Tag Archives: Westminster system

Policy networks and communities #POLU9UK

As we discussed in week 2, if you start your study of British politics by describing the Westminster model, you get something like this:

Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Yet, if you read the recommended reading, you get this:

Most contemporary analysts dwell on the shortcomings of the Westminster account and compare it with a more realistic framework based on modern discussions of governance … Britain has moved away from a distinctive Westminster model.

And, if you read this post on the pervasiveness of policy networks and communities, you get something like this:

‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process.

So, you may want to know: ‘How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?’ (source). Here are some possible explanations to discuss.

One account is wrong

In our grumpy account, we pretty much complain that the incorrect story still wins because it sounds so good. The uncool academics have all agreed that the ‘governance’ story best sums up British politics, but the media and public don’t pay attention to it, politicians act as if it doesn’t exist, and cool Lijphart gets all the attention with his ‘majoritarian’ model of the UK which accentuates the adversarial and top-down nature compared to the utopian consensus democracies in which all politicans hold hands and sing together before agreeing all their policies.

One account is wrong most of the time

When less grumpy, we suggest that our account is correct most of the time. People pay attention to the exciting world of elected politics and governing politicians, but it represents the tip of the iceberg. Most policy is processed below the surface, away from the public spotlight, and this process does not match the UK’s majoritarian image. Instead, policymakers tend to work routinely with other policy participants to share information and advice and come to collective understandings of problems and feasible solutions.

What explains the shift from one image to the other?

If we go for the latter explanation, we need to know how this process works: what prompts a tiny number of issues to receive the excitement and attention and a huge number to receive almost none? I’ll give you some ideas below, but note that you can find the same basic explanation of this agenda setting/ framing process in many theories of the policy process. You should read as many as possible and, in particular, those on framing, punctuated equilibrium, and power/ideas. Combined, you get the sense of two scenarios: one in which people simply can’t pay attention to many policy issues and have to ignore most; and, one in which people exploit this limitation to make sure that some issues are ignored (for example, by framing issues as ‘solved’ by policymakers, with only experts required to oversee the implementation of key choices).

The general explanation: powerful people have limited attention

You’ll find this general explanation squirrelled away somewhere in almost everything I’ve written. In this case, it’s in the networks 1000 words post:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, the state’s component parts are broken down into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice.
  • Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
  • Therefore, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

A specific explanation: even ‘majoriarian’ governments seek consensus even when issues become high profile

I like this story about Brent Spar as an example of ‘bureaucratic accommodation’. In a nutshell (from p577), they argue that we began with a high profile issue in which Greenpeace occupied a Shell oil rig that was due for disposal, got Shell to change its policy through high profile campaigning, but that they came to quieter agreement within government by agreeing on specific policies without shifting their basic principles. Many of us saw the conflict but few saw the consensus building that followed (and, in fact, preceded these events). There are many stories like this, in which relatively short periods of highly salient policymaking ‘punctuate’ much longer spells of humdrum activity.


Group activities

So, in our group work we can explore the key themes through examples. I’ll ask you to identify the conditions under which Westminster-model-style activity happens, and the conditions under which we’d expect policy communities to develop. I’ll ask you to compare issues in which there is high salience and conflict with issues that are low salience and/ or low conflict. I might even ask you to remember some high profile issues from the past then ask: where are they now?





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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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Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.

  • How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
  • How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
  • How do we persuade other people to act on that information?

To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.

Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.

We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.

As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!

Remember King Canute (Cnut)

King Canute


If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:

  1. We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
  2. Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
  3. Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?

The two stories

This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.

One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:

  1. Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
  2. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Another is about the profound limits to the WM:

  1. No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
  2. If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.

What is the moral of these stories?

For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.

For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).

Who would buy that story though? We need someone to blame!

Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:

There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.

There is UKspecific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.

How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?

Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:

  • Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
  • Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
  • Referring to CG and wondering if it makes sense to blame anyone in particular. It’s the whole damn system! Government is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.

For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?

