a policy cycle with linear stages. If you act according to that hope, you’ll likely say the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time. It would be better to adapt to the following implications of an agenda setting process in which framing is more important than evidence, and solutions chase problems (table 1).

Tablle 1 MSA

Learn the meaning of timing and windows of opportunity

Most people would associate ‘timing’ with the idiom ‘be in the right place at the right time’. In agenda setting it means two more important things:

  1. Learning the right time to exploit emotional thinking in policymakers to help generate attention to a policy problem, not waiting for their attention to shift naturally.
  2. Producing policy solutions first, then waiting for the right time to attach them to problems. If a policy cycle existed, policymakers would identify a problem then spark of a series of stages, to select a solution, implement, and evaluate it. In the real world, policymaker attention often shifts before a feasible solution can be developed.

Learn from ‘policy entrepreneurs’

So, successful ‘policy entrepreneurs’ ‘lie in wait in and around government with their solutions at hand, waiting for problems to float by to which they can attach their solutions, waiting for a development in the political stream they can use to their advantage’ (Kingdon 1984: 165–6). Entrepreneurs are the elected policymakers or unelected influencers with the knowledge, power, tenacity and luck to be able to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ when: attention rises to a problem, a feasible solution is available, and policymakers have the motive to select it.

Learn if you can be the Queen of Makaha, Poseidon, or Cnut

Policy entrepreneurs seem to have particular skills or strategies, to frame issues well, build networks, and lead coalitions. However, Kingdon described them as ‘surfers waiting for the big wave’, which suggests that their environment is more important than their action. He was describing a large US political system in which different actors tended to be involved in different ‘streams’ or parts of policymaking (such as a President raising problems, and a bureaucracy coordinating solutions), no one was powerful enough to bring them together, and it took a lot of time for policy solutions to ‘soften’ or change enough to become acceptable to many actors in the system.

In modern studies, we can see some key differences: policymaking at a smaller scale seems to allow ‘entrepreneurs’ more opportunities to propose solutions and generate attention to problems; and, it seems possible to short-circuit the need to ‘soften’ policies by finding sympathetic audiences in different ‘venues’ or importing solutions that have a reputation for working elsewhere. Yet, most of MSA’s abstract insights remain ‘universal’, inviting us to  adopt a counterintuitive strategy of producing solutions then chasing problems, and focus on framing and persuasion to reduce ambiguity and generate demand for evidence, rather than producing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty in the hope that scientific evidence will win the day or speak for itself.

The full draft paper is here: Practical lessons from the study of agenda setting: combine evidence with emotional appeals to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’

See also: Three ways to explain the politics of evidence-based policymaking

Original streams pic


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

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

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

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

So, what should we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Filed under 1000 words, 500 words, POLU9UK, tobacco, tobacco policy, UK politics and policy

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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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Uncategorized

Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do

These are some opening remarks for my talk on EBPM at Open Society Foundations (New York), 24th October 2016. The OSF recorded the talk, so you can listen below, externally, or by right clicking and saving. Please note that it was a lunchtime talk, so the background noises are plates and glasses.

Evidence based policy making’ is a good political slogan, but not a good description of the policy process. If you expect to see it, you will be disappointed. If you seek more thoughtful ways to understand and act within political systems, you need to understand five key points then decide how to respond.

  1. Decide what it means.

EBPM looks like a valence issue in which most of us agree that policy and policymaking should be ‘evidence based’ (perhaps like ‘evidence based medicine’). Yet, valence issues only command broad agreement on vague proposals. By defining each term we highlight ambiguity and the need to make political choices to make sense of key terms:

  • Should you use restrictive criteria to determine what counts as ‘evidence’ and scientific evidence?
  • Which metaphor, evidence based or informed, describes how pragmatic you will be?
  • The unclear meaning of ‘policy’ prompts you to consider how far you’d go to pursue EBPM, from a one-off statement of intent by a key actor, to delivery by many actors, to the sense of continuous policymaking requiring us to be always engaged.
  • Policymaking is done by policymakers, but many are unelected and the division between policy maker/ influencer is often unclear. So, should you seek to influence policy by influencing influencers?
  1. Respond to ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ thought.

