Tag Archives: prevention policy

Public health policy: assumptions and expectations

Rather misleadingly, this very draft paper is called The Politics of Evidence-based ‘Health in All Policies’It’s for Integrating Science and Politics for Public Health, convened by Patrick Fafard and Adèle Cassola at the Global Strategy Lab.

The most interesting section, for me, is the attempt to sense check the following list of assumptions/ expectations that I associate with public health studies of public policy. Unless stated otherwise, this list is based on literature reviews and documentary analysis underpinning studies of tobacco policy and prevention policy (Cairney and St Denny, 2020), as well as more impressionistic reflections from peer-reviewing many papers on this topic and attending relevant conferences (usually to speak to practitioners about the politics of EBPM). I am relying primarily on (a) the sense, often described in qualitative research, of a ‘saturation point’ to feel confident that more research will not unearth more categories, than (b) counting the frequency of term-use in each category, or (c) network analysis to identify the nature of a self-defined public health profession or community. As such, the focus is on the assumptions that scholars in this field often seem to take for granted, and often do not feel the need to explain. Its purpose is logical and conditional: if these are the assumptions, these are the expectations.

On that basis, I present a common public health narrative of the policy problem, how to understand it, and the processes necessary to address it:

  • Focus on preventing ill health rather than treating it when it becomes too severe.
  • Distinguish between types of prevention: primary (focus on the whole population to stop a problem occurring by investing early and/or modifying the social or physical environment); secondary (focus on at-risk groups to identify a problem at a very early stage to minimise harm); tertiary (focus on affected groups to stop a problem getting worse)
  • Focus on the social determinants of health inequalities, defined by the WHO (2019) as ‘the unfair and avoidable differences in health status’ that are ‘shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources’ and ‘the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age’.
  • Promote ‘upstream’ measures designed to influence the health of the whole population (or health inequalities) rather than ‘downstream’ measures targeting individuals (although we discussed some debate/ confusion about the meaning of upstream).
  • Use scientific evidence to identify the nature of problems and most effective solutions.
  • Define scientific evidence in a particular way, such as in relation to a ‘hierarchy’ in which (a) the systematic review of randomised control trials often represents the gold standard, and (b) systems modelling plays a key role. Or, in fewer cases, challenge that hierarchy energetically.
  • Promote major policymaking reforms, including a focus on holistic or joined-up government, since the responsibility for health improvement goes well beyond health departments.  Prevention (or preventive policymaking) is a classic term, and ‘health in all policies’ (HIAP) is currently a key term.
  • Focus strongly on the role of industry as ‘vested interests’ causing public health problems (the ‘commercial determinants of health’) and, often, the lack of political will to regulate commercial activity.
  • Treat public health and prevention as a form of social protection (new category after PHE). Often, actors describe a moral imperative to intervene (in which case, the opposite argument relates to individual responsibility and opposition to the ‘nanny state’ – see also Cairney et al, 2012 on ‘secular morality’).
  • Use tobacco control as a model for other specific issues (e.g. alcohol use, obesity, salt) and the prevention agenda more generally (Studlar and Cairney, 2019).
  • Focus on identifying policy changes that represent a ‘win-win’ scenario in which all parties benefit from the policy outcome (in terms of their health), rather than identifying political winners and losers from the policy choice itself (new category – Baum et al, 2014).

Such assumptions underpin expectations for the role of government, and provide a frame of reference for assessing the overall direction of policy (such as for ‘prevention’). Please let me know if there is a big missing category, or one of them doesn’t seem quite right.

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Prevention is better than cure, so why aren’t we doing more of it?

This post provides a generous amount of background for my ANZSOG talk Prevention is better than cure, so why aren’t we doing more of it? If you read all of it, it’s a long read. If not, it’s a short read before the long read. Here is the talk’s description:

‘Does this sound familiar? A new government comes into office, promising to shift the balance in social and health policy from expensive remedial, high dependency care to prevention and early intervention. They commit to better policy-making; they say they will join up policy and program delivery, devolving responsibility to the local level and focusing on long term outcomes rather than short term widgets; and that they will ensure policy is evidence-based.  And then it all gets too hard, and the cycle begins again, leaving some exhausted and disillusioned practitioners in its wake. Why does this happen repeatedly, across different countries and with governments of different persuasions, even with the best will in the world?’ 

  • You’ll see from the question that I am not suggesting that all prevention or early intervention policies fail. Rather, I use policy theories to provide a general explanation for a major gap between the (realistic) expectations expressed in prevention strategies and the actual outcomes. We can then talk about how to close that gap.
  • You’ll also see the phrase ‘even with the best will in the world’, which I think is key to this talk. No-one needs me to rehearse the usually-vague and often-stated ways to explain failed prevention policies, including the ‘wickedness’ of policy problems, or the ‘pathology’ of public policy. Rather, I show that such policies may ‘fail’ even when there is wide and sincere cross-party agreement about the need to shift from reactive to more prevention policy design. I also suggest that the general explanation for failure – low ‘political will’ – is often damaging to the chances for future success.
  • Let’s start by defining prevention policy and policymaking.

When engaged in ‘prevention’, governments seek to:

  1. Reform policy.

Prevention policy is really a collection of policies designed to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their wellbeing and reduce inequalities and/or demand for acute services. The aim is to move from reactive to preventive public services, intervening earlier in people’s lives to address a wide range of longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, unemployment and low employability – before they become too severe.

  1. Reform policymaking.

Preventive policymaking describes the ways in which governments reform their practices to support prevention policy, including a commitment to:

  • ‘join up’ government departments and services to solve ‘wicked problems’ that transcend one area
  • give more responsibility for service design to local public bodies, stakeholders, ‘communities’ and service users produce long term aims for outcomes, and
  • reduce short term performance targets in favour of long term outcomes agreements.
  1. Ensure that policy is ‘evidence based’.

Three general reasons why ‘prevention’ policies never seem to succeed.

  1. Policymakers don’t know what prevention means.

They express a commitment to prevention before defining it fully. When they start to make sense of prevention, they find out how difficult it is to pursue, and how many controversial choices it involves (see also uncertainty versus ambiguity)

  1. They engage in a policymaking system that is too complex to control.

They try to share responsibility with many actors and coordinate action to direct policy outcomes, without the ability to design those relationships and control policy outcomes.

Yet, they also need to demonstrate to the electorate that they are in control, and find out how difficult it is to localise and centralise policy.

  1. They are unable and unwilling to produce ‘evidence based policymaking’.

Policymakers seek cognitive shortcuts (and their organisational equivalents) to gather enough information to make ‘good enough’ decisions. When they seek evidence on prevention, they find that it is patchy, inconclusive, often counter to their beliefs, and not a ‘magic bullet’ to help justify choices.

Throughout this process, their commitment to prevention policy can be sincere but unfulfilled. They do not articulate fully what prevention means or appreciate the scale of their task. When they try to deliver prevention strategies, they face several problems that, on their own, would seem daunting. Many of the problems they seek to ‘prevent’ are ‘wicked’, or difficult to define and seemingly impossible to solve, such as poverty, unemployment, low quality housing and homelessness, crime, and health and education inequalities. They face stark choices on how far they should go to shift the balance between state and market, redistribute wealth and income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives to change their behaviour and ways of thinking. Their focus on the long term faces major competition from more salient short-term policy issues that prompt them to maintain ‘reactive’ public services. Their often-sincere desire to ‘localise’ policymaking often gives way to national electoral politics, in which central governments face pressure to make policy from the ‘top’ and be decisive. Their pursuit of ‘evidence based’ policymaking often reveals a lack of evidence about which policy interventions work and the extent to which they can be ‘scaled up’ successfully.

These problems will not be overcome if policy makers and influencers misdiagnose them

  • If policy influencers make the simplistic assumption that this problem is caused by low political they will provide bad advice.
  • If new policymakers truly think that the problem was the low commitment and competence of their predecessors, they will begin with the same high hopes about the impact they can make, only to become disenchanted when they see the difference between their abstract aims and real world outcomes.
  • Poor explanation of limited success contributes to the high potential for (a) an initial period of enthusiasm and activity, replaced by (b) disenchantment and inactivity, and (c) for this cycle to be repeated without resolution.

Let’s add more detail to these general explanations:

1. What makes prevention so difficult to define?

When viewed as a simple slogan, ‘prevention’ seems like an intuitively appealing aim. It can generate cross-party consensus, bringing together groups on the ‘left’, seeking to reduce inequalities, and on the ‘right’, seeking to reduce economic inactivity and the cost of services.

Such consensus is superficial and illusory. When making a detailed strategy, prevention is open to many interpretations by many policymakers. Imagine the many types of prevention policy and policymaking that we could produce:

  1. What problem are we trying to solve?

Prevention policymaking represents a heroic solution to several crises: major inequalities, underfunded public services, and dysfunctional government.

  1. On what measures should we focus?

On which inequalities should we focus primarily? Wealth, occupation, income, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, mental health.

On which measures of inequality? Economic, health, healthy behaviour, education attainment, wellbeing, punishment.

  1. On what solution should we focus?

To reduce poverty and socioeconomic inequalities, improve national quality of life, reduce public service costs, or increase value for money

  1. Which ‘tools’ or policy instruments should we use?

Redistributive policies to address ‘structural’ causes of poverty and inequality?

Or, individual-focused policies to: (a) boost the mental ‘resilience’ of public service users, (b) oblige, or (c) exhort people to change behaviour.

  1. How do we intervene as early as possible in people’s lives?

Primary prevention. Focus on the whole population to stop a problem occurring by investing early and/or modifying the social or physical environment. Akin to whole-population immunizations.

Secondary prevention. Focus on at-risk groups to identify a problem at a very early stage to minimise harm.

Tertiary prevention. Focus on affected groups to stop a problem getting worse.

  1. How do we pursue ‘evidence based policymaking’? 3 ideal-types

Using randomised control trials and systematic review to identify the best interventions?

Storytelling to share best governance practice?

‘Improvement’ methods to experiment on a small scale and share best practice?

  1. How does evidence gathering connect to long-term policymaking?

Does a national strategy drive long-term outcomes?

Does central government produce agreements with or targets for local authorities?

  1. Is preventive policymaking a philosophy or a profound reform process?

How serious are national governments – about localism, service user-driven public services, and joined up or holistic policymaking – when their elected policymakers are held to account for outcomes?

  1. What is the nature of state intervention?

It may be punitive or supportive. See: How would Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns make progressive social policy?

2.     Making ‘hard choices’: what problems arise when politics meets policymaking?

When policymakers move from idiom and broad philosophy towards specific policies and practices, they find a range of obstacles, including:

The scale of the task becomes overwhelming, and not suited to electoral cycles.

Developing policy and reforming policymaking takes time, and the effect may take a generation to see.

There is competition for policymaking resources such as attention and money.

Prevention is general, long-term, and low salience. It competes with salient short-term problems that politicians feel compelled to solve first.

Prevention is akin to capital investment with no guarantee of a return. Reductions in funding ‘fire-fighting’, ‘frontline’ services to pay for prevention initiatives, are hard to sell. Governments invest in small steps, and investment is vulnerable when money is needed quickly to fund public service crises.

The benefits are difficult to measure and see.

Short-term impacts are hard to measure, long-term impacts are hard to attribute to a single intervention, and prevention does not necessarily save money (or provide ‘cashable’ savings’).

Reactive policies have a more visible impact, such as to reduce hospital waiting times or increase the number of teachers or police officers.

Problems are ‘wicked’.

Getting to the ‘root causes’ of problems is not straightforward; policymakers often have no clear sense of the cause of problems or effect of solutions. Few aspects of prevention in social policy resemble disease prevention, in which we know the cause of many diseases, how to screen for them, and how to prevent them in a population.

Performance management is not conducive to prevention.

Performance management systems encourage public sector managers to focus on their services’ short-term and measurable targets over shared aims with public service partners or the wellbeing of their local populations.

Performance management is about setting priorities when governments have too many aims to fulfil. When central governments encourage local governing bodies to form long-term partnerships to address inequalities and meet short-term targets, the latter come first.

Governments face major ethical dilemmas.

Political choices co-exist with normative judgements concerning the role of the state and personal responsibility, often undermining cross-party agreement.

One aspect of prevention may undermine the other.

A cynical view of prevention initiatives is that they represent a quick political fix rather than a meaningful long-term solution:

  • Central governments describe prevention as the solution to public sector costs while also delegating policymaking responsibility to, and reducing the budgets of, local public bodies.
  • Then, public bodies prioritise their most pressing statutory responsibilities.

Someone must be held to account.

