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Policy Concepts in 500 Words: Social Construction and Policy Design

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

1. The Social Construction of Target Populations

High profile politics and electoral competition can cause alienation:

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

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

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

SCPD 500 words 2 by 2

2. Bureaucratic and expert politics

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

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

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

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





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Filed under 500 words, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, Storytelling

Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?


Schneider and Ingram’s work on Social Construction and Policy Design identifies the populations deemed by policymakers to deserve the benefits or punishments of government policy.

The most concerted attempt to use this theoretical framework empirically is in Schneider and Ingram’s (2005b) edited book Deserving and Entitled, which focuses primarily on the social construction of particular target populations and its largely degenerative effect on US policy design (introduction here).

In this post, I summarise their insights in about 3000 words, splitting their five parts into seven main insights (that way, I can provide a far shorter summary in a journal article, and refer to this page for more discussion).

Insight 1: Policy designs that we take for granted now were built on social constructions of selective deservingness in the (often very distant) past, with key choices setting a precedent for policy design expansion.

Selective group entitlement to state benefits can be traced to the rules created in 1818, initially for very specific ‘veterans of the American Revolution’, providing benefits if they were: men who had travelled extensively to fight for at least nine months and were now ‘poor or unable to work’ (Jensen, 2005: 37). This excluded women, people who were otherwise poor, and veteran militia who fought locally. Officers were paid $20 per month but soldiers $8 (2005: 57). By 1832, pension entitlement extended to all who served for two years, and in 1836 it was expanded to their dependents if they died from war injuries. In 1871, Congress approved a non-means tested pension for those who served in the War of 1812 (and their widows) if they had demonstrated their patriotism by remaining ‘loyal to the United Stated during the Civil War’ and swearing an ‘oath to support the Constitution’, which excluded ‘aged southerners’ (2005: 58). Each expansion encouraged veteran participation: sending a signal about the entitlements that they would receive, or could campaign for if they didn’t.

Selective group exclusion from the ‘universal’ electoral franchise can be traced to a similar time, when many politicians equated popular participation with ‘mob rule’ and sought to limit inclusion. Schriner (2005: 66-7; 73; 76) identifies attempts to exclude ‘idiots’ and the ‘insane’ as the ‘antithesis of the democratic citizen’. For many politicians, they lacked the ‘intellectual competence necessary for political participation’ and/or were mistrusted by the politicians who equated incompetence with deviance, ‘moral degeneracy, dependency, and crime’ (2005: 76). These exclusions only came under serious challenge when social reformers had some success in shifting wider social constructions on mental capacity, highlighting the cruelty of asylums and challenging the link between intellectual incompetence and moral deviance (2005: 76).

Insight 2: Successful challenges to the social construction of target populations are possible but seem exceptional (and, can be at the expense of other minority groups).

Dialto (2005: 81) suggests that the image of Japanese-Americans shifted profoundly between 1941-61, from the hostility and fear of immigrant aliens underpinning WW2 relocation and interment (preceded by late 19th and early 20th century legal rulings which excluded naturalisation and the ability to buy land) to the tag of ‘model minority’ and good citizen. Strategies to change this image did not challenge discrimination directly: finding legal loopholes on land ownership through American-born children; internalising ‘their negative social construction’ and focusing on earning US citizenship (both before WW2); and, crucially, forming a Japanese-American US Army unit which earned war hero status (2005: 90-8). These efforts were reinforced by shifting contexts: internally, Japanese Americans were seen as less of an economic threat (internment left them ‘economically devastated’), and externally, Japan shifted from a threat to a common force against communism and new source of trade (2005: 98).

Court cases in the 1950s helped shift the rules of naturalisation and land ownership. Media coverage in the 1960s used positive portrayals of Japanese Americans, as working hard to overcome hardship, to contrast them with negative portrayals of others and ‘keep other minorities, such as blacks and Chicanos, in their place’ (2005: 99). The US President effectively apologised for internment in 1976, and Congress approved one-off compensation for internment survivors in 1988, and key federal court cases in the late 1980s challenged the War Department’s basis for discriminatory behaviour and convictions (2005: 100). Still, the ‘model minority’ tag has profound drawbacks, in which Japanese Americans perceive the need to live up to a stereotype to gain acceptance, while still facing social discrimination and violence (2005: 100). In other words, the shifting social construction of a social group does not necessarily indicate its growing power.

