Tag Archives: public policy

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

I was interviewed in Science, on the topic of evidence-based policymaking, and we discussed some top tips for people seeking to maximise the use of evidence in a complex policy process (or, perhaps, feel less dispirited about the lack of EBPM in many cases). If it sparks your interest, I have some other work on this topic:

I am editing a series of forthcoming articles on maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy, and the idea is that health and environmental scientists can learn from many other disciplines about how to, for example, anticipate policymaker psychology, find the right policymaking venue, understand its rules and ‘currency’ (the language people use, to reflect dominant ways of thinking about problems), and tell effective stories to the right people.

Palgrave C special

I have also completed a book, some journal articles (PAR, E&P), and some blog posts on the ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’.

Pivot cover

Two posts appear in the Guardian political science blog (me, me and Kathryn Oliver).

One post, for practitioners, has ‘5 things you need to know’, and it links to presentations on the same theme to different audiences (Scotland, US, EU).


In this post, I’m trying to think through in more detail what we do with such insights.

The insights I describe come from policy theory, and I have produced 25 posts which introduce each of them in 1000 words (or, if you are super busy, 500 words). For example, the Science interview mentions a spirograph of many cycles, which is a reference to the idea of a policy cycle. Also look out for the 1000-word posts on framing and narrative and think about how they relate to the use of storytelling in policy.

If you like what you see, and want to see more, have a look at my general list of offerings (home page) or list of books and articles with links to theirs PDFs (CV).


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

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

Here are some notes for my talk to the Scottish Government on Thursday as part of its ‘inaugural ‘evidence in policy week’. The advertised abstract is as follows:

A key aim in government is to produce ‘evidence based’ (or ‘informed’) policy and policymaking, but it is easier said than done. It involves two key choices about (1) what evidence counts and how you should gather it, and (2) the extent to which central governments should encourage subnational policymakers to act on that evidence. Ideally, the principles we use to decide on the best evidence should be consistent with the governance principles we adopt to use evidence to make policy, but what happens when they seem to collide? Cairney provides three main ways in which to combine evidence and governance-based principles to help clarify those choices.

I plan to use the same basic structure of the talks I gave to the OSF (New York) and EUI-EP (Florence) in which I argue that every aspect of ‘evidence based policy making’ is riddled with the necessity to make political choices (even when we define EBPM):


I’ll then ‘zoom in’ on points 4 and 5 regarding the relationship between EBPM and governance principles. They are going to videotape the whole discussion to use for internal discussions, but I can post the initial talk here when it becomes available. Please don’t expect a TED talk (especially the E part of TED).

EBPM and good governance principles

The Scottish Government has a reputation for taking certain governance principles seriously, to promote high stakeholder ‘ownership’ and ‘localism’ on policy, and produce the image of a:

  1. Consensual consultation style in which it works closely with interest groups, public bodies, local government organisations, voluntary sector and professional bodies, and unions when making policy.
  2. Trust-based implementation style indicating a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to public bodies, including local authorities, in a meaningful way

Many aspects of this image were cultivated by former Permanent Secretaries: Sir John Elvidge described a ‘Scottish Model’ focused on joined-up government and outcomes-based approaches to policymaking and delivery, and Sir Peter Housden labelled the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) as an alternative to the UK’s command-and-control model of government, focusing on the ‘co-production’ of policy with local communities and citizens.

The ‘Scottish Approach’ has implications for evidence based policy making

Note the major implication for our definition of EBPM. One possible definition, derived from ‘evidence based medicine’, refers to a hierarchy of evidence in which randomised control trials and their systematic review are at the top, while expertise, professional experience and service user feedback are close to the bottom. An uncompromising use of RCTs in policy requires that we maintain a uniform model, with the same basic intervention adopted and rolled out within many areas. The focus is on identifying an intervention’s ‘active ingredient’, applying the correct dosage, and evaluating its success continuously.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to localism and ‘co-production’.