Comprehensive rationality’ describes the absence of ambiguity and uncertainty when policymakers know what problem they want to solve and how to solve it, partly because they can gather and understand all information required to measure the problem and determine the effectiveness of solutions.

Instead, we talk of ‘bounded rationality’ and how policymakers deal with it. They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, habits, and familiarity, make decisions quickly.

I say ‘irrational’ provocatively, to raise a key strategic question: do you criticise emotional policymaking (describing it as ‘policy based evidence’) and try somehow to minimise it, adapt pragmatically to it, or see ‘fast thinking’ more positively in terms of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’? Regardless, policymakers will think that their heuristics make sense to them, and it can be counterproductive to simply criticise their alleged irrationality.

  1. Think about how to engage in complex systems or policy environments.

Policy cycle’ describes the idea that there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, and pursuing their goals in a series of clearly defined and well-ordered stages, such as: agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation. In this context, one might identify how to influence a singular point of central government decision.

However, a cycle model does not describe policymaking well. Instead, we tend to identify the role of less ordered and more unpredictable complex systems, or policy environments containing:

  • A wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government. Scientists and practitioners are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience.
  • A proliferation of rules and norms maintained by different levels or types of government. Support for particular ‘evidence based’ solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem.
  • Important relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ – that takes time to learn.
  • A tendency for certain ‘core beliefs’ or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion.
  • Policy conditions and events that can reinforce stability or prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift, but major policy change is rare.

These factors suggest that an effective engagement strategy is not straightforward: our instinct may be to influence elected policymakers at the ‘centre’ making authoritative choices, but the ‘return on investment’ is not clear. So, you need to decide how and where to engage, but it takes time to know ‘where the action is’ and with whom to form coalitions.

  1. Recognise that EBPM is only one of many legitimate ‘good governance’ principles.

There are several principles of ‘good’ policymaking and only one is EBPM. Others relate to the value of pragmatism and consensus building, combining science advice with public values, improving policy delivery by generating ‘ownership’ of policy among key stakeholders, and sharing responsibility with elected local policymakers.

Our choice of which principle and forms of evidence to privilege are inextricably linked. For example, some forms of evidence gathering seem to require uniform models and limited local or stakeholder discretion to modify policy delivery. The classic example is a programme whose value is established using randomised control trials (RCTs). Others begin with local discretion, seeking evidence from service user and local practitioner experience. This principle seems to rule out the use of RCTs. Of course, one can try to pursue both approaches and a compromise between them, but the outcome may not satisfy advocates of either approach or help produce the evidence that they favour.

  1. Decide how far you’ll go to achieve EBPM.

These insights should prompt us to see how far we are willing, and should, go to promote the use of certain forms of evidence in policymaking. For example, if policymakers and the public are emotional decision-makers, should we seek to manipulate their thought processes by using simple stories with heroes, villains, and clear but rather simplistic morals? If policymaking systems are so complex, should we devote huge amounts of resources to make sure we’re effective? Kathryn Oliver and I also explore the implications for proponents of scientific evidence, and there is a live debate on science advice to government on the extent to which scientists should be more than ‘honest brokers’.

Where we go from there is up to you

The value of policy theory to this topic is to help us reject simplistic models of EBPM and think through the implications of more sophisticated and complicated processes. It does not provide a blueprint for action (how could it?), but instead a series of questions that you should answer when you seek to use evidence to get what you want. They are political choices based on value judgements, not issues that can be resolved by producing more evidence.

ebpm pic


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM)

Realistic ‘realist’ reviews: why do you need them and what might they look like?