Insight 3: Advocates have used national policymaking institutions as a source of major change in policy design, but often with limited effects on delivery and/ or profound unintended consequences.

Although often contributing to degenerative policy design, Congress has proved a key organisation to challenging negative social constructions based on race. However, advocates of housing reform to reduce desegregation addressed major opposition (including public, congressional, and business) by assigning deserving/ undeserving status within racial minorities. The narrative underpinning legislative change on fair housing in 1968 was that only some black people deserved to benefit from policy: advocates told individual stories of the black middle class rejecting the life of the black rioter, who ‘deserved to escape the ghettos’, which helped create a race-based underclass (Sidney, 2005: 114-5). Further, this strategy secured very limited policy and social change, partly because few black people could afford the market price of homes in white areas (2005: 118). As predicted by Schneider and Ingram, the ‘benefits to weak groups’ are ‘undersubscribed and conferred at levels insufficient to change behaviour to an extent that it would remediate the problem’ (2005: 119). Policy changes in the late 70s and 80s were based on a ‘diluted’ message on race, focusing for example on the negative role of financial institutions, wider sources (such as class and age) of potential discrimination in housing, or on specific regions (not populations) that might benefit from community investment: the long term benefits of policy to reduce racial desegregation ‘remain fragile and open to dilution or contestation’ (2005: 137).

Congress also acted positively on immigration in 1965, making it ‘no longer acceptable’ for policies to ‘single out groups for exclusion on the base of race or national origin’. In 1986, it gave amnesty to illegal immigrants working in the US for five years, and punished employers not individuals for illegal immigration (Netwon, 2005: 139; 143). Yet, there remain fluctuations in social constructions of which target populations are willing and able to assimilate to achieve legitimate American citizenship, measured according to: legal citizenship, positive values regarding ‘hard work and self sufficiency’, and negative connotations of foreigners committing crimes, procreating excessively, claiming welfare and, during times of economic uncertainty, taking ‘scarce jobs from Americans’ (2005: 139-40; 142).

These negative constructions informed legislation from 1996 which increased southern border patrol staff, equipment, barriers, and detention facilities, made it easier to deport, raised the bar for employers to demonstrate continuously and adequately paid jobs, and reduced entitlement to social security, housing, and higher education subsidies to ‘remove the lure of public benefits’ for ‘problem’ immigrants (2005: 145-6; 151). In congressional debate, ways to define ‘unworthy’ immigrants related to arguments such as: they are freeloaders not paying taxes, but their children get access to free schools; if they break the law to get here, they’ll break the law while here; immigrants are causing a ‘lawless border’ that local law enforcement can’t control; and, an ineffective federal government is hindering border enforcement and blaming employers rather than the criminals (2005: 151-7). Further, rather than challenging such positions with positive counter narratives, opponents used a ‘cure worse than disease’ argument which pointed to the major unintended consequences of policy (for example, removing school entitlement will worsen crime) (2005: 163). Overall, congressional debates signal ‘who matters’ and which people (primarily Mexican) are the ‘wrong kinds of immigrants’ (2005: 166).

Insight 4: public and non-governmental bodies have some discretion to make policy when they deliver. The evidence is mixed on the extent to which those actors use that chance to reframe target populations more positively.

The social and welfare organisations funded to help target populations are often the bodies identifying many as undeserving. For example, Jurik and Cowgill (2005: 173) describe the difference between a potentially positive rationale and negative experience of ‘microenterprise development programs’. MDPs are often initially designed to reduce poverty by helping low-income people of colour with ‘business loans and training’, avoid the stigmatising and unintended consequences of ‘welfare schemes’, and providing programmes to encourage ‘women’s entrepreneurship’ and challenge male conceptions of business strategy and success (2005: 175). However, as philanthropic funding reduces and bodies become more reliant on government and other highly-conditional funding, MDP bodies feel they must demonstrate high performance and distinguish their work from ‘welfare programmes’, and staff become more risk averse to reduce financial losses (2005: 185). They make value judgements based on ‘white, middle-class, male centred standards of business’ to ‘evaluate client worthiness and attempt to resocialize them as well as shape access to further services’ (2005: 174). Worthiness is linked to likely success, and bodies engage in ‘creaming’ (focusing on the easiest, cheapest cases), use implicit moral assessments of character to identify a good attitude and reject ‘entitlement seekers’ and ‘dreamers’, with assessments often ‘class-laden, gendered, and racialized’ (2005: 177; 183). Consequently, people with the lowest incomes and levels of education are less likely to receive significant loans, and most likely to continue to be viewed as ‘helpless deviants … scorned by policymakers’ when they fail to “’lift’ themselves out of poverty” (2005: 196).