The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:

  • They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
  • They often deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by making quick emotional and moral choices about ‘target populations’ before thinking through the consequences
  • In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
  • In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
  • Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
  • They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.

We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?

Illustrative example: (1) troubled families

I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:

  • It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
  • It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
  • But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
  • We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
  • So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.

Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention

If you are still interested by this stage, look at this issue in its broader context, of the desire of governments to intervene early in the lives of (say) families to prevent bad things happening. With Emily St Denny, I ask why governments seem to make a sincere commitment to this task but fall far shorter than they expected. The key passage is here:

“Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems (Rittell and Webber, 1973) which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution”.

Group exercise.

Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:

  • Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
  • Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
  • Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?


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British politics, Brexit and UK sovereignty: what does it all mean? #POLU9UK

 This is the first of 10 blog posts for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK. They will be a fair bit longer than the blog posts I asked you to write. I have also recorded a short lecture to go with it (OK, 22 minutes isn’t short).

In week 1 we’ll identify all that we think we knew about British politics, compare notes, then throw up our hands and declare that the Brexit vote has changed what we thought we knew.

I want to focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty. People voted Leave/ Remain for all sorts of reasons, and bandied around all sorts of ways to justify their position, but the idea of sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ is central to the Leave argument and this module.

For our purposes, it relates to broader ideas about the images we maintain about who makes key decisions in British politics, summed up by the phrases ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the ‘Westminster model’, and challenged by terms such as ‘bounded rationality’, ‘policy communities’, ‘multi-level governance’, and ‘complex government’.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

UK sovereignty relates strongly 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. In practice, one party tends to dominate Parliament, and the elected government tends to dominate that party, but the principle remains important.

So, ‘taking back control’ is about responding, finally, to the sense that (a) the UK’s entry to the European Union from 1972 (when it signed the accession treaty) involved giving up far more sovereignty than most people expected, and (b) the European Union’s role has strengthened ever since, at the further expense of parliamentary sovereignty.

The Westminster Model

This idea of parliamentary sovereignty connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is designed to work.

Our main task is to examine how well the WM: (a) describes what actually happens in British politics, and (b) represents what should happen in British politics. We can separate these two elements analytically but they influence each other in practice. For example, I ask what happens when elected policymakers know their limits but have to pretend that they don’t.

What should happen in British politics?

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 WM narrative suggests 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.

Pause for further reading: at this point, consider how this WM story links to a wider discussion of centralised policymaking (in particular, read the 1000 Words post on the policy cycle).

What actually happens?

One way into this discussion is to explore modern discussions of disenchantment with distant political elites who seem to operate in a bubble and not demonstrate their accountability to the public. For example, there is a literature on the extent to which MPs are likely to share the same backgrounds: white, male, middle class, and educated in private schools and Oxford or Cambridge. Or, the idea of a ‘Westminster bubble’ and distant ‘political class’ comes up in discussions of constitutional change (including the Scottish referendum debate), and was exacerbated during the expenses scandal in 2009.

Another is to focus on the factors that undermine this WM image of central control: maybe Westminster political elites are remote, but they don’t control policy outcomes. Instead, there are many factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process. We will focus on these challenges throughout the course:

Challenge 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 them? Much of the ‘1000 Words’ series explores the general implications of bounded rationality.

Challenge 2. Policy communities

Ministers don’t quite ignore issues; they 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.

In fact, this argument developed partly in response to discussions in the 1970s about the potential for plurality elections to cause huge swings in party success, and therefore frequent changes of government and reversals of government policy. Rather, scholars such as Jordan and Richardson identified policy continuity despite changes of government (although see Richardson’s later work).

Challenge 3. Multi-level governance

‘Multi-level’ refers to a tendency for the UK government to share policymaking responsibility with international, EU, devolved, and local governments.

‘Governance’ extends the logic of policy communities to identify a tendency to delegate or share responsibility with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations (quangos).

