Tag Archives: the Academy

Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: Labour, Brexit, and evidence-based policymaking

In a series of heroic leaps of logic, I aim to highlight some important links between three current concerns: Labour’s leadership contest, the Brexit vote built on emotion over facts, and the insufficient use of evidence in policy. In each case, there is a notional competition between ‘idealism’ and ‘pragmatism’ (as defined in common use, not philosophy); the often-unrealistic pursuit of a long term ideal versus the focus on solving more immediate problems often by compromising ideals and getting your hands dirty. We know what this looks like in party politics, including the compromises that politicians make to win elections and the consequences for their image, but do we know how to make the same compromises when we appeal for a more deliberative referendum or more evidence-informed policymaking?

I searched Google for a few minutes until I found a decent hook for this post. It is a short Forbes article by Susan Gunelius advocating a good mix of pragmatic and idealistic team members:

Pragmatic leaders focus on the practical, “how do we get this done,” side of any task, initiative or goal.  They can erroneously be viewed as negative in their approach when in fact they simply view the entire picture (roadblocks included) to get to the end result.  It’s a linear, practical way of thinking and “doing.”

Idealist leaders focus on the visionary, big ideas.  It could be argued that they focus more on the end result than the path to get there, and they can erroneously be viewed as looking through rose-colored glasses when, in fact, they simply “see” the end goal and truly believe there is a way to get there”.

On the surface, it’s a neat description of the current battle to win the Labour party, with Jeremy Corbyn representing the idealist willing to lose elections to stay true to the pure ideal, and Owen Smith representing the pragmatist willing to compromise on the ideal to win an election.

In this context, pragmatic politicians face a dilemma that we often take for granted in party politics: they want to look flexible enough to command the ‘centre’ ground, but also appear principled and unwilling to give up completely on their values to secure office. Perhaps pragmatists also accept to a large extent that the means can justify the ends: they can compromise their integrity and break a few rules to win office if it means that they serve the long term greater good as a result (in this case, better a compromised socialist than a Tory government). So, politicians accept that a slightly tarnished image is the price you pay to get what you want.

For current purposes, let us assume that you are the kind of person drawn more to the pragmatist rather than the idealist politician; you despair at the naiveté of the idealist politician, and expect to see them fail rather than gain office.

If so, how might we draw comparisons with other areas in politics and policymaking?

Referendums should be driven by facts and an intelligent public, not lies and emotions

Many people either joke or complain seriously about most of the public being too stupid to engage effectively in elections and referendums. I will use this joke about Trump because I saw it as a meme, and on Facebook it has 49000 smiley faces already:


An more serious idealistic argument about the Brexit vote goes something like this:

  • the case for Remain was relatively strong and backed by most of the best experts
  • most Leave voters ignored or mistrusted the experts
  • the Leave campaign was riddled with lies and exaggerations; and,
  • a large chunk of the public was not intelligent enough to separate the lies from the facts.

You often have to read between the lines and piece together this argument, but Dame Liz Forgan recently did me a favour by spelling out a key part in a speech to the British Academy:

Democracies require not just literate and numerate electorates. They need people who cannot be sold snake oil by every passing shyster because their critical faculties have been properly honed. Whose popular culture has not degenerated so completely that every shopping channel hostess is classed as a celebrity. Where post-modern irony doesn’t undermine both honest relaxation and serious endeavour. Where the idea of a post-factual age is seen as an acute peril not an amusing cultural meme. If the events of June have taught us anything it is that we need to put the rigour back in our education, the search for truth back in our media.

Of course, I have cherry picked the juiciest part to highlight a sense of idealism that I have seen in many places. Let’s link it back to our despair at the naïvely idealist politician: doesn’t this look quite similar? If we took this line, and pursued public education as our main solution to Brexit, wouldn’t people think that we are doomed to fail in the long term and lose a lot of other votes on the way?

Another (albeit quicker and less idealistic) solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement. Yet, if the problem is that people are too stupid or emotional to process facts, it doesn’t seem that much more effective.

At this stage, I’d like to say: instead of clinging to idealism, let’s be pragmatic about this. If you despair of the world, get your hands dirty to win key votes rather than hope that people will do the right thing or wait for a sufficiently ‘rational’ public.

Yet, I don’t think we yet know enough about how to do it and how far ‘experts’ should go, particularly since many experts are funded – directly or indirectly – by the state and are subject to different (albeit often unwritten) rules than politicians. So, in a separate post, I provide some bland advice that might apply to all:

  • Don’t simply supply people with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely to demand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

Yet, if we think that other referendum participants are winning because they are lying and cheating, we might also think that honourable strategies won’t tip the balance. We know that, like pragmatic politicians, we might need to go a bit further to win key debates. Anything else is idealism, right?

