Tag Archives: structure and agency

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

Socioeconomic factors and events in British politics #POLU9UK

See also: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors (you can hear my dulcet tones there, so I won’t do an extra podcast).

You get the idea by now. We began the course with a stylised Westminster model of centralised control and each week we use something new to chip away at that image. This week we focus on the sense that the UK government is (a) constantly responding to events rather than setting the political agenda, and (b) dealing with policy conditions and outcomes that seem to be out of its control.

Big E and small e events

You might get two impressions from the word ‘events’:

  1. The really big ones that seem to shock half of the population (more or less, or much more). Take your pick from recent Events including Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum, or from economic crises including the global financial crises and shocks to the British Pound. Generally speaking, it is difficult to get a sense from these Events that the UK Government is in control of the agenda or outcome.
  2. The day-to-day ones. You now get this other sense of events most strongly from social media: people’s attention lurches from issue to issue very quickly, and governments (or individual policymakers) often seem to struggle to respond effectively or set the agenda.

So, as we discussed in week 2, policymakers will often settle for the chance to portray themselves as decisive in responding and adapting to such events rather than controlling them (perhaps particularly in an age in which they struggle more and more to control the flow of information within populations).

Policy conditions: from funnels of causality to globalisation

A reference to policy ‘conditions’ or ‘environments’ is broader. It refers to the context in which policymakers make choices, including:

  • Literally, the environment in which people live and the spread of populations in urban and rural areas.
  • The demographic profile and trends in birth and ageing.
  • Levels of economic activity.
  • Social behaviour and attitudes.
  • Technological changes which prompt social change, from mass road transit to information technology.
  • Governing institutions with rules that constrain and facilitate behaviour.

One main connection between conditions and events is that the former often shape the latter: environmental crises prompt new forms of behaviour, ageing populations prompt a sense of crisis in health and social care, economic downturns panic governments, and so on. You get the idea: this is a far cry from our initial starting point in which we focus on what governments do. If we focus on what surrounds governments we get more of a sense of the limits to what governments can do, and a limited sense of their control of policymaking processes and outcomes.

As the language of ‘structure and agency’ suggests, we need to find a convincing way to describe this sense of limited choice. We (or, at least, I) want to maintain the sense that policymakers are actors making choices but that some choices are far more attractive or possible than others.

So, we have a choice about how to portray these choices. On the one hand, we have accounts which focus on the limits to choice:

  • The classic (but now little-discussed) way of thinking about wider conditions is Hofferbert’s ‘funnel of causality’. Its usefulness is to expand our horizons to think about the wider (literal or metaphorical) environment of policymaking in which, for example, geographical conditions influence population concentrations and public behaviour and attitudes influence elite behaviour.
  • The concept of ‘globalisation’ prompts us to think about the pressures on domestic governments to respond to global factors often outside of their control. In such cases, their choices about how to respond to external factors are not particularly attractive, such as when they are deciding how to set interest rates to deal with external fluctuations in demand for their currency (who do I mean by ‘they’ these days?), or how willing they are to reduce taxes and offer subsidies to attract foreign direct investment.

On the other hand is the sense that actors mediate such conditions and events: to a large extent they decide how to interpret events, the importance to attach to policy conditions, and which conditions produce events that seem the most urgent or important. In other words, many governments have shown an impressive ability to completely ignore events that other governments would treat as urgent crises.

The latter point is a nice segue to one of the recommended articles for this week, by Hindmoor and McConnell, in which they discuss the UK Government’s response to financial crisis. They remind us that we should understand the processing of events as they occurred, rather than via hindsight. This approach allows us to see that governments have highly imperfect ways to gather information and detect ‘warning signals’ effectively: what seems obvious now would not be obvious then. What now seems like a crisis to which governments inevitably had to respond would then seem very different.

Group exercises

In our groups we can identify and discuss key examples: how have UK governments dealt with demographic change or economic crisis? What kinds of factors are most likely to get their attention (and why?) and how are they likely to deal with them? What are the big events or conditions in UK politics that seem impossible to ignore? And what does our discussion tell us about the idea of a UK political system characterised by central government control and a centralisation of power.