So, MLG can describe a clear separation of powers at many levels and a fairly coherent set of responsibilities in each case. Or, it can describe a ‘patchwork quilt’ of relationships which is difficult to track and understand. In either case, we identify ‘polycentricity’ or the presence of more than one ‘centre’ in British politics.

Challenge 4. Complex government

The phrase ‘complex government’ can be used to describe the complicated world of public policy, with elements including:

    • the huge size and reach of government – most aspects of our lives are regulated by the state
    • the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making
    • the blurry boundaries between the actors who make policy and those who seek to influence and/ or implement it (public policy results from their relationships and interactions)
    • the multi-level nature of policymaking
  • the complicated network of interactions between policy actors and many different ‘institutions’


  • the complexity of the statute book and the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.


Overall, these factors generate a sense of complex government that challenges the Westminster-style notion of accountability. How can we hold elected ministers to account if:

  1. they seem to have no hope of paying attention to much of complex government, far less control it
  2. there is so much interaction with unpredictable effects
  3. we don’t understand enough about how this process works to know if ministers are acting effectively?

Challenge 5. The policy environment and unpredictable events

Further, such governments operate within a wider environment in which conditions and events are often out of policymakers’ control. For example, how do they deal with demographic change or global economic crisis? Policymakers have some choice about the issues to which they pay attention, and the ways in which they understand and address them. However, they do not control that agenda or policy outcomes in the way we associate with the WM image of central control.

How has the UK government addressed these challenges?

We can discuss two key themes throughout the course:

  1. UK central governments have to balance two stories of British politics. One is the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control. Another is the need to construct an image of governing competence, and most governments do so by portraying an image of power and central control!
  2. This dynamic contributes to state reform. There has been a massive build-up and partial knock-down of the ‘welfare state’ in the post-war period (please have a think about the key elements). This process links strongly to that idea of pragmatism versus central control: governments often reform the state to (a) deliver key policy outcomes (the development of the welfare state and aims such as full employment), or (b) reinvigorate central control (for example, to produce a ‘lean state’ or ‘hollowing state’).

What does this discussion tell us about our initial discussion of Brexit?

None of these factors help downplay the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they prompt us to think harder about the meaning, in practice, of parliamentary sovereignty and the Westminster model which underpins ongoing debates about the UK-EU relationship. In short, we can explore the extent to which a return to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ describes little more than principles not evidence in practice. Such principles are important, but let’s also focus on what actually happens in British politics.


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We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

Here is the dilemma for ‘evidence-based’ ‘troubled families’ policy: there are many indicators of ‘policy based evidence’ but few (if any) feasible and ‘evidence based’ alternatives.

Viewed from the outside, TF looks like a cynical attempt to produce a quick fix to the London riots, stigmatise vulnerable populations, and hoodwink the public into thinking that the central government is controlling local outcomes and generating success.

Viewed from the inside, it is a pragmatic policy solution, informed by promising evidence which needs to be sold in the right way. For the UK government there may seem to be little alternative to this policy, given the available evidence, the need to do something for the long term and to account for itself in a Westminster system in the short term.

So, in this draft paper, I outline this disconnect between interpretations of ‘evidence based policy’ and ‘policy based evidence’ to help provide some clarity on the pragmatic use of evidence in politics:


See also:

Governments think it’s OK to use bad evidence to make good policy: the case of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

In each of these posts, I note that it is difficult to know how, for example, social policy scholars should respond to these issues – but that policy studies help us identify a choice between strategies. In general, pragmatic strategies to influence the use of evidence in policy include: framing issues to catch the attention or manipulate policymaker biases, identifying where the ‘action’ is in multi-level policymaking systems, and forming coalitions with like-minded and well-connected actors. In other words, to influence rather than just comment on policy, we need to understand how policymakers would respond to external evaluation. So, a greater understanding the routine motives of policymakers can help produce more effective criticism of its problematic use of evidence. In social policy, there is an acute dilemma about the choice between engagement, to influence and be influenced by policymakers, and detachment to ensure critical distance. If choosing the latter, we need to think harder about how criticism of PBE makes a difference.