Camou (2005: 197-8) identifies a more positive story based on an unusual mix, in small ‘neighborhood organizations’ (non-profit, advocacy, and resident organizations), of constructing often-marginalised groups positively but to ‘resocialize them into an acceptable way of life’ containing the “‘correct’ ‘norms and values”. Most of the studied programs combine a focus on the ‘deficits’ of target populations (such as drug addiction, and low employability and education) and belief that they can’t ‘take control of their lives without interventions’ with the hope that they ‘can reject street values in favour of mainstream ones, including employment, nonviolence, family cohesion, delayed gratification, and respect for property’ (2005: 203). They combine direct interventions, such as programs to enhance employability, with indirect strategies based on some individuals leading by example and encouraging new rules (2005: 204-5). There is minimal emphasis on welfare and structural/ environmental factors such as housing supply, or on challenging a small number of deviants ruining the neighbourhood while helping the upwardly mobile or middle class population (2005: 206-13). Programs ‘tend not to “cream”’, particularly when staff live or recently lived in the same area: their focus is on challenging highly visible and vivid examples of ‘street values’ rather than encouraging the less visible and already positive behaviour (2005: 213-5). Camou (2005: 215) identifies a commitment to a form of ‘tough love’ that ‘would assume a different connotation if pursued by outsiders’; it might punish ‘deviants’ but it also ‘rewards the successful’ users of programs designed to help disadvantaged target populations.

Insight 5: only a small proportion of the many potentially demonised groups receive sustained negative policymaker attention, aided by the ‘moral entrepreneurs’, policy analysts, and ‘policy champions’ who translate specific social constructions into policy design.

Policymakers, the media, and public can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues that could be described as policy problems. So, sustained public anxiety and political attention to a target population requires three conditions (Nicholson-Crotty and Meier, 2005: 224). First, a group is already perceived negatively by many, perhaps with the additional sense that their behaviour is ‘out of control’. Second, a ‘moral entrepreneur’ draws attention to the group successfully: the public, or powerful sections or institutions within it, perceive the entrepreneur as an expert on the social value and group’s deviance; and, those powerful actors perceive a threat that extends from the deviant group to ‘the rest of society’ (2005: 225-7). Moral entrepreneurs use ‘typification’, using the behaviour visible in certain individuals to represent behaviour of a larger group, to identify a ‘dangerous class’ that can be blamed for many more social problems than linked to initial behaviour (2005: 227). Third, there must be ‘sufficient political profit’ to entice a ‘policy champion’ to set the agenda and pursue policy change (2005: 227).

For example, moral entrepreneurs such as Jacob Riis turned broad and widespread suspicion of Chinese immigrants, in the mid to late 19th century, into a specific concern about the spillover effects of their opium smoking: opium addiction spreading to the white population, with the danger of Chinese men using ‘cruel cunning’ to encourage young female ‘promiscuity’ in ‘opium dens’ (2005: 230). Policy champions, such as State Department Secretary Root, proposed legislation to prohibit the import of opium for smoking, thus restricting its effect largely to the Chinese population without prompting opposition from, for example, doctors using opiates for therapeutic purposes (2005: 233).

By the 1980s, a rapid increase in public fear of crime became linked closely to racially-charged fears of social change (2005: 235). Moral entrepreneurs such as James Q Wilson encouraged then used such concerns to generate support for a major shift in policy rationale, from a focus on the structural causes of crime (such as poverty), to a focus on individual responsibility or out of control gangs. Policy champions such as President Reagan and Representative Dan Lundgren pursued legislation (the Comprehensive Crime Act 1984) on the back of ‘organised crime’, ‘the drug racketeers who are poisoning our young people’, and testimony of victims (2005: 239). The effect of such policies is to identify approximately five million people as members of a ‘dangerous class’ (2005: 242).