If everybody is involved in making and shaping policy, it becomes unclear who can be held to account over the results. This outcome is inconsistent with Westminster-style democratic accountability in which we know who is responsible and therefore who to praise or blame.

3.      ‘The evidence’ is not a ‘magic bullet’

In a series of other talks, I identify the reasons why ‘evidence based policymaking’ (EBPM) does not describe the policy process well.

Elsewhere, I also suggest that it is more difficult for evidence to ‘win the day’ in the broad area of prevention policy compared to the more specific field of tobacco control.

Generally speaking, a good simple rule about EBPM is that there is never a ‘magic bullet’ to take the place of judgement. Politics is about making choices which benefit some while others lose out. You can use evidence to help clarify those choices, but not produce a ‘technical’ solution.

A further rule with ‘wicked’ problems is that the evidence is not good enough even to generate clarity about the cause of the problem. Or, you simply find out things you don’t want to hear.

Early intervention in ‘families policies’ seems to be a good candidate for the latter, for three main reasons:

  1. Very few interventions live up to the highest evidence standards

There are two main types of relevant ‘evidence based’ interventions in this field.

The first are ‘family intervention projects’ (FIPs). They generally focus on low income, often lone parent, families at risk of eviction linked to factors such as antisocial behaviour, and provide two forms of intervention:

  • intensive 24/7 support, including after school clubs for children and parenting skills classes, and treatment for addiction or depression in some cases, in dedicated core accommodation with strict rules on access and behaviour
  • an outreach model of support and training.

The evidence of success comes from evaluation plus a counterfactual: this intervention is expensive, but we think that it would have cost far more money and heartache if we had not intervened. There is generally no randomised control trial (RCT) to establish the cause of improved outcomes, or demonstrate that those outcomes would not have happened without this intervention.

The second are projects imported from other countries (primarily the US and Australia) based on their reputation for success built on RCT evidence. There is more quantitative evidence of success, but it is still difficult to know if the project can be transferred effectively and if its success can be replicated in another country with a very different political drivers, problems, and services.

2. The evidence on ‘scaling up’ for primary prevention is relatively weak

Kenneth Dodge (2009) sums up a general problem:

  • there are few examples of taking effective specialist projects ‘to scale’
  • there are major issues around ‘fidelity’ to the original project when you scale up (including the need to oversee a major expansion in well-trained practitioners)
  • it is difficult to predict the effect of a programme, which showed promise when applied to one population, to a new and different population.

3. The evidence on secondary early intervention is also weak

This point about different populations with different motivations is demonstrated in a more recent (published 2014) study by Stephen Scott et al of two Incredible Years interventions – to address ‘oppositional defiant disorder symptoms and antisocial personality character traits’ in children aged 3-7 (for a wider discussion of such programmes see the Early Intervention Foundation’s Foundations for life: what works to support parent child interaction in the early years?).

They highlight a classic dilemma in early intervention: the evidence of effectiveness is only clear when children have been clinically referred (‘indicated approach’), but unclear when children have been identified as high risk using socioeconomic predictors (‘selective approach’):

An indicated approach is simpler to administer, as there are fewer children with severe problems, they are easier to identify, and their parents are usually prepared to engage in treatment; however, the problems may already be too entrenched to treat. In contrast, a selective approach targets milder cases, but because problems are less established, whole populations have to be screened and fewer cases will go on to develop serious problems.

For our purposes, this may represent the most inconvenient form of evidence on early intervention: you can intervene early on the back of very limited evidence of likely success, or have a far higher likelihood of success when you intervene later, when you are running out of time to call it ‘early intervention’.

Conclusion: vague consensus is no substitute for political choice

Governments begin with the sense that they have found the solution to many problems, only to find that they have to make and defend highly ‘political’ choices.

For example, see the UK government’s ‘imaginative’ use of evidence to make families policy. In a nutshell, it chose to play fast and loose with evidence, and demonise 117000 families, to provide political cover to a redistribution of resources to family intervention projects.

We can, with good reason, object to this style of politics. However, we would also have to produce a feasible alternative.

For example, the Scottish Government has taken a different approach (perhaps closer to what one might often expect in New Zealand), but it still needs to produce and defend a story about its choices, and it faces almost the same constraints as the UK. It’s self-described ‘decisive shift’ to prevention was no a decisive shift to prevention.

Overall, prevention is no different from any other policy area, except that it has proven to be much more complicated and difficult to sustain than most others. Prevention is part of an excellent idiom but not a magic bullet for policy problems.

Further reading:

Prevention

See also

What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

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

 

 

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Public health, public policy

Here’s why there is always an expectations gap in prevention policy

Prevention is the most important social policy agenda of our time. Many governments make a sincere commitment to it, backed up by new policy strategies and resources. Yet, they also make limited progress before giving up or changing tack. Then, a new government arrives, producing the same cycle of enthusiasm and despair. This fundamental agenda never seems to get off the ground. We aim to explain this ‘prevention puzzle’, or the continuous gap between policymaker expectations and actual outcomes.

What is prevention policy and policymaking?

When engaged in ‘prevention’, governments seek to:

  1. Reform policy. To move from reactive to preventive public services, intervening earlier in people’s lives to ward off social problems and their costs when they seem avoidable.
  2. Reform policymaking. To (a) ‘join up’ government departments and services to solve ‘wicked problems’ that transcend one area, (b) give more responsibility for service design to local public bodies, stakeholders, ‘communities’ and service users, and (c) produce long term aims for outcomes, and reduce short term performance targets.
  3. Ensure that policy is ‘evidence based’.

Three reasons why they never seem to succeed

We use well established policy theories/ studies to explain the prevention puzzle.

  1. They don’t know what prevention means. They express a commitment to something before defining it. When they start to make sense of it, they find out how difficult it is to pursue, and how many controversial choices it involves.
  2. They engage in a policy process that is too complex to control. They try to share responsibility with many actors and coordinate action to direct policy outcomes, without the ability to design those relationships and control policy outcomes. Yet, they need to demonstrate to the electorate that they are in control. When they make sense of policymaking, they find out how difficult it is to localise and centralise.
  3. They are unable and unwilling to produce ‘evidence based policymaking’. Policymakers seek ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather enough information to make ‘good enough’ decisions. When they seek evidence on preventing problems before they arise, they find that it is patchy, inconclusive, often counter to their beliefs, and unable to provide a ‘magic bullet’ to help make and justify choices.

Who knows what happens when they address these problems at the same time?

We draw on empirical and comparative UK and devolved government analysis to show in detail how policymaking differs according to the (a) type of government, (b) issue, and (c) era in which they operate.

Although it is reasonable to expect policymaking to be very different in, for example, the UK versus Scottish, or Labour versus Conservative governments, and in eras of boom versus austerity, a key part of our research is to show that the same basic ‘prevention puzzle’ exists at all times. You can’t simply solve it with a change of venue or government.

Our book – Why Isn’t Government Policy More Preventive? – is in press (Oxford University Press) and will be out in January 2020, with sample chapters appearing here. Our longer term agenda – via IMAJINE – is to examine how policymakers try to address ‘spatial justice’ and reduce territorial inequalities across Europe partly by pursuing prevention and reforming public services.

 

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

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

See also our project website IMAJINE.

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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Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?

cairney-southampton-evidence-win-the-dayPolitics has a profound influence on the use of evidence in policy, but we need to look ‘beyond the headlines’ for a sense of perspective on its impact.

It is tempting for scientists to identify the pathological effect of politics on policymaking, particularly after high profile events such as the ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as US President. We have allegedly entered an era of ‘post-truth politics’ in which ideology and emotion trumps evidence and expertise (a story told many times at events like this), particularly when issues are salient.

Yet, most policy is processed out of this public spotlight, because the flip side of high attention to one issue is minimal attention to most others. Science has a crucial role in this more humdrum day-to-day business of policymaking which is far more important than visible. Indeed, this lack of public visibility can help many actors secure a privileged position in the policy process (and further exclude citizens).

In some cases, experts are consulted routinely. There is often a ‘logic’ of consultation with the ‘usual suspects’, including the actors most able to provide evidence-informed advice. In others, scientific evidence is often so taken for granted that it is part of the language in which policymakers identify problems and solutions.

In that context, we need better explanations of an ‘evidence-policy’ gap than the pathologies of politics and egregious biases of politicians.

To understand this process, and appearance of contradiction between excluded versus privileged experts, consider the role of evidence in politics and policymaking from three different perspectives.

The perspective of scientists involved primarily in the supply of evidence

Scientists produce high quality evidence only for politicians often ignore it or, even worse, distort its message to support their ideologically-driven policies. If they expect ‘evidence-based policymaking’ they soon become disenchanted and conclude that ‘policy-based evidence’ is more likely. This perspective has long been expressed in scientific journals and commentaries, but has taken on new significance following ‘Brexit’ and Trump.

The perspective of elected politicians

Elected politicians are involved primarily in managing government and maximising public and organisational support for policies. So, scientific evidence is one piece of a large puzzle. They may begin with a manifesto for government and, if elected, feel an obligation to carry it out. Evidence may play a part in that process but the search for evidence on policy solutions is not necessarily prompted by evidence of policy problems.

Further, ‘evidence based policy’ is one of many governance principles that politicians should feel the need to juggle. For example, in Westminster systems, ministers may try to delegate policymaking to foster ‘localism’ and/ or pragmatic policymaking, but also intervene to appear to be in control of policy, to foster a sense of accountability built on an electoral imperative. The likely mix of delegation and intervention seems almost impossible to predict, and this dynamic has a knock-on effect for evidence-informed policy. In some cases, central governments roll out the same basic policy intervention and limit local discretion; in others, it identifies broad outcomes and invites other bodies to gather evidence on how best to meet them. These differences in approach can have profound consequences on the models of evidence-informed policy available to us (see the example of Scottish policymaking).

Political science and policy studies provide a third perspective

Policy theories help us identify the relationship between evidence and policy by showing that a modern focus on ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) is one of many versions of the same fairy tale – about ‘rational’ policymaking – that have developed in the post-war period. We talk about ‘bounded rationality’ to identify key ways in which policymakers or organisations could not achieve ‘comprehensive rationality’:

  1. They cannot separate values and facts.
  2. They have multiple, often unclear, objectives which are difficult to rank in any meaningful way.
  3. They have to use major shortcuts to gather a limited amount of information in a limited time.
  4. They can’t make policy from the ‘top down’ in a cycle of ordered and linear stages.

Limits to ‘rational’ policymaking: two shortcuts to make decisions

We can sum up the first three bullet points with one statement: policymakers have to try to evaluate and solve many problems without the ability to understand what they are, how they feel about them as a whole, and what effect their actions will have.

To do so, they use two shortcuts: ‘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 the familiar to make decisions quickly.

Consequently, the focus of policy theories is on the links between evidence, persuasion, and framing issues to produce or reinforce a dominant way to define policy problems. Successful actors combine evidence and emotional appeals or simple stories to capture policymaker attention, and/ or help policymakers interpret information through the lens of their strongly-held beliefs.

Scientific evidence plays its part, but scientists often make the mistake of trying to bombard policymakers with evidence when they should be trying to (a) understand how policymakers understand problems, so that they can anticipate their demand for evidence, and (b) frame their evidence according to the cognitive biases of their audience.

Policymaking in ‘complex systems’ or multi-level policymaking environments

Policymaking takes place in less ordered, less hierarchical, and less predictable environment than suggested by the image of the policy cycle. Such environments are made up of:

  1. a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  2. a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  3. close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors
  4. a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  5. shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

These five properties – plus a ‘model of the individual’ built on a discussion of ‘bounded rationality’ – make up the building blocks of policy theories (many of which I summarise in 1000 Word posts). I say this partly to aid interdisciplinary conversation: of course, each theory has its own literature and jargon, and it is difficult to compare and combine their insights, but if you are trained in a different discipline it’s unfair to ask you devote years of your life to studying policy theory to end up at this point.

To show that policy theories have a lot to offer, I have been trying to distil their collective insights into a handy guide – using this same basic format – that you can apply to a variety of different situations, from explaining painfully slow policy change in some areas but dramatic change in others, to highlighting ways in which you can respond effectively.

We can use this approach to help answer many kinds of questions. With my Southampton gig in mind, let’s use some examples from public health and prevention.

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in tobacco policy?

My colleagues and I try to explain why it takes so long for the evidence on smoking and health to have a proportionate impact on policy. Usually, at the back of my mind, is a public health professional audience trying to work out why policymakers don’t act quickly or effectively enough when presented with unequivocal scientific evidence. More recently, they wonder why there is such uneven implementation of a global agreement – the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – that almost every country in the world has signed.

