Tag Archives: UK

No one will understand British politics and policymaking after Brexit

Let’s be optimistic for a few seconds, and focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ of policy and policymaking. The comparison is between an EU process that is distant and undemocratic and a UK process we can all understand and influence, following the simple phrase ‘if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame’.

The down side is that we don’t know who is in charge, and it’s often futile to try to find a named individual or role to blame. The EU certainly complicates the picture, but don’t be fooled into thinking that we will eventually produce a UK political system that anyone understands.

If giving a lecture, this is the point at which I’d pause for effect and restate the idea that no-one understands the UK policymaking system as a whole [insert meaningful looks here]. Many people know about many parts of the system, but it’s not like a jigsaw puzzle that we’ve completed by working together. At best, it’s like that Dalmatian jigsaw that we started at Christmas before getting drunk and falling out.


Instead, policymakers and commentators tell simple stories about British politics

The dominant story of British politics relates initially to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. This idea connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is perhaps designed to work. Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.

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

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

These stories are more useful for our entertainment than enlightenment

Consider these five factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process.

  1. Bounded rationality. Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore almost all of them?
  2. Policy communities. Ministers delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.
  3. Multi-level governance. The UK government shares policymaking ‘vertically’ (with international, EU, devolved, and local governments) and ‘horizontally’ (with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations).
  4. Complex government. Policymaking ‘emerges’ from the interaction between many actors, institutions, and regulations. In complex policymaking systems, people act without full knowledge of how other people act elsewhere in the system.
  5. Policy environments. Many policy conditions and events are out of policymakers’ control (including demographic, technological, and economic change)

So, for example, the UK government has to juggle two stories of British politics – on the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control, versus the need to construct a strong image of governing competence with reference to control – in the knowledge that one of them is a tall tale.

Brexit will change only one part of that story

None of these factors should prompt us to minimise the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they should prompt us to think harder about the impact of Brexit on ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and ministerial accountability via UK central government control. The phrase ‘you know who is in charge, and who to blame’ will become a more important rallying cry in British politics (when we can no longer blame the EU for British policy), but let’s focus on what actually happens in British politics and recognise how little of it we understand before we decide who to blame.

This post is an amended version of the introductory post for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK which draws on this ‘1000 Words’ series on public policy.


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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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Street Level Bureacrats

So, I went to a session at #apsa2013 on Lipsky and Street Level Bureaucrats (no, Lipsky wasn’t there) and it got me to thinking about a partial shift of thinking in this area. Consider my summary of Lipsky in Understanding Public Policy (p37):

Lipsky (1980) argues that policy is, to a large extent, made by the ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (including teachers, doctors, police officers, judges, and welfare officers) who deliver it. Bureaucrats are subject to an immense range of, often unclear, requirements laid down by regulations at the top, but are powerless to implement them all successfully (1980: 14). In other words, this is not necessarily an argument based on ‘disobedience’: committed workers do not have the resources to fulfil all of their job requirements (1980: xii). Instead, they use their discretion to establish routines to satisfy a proportion of central government objectives while preserving a sense of professional autonomy necessary to maintain morale. The irony is that the cumulative pressure associated with central government policy effectively provides implementers with a degree of freedom to manage their budgets and day-to-day activities. Therefore, policy change at the top will not necessarily translate to change at the bottom.

For me, the suggestion is that the routines are based on professional norms; each profession has its own formal and informal means to encourage professionals to act in a particular way. However, a lot of the discussion was about more modern studies of SLBs and a shift to a focus on street level organizations (SLOs). The argument here is that: (a) much of this work is now done by quasi or non-governmental organisations; (b) the rise of new public management has led to attempts to regulate that policy delivery through measures such as targets, contract management and performance management. It ties in neatly with the idea of a shift from government to governance which, in this case, refers to a shift from direct to indirect public service delivery. The phrase – from Evelyn Brodkin – that stuck with me is that performance management reduces policy down to a few aspects of the law. If I understood this correctly, it points to an important change in the Lipsky-style argument. When, under direct government delivery, the SLBs were the people reducing policy down into a smaller number of manageable acts, this role is often now performed by people higher up the chain when setting performance related targets. It reminded me of the ‘regulatory state’ style argument which speaks to the tension between professional discretion and rules-based action. This idea tied in neatly with another paper (Rubin/ Chiques) at the panel which suggested that there were fewer people in SLOs delivering policy with discretion. Rather, there were layers of management responsible for dealing with targets (although still, of course, there is an element of discretion when organisations game the system to meet targets). This informed the first paper (Schram et al) which talked about the routines evident in welfare policy work. Some of it was about familiar indicators of discretion to do with categorising people so that they didn’t lose out on social security payments. Some of it was about the routines associated simply with meeting targets and performing semi-automated tasks. So, Schram talked about a ‘dehumanising’ need to meet numerical targets and a form of discretion that was often ‘wide, not deep’. The papers were US based but the focus on a shift from direct delivery, by professions, to targets-based service delivery by quangos and/ or non-governmental organisations are relevant to countries like the UK.


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