Insight 6: well-intentioned but problematic social constructions produce unintended consequences if policy designs fail to address major socio-economic inequalities.

Bensonsmith (2005: 244-5) describes the ‘War on Poverty’ programs fostered by President Johnson from 1965, describing key actors such as Daniel Moynihan – author of The Negro Family (‘Moynihan Report’) – as moral entrepreneur and policy champion. Moynihan was part of a ‘new breed of public servants’ with social scientific training and seeking to define as well as solve policy problems (2005: 246). His report identified lower poverty in white and higher in black populations, arguing that the main cause was the ‘disintegration of the African-American family’, in which racism undermined the role of black men as breadwinners, contributing to family breakdown and deviant behaviour (2005: 246). Bensonsmith (2005: 247) argues that the report contributes to black stereotypes that endured from times of slavery, including the ‘shiftless black male’ and the ‘overly fertile and lazy welfare mother’, and that such stereotypes contributed to the idea that welfare dependency helped cause ‘pathological behavior’: ‘broken homes’ have a ‘matriarchal structure’ (aided by female social workers) with no ‘strong father figure’, and a key solution for black men is the ‘masculine world’ of military service (2005: 251). This social construction informed key welfare policies in two main steps. First, black mothers were often initially excluded from social security measures designed for the widows and their dependent children: the state would take on the male role if he died, not if he chose to leave. Second, as entitlement became defined more widely, it became more closely associated with the often-incorrect idea that a disproportionate number of black families received welfare benefits. The association between welfare and race, along with a greater focus on individual responsibility for a culture of dependency, helps cause victim blaming and program retrenchment (2005: 255-6).

Schram (2005: 261) provides an often-different interpretation, arguing that the failure to recognise major ‘racial disparities in the US economy’ helps ‘whitewash’ them rather than asking the ‘hard questions’ in the pursuit of ‘racial justice’. Going too far, to argue that welfare is used more by white than black families – as argued by the Welfare Law Centre’s Welfare Myths in 1996 – can be misleading (from 1985, only the absolute figures on first time use, but not more regular use, and not proportionate calculations, support its position). It is also counterproductive because ‘racial minorities’ were ‘more likely to be living in poverty and in need of public assistance at higher rates’ (2005: 267-70). Similarly, it is tempting for advocacy groups to generate support for welfare rights by associating them with white, middle class and recently divorced mothers as ‘job ready’ and in transition from welfare to work, but problematic because it helps produce insufficient public support for other groups (2005: 281). Programs become ‘bifurcated’, with the predominantly-white male ‘breadwinner’ able to benefit from social insurance based on their previous employment, and others reliant on less generous ‘public assistance’ (2005: 282).

Insight 7: social constructions of (a) deservedness and entitlement create ‘positive identities and participation’ in politics, (b) unworthiness create ‘alienation, resignation, and failure to participate politically’ (Ingram and Schneider, 2005c: 289).

Soss (2005: 291) examines the signals that a bifurcated US social welfare system sends to specific target populations, and how they feel and respond. He examines the idea that US welfare programs have become influenced by ‘new paternalism’, focusing on the ways in which programs are designed ostensibly to encourage good citizenship. In paternalist regimes, they may be associated with ‘civility, self-restraint, and compliance with social expectations’, reflecting the pursuit of ‘social order over social justice and civic compliance over political engagement’ (2005: 292). Different programs also provide profoundly different signals about citizenship, and the signal that a person gets from one key public organization affects their views of government as a whole (2005: 309).

The ‘superior tier’ consists of depersonalised federal ‘social security’ programs, primarily for the ‘elderly or disabled’, pegged to inflation and previous earnings, and producing a positive signal to ‘rights bearing’ recipients (2005: 294-5). The rules are stringent but recipients are encouraged and rewarded, to ‘come away feeling that their claims are welcome’ (2005: 297). Recipients often receive the financial security that allows them to participate in public life as much as the general population, a signal from government that their participation efforts would have a tangible effect, and do not generate feelings of stigma that undermine collective action (2005: 308).