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

The Scottish Parliament would be a bit less crap in an independent Scotland and some people care

See also: The Scottish Parliament would be crap in an independent Scotland and almost no-one cares

The Scottish Government made a recent amendment to the Scottish Ministerial Code to restrict the role of MSPs while ‘Parliamentary Liaison Officers’ (PLOs) in the Scottish Parliament. PLOs are not members or the Scottish Government, but they work closely with ministers and sit on committees scrutinising ministers, which blurs the boundary between policymaking and scrutiny.

While previous Labour-led governments made a decent effort to deny that this is a problem (1999-2007), the SNP (from 2007) perfected that denial by allowing PLOs to sit on the very committees scrutinising their ministers.

Now, after some (social and traditional) media and opposition party pressure, its revised guidelines in the 2016 Scottish Ministerial Code – remove a large part of the problem:

PLOs may serve on Parliamentary Committees, but they should not serve on Committees with a substantial direct link to their Cabinet Secretary’s portfolio … At the beginning of each Parliamentary session, or when changes to PLO appointments are made, the Minister for Parliamentary Business will advise Parliament which MSPs have been appointed as PLOs. The Minister for Parliamentary Business will also ensure that PLO appointments are brought to the attention of Committee Conveners. PLOs should ensure that they declare their appointment as a PLO on the first occasion they are participating in Parliamentary business related to the portfolio of their Cabinet Secretary.

The only thing that (I think) remains missing is the stipulation in the 2003 code that PLOs ‘should not table oral Parliamentary Questions on issues for which their minister is responsible’. So, we should still expect the odd question along the lines of, ‘Minister, why are you so great?’.

PLOs in 2016 ministerial code

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Filed under Scottish politics

Governments think it’s OK to use bad evidence to make good policy: the case of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’

The UK Government’s ‘troubled families’ policy appears to be a classic top-down, evidence-free, and quick emotional reaction to crisis. It developed after riots in England (primarily in London) in August 2011. Within one week, and before announcing an inquiry into them, then Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech linking behaviour directly to ‘thugs’ and immorality – ‘people showing indifference to right and wrong…people with a twisted moral code…people with a complete absence of self-restraint’ – before identifying a breakdown in family life as a major factor (Cameron, 2011a).

Although the development of parenting programmes was already government policy, Cameron used the riots to raise parenting to the top of the agenda:

We are working on ways to help improve parenting – well now I want that work accelerated, expanded and implemented as quickly as possible. This has got to be right at the top of our priority list. And we need more urgent action, too, on the families that some people call ‘problem’, others call ‘troubled’. The ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids …Now that the riots have happened I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme …with a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country.

Cameron reinforced this agenda in December 2011 by stressing the need for individuals and families to take moral responsibility for their actions, and for the state to intervene earlier in their lives to reduce public spending in the long term:

Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations. We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money…but now we’ve come up the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…that is around £75,000 per family.

The policy – primarily of expanding the provision of ‘family intervention’ approaches – is often described as a ‘classic case of policy based evidence’: policymakers cherry pick or tell tall tales about evidence to justify action. It is a great case study for two reasons:

  1. Within this one programme are many different kinds of evidence-use which attract the ire of academic commentators, from an obviously dodgy estimate and performance management system to a more-sincere-but-still-criticised use of evaluations and neuroscience.
  2. It is easy to criticise the UK government’s actions but more difficult to say – when viewing the policy problem from its perspective – what the government should do instead.

In other words, it is useful to note that the UK government is not winning awards for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) in this area, but less useful to deny the politics of EBPM and hold it up to a standard that no government can meet.

The UK Government’s problematic use of evidence

Take your pick from the following ways in which the UK Government has been criticised for its use of evidence to make and defend ‘troubled families’ policy.