Policy should be based on evidence, not electoral politics, ideology and emotion

The same can be said for many scientists bemoaning the lack of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM). Some express the naïve hope that politicians become trained to think like scientists and/ or the view that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts. This seems to be EBPM’s equivalent of idealism, in which you largely wish for something that won’t exist rather than trying to produce pragmatic strategies for the real world.

A more pragmatic two-step solution is to:

(1) work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate (which I describe in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking, and with Kathryn Oliver and Adam Wellstead in PAR).

(2) draw on as many interdisciplinary insights to explore how to do something about it, such as to establish the psychology of policymakers and identify good ways to tell simple stories to generate an emotional connection to your evidence (which I describe in a forthcoming special issue in Palgrave Communications).

Should academics remain idealists rather than pragmatists?

Of course, it is legitimate to take what I am calling an idealistic approach. In politics, Corbyn’s idealism is certainly capturing a part of the public imagination (while another part of the public watches on, sniggering or aghast). In the Academy, it may be a part of a legitimate attempt to maintain your integrity by not engaging directly in politics or policymaking, and/or accepting that academics largely contribute to a very long term enlightenment function rather than enjoy immediate impact. All I am saying is that you need to choose and, if you seek more direct impact, you need to forego idealism and start thinking about what it means to be pragmatic while pursuing ‘evidence informed’ politics.

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

How do people consume your research? A short video, on tobacco and alcohol policy, requiring attention and feedback

This is a first draft of a simple video I am doing with Tereza Procházková @ZasCreativeBag to accompany a blog post I did on the differences between tobacco and alcohol policies in the UK. I wouldn’t mind some feedback (here or to @cairneypaul) on it before I ask to have it tweaked then embedded in the proper post (although, realistically, it’s feedback for the next one, if there is a next one). From looking at it myself, I know that I try to pack a lot of information into 3 minutes (perhaps a bit like an inexperienced lecturer trying to tell students everything) and so the pictures and audio come thick and fast. Next time, I will speak more slowly. But maybe it still works because it is accompanied by a blog post with all of the information. Maybe you listen to the 3 minutes then decide if you want to fill in the blanks by reading the full post (and then maybe the full paper). My partner tells me that I take a while to get to the point and that there need to be more punchy bullet point moments (I didn’t get too offended). Would you agree? There is also a bit of a skip in the audio towards the end (a big problem?), and I trail off at the very end (to press the stop button on the ipad). Note that I am not Glaswegian – the Irvine/ Ayrshire accent is a wee bit different. Polite comments on my voice/ pronunciation also welcome.

The post can be found here: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/34735. If the video doesn’t play, you can get it here on youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fujeajKKa-E or here:

UPDATE: here is the more polished version:


For more discussion of the ‘impact’ side of the work, see: http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/how-do-people-read-your-research.html
and http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/a-picture-of-pathways-to-impact.html


Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing

How Do People Read Your Research?

People may nod at you and say ‘yes, hmm, very interesting’, but do they understand what you are saying (in a satisfying way)? I would like to know if someone could read something of mine, write down the key points and then explain them back to me in a way that I recognised. It needn’t be a regurgitation (which is not what I do when I read the work of others) but I’d like to think that they took the key points I tried to convey, with no major misinterpretations. That’s one sensible interpretation of ‘impact’, isn’t it? So, for me, these drawings by @ZasCreativeBag are excellent. A drawing also condenses an argument – and puts all the points together in one page – in a way that might take me 1000-2000 words. They may not convey the same points entirely, but they do a decent job of reinforcing the argument (I hope).

Here (with a longer explanation) are some earlier examples (I did not get the grant!) and the most recent example is below (for the blogpost, see here)

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Notes From a Conference Part 1: Arrogance and Recognition

It’s hard to tell if people are (a) predisposed to arrogance at an early age and/ or (b) if they develop this trait as they age and become more powerful or better recognised in the profession. All I know is that some (generally well established) academics appear to ‘less modest’ than others. So, I have this general angst about becoming (or, at least, appearing) more arrogant when engaging with other people and, crucially, not knowing it. This is perhaps more of a concern for people in subjects like social science where some conference discussions will be about challenging the statements, methods and views of other people. There is a fine line between a positive challenge and a negative dismissal, so we need a high degree of self-awareness to reflect on our behaviour and ask ourselves if we have crossed a line. This is particularly important:

  • In international conferences where people bring different levels of expectation about politeness. For example, many UK based scholars may be less likely to start their comments with ‘thank you for your interesting paper’. Instead, like me, they may see a strong (thoughtful) challenge as a strong signal of respect (since, it shows that you care enough about the paper to listen and engage in a meaningful way).
  • If you are in a room with a dominant view – it is only by being open to opinions from others that you can avoid being close minded and dismissive of things you don’t agree with initially but might appreciate if you allow yourself the time to listen and reflect (something that is too easy to dismiss if you are in a room with people that largely agree with you).
  • If we identify the subtext to many conference proceedings: the desire to make one’s name by presenting papers and engaging with the papers of others. I have said to a few colleagues that a large conference is really a battle for attention and recognition, wrapped up in the pretence of positive discussion, and only most of that statement is tongue-in-cheek.
It is in that context that I’d like to describe the crumbs of recognition I got at a recent conference (International Conference on Public Policy). I figure that, if arrogance comes with age, I’d better write this down before it’s too late. The thing about this profession is that it is so full of negative signals from other people: critical reviews of articles; negative signals on promotion prospects; deflating rejections for grant proposals; and, so on (if you are trying to do a PhD, we might add deflating rejections for funding that threaten the completion of the project; if you are not a white man, we might discuss further obstacles relating to relative success rates). So, when people actually come up to you and say that they have enjoyed something you’ve written (and can discuss it with you in some depth, largely proving that they are not just being polite), it’s brilliant. There will be better descriptions out there, but ‘brilliant’ will do for now. The same goes for general name recognition – there is just something about people seeing your name badge and recognising your name (it beats the quite-regular semi-sneer when people can’t be arsed with you). So, the benefit of not being fully arrogant (yet) is that you can enjoy these crumbs of comfort in a rather disproportionate way. This may be some comfort to the PhD student wondering if it’s all worth it – in some cases it might be.

See also Part 2 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-2-what-are.html
See also Part 3 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-3.html

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Notes From a Conference Part 2: What are They For?

It’s probably not a good idea to reflect on a conference too close to its end, when you are tired and homesick, but I’m going to do it anyway. As with many large international conferences I’ve been to, my usual response is to wonder if it was worth the bother of being away from home, away from my family, (*middle class problems alert*) in a crap hotel room and faced with the need to sit, stand, listen and talk politely for such a long time – when the time could be put to better use at home (doing or writing research and/ or watching the tennis/ football). So, what are the most important benefits?

  1. Meeting people, new and old. Many of us will tend to have most contact with people by email, so it is good to get the time to have an actual conversation with people (often from different countries). In my case, I had a decent mix: meeting a longstanding co-author to discuss more projects; meeting a new co-author to discuss our chapter; meeting a handful of new people that I’d like to keep in touch, and do research, with; and having a few quick discussions with one of my PhD students off campus and in a new atmosphere (and immediately before and after her paper).
  2. Having your ego stroked a little bit and getting yourself known a bit better (see previous blog).
  3. Giving you a deadline to complete a piece of work in a way that other deadlines can’t do (for many, if not most, people the thought of talking mince for 15 minutes in front of your peers is not an enjoyable prospect).
I think these are the least important benefits:
  1. Getting new information from presentations and/ or papers. The quality of conference papers and presentations is so mixed that it’s difficult to justify the time spent reading and listening. In fact, my increasing impression is that many, if not most, people are *not* reading papers and listening (indeed, you can tell that many people are not listening because they have their laptops out and are replying to emails or having a sly look at the news and sport). This problem can be compounded by inadequate rooms (I had one seminar for 20 people in a 900 seat lecture hall; I had another in a room where you could only *just* hear the speaker if no-one moved).
  2. Getting feedback on papers. Sometimes this works. In fact, for one of my papers the audience was 7 people (it was at 8.30am, the day after the conference dinner, which ended after midnight), allowing us to engage in an *actual conversation* (the other was about 30 people, which was quite good too, but in a different way – it allows you to see if you can give convincing replies). Sometimes, it doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes (for example if you are on a panel of 4) no-one will ask you a question and you will wonder why you bothered.
  3. Finding that all the interesting papers are all being given at the same time (and. If you are very unlucky, at the same time as your presentation).

In other words, the benefit of a conference may not relate to the thing that seems to drive it and take up most of its time. Maybe the notional equivalent in politics is either the international summit (a set-piece event where most of the work is done in advance and the most productive discussions are ‘away from the table’) or the well-attended state funeral (which may involve fewer speeches and gives people the chance to talk without any weight of expectation).