This discussion is based on my impressions so far of realist reviews and the potential for policy studies to play a role in their effectiveness. The objectives section formed one part of a recent team bid for external funding (so, I acknowledge the influence of colleagues on this discussion, but not enough to blame them personally). We didn’t get the funding, but at least I got a lengthy blog post and a dozen hits out of it.

I like the idea of a ‘realistic’ review of evidence to inform policy, alongside a promising uptake in the use of ‘realist review’. The latter doesn’t mean realistic: it refers to a specific method or approach – realist evaluation, realist synthesis.

The agenda of the realist review already takes us along a useful path towards policy relevance, driven partly by the idea that many policy and practice ‘interventions’ are too complex to be subject to meaningful ‘systematic review’.

The latter’s aim – which we should be careful not to caricature – may be to identify something as close as possible to a general law: if you do X, the result will generally be Y, and you can be reasonably sure because the studies (such as randomised control trials) meet the ‘gold standard’ of research.

The former’s aim is to focus extensively on the context in which interventions take place: if you do X, the result will be Y under these conditions. So, for example, you identify the outcome that you want, the mechanism that causes it, and the context in which the mechanism causes the outcome. Maybe you’ll even include a few more studies, not meeting the ‘gold standard’, if they meet other criteria of high quality research (I declare that I am a qualitative researcher, so you call tell who I’m rooting for).

Realist reviews come increasingly with guide books and discussions on how to do them systematically. However, my impression is that when people do them, they find that there is an art to applying discretion to identify what exactly is going on. It is often difficult to identify or describe the mechanism fully (often because source reports are not clear on that point), say for sure it caused the outcome even in particular circumstances, and separate the mechanism from the context.

I italicised the last point because it is super-important. I think that it is often difficult to separate mechanism from context because (a) the context is often associated with a particular country’s political system and governing arrangements, and (b) it might be better to treat governing context as another mechanism in a notional chain of causality.

In other words, my impression is that realist reviews focus on the mechanism at the point of delivery; the last link in the chain in which the delivery of an intervention causes an outcome. It may be wise to also identify the governance mechanism that causes the final mechanism to work.

Why would you complicate an already complicated review?

I aim to complicate things then simplify them heroically at the end.

Here are five objectives that I maybe think we should pursue in an evidence review for policymakers (I can’t say for sure until we all agree on the principles of science advice):

  1. Focus on ways to turn evidence into feasible political action, identifying a clear set of policy conditions and mechanisms necessary to produce intended outcomes.
  2. Produce a manageable number of simple lessons and heuristics for policymakers, practitioners, and communities.
  3. Review a wider range of evidence sources than in traditional systematic reviews, to recognise the potential trade-offs between measures of high quality and high impact evidence.
  4. Identify a complex policymaking environment in which there is a need to connect the disparate evidence on each part of the ‘causal chain’.
  5. Recognise the need to understand individual countries and their political systems in depth, to know how the same evidence will be interpreted and used very differently by actors in different contexts.

Objective 1: evidence into action by addressing the politics of evidence-based policymaking

There is no shortage of scientific evidence of policy problems. Yet, we lack a way to use evidence to produce politically feasible action. The ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’ produces scientists frustrated with the gap between their evidence and a proportionate policy response, and politicians frustrated that evidence is not available in a usable form when they pay attention to a problem and need to solve it quickly. The most common responses in key fields, such as environmental and health studies, do not solve this problem. The literature on ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy recommend initiatives such as: clearer scientific messages, knowledge brokerage and academic-practitioner workshops, timely engagement in politics, scientific training for politicians, and participation to combine evidence and community engagement.

This literature makes limited reference to policy theory and has two limitations. First, studies focus on reducing empirical uncertainty, not ‘framing’ issues to reduce ambiguity. Too many scientific publications go unread in the absence of a process of persuasion to influence policymaker demand for that information (particularly when more politically relevant and paywall-free evidence is available elsewhere). Second, few studies appreciate the multi-level nature of political systems or understand the strategies actors use to influence policy. This involves experience and cultural awareness to help learn: where key decisions are made, including in networks between policymakers and influential actors; the ‘rules of the game’ of networks; how to form coalitions with key actors; and, that these processes unfold over years or decades.

