Tag Archives: top down implementation

Policymaking in the UK: do you really know who is in charge and who to blame? #POLU9UK

This week, we continue with the idea of two stories of British politics. In one, the Westminster model-style story, the moral is that the centralisation of power produces clear lines of accountability: you know who is in charge and, therefore, the heroes or villains. In another, the complex government story, the world seems too messy and power too diffuse to know all the main characters.

Although some aspects of these stories are specific to the UK, they relate to some ‘universal’ questions and concepts that we can use to identify the limits to centralised power. Put simply, some rather unrealistic requirements for the Westminster story include:

  1. You know what policy is, and that it is made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.
  2. Those actors possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe.
  3. They can turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way.

If life were that simple, I wouldn’t be asking you to read the following blog posts (underlined) which complicate the hell out of our neat story:

You don’t know what policy is, and it is not only made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.

We don’t really know what government policy is. In fact, we don’t even know how to define ‘public policy’ that well. Instead, a definition like ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ raises more issues than it settles: policy is remarkably difficult to identify and measure; it is made by many actors inside, outside, and sort of inside/outside government; the boundary between the people influencing and making policy is unclear; and, the study of policy is often about the things governments don’t do.

Actors don’t possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe

It’s fairly obvious than no-one possesses all possible information about policy problems and the likely effects of proposed solutions. It’s not obvious what happens next. Classic discussions identified a tendency to produce ‘good enough’ decisions based on limited knowledge and cognitive ability, or to seek other measures of ‘good’ policy such as their ability to command widespread consensus (and no radical movement away from such policy settlements). Modern discussions offer us a wealth of discussions of the implications of ‘bounded rationality’, but three insights stand out:

  1. Policymakers pay disproportionate attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. There is great potential for punctuations in policy/ policymaking when their attention lurches, but most policy is made in networks in the absence of such attention.
  2. Policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways to make decisions with limited information. The way they frame problems limits their attention to a small number of possible solutions, and that framing can be driven by emotional/ moral choices backed up with a selective use of evidence.
  3. It is always difficult to describe this process as ‘evidence-based policymaking’ even when policymakers have sincere intentions.

Policymakers cannot turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way

The classic way to describe straightforward policymaking is with reference to a policy cycle and its stages. This image of a cycle was cooked up by marketing companies trying to sell hula hoops to policymakers and interest groups in the 1960s. It is not an accurate description of policymaking (but spirographs are harder to sell).

Instead, for decades we have tried to explain the ‘gap’ between the high expectations of policymakers and the actual – often dispiriting- outcomes, or wonder if policymakers really have such high expectations for success in the first place (or if they prefer to focus on how to present any of their actions as successful). This was a key topic before the rise of ‘multi-level governance’ and the often-deliberate separation of central government action and expected outcomes.

The upshot: in Westminster systems do you really know who is in charge and who to blame?

These factors combine to generate a sense of complex government in which it is difficult to identify policy, link it to the ‘rational’ processes associated with a small number of powerful actors at the heart of government, and trace a direct line from their choices to outcomes.

Of course, we should not go too far to argue that governments don’t make a difference. Indeed, many ministers have demonstrated the amount of damage (or good) you can do in government. Still, let’s not assume that the policy process in the UK is anything like the story we tell about Westminster.

Seminar questions

In the seminar, I’ll ask you reflect on these limits and what they tell us about the ‘Westminster model’. We’ll start by me asking you to summarise the main points of this post. Then, we’ll get into some examples in British politics.

Try to think of some relevant examples of what happens when, for example, minsters seem to make quick and emotional (rather than ‘evidence based’) decisions: what happens next? Some obvious examples – based on our discussions so far – include the Iraq War and the ‘troubled families’ agenda, but please bring some examples that interest you.

In group work, I’ll invite you to answer these questions:

  1. What is UK government policy on X? Pick a topic and tell me what government policy is.
  2. How did the government choose policy? When you decide what government policy is, describe how it made its choices.
  3. What were the outcomes? When you identify government policy choices, describe their impact on policy outcomes.

I’ll also ask you to identify at least one blatant lie in this blog post.

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The implementation of policy in Scotland #POLU9SP

There are two classic ways to describe and try to explain policy implementation: top-down and bottom-up (see also the policy cycle).

top down bottom up

We can focus on these descriptions of policy implementation to make two points relevant to our discussion so far:

  1. You might think that the ‘Scottish policy style’ and ‘Scottish approach’ produce fewer problems of implementation, but they produce different problems.
  2. An ‘implementation gap’ reinforces our sense (in the previous lecture) that there hasn’t been that much policy divergence in Scotland since devolution.

Implementation and the Scottish policy style

Based on our discussions so far, you might think that the Scottish Government would suffer fewer problems of implementation than the UK government because:

  1. Its public sector landscape often appears to be less fragmented.
  2. It is less likely to oversee a ‘top-down’ policy style with unintended consequences (note the potential confusion over the meaning of top-down).
  3. Its greater willingness to consult helps it gather information and secure ‘ownership’.

Yet, I found that it (generally) had different, not fewer, problems. For example, you do not guarantee implementation success by relying on local authorities rather than private or third sector bodies. Further, the Scottish Government may have more ‘external conditions’ to take into account, since its policies often overlap with those of the UK government and it often does not control the success of its own policies.

Or, high levels of consultation can help produce unrealistic strategies and inflated expectations when a government gives the impression that: a policy choice represents radical change; it is the key actor (rather than one of many players in a multi-level system); and, it plans to enforce not delegate and negotiate policy delivery.

The Scottish Approach and bottom-up implementation

Indeed, isn’t the newest incarnation of the ‘Scottish approach’ more of a bottom-up than top-down strategy? In other words, it sets a broad framework based on policy outcomes and asks local authorities and community planning partnerships to produce their own strategies to achieve those outcomes.

Consequently, it may not make sense to try to explain an ‘implementation gap’ because some of the top-down conditions for success do not seem to apply, including: there are no clear/ consistent objectives (at least according to my interpretation of that condition), and there is no requirement for compliant officials.

Policy divergence and the implementation gap

Yet, many Scottish Government policies can be analysed usefully through the lens of an ‘implementation gap’, including:

  • ‘Free personal care’ for older people. This is an important one, because FPC used to symbolise policy divergence after devolution. Yet, it translated into a less-than-expected reduction in care home costs and, for many people (it is hard to know the number) a replacement of one way of securing free care with another (you should make sure you understand how this happened – see Scottish Politics for more detail). There have also been problems with waiting lists for care, and debate about what counts/ doesn’t count as personal care.
  • Housing and homelessness. Over the years, the Scottish Government has promised higher housing standards and lower levels of homelessness but struggled to translate ambitious aims into outcomes (and, it has produced essentially the same strategy on homelessness twice since devolution).
  • Fox hunting. You can still hunt foxes if you want (anyway, would there be many people there to stop you if you tried?) and the unintended consequence of policy is that you might now catch the wrong ones.

If we have the time, we might also discuss modern examples such as the Curriculum for Excellence. We might also wonder why some policies seem to have been implemented successfully (can you think of examples?).

In many of these cases, the promise of policy divergence mixes with implementation problems to produce less divergence than we might have expected if we focused simply on the initial choices. This conclusion reinforces the idea that constitutional change in Scotland does not tend to produce radical policy change or major divergence from UK government policy.

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