At the other end of the spectrum is a storytelling approach to the use of evidence in policy. In this case, we begin with key governance principles – such as valuing the ‘assets’ of individuals and communities – and inviting people to help make and deliver policy. Practitioners and service users share stories of their experiences and invite others to learn from them. There is no model of delivery and no ‘active ingredient’.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to ‘evidence based policy’

The Goldilocks approach to evidence based policy making: the improvement method

We can understand the Scottish Government’s often-preferred method in that context. It has made a commitment to:

Service performance and improvement underpinned by data, evidence and the application of improvement methodologies

So, policymakers use many sources of evidence to identify promising, make broad recommendations to practitioners about the outcomes they seek, and they train practitioners in the improvement method (a form of continuous learning summed up by a ‘Plan-Do-Study-Act’ cycle).

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

This approach appears to offer the best of both worlds; just the right mix of central direction and local discretion, with the promise of combining well-established evidence from sources including RCTs with evidence from local experimentation and experience.

Four unresolved issues in decentralised evidence-based policy making

Not surprisingly, our story does not end there. I think there are four unresolved issues in this process:

  1. The Scottish Government often indicates a preference for improvement methods but actually supports all three of the methods I describe. This might reflect an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or the inability to establish a favoured approach.
  2. There is not a single way of understanding ‘improvement methodology’. I describe something akin to a localist model here, but other people describe a far more research-led and centrally coordinated process.
  3. Anecdotally, I hear regularly that key stakeholders do not like the improvement method. One could interpret this as a temporary problem, before people really get it and it starts to work, or a fundamental difference between some people in government and many of the local stakeholders so important to the ‘Scottish approach’.

4. The spectre of democratic accountability and the politics of EBPM

The fourth unresolved issue is the biggest: it’s difficult to know how this approach connects with the most important reference in Scottish politics: the need to maintain Westminster-style democratic accountability, through periodic elections and more regular reports by ministers to the Scottish Parliament. This requires a strong sense of central government and ministerial control – if you know who is in charge, you know who to hold to account or reward or punish in the next election.

In principle, the ‘Scottish approach’ provides a way to bring together key aims into a single narrative. An open and accessible consultation style maximises the gathering of information and advice and fosters group ownership. A national strategic framework, with cross-cutting aims, reduces departmental silos and balances an image of democratic accountability with the pursuit of administrative devolution, through partnership agreements with local authorities, the formation of community planning partnerships, and the encouragement of community and user-driven design of public services. The formation of relationships with public bodies and other organisations delivering services, based on trust, fosters the production of common aims across the public sector, and reduces the need for top-down policymaking. An outcomes-focus provides space for evidence-based and continuous learning about what works.

In practice, a government often needs to appear to take quick and decisive action from the centre, demonstrate policy progress and its role in that progress, and intervene when things go wrong. So, alongside localism it maintains a legislative, financial, and performance management framework which limits localism.

How far do you go to ensure EBPM?

So, when I describe the ‘5 things to do’, usually the fifth element is about how far scientists may want to go, to insist on one model of EBPM when it has the potential to contradict important governance principles relating to consultation and localism. For a central government, the question is starker:

Do you have much choice about your model of EBPM when the democratic imperative is so striking?

I’ll leave it there on a cliff hanger, since these are largely questions to prompt discussion in specific workshops. If you can’t attend, there is further reading on the EBPM and EVIDENCE tabs on this blog, and specific papers on the Scottish dimension

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

Paul Cairney, Siabhainn Russell and Emily St Denny (2016) “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?” Policy and Politics, 44, 3, 333-50

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages




Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, Storytelling

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points

These notes are for my brief panel talk at the European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’: Evidence and Analysis in EU Policy-Making: Concepts, Practice and Governance. As you can see from the programme description, the broader theme is about how EU institutions demonstrate their legitimacy through initiatives such as stakeholder participation and evidence-based policymaking (EBPM). So, part of my talk is about what happens when EBPM does not exist.

The post is a slightly modified version of my (recorded) talk for Open Society Foundations (New York) but different audiences make sense of these same basic points in very different ways.