Its identification of the most troubled families: cherry picking or inventing evidence

At the heart of the programme is the assertion that we know who the ‘troubled families’ are, what causes their behaviour, and how to stop it. Yet, much of the programme is built on a value judgements about feckless parents, and tipping the balance from support to sanctions, and unsubstantiated anecdotes about key aspects such as the tendency of ‘worklessness’ or ‘welfare dependency’ to pass from one generation to another.

The UK government’s target of almost 120000 families was based speculatively on previous Cabinet Office estimates in 2006 that about ‘2% of families in England experience multiple and complex difficulties’. This estimate was based on limited survey data and modelling to identify families who met five of seven criteria relating to unemployment, poor housing, parental education, the mental health of the mother, the chronic illness or disability of either parent, an income below 60% of the median, and an inability to by certain items of food or clothing.

It then gave locally specific estimates to each local authority and asked them to find that number of families, identifying households with: (1) at least one under-18-year-old who has committed an offense in the last year, or is subject to an ASBO; and/ or (2) has been excluded from school permanently, or suspended on three consecutive terms, in a Pupil Referral Unit, off the school roll, or has over 15% unauthorised absences over three consecutive terms; and (3) an adult on out of work benefits.

If the household met all three criteria, they would automatically be included. Otherwise, local authorities had the discretion to identify further troubled families meeting two of the criteria and other indicators of concerns about ‘high costs’ of late intervention such as, ‘a child who is on a Child Protection Plan’, ‘Families subject to frequent police call-outs or arrests’, and ‘Families with health problems’ linked to mental health, addiction, chronic conditions, domestic abuse, and teenage pregnancy.

Its measure of success: ‘turning around’ troubled families

The UK government declared almost-complete success without convincing evidence. Success ‘in the last 6 months’ to identify a ‘turned around family’ is measured in two main ways: (1) the child no longer having three exclusions in a row, a reduction in the child offending rate of 33% or ASB rate of 60%, and/or the adult entering a relevant ‘progress to work’ programme; or (2) at least one adult moving from out of work benefits to continuous employment. It was self-declared by local authorities, and both parties had a high incentive to declare it: local authorities received £4000 per family payments and the UK government received a temporary way to declare progress without long term evidence.

The declaration is in stark contrast to an allegedly suppressed report to the government which stated that the programme had ‘no discernible effect on unemployment, truancy or criminality’. This lack of impact was partly confirmed by FOI requests by The Guardian – demonstrating that at least 8000 families received no intervention, but showed improvement anyway – and analysis by Levitas and Crossley which suggests that local authorities could only identify families by departing from the DCLG’s initial criteria.

Its investment in programmes with limited evidence of success

The UK government’s massive expansion of ‘family intervention projects’, and related initiatives, is based on limited evidence of success from a small sample of people from a small number of pilots. The ‘evidence for the effectiveness of family intervention projects is weak’ and a government-commissioned systematic review suggests that there are no good quality evaluations to demonstrate (well) the effectiveness or value-for-money of key processes such as coordinated service provision. The impact of other interventions, previously with good reputations, has been unclear, such as the Family Nurse Partnership imported from the US which so far has produced ‘no additional short-term benefit’. Overall, Crossley and Lambert suggest that “the weight of evidence surrounding ‘family intervention’ and similar approaches, over the longue durée, actually suggests that the approach doesn’t work”. There is also no evidence to support its heroic claim that spending £10000 per family will save £65000.

Its faith in sketchy neuroscientific evidence on the benefits of early intervention

The government is driven partly by a belief in the benefits of early intervention in the lives of children (from 0-3, or even before birth), which is based partly on the ‘now or never’ argument found in key reviews by Munro and Allen (one and two).

normal brain

Policymakers take liberties with neuroscientific evidence to emphasise the profound effect of stress on early brain development (measured, for example, by levels of cortisol found in hair samples). These accounts underpinning the urgency of early intervention are received far more critically in fields such as social science, neuroscience, and psychology. For example, Wastell and White find no good quality scientific evidence behind the comparison of child brain development reproduced in Allen’s reports.