We identify three conditions under which evidence will ‘win the day’:

  1. Actors are able to use scientific evidence to persuade policymakers to pay attention to, and shift their understanding of, policy problems. In leading countries, it took decades to command attention to the health effects of smoking, reframe tobacco primarily as a public health epidemic (not an economic good), and generate support for the most effective evidence-based solutions.
  2. The policy environment becomes conducive to policy change. A new and dominant frame helps give health departments (often in multiple venues) a greater role; health departments foster networks with public health and medical groups at the expense of the tobacco industry; and, they emphasise the socioeconomic conditions – reductions in smoking prevalence, opposition to tobacco control, and economic benefits to tobacco – supportive of tobacco control.
  3. Actors exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ successfully. A supportive frame and policy environment maximises the chances of high attention to a public health epidemic and provides the motive and opportunity of policymakers to select relatively restrictive policy instruments.

So, scientific evidence is a necessary but insufficient condition for major policy change. Key actors do not simply respond to new evidence: they use it as a resource to further their aims, to frame policy problems in ways that will generate policymaker attention, and underpin technically and politically feasible solutions that policymakers will have the motive and opportunity to select. This remains true even when the evidence seems unequivocal and when countries have signed up to an international agreement which commits them to major policy change. Such commitments can only be fulfilled over the long term, when actors help change the policy environment in which these decisions are made and implemented. So far, this change has not occurred in most countries (or, in other aspects of public health in the UK, such as alcohol policy).

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in prevention and early intervention policy?

UK and devolved governments draw on health and economic evidence to make a strong and highly visible commitment to preventive policymaking, in which the aim is to intervene earlier in people’s lives to improve wellbeing and reduce socioeconomic inequalities and/ or public sector costs. This agenda has existed in one form or another for decades without the same signs of progress we now associate with areas like tobacco control. Indeed, the comparison is instructive, since prevention policy rarely meets the three conditions outlined above:

  1. Prevention is a highly ambiguous term and many actors make sense of it in many different ways. There is no equivalent to a major shift in problem definition for prevention policy as a whole, and little agreement on how to determine the most effective or cost-effective solutions.
  2. A supportive policy environment is far harder to identify. Prevention policy cross-cuts many policymaking venues at many levels of government, with little evidence of ‘ownership’ by key venues. Consequently, there are many overlapping rules on how and from whom to seek evidence. Networks are diffuse and hard to manage. There is no dominant way of thinking across government (although the Treasury’s ‘value for money’ focus is key currency across departments). There are many socioeconomic indicators of policy problems but little agreement on how to measure or which measures to privilege (particularly when predicting future outcomes).
  3. The ‘window of opportunity’ was to adopt a vague solution to an ambiguous policy problem, providing a limited sense of policy direction. There have been several ‘windows’ for more specific initiatives, but their links to an overarching policy agenda are unclear.

These limitations help explain slow progress in key areas. The absence of an unequivocal frame, backed strongly by key actors, leaves policy change vulnerable to successful opposition, especially in areas where early intervention has major implications for redistribution (taking from existing services to invest in others) and personal freedom (encouraging or obliging behavioural change). The vagueness and long term nature of policy aims – to solve problems that often seem intractable – makes them uncompetitive, and often undermined by more specific short term aims with a measurable pay-off (as when, for example, funding for public health loses out to funding to shore up hospital management). It is too easy to reframe existing policy solutions as preventive if the definition of prevention remains slippery, and too difficult to demonstrate the population-wide success of measures generally applied to high risk groups.

What happens when attitudes to two key principles – evidence based policy and localism – play out at the same time?

A lot of discussion of the politics of EBPM assumes that there is something akin to a scientific consensus on which policymakers do not act proportionately. Yet, in many areas – such as social policy and social work – there is great disagreement on how to generate and evaluate the best evidence. Broadly speaking, a hierarchy of evidence built on ‘evidence based medicine’ – which has randomised control trials and their systematic review at the top, and practitioner knowledge and service user feedback at the bottom – may be completely subverted by other academics and practitioners. This disagreement helps produce a spectrum of ways in which we might roll-out evidence based interventions, from an RCT-driven roll-out of the same basic intervention to a storytelling driven pursuit of tailored responses built primarily on governance principles (such as to co-produce policy with users).

At the same time, governments may be wrestling with their own governance principles, including EBPM but also regarding the most appropriate balance between centralism and localism.

If you put both concerns together, you have a variety of possible outcomes (and a temptation to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’) and a set of competing options (outlined in table 1), all under the banner of ‘evidence based’ policymaking.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

What happens when a small amount of evidence goes a very long way?

So, even if you imagine a perfectly sincere policymaker committed to EBPM, you’d still not be quite sure what they took it to mean in practice. If you assume this commitment is a bit less sincere, and you add in the need to act quickly to use the available evidence and satisfy your electoral audience, you get all sorts of responses based in some part on a reference to evidence.

One fascinating case is of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’ programme which combined bits and pieces of evidence with ideology and a Westminster-style-accountability imperative, to produce:

  • The argument that the London riots were caused by family breakdown and bad parenting.
  • The use of proxy measures to identify the most troubled families
  • The use of superficial performance management to justify notionally extra expenditure for local authorities
  • The use of evidence in a problematic way, from exaggerating the success of existing ‘family intervention projects’ to sensationalising neuroscientific images related to brain development in deprived children …

normal brain

…but also

In other words, some governments feel the need to dress up their evidence-informed policies in a language appropriate to Westminster politics. Unless we understand this language, and the incentives for elected policymakers to use it, we will fail to understand how to act effectively to influence those policymakers.

What can you do to maximise the use of evidence?

When you ask the generic question you can generate a set of transferable strategies to engage in policymaking:

how-to-be-heard

ebpm-5-things-to-do

Yet, as these case studies of public health and social policy suggest, the question lacks sufficient meaning when applied to real world settings. Would you expect the advice that I give to (primarily) natural scientists (primarily in the US) to be identical to advice for social scientists in specific fields (in, say, the UK)?

No, you’d expect me to end with a call for more research! See for example this special issue in which many scholars from many disciplines suggest insights on how to maximise the use of evidence in policy.

Palgrave C special

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Public health, public policy, tobacco, tobacco policy

What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

caspi-et-al-abstract

Avshalom Caspi and colleagues have used the 45-year ‘Dunedin’ study in New Zealand to identify the ‘large economic burden’ associated with ‘a small segment of the population’. They don’t quite achieve the 20%-causes-80% mark, but suggest that 22% of the population account disproportionately for the problems that most policymakers would like to solve, including unhealthy, economically inactive, and criminal behaviour. Most importantly, they discuss some success in predicting such outcomes from a 45-minute diagnostic test of 3 year olds.

Of course, any such publication will prompt major debates about how we report, interpret, and deal with such information, and these debates tend to get away from the original authors as soon as they publish and others report (follow the tweet thread):

This is true even though the authors have gone to unusual lengths to show the many ways in which you could interpret their figures. Theirs is a politically aware report, using some of the language of elected politicians but challenging simple responses. You can see this in their discussion which has a lengthy list of points about the study’s limitations.

The ambiguity dilemma: more evidence does not produce more agreement

‘The most costly adults in our cohort started the race of life from a starting block somewhere behind the rest, and while carrying a heavy handicap in brain health’.

The first limitation is that evidence does not help us adjudicate between competing attempts to define the problem. For some, it reinforces the idea of an ‘underclass’ or small collection of problem/ troubled families that should be blamed for society’s ills (it’s the fault of families and individuals). For others, it reinforces the idea that socio-economic inequalities harm the life chances of people as soon as they are born (it is out of the control of individuals).

The intervention dilemma: we know more about the problem than its solution

The second limitation is that this study tells us a lot about a problem but not its solution. Perhaps there is some common ground on the need to act, and to invest in similar interventions, but:

  1. The evidence on the effectiveness of solutions is not as strong or systematic as this new evidence on the problem.
  2. There are major dilemmas involved in ‘scaling up’ such solutions and transferring them from one area to another.
  3. The overall ‘tone’ of debate still matters to policy delivery, to determine for example if any intervention should be punitive and compulsory (you will cause the problem, so you have to engage with the solution) or supportive and voluntary (you face disadvantages, so we’ll try to help you if you let us).

The moral dilemma: we may only pay attention to the problem if there is a feasible solution

Prevention and early intervention policy agendas often seem to fail because the issues they raise seem too difficult to solve. Governments make the commitment to ‘prevention’ in the abstract but ‘do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task’.

A classic policymaker heuristic described by Kingdon is that policymakers only pay attention to problems they think they can solve. So, they might initially show enthusiasm, only to lose interest when problems seem intractable or there is high opposition to specific solutions.

This may be true of most policies, but prevention and early intervention also seem to magnify the big moral question that can stop policy in its tracks: to what extent is it appropriate to intervene in people’s lives to change their behaviour?

Some may vocally oppose interventions based on their concern about the controlling nature of the state, particularly when it intervenes to prevent (say, criminal) behaviour that will not necessarily occur. It may be easier to make the case for intervening to help children, but difficult to look like you are not second guessing their parents.

Others may quietly oppose interventions based on an unresolved economic question: does it really save money to intervene early? Put bluntly, a key ‘economic burden’ relates to population longevity; the ‘20%’ may cause economic problems in their working years but die far earlier than the 80%. Put less bluntly by the authors:

This is an important question because the health-care burden of developed societies concentrates in older age groups. To the extent that factors such as smoking, excess weight and health problems during midlife foretell health-care burden and social dependency, findings here should extend to later life (keeping in mind that midlife smoking, weight problems and health problems also forecast premature mortality)’.

So, policymakers find initially that ‘early intervention’ a valence issue only in the abstract – who wouldn’t want to intervene as early as possible in a child’s life to protect them or improve their life chances? – but not when they try to deliver concrete policies.

The evidence-based policymaking dilemma

Overall, we are left with the sense that even the best available evidence of a problem may not help us solve it. Choosing to do nothing may be just as ‘evidence based’ as choosing a solution with minimal effects. Choosing to do something requires us to use far more limited evidence of solution effectiveness and to act in the face of high uncertainty. Add into the mix that prevention policy does not seem to be particularly popular and you might wonder why any policymaker would want to do anything with the best evidence of a profound societal problem.

 

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Public health, public policy

The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

I am now part of a large EU-funded Horizon2020 project called IMAJINE (Integrative Mechanisms for Addressing Spatial Justice and Territorial Inequalities in Europe), which begins in January 2017. It is led by Professor Michael Woods at Aberystwyth University and has a dozen partners across the EU. I’ll be leading one work package in partnership with Professor Michael Keating.

imajine-logo-2017

The aim in our ‘work package’ is deceptively simple: generate evidence to identify how EU countries try to reduce territorial inequalities, see who is the most successful, and recommend the transfer of that success to other countries.

Life is not that simple, though, is it?! If it were, we’d know for sure what ‘territorial inequalities’ are, what causes them, what governments are willing to do to reduce them, and if they’ll succeed if they really try.

Instead, here are some of the problems you encounter along the way, including an inability to identify:

  • What policies are designed explicitly to reduce inequalities. Instead, we piece together many intentions, actions, instruments, and outputs, in many levels and types of government, and call it ‘policy’.
  • The link between ‘policy’ and policy outcomes, because many factors interact to produce those outcomes.
  • Success. Even if we could solve the methodological problems, to separate cause and effect, we face a political problem about choosing measures to evaluate and report success.
  • Good ways to transfer successful policies. A policy is not like a #gbbo cake, in which you can produce a great product and give out the recipe. In that scenario, you can assume that we all have the same aims (we all want cake, and of course chocolate is the best), starting point (basically the same shops and kitchens), and language to describe the task (use loads of sugar and cocoa). In policy, governments describe and seek to solve similar-looking problems in very different ways and, if they look elsewhere for lessons, those insights have to be relevant to their context (and the evidence-gathering process has to fit their idea of good governance). They also ‘transfer’ some policies while maintaining their own, and a key finding from our previous work is that governments simultaneously pursue policies to reduce inequalities and undermine their inequality-reducing policies.

So, academics like me tend to spend their time highlighting problems, explaining why such processes are not ‘evidence-based’, and identifying all the things that will go wrong from your perspective if you think policymaking and policy transfer can ever be straightforward.

Yet, policymakers do not have this luxury to identify problems, find them interesting, then go home. Instead, they have to make decisions in the face of ambiguity (what problem are they trying to solve?), uncertainty (evidence will help, but always be limited), and limited time.