The solution is to produce knowledge that will be used by policymakers, community leaders, and ‘street level’ actors. It requires a (23%) shift in focus from the quality of scientific evidence to (a) who is involved in policymaking and the extent to which there is a ‘delivery chain’ from national to local, and (b) how actors demand, interpret, and use evidence to make decisions. For example, simple qualitative stories with a clear moral may be more effective than highly sophisticated decision-making models or quantitative evidence presented without enough translation.

Objective 2: produce simple lessons and heuristics

We know that the world is too complex to fully comprehend, yet people need to act despite uncertainty. They rely on ‘rational’ methods to gather evidence from sources they trust, and ‘irrational’ means to draw on gut feeling, emotion, and beliefs as short cuts to action (or system 1 and 2 thinking). Scientific evidence can help reduce some uncertainty, but not tell people how to behave. Scientific information strategies can be ineffective, by expecting audiences to appreciate the detail and scale of evidence, understand the methods used to gather it, and possess the skills to interpret and act on it. The unintended consequence is that key actors fall back on familiar heuristics and pay minimal attention to inaccessible scientific information. The solution is to tailor evidence reviews to audiences: examining their practices and ways of thinking; identifying the heuristics they use; and, describing simple lessons and new heuristics and practices.

Objective 3: produce a pragmatic review of the evidence

To review a wider range of evidence sources than in traditional systematic reviews is to recognise the trade-offs between measures of high quality (based on a hierarchy of methods and journal quality) and high impact (based on familiarity and availability). If scientists reject and refuse to analyse evidence that policymakers routinely take more seriously (such as the ‘grey’ literature), they have little influence on key parts of policy analysis. Instead, provide a framework that recognises complexity but produces research that is manageable at scale and translatable into key messages:

  • Context. Identify the role of factors described routinely by policy theories as the key parts of policy environments: the actors involved in multiple policymaking venues at many levels of government; the role of informal and formal rules of each venue; networks between policymakers and influential actors; socio-economic conditions; and, the ‘paradigms’ or ways of thinking that underpin the consideration of policy problems and solutions.
  • Mechanisms. Focus on the connection between three mechanisms: the cause of outcomes at the point of policy delivery (intervention); the cause of ‘community’ or individual ‘ownership’ of effective interventions; and, the governance arrangements that support high levels of community ownership and the effective delivery of the most effective interventions. These connections are not linear. For example, community ownership and effective interventions may develop more usefully from the ‘bottom up’, scientists may convince national but not local policymakers of the value of interventions (or vice versa), or political support for long term strategies may only be temporary or conditional on short term measures of success.
  • Outcomes. Identify key indicators of good policy outcomes in partnership with the people you need to make policy work. Work with those audiences to identify a small number of specific positive outcomes, and synthesise the best available evidence to explain which mechanisms produce those outcomes under the conditions associated with your region of study.

This narrow focus is crucial to the development of a research question, limiting analysis to the most relevant studies to produce a rigorous review in a challenging timeframe. Then, the idea from realist reviews is that you ‘test’ your hypotheses and clarify the theories that underpin this analysis. This should involve a test for political as well as technical feasibility: speak regularly with key actors i to gauge the likelihood that the mechanisms you recommend will be acted upon, and the extent to which the context of policy delivery is stable and predictable and if mechanism will work consistently under those conditions.

Objective 4: identify key links in the ‘causal chain’ via interdisciplinary study

We all talk about combining perspectives from multiple disciplines but I totally mean it, especially if it boosts the role of political scientists who can’t predict elections. For example, health or environmental scientists can identify the most effective interventions to produce good health or environmental outcomes, but not how to work with and influence key people. Policy scholars can identify how the policy process works and how to maximise the use of scientific evidence within it. Social science scholars can identify mechanisms to encourage community participation and the ownership of policies. Anthropologists can provide insights on the particular cultural practices and beliefs underpinning the ways in which people understand and act according to scientific evidence.