See also part 1 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-1-arrogance.html
See also part 3 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-3.html

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Notes From a Conference Part 3: The International Conference on Public Policy

The ICPP (Grenoble) symbolised both the best and worst aspects of scholarship. The best bits include:

  • The unexpected levels of attendance (900) – which showed many of us (perhaps used to the limited focus on policymaking at general conferences) that we had many international colleagues engaged in similar research.
  • The ability to see beyond your specialism and listen to plenary discussions and panels on topics you may not consider in your day-to-day research.
  • The opportunities to meet people, exchange ideas and make research plans.
But, being a tired, dour Scot, I was struck mostly by the problems symbolised by the conference:
1.Are we talking *to* or *past* each other?
The plenary on the so called ‘tribes’ of policymaking (IAD, new institutionalism, ACF, etc.) involved a brief discussion, by each representative of a ‘tribe’, of the first principles of each approach – without giving much information about how they relate to each other. This is characteristic of much of the literature which involves specialisation. Such specialisation is often valuable and necessary – it is perhaps only when we immerse ourselves in, and fully understand, an approach that we can assess its merits and relate it to other approaches. However, it also seems parochial if there is a limited level of self-awareness and a tendency to ignore other approaches. Watching the event, you would struggle to identify a sense of *general purpose*. For me, the idea behind specialisation is that we are boundedly rational – we cannot produce all research ourselves. So, we produce some work and rely on others to produce the rest. Then we try to compare our experiences and: (a) explore or ability to generalise from those combined experiences; and (b) explore our ability to accumulate knowledge from a range of studies. This exchange of ideas and information will not be effective if we are all talking a different language; if we don’t know how to communicate our findings (and their significance) to each other in a meaningful way. Maybe the plenary served that purpose by reminding us of the wider world out there, but you would have to be a super-positive person to come to that conclusion.
2.Are we even talking about the same thing?
I was often struck by the relative lack of cohesion of many panels even when they came under a common banner. So, they were not only describing very different case studies but also very different ways to understand them. Again, this can produce a degree of innovative thinking when we consider new possibilities. However, it can also make you wonder if you can slip out of the room when no-one is watching.
3. Self-contradictory case study approaches.
The papers were either mainly-theoretical or contained a theoretical and case-study-based empirical section. What follows is a caricature of some presentations to make a broad point:
  • First, they say that existing theories cannot fully explain their case study.
  • So, they propose a ‘new’ theory which it explains it better.
  • Then, they might imply that this new theory has a more general application.
The overall effect can appear to be contradictory: no theory can explain my case because it is (a) more complicated than theory suggests; and/ or (b) the case has some unusual elements that are difficult to explain. If so, such papers perpetuate the problem – we are forever seeking novel and parsimonious theories to explain many cases, only to be faced with complexity and a significant level of non-comparability when we try to apply them in different cases.
In that light, my preference is for a problem-focused approach to presentation:
  • Talk about a real research problem – what do you want to explain?
  • Talk about the insights that one or more theories can give you when you seek explanation.
  • Accept that theories are simplifications to aid general explanation; don’t express mock surprise when they fail to explain everything. This is just not possible.
  • If a key tenet of public policy studies is that politics and policymaking vary from issue to issue (and country), we should not be surprised that a theory based on some issues and countries does not map directly onto others. The same can be said for the case study – don’t just assume that the usefulness of a new or old theory in one case applies to another. Instead, reflect on the ways in which your case compares to the cases described by other studies.
We might then want to talk about the research outcomes. Such conversations require a common language – a requirement that is not served well by the constant pursuit of new theories and a rejection of the old. If we are constantly claiming to be reinterpreting the fundamental nature of policymaking, how can we communicate our findings to each other?
Instead, we can pursue a common language by focusing on what Peter John describes as the five ‘core causal processes’ in public policy. We may say that policymakers operate within the following context:
  1. Institutional – they are influenced by the (written and unwritten; formal/ statutory and informal) rules and norms within systems and organisations.
  2. Agenda-setting – policymakers are ‘boundedly rational’, prompting them to (a) pay more attention to some issues and solutions at the expense of most others; (b) understand issues in a biased way. So, the way in which they act follows from the way in which they understand, interpret, define or frame their problems and actions.
  3. Networks/ Subsystem – policy is devolved from elected policymakers to bureaucrats who consult with groups to gather information and advice. This low level of government may be where most policy work is processed. Some groups are more powerful than others; they are considered more worthy of attention than others. Relationships develop between some groups and civil servants and these networks often represent the main arena in which information is exchanged, then given to elected policymakers (or, choices are made on their behalf by civil servants operating in these networks).