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Filed under POLU9UK, public policy, UK politics and policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors

(podcast download)

We need a way to describe the things that policymakers take into account when they make decisions. We also need a way to categorise these things in order of importance, from factors that simply catch their eye, to factors that seem to be out of their control and/ or force them into making particular choices.

For example, ‘policy context’ or ‘structural factors’ may be used to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s ‘environment’ is in her control. It can refer to the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass social attitudes and behaviour.

box 6.1 structural

Or, we might refer to‘events’, which can be: routine, such as the elections, or unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, major scientific breakthroughs and technological change (see Weible).

Or, we might refer to policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs (Rose, 1990). The first thing that a new government does is accept responsibility for the decisions made in its name in the past. New policymakers also realise that they are engaging in governing organisations which often have well-established rules, to which they either have to adapt or expend energy to challenge.

Structure and agency

Our challenge is to find a way to incorporate these factors into a convincing account of policymaking. The policy sciences face the same problem as the social sciences: how to conceptualise the relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. Or, how much do policymakers shape, and how much of their behaviour is shaped by, their policy environment?

The term ‘structure’ refers vaguely to a set of parts put together to form a whole. In social science, we attribute two key properties to structures: they are relatively fixed and difficult but not impossible to break down; and, they influence the decisions that actors (‘agents’) make. For example, it is common to describe the structure of the economy, rules within institutions, government, and even some ideas.

From this starting point, we can identify agency-heavy and structural-heavy explanations. For the latter, one common solution is to focus on how actors interpret and respond to context and events. If so, we might consider if an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to it.

This approach may contrast with socioeconomic-driven accounts which suggest that demographic, economic and other factors determine: which issues reach the policymaking agenda; which solutions seem feasible; the actors that policymakers try most to please; and, the likely success of any action.

For example, some studies from the 1960s examined the extent to which variations in policies across US states were explained by the socio-economic composition of each state. Similarly, Hofferbert’s (1974) ‘funnel of causality’ gives the impression that historic-geographic conditions contribute to the socio-economic composition of a region, which contributes to mass political behavior which determines the fortunes of parties – and all three combine with government institutions to influence elite behaviour.

Perhaps the most recent exposition of a structure-heavy account is summed up in the phrase ‘globalisation’ which describes the diminished ability of governments to control their own economic and monetary policies. Governments appear to be forced to ‘race to the bottom’; to compete economically, react to widespread shifts and crises in international financial conditions and change to attract business from multi-national corporations (often by reducing corporation taxes and labour regulations).

Structural versus comprehensive rationality based explanations?

This discussion prompts us to consider a different perspective to comprehensively rational decision making, or the idea that the policy process begins with the decision by a policymaker to identify a problem to solve. Instead, we may envisage a world in which policies are already in place and the ability of policymakers to replace them are limited. This decision-making process takes place within the context of existing government policy and a huge infrastructure devoted to carrying it out. Further, policymakers often define problems after events have taken place; those events may be out of the control of policymakers and often appear to give them very little choice about how, if it is possible, to solve them.

One way to describe this process is to suggest that policymakers represent one small part of a large complex system. Complexity theory suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a political system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down into the actions of its constituent parts. This idea of a system captures the difficulty of policymaking and serves as a corrective to accounts that focus too much on the importance of individual policymakers and which exaggerate their ability to single-handedly change policy.

A structure-agency mix

Of course, we do not want to go too far; to suggest that people don’t matter. So, a sensible approach is to think in terms of a structure–agency mix:

  • An ageing population may give governments little choice but to plan for the consequences, but they can do so in a variety of ways.
  • Technology-driven healthcare is not irresistible, particularly if expenditure is limited and cost-effective public health policies are available.
  • Coastal conditions may force us to build protective barriers, but policymakers have shown that they can ignore the issue for some time, until the environmental conditions cause a human crisis.
  • The appearance of globalisation, crises and economically-driven policies may be convenient for policymakers attempting to introduce unpopular policies or avoid responsibility for poor results. Yet, the ‘race to the bottom’ has also been resisted by many governments, often with reference to competing structural factors such as historical legacies and national values.

A final sensible solution is to not worry too much about what we call the solution. In my day, there was a lot of humming and hawing about Gidden’s ‘two sides of the same coin’ description of actors and structures, but I don’t remember anything being resolved.

See also: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/


Filed under 1000 words, public policy