The ‘lower tier’ consists of less generous public assistance ‘that disproportionately serve disadvantaged groups such as people of color, women, and people who have lived in poverty’ (2005: 295). They send negative signals, with recipients attached to state or local case workers and following convoluted and dispiriting rules to establish limited entitlement. Recipients become ‘clients’, vulnerable to bureaucratic rules, entitled to very little privacy (following invasive questions, fingerprinting, and/ or drug testing in some cases), made to attend in person despite limited access to transport, and subject to ‘unpleasant procedures’ in unwelcoming offices (‘authoritarian’ in design and appearance). Many are left vulnerable, with the feeling that ‘they are not valued and their claims unwanted’ and some ‘feeling exposed and humiliated’, powerless, or ‘like cattle’ (2005: 296-9). Recipients are living in poverty and/or fleeing abusive relationships, with minimal choice but to accept these rules without complaint, left with the felling that their feedback would not alter government staff behaviour, and feeling the stigma and lack of self-worth that undermines collective action (2005: 306-7; 310).

Yet, these perceptions are not inevitable. Rather, the key example of Head Start, in which parents participate in collective decisions about the running of local services for their children, ‘provide citizens with evidence that participation can be effective and fulfilling’ (2005: 305), and expose other programs for the minimal extent to which they encourage civic engagement (2005: 321).

If you want to read part two, here it is: scpd-more-empirical-insights-section-31-12-16


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Storytelling

Social Construction and Policy Design

This is an updated and expanded discussion of Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations . It’s the theoretical summary for a paper I’m writing with Jonathan Pierce on the future for this approach. See also a separate post on empirical applications.

Policymakers articulate value judgements which underpin fundamental choices about which social groups should be treated positively or negatively by government bodies. When addressing highly politicised issues, they seek to reward ‘good’ groups with government support and punish ‘bad’ groups with sanctions (Schneider et al, 2014). This judgement is often described as ‘moral reasoning’ (Haidt, 2001) or ‘fast thinking’ (Kahneman, 2012: 20). Policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to pursue their understanding of a policy problem and its solution:

Likes and dislikes are not the result of individual or collective reason and deliberation but mainly the product of emotion and heuristics … judgments begin with emotional reactions … and reason is used mainly to justify initial emotion responses (Schneider et al, 2014, drawing on Kahneman, 2012 and Haidt, 2001; 2012).

Yet, social constructions can also be based on conscious bias. Policies reflect the goal-driven use of constructions, ‘strategically manipulated for political gain … to create political opportunities and avoid political risks’ or, at least, an anxiety by politicians ‘not to be caught in opposition to prevailing values’ if it affects their performance in election (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 6; 192). They aim to receive support from the populations they describe as ‘deserving’, as well as a wider public satisfied with describing others as ‘undeserving’ (1997: 6).

These judgements can have an enduring ‘feed-forward’ effect (Ingram et al, 2007: 112). Choices based on values are reproduced in ‘policy designs’, as the ‘content or substance of public policy’:

Policy designs are observable phenomena found in statutes, administrative guidelines, court decrees, programs, and even the practices and procedures of street level bureaucrats … [they] contain specific observable elements such as target populations (the recipients of policy benefits or burdens), goals or problems to be solved (the values to be distributed), rules (that guide or constrain action), rationales (that explain or legitimate the policy), and assumptions (logical connections that tie the other elements together) (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 2).

Examples of feed-forward effects include policy designs: signaling that ‘elderly citizens are worthy of respect and deserving of the funds they receive’, prompting ‘a level of political participation rivaled by no other group’; introducing convoluted rules to diminish participation in areas such as housing entitlement; signaling to welfare recipients that they have themselves to blame and deserve minimal support; and, restricting voting rights directly (Schneider and Sidney, 2009: 110-11)

Policy designs based on moral choices often become routine and questioned rarely in government because they are ‘automatic rather than thought through’. Emotional assignments of ‘deservingness’ act as important ‘decision heuristics’ because this process is ‘easy to use and recall and hard to change’ (Schneider et al, 2014). They are difficult to overcome, because a sequence of previous policies, based on a particular framing of target populations, helps produce ‘hegemony’: the public, media and/ or policymakers take this set of values for granted, as normal or natural, and rarely question them when engaging in politics (Pierce et al, 2014; see also Gramsci, 1971; Bachrach and Baratz, 1970; Lukes, 2005).