Perhaps more importantly, interdisciplinarity provides political cover: we got the best minds in many disciplines and locked them in a room until they produced an answer.

We need this cover for something I’ll call ‘informed extrapolation’ and justify with reference to pragmatism: if we do not provide well-informed analyses of the links between each mechanism, other less-informed actors will fill the gap without appreciating key aspects of causality. For example, if we identify a mechanism for the delivery of successful interventions – e.g. high levels of understanding and implementation of key procedures – there is still uncertainty: do these mechanisms develop organically through ‘bottom up’ collaboration or can they be introduced quickly from the ‘top’ to address an urgent issue? A simple heuristic for central governments could be to introduce training immediately or to resist the temptation for a quick fix.

Relatively-informed analysis, to recommend one of those choices, may only be used if we can back it up with interdisciplinary weight and produce recommendations that are unequivocal (although, again, other approaches are available).

Objective 5: focus intensively on one region, and one key issue, not ‘one size fits all’

We need to understand individual countries or regions – their political systems, communities, and cultural practices – and specific issues in depth, to know how abstract mechanisms work in concrete contexts, and how the same evidence will be interpreted and used differently by actors in those contexts. We need to avoid politically insensitive approaches based on the assumption that a policy that works in countries like (say) the UK will work in countries that are not (say) the UK, and/ or that actors in each country will understand policy problems in the same way.

But why?

It all looks incredibly complicated, doesn’t it? There’s no time to do all that, is there? It will end up as a bit of a too-rushed jumble of high-and-low quality evidence and advice, won’t it?

My argument is that these problems are actually virtues because they provide more insight into how busy policymakers will gather and use evidence. Most policymakers will not know how to do a systematic review or understand why you are so attached to them. Maybe you’ll impress them enough to get them to trust your evidence, but have you put yourself into a position to know what they’ll do with it? Have you thought about the connection between the evidence you’ve gathered, what people need to do, who needs to do it, and who you need to speak to about getting them to do it? Maybe you don’t have to, if you want to be no more than a ‘neutral scientist’ or ‘honest broker’ – but you do if you want to give science advice to policymakers that policymakers can use.



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

Here is the dilemma for ‘evidence-based’ ‘troubled families’ policy: there are many indicators of ‘policy based evidence’ but few (if any) feasible and ‘evidence based’ alternatives.

Viewed from the outside, TF looks like a cynical attempt to produce a quick fix to the London riots, stigmatise vulnerable populations, and hoodwink the public into thinking that the central government is controlling local outcomes and generating success.

Viewed from the inside, it is a pragmatic policy solution, informed by promising evidence which needs to be sold in the right way. For the UK government there may seem to be little alternative to this policy, given the available evidence, the need to do something for the long term and to account for itself in a Westminster system in the short term.

So, in this draft paper, I outline this disconnect between interpretations of ‘evidence based policy’ and ‘policy based evidence’ to help provide some clarity on the pragmatic use of evidence in politics:


See also:

Governments think it’s OK to use bad evidence to make good policy: the case of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

In each of these posts, I note that it is difficult to know how, for example, social policy scholars should respond to these issues – but that policy studies help us identify a choice between strategies. In general, pragmatic strategies to influence the use of evidence in policy include: framing issues to catch the attention or manipulate policymaker biases, identifying where the ‘action’ is in multi-level policymaking systems, and forming coalitions with like-minded and well-connected actors. In other words, to influence rather than just comment on policy, we need to understand how policymakers would respond to external evaluation. So, a greater understanding the routine motives of policymakers can help produce more effective criticism of its problematic use of evidence. In social policy, there is an acute dilemma about the choice between engagement, to influence and be influenced by policymakers, and detachment to ensure critical distance. If choosing the latter, we need to think harder about how criticism of PBE makes a difference.


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