So, academics like me are now focused increasingly on trying to help address the problems we raise. On the plus side, it prompts us to speak with policymakers from start to finish, to try to understand what evidence they’re interested in and how they’ll use it. On the less positive side (at least if you are a purist about research), it might prompt all sorts of compromises about how to combine research and policy advice if you want policymakers to use your evidence (on, for example, the line between science and advice, and the blurry boundaries between evidence and advice). If you are interested, please let me know, or follow the IMAJINE category on this site (and #IMAJINE).

See also:

New EU study looks at gap between rich and poor

New research project examines regional inequalities in Europe

Understanding the transfer of policy failure: bricolage, experimentalism and translation by Diane Stone

 

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), IMAJINE, 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:

cairney-offshoot-troubled-families-ebpm-5-9-16

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.

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

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

Imagine this as your ‘early intervention’ policy choice: (a) a universal and non-stigmatising programme for all parents/ children, with minimal evidence of effectiveness, high cost, and potential public opposition about the state intervening in family life; or (b) a targeted, stigmatising programme for a small number, with more evidence, less cost, but the sense that you are not really intervening ‘early’ (instead, you are waiting for problems to arise before you intervene). What would you do, and how would you sell your choice to the public?

I ask this question because ‘early intervention’ seems to the classic valence issue with a twist. Most people seem to want it in the abstract: isn’t it best to intervene as early as possible in a child’s life to protect them or improve their life chances?

However, profound problems or controversies arise when governments try to pursue it. There are many more choices than I presented, but the same basic trade-offs arise in each case. So, at the start, it looks like you have lucked onto a policy that almost everyone loves. At the end, you realise that you can’t win. There is no such thing as a valence issue at the point of policy choice and delivery.

To expand on these dilemmas in more depth, I compare cases of Scottish and UK Government ‘families policies’. In previous posts, I portrayed their differences – at least in the field of prevention and early intervention policies – as more difficult to pin down than you might think. Often, they either say the same things but ‘operationalise’ them in very different ways, or describe very different problems then select very similar solutions.

This basic description sums up very similar waves of key ‘families policies’ since devolution: an initial focus on social inclusion, then anti-social behaviour, followed by a contemporary focus on ‘whole family’ approaches and early intervention. I will show how they often go their own ways, but note the same basic context for choice, and similar choices, which help qualify that picture.

Early intervention & prevention policies are valence issues …

A valence (or ‘motherhood and apple pie’) issue is one in which you can generate huge support because the aim seems, to most people, to be obviously good. Broad aims include ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. In the UK specific aims include a national health service free at the point of use. We often focus on valence issues to highlight the importance of a political party’s or leader’s image of governing competence: it is not so much what we want (when the main parties support very similar things), but who you trust to get it.

Early intervention seems to fit the bill: who would want you to intervene late or too late in someone’s life when you can intervene early, to boost their life chances at an early stage as possible? All we have to do is work out how to do it well, with reference to some good evidence. Yet, as I discuss below, things get complicated as soon as we consider the types of early intervention available, generally described roughly as a spectrum from primary (stop a problem occurring and focus on the whole population – like a virus inoculation) to secondary (address a problem at an early stage, using proxy indicators to identify high-risk groups), and tertiary (stop a problem getting worse in already affected groups).

Similarly, look at how Emily St Denny and I describe prevention policy. Would many people object to the basic principles?

“In the name of prevention, the UK and Scottish Governments propose to radically change policy and policymaking across the whole of government. Their deceptively simple definition of ‘prevention policy’ is: a major shift in resources, from the delivery of reactive public services to solve acute problems, to the prevention of those problems before they occur. The results they promise are transformative, to address three crises in politics simultaneously: a major reduction in socioeconomic equalities by focusing on their ‘root causes’; a solution to unsustainable public spending which is pushing public services to breaking point; and, new forms of localised policymaking, built on community and service user engagement, to restore trust in politics”.

… but the evidence on their effectiveness is inconvenient …

A good simple rule about ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is that there is never a ‘magic bullet’ to tell you what to do or take the place of judgement. Politics is about making choices which benefit some people while others lose out. You can use evidence to help clarify those choices, but not produce a ‘technical’ solution. A further rule with ‘wicked’ problems is that the evidence is not good enough even to generate clarity about the cause of the problem. Or, you simply find out things you don’t want to hear.

Early intervention seems to be a good candidate for the latter, for three main reasons:

  1. Very few interventions live up to high evidence standards

There are two main types of relevant ‘evidence based’ interventions in this field. The first are ‘family intervention projects’ (FIPs). They generally focus on low income, often lone parent, families at risk of eviction linked to factors such as antisocial behaviour, and provide two forms of intervention: intensive 24/7 support, including after school clubs for children and parenting skills classes, and treatment for addiction or depression in some cases, in dedicated core accommodation with strict rules on access and behaviour; and an outreach model of support and training. The evidence of success comes from evaluation and a counterfactual: this intervention is expensive, but we think that it would have cost far more money and heartache if we had not intervened to prevent (for example) family homelessness. There is generally no randomised control trial (RCT) to establish the cause of improved outcomes, or demonstrate that those outcomes would not have happened without an intervention of this sort.

The second are projects imported from other countries (primarily the US and Australia) based on their reputation for success. This reputation has been generated according to evidential rules associated with ‘evidence based medicine’ (EBM), in which there is relatively strong adherence to a hierarchy of evidence, with RCTs and their systematic review at the top, and the belief that there should be ‘fidelity’ to programmes to make sure that the ‘dosage’ of the intervention is delivered properly and its effect measured. Key examples include the Family Nurse Partnership (although its first UK RCT evaluation was not promising), Triple P (although James Coyne has his doubts!), and Incredible Years (but note the importance of ‘indicated’ versus ‘selective’ programmes, below). In this approach, there may be more quantitative evidence of success, but it is still difficult to know if the project can be transferred effectively and if its success can be replicated in another country with a very different political drivers, problems, and levels of existing services. We know that some interventions are associated with positive outcomes, but we struggle to establish definitively that they caused them (solely, separate from their context).

  1. The evidence on ‘scaling up’ for primary prevention is relatively weak

Kenneth Dodge (2009) sums up a general problem with primary prevention in this field. It is difficult to see much evidence of success because: there are few examples of taking effective specialist projects ‘to scale’; there are major issues around ‘fidelity’ to the original project when you scale up (including the need to oversee a major expansion in well-trained practitioners); and, it is difficult to predict the effect of a programme, which showed promise when applied to one population, to a new and different population.

  1. The evidence on secondary early intervention is also weak

This point about different populations with different motivations is demonstrated in a more recent (published 2014) study by Stephen Scott et al of two Incredible Years interventions – to address ‘oppositional defiant disorder symptoms and antisocial personality character traits’ in children aged 3-7 (for a wider discussion of such programmes see the Early Intervention Foundation’s Foundations for life: what works to support parent child interaction in the early years?).

They highlight a classic dilemma in early intervention: the evidence of effectiveness is only clear when children have been clinically referred (‘indicated approach’), but unclear when children have been identified as high risk using socioeconomic predictors (‘selective approach’):

An indicated approach is simpler to administer, as there are fewer children with severe problems, they are easier to identify, and their parents are usually prepared to engage in treatment; however, the problems may already be too entrenched to treat. In contrast, a selective approach targets milder cases, but because problems are less established, whole populations have to be screened and fewer cases will go on to develop serious problems.

For our purposes, this may represent the most inconvenient form of evidence on early intervention: you can intervene early on the back of very limited evidence of likely success, or have a far higher likelihood of success when you intervene later, when you are running out of time to call it ‘early intervention’.

… so governments have to make and defend highly ‘political’ choices …

I think this is key context in which we can try to understand the often-different choices by the UK and Scottish Governments. Faced with the same broad aim, to intervene early to prevent poor outcomes, the same uncertainty and lack of evidence that their interventions will produce the desired effect, and the same need to DO SOMETHING rather than wait for the evidence that may never arise, what do they do?

Both governments often did remarkably similar things before they did different things

From the late 1990s, both governments placed primary emphasis initially on a positive social inclusion agenda, followed by a relatively negative focus on anti-social behaviour (ASB), before a renewed focus on the social determinants of inequalities and the use of early intervention to prevent poor outcomes.

Both governments link families policies strongly to parenting skills, reinforcing the idea that parents are primarily responsible for the life chances of their children.

Both governments talk about getting away from deficit models of intervention (the Scottish Government in particular focuses on the ‘assets’ of individuals, families, and communities) but use deficit-model proxies to identify families in need of support, including: lone parenthood, debt problems, ill health (including disability and depression), and at least one member subject to domestic abuse or intergenerational violence, as well as professional judgements on the ‘chaotic’ or ‘dysfunctional’ nature of family life and of the likelihood of ‘family breakdown’ when, for example, a child it taken into care.

So, when we consider their headline-grabbing differences, note this common set of problems and drivers, and similar responses.

… and selling their early intervention choices is remarkably difficult …

Although our starting point was valence politics, prevention and early intervention policies are incredibly hard to get off the ground. As Emily St Denny and I describe elsewhere, when policymakers ‘make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate the scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution’.

These constraints refer to the broad idea of prevention policy, while specific policies can involve different drivers and constraints. With general prevention policy, it is difficult to know what government policy is and how you measure its success. ‘Prevention’ is vague, plus governments encourage local discretion to adapt the evidence of ‘what works’ to local circumstances.

Governments don’t get away with this regarding specific policies. Instead, Westminster politics is built on a simple idea of accountability in which you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. UK central governments have to maintain some semblance of control because they know that people will try to hold them to account in elections and general debate. This ‘top down’ perspective has an enduring effect, particularly in the UK, but also the Scottish, government.

… so the UK Government goes for it and faces the consequences ….

‘Troubled Families’ in England: the massive expansion of secondary prevention?

So, although prevention policy is vague, individual programmes such as ‘troubled families’ contain enough detail to generate intense debate on central government policy and performance and contain elements which emphasise high central direction, including sustained ministerial commitment, a determination to demonstrate early success to justify a further rollout of policy, and performance management geared towards specific measurable short term outcomes – even if the broader aim is to encourage local discretion and successful long term outcomes.

In the absence of unequivocally supportive evidence (which may never appear), the UK government relied on a crisis (the London riots in 2011) to sell policy, and ridiculous processes of estimation of the size of the problem and performance measurement to sell the success of its solution. In this system, ministers perceive the need to display strength, show certainty that they have correctly diagnosed a problem and its solution, and claim success using the ‘currency’ of Westminster politics – and to do these things far more quickly than the people gathering evidence of more substantive success. There is a lot of criticism of the programme in terms of its lack, or cynical use, of evidence but little of it considers policy from an elected government’s perspective.

…while the Scottish Government is more careful, but faces unintended consequences

This particular UK Government response has no parallel in Scotland. The UK Government is far more likely than its Scottish counterpart to link families policies to a moral agenda in response to crisis, and there is no Scottish Government equivalent to ‘payment by results’ and massive programme expansion. Instead, it continued more modest roll-outs in partnership with local public bodies. Indeed, if we ‘zoom in’ to this one example, at this point in time, the comparison confirms the idea of a ‘Scottish Approach’ to policy and policymaking.

Yet, the Scottish Government has not solved the problems I describe in this post: it has not found an alternative ‘evidence based’ way to ‘scale up’ early intervention significantly and move from secondary/ tertiary forms of prevention to the more universal/ primary initiatives that you might associate intuitively with prevention policy.

Instead, its different experiences have highlighted different issues. For example, its key vehicle for early intervention and prevention is the ‘collaborative’ approach, such as in the Early Years Collaborative. Possibly, it represents the opposite of the UK’s attempt to centralise and performance-manage-the-hell-out-of the direction of major expansion.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

Certainty, with this approach, your main aim is not to generate evidence of the success of interventions – at least not in the way we associate with ‘evidence based medicine’, randomised control trials, and the star ratings developed by the Early Intervention Foundation. Rather, the aim is to train local practitioners to use existing evidence and adapt it to local circumstances, experimenting as you go, and gathering/using data on progress in ways not associated with, for example, the family nurse partnership.

So, in terms of the discussion so far, perhaps its main advantage is that a government does not have to sell its political choices (it is more of a delivery system than a specific intervention) or back them up with evidence of success elsewhere. In the absence of much public, media, or political party attention, maybe it’s a nice pragmatic political solution built more on governance principles than specific evidence.

Yet, despite our fixation with the constitution, some policy issues do occasionally get discussed. For our purposes, the most relevant is the ‘named person’ scheme because it looks like a way to ‘scale up’ an initiative to support a universal or primary prevention approach and avoid stigmatising some groups by offering a service to everyone (in this respect, it is the antithesis to ‘troubled families’). In this case, all children in Scotland (and their parents or guardians) get access to a senior member of a public service, and that person acts as a way to ‘join up’ a public sector response to a child’s problems.