  1. Recognise that the phrase ‘evidence-based policy-making’ means everything and nothing

The main limitation to ‘evidence-based policy-making’ is that no-one really knows what it is or what the phrase means. So, each actor makes sense of EBPM in different ways and you can tell a lot about each actor by the way in which they answer these questions:

  • Should you use restrictive criteria to determine what counts as ‘evidence’? Some actors equate evidence with scientific evidence and adhere to specific criteria – such as evidence-based medicine’s hierarchy of evidence – to determine what is scientific. Others have more respect for expertise, professional experience, and stakeholder and service user feedback as sources of evidence.
  • Which metaphor, evidence based or informed is best? ‘Evidence based’ is often rejected by experienced policy participants as unrealistic, preferring ‘informed’ to reflect pragmatism about mixing evidence and political calculations.
  • How far do you go to pursue EBPM? It is unrealistic to treat ‘policy’ as a one-off statement of intent by a single authoritative actor. Instead, it is made and delivered by many actors in a continuous policymaking process within a complicated policy environment (outlined in point 3). This is relevant to EU institutions with limited resources: the Commission often makes key decisions but relies on Member States to make and deliver, and the Parliament may only have the ability to monitor ‘key decisions’. It is also relevant to stakeholders trying to ensure the use of evidence throughout the process, from supranational to local action.
  • Which actors count as policymakers? Policymaking is done by ‘policymakers’, but many are unelected and the division between policymaker/ influencer is often unclear. The study of policymaking involves identifying networks of decision-making by elected and unelected policymakers and their stakeholders, while the actual practice is about deciding where to draw the line between influence and action.
  1. Respond to ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For stakeholders, an effective engagement strategy is not straightforward: it takes time to know ‘where the action is’, how and where to engage with policymakers, and with whom to form coalitions. For the Commission, it is difficult to know what will happen to policy after it is made (although we know the end point will not resemble the starting point). For the Parliament, it is difficult even to know where to look.

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

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

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

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

These insights should prompt us to see how far we are willing, and should, go to promote the use of certain forms of evidence in policymaking

  • If policymakers and the public are emotional decision-makers, should we seek to manipulate their thought processes by using simple stories with heroes, villains, and clear but rather simplistic morals?
  • If policymaking systems are so complex, should stakeholders devote huge amounts of resources to make sure they’re effective at each stage?
  • Should proponents of scientific evidence go to great lengths to make sure that EBPM is based on a hierarch of evidence? There is a live debate on science advice to government on the extent to which scientists should be more than ‘honest brokers’.
  • Should policymakers try to direct the use of evidence in policy as well as policy itself?

Where we go from there is up to you

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



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

I went to a fantastic workshop on storytelling for policy change. It was hosted by Open Society Foundations New York (25/6 October), and brought together a wide range of people from different backgrounds: Narativ, people experienced in telling their own story, advocacy and professional groups using stories to promote social or policy change, major funders, journalists, and academics. There was already a lot of goodwill in the room at the beginning, and by the end there was more than a lot!

The OSF plans to write up a summary of the whole discussion, so my aim is to highlight the relevance for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ and for scientists and academics seeking more ‘impact’ for their research. In short, although I recommend that scientists ‘turn a large amount of scientific evidence into simple and effective stories that appeal to the biases of policymakers’, it’s easier said than done, and not something scientists are trained in. Good storytellers might enthuse people already committed to the idea of storytelling for policy, but what about scientists more committed to the language of scientific evidence and perhaps sceptical about the need to develop this new skill (particularly those who describe stories pejoratively as ‘anecdata’)? What would make them take a leap in the dark, to give up precious research time to develop skills in storytelling?

So, let me tell you why I thought the workshop was brilliant – including outlining its key insights – and why you might not!

Why I thought it was brilliant

Academic conferences can be horrible: a seemingly never-ending list of panels with 4-5 paper givers and a discussant, taking up almost all of the talking time with too-long and often-self-indulgent and long-winded PowerPoint presentations and little time for meaningful discussion. It’s a test of meeting deadlines for the presenter and an endurance test for the listener.

This workshop was different: the organisers thought about what it means to talk and listen, and therefore how to encourage people to talk in an interesting way and encourage high attention and engagement.

There were three main ‘listening exercises’: a personal exercise in which you closed your eyes and thought about the obstacles to listening (I confess that I cheated on that one); a paired exercise in which one person listened and thought of three poses to sum up the other’s short story; and a group exercise in which people paired up, told and then summarised each other’s stories, and spoke as a group about the implications.

This final exercise was powerful: we told often-revealing stories to strangers, built up trust very quickly, and became emotionally involved in each other’s accounts. It was interesting to watch how quickly we could become personally invested in each other’s discussion, form networks, and listen intently to each other.

For me, it was a good exercise in demonstrating what you need in a policymaker audience: ideally, they should care about the problem you raise, be personally invested in trying to solve it, and trust you and therefore your description of the most feasible solutions. If it helps recreate these conditions, a storytelling scientist may be more effective than an ‘honest broker’. Without a good story to engage your audience, your evidence will be like a drop in the ocean and your audience might be checking its email or playing Pokemon Go while you present.

Key insights and impressions

Most participants expressed strong optimism about the effect of stories on society and policy, particularly when the aim is more expressive than instrumental: the act itself of telling one’s story and being heard can be empowering, particularly within marginalised groups from which we hear few voices. It can also be remarkably powerful, remarkably quickly: most of us were crying or laughing instantly and frequently as we heard many moving stories about many issues. It’s hard to overstate just how effective many of these stories were when you heard them in person.

When discussing more instrumental concerns – can we use a story to get what we want? – the optimism was more cautious and qualified. Key themes included:

  • The balance between effective and ethical storytelling, accepting that if a story is a commodity it can be used by people less sympathetic to our aims, and exploring the ethics of using the lens of sympathetic characters (e.g. white grandparents) to make the case for marginalised groups.
  • This ethical dimension was reinforced continuously by stories of vulnerable storytellers and the balance between telling their story and protecting their safety.
  • The importance of context: the same story may have more or less impact depending on the nature of the audience; many examples conveyed the sense that a story with huge impact now would have failed 10 or 20 years ago and/ or in a different region.
  • The importance of tailoring stories to the biases of audiences and trying to reframe the implications of your audience’s beliefs (one particularly interesting example was of portraying equal marriage in Ireland as the Christian thing to do).
  • Many campaigns used humour and positive stories with heroes, based on the assumption that audiences would be put off by depressing stories of problems with no obvious solution but energised by a message of new possibilities.
  • Many warned against stories that were too personal, identifying the potential for an audience to want to criticise or fix an individual’s life rather than solve a systemic problem (and this individualistic interpretation was most pronounced among people identifying with right-wing parties).
  • Many described the need to experiment/ engage in trial-and-error to identify what works with each audience, including the length of written messages, choice of media, and choice of ‘thin’ stories with clear messages to generate quick attention or ‘thick’ stories which might be more memorable if we have the resources to tell them and people take the time to listen.

Many of these points will seem familiar if you study psychology or the psychology of policymaking. So, the benefit of these experiences is that they tell us how people have applied such insights and how it has helped their cause. Most speakers were confident that they were making an impact.

Why you may not be as impressed: two reasons

The first barrier to getting you enthusiastic is that you weren’t there. If emotional engagement is such a key part of storytelling, and you weren’t there to hear it, why would you care? So, a key barrier to making an ‘impact’ with storytelling is that it is difficult to increase its scale. You might persuade someone if they spent enough time with you, but what if you only had a few seconds in which to impress them or, worse still, you couldn’t impress them because they weren’t interested in the first place? Our worry may be that we can only influence people who are already open to our idea. This isn’t the end of the world, since a key political aim may be to enthuse people who share your beliefs and get them to act (for example, to spread the word to their friends). However, it prompts us to wonder about the varying effect of the same message and the extent to which our message’s power comes from our audience rather than our story.

The second barrier is that, when the question is framed for an academic audience – what is the scientific evidence on the impact of stories? – the answer is not clear.

On the panel devoted to this question (and in a previous session), there were some convincing accounts of the impact of initiatives such as: the Women’s Policy Institute ‘grass roots’ training in California (leading to advocacy prompting 2 dozen bills to be signed over 13 years); Purpose’s branding campaign for the White Helmets (including the miracle baby video which has received tens of millions of views); and, the Frame Works Institute’s ability to change minds with very brief interventions (for example, getting people to think in terms of problem systems more than problem individuals in areas like criminal justice).

However, the academic analysis – with contributions from Francesca Polletta, Jeff Niederdeppe, Douglas Storey, Michael Jones – tended to stress caution or note limited effects:

  • Stories work when they create an empathic reaction, but intensely personal experiences are difficult to recreate when mediated (soap operas and ‘edutainment’ come closest).
  • Randomised control trials suggest that stories have a measurable effect, but it’s small and compared to no intervention at all rather than a competing approach such as providing evidence in reports (note that most experimental studies do not draw on skilful storytellers)
  • Stories work most clearly when they reinforce the beliefs of your allies (and when you refer to heroes, not villains), but the effects are indirect at best with your opponents.

More research required?!

So, you might want more convincing evidence before you take that giant leap to train to become a skilful storyteller: why go for it when its effects are so unclear and difficult to measure?

For me, that response might seem sensible but is also a cop out: unequivocal evidence may never arrive and good science often involves researching as you go. A key insight into policymaking regards a continuous sense of urgency to solve problems: policymakers don’t wait for the evidence to become unequivocal before they act, partly because that sense of clarity may never happen. They feel the need to act on the basis of available evidence. Perhaps scientists should at least think about doing the same when they seek to act on research rather than simply do the research: how long should you postpone potentially valuable action with the old cliché ‘more research required’?



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

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.


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

Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.

  • How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
  • How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
  • How do we persuade other people to act on that information?

To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.

Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.

We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.

As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!

Remember King Canute (Cnut)

King Canute


If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:

  1. We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
  2. Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
  3. Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?

The two stories

This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.

One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:

  1. Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
  2. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Another is about the profound limits to the WM:

  1. No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
  2. If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.

What is the moral of these stories?

For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.

For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).

Who would buy that story though? We need someone to blame!

Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:

There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.

There is UKspecific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.

How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?

Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:

  • Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
  • Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
  • Referring to CG and wondering if it makes sense to blame anyone in particular. It’s the whole damn system! Government is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.

For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?

The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:

  • They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
  • They often deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by making quick emotional and moral choices about ‘target populations’ before thinking through the consequences
  • In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
  • In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
  • Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
  • They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.

We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?

Illustrative example: (1) troubled families

I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:

  • It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
  • It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
  • But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
  • We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
  • So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.

Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention

If you are still interested by this stage, look at this issue in its broader context, of the desire of governments to intervene early in the lives of (say) families to prevent bad things happening. With Emily St Denny, I ask why governments seem to make a sincere commitment to this task but fall far shorter than they expected. The key passage is here:

“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, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems (Rittell and Webber, 1973) 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”.

Group exercise.

Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:

  • Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
  • Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
  • Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?


Filed under POLU9UK, public policy, UK politics and policy

British politics, Brexit and UK sovereignty: what does it all mean? #POLU9UK

 This is the first of 10 blog posts for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK. They will be a fair bit longer than the blog posts I asked you to write. I have also recorded a short lecture to go with it (OK, 22 minutes isn’t short).

In week 1 we’ll identify all that we think we knew about British politics, compare notes, then throw up our hands and declare that the Brexit vote has changed what we thought we knew.

I want to focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty. People voted Leave/ Remain for all sorts of reasons, and bandied around all sorts of ways to justify their position, but the idea of sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ is central to the Leave argument and this module.

For our purposes, it relates to broader ideas about the images we maintain about who makes key decisions in British politics, summed up by the phrases ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the ‘Westminster model’, and challenged by terms such as ‘bounded rationality’, ‘policy communities’, ‘multi-level governance’, and ‘complex government’.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

UK sovereignty relates strongly to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. In practice, one party tends to dominate Parliament, and the elected government tends to dominate that party, but the principle remains important.

So, ‘taking back control’ is about responding, finally, to the sense that (a) the UK’s entry to the European Union from 1972 (when it signed the accession treaty) involved giving up far more sovereignty than most people expected, and (b) the European Union’s role has strengthened ever since, at the further expense of parliamentary sovereignty.

The Westminster Model

This idea of parliamentary sovereignty connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is designed to work.

Our main task is to examine how well the WM: (a) describes what actually happens in British politics, and (b) represents what should happen in British politics. We can separate these two elements analytically but they influence each other in practice. For example, I ask what happens when elected policymakers know their limits but have to pretend that they don’t.

What should happen in British politics?

Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.

The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.

In other words, the WM narrative suggests that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.

Pause for further reading: at this point, consider how this WM story links to a wider discussion of centralised policymaking (in particular, read the 1000 Words post on the policy cycle).

What actually happens?

One way into this discussion is to explore modern discussions of disenchantment with distant political elites who seem to operate in a bubble and not demonstrate their accountability to the public. For example, there is a literature on the extent to which MPs are likely to share the same backgrounds: white, male, middle class, and educated in private schools and Oxford or Cambridge. Or, the idea of a ‘Westminster bubble’ and distant ‘political class’ comes up in discussions of constitutional change (including the Scottish referendum debate), and was exacerbated during the expenses scandal in 2009.

Another is to focus on the factors that undermine this WM image of central control: maybe Westminster political elites are remote, but they don’t control policy outcomes. Instead, there are many factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process. We will focus on these challenges throughout the course:

Challenge 1. Bounded rationality

Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore them? Much of the ‘1000 Words’ series explores the general implications of bounded rationality.

Challenge 2. Policy communities

Ministers don’t quite ignore issues; they delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.

In fact, this argument developed partly in response to discussions in the 1970s about the potential for plurality elections to cause huge swings in party success, and therefore frequent changes of government and reversals of government policy. Rather, scholars such as Jordan and Richardson identified policy continuity despite changes of government (although see Richardson’s later work).

Challenge 3. Multi-level governance

‘Multi-level’ refers to a tendency for the UK government to share policymaking responsibility with international, EU, devolved, and local governments.

‘Governance’ extends the logic of policy communities to identify a tendency to delegate or share responsibility with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations (quangos).

So, MLG can describe a clear separation of powers at many levels and a fairly coherent set of responsibilities in each case. Or, it can describe a ‘patchwork quilt’ of relationships which is difficult to track and understand. In either case, we identify ‘polycentricity’ or the presence of more than one ‘centre’ in British politics.

Challenge 4. Complex government

The phrase ‘complex government’ can be used to describe the complicated world of public policy, with elements including:

    • the huge size and reach of government – most aspects of our lives are regulated by the state
    • the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making
    • the blurry boundaries between the actors who make policy and those who seek to influence and/ or implement it (public policy results from their relationships and interactions)
    • the multi-level nature of policymaking
  • the complicated network of interactions between policy actors and many different ‘institutions’


  • the complexity of the statute book and the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.


Overall, these factors generate a sense of complex government that challenges the Westminster-style notion of accountability. How can we hold elected ministers to account if:

  1. they seem to have no hope of paying attention to much of complex government, far less control it
  2. there is so much interaction with unpredictable effects
  3. we don’t understand enough about how this process works to know if ministers are acting effectively?

Challenge 5. The policy environment and unpredictable events

Further, such governments operate within a wider environment in which conditions and events are often out of policymakers’ control. For example, how do they deal with demographic change or global economic crisis? Policymakers have some choice about the issues to which they pay attention, and the ways in which they understand and address them. However, they do not control that agenda or policy outcomes in the way we associate with the WM image of central control.

How has the UK government addressed these challenges?

We can discuss two key themes throughout the course:

  1. UK central governments have to balance two stories of British politics. One is the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control. Another is the need to construct an image of governing competence, and most governments do so by portraying an image of power and central control!
  2. This dynamic contributes to state reform. There has been a massive build-up and partial knock-down of the ‘welfare state’ in the post-war period (please have a think about the key elements). This process links strongly to that idea of pragmatism versus central control: governments often reform the state to (a) deliver key policy outcomes (the development of the welfare state and aims such as full employment), or (b) reinvigorate central control (for example, to produce a ‘lean state’ or ‘hollowing state’).

What does this discussion tell us about our initial discussion of Brexit?

None of these factors help downplay the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they prompt us to think harder about the meaning, in practice, of parliamentary sovereignty and the Westminster model which underpins ongoing debates about the UK-EU relationship. In short, we can explore the extent to which a return to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ describes little more than principles not evidence in practice. Such principles are important, but let’s also focus on what actually happens in British politics.


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Filed under POLU9UK, UK politics and policy