Now let’s try to interpret and explain these points partly from a government perspective

Westminster politics necessitates this presentation of ‘prevention’ policies

If you strip away the rhetoric, the troubled families programme is a classic attempt at early intervention to prevent poor outcomes. In this general field, it is difficult to know what government policy is – what it stands for and how you measure its success. ‘Prevention’ is vague, plus governments make a commitment to meaningful local discretion and the sense that local actors should be guided by a combination of the evidence of ‘what works’ and its applicability to local circumstances.

This approach is not tolerated in Westminster politics, built on the simple idea of accountability in which you know who is in charge and therefore to blame! UK central governments have to maintain some semblance of control because they know that people will try to hold them to account in elections and general debate. This ‘top down’ perspective has an enduring effect: although prevention policy is vague, individual programmes such as ‘troubled families’ contain enough detail to generate intense debate on central government policy and performance and contain elements which emphasise high central direction, including sustained ministerial commitment, a determination to demonstrate early success to justify a further rollout of policy, and performance management geared towards specific measurable outcomes – even if the broader aim is to encourage local discretion.

This context helps explain why governments appear to exploit crises to sell existing policies, and pursue ridiculous processes of estimation and performance measurement. They need to display strength, show certainty that they have correctly diagnosed a problem and its solution, and claim success using the ‘currency’ of Westminster politics – and they have to do these things very quickly.

Consequently, for example, they will not worry about some academics complaining about policy based evidence – they are more concerned about their media and public reception and the ability of the opposition to exploit their failures – and few people in politics have the time (that many academics take for granted) to wait for research. This is the lens through which we should view all discussions of the use of evidence in politics and policy.

Unequivocal evidence is impossible to produce and we can’t wait forever

The argument for evidence-based-policy rather than policy-based-evidence suggests that we know what the evidence is. Yet, in this field in particular, there is potential for major disagreement about the ‘bar’ we set for evidence.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

For some, it relates to a hierarchy of evidence in which randomised control trials (RCTs) and their systematic review are at the top: the aim is to demonstrate that an intervention’s effect was positive, and more positive than another intervention or non-intervention. This requires experiments: to compare the effects of interventions in controlled settings, in ways that are directly comparable with other experiments.

As table 1 suggests, some other academics do not adhere to – and some reject – this hierarchy. This context highlights three major issues for policymakers:

  1. In general, when they seek evidence, they find this debate about how to gather and analyse it (and the implications for policy delivery).
  2. When seeking evidence on interventions, they find some academics using the hierarchy to argue the ‘evidence for the effectiveness of family intervention projects is weak’. This adherence to a hierarchy to determine research value also doomed to failure a government-commissioned systematic review: the review applied a hierarchy of evidence to its analysis of reports by authors who did not adhere to the same model. The latter tend to be more pragmatic in their research design (and often more positive about their findings), and their government audience rarely adheres to the same evidential standard built on a hierarchy. In the absence of someone giving ground, some researchers will never be satisfied with the available evidence and elected policymakers are unlikely to listen to them.
  3. The evidence generated from RCTs is often disappointing. The so-far-discouraging experience of the Family Nurse Partnership has a particularly symbolic impact, and policymakers can easily pick up a general sense of uncertainty about the best policies in which to invest.

So, if your main viewpoint is academic, you can easily conclude that the available evidence does not yet justify massive expansion in the troubled families programme (perhaps you might prefer the Scottish approach of smaller scale piloting, or for the government to abandon certain interventions altogether).

However, if you are a UK government policymaker feeling the need to act – and knowing that you always have to make decisions despite uncertainty – you may also feel that there will never be enough evidence on which to draw. Given the problems outlined above, you may as well act now than wait for years for little to change.

The ends justify the means

Policymakers may feel that the ends of such policies – investment in early intervention by shifting funds from late intervention – may justify the means, which can include a ridiculous oversimplification of evidence. It may seem almost impossible for governments to find other ways to secure the shift, given the multiple factors which undermine its progress.

Governments sometimes hint at this approach when simplifying key figures – effectively to argue that late intervention costs £9bn while early intervention will only cost £448m – to reinforce policy change: ‘the critical point for the Government was not necessarily the precise figure, but whether a sufficiently compelling case for a new approach was made’.

Similarly the vivid comparison of healthy versus neglected brains provides shocking reference points to justify early intervention. Their rhetorical value far outweighs their evidential value. As in all EBPM, the choice for policymakers is to play the game, to generate some influence in not-ideal circumstances, or hope that science and reason will save the day (and the latter tends to be based on hope rather than evidence). So, the UK appeared to follow the US’ example in which neuroscience ‘was chosen as the scientific vehicle for the public relations campaign to promote early childhood programs more for rhetorical, than scientific reasons’, partly because a focus on, for example, permanent damage to brain circuitry is less abstract than a focus on behaviour.

Overall, policymakers seem willing to build their case on major simplifications and partial truths to secure what they believe to be a worthy programme (although it would be interesting to find out which policymakers actually believe the things they say). If so, pointing out their mistakes or alleging lies can often have a minimal impact (or worse, if policymakers ‘double down’ in the face of criticism).

Implications for academics, practitioners, and ‘policy based evidence’

I have been writing on ‘troubled families’ while encouraging academics and practitioners to describe pragmatic strategies to increase the use of evidence in policy.

Palgrave C special

Our starting point is relevant to this discussion – since it asks what we should do if policymakers don’t think like academics:

  • They worry more about Westminster politics – their media and public reception and the ability of the opposition party to exploit their failures – than what academics think of their actions.
  • They do not follow the same rules of evidence generation and analysis.
  • They do not have the luxury of uncertainty and time.

Generally, this is a useful lens through which we should view discussions of the realistic use of evidence in politics and policy. Without being pragmatic – to recognise that policymakers will never think like scientists, and always face different pressures – we might simply declare ‘policy based evidence’ in all cases. Although a commitment to pragmatism does not solve these problems, at least it prompts us to be more specific about categories of PBE, the criteria we use to identify it, if our colleagues share a commitment to those criteria, what we can reasonably expect of policymakers, and how we might respond.

In disciplines like social policy we might identify a further issue, linked to:

  1. A tradition of providing critical accounts of government policy to help hold elected policymakers to account. If so, the primary aim may be to publicise key flaws without engaging directly with policymakers to help fix them – and perhaps even to criticise other scholars for doing so – because effective criticism requires critical distance.
  2. A tendency of many other social policy scholars to engage directly in evaluations of government policy, with the potential to influence and be influenced by policymakers.

It is a dynamic that highlights well the difficulty of separating empirical and normative evaluations when critics point to the inappropriate nature of the programmes as they interrogate the evidence for their effectiveness. This difficulty is often more hidden in other fields, but it is always a factor.

For example, Parr noted in 2009 that ‘despite ostensibly favourable evidence … it has been argued that the apparent benign-welfarism of family and parenting-based antisocial behaviour interventions hide a growing punitive authoritarianism’. The latter’s most extreme telling is by Garrett in 2007, who compares residential FIPs (‘sin bins’) to post-war Dutch programmes resembling Nazi social engineering and criticises social policy scholars for giving them favourable evaluations – an argument criticised in turn by Nixon and Bennister et al.

For present purposes, note Nixon’s identification of ‘an unusual case of policy being directly informed by independent research’, referring to the possible impact of favourable evaluations of FIPs on the UK Government’s move way from (a) an intense focus on anti-social behaviour and sanctions towards (b) greater support. While it would be a stretch to suggest that academics can set government agendas, they can at least enhance their impact by framing their analysis in a way that secures policymaker interest. If academics seek influence, rather than critical distance, they may need to get their hands dirty: seeking to understand policymakers to find alternative policies that still give them what they want.


Filed under Prevention policy, public policy, UK politics and policy