  4. Socio-economic – for example, some problems may appear more pressing than others, and some solutions may be more or less attractive, because they are linked closely to the economic environment. Or, demographic change presents new problems. Or, a policymaker’s understanding of social attitudes may underpin their policy strategy. In each case, policymakers interpret a range of policy conditions, or operate in policy environments, that appear to present obstacles to, or opportunities for, action.
  5. The role of ideas – policymaking is underpinned by the beliefs present within political systems, such as the world views of policymakers or the actors most influential in that system. We talk of ‘core beliefs’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘policy monopolies’ to describe the fundamental importance of a common understanding of the world that may be so dominant that it is taken for granted. We also talk about ideas as new ways of thinking about problems, and solutions, which challenge such fundamental beliefs (often following a period of ‘learning’ from the past, other issues or other political systems)..
We may have different interpretations of these concepts and they all overlap (the links between 2 and 5 may seem most obvious; we may also say that institutions are shared beliefs; that close networks are based on common understandings; that people interpret socioeconomic conditions and new ideas; and so on). Of course they do – these are analytical simplifications not present in the ‘real world’. Further, we may say that some issues transcend these factors – such as the role of gender inequalities which may be present in institutions, shape the way that people understand problems, influence the consultation process, and underpin belief systems.
However, at least they give us the chance for a common starting point for discussion and explanation. We might even say that our reference to these factors represents the product of our accumulation of knowledge in the field (or not).
4. What is a satisfactory explanation? Can we ever agree?
In a broader sense, we are talking about our ability to agree about what constitutes a satisfactory explanation. In my opinion, a convincing explanation comes from a detailed account of policymaking (stability and instability; policy continuity and change) with reference to all five of these causal factors. We discuss their individual importance – as an analytical device to aid the simplification of complex issues – and discuss the extent which outcomes are caused by the interplay between all five. So, for example, institutions alone do not explain behaviour (unless we use a ridiculously broad definition of an institution) and neither does the socioeconomic context (however pressing), the ideational context, or the strong relationships between some groups and government – but a combination of such factors may help explain why policymakers act in certain ways (and perhaps why their actions are more or less acceptable or successful).
The alternative is to specialise; to focus on certain aspects of this process to gain a better understanding of them. This is good too, but not if it comes at the expense of the bigger picture (or, if we simply try to quantify the relative effect of one factor in a naïve way – which, in many cases, misses the point of complex explanation). It would be good for presenters on particular topics to reflect, however briefly, on how these topics relate to the concerns of others – to recognise that they know a lot about the foot but that the heart might be important too.
5. Are we really talking to each other? How do we exchange information in a meaningful way?
I attended every possible session in the ICPP and so I received a concentrated dose of the tendency of presenters to give out information in an unsatisfactory way. My pet peeve is slides of very small numbers which are presented for a few seconds without explanation; without the presenter taking the time to give them meaning. For me, this tops the presenter-reads-every-word-on-the-powerpoint approach (because at least, in that case, you can close your eyes to listen). This is not good.
It is perhaps a symptom if the wider tendency to cram a ridiculous amount of presentations into short slots – either the 4 papers/ 2 discussant approach (90 minutes) of APSA or the 5 papers (2 hours) at the ICPP. Who can possibly sit through all of those presentations without daydreaming or nodding off?  It is also a symptom of the lack of awareness of the needs of an audience. If we are there to talk to each other (and not simply represent an awake audience), we need the time to discuss papers rather than just listen to them. Only then will we know if the information we present is useful, or if the round of applause is really just a symbol of audience relief.
6. Last but not least – too many men.
Even I (a male, white, middle class and increasingly privilege professor who benefits from these inequalities) am getting tired of seeing panels that are all, or predominantly, male. Most plenary sessions were embarrassingly male and, when the photos go on the web, will not serve as a good advertisement for the profession (although we cannot simply blame the organisers – http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2013/06/24/all-male-invited-speakers-its-complicated/).

See also Part 1 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-1-arrogance.html
See also Part 2 http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/notes-from-conference-part-2-what-are.html

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Testing, testing, podcast on independence

This is a 10-minute podcast on Scottish independence – What Does it Mean and What Are The Big Questions? – recorded on my Ipad. The production values are fairly low and, on two occasions, it seems to flicker a bit (much like in those horror or sci-fi films where things go a little bit, spookily, wrong). I also get a text which distracts me a bit. Then I sound like I am getting bored and more sarcastic from 8 minutes (any of my former students will be used to that). Other than that, it is OK, as long as you like the Andy Murray style monotone (although our accents are very, very different).

You can also get it here: http://paulcairney.podbean.com/2013/06/18/scottish-independence/

The book is out in August and it won’t really be £25 – http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=569083

See also: http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-indyref-and-scottish-parliament.html

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