Interestingly, this universal approach has its own problems. ‘Troubled families’ sets up a distinction between troubled/ untroubled to limit its proposed intervention in family life. Its problem is the potential to stigmatise and demoralise ‘troubled’ families. ‘Named person’ shows the potential for greater outcry when governments try to not identify and stigmatise specific families. The scheme is largely a response to the continuous suggestion – made after high profile cases of child abuse or neglect – that children can suffer when no agency takes overall responsibility for their care, but has been opposed as excessive infringement on normal family life and data protection, successfully enough to delay its implementation.

[Update 20.9.19: Named person scheme scrapped by Scottish Government]

The punchline to early intervention as a valence issue

Problems arise almost instantly when you try to turn a valence issue into something concrete. A vague and widely-supported policy, to intervene early to prevent bad outcomes, becomes a set of policy choices based on how governments frame the balance between ideology, stigma, and the evidence of the impact and cost-effectiveness of key interventions (which is often very limited).

Their experiences are not always directly comparable, but the UK and Scottish Governments have helped show us the pitfalls of concrete approaches to prevention and early intervention. They help us show that your basic policy choices include: (a) targeted programmes which increase stigma, (b) ‘indicated’ approaches which don’t always look like early intervention; (c) ‘selective’ approaches which seem to be less effective despite intervening at an earlier stage, (d) universal programmes which might cross a notional line between the state and the family, and (e) approaches which focus primarily on local experimentation with uncertain outcomes.

None of these approaches provide a solution to the early intervention dilemmas that all governments face, and there is no easy way to choose between approaches. We can make these choices more informed and systematic, by highlighting how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together, and somehow comparing their intended and unintended consequences. However, this process does not replace political judgement – and quite right too – because there is no such thing as a valence issue at the point of policy choice and delivery.

See also:

Paul Cairney (2019) ‘The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy’, British Politics, 14, 1, 1-22 Open Access PDF

Paul Cairney and Emily St Denny (in press, January 2020) Why Isn’t Government Policy More Preventive? (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Preview Introduction Preview Conclusion

 

 

 

 

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

The UK Government’s ‘troubled families’ policy appears to be a classic top-down, evidence-free, and quick emotional reaction to crisis. It developed after riots in England (primarily in London) in August 2011. Within one week, and before announcing an inquiry into them, then Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech linking behaviour directly to ‘thugs’ and immorality – ‘people showing indifference to right and wrong…people with a twisted moral code…people with a complete absence of self-restraint’ – before identifying a breakdown in family life as a major factor (Cameron, 2011a).

Although the development of parenting programmes was already government policy, Cameron used the riots to raise parenting to the top of the agenda:

We are working on ways to help improve parenting – well now I want that work accelerated, expanded and implemented as quickly as possible. This has got to be right at the top of our priority list. And we need more urgent action, too, on the families that some people call ‘problem’, others call ‘troubled’. The ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids …Now that the riots have happened I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme …with a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country.

Cameron reinforced this agenda in December 2011 by stressing the need for individuals and families to take moral responsibility for their actions, and for the state to intervene earlier in their lives to reduce public spending in the long term:

Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations. We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money…but now we’ve come up the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…that is around £75,000 per family.

The policy – primarily of expanding the provision of ‘family intervention’ approaches – is often described as a ‘classic case of policy based evidence’: policymakers cherry pick or tell tall tales about evidence to justify action. It is a great case study for two reasons:

  1. Within this one programme are many different kinds of evidence-use which attract the ire of academic commentators, from an obviously dodgy estimate and performance management system to a more-sincere-but-still-criticised use of evaluations and neuroscience.
  2. It is easy to criticise the UK government’s actions but more difficult to say – when viewing the policy problem from its perspective – what the government should do instead.

In other words, it is useful to note that the UK government is not winning awards for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) in this area, but less useful to deny the politics of EBPM and hold it up to a standard that no government can meet.

The UK Government’s problematic use of evidence

Take your pick from the following ways in which the UK Government has been criticised for its use of evidence to make and defend ‘troubled families’ policy.

Its identification of the most troubled families: cherry picking or inventing evidence

At the heart of the programme is the assertion that we know who the ‘troubled families’ are, what causes their behaviour, and how to stop it. Yet, much of the programme is built on a value judgements about feckless parents, and tipping the balance from support to sanctions, and unsubstantiated anecdotes about key aspects such as the tendency of ‘worklessness’ or ‘welfare dependency’ to pass from one generation to another.

The UK government’s target of almost 120000 families was based speculatively on previous Cabinet Office estimates in 2006 that about ‘2% of families in England experience multiple and complex difficulties’. This estimate was based on limited survey data and modelling to identify families who met five of seven criteria relating to unemployment, poor housing, parental education, the mental health of the mother, the chronic illness or disability of either parent, an income below 60% of the median, and an inability to by certain items of food or clothing.

It then gave locally specific estimates to each local authority and asked them to find that number of families, identifying households with: (1) at least one under-18-year-old who has committed an offense in the last year, or is subject to an ASBO; and/ or (2) has been excluded from school permanently, or suspended on three consecutive terms, in a Pupil Referral Unit, off the school roll, or has over 15% unauthorised absences over three consecutive terms; and (3) an adult on out of work benefits.

If the household met all three criteria, they would automatically be included. Otherwise, local authorities had the discretion to identify further troubled families meeting two of the criteria and other indicators of concerns about ‘high costs’ of late intervention such as, ‘a child who is on a Child Protection Plan’, ‘Families subject to frequent police call-outs or arrests’, and ‘Families with health problems’ linked to mental health, addiction, chronic conditions, domestic abuse, and teenage pregnancy.

Its measure of success: ‘turning around’ troubled families

The UK government declared almost-complete success without convincing evidence. Success ‘in the last 6 months’ to identify a ‘turned around family’ is measured in two main ways: (1) the child no longer having three exclusions in a row, a reduction in the child offending rate of 33% or ASB rate of 60%, and/or the adult entering a relevant ‘progress to work’ programme; or (2) at least one adult moving from out of work benefits to continuous employment. It was self-declared by local authorities, and both parties had a high incentive to declare it: local authorities received £4000 per family payments and the UK government received a temporary way to declare progress without long term evidence.

The declaration is in stark contrast to an allegedly suppressed report to the government which stated that the programme had ‘no discernible effect on unemployment, truancy or criminality’. This lack of impact was partly confirmed by FOI requests by The Guardian – demonstrating that at least 8000 families received no intervention, but showed improvement anyway – and analysis by Levitas and Crossley which suggests that local authorities could only identify families by departing from the DCLG’s initial criteria.

Its investment in programmes with limited evidence of success

The UK government’s massive expansion of ‘family intervention projects’, and related initiatives, is based on limited evidence of success from a small sample of people from a small number of pilots. The ‘evidence for the effectiveness of family intervention projects is weak’ and a government-commissioned systematic review suggests that there are no good quality evaluations to demonstrate (well) the effectiveness or value-for-money of key processes such as coordinated service provision. The impact of other interventions, previously with good reputations, has been unclear, such as the Family Nurse Partnership imported from the US which so far has produced ‘no additional short-term benefit’. Overall, Crossley and Lambert suggest that “the weight of evidence surrounding ‘family intervention’ and similar approaches, over the longue durée, actually suggests that the approach doesn’t work”. There is also no evidence to support its heroic claim that spending £10000 per family will save £65000.

Its faith in sketchy neuroscientific evidence on the benefits of early intervention

The government is driven partly by a belief in the benefits of early intervention in the lives of children (from 0-3, or even before birth), which is based partly on the ‘now or never’ argument found in key reviews by Munro and Allen (one and two).

normal brain

Policymakers take liberties with neuroscientific evidence to emphasise the profound effect of stress on early brain development (measured, for example, by levels of cortisol found in hair samples). These accounts underpinning the urgency of early intervention are received far more critically in fields such as social science, neuroscience, and psychology. For example, Wastell and White find no good quality scientific evidence behind the comparison of child brain development reproduced in Allen’s reports.

Now let’s try to interpret and explain these points partly from a government perspective

Westminster politics necessitates this presentation of ‘prevention’ policies

If you strip away the rhetoric, the troubled families programme is a classic attempt at early intervention to prevent poor outcomes. In this general field, it is difficult to know what government policy is – what it stands for and how you measure its success. ‘Prevention’ is vague, plus governments make a commitment to meaningful local discretion and the sense that local actors should be guided by a combination of the evidence of ‘what works’ and its applicability to local circumstances.

This approach is not tolerated in Westminster politics, built on the simple idea of accountability in which you know who is in charge and therefore to blame! UK central governments have to maintain some semblance of control because they know that people will try to hold them to account in elections and general debate. This ‘top down’ perspective has an enduring effect: although prevention policy is vague, individual programmes such as ‘troubled families’ contain enough detail to generate intense debate on central government policy and performance and contain elements which emphasise high central direction, including sustained ministerial commitment, a determination to demonstrate early success to justify a further rollout of policy, and performance management geared towards specific measurable outcomes – even if the broader aim is to encourage local discretion.

This context helps explain why governments appear to exploit crises to sell existing policies, and pursue ridiculous processes of estimation and performance measurement. They need to display strength, show certainty that they have correctly diagnosed a problem and its solution, and claim success using the ‘currency’ of Westminster politics – and they have to do these things very quickly.

Consequently, for example, they will not worry about some academics complaining about policy based evidence – they are more concerned about their media and public reception and the ability of the opposition to exploit their failures – and few people in politics have the time (that many academics take for granted) to wait for research. This is the lens through which we should view all discussions of the use of evidence in politics and policy.

Unequivocal evidence is impossible to produce and we can’t wait forever

The argument for evidence-based-policy rather than policy-based-evidence suggests that we know what the evidence is. Yet, in this field in particular, there is potential for major disagreement about the ‘bar’ we set for evidence.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

For some, it relates to a hierarchy of evidence in which randomised control trials (RCTs) and their systematic review are at the top: the aim is to demonstrate that an intervention’s effect was positive, and more positive than another intervention or non-intervention. This requires experiments: to compare the effects of interventions in controlled settings, in ways that are directly comparable with other experiments.

As table 1 suggests, some other academics do not adhere to – and some reject – this hierarchy. This context highlights three major issues for policymakers:

  1. In general, when they seek evidence, they find this debate about how to gather and analyse it (and the implications for policy delivery).
  2. When seeking evidence on interventions, they find some academics using the hierarchy to argue the ‘evidence for the effectiveness of family intervention projects is weak’. This adherence to a hierarchy to determine research value also doomed to failure a government-commissioned systematic review: the review applied a hierarchy of evidence to its analysis of reports by authors who did not adhere to the same model. The latter tend to be more pragmatic in their research design (and often more positive about their findings), and their government audience rarely adheres to the same evidential standard built on a hierarchy. In the absence of someone giving ground, some researchers will never be satisfied with the available evidence and elected policymakers are unlikely to listen to them.
  3. The evidence generated from RCTs is often disappointing. The so-far-discouraging experience of the Family Nurse Partnership has a particularly symbolic impact, and policymakers can easily pick up a general sense of uncertainty about the best policies in which to invest.

So, if your main viewpoint is academic, you can easily conclude that the available evidence does not yet justify massive expansion in the troubled families programme (perhaps you might prefer the Scottish approach of smaller scale piloting, or for the government to abandon certain interventions altogether).

However, if you are a UK government policymaker feeling the need to act – and knowing that you always have to make decisions despite uncertainty – you may also feel that there will never be enough evidence on which to draw. Given the problems outlined above, you may as well act now than wait for years for little to change.

The ends justify the means

Policymakers may feel that the ends of such policies – investment in early intervention by shifting funds from late intervention – may justify the means, which can include a ridiculous oversimplification of evidence. It may seem almost impossible for governments to find other ways to secure the shift, given the multiple factors which undermine its progress.

Governments sometimes hint at this approach when simplifying key figures – effectively to argue that late intervention costs £9bn while early intervention will only cost £448m – to reinforce policy change: ‘the critical point for the Government was not necessarily the precise figure, but whether a sufficiently compelling case for a new approach was made’.

Similarly the vivid comparison of healthy versus neglected brains provides shocking reference points to justify early intervention. Their rhetorical value far outweighs their evidential value. As in all EBPM, the choice for policymakers is to play the game, to generate some influence in not-ideal circumstances, or hope that science and reason will save the day (and the latter tends to be based on hope rather than evidence). So, the UK appeared to follow the US’ example in which neuroscience ‘was chosen as the scientific vehicle for the public relations campaign to promote early childhood programs more for rhetorical, than scientific reasons’, partly because a focus on, for example, permanent damage to brain circuitry is less abstract than a focus on behaviour.

