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.

brent-spar

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

Source

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:

cairney-offshoot-troubled-families-ebpm-5-9-16

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.

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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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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.

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The big accountability lie: in Scottish Parliament elections you have to pretend that you’ll succeed (part 1)

The Scottish Conservatives took some grief for campaigning to become the opposition party in Holyrood. We all know they won’t come close to winning, but many people would like them to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to try. Yet, this is only the second most ridiculous pretence in Scottish politics. The first is that the governing party is in control of Scottish government and can therefore be held to account in a meaningful way in Holyrood elections. While one problem will go away next month, the other is a fundamental flaw in our political system that will rip us apart at the seams.

For the people who read beyond the first paragraph, let me lay this out in a less dramatic way by highlighting the gulf between two ways of thinking about Scottish government.

  1. The language of Scottish elections.

The language of elections is one of ambition, high stakes competition, central government control, and accountability through elections:

  • Parties compete to tell you the tantalizing transformations they can deliver with Scottish Government powers.
  • The elections are high stakes because much power is held in Scottish central government.
  • If there is high central control, with major ‘levers’ of policy change, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame. Education doing well? Praise the SNP. NHS in a slump? Blame the SNP. Police Scotland having a nightmare? Blame the SNP. Wee Jimmy tripped and fell over a wonky slab in Largs? Blame the SNP.

So, the underlying message of Scottish Parliament elections is: let’s blame or praise the central government because it is in control and has the levers to make things happen. It’s much the same, only more so, in Westminster elections.

  1. The language of governance and policy studies

Most policy studies suggest that central government can achieve far less than you’d care to think. We use many phrases to highlight the limits to central control and the pragmatic ways in which the centre shares policymaking responsibility with other actors such as local public bodies and ‘stakeholders’. Key concepts include:

  • Policy communities. 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.
  • Governance (not government). There is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, we often think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government.
  • Complexity, or complex government. In complex policymaking systems, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them. Consequently, there is a large literature which tries to produce pragmatic responses to deal with the limits to central government control.

The language of accountability does not mix well with the language of complexity

I want you to imagine that you’ve put new denim jeans in with your whites wash: one part of the wash has really messed up the other. Now, I want you to think of this as a clever analogy: the language of elections is the denim and it’s really messing up your governance whites.

There are good reasons for central governments to share power and responsibility with other actors, including:

  • civil servants have the capacity, knowledge, and networks to research and make detailed policies;
  • many public bodies like ‘quangos’ need to be at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their public;
  • local governments have their own mandates, often possess a keener sense of the needs of local communities, and can work in partnership with local stakeholders and public bodies to produce long term strategies for their areas
  • stakeholders provide knowledge and advice on how to deliver policies in specialised areas
  • service users often have profound insights on the public services they receive

So, alongside fighting elections, the Scottish Government tries to produce pragmatic ways to share policymaking responsibility and encourage new mechanisms of accountability: institutional, local, community, service user.

The only problem is this: almost no one buys these forms of accountability, partly because it looks like the central government is trying to shirk responsibility for its actions. Come election time, you have to pretend that you are in charge of all of it. So, it’s difficult to argue during the rest of the time – for example, when ‘being held to account’ by the Scottish Parliament, or criticised in the media – that things are really not your fault.

The worst of it comes when governments try to adapt to both of those things, producing highly contradictory strategies:

  • On the one hand, they pursue thinks like ‘prevention’ strategies which encourage relatively hands-off policymaking for the long term in cooperation with local bodies.
  • On the other, they make election promises – e.g. on the numbers of police officers, teachers, and nurses they’ll employ – and maintain performance management systems to show that they are in charge and making some progress. These actions to achieve short term electoral success can really mess up the long term strategies.

So what?

The upshot is this: we could use our knowledge of this contradiction in language to get beyond simplistic debates in which the elected central government gets all the praise or blame for outcomes in devolved areas in Scotland. It might help produce more honest and sensible policymaking. However, can you imagine any big party ever willing to try? When the Scottish Conservatives get this much shit for admitting they won’t win office, can you imagine a larger party admitting that it won’t achieve that much in office because it’s one part of a complex system?

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Hydraulic fracturing policy in comparative perspective: how typical is the UK experience?

This paper – Cairney PSA 2016 UK fracking 15.3.16– collects insights from the comparative study of ‘fracking’ policy, including a forthcoming book using the ‘Advocacy Coalition Framework’ to compare policy and policymaking in the US, Canada and five European countries (Weible, Heikkila, Ingold and Fischer, 2016), the UK chapter, and offshoot article submissions comparing the UK with Switzerland. It is deliberately brief to reflect the likelihood that, in a 90-minute panel with 5 papers, we will need to keep our initial presentations short and sweet. I am also a member of the no-powerpoint-collective.

See also Three lessons from a comparison of fracking policy in the UK and Switzerland

Category: Fracking

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Westminster is more powerful than you think, but only if you dismiss its importance

Cowley tweet 4.1.15

When studying the role of parliament in the UK, it is common to argue that it is more powerful than you think. If the dominant narrative is that parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, then let’s show you what is wrong with that narrative.

I’ve done it myself several times (e.g. this article and this book pp104-7), partly because it’s a good hook for publication (and partly because David Judge was my PhD supervisor*). However, when I discuss these issues with students, I tend to conclude that an influence score of more-than-zero is still a low score. It’s a bit like me telling people: ‘I look pasty, but I can run faster than you think’.

I say this after reading Russell, Gover, and Wollter’s (2015) excellent empirical analysis of Westminster’s influence over the past decade. It is ‘more influential than is widely recognised’, but what does that really mean? Let’s break down (what I take to be) the article’s 3 key points:

  1. The non-influential argument is untested empirically. This is a good way to justify Russell et al’s empirical work, but I think it’s a bit misleading. I think there is a lot of empirical work on policymaking out there which fails to pick up on any Westminster influence whatsoever. For example, in a lot of my interview research, it has not occurred to participants (including interest groups and civil servants) to mention the role of Westminster unprompted because it is so far down the list of relevant factors.
  2. The vagaries of the bill process give a misleading picture of low MP influence. When we study the legislative amendment process we find that the majority of successful government amendments are innocuous (exaggerating its success) and many amendments by MPs are designed to prompt debate, not succeed (exaggerating their failure). True. This is partly because, by the time a bill gets to Parliament, it is already a draft Act. The government has little interest in changing something already negotiated in detail with interested groups, and MPs are often looking to make points or seek clarity. Yet, for me, this clarification does little to accentuate parliamentary influence. Rather, it warns against the conclusion of non-influence using misleading measures (not the same thing as demonstrating influence).
  3. To gauge parliamentary influence you need measures which take ‘anticipated reactions’ into account. The government’s bill teams take great care to anticipate parliamentary reaction to bills, and produce draft legislation accordingly. Further, much government legislation is prompted by MPs (via, for example, committee reports and MP bills). Both of these points are important, but they remain partial because government actions are prompted by 101 things. We know that ministers and civil servants take Parliament into account in many cases, but in how many cases can we say that parliamentary influence is decisive or near the top of the list of most important factors? This question is explored in more depth in Russell and Cowley’s excellent article,  but still to challenge the idea that Parliament is completely unimportant. We are still left with the argument: ‘if you think Westminster’s is really unimportant, Westminster is more powerful than you think’.

Where is the public policy analysis?

Russell and Cowley aim to ‘adopt a public policy lens, asking which parliamentary actors and processes exert influence, and at what policy stage(s)’. Yet, they cite almost none of the contemporary public policy literature (not even Jordan/ Richardson’s books after 1979, one of which engages with post-1979 developments).

For me, the value that you’d expect public policy analysis to add relates to its range of perspectives. A focus on networks was often to highlight the limits to ministerial as well as parliamentary power, since the state is so large that elites have to delegate most policymaking to other people, and can only keep track of a small proportion of government activity. Further, a focus on ‘street level’ actors and organisations further accentuates the sense that government policy is often delivered by routine, with a tendency for ministers and parliamentarians to pay attention to a tiny part of that activity. Perhaps most importantly, the contemporary literature tends to highlight the problems with a focus on stages to describe how policy is made. Or, if you are really keen, there is a discussion by Rod Rhodes and colleagues of the extent to which politicians maintain the fiction of the Westminster model of government, which can affect how they describe the role of Parliament and the importance of traditional forms of accountability.

I think that this kind of discussion informs the empirical analysis: if you ‘zoom in’ to look for evidence of (ministerial or) parliamentary influence you  will find some. However, if you are adopting a ‘public policy lens’, it seems worthwhile to also ‘zoom out’ and consider how this evidence connects to the wider public policy literature. A focus primarily on Richardson/ Jordan as the classic 1979 text, then King/ Crewe 2013 as something more up to date, only seems valuable if one wants to stick it to the older generation without engaging with more thoughtful or empirical analysis.

Where do we go from here?

If you are interested in these arguments, you should follow ‘politicsphd’, who is working in depth on the issues as they relate to the Scottish Parliament’s bill process. He has some points which are directly relevant to Westminster analysis, including:

  • We need more measures of influence. For example, we need to measure the overall effect of amendments rather than rely on counting substantive amendments (e.g. by comparing the bills before and after submission);
  • We need to go beyond vague classifications of legislatures. We should focus more on important variations in parliamentary influence, on a bill-by-bill basis, rather than focusing primarily on an often misleading gauge of overall influence according to some bills which may or may not be representative.

My argument is simpler and based on the application of ‘bounded rationality’ to legislatures such as Westminster:

  1. Actors like MPs and MSPs only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues processed by governments. So, they promote few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. They engage in ‘serial processing’: considering one issue at a time.
  2. Elected policymakers partly overcome this problem of serial processing by overseeing ‘parallel processing’ within government. A government breaks down policymaking into a huge number of discrete issues processed in different parts of the organisation. British parliaments tend not to have the resources to perform a similar role or keep up with the policy process in British government.
  3. So, you might expect the parliamentary equivalent of ‘punctuated equilibrium’: a tendency for parliaments to focus intensely on a small number of issues (with the potential for significant influence) at the expense of the vast majority of others.

In other words, think of parliamentary influence in terms of two sides of the same coin: if you identify influence in some areas, recognise the limited influence in most others.

For more of that sort of argument, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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*In my first year as a politics undergraduate I learned that Westminster was only important to the tourist trade (my lecturer was Jeremy Richardson). In my 3rd year I learned that Richardson and Jordan were quite wrong (my lecturer was David Judge). In my 4th year I learned that policy networks were at the heart of explanation and that Parliament rarely featured (David Marsh). During my PhD on networks I put in a chapter on Parliament – CHAPTER_3 – to try to please David Judge. I worked briefly for Mark Shephard and we made the ‘more influential than you think’ case for the Scottish Parliament. Then I went full circle by working closely at Aberdeen with Grant Jordan. I now talk a lot about bounded rationality, which is at the heart of my explanation for limited parliamentary influence: MPs/ MSPs don’t have the resources to be particularly influential.

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Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

I’m sure that policy theory, based on political science, improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking (EBPM), particularly when compared to atheoretical accounts in disciplines such as health and environmental sciences. Below, I present two key messages: respond to ambiguity as much as uncertainty, and focus on complexity, not linearity.

I’m less sure that I can offer more realistic advice about how people with full time jobs outside of lobbying can engage in policymaking.

So, in this post, I outline some broad implications, but note that my advice has major behavioural, ethical, and resource implications that may not always be feasible or attractive to scientists engaged primarily in science.

I can now tell a good story about the limits to EBPM studies when they are based primarily on the perspectives of health and environmental scientists. First, I provide a caricature of some scientists who express high frustration with politicians:

‘We know what the evidence is, so why won’t they do anything about it?’

‘Why do they only select the ‘evidence’ that suits their personal agendas?’

‘Evidence-based policy? More like policy-based evidence, am I right guys?’.

Second, I point to the problems with their proposed solutions:

  • A focus on the better supply of evidence only helps reduce uncertainty, not ambiguity. You won’t persuade policymakers to act just by providing more evidence or reducing a 100000 word report to 1000 words.
  • Instead of complaining about cynical or unscientific policymakers, recognise how unrealistic it is to expect one magic moment in which the policymaker in charge ‘gets it’ then sets in motion a radically new policy direction. Such hopes are based on the idea of a ‘linear’ policy process with well-ordered stages of decision making.

In short, policy theory helps improve such discussions by identifying important ways to think about policy, trying to clarify how policymakers think, and providing evidence of the ways in which policy processes work, rather than how we would like them to work (in some cases, with reference to ‘evidence based medicine’). This is the first step towards better advice on how to adapt to and seek to influence that process with evidence.

It’s harder to tell a good story about what you do with these new insights, particularly when we consider the implications on the scientific profession.

Let’s start with two key recommendations based on insights from policy studies:

  1. Focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty

Policymakers use two short cuts to turn infinite information into a manageable decision

  • ‘rational’: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable.
  • ‘irrational’: making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.

So, a strategy to reduce scientific uncertainty by producing more, and more accessible, evidence only addresses one short cut. Further, it may often be ineffective, because policymakers are more likely to accept ‘evidence’ from a wider range of sources. We know that not everyone reads, understands, prioritises, or appreciates the beauty of, a well-crafted peer-reviewed academic journal article. So, it is sensible to seek new ways to present information, using shorter reports and employing ‘knowledge brokers’, but also to recognise the limits to such processes when policymaking remains so competitive and policymakers draw on knowledge that they (not you) trust.

Policy advocates also need solutions based on ambiguity, to reflect a tendency for policymakers to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Many policy theories can be adapted to give advice on that basis:

  • combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention (punctuated equilibrium)
  • tell stories which manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (narrative policy framework)
  • produce ‘feasible’ policy solutions and exploit a time when policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it (multiple streams)
  • interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (advocacy coalition framework).
  1. Focus on complexity, not linearity

Too many studies in (for example) health sciences portray policymaking with reference to a simple cycle with well-ordered stages and a single event in which ‘the evidence’ informs a game-changing decision made by an easily identifiable person in authority. In contrast, policy studies identify messier policymaking which takes place in a volatile policy environment, exhibiting:

  1. a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  2. a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  3. close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and influential actors
  4. a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  5. shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

This bigger picture shifts our analysis and gives us more realistic ways in which to adapt, to work out: where the action is; which actors are making the most important decisions; the rules of engagement with those actors; the best way to present an argument tailored to their specific beliefs; the language they use to establish criteria for feasible policies; how to identify and work with powerful allies with privileged access to policymakers; and, how to use crises or vivid events to prompt lurches of policymaker attention.

There are three main problems with such advice

  1. Manipulation is a dirty word

Options A and B require you to be manipulative. I don’t really mean ‘Machiavellian’, but rather be prepared to propose simple messages, designed to influence debate, by expressing greater scientific certainty than you may be comfortable with and/ or with reference to emotionally-charged discussions that have little to do with your evidence.

It is customary for scientists to express uncertainty and a desire not to go ahead of the evidence. Yet, you are competing with people who do not have such sensibilities. They don’t play by your rules, and many will not even know that such rules exist. Further, they will win even though they are less knowledgeable than you. While you go back to produce and check ‘the evidence’, they will recognise that you need to make an impact now, with what you have, while the issue is salient and policymakers feel they have to act despite high uncertainty.

On the other hand, if you become an advocate, you may lose a key resource: some people think that you are an objective scientist, devoted to the truth. It is a legitimate strategy to choose to remain aloof from policymaking, to maintain your personal image and that of your profession. Fair enough, if you recognise that it is a choice with likely consequences.

It was a choice faced by advocates of tobacco control, many of whom felt that they had to go beyond the evidence to compete with powerful tobacco companies. It is a choice faced by organisations such as Public Health England, faced with their belief that too-many people think cigarettes and e-cigarettes are equally harmful, and the need to choose between saying ‘more evidence is needed’ (taking themselves out of the debate, and perhaps reinforcing the effects of poor public knowledge) or that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful (to influence behaviour while they gather more evidence). It is also a choice faced by food scientists competing to influence policy on GM food with (a) certain companies protecting their business, and (b) groups warning about Frankenstein foods.

2. It seems like a full time job

Options C and D require you to engage in policy advocacy for years, if not decades, to build up enough knowledge of the people involved (who is worth knowing? Who are your allies? What arguments work with certain people?) and know when to push a policy solution. There is not a clear professional incentive to engage in such activity. University incentives are changing, in countries such as the UK, but I’d still hesitate to advise a younger colleague to go for ‘impact’ instead of publishing another article in a prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal.

3. Policymakers don’t always act according to this advice

Policymakers will recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of policy theories such as complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on.

Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame.

Policymakers often maintain two faces simultaneously: the public face, to compete in elections and assert an image of control, and the less public face, to negotiate with many actors and make pragmatic choices. So, for example, there is high potential for them to produce ‘good politics, bad policy’ decisions, and you should not automatically admonish them whenever they reject the choice to produce ‘bad politics, good policy’. You’ll likely just piss them off and make them more reluctant to take your advice next time.

All three concerns produce a major dilemma about how to engage

Imagine a reaction to this well-meaning advice: you need to simplify evidence, and manipulate people or debates, when you engage in high level salient debates, while knowing that the big decisions take place elsewhere; you will have to influence different people with different arguments further down the line; it might take you years to work out who best to influence; and, by then, it might be too late.

Suddenly, the original advice – produce short reports, employ knowledge brokers, engage in academic-practitioner workshops – seems pretty attractive.

So, it may take more time to produce feasible advice based on the implications of policy theory. In the meantime, at least this discussion should help us clarify why there is a gap between scientific evidence and policymaking, and prompt some pragmatic advice: do it right or don’t do it at all; if you engage half-heartedly in the policy process, expect little reward; and, policy influence requires an investment that many scientists may be unwilling or unable to fund (and many investments will not pay off).

See also:

This post is one of many on EBPM. The full list is here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/

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New politics: a central or peripheral role for the Scottish Parliament? #POLU9SP

In many ways, the Scottish Parliament became the alternative to ‘old Westminster’ described initially by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Its electoral system is more proportional, it contains a larger proportion of women, it has a more ‘family friendly’ and constituency friendly design, and it has no House of Lords.

In other ways, Holyrood became part of the ‘Westminster family’ (to reflect the UK Government’s influence on its design). The executive resides in the legislature, it produces and amends the vast majority of legislation, and it generally controls parliamentary business with a combination of a coalition (1999-2007) or single party (2011-16) majority and a strong party ‘whip’. Scottish parliamentary committees have performed a similar scrutiny function to Westminster. Holyrood is a hub for participatory and deliberative democracy, but more in theory than practice. The Scottish Parliament enjoyed minority government from 2007-11, but this made far less of a difference than you might expect.

Overall, it is a body with unusually strong powers in relation to comparable legislatures such as Westminster, not the Scottish Government. It is often peripheral to the policy process. Further, two aspects of devolution may diminish its role in the near future: further devolution from the UK to Scotland, and from the Scottish Government to local public bodies.

Distinctive elements of the Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament’s electoral system, mixed member proportional, combines 73 constituency seats elected by a plurality of the vote, plus 56 regional seats elected using the D’Hondt divisor:

4.1 D'hondt

You can see its more-but-not-completely proportional effect in Scottish Parliament electoral results since 1999. Since there are more constituency than regional seats, the system still exaggerates the size of the party which dominates the plurality vote: Scottish Labour in 1999, 2003, and 2007, and the SNP in 2011.

table 2.2 SP results

Still, from 1999-2011, the system had the desired effect. In 1999 and 2003, Labour was the largest party but it required support from the Scottish Liberal Democrats to form a coalition majority government. In 2007, the SNP was the largest party by one seat, and it formed a minority government. Only in 2011 did we see a single party SNP majority built on approximately 45% of the vote. This is likely to rise in 2016.

The representation of women

table 5.1 women MSPs

There was a clear devolution effect on the election of women in the Scottish Parliament. At its peak in 2003, 40% of MSPs were women (35% from 2011) while 18% of MPs were women (29% from 2015). This level relied heavily on Scottish Labour which, in 2003, had 50 seats, of which 28 (56%) were women.

Family and constituency friendly working

The Scottish Parliament has restricted working hours, with committee and plenary business restricted largely to business hours Tuesday to Thursday, which provides more opportunity for MSPs to (for example) combine work commitments with caring responsibilities than MPs in Westminster, which conducts business on more days and longer days. Holyrood was also designed to allow MSPs to spend a meaningful amount of time in their constituencies. We can discuss in the lecture how you think MSPs actually use their time.

A unicameral Scottish Parliament with significant powers

The SCC’s rejection of an unelected House of Lords did not come with a desire for an elected second chamber. Instead, the Scottish Parliament’s unicameral system is designed to make up for the lack of a ‘revising chamber’ by ‘front loading’ legislative scrutiny: specific committees consider the principles of a bill before it is approved, in principle, in plenary (stage 1); and, they amend a bill (stage 2) before the final amendments in plenary (stage 3).

Many of these specialist committees are permanent (such as the audit committee). All committees combine the functions of two different kinds of Westminster committee – Standing (to scrutinise legislation) and Select (to monitor government departments, including, for example, the ability to oblige ministers to report to them). They also have the ability to hold agenda setting inquiries, monitor the quality of Scottish Government consultation before they present bills to Parliament, and initiate legislation (the process for MSPs to propose bills is also simpler).

The idea is that committees become specialist and business-like (leave your party membership at the door) and their members become experts, able to hold the government to account in a meaningful way, and provide alternative ideas or legislation if dissatisfied with the government’s response.

Part of the Westminster family

Yet, the operation of the Scottish Parliament is similar to Westminster in key respects. It is set up to allow the Scottish Government to govern and for the Parliament to scrutinise its policies. It does not have the resources to act routinely as an alternative source of legislation or to routinely set the agenda with inquiries. When engaged in scrutiny, it relies heavily on the Scottish Government for information, has few resources to monitor the details of public sector delivery, and tends to focus on, for example, broad strategies and principles. Turnover is high among MSPs, who struggle to generate subject-based expertise. The party whip is strong, and a government with a majority of MSPs tends to dominate both committee and plenary proceedings.

This imbalance of resources between government and parliament is reflected in key measures of activity: the government tends to produce and amend the vast majority of legislation. Committees had a clear influence on some bills (can you give me some examples?), and MSPs have passed some of their own (what were the most important?), but we might say something similar about Westminster.

Did coalition, minority, and single party government make a difference?

box 5.5

The Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition operated, from 1999-2007, in a way that you might associate with a majority party in Westminster. It dominated the parliamentary arithmetic, produced and amended most legislation, and won almost all votes. Both parties signed up to a ‘partnership agreement’ that set a 4-year policy agenda each term, and the whip was remarkably strong (more so than in Westminster). There were many examples of cooperative working between government and parliament, bills produced by MSPs, and agenda setting inquiries – particularly during the initial ‘honeymoon’ period – but these cases should be seen in the overall context of a fairly traditional relationship.

Minority government changed things, often significantly, but not as much as you might expect. Crucially, it was unable to gain support for a bill to hold a referendum on independence (doesn’t that seem like such a long time ago?). It also had insufficient support for its legislative plans to reform local taxation and introduce a minimum unit price on alcohol (what has happened in these areas since then?). It lost more parliamentary votes, albeit mostly in relation to ‘non binding’ motions (although it responded in a major way to the motion to fund the Edinburgh trams project), and had to think harder about how to gain the support of at least one other party.

On the other hand, it continued to produce and amend the bulk of legislation. It was also able to pursue many of its aims without legislation or significant parliamentary consent (such as capital finance and public service reforms). The Scottish Parliament did not pursue a new role: it produced few memorable inquiries and very few bills.

So, the notable effect of single party majority government should be seen in this context. Clearly, the SNP has the ability to influence parliamentary proceedings in a way not enjoyed by any other single party in the Scottish Parliament’s history. However, there was not a fundamental shift of approach or relationship following the shift from minority to majority government. The government continues to govern, and the parliament maintains a traditional scrutiny role with limited resources and minimal willingness to do things differently (we can explore this point in more depth in the lecture).

Future developments: will greater devolution diminish the Scottish Parliament’s role?

In a Political Quarterly article, I identify two aspects of devolution that may diminish the Scottish Parliament’s role in the near future:

  1. further devolution from the UK to Scotland will see the Scottish Parliament scrutinise more issues with the same paltry resources
  2. further devolution from the Scottish Government to local public bodies will see the Scottish Parliament less able to gather enough information to perform effective scrutiny.

Both issues highlight the further potential for the Scottish Parliament, heralded as a body to ‘share power’ with the government and ‘the people’, to play a peripheral role in the policy process. To all intents and purposes, the new Scotland Act will devolve more responsibilities to Scottish ministers, without a proportionate increase in parliamentary resources to keep tabs on what ministers do with those powers.

Perhaps more importantly, the Scottish Parliament can only really keep tabs on broad Scottish Government strategies. What happens when it devolves more policymaking powers to local public bodies, such as the health boards that give limited information to committees and the local authorities that claim their own electoral mandate? Who or what will the Scottish Parliament hold to account on behalf of the public?

Further reading: this final point about the tensions between traditional notions of democratic accountability and new forms of public service delivery are not unique to Scotland.

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Devolution and ‘new politics’ in Scotland: the implications for policymaking #POLU9SP

The phrases ‘new Scottish politics’ or ‘new politics’ should be understood with reference to ‘old Westminster’. They represented important reference points for the ‘architects of devolution’, or the reformers keen to present devolution as a way to transfer policymaking responsibilities and reform political practices.

These aims can be associated with two documents specific to Scotland. The first is the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s (1995) Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right, which made a general case for political reform:

the coming of a Scottish Parliament will usher in a way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster: more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational.

The second is the Consultative Steering Group’s (1998) Shaping Scotland’s Parliament, which designed the operation of the Scottish Parliament with regard to four key principles: ‘power sharing’, ‘accountability’, ‘equal opportunities’, and ‘openness and participation’.

However, I’ll show you that the debate links to a broader distinction between ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracy.

This focus on new political behaviour was an important reference point for politicians and commentators in the early years of devolution. Now, you don’t hear it so much. Yet, it gives us a reference point, to highlight limited progress towards ‘new politics’ and identify continuities in politics and policymaking despite these expectations for novelty.

In particular, I’ll show you, in a series of lectures, that Scottish devolution came with a set of measures combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements, and it soon became a political system that would not look out of place in the ‘Westminster family’. Then, we can note that the slow or limited progress of new politics did not feature prominently in the debate on Scottish independence. Although the previous debate on constitutional change gave advocates a major opportunity to pursue political reforms, the independence debate did not. Finally, we can discuss the overall implications for policymaking: did the new politics agenda change how people make policy in Scotland?

From a ‘majoritarian’ to a ‘consensus’ democracy?

When you read some of the literature describing new Scottish politics as an alternative to old Westminster politics, note how similar it sounds to Lijphart’s discussion of majoritarian and consensus democracies. Neil McGarvey and I summarise Lijphart’s argument in Scottish Politics (see also my co-authored comparisons with the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland):

(click on them to make them bigger)

BOX 1.4 lIJPHART

box 8.2 Lijphart

These discussions suggest that, for many commentators, ‘Westminster’ represents an archetypal centralised political system with an adversarial and top-down political culture. This is an image that we should examine critically throughout the course rather than take for granted.

For now, note the link between the formalised rules to govern behaviour, such as on the style of election or the division of powers between organisations, and the informal rules or ‘cultures’ that they are alleged to promote. In particular, note that we might hesitate to expect that a shift in the voting system, from plurality to proportional, will necessarily prompt a major shift in political culture.

Scottish politics: combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements

‘New politics’ is a meaningless phrase without a clear definition or reference to specific objectives. In Scottish politics, you can take your pick from quite a long list of ‘old Westminster’s’ alleged failings (the next section is in pages 12 and 13 of the 1st ed of Scottish Politics):

Electoral system – the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and excludes small parties. It tends to result in a majority which, combined with a strong party system, ensures that one party dominates proceedings.

Executive dominance – this ‘top-down’ system, in which power is concentrated within government, is not appropriate for a Scottish system with a tradition of civic democracy and the diffusion of power. In Westminster, the centre not only has the ability for force legislation through (and ignore wider demands), but also to dominate the resources devoted to policy. Parliament does not possess the resources to hold the executive to account.

Adversarial style – most discussions in Westminster take place in plenary sessions (the whole House sits together) with a charged partisan atmosphere. There is insufficient scope for detailed and specialist scrutiny in an atmosphere conducive to consensual working practices. This extends to committees – the partisan nature of politics undermines real scrutiny and there are limited resources to investigate or monitor departments. Given the distinction between select and standing committees, there may be a problem of coordination and a lack of potential for long-term consensual styles to emerge.

Too much power is vested in the House of Lords – an unelected and unrepresentative second chamber.

Although the government may consult with interest groups, this tends to be with the ‘usual suspects’. This reliance on the most powerful and well resourced groups (such as big business) reinforces the concentration of power in a ruling class.

Since power is concentrated at the centre there are limited links between state and civic society. Outside of the voting process, there are limited means for ‘the people’ to influence government.

Parliamentary overload – Parliament is too focused on scrutinizing government legislation. This leaves MPs with too little time to devote to their constituencies.

Parliament as a whole does not reflect the people that elect it in terms of microcosmic representation. There is a particular lack of women in Parliament as well as a tendency for MPs to be drawn from a ruling class’.

These deficiencies would therefore be addressed with a number of aims:

A proportional electoral system with a strong likelihood of coalition and bargaining between parties.

A consensual style of politics with a reduced role for party conflict.

Power-sharing rather than executive dominance.

A strong role for committees to initiate legislation, scrutinize the activity of the executive and conduct inquiries

Fostering closer links between state and civic society through parliament (e.g. with a focus on the right to petition parliament and the committee role in obliging the executive to consult widely)

Ensuring that MSPs have enough time for constituency work by restricting business in the Scottish Parliament to three days per week.

Fostering equality in the selection of candidates and making the Scottish Parliament equally attractive to men and women’.

Why did so few people discuss ‘new politics’ during the independence referendum?

In this lecture, I’m going to ask what you think of this list: how many of these aims do you think have been fulfilled? For example, is the Scottish Parliament more representative in terms of social background?

We can discuss briefly why you think that an evaluation of devolution, and a discussion of further political reform, did not seem to be a central feature of the independence referendum debate. Did most people assume that a Yes vote was – yet againa rejection of ‘Westminster politics’ without thinking about the extent to which it was different from Holyrood politics? Or, if it didn’t come up much, what were people talking about instead?

We can then go into some detail on participation, the role of the Scottish Parliament, and ‘pluralist democracy’ in subsequent lectures.

What can we conclude about the distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking?

Finally, we will come back to the main theme or guiding question of the course: what difference do these things make to policymaking in Scotland?

In particular, let’s see what you think of these two arguments:

  1. The argument specific to Scotland. Despite these hopes for greater ‘power sharing’ between the government, parliament, and ‘the people’, Scottish government largely operates in the same way as UK government. Most policy is processed by governments who consult with ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups.
  2. The more general argument. There is a ‘universal’ logic to this kind of policymaking in majoritarian and consensus democracies. Although they look different, they engage in very similar policy processes.

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The Art and Skill of Academic Translation: it’s harder when you move beyond English

I have been writing about the idea of ‘translation’ in terms of ‘knowledge transfer’ or ‘diffusion’, which often suggests that there is a linear process of knowledge production and dissemination: knowledge is held by one profession which has to find the right language to pass it on to another. This approach has often been reflected in the strategies of academic and government bodies. Yet, the process is two-way. Both groups offer knowledge and the potential to have a meaningful conversation that suits both parties. If so, ‘translation’ becomes a way for them to engage in a meaningful way, to produce a common language that they can both ‘own’ and use. Examples include: the need for scientists to speak with policymakers about how the policy process works; the need for ‘complexity’ theorists to understand the limits to policymaker action in Westminster systems; the separate languages of institutions which struggle to come together during public service integration (key to local partnership and ‘joined up government’); and, the difference in the language used by service providers and users. We might also worry about the language we use to maintain interdisciplinary discussion (such as when ‘first order change’ means something totally different in physics and politics).

It’s not the same thing, but translating into another language, such as when conversing in English and Japanese, reinforces the point in an immediately visible way. In both directions, English to Japanese, and vice versa, it is clear that the recipient only receives a version of the original statement – even when people use a highly skilled interpreter. Further, if the statement is quite technical, or designed to pass on knowledge, the gap between original intention and the relayed message is wider still.

This point can be made more strongly in a short lecture using interpretation. As academics, many of us have been to conferences in English, and witnessed a presenter trying to cram in too much information in 15 minutes. They give a long introduction for 10, then race through the slides without explaining them, simply say that they can’t explain what they hoped, or keep going until the chair insists they stop. You don’t really get a good sense of the key arguments.

In another language, you have to reduce your time to less than half, to speak slowly and account for translation (simultaneous translation is quicker, but you still have to speak very slowly). You have to minimise the jargon (and the idioms) to allow effective translation. Or, you need to find the time to explain each specialist word. For example, while I would often provide an 8000 word paper to accompany a lecture/ workshop, this one is 1500. There is no visible theory, although theory tends to underpin what you focus on and how you explain it. It took 40 minutes to present, largely because I left a lot of topics for Q&A. I still had a hard time explaining some things. I predicted some (such as the difference between ‘federalism’ and ‘federacy’, and the meaning of ‘poll tax’ and ‘bedroom tax’) but realised, late on, that I’d struggle to explain others (such as ‘fracking’, or the unconventional drilling used to access and extract shale gas).

This sort of exercise is fantastically useful, to force you to think about the essential points in an argument, keep it short without referring to shorthand jargon, and explain them without assuming much prior knowledge in the audience, in the knowledge that things will just mean different things to different audiences. It is a skill like any other, and it forces on you a sense of discipline (one might develop a comparable skill when explaining complex issues to pre-University students).

Indeed, I have now done it so much, alongside writing short blog posts, that I find it hard to go back from Tokyo to jargon city. Each time I read something dense (on, for example, ‘meta-governance’), I ask myself if I could explain it to an audience whose first language is not English. If not, I wonder how useful it is, or if it is ever translated outside of a very small group.

This is increasingly important in the field of policy theory, when we consider the use of theories, developed in English and applied to places such as the US and UK, and applied to countries around the globe (see Using Traditional Policy Theories and Concepts in Untraditional Ways). If you can’t explain them well, how can you work out if the same basic concepts are being used to explain things in different countries?

Further, we don’t know, until we listen to our audience, what they want to know and how they will understand what we say. Let me give you simple examples from my Hokkaido lecture. One panellist was a journalist from Okinawa. He used what I said to argue that we should learn from the Scots; to develop a national identity-based social movement, and to be like Adam Smith (persevering with a regional accent, and a specific view of the world, in the face of snobbishness and initial scepticism; note that I hadn’t mentioned Adam Smith). Another panelist, a journalist from Hokkaido, argued that the main lesson from Scotland is that you have to be tenacious; the Scots faced many obstacles to self-determination, but they persevered and saw the results, and still persevere despite the setback (for some) of the referendum result (I pointed out that ‘the 45%’ are not always described as tenacious!). Another contributor wondered why Thatcherism was so unpopular in Scotland when we can see that, for example, it couldn’t have saved Scottish manufacturing and was perhaps proved correct after not trying to do so. Others use the Scottish experience to highlight a similar sense of central government imposition or aloofness in Japan (from the perspective of the periphery).

In general, this problem of academic translation is difficult enough when you share a common language, but the need to translate, in two ways, brings it to the top of the agenda. In short, if we take the idea of translation seriously, it is not just about a technical process in which words are turned into a direct equivalent in another language and you expect the audience to be informed or do the work to become informed. It is about thinking again about what we think we know, and how much of that knowledge we can share with other people.

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The Smith Commission on accountability: I don’t think it means what they think it means

inigo1

 

Other blog posts argue that the Smith proposals fall far short of ‘devo max’ or ‘federalism’ and will disappoint people looking for the extensive devolution of welfare powers. So, I will focus on its statement on accountability:

“A more accountable and responsible Parliament. Complementing the expansion of its powers will be a corresponding increase in the Parliament’s accountability and responsibility for the effects of its decisions and their resulting benefits or costs”.

This is very misleading for the following step-by-step reasons:

  1. The Scottish Parliament will ostensibly become responsible for more powers, but Scotland inherited a Westminster-style system of democratic accountability. The Scottish Parliament delegates almost all policymaking responsibility to ministers, who are accountable to the public via Parliament. So, in practice, Scottish ministers are receiving greater responsibilities.
  2. The Scottish Government balances the Westminster idea of democratic accountability with others, such as institutional accountability (e.g. the chief executives of agencies take responsibility for delivery) and shared ownership (e.g. through community planning partnerships).
  3. The Scottish Parliament struggles to hold ministers to account at the best of times. When the Scottish Government devolves powers to the wider public sector, the Scottish Parliament struggles a bit more. The devolution experience is one of limited parliamentary influence.
  4. The Scottish Parliament will not grow in tandem with growing devolution. Instead, the same number of people will oversee a growing set of Scottish Government responsibilities.
  5. So, all other things being equal, greater ministerial responsibility will DECREASE democratic accountability.

In fact, the Smith Commission recognises this point and recommends a response:

“The addition of new responsibilities over taxes, welfare and borrowing means that the Parliament’s oversight of Government will need to be strengthened. I recommend that the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer continues to build on her work on parliamentary reform by undertaking an inclusive review which will produce recommendations to run alongside the timetable for the transfer of powers”.

This need to pass the buck is understandable, given the limits to Smith’s remit (the Commission also makes good noises about the need for public engagement, to help people understand what the Scottish Parliament does). What is less understandable is why the commission presents these measures as good for accountability. What it means is that the ‘Scottish Parliament’ will become more responsible for raising some of the money it spends – but, as long as it can only control one small part of a mix of taxes, that argument is misleading too. Overall, we have a vague and misleading statement, using the language of greater accountability, but it’s not greater democratic accountability. It’s the other kind of accountability. The kind where democratic accountability is further reduced.

jim my arse

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The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

westminster-times

A common argument in British politics is that the UK Government has exacerbated its own ‘governance problem’. A collection of post-war reforms, many of which were perhaps designed to reinforce central control, has produced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. This outcome presents major problems for the ‘Westminster’ narrative of central government and ministerial accountability to the public via Parliament. If ministers are not in control of their departments, how can we hold them to account in a meaningful way?

Yet, in many cases, it is misleading to link these outcomes to specific decisions or points in time, since many aspects of the ‘governance problem’ are universal: policymakers can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible; they do not have enough information to make decisions without major uncertainty; policy problems are too multi-faceted and ‘cross-cutting’ to allow policymaking without ambiguity; there is an inescapable logic to delegating decisions to ‘policy communities’ which may not talk to each other or account meaningfully to government; and, delivery bodies will always have discretion in the way they manage competing government demands.

In this context, policymaking systems can be described usefully as complex systems, in which behaviour is always difficult to predict, and outcomes often seem to emerge in the absence of central control. Further, the literature on complexity provides some advice about how governments should operate within complex systems. Unfortunately, much of this literature invites policymakers to give up on the idea that they can control policy processes and outcomes. While this may be a pragmatic response, it does not deal well with the need for elected policymakers to account for their actions in a very particular way. What seems sensible to one audience may be indefensible to another. In particular, the language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability.

What we need is a response that sets out a governmental acknowledgement of the limits to its powers, combined with the sense that we can still hold elected policymakers to account in a meaningful way. Ideally, this response should be systematic enough to allow us to predict when ministers will take responsibility for their actions, redirect attention to other accountable public bodies, and/ or identify the limited way in which they can be held responsible for certain outcomes. Beyond this ideal, we may settle for a government strategy based on explicit trade-offs between pragmatism, in which governments acknowledge the effect of administrative devolution (or, in the case of local authorities, political devolution), and meaningful representation, in which they maintain some degree of responsibility for decisions made in their name.

The aim of this paper is to draw lessons from the Scottish experience, which demonstrates an attempt to mix strategic responsibility with an element of flexibility and delegation. While we should not exaggerate the coherence of government strategies, we can meaningfully describe a ‘Scottish policy style’, identified in empirical studies, and a ‘Scottish approach’ as a self-styled description of policymaking by the Scottish Government. Further, the Scottish context is comparable enough to the UK to offer lessons. Although much of the rhetoric of ‘new Scottish politics’ suggests that it is markedly different from ‘old Westminster’, it has inherited a Westminster-style focus on government accountability to the public via Parliament (and an assumption that ‘the government governs’). Although Scotland is smaller, and the Scottish Government is able to design a governance style based on greater personal contact with interest groups and public bodies, this only serves to reinforce the importance of ‘universal’ problems when the problems that arise in Scotland resemble those faced in the UK. Overall, Scottish policymaking demonstrates that many problems related to ‘governance’ cannot be solved. Rather, the Scottish experience prompts us to identify important trade-offs between the delegation of administrative functions and the maintenance of central accountability.

To explain these issues, the paper first summarises the main ways in which UK governments have allegedly exacerbated governance problems. Second, it separates this focus on specific outcomes from the universal constraints on central control common to all complex policymaking systems. Third, it contrasts the practical advice that arises from a focus on complexity theory with the political imperative, in Westminster systems, to present policy outcomes as the responsibility of ministers. Fourth, it identifies the balance struck between accountability and delegation by the Scottish Government since 2007, and the transferable lessons to other systems.

The paper is here: Cairney Governance Complexity Accountability Scotland 20.11.14

Some of the wider issues are discussed here:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it?

Sharing professional and academic knowledge: The role of academic-practitioner workshops (on turning policy and complexity theories into something consistent with Westminster politics)

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum (3000 words and a lecture)

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country (LSE 1200 words)

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

Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

In policy studies, we talk about the rare occasions when some problems or policy solutions ‘take off’ suddenly or when an ‘idea’s time seems to come’. Indeed, one aim of Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams analysis’ is to show us that ideas come and go, only to be adopted if the time is right: when attention to a problem is high, a well-thought-out idea exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it. Only then will policy change in a meaningful way.

If only life were so simple. Instead, look again at that word ‘idea’. It means at least two things: a specific policy solution to a clearly defined problem, or a potentially useful but vague way of thinking about a complex and perhaps intractable (or, at least, ‘wicked’) problem. If it is the latter, the ‘window of opportunity’ may not produce the sort of policy change we might expect. Instead, we may see a groundswell of attention to, and support for, a policy solution that is very difficult to ‘operationalise’. We may find that everyone agrees on the broad solution, but no-one agrees on the detail, and we spend years making very little progress.

This is the danger with several potential solutions which highlight the possibility of addressing: the fall-out from austerity and reduced budgets; the need to reduce demand for acute public services by addressing socio-economic problems at an early stage; the need to ‘join up’ a range of government responsibilities; and, a desire to move away from unhelpful short term targets towards more long term and meaningful measures of policy success. Several solutions are currently in good currency, including: the social investment model, the wellbeing agenda, prevention (or preventative spending) and early intervention.

In each case, there may be a window of opportunity to promote such solutions, but the following obstacles arise:

  • Each example represents an idea, or way of thinking about things like public expenditure, that could either underpin new ways of thinking within government, become faddish before being rejected, or provide a gloss to justify decisions already made.
  • If the former, it could take decades for this way of thinking to become ‘institutionalised’, turned into ‘standard operating procedures’ and detailed rules to coordinate action across the public sector (suggesting that it requires meaningful, sustained cross-party support).
  • During this time, governments will still face hard choices about which areas are worthy of the most investment. In each case, the aim is vague, the evidence is often weak, it is difficult to compare the return from investments in different public services, and the process has a tendency to revert to a political exercise to determine priorities. In the face of uncertainty, policymakers may revert to tried and trusted rules to make decisions, and reject the more risky, new approach, with uncertain measures and outcomes.
  • The budget process is, in many ways, separate from a focus on social investment, activity and outcomes – largely because it remains an exercise to guarantee spending on established services and departments, or to reduce spending on some services at the margins.
  • There is a level of unpredictability in politics that makes such long term investment problematic – particularly when investment in one area, with quiet winners, comes at the expense of another service, with vocal losers (as demonstrated by any move to close a local hospital, rural school or university department). A tension between long term central planning and short term electoral issues often produces incremental and non-strategic changes, in which services receive ‘disinvestment’ and are allowed to wither.

To some extent, these issues may be addressed well during regular interactions between governments and their ‘social partners’, such as when governments, business and unions get together to produce something akin to a framework in which other policy decisions are made. In that sense, group-government relations represent a form of ‘institutional memory’. Governments and politicians come and go, but group-government relations represent a sense of continuity. This could be the main way to keep social investment on government agendas, as a salient topic or, perhaps more powerfully, as a way of thinking that is taken for granted and questioned rarely, even when new parties enter office.

Yet, there are problems with this ‘corporatist’ aim if it refers to government-wide group-government relations, since policy networks tend to develop on a ‘sectoral and subsectoral’ scale. Governments tend to deal with complex government by breaking it down into manageable chunks. Consequently, for example, medical and teaching unions could engage as one of many trades unions in concert with business, but they tend to speak mostly to education and health departments, in areas with minimal union-business links. Further, such groups tend to be more concerned with the targets and priorities identified at sectoral levels. They may like the idea of soft targets and long term, more meaningful, outcome measures, but have to address short term targets; they may pay attention to cross-sectoral aims when they can, but focus most of their attention on particular fields and priorities specific to their work.

The Scottish Government case

The issues I described are not unique to one government. Yet, some governments also face distinctive problems. For example, in Scotland, as part of the UK, there are specific issues around the links between policy instruments, shared responsibility, and joined up thinking:

  • The Scottish Government remains part of a UK process in which monetary and fiscal policies are determined largely by the Treasury, with the Scottish Government’s primary role to spend and invest.
  • Its position raises awkward questions about the consistency of policies, when spending decisions based on a ‘universalism’ narrative cannot be linked directly to the idea that redistribution should be achieved through taxation. The Scottish Government may be overseeing a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (universal free services with no means testing) as long as taxation is not sufficiently redistributive.
  • These issues have not become acute since devolution, partly because the Scottish Government budget has been high, and the independence agenda has postponed some difficult debates on new budget priorities. However, they are likely to become more pressing as budgets fall and organisations compete for scarcer resources.

Current issues: more powers, more accountability?

These issues are important right now, because the Smith Commission is currently considering the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament/ Government:

  • A focus on policies such as ‘prevention’ should prompt us to consider how to align priorities and powers. The parallel is with economic policy, in which a key concern relates to the alignment of fiscal powers with monetary union. With prevention, we should ask what’ more powers’ would be used for. For example, would the Scottish Government seek to address health and education inequalities by addressing income inequalities? If so, what powers could be devolved to address this issue without undermining that broader question of macroeconomic coherence?
  • A focus on shared powers raises new issues about accountability. As things stand, accountability is already a problem in relation to outcomes based measures and the devolution of policies to local public bodies. In a ‘Westminster’ style system, we are used to the idea of government accountability to the public via ministers accounting to Parliament, or directly via elections. Yet, if the responsibility for outcomes is further devolved, and outcomes measures span multiple elections, how can we hold governments to account in a meaningful way? Or, as importantly, if elected policymakers still feel bound by these short-term accountability mechanisms, how can we possibly expect them to commit to policies with short term costs, with pay-offs that may only begin to show fruit after they have retired from office?
  • These issues are further exacerbated by a shared powers model, in which we don’t know where UK government responsibility ends and Scottish Government responsibility begins.

This sort of discussion may prompt us to re-examine the idea of a ‘window of opportunity’ for change, at least when we are discussing vague solutions to complex problems. A window may produce a broad change in policymaker commitment to a policy solution, but that event may only represent the beginning of a long, drawn out process of policy change. We often talk about ‘policy entrepreneurs’ lying in wait to present their pet solutions when the time is right – but, in this case, ‘solution’ may be a rather misleading description of a broad agenda, in which everyone can agree on the aims, but not the objectives.

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Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Public health, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum

This is the 3000 word experimental-album post, and there is also a shorter radio-edit single for the LSE blog. I discussed these issues at my inaugural lecture and the audio is available here:

There was a no vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Almost immediately, David Cameron announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin would take charge of the process to turn broad UK party promises on further devolution into a more detailed plan. I discuss the main issues regarding that plan here, but in this post I want to focus more on the bigger picture, to link the discussion of Scottish devolution to academic work on the ‘universal’ challenges that all governments face:

  • Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland?
  • Can anyone control or influence that process?
  • If not, can we hold them to account?
  • To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?
  • Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

My aim is not to deny that Scottish politics is distinctive, but to argue that its political system, and policy process, shares the same ‘complex government’ features as any country. This may provide a useful sense of perspective after a long period of excitement about one aspect of British politics – which has produced the idea that (a) people know how the Scottish policy process would work after a yes or no vote, and (b) that major constitutional change produces a major change in policy and policymaking. I don’t think that either of those beliefs is true.

I also use the ‘will life go on?’ question, partly to be sarcastic, and partly to show that government and society have an auto-pilot function: while we have been obsessed with the referendum, 500,000 public employees in Scotland have continued delivering public policies out of the public spotlight, and citizens have continued to interact with public services.

In short, my aim is to show you the links between two separate-looking concerns:

Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland and the UK?

You might get the impression from the debate on the referendum that one side knows how Scottish policymaking works; that if you vote yes or no, you guarantee a particular outcome or, at least, guard against a bad outcome. Yet, the policy process is too complex to for anyone understand fully – from the citizen, dipping in and out of political debate, to the policymaker trying to make a difference, and the academics, still confused after decades of study.

Instead, politicians and campaigners find ways to simplify the process enough to understand and explain, while academics like me develop a language to show why we couldn’t possibly understand the process. We focus on five elements which, on their own, show the complexity of policymaking and, combined, make us thoroughly confused:

  1. ‘Bounded rationality’ suggests that policymakers do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, possibilities, solutions, or consequences of their actions. Instead, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics to produce good-enough decisions. They may be ‘goal-oriented’, but also use emotional, intuitive and often unreliable ‘heuristics’ to make decisions quickly. Their attention may lurch dramatically from one issue to another, and they may draw on quick, emotional judgements to treat different social groups as deserving of government benefits or sanctions.
  2. Institutions are the rules, norms, and practices that influence political behaviour. Some are visible and widely understood – such as constitutions – and others are informal, often only understood by a small number of people. These are the rules that organisations develop to run a complex world into something understandable and manageable. Yet, different rules develop in many parts of government, or government ‘silos’, often with little reference to each other. This can produce: unpredictable outcomes when people follow often contradictory rules when they interact; a multiplicity of accountability and performance management processes which do not ‘join up’; and, a convoluted statute book, made more complex by the interaction between laws and regulations designed for devolved, UK and EU matters.
  3. Policy networks show us how policymakers deal with their ability to pay attention to only a fraction of the things for which they are responsible. We begin with the huge reach and responsibilities of governments, producing the potential for ministerial ‘overload’. Governments divide responsibilities into broad sectors and specialist subsectors, and senior policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants. ‘Policy community’ describes the relationships that often develop between the actors responsible for policy decisions and the participants, such as interest groups (and businesses, public sector organisations, and other types of government body), with which they engage. For example, civil servants seek information from groups. Or, they seek legitimacy for their policies through group ‘ownership’. Groups use their resources – based on what they provide (expertise, advice, research) and/ or who they represent (a large membership; an important profession; a high status donor or corporation) – to secure regular access to government. In some cases, the relationships between policymakers and participants endure, they ‘co-produce’ policy, and we use the term ‘governance’ to describe a messy world in which it is difficult to attribute outcomes simply to the decisions of governments. Multi-level governance describes this messy process involving the blurry boundaries between policy produced by elected policymakers and civil servants, and the influence of a wide range of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies.
  4. Ideas are beliefs or ways of thinking. Some ways of thinking are accepted to such an extent that they are taken for granted or rarely challenged (we often call them ‘paradigms’). Others regard new ways of thinking, or new solutions to problems, and the persuasion necessary to prompt other actors to rethink their beliefs. The policy process involves actors competing to raise attention to problems and propose their favoured solutions. Not everyone has the same opportunity. Some can exploit a dominant understanding of the policy problem, while others have to work harder to challenge existing beliefs. A focus on ideas is a focus on power: to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; and, to keep some issues on the agenda at the expense of others.
  5. Context describes a policymaker’s environment. It includes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a political system’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass behaviour. It can refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs – when they enter office. Or, we may identify events, either routine, such as elections, or unanticipated, including social or natural crises or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. In each case, we consider if a policymaker’s environment is in her control and how it influences her decisions. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – examples include major demographic change, the role of technology in driving healthcare demand, climate change, extreme events, and ‘globalisation’. Yet, governments have shown that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time.

Can anyone control or influence that process? If not, can we hold them to account?

Each of these five elements could contribute to a sense of complexity. When combined, they suggest that the world of policymaking is too complex to predict or fully understand. They expose slogans such as ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government as attempts to give the appearance of order to policymaking when we know that policymakers can only pay attention to a small portion of the issues for which they are responsible.

The idea of ‘complex government’ can be used to reject the idea – associated with the ‘Westminster model’ – that power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people in central government. Instead, governments develop strategies to deal with the fact that their powers are rather limited in practice.

Consequently, there is a profoundly important tension between the reality of complex government and the assertion of government control and accountability. Policymakers have to justify their activities with regard to the idea of accountability to the public via ministers and Parliament. We expect ministers to deliver on their promises, and few are brave enough to admit their limitations.

Complex government also prompts us to consider how we can hold policymakers to account if the vast majority of the population does not understand how the policy process works; if policy outcomes seem to emerge in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways, or the allegation of complexity is used to undermine popular participation or obscure accountability. The aim of political reformers, to go beyond representative government and produce more participatory forms of democracy, may solve a general sense of detachment by the political class, and aid the transparency of some aspects of policymaking, but it will not solve this bigger problem.

To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?

Right now, the Scottish Government faces the same task as a large number of countries:

  1. In the aftermath of economic crisis, and reduced budgets, it has to consider how to deliver similar levels of public services – including health, education, emergency services, and housing – at lower cost.
  2. It also seeks to reduce inequalities – albeit without the policy levers that could make the biggest difference.
  3. It needs to find a balance, to address an inescapable trade-off between a degree of uniformity of national policies and local discretion. People understand this problem in different ways; some bemoan the ‘fragmentation’ of public services and the potential for a ‘postcode lottery’, while others identify more positive notions of flexible government, the potential for innovation, and the value of ‘community-led’ policies or individualised, ‘co-produced’, services.
  4. It needs to find a way to ‘join up’ its public services – to make, for example, health speak to education, social work and policing.

As in many countries, one potential solution to all four problems is the idea of ‘prevention’ or ‘early intervention’. Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ are terms used by many governments, and in many policy studies, to describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage. The argument is that too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, and unemployment (and newer problems relating to climate change and anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Yet, as in all countries, it cannot simply make this happen, for three main reasons:

  • Inequalities are often described as ‘wicked’ problems because they seem intractable – because governments do not appear to have the means, or perhaps the ability and willingness, to solve them. For example, health inequalities could be caused largely by income inequality, which the Scottish Government would struggle to address, and the UK Government may be unwilling to address radically. Or, we have a mix of solutions, from the often-innocuous (more spending on pre-school education), to the sensitive (restricting the use of alcohol and tobacco) and the downright controversial (preventing crime before it happens).
  • We are back to the idea of complex government – to address social and economic problems at this scale requires something akin to complete central government control over policies and outcomes. Instead, governments try to find ways to cooperate with a wide range of actors to secure some of their aims while dealing with the unintended consequences of their policies.
  • No one is quite sure what ‘early intervention’ or ‘prevention’ is. It sounds intuitive but, when you get into the details and need to produce a detailed plan, ambiguity and uncertainty replace intuition and a shared understanding of what to do.

So, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this process and they face the same problems as any government: the ability to pay attention to only a small proportion of issues, or to a small proportion of public service activity; the tendency for problems to be processed in government ‘silos’ (by one part of government, not communicating well with others); the potential for policymakers, in different departments or levels of government, to understand and address the policy problem in very different ways; and, ‘complexity’, which suggests that policy outcomes often ‘emerge’ from local action in the absence of central control.

These problems can only be addressed in a limited way by government strategies based on: the use of accountability and performance measures; the encouragement of learning and cooperation between public bodies; and, the development of a professional culture in which many people are committed to the same policy approach.

Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

The Scottish Government addresses this problem in two potentially-distinctive ways:

  • Policymaking culture. Many studies explore the idea of a ‘Scottish policy style’, which refers to the ways in which the Scottish Government makes policy following consultation and negotiation with pressure participants such as interest groups, local government organisations and unions
  • Administrative organisation. Many studies explore a distinctive ‘governance’ style, or a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to other organisations in a meaningful way. It sets a broad national strategy, the National Performance Framework, invites local bodies to produce policies consistent with it, and measures performance using broad, long term outcomes. For example, it now encourages local authorities to cooperate with a range of other bodies in the public sector (including health, enterprise, police, fire and transport), private and ‘third’ sector (mostly voluntary or charitable organisations) via established ‘Community Planning Partnerships’ (CPPs), to produce a ‘strategic vision’ for each local area.

In both cases, we usually find that the comparator is ‘Westminster’. Scotland can do things differently (at least when funding is not a problem) because it is smaller, which allows its government to develop closer relationships with key actors, and develop relatively high levels of trust in other bodies to deliver public services.

So, yes, in the context of all that I have said about governments facing the same challenges, and addressing them in similar ways, the Scottish Government has some distinctive policymaking elements.

What about the Scottish Parliament and other bodies?

Yet, consider the effect of this distinctiveness on the rest of the political system. My description of the policy process should already give the sense that it is driven primarily by government, and that parliament and ‘the people’ don’t play much of a role. What if policymaking follows its current trajectory, with more powers devolved to local authorities and a range of bodies involved in CPPs?

  1. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.
  2. A second consequence of devolving more power locally is interest groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.
  3. These trends may prompt a new agenda on local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.

Conclusion

The conclusion is that, if we focus on the wider policymaking and political process, we should get a stronger sense that a Yes vote or major further devolution would not produce radical change. The idea of giving a Scottish Government the powers to make radical changes to inequalities, public services, and outcomes, should take second stage to the idea that all governments are constrained by a lack of resources to make a quick and fundamental difference to the economy and society. No-one really understands the policy process, and no-one is in the position to control it. Rather, people pay attention to a small number of issues, and work with a large number of other people to negotiate some changes in some areas. This process involves major trade-offs, and the knowledge that attention to a small number of priorities means ignoring the rest.

So, too, should we be sceptical about the idea of a new era of popular participation, sweeping the nation and changing the way we do politics in Scotland. Even the Scottish Parliament struggles to know what happens in the Scottish Government and beyond. Even well-resourced interest groups struggle to keep track of an increasingly devolved system. So, what chance would citizens have if they did not devote their whole lives to politics? We should encourage popular participation, as the right thing to do, but without creating false expectations about the results.

Final note: in the Q&A I mention the Gilmore Girls. To follow up the reference,  see

https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/democracy-max/

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Filed under agenda setting, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

The Scottish Independence Debate: a missed opportunity for political reform?

This post appears on the Crick Centre Blog: http://www.crickcentre.org/blog/scottish-independence-debate-missed-opportunity-political-reform/

It is commonplace to argue that the Scottish independence referendum has reinvigorated political debate: grabbing the attention of people who would normally not engage; producing high TV audiences for debates; and packing the town halls with people hungry for information. Yet, two problems should give us pause for thought. First, public knowledge of the issues is patchy – as expressed in polls as general uncertainty or incorrect answers to specific questions. Second, public attention to a small number of issues – including the future of a currency Union, Scotland’s membership of the EU, Scotland’s NHS, and Trident – comes at the expense of attention to political and policy processes. The referendum on Scottish independence has not produced the same focus on political reform as the referendum on Scottish devolution.

In the lead up to the referendum in 1997, the proposed Scottish Parliament was at the heart of debates on political reform. Elite support for devolution – articulated by political parties, local governments, and ‘civil society’ groups, via the Scottish Constitutional Convention – was built on the idea of a crisis of legitimation, linked to an image of top-down Westminster politics based on the concentration of government power and marginalisation of Parliament and ‘civil society’. Devolution was accompanied by an electoral system designed to diffuse power among parties, and some measures to help put the Scottish Parliament at the centre of new forms of participative and deliberative democracy. The Consultative Steering Group, a cross-party group with members drawn from ‘civil society’, articulated the principles it would seek to uphold: ‘the sharing of power’ between government, parliament and ‘the people’; accountability of government to parliament and the people; accessibility; and, equal opportunity.

Scottish devolution had an important impact in key areas: producing a more transparent legislature, coalition and minority governments, and increasing the representation of women. Yet, it had a limited impact on ‘power sharing’ and accountability. The Scottish system remains part of the ‘Westminster family’, with a traditional focus on the accountability of ministers to the public via Parliament. This outcome became problematic in several respects: Scottish Parliament committees have limited resources to scrutinise policy and question ministers effectively; they rarely engage in meaningful or direct contact with civil servants; they struggle to gather information on the work of public bodies; and, local authorities generally argue that they are accountable to their electorates, not Parliament. Periods of coalition majority (1999-2007), minority (2007-11) and single party majority (2011-) government have reinforced this image of an often-peripheral body. The Scottish Parliament is a powerful body at the heart of accountability on paper, but not in practice.

Nevertheless, there has been no major debate on the role of the Scottish Parliament since it was established in 1999, and no major reforms have taken place. There have been some individual reports, such as ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, but nothing like the scale of the SCC. This lack of attention seems significant for three reasons. First, other Parliaments, such as Westminster, have engaged in modernisation during this period. Second, the lead up to the referendum on independence in 2014 seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit its role within Scotland’s independent or further-devolved political system. Yet, if people have discussed the Scottish Parliament, it is largely to confirm that they have no plans to reform (see footnote 2, citing the Scottish Government’s Scotland’s Future).

Third, the Scottish policy process has changed. The focus of the Scottish Government and its partners has changed markedly, towards the importance of ‘outcomes’, rather than ‘inputs’, as the key measure of government success. The Scottish Government plays an overarching role in policymaking: it sets a broad strategy and invites a large number of public bodies to carry it out. Ministers devolve most day to day policymaking to civil servants. The Scottish Government has also moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It encourages localism, respecting the competing mandate of elected local authorities and encouraging them to work with other public bodies through community planning partnerships. This is not a recent event; it has been the approach of the Scottish Government at least as far back as the National Performance Framework, established in 2007, to provide a strategic framework for policy outcomes and invite a range of public bodies to meet its aims.

Until recently, the Scottish Parliament did not respond to these changes. Its procedures and activities are generally focused on inputs to the political system. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees have devoted two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. In many ways, its activities do not seem to match the hopes of the Consultative Steering Group.

Consequently, like Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is part of an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. Yet, as in Westminster, this simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. The Scottish Government oversees a complex public sector, with a large number of accountability mechanisms, most of which do not involve the Scottish Parliament. As things stand, this will continue regardless of the vote in the referendum. Policy will continue to be made out of the public and parliamentary spotlight.

 

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Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Scottish Independence: a rejection of Westminster politics?

ICM/ Guardian Poll Table 11: ‘You say you are going to vote Yes/No. Which two or three of the following best describes why you plan to vote that way?’

‘Your feelings about Westminster, and the types of politicians there’ – 51%

Some people are voting Yes to reject ‘Westminster politics’, but what does that mean? Some commentators argue that ‘Westminster’ is a shorthand for England, and that people like Alex Salmond are using it to appeal to anti-English feeling. I don’t think that is what the question is picking up. Rather, it can refer to Westminster as the home of a much-resented ‘political class’ or a type of politics allegedly rejected in Scotland. In both cases, note that Holyrood is not completely free from the same problems – a rejection of ‘Westminster’ does not necessarily produce a rejection of ‘Westminster politics’.

A rejection of the Westminster ‘political class’?

It is difficult to pin down the idea of a political class, but criticisms include: it represents a narrow, self-serving, dishonest political elite, which is out of touch with the public and populated increasingly by party worthies with no experience of the real world. During the 2014 European Parliament elections, Nigel Farage (UKIP leader, 2nd May 2014) used this image to encourage people to reject Westminster politicians:

We’ve just about had enough of a career class of politician … Look at the three so-called ‘big parties’ and look at their front benches. They are made up of people who go to the same handful of schools, they all go to Oxford, they all get a degree in PPE … then they all get a job as a researcher in a political office, they become Members of Parliament at 27 or 28, Cabinet ministers in their early 40s, and I put it to you that this country is now run by a bunch of college kids who have never done a proper day’s work in their lives.

So, the problem can be anything from their flawed characters, their limited roots in local constituencies, their inexperience of the real world, and that they do not reflect the social background of the voting population. I argue, in the UK context, that it is difficult to reconcile these four arguments to produce one strategy for political reform. Instead, different bodies do different things. Westminster has introduced new rules to address the expenses scandal in 2009. The Conservatives and UKIP prioritize the recruitment of people who have proved themselves in business, while Labour seeks to improve the representation of women. There are fewer explicit attempts to address other kinds of background, such as the far greater likelihood of MPs to have attended private schools and Oxbridge than the rest of the public.

The Scottish Parliament had its own mini-expenses scandal before Westminster, which allowed it to reform and avoid the same kind of fallout in 2009. In terms of social background, the main difference has been the recruitment of women, with the first elections in 1999 producing a proportion of 37.2%, rising to 39.5% in 2003, before falling to 33.3% in 2007. The figure of 34.9% in 2011 is not brilliant, but it tops the 22% in Westminster 2010. The difference is particularly pronounced among Labour, with devolution providing the opportunity (largely through twinned constituencies) to reach parity in 1999. There have often been fewer opportunities for ethnic minority candidates, although there was some progress in 2007 and in 2011. There is the same tendency to recruit from jobs linked directly to politics, but MSPs are less likely to have been privately educated or attend Oxbridge (although there is a Glasgow/ Edinburgh equivalent).

A rejection of Westminster politics?

A rejection of ‘old Westminster’ was key to the encouragement of ‘new Scottish politics’ in the run up to devolution in 1999. Devolution was sold largely as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’, when Scotland voted Labour but received a Conservative UK Government (the more recent, similar, phrase is ‘Scotland should get the government it voted for’). There was a residual feeling among devolution supporters that a successful ‘yes’ vote in the 1979 referendum would have saved Scotland from the worst excesses of Thatcher rule from 1979-90 and Conservative rule from 1979-97. Yet, devolution also came during a new era involving a more general mistrust in Westminster politics, and so political reform went hand in hand with constitutional reform.

According to this new politics narrative, the image of the UK Government was top-down and impositional, which contrasted with the image of Scotland as a place with a strong tradition of collective action and consensus politics. So, devolution would come hand in hand with new ways to foster that approach to politics. The devolution agenda produced expectations about new forms of participation (such as a civic forum, and a new and improved petitions system) and more consensual policymaking between parties (prompted in part by electoral reform and the greater likelihood of coalition and minority government), or between parliament and the executive.

However, it didn’t really work out like that. In many ways, Scottish politics represents business as usual, with very few examples of new (and effective) forms of participation or new relationships between parties. The government still governs and we still have government-versus-opposition politics. To a great extent, this has been true regardless of the kind of government: majority coalition (Labour/ Lib Dem) 1999-2007, minority SNP 2007-11 and majority SNP now. You can hear some people bemoaning the majority SNP’s attitude …

… but they seem to forget what it was like from 1999. The majority coalition government acted very much like a majoritarian Westminster government. Labour sought strength and stability in Parliament by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, to maintain a majority of votes to ensure its legislative programme, avoid motions of no confidence, and avoid having to rely on the SNP (some people have lifted the phrase ‘fear and loathing’ to describe this attitude).

Minority government made less of a difference than many expected. The SNP was more vulnerable to defeat and no confidence motions, but it formed coalitions as and when required (often with the Scottish Conservative) and otherwise produced most of its priorities – with key exceptions, including its favoured referendum bill – without recourse to Parliament, using finance, existing legislation, and its relationship with key organizations such as local authorities.

Throughout this time, new forms of participation either died a slow death (the Scottish Civic Forum) or represented a fairly peripheral part of public policy (petitions process). There has been little else to write home about. Indeed, the fact that bodies such as the ERS argue for the introduction of new forms of participation, 15 years on, tells you something about the lack of meaningful public participation after devolution.

Rejecting Westminster – does it mean embracing Holyrood?

Overall, devolution has allowed the parties, to some extent, to produce something different to Westminster – but independence would not necessarily produce a new and improved political class. Representation takes work, and a commitment by each political party, that we have yet to see. Independence presents a ‘window of opportunity’ to address social background, but that opportunity largely disappears after the first election.

Similarly, as things stand, there is no real prospect of change in the political process. There is a good chance that the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament relationship will remain and that political parties will continue to piss each other off – and wait for their turn in government – rather than engage in consensus politics. In my opinion, meaningful political reform has been almost absent from the referendum debate.

So, people may reject Westminster politics in the ballot box, only to find that they are stuck with a form of Westminster-light politics at Holyrood. There is a lot of talk about, somehow, harnessing all this public energy and attention to politics prompted by the referendum. Yet, I’ll be jiggered if I know how.

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