This signal of limited deservingness impacts on citizens and groups, who participate more or less according to how they are characterised by government (Schneider and Ingram, 1993: 334). Only some groups have the resources to mobilise and challenge or reinforce the way they are perceived by policymakers (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 21-4; 2005: 444; Pierce et al, 2014), or to mobilise to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy on their behalf. Some groups can be categorized differently over time, but this seems to be a non-routine outcome, at least in the absence of long term change in social attitudes, even though social constructions are – in theory – ‘inherently unstable’ (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 10). For example, it can follow a major external event such as an economic crisis or game-changing election, exploited by ‘entrepreneurs’ to change the way that policymakers view particular groups (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 10-11). Or, it can be prompted by policy design which, for example, is modified to suit powerful populations with spillover effects for the powerless (such as when drug treatment develops as an alternative to incarceration) (Schneider and Ingram, 2005: 639).

Ingram et al (2007: 102) depict this dynamic with a table in which there are two spectrums – one describes the positive or negative ways in which groups are portrayed by policymakers, the other describes the resources available to groups to challenge or reinforce that image – producing four categories of target population: advantaged, contenders, dependents, and deviants. The powerful and positively constructed are ‘advantaged’; the powerful and negatively constructed are ‘contenders’; the powerless and positively constructed are ‘dependents’; the powerless and negatively constructed are ‘deviants’ (Ingram et al, 2007: 102)

Schneider and Ingram (1997: 3) argue that, although the (US) political system may ‘meet some standard of fairness or openness’, the policies they produce may not be ‘conducive to democracy’. US public policies have failed to solve major problems – including inequality, poverty, crime, racism, sexism, and effective universal healthcare and education – and such policy failure contributes to the sense that the political process serves special interests at the expense of the general public (1997: 4-7). Policy designs ‘are strongly implicated in the current crisis of democracy’ because they have failed and they discourage many target populations (the ‘undeserving’, ‘deviant’, or ‘demons’) from public participation: ‘These designs send messages, teach lessons, and allocate values that exacerbate injustice, trivialize citizenship, fail to solve problems, and undermine institutional cultures that might be more supportive of democratic designs’ (1997: 5-6; 192).

Of course, although there is the unpredictable potential for issues to be politicised, many are not. Yet, low salience can exacerbate these problems of citizen exclusion. Policies dominated by bureaucratic interests often alienate citizens receiving services (1997: 79). Or, experts dominate policies (and many government agencies) when there is high scientific agreement and wider acceptance that the ‘public interest’ is served largely through the production and use of evidence. The process does not include ordinary citizens routinely. Rather, ‘experts with scientific credentials aid and abet the disappearance of the public sphere’, and this is a problem when issues ‘with important social value implications’ transform into ‘a matter of elite scientific and professional concern’ (such as when official calculations of economic activity override personal experiences) (1997: 153; 167).

Overall, they describe a political system with major potential to diminish democracy, with politicians faced with the choice of politicising issues to reward or punish populations or depoliticise issues with reference to science and objectivity, and policy designs uninformed by routine citizen participation. They describe an increasingly individualistic US system with declining rates of collective political participation (at least in elections), a tendency for actors to seek benefits for their own populations, and often ‘degenerative’ policy which produces major inequalities along sex, race, and ethnicity lines (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 22-6).

Although SCPD began as a study of US politics, many of its concepts and insights are ‘universal’. In other words, they identify ‘policymaking issues that can arise in any time or place’ (Cairney and Jones, 2016: 38):

  1. The psychology of social construction: people make quick and emotional judgements about the populations of which they are a part, and other populations.
  2. Policymakers seek to exploit the ‘national mood’, or other indicators of social preferences, for political reward.
  3. These judgements inform policy design.
  4. Policy designs help send signals to citizens which can diminish their incentive to engage in politics.
  5. Low salience issues are often dominated by bureaucratic politics and scientific language, at a similar expense to citizen participation.

The time and place-specific nature of SCPD refers to specific social attitudes, the social construction of specific target populations (from a large list of potential constructions), and specific policy designs associated with each government.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

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


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.



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

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations

(podcast download)

The ‘social construction of target populations’ (SCTP) literature identifies:

  1. The value judgements that policymakers express when justifying their agendas to legislatures and the public.
  2. The enduring impact of these value-driven policies beyond the terms of single elections (and often long after they have left office).