Overall, policymakers seem willing to build their case on major simplifications and partial truths to secure what they believe to be a worthy programme (although it would be interesting to find out which policymakers actually believe the things they say). If so, pointing out their mistakes or alleging lies can often have a minimal impact (or worse, if policymakers ‘double down’ in the face of criticism).

Implications for academics, practitioners, and ‘policy based evidence’

I have been writing on ‘troubled families’ while encouraging academics and practitioners to describe pragmatic strategies to increase the use of evidence in policy.

Palgrave C special

Our starting point is relevant to this discussion – since it asks what we should do if policymakers don’t think like academics:

  • They worry more about Westminster politics – their media and public reception and the ability of the opposition party to exploit their failures – than what academics think of their actions.
  • They do not follow the same rules of evidence generation and analysis.
  • They do not have the luxury of uncertainty and time.

Generally, this is a useful lens through which we should view discussions of the realistic use of evidence in politics and policy. Without being pragmatic – to recognise that policymakers will never think like scientists, and always face different pressures – we might simply declare ‘policy based evidence’ in all cases. Although a commitment to pragmatism does not solve these problems, at least it prompts us to be more specific about categories of PBE, the criteria we use to identify it, if our colleagues share a commitment to those criteria, what we can reasonably expect of policymakers, and how we might respond.

In disciplines like social policy we might identify a further issue, linked to:

  1. A tradition of providing critical accounts of government policy to help hold elected policymakers to account. If so, the primary aim may be to publicise key flaws without engaging directly with policymakers to help fix them – and perhaps even to criticise other scholars for doing so – because effective criticism requires critical distance.
  2. A tendency of many other social policy scholars to engage directly in evaluations of government policy, with the potential to influence and be influenced by policymakers.

It is a dynamic that highlights well the difficulty of separating empirical and normative evaluations when critics point to the inappropriate nature of the programmes as they interrogate the evidence for their effectiveness. This difficulty is often more hidden in other fields, but it is always a factor.

For example, Parr noted in 2009 that ‘despite ostensibly favourable evidence … it has been argued that the apparent benign-welfarism of family and parenting-based antisocial behaviour interventions hide a growing punitive authoritarianism’. The latter’s most extreme telling is by Garrett in 2007, who compares residential FIPs (‘sin bins’) to post-war Dutch programmes resembling Nazi social engineering and criticises social policy scholars for giving them favourable evaluations – an argument criticised in turn by Nixon and Bennister et al.

For present purposes, note Nixon’s identification of ‘an unusual case of policy being directly informed by independent research’, referring to the possible impact of favourable evaluations of FIPs on the UK Government’s move way from (a) an intense focus on anti-social behaviour and sanctions towards (b) greater support. While it would be a stretch to suggest that academics can set government agendas, they can at least enhance their impact by framing their analysis in a way that secures policymaker interest. If academics seek influence, rather than critical distance, they may need to get their hands dirty: seeking to understand policymakers to find alternative policies that still give them what they want.

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The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

The Scottish Government’s former Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden (2013) labelled the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) as an alternative to the UK model of government. He described in broad terms the rejection of command-and-control policymaking and many elements of New Public Management driven delivery. Central to this approach is the potentially distinctive way in which it uses evidence to inform policy and policymaking and, therefore, a distinctive approach to leadership and public service delivery. Yet, there are three different models of evidence-driven policy delivery within the Scottish Government, and they compete with the centralist model, associated with democratic accountability, that must endure despite a Scottish Government commitment to its replacement. In this paper, I describe these models, identify their different implications for leadership and public service delivery, and highlight the enduring tensions in public service delivery when governments must pursue very different and potentially contradictory aims. Overall, the SATP may represent a shift from the UK model, but it is not a radical one.

Cairney QMU Leadership and SATP 11.5.16

The paper is to a workshop called ‘Leading Change in Public Services’, at Queen Margaret University, 13th June 2016.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer

(podcast download)

We can generate new insights on policymaking by connecting the dots between many separate concepts. However, don’t underestimate some major obstacles or how hard these dot-connecting exercises are to understand. They may seem clear in your head, but describing them (and getting people to go along with your description) is another matter. You need to set out these links clearly and in a set of logical steps. I give one example – of the links between evidence and policy transfer – which I have been struggling with for some time.

In this post, I combine three concepts – policy transfer, bounded rationality, and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ – to identify the major dilemmas faced by central government policymakers when they use evidence to identify a successful policy solution and consider how to import it and ‘scale it up’ within their jurisdiction. For example, do they use randomised control trials (RCTs) to establish the effectiveness of interventions and require uniform national delivery (to ensure the correct ‘dosage’), or tell stories of good practice and invite people to learn and adapt to local circumstances? I use these examples to demonstrate that our judgement of good evidence influences our judgement on the mode of policy transfer.

Insights from each concept

From studies of policy transfer, we know that central governments (a) import policies from other countries and/ or (b) encourage the spread (‘diffusion’) of successful policies which originated in regions within their country: but how do they use evidence to identify success and decide how to deliver programs?

From studies of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM), we know that providers of scientific evidence identify an ‘evidence-policy gap’ in which policymakers ignore the evidence of a problem and/ or do not select the best evidence-based solution: but can policymakers simply identify the ‘best’ evidence and ‘roll-out’ the ‘best’ evidence-based solutions?

From studies of bounded rationality and the policy cycle (compared with alternative theories, such as multiple streams analysis or the advocacy coalition framework), we know that it is unrealistic to think that a policymaker at the heart of government can simply identify then select a perfect solution, click their fingers, and see it carried out. This limitation is more pronounced when we identify multi-level governance, or the diffusion of policymaking power across many levels and types of government. Even if they were not limited by bounded rationality, they would still face: (a) practical limits to their control of the policy process, and (b) a normative dilemma about how far you should seek to control subnational policymaking to ensure the delivery of policy solutions.

The evidence-based policy transfer dilemma

If we combine these insights we can identify a major policy transfer dilemma for central government policymakers:

  1. If subject to bounded rationality, they need to use short cuts to identify (what they perceive to be) the best sources of evidence on the policy problem and its solution.
  2. At the same time, they need to determine if there is convincing evidence of success elsewhere, to allow them to: (a) import policy from another country, and/ or (b) ‘scale up’ a solution that seems to be successful in one of its regions.
  3. Then they need to decide how to ‘spread success’, either by (a) ensuring that the best policy is adopted by all regions within its jurisdiction, or (b) accepting that their role in policy transfer is limited: they identify ‘best practice’ and merely encourage subnational governments to adopt particular policies.

Note how closely connected these concerns are: our judgement of the ‘best evidence’ can produce a judgement on how to ‘scale up’ success

Here are three ideal-type approaches to using evidence to transfer or ‘scale up’ successful interventions. In at least two cases, the choice of ‘best evidence’ seems linked inextricably to the choice of transfer strategy:

3 ideal types EBPM

With approach 1, you gather evidence of effectiveness with reference to a hierarchy of evidence, with systematic reviews and RCTs at the top (see pages 4, 15, 33). This has a knock-on effect for ‘scaling up’: you introduce the same model in each area, requiring ‘fidelity’ to the model to ensure you administer the correct ‘dosage’ and measure its effectiveness with RCTs.

With approach 2, you reject this hierarchy and place greater value on practitioner and service user testimony. You do not necessarily ‘scale up’. Instead, you identify good practice (or good governance principles) by telling stories based on your experience and inviting other people to learn from them.

With approach 3, you gather evidence of effectiveness based on a mix of evidence. You seek to ‘scale up’ best practice through local experimentation and continuous data gathering (by practitioners trained in ‘improvement methods’).

The comparisons between approaches 1 and 2 (in particular) show us the strong link between a judgement on evidence and transfer. Approach 1 requires particular methods to gather evidence and high policy uniformity when you transfer solutions, while approach 2 places more faith in the knowledge and judgement of practitioners.

Therefore, our choice of what counts as EBPM can determine our policy transfer strategy. Or, a different transfer strategy may – if you adhere to an evidential hierarchy – preclude EBPM.

Further reading

I describe these issues, with concrete examples of each approach here, and in far more depth here:

Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: ‘National governments use evidence selectively to argue that a successful policy intervention in one local area should be emulated in others (‘evidence-based best practice’). However, the value of such evidence is always limited because there is: disagreement on the best way to gather evidence of policy success, uncertainty regarding the extent to which we can draw general conclusions from specific evidence, and local policymaker opposition to interventions not developed in local areas. How do governments respond to this dilemma? This article identifies the Scottish Government response: it supports three potentially contradictory ways to gather evidence and encourage emulation’.

Both articles relate to ‘prevention policy’ and the examples (so far) are from my research in Scotland, but in a future paper I’ll try to convince you that the issues are ‘universal’

 

 

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Why do governments promote but fail to deliver their radically new ‘preventive’ policy agendas?

Prevention represents the most important social policy agenda in modern history, but governments do not know how to take it forward. In the name of prevention, the UK and Scottish Governments propose to radically change policy and policymaking across the whole of government. Their simple description of ‘prevention policy’ is: a major shift in resources, from the delivery of reactive public services to solve acute problems, to the prevention of those problems before they occur. The results they promise are transformative, to address three crises in politics: a major reduction in socioeconomic equalities by focusing on their ‘root causes’; a solution to unsustainable public spending which is pushing public services to breaking point; and, new forms of localised policymaking, built on community and service user engagement, to restore trust in politics.

Yet, they may never fulfil their aims. We do not identify the usual implementation or expectations gap, in which policymakers only fulfil some of their objectives. Rather, there is great potential for governments to pursue contradictory policies at the complete expense of their prevention agendas. Their most important domestic policy agenda may never get off the ground.

Why do governments fail to deliver on such a massive scale?

We go beyond the usual cynical answer at the heart of low trust in politics and politicians: ‘politicians always make promises they know they won’t keep’. This assertion can only take us so far, partly because governments tend to articulate pledges to allow them to demonstrate success in government, and most governments fulfil a high proportion of pre-election pledges (Bara, 2005). They rarely propose specific policies that they know are too difficult to achieve. This is what makes the pursuit of prevention policies puzzling: why would they make a specific and enthusiastic commitment to an almost impossible policy agenda?

Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise prevention, they face several fundamental problems in policymaking, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute resources and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims regarding the maintenance of existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. Or, more importantly, policymakers may soon think that their task is impossible.  Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution.

To follow this work, please see:

https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/prevention/

 

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Case studies: prevention and early intervention to address austerity and inequality #POLU9SP

This is the first of three posts which use case studies of cross-cutting and specific policy areas to add more depth to our discussion of Scottish politics and policymaking.

We begin with a broad focus on ‘prevention’ policy for 4 reasons:

  1. It is a major Scottish Government priority, to use ‘prevention’ and ‘early intervention’ to reduce socioeconomic inequalities and/ or public service costs.
  2. It is an integral part of the ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’, with a strong emphasis on the changes to joined-up national government and partnerships in local government.
  3. It highlights multi-level policymaking and key overlaps in Scottish and UK Government responsibilities.
  4. We can compare the Scottish Government’s initial statement – committing itself to a ‘decisive shit to prevention’ – to actual outcomes.

But what is prevention policy?

Broadly, prevention and ‘preventative spending’ describe a range of policies designed to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their wellbeing and reduce demand for acute or reactive public services. The argument is that too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, and unemployment – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Prevention policy is described periodically as the solution to three major crises in politics.

  1. If we don’t make fundamental changes to the way we fund and deliver services they will go bust.

Prevention symbolises the desire to shift from expensive demand-led reactive services – such as acute care hospitals, jails, and police and social work interventions for ‘troubled families’ – towards intervening as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their life chances and reduce their reliance on the state. The classic intervention may be a public health policy to encourage healthy behaviour, or an early intervention programme to improve the life chances of teenage mothers and their children, but prevention is broad enough to include a campaign to reduce falls among older people, aimed at keeping people out of NHS beds.

  1. Prevention policies can reduce major inequalities within society.

The broad aim is to address the ‘root causes’ of social problems – such as poverty, social exclusion, and poor accommodation – while specific projects focus on early interventions, such as pre-school provision and parenting programmes, to address major gaps in key indicators, such as education attainment, that can be identified from a young age.

  1. Prevention is a solution to modern crises of government.

A prevention philosophy goes hand in hand with a governance philosophy which identifies the failures of top-down centralist government. The general rhetoric is about policy failure when governments try to do things to you, in favour of making policy with you. It comes with a commitment to: ‘holistic’ government in which we foster cooperation between, and secure a common aim for, departments, public bodies and stakeholders; ‘localism’, or fostering the capacity of local communities to tailor national policies to their areas;  tailoring public services to their users, encouraging a focus on the ‘assets’ of individuals, and inviting users to participate and ‘co-produce’ their services; a shift from simplistic short term targets and performance management towards meaningful long term outcomes-based measures of policy success and population wellbeing; as well as some reliance on ‘evidence based policy making’ to identify which interventions produce the most benefit and deserve investment.

How does prevention relate to the ‘Scottish approach’?

In other words, prevention policies generally combine specific ‘interventions’ with the broad governance principles, including ‘localism’ and the inclusion of users in the design of public services, that we discussed in relation to the ‘Scottish approach’ (but which is also pursued, in different ways, by the UK government). For example, the Scottish Government pursues prevention policies primarily via Community Planning Partnerships and the Single Outcome Agreements produced largely by local authorities.

Have a look again at the descriptions of the Scottish approach by Elvidge and Housden (including Elvidge’s belief that ‘traditional policy and operational solutions’ based on a ‘target driven approach’ would not produce the major changes in policy and policymaking required to address major problems such as inequalities).

What aspects of ‘prevention’ does the Scottish Government control?

The UK government controls monetary and fiscal policies, largely determining the budget used by the Scottish Government to spend and invest, and limiting its ability to redistribute income to address economic inequalities. It controls most aspects of social security, including the ability to address inequalities through direct payments, and determine the rules relating to benefits and unemployment.

Therefore, although the Scottish Government has primary responsibility for most areas of delivery relevant to prevention – such as health, education, housing, local government, and criminal justice – as well as some aspects of economic regeneration and employability, it does not have the responsibility to ‘join up’ taxation, social security, and the delivery of public services. For example, its ability to address health and education inequalities by using taxation policies to address income inequalities is very limited (even after proposed changes in the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016). It could not reform the benefits system to supplement its powers to influence ‘employability’ policy, or emulate the UK Government’s attempts to pass on social security savings to the local authorities implementing its ‘troubled families’ programme.

How does it fit in with the bigger picture of policy change since devolution?

Although the Scottish Government referred rarely to ‘prevention’ before 2010, it identified several ways to address inequalities. From 1999, it began to address ‘social inclusion’, which ‘become a shorthand label to refer to individuals alienated from economic, political, and social processes due to circumstances such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor neighbourhoods, bad health and lack of access to childcare’ (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 211). The most direct responses, to encourage employability or provide social security benefits, were UK responsibilities, and the Scottish Government relied on UK Government’s policies such as ‘welfare to work, the minimum wage and the Working Families Tax Credit’ (2008: 211).

The Scottish Government’s main response was to address disadvantages by focusing on economic regeneration in specific geographical areas, and reducing ‘unequal access to services such as education, health and housing’ (2008: 210). Its approach to governance reflected a developing ‘Scottish approach’, with an emphasis on social inclusion as a cross-departmental theme and the development of ‘Social Inclusion Partnerships’ (SIPs) which resembled CPPs (2008: 211).

Yet, overall, Scottish social inclusion policy did not differ markedly from the UK Government’s ‘social exclusion’ initiatives, and both governments have continued to promote concepts such as community and individual resilience rather than push for redistributive policies to address exclusion.

Further, the Scottish Government shared with the UK Government a tendency to focus on high profile issues or policies designed to improve outcomes overall without necessarily reducing inequalities of outcome (see the next two lectures/ posts on health and education).

Is there an implementation gap? Or, how do outcomes relate to initial expectations?

Until policymakers make sense of prevention, and turn it into a series of specific policies, it remains little more than an idiom – ‘prevention is better than cure’ – with little effect on government policy.

Although it is probably too early to detect an implementation gap associated with the ‘decisive shift’ in 2011, we can identify the great potential for unfulfilled expectations  based on the lack of progress associated with previous efforts. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new prevention agenda in 2011, stated that:

on most key measures social and economic inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced … This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation … In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. At the same time, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years and the percentage of life lived with poor health has increased from 12 to 15 per cent since devolution. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.

However, note the ‘bottom up’ element to this new agenda: does it make sense to identify the top-down idea of an implementation gap, when the Scottish Government is so keen to set a broad strategy and delegate policymaking responsibility? For me, this is a fascinating dilemma for governments: how to they ‘let go’ of policymaking and make sure that their broad aims are met in a meaningful way?

We can explore these issues in more depth in the next two posts which focus on two of the most devolved policy areas: health and education.

See also: Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

 

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The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

I have reblogged this post on EBPM and the Family Nurse Partnership, with an update, at the bottom, on its first RCT-based evaluation (which did not recommend continuing the programme in its current form).

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

We await the results of the randomised control trial (RCT) on family nurse partnerships in England. While it looks like an innocuous review of an internationally well-respected programme, and will likely receive minimal media attention, I think it has high-stakes symbolic value in relation to the role of RCTs in British government.

EBM versus EBPM?

We know a lot about the use of evidence in politics – and we hear that politicians play fast and loose with it. We also know that some professions have a very clear idea about what counts as evidence, and that this view is not shared by politicians and policymakers. Somehow, ‘politics’ gets in the way of the good production and use of evidence.

A key example is the ideal of ‘Evidence Based Medicine’ (EBM), which is associated with a hierarchy of evidence in which the status of the RCT is only exceeded by…

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What can be done about the UK’s ‘glass floor’?

New research on the ‘glass floor’ presents a striking way to understand socioeconomic inequality in the UK. It also highlights ever-present problems in translating such information into policy: we understand the size of the problem well, speculate on its cause badly, and produce vague calls for government action ineffectively. Our initial shock and enthusiasm for policy change translates into disenchantment with yet another ‘too difficult’ problem.

The UK Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has released new research on the life chances of the British population. It identifies a “’glass floor’ in British society” to reject the idea that people get on in life through hard work and merit. Instead, mediocre and lazy children in the right family will do better than bright and hardworking children in the wrong family.

This is horrible paraphrasing of the report, but you get the idea about how most people might notice the report in a hurry, have their beliefs about the lack of a British meritocracy reinforced, then complain that the government is doing enough about it. There wasn’t quite a public outcry (far from it), but you might be forgiven for thinking that the report gives the government plenty of reason to do something. The big question is: will it do anything new with the information?

I wouldn’t rule it out, but would exercise this note of caution: reports like this don’t speak for themselves or give governments a clear impetus to act. Instead, they form part of a larger pattern in this area (of socio-economic inequalities policy), in which we can speak with much more certainty about the size of the problem than (a) its cause, (b) how we should respond, and (c) who exactly should respond.

The size of the problem

The size of the problem is quantified well (it’s not a simple task to measure cognitive ability, class backgrounds and life chances like this) and easy to understand. For example, the commission’s press release states that:

‘Less able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids … children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age 5 as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households. Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability’.

The cause of the problem

This is when things get a bit trickier, because although the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, describes ‘a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain’, the commission is not entirely clear on who or what caused it. There is not one simple message about a single villain. Instead, there are at least two, and both stories are not crystal clear.

First, the author of the report, Dr Abigail McKnight, links the outcomes to the behaviour of certain parents:

“The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children.”

The keyword there is ‘hoarding’, which suggests inappropriately selfish behaviour. Yet, the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, is keen not to blame parents: ‘No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want’.

Instead, Milburn sort of blames the government for its current lack of proportionate action: ‘The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them’.

The result is a mixed view about the cause of the problem – perhaps it’s the fault of some hoarding parents (the especially rich ones sending their kids to private schools, getting tutors and securing internships for their children) and not so much others (the ones using their own skills to secure a spot for their child in a good state school) – and maybe the solution is to give other parents some of these skills to ‘level the playing field’ a bit.

The realistic solution

This is when things get even trickier, because the report seems to call for the government to do far more than it will, while giving it the ability to say that it is already doing as much as it should.

In the ‘far more than it will’ column is the call to reduce socio-economic inequalities (through wealth and income redistribution?), remove differences in quality between schools, and remove class-based barriers to University admissions.

In the ‘sort of doing it already’ column is the call for the state to intervene early in people’s lives to, in effect, train disadvantaged parents in how to give their children things like ‘soft skills’ related to forming networks and spotting opportunities.

The ultimate complication

The final, and perhaps trickiest, obstacle is about working out who is in charge of taking the next step, to drive this new policy agenda forward. The final paragraph of the main report is instructive:

‘If politicians are serious about their expressed desire to increase social mobility in the UK they will need to address barriers that are preventing less advantaged children from reaching their full potential and remove barriers that block downward mobility’.

It doesn’t say who the politicians are – perhaps for good reason. In areas such as social and economic inequality, it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy progress. If it’s mainly about economic redistribution, you can call for action from central government – but, let’s be honest, this won’t get you very far. If it’s mainly about training and encouraging ‘soft skills’ like ‘resilience’, central government might produce a broad strategy document, but its localism agenda suggests that it expects local public bodies to take responsibility for social outcomes.

The overall message is that it takes us seconds to understand the problem and call for government action, but a lot longer to decide what we want them to do, and longer still to find the people likely to do it. By that time, our attention will probably have shifted elsewhere, until the next report comes out and we do it all over again. Maybe this time will be different.

 

 

 

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PhD Students: research is hard and it’s OK to simplify

I’m going to list this under posts for social/ political science PhD students, but it has a broader applicability. The simple message is that: if you are finding it hard to research and write a complicated PhD it’s not all your fault.

There are practical ways to make academic social science research manageable. For example, most of my published work has been an exploration of specific theories, the description of a very specific case study, or a bit of both. The down side to this focus on specific case studies is that it is difficult to produce an overall sense of what is going on in the world (or even one country). It helps to use the same theory as a language with which to consider our accumulated knowledge from many cases, but the policy literature does not have a demonstrably good record on that front: there is a weird mix of detailed case studies in different places/ times/ policy areas, or a collection of large scale comparative studies which focus on a tiny part of the policy process. So, we may find it satisfying to complete a piece of case study research but be frustrated that it is difficult to relate our findings to those of our peers.

With Emily St Denny, I have begun to write a book which aims to do something different: focus on a policy solution – summed up in the terms ‘prevention’ and ‘early intervention’ – that connects many case studies. We are using the same theories and concepts to get a sense of policymaking across 2 governments (UK and Scottish) and many (if not most) government departments. This allows us to identify common practices, policymaking constraints, and lessons that would not be as apparent if the same analysis were conducted by different people at different times, using a range of not-quite-compatible conceptual frameworks (even if we were all aware of, and interested in, each other’s work – which is not as common as we’d like to think).

So, we sort-of solved the problem I described but we also produced a whole set of others, including:

  • With a focused case study or vignette you can limit your analysis to key time periods, decisions, and actors. With our study comes a sense that everything is connected; that every decision to ignore something seems to undermine the analysis arbitrarily.
  • With a case study based on qualitative interviews you can often argue that, by interviewing (say) 20-30 actors you have captured the responses of a large part of the relevant policy making/ influencing ‘population’ (and perhaps much more so than a survey sample in a quantitative project). With our study comes the sense that we are scratching the surface; that our list of interviewees will seem one step up from random.
  • With a detailed case study you can give the sense that you have made sense of a series of important events. With our study comes the temptation to admit that we struggle to make sense of what it going on.
  • You can generally complete case studies on your own. In our case, my sense is that we are only going to achieve some success because we have been funded for two years to work as a team (as part of a far larger team) and, perhaps, because our ESRC funding/ status gives us an ‘in’ with interviewees that I don’t think I enjoyed in the past.
  • If you specialise, you can generate a reputation as an expert in a niche area, and generate some simple lessons from your research. In our case, we either know a little about a lot, or will be tempted to say ‘life is complicated’ or ‘everything is connected’ or tear out our hair while we impart our wisdom (after we say ‘yes, we didn’t know what prevention policy was either’).

This is a very roundabout way of saying that research is hard, and that it is OK to produce a very specific piece of work to make it manageable enough to be completed in a set amount of time (such as a 3-year PhD). It might seem like you are ‘zooming in’ on something fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of things – like a sludgy brown piece of cardboard nothingness in a 10,000 piece jigsaw – but instead you are avoiding the problems that come with too much ‘zooming out’.

See also:

PhD chat

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?’ Policy Studies Journal, 41, 1, 1-21  PDF

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2015) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, PDF

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Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

The first obvious myth about Scotland is that it is a land of milk and honey inhabited by a left-wing population that demands equality at all costs – or, even, that its financial advantage combines with consistently social democratic policies to reduce socio-economic inequalities to a level far below the rest of the UK.

In fact, Scotland’s social attitudes are more subtly left-wing, its devolved policies often diverge more in headline than substance, and – crucially – its record on inequalities does not match the rhetoric, of a social democratic Scotland, that we heard so often during the referendum campaign. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new inequality agenda in 2011, stated that:

on most key measures social and economic inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced … This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation … In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. At the same time, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years and the percentage of life lived with poor health has increased from 12 to 15 per cent since devolution. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.

This set of problems receives only sporadic political attention, but there is some potential for a lack of progress on inequalities to frame the next Scottish Parliament election (if the constitutional question does not continue to dominate).

For example, high levels of inequality in school educational attainment, linked to income and poverty, and discussed at length by Dani Garavelli, have prompted Mandy Rhodes to argue that ‘Scotland’s record on closing the attainment gap is all but failing’, others to argue that ‘Scotland’s educational apartheid’ is ‘is Scotland’s greatest national disgrace’ (Alex Massie) that ‘shames the nation’ (Kevin McKenna), and John McDermott (backed by evidence from Lucy Hunter Blackburn) to argue that these inequalities are reinforced by Scotland’s free University tuition policy. The middle classes are more likely to do better at school, go to University, and leave with no debt than their working class peers. In other words, the claim is that the Scottish Government is either failing to solve the problem of inequality or making it worse – a charge that would be dynamite if the constitution did not dominate political attention so consistently for so long.*

Yet, this conclusion has produced a second, equally problematic, myth: our obsession with Scottish independence has set back the inequalities agenda for years. This story has two main elements. First, the SNP government has taken its eye off the ball because it has been able to entertain its independence obsession, at the cost of paying attention to substantive social policy, without having to worry about the effect of its governing record on its popularity: inequality has worsened but its position remains strong while it can blame Westminster for any problem. Second, there is a simple solution to educational and other inequalities in Scotland – we just need to be driven by the evidence of success (for example, in other countries) and find the political will and leadership necessary to make tough decisions and stick to them.

Both of these points can be dismissed easily. First, maybe we don’t pay much attention to relevant policies, but the Scottish Government and Parliament do. In fact, there is unusually high agreement between parties on the need for the ‘decisive shift to prevention’ prompted by the Christie Commission, accepted wholeheartedly in government, and overseen by the Finance Committee. Further, when people do pay attention – when there is party political electoral competition and public attention to policy – it undermines long term policy strategies. Bursts of attention to political issues tend to produce rushed solutions to the wrong problem – more money goes to acute hospital care to reduce waiting times or to local authorities to boost teacher numbers and reduce class sizes, taking money away from the policies designed to reduce inequalities in the long term.

Second, the key problem that we need to face, if we want to go beyond simply shaming the nation’s or the government’s record, is that we don’t know what the evidence is and what policy should be. No politician or political commentator likes to admit that they can see a huge problem but don’t have a clue about how to solve it – yet, that is the problem we face. The simple solutions of media commentators are untested and their success rests largely on assertion rather than evidence. Or, when experts are called upon to settle the matter, you find that equally eminent scholars support contradictory solutions.

My new research with Emily St Denny shows just how far this problem goes. Even if there is cross-party agreement on the need to act, no one quite knows how to do it: how to define ‘prevention’ policies, gather evidence of ‘best practice’ (from home and abroad), turn the evidence into policies that can be ‘scaled up’ across the country, and demonstrate success for long term projects in a way that helps them compete for funding with high profile and popular quick fixes. What seems like an academic discussion about the nature of evidence and the mechanics of policy delivery is actually an issue at the core of the inequality debate. We show how foolish it would be to assume that the problem can be solved by attention and political will.

The latest version of this paper is here: Cairney 2015 EBPM and best practice 22.4.15 . It underpins a talk I gave to the Scottish Government today, and an academic-practitioner workshop tomorrow, bringing together the Government, Parliament, academics, and policy practitioners, to discuss how to move on from the broad commitment to reduce inequalities to actual projects with demonstrable success.

*This is also an issue that @chrisdeerin has been discussing for some time, partly to bash the Nats and partly to advocate learning from projects such as the ‘London Challenge‘. This is a broader topic – policy learning and transfer – that needs additional discussion. I discuss it (albeit tangentially) in some separate posts – such as  on theory – and in a previous paper looking at the transfer of prevention policies.

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How would Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns make progressive social policy?

Many of us may have a broad idea about how to make good, ‘progressive’, social policy. Or, we might find a lot of agreement on a collection of (albeit often-vague) terms to describe a philosophy of policy and policymaking.

This may relate to a drive to reduce inequalities, and perhaps the costs of public services, by getting to the ‘root cause’ of problems, or encouraging a focus on the ‘assets’ of individuals, encouraging people to participate and ‘co-produce’ their public services, and developing the ability of local communities to tailor national policies to their areas.

In some cases we might focus on the idea of ‘wellbeing’, to develop meaningful outcomes-based (and generally non-monetary) measures of improvement, or ‘early intervention’ and ‘prevention’, in which we address the root causes of problems by tailoring public service interventions to meet needs at the earliest point of a person’s life, rather than addressing problems as they become acute. Some of this policy may be universal, but we might also recognise that some people can be usefully targeted as ‘higher risk’ or in greater need of support.

We might also focus on the importance of employment and economic activity, as a key part of a drive to improve people’s mental health or wellbeing by encouraging them to participate (when possible) in society and develop meaningful social networks.

So far, so good. At this level of generality, this collection of ideas might generate cross party support. For those on the ‘left’, it offers a sense of social justice and reduction of inequalities. For those on the ‘right’, it offers the potential to reduce public service costs and shrink some parts of the state.

Yet, this agreement is often illusory, with the potential to break down dramatically when people turn a broad agenda into concrete policies and draw on additional ideas about, for example, the types of groups that deserve the state’s ‘benefits and burdens’.

There is an episode of The Simpsons which sums up this potential (albeit it’s totally made up and the example is to do with environmentalism): Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns agree on the nature of the problem, and both seem to be well intentioned, but they come up with fantastically different ideas about the practical solution (and how we should treat other animals).

To a large extent, this similarity and difference can be found in the mix of UK and Scottish Government policy and policymaking. If you look at key documents, they now talk in an almost-identical language, focusing on root causes, inequalities, public health, parity between mental and physical health, the importance of employability and employment, the assets-base of individuals, co-production, early intervention, the benefits of localism over central direction, and the need for central government to share policymaking responsibility with local government, public bodies, and a wide range of actors in the third and private sector. They are both making choices that often raise profound questions about the ethics of state intervention into the lives of individuals and families. They also both make the right ‘noises’ about the benefits and risks of state intervention, and this kind of language would, I think, be welcomed broadly across the public sector and in social policy circles.

Yet, what comes next is a different matter. The Scottish Government has cultivated a reputation for taking the Lisa Simpson approach, generating a sense of benevolent state intervention and making sure that its interventions receive fairly wide ‘ownership’ in key parts of the public sector – albeit while generating some dissent in key issues, such as on public health measures (most notably, a minimum unit price of alcohol) and the state guardianship of children (most notably, the idea of a ‘named’ person for each Scottish child). a regular feature of interviews with England-based interviewees is that they look fondly to Scotland and its social policies.

The UK Government, on the other hand, often looks like the Monty Burns character, by producing controversial policies on, for example, major welfare retrenchment, reducing entitlement to benefits related to unemployment, particularly for people with recognised disabilities (but based in part on the importance of employment to wellbeing) and a Troubled Families programme which is often described as punitive and stigmatising (but based in part on the principle of early intervention and the identification of the root causes of social problems).

In other words, the same basic principles can be used in a way that produces profoundly different policies.

Part of our current work is to try to explain why those differences in policy and policymaking, by the UK and Scottish Governments, might arise, and what their effects may be. It is too simple to state that the differences relate to the political parties in office: the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in the UK, largely because we are talking about long term trends that transcend parties. Other possible explanations include:

  • Their division of responsibilities. The UK Government still has responsibility for hot button issues such as welfare reform and employment. It still takes the ‘hard choices’ that tend to divide people politically, and produce highly visible winners and losers.
  • Their consultation and ‘governance’ processes. The Scottish Government has a reputation for inclusive and consensual policymaking (between governments and interest groups), which could relate generally to a policymaking ‘culture’ but does relate specifically to the scale of its task (its responsibilities are limited, and it is small enough for policymakers to form often-meaningful personal relationships with participants). It also has a reputation for a ‘governance’ style that values partnership with the public sector, and a relatively high acceptance of long term measures of success, compared to the UK Government which often combines a focus on ‘localism’ with short term targets and performance management to maintain central control and accountability.
  • The broader ways in which they characterise and treat ‘target populations’. We should resist the tendency to think that, in terms of political culture, Scotland is the home to left wing social democracy while England is increasingly right wing, intolerant and small state. The social attitudes surveys do not support this dichotomy of image. Yet, if we can detect a level of political competition based on these broad categories (in other words, Scottish parties may be more likely to compete using ‘left wing’ language), we might identify a tendency by their respective governments to articulate the same broad policies in very different ways.

With Emily St Denny, I am looking at these issues in a number of ways, albeit focusing primarily on the study of Scotland as part of the broader work of the Centre on Constitutional Change, and I can provide further links to these studies as we go along. Current examples include:

 

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A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

This post also appears on the ESRC website

The Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change does not simply examine the potential for a major event, Scottish independence, to have a major impact on Scottish politics. It also focuses on policymaking, which often exhibits stability and continuity despite major events. For example, the idea of evidence based policymaking (EBPM) represents a broad aim that the Scottish Government would pursue regardless of its constitutional status. The Scottish Government is also likely to continue its focus on a ‘decisive shift to prevention’ – to pursue ‘early interventions’ in people’s lives and address potential social problems before they produce high demand for acute, responsive public services – because the broad idea generates wide party political and public sector support.

Policymaking is about turning these broad aims into specific policies. In our paper, we set out a framework to think this process through, from identifying an aim, to using evidence to inform the selection of projects to fund and support. Some specific policies may differ under a devolved or independent Scotland, but the thought process stays the same.

First, we set out our aims. A clear definition of prevention and a set of detailed aims aids engagement with the public and the government’s policymaking partners. It helps produce a common set of expectations. It helps maximise the ability of a government to identify the most relevant evidence, when it seeks to learn from pilot projects and international experience.

This is difficult to do with ‘prevention’, which can mean anything from inoculating a whole population against a virus, to providing ‘crisis intervention’ to a small group. It can mean providing education and support or regulating behaviour. It is about identifying the root causes of problems, which is easier for many diseases than ‘wicked’ social problems. It is about how ‘decisive’ you want to be in a short space of time, and how you want to balance aims, such as between reducing inequalities or costs (at least when you can’t do both).

The Scottish Government addresses this problem through the National Performance Framework, which provides broad strategic objectives combined with a set of measures to gauge the success of prevention (and other) policies. It then invites local authorities, in partnership with public bodies, the voluntary and private sector, and service users – through Community Planning Partnerships – to produce Single Outcome Agreements which describe how these objectives will be met in each local area (there are 32).

In this sense, the Scottish Government has two broad aims: to pursue prevention projects and to make policy in a particular way, summed up in terms like ‘co-production’. Prevention policy results from Scottish Government direction, coupled with local plans produced in partnership with a range of participants. These aims can reinforce each other, when cooperation produces a high commitment to co-produced objectives, and/or undermine each other, when a proliferation of plans produces a wide range of meanings of prevention.

Second, we seek evidence to help clarify our aims and inform our decisions. Evidence can be drawn from past experience, pilot projects in our own country or policies pursued in others. The Scottish Government has an interesting double-role: to identify what evidence is relevant, based on its own aims; and, to translate evidence into lessons that are relevant to other participants. A commitment to co-production creates a commitment to  understand what drives local policymakers and what information is relevant to them, given the constraints they face (including budget and time) and what drives them to act. It also prompts us to focus as much on the evidence of successful delivery arrangements as successful policy interventions. This is a fundamental issue when we seek to learn lessons from other projects: are we learning about the policy solution or the way in which the solution is understood and used, more or less competently, in particular areas?

Third, we use our judgement. The identification of ‘success’ is a political judgement based on our aims and beliefs. Many projects quickly develop good reputations based on these, rather than ‘scientific’, criteria. We outline a framework to ensure that a sufficient amount of relevant evidence is gathered before a project is deemed successful. However, many projects may not live up to this minimum standard, particularly if we want to learn quickly to address pressing problems. Consequently, evidence-gathering is no substitute for political choice based on limited evidence – and that choice may vary markedly across 32 local areas. This is evidence-based policymaking for the real world.

The full paper, to be presented to the Scottish Government on the 24th February, is here: Cairney St Denny Prevention Paper 21.2.14

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