Schneider, Ingram and Deleon identify the importance of this process in three main steps.

First, when competing for elected public office, people articulate value judgements and make fundamental choices about which social groups should be treated differently by government bodies. They present arguments for rewarding ‘good’ groups with government support and punishing ‘bad’ groups with sanctions. This description, which may seem rather simplistic, highlights the tendency of policymakers to make quick and superficial judgements, and back up their impressions with selective facts, before distributing rewards and sanctions. There is a crucial ‘fast thinking’ element to policymaking. Policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution.

Second, these judgements can have an enduring ‘feed-forward’ effect: fundamental choices based on values are reproduced in the institutions devoted to policy delivery. Policy designs based on emotionally-driven thinking often become routine and questioned rarely in government.

Third, this decision has an impact on citizens and groups, who participate more or less in politics according to how they are characterised by government. Some groups can become more or less powerful, and categorised differently, if they have the resources to mobilise and challenge the way they are perceived by policymakers (and the media and public). However, this outcome may take decades in the absence of a major event, such as an economic crisis or game-changing election.

Overall, past policies, based on rapid emotional judgements and policymakers’ values, provide key context for policymaking. The distribution of rewards and sanctions is cumulative, influencing future action by signalling to target populations how they are described and will be treated. Social constructions are difficult to overcome, because a sequence of previous policies, based on a particular framing of target populations, produces ‘hegemony’: the public, media and/ or policymakers take this set of values for granted, as normal or natural, and rarely question them when engaging in politics.

SCTP builds on classic discussions of power, in which actors exercise power to reinforce or challenge policymaker and social attitudes. For example, if most people assume that people in poverty deserve little government help, because they are largely responsible for their own fate, policymakers have little incentive to intervene. In such cases, power and powerlessness relates to the inability of disadvantaged groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy or a problem to be solved. Or, people may take for granted that criminals should be punished because they are engaging in deviant behaviour. To challenge policies based on this understanding, groups have to challenge fundamental public assumptions, reinforced by government policy, regarding what constitutes normal and deviant behaviour. Yet, many such groups have no obvious way in which to mobilise to pursue their collective interests.

SCTP depicts this dilemma with a notional table (page 102) in which there are two spectrums: one describes the positive or negative ways in which groups are portrayed by policymakers, the other describes the resources available to groups to challenge or reinforce that image. The powerful and positively constructed are ‘advantaged’; the powerful and negatively constructed are ‘contenders’; the powerless and positively constructed are ‘dependents’; the powerless and negatively constructed are ‘deviants’. As such, the table represents an abstract account of policymaking context, in which some groups are more likely to be favoured or stigmatised by government, and some groups are better able to exploit their favourable, or challenge their unfavourable, image.

 sctp 2007

It represents the starting point to empirical analysis since, although some examples seem intuitive (many ‘criminals’ are punished by government and have minimal ways in which to mobilise to influence policy), many are time-specific (the ‘feminist movement’ has been more or less active over time) and place-specific (gun manufacturers are high profile in the US, but not the UK). Different populations are also more or less favoured by policymakers at different levels of government – for example, ‘street level’ professionals may treat certain ‘deviant’ populations, such as intravenous drug users, more sympathetically – and may, for example, find it easier to mobilise at local than national levels. Further, people do not fit neatly into these categories – many ‘mothers’ are also ‘scientists’ and/ or part of the ‘feminist movement’ – and may mobilise according to their own perception of their identity.

Still, SCTP demonstrates that policymakers can treat people in certain ways, based on a quick, emotional and simplistic understanding of their background, and that this way of thinking should not be forgotten simply because it is taken for granted. Indeed, governments may go one step further to reinforce these judgements: capitalising on ‘fast thinking’ in the population by constructing simple ‘narratives’ designed to justify policy action to a public that may be prone to accept simple stories that seem plausible, confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/ or come from a source they trust. Actors compete to tell ‘stories, to quickly assign blame to one group of people, or praise another, even though that group is heterogeneous and cause/effect is multifaceted. The winner of this competition may help produce a policy response which endures for years, if not decades.

This post is part of the ‘1000 words’ series https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

For more on social construction, see:

Social Construction and Policy Design

Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?



Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy