Understanding Public Policy (in 1000 and 500 words)
By Professor Paul Cairney
Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling. This is the series of podcasts that accompany a series of blog posts (1000 word and 500 word) that accompany the book Understanding Public Policy. See:paulcairney.wordpress.com/500-words/
The eight (and final) of a series of podcasts tying together multiple 500 Words posts. They’ll sound a bit different from the 1000 Words podcasts because I recorded them in front of our MPP students.
This brief lecture is on the role of policymaking environments and the theories that describe them (also based on text in Chapter 13):
"The second part of our universal story is that people respond to bounded rationality within complex policymaking environments. We can describe this environment with reference to five or six constituent parts (John, 2003: 495; Heikkila and Cairney, 2018). First, there are many actors – including policymakers and influencers – spread across many types of policymaking venues. Second, each venue contains its own ‘institutions’, or formal and informal rules governing behaviour. Third, each venue can produce its own networks of policymakers and influencers, and the lines between formal responsibility and informal influence are blurry. Fourth, actors in each venue draw on a dominant set of ideas or beliefs about the nature of policy problems and the acceptable range of solutions. Fifth, natural, social, and economic factors limit policymakers’ abilities to address and solve policy problems. Finally, routine and non-routine events help set the policy agenda and influence the resources available to actors. Combined, these factors produce the broad sense that policymaking environments – or, in some accounts, ‘context’ or ‘systems’ – constrain and facilitate action and are out of the control (or even understanding) of individual actors. Figure 13.1 provides the simplest way to visualize these concepts, partly to compete with the visual simplicity of the policy cycle while maintaining the assumption of complexity"
Policy in 500 Words: The Policy Process
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Policy Process
Policy in 500 Words: if the policy cycle does not exist, what do we do?
(see also 12 things to know about studying public policy and 5 images of the policy process).
The seventh of a series of podcasts tying together 500 Words posts.
This lecture is on the distinction between comprehensive/ bounded rationality and how policy actors deal with bounded rationality. It is based on text in Chapter 13, including:
"Theories also describe different ways in which responses to bounded rationality affect policymaking behaviour:
• Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, and policymaking organizations struggle to process all policy-relevant information. They prioritize some issues and information and ignore the rest (Chapter 9).
Policy in 500 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory
• Some ways of understanding and describing the world dominate policy debate, helping some actors and marginalizing others.
Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge
• Policy actors see the world through the lens of their beliefs. Beliefs allow them to select and interpret policy-relevant information and decide who to trust.
Policy in 500 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework
• Actors engage in ‘trial-and-error strategies’ or use their ‘social tribal instincts’ to rely on ‘different decision heuristics to deal with uncertain and dynamic environments’
Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity
Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games
Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems
• Policy audiences are vulnerable to manipulation when they rely on other actors to help them understand the world. Actors tell simple stories to persuade their audience to see a policy problem and its solution in a particular way
Policy in 500 Words: the Narrative Policy Framework
• Policymakers draw on quick emotional judgements, and social stereotypes, to propose benefits to some target populations and punishments for others
Policy in 500 Words: Social Construction and Policy Design
• Institutions include formal rules but also the informal understandings that ‘exist in the minds of the participants and sometimes are shared as implicit knowledge rather than in an explicit and written form’
Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism
• Policy learning is a political process in which actors engage selectively with information, not a rational search for truth
Three ways to encourage policy learning
The sixth of a series of podcasts tying together multiple 500 Words posts. They’ll sound a bit different from the 1000 Words podcasts because I recorded them in front of our MPP students.
This lecture is on using ‘evolutionary theory‘ to connect Multiple Streams Analysis, Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, and Complexity Theory
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution (see also cairney-2013-policy-politics-evolution.pdf (wordpress.com) )
Policy in 500 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis and Policy Entrepreneurs
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis
What is a policy entrepreneur?
Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs – a blog post and paper on how entrepreneurs deal with ‘organized anarchy’
Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis? – introduces an article by Michael Jones and me on MSA studies
Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2016) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach’ Policy Studies Journal, 44, 1, 37-58 PDF (Annex to Cairney Jones 2016) (special issue of PSJ)
Paul Cairney and Nikos Zahariadis (2016) ‘Multiple streams analysis’ in Zahariadis, N. (eds) Handbook of Public Policy Agenda-Setting (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF
Policy in 500 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems
Complex systems and systems thinking
The fifth of a series of podcasts tying together multiple 500 Words posts. They’ll sound a bit different from the 1000 Wordspodcasts because I recorded them in front of our MPP students.
This lecture is on Policy in 500 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework
Here is the ACF story.
People engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form advocacy coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. The action takes place within a subsystem devoted to a policy issue, and a wider policymaking process that provides constraints and opportunities to coalitions.
The policy process contains multiple actors and levels of government. It displays a mixture of intensely politicized disputes and routine activity. There is much uncertainty about the nature and severity of policy problems. The full effects of policy may be unclear for over a decade
Policy actors use their beliefs to understand, and seek influence in, this world. Beliefs about how to interpret the cause of and solution to policy problems, and the role of government in solving them, act as a glue to bind actors together within coalitions.
If the policy issue is technical and humdrum, there may be room for routine cooperation. If the issue is highly charged, then people romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.
The outcome is often long-term policymaking stability and policy continuity because the ‘core’ beliefs of coalitions are unlikely to shift and one coalition may dominate the subsystem for long periods.
There are two main sources of change ... see Policy in 500 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework for the rest
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework
The fourth of a series of podcasts tying together multiple 500 Words posts. They’ll sound a bit different from the 1000 Words podcasts because I recorded them in front of our MPP students.
This brief lecture is on the relationship between rational choice theory, game theory, the IAD, the SES, and Ecology of Games
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: game theory and thought experiments
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons
Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework
Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games
The third of a series of podcasts tying together multiple 500 Words posts. They’ll sound a bit different from the 1000 Words podcasts because I recorded them in front of our MPP students.
This brief lecture describes bounded rationality and its implications for power/ knowledge, the NPF and SCPD
Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity
Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge
Policy in 500 Words: the Narrative Policy Framework
Policy in 500 Words: Social Construction and Policy Design
The second of a series of podcasts tying together multiple 500 Words posts. They’ll sound a bit different from the 1000 Words podcasts because I recorded them in front of our MPP students (although, just to confuse you, this podcasts connects to a 1000 Word post) .
This brief lecture is on multi-centric policymaking, as described fully in Making Policy in a Complex World.
From Policy Concept in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking
Many theories in this 1000 words series describe multiple policymaking venues. They encourage us to give up on the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful national central government. Instead, there are many venues in which to make authoritative choices, each contributing to what we call policy.
The word ‘multi-centric’ (coined by Professor Tanya Heikkila, with me and Dr Matt Wood) does not suggest that every venue is of equal importance or power. Rather, it prompts us not to miss something important by focusing too narrowly on one single (alleged) centre of authority.
To some extent, multi-centric policymaking results from choice. Many federal political systems have constitutions that divide power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or give some protection to subnational governments. Many others have become ‘quasi-federal’ more organically, by sharing responsibilities with supranational and subnational governments. In such cases, there is explicit choice to distribute power and share responsibility for making policy (albeit with some competition to assert power or shuffle-off responsibility).
However, for the most part, this series helps explain the necessity of multi-centric policymaking ...
For more, see Policy Concept in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking
The first of a series of podcasts tying together multiple 500 Words posts. They’ll sound a bit different from the 1000 Words podcasts because I recorded them in front of our MPP students.
This brief lecture is on defining and measuring public policy and policy change. The relevant posts are:
Policy in 500 Words: what is public policy and why does it matter?
Policy in 500 Words: how much does policy change?
The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. We then conclude that there is no single, satisfying, definition of public policy. Instead, there are many which accentuate different aspects of the policy process, prompting you to consider the additional questions you have to ask to make sense of policy.
Why do we ask more questions?
Think about how to research a specific policy issue. I’ll use the example ‘what is tobacco policy?’ to illustrate the importance of additional questions:
Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? Many governments have made a commitment to tobacco control, but there is immense variation in substantive commitment across the globe. Since initial commitment is not a great guide to what happens next, you miss a lot if you equate policy with initial choices.
Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? The history of tobacco control suggests that policymakers were not sure of the effect of their policy instruments. We study outcomes because they may not resemble the initial policy aims (however committed a government is).
What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Some actors work with elected policymakers to make policy, and others make key decisions as they carry policy out. So, we miss a lot if we ignore the role of unelected actors.
Does public policy include what policymakers do not do? Tobacco control demonstrates the importance of power exercised to keep important issues off the public, media and government agenda to slow down policy change. We miss a lot if we only focus on relatively visible choices.
[see Policy in 500 Words: what is public policy and why does it matter? for more]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 words: Critical Policy Studies and the Narrative Policy Framework
‘Critical policy analysis’ (or studies’) is a broad term to describe a wide collection of texts, and it is difficult to come up with a definitive account, beyond the idea that it is perhaps based on the equally broad description ‘post-positivism’ and methods such as discourse analysis (also note the phrase ‘argumentative turn’). However, a discussion of ‘post-positivism’ is incredibly valuable even if you wouldn’t see yourself as post-positivist.
One key account of the intellectual basis of this literature is by Fischer when he describes the failings of ‘positivist’ policy sciences to describe, aid and explain policymaking (at least if measured against certain, rather unrealistic, hopes). In particular, he takes to task the idea of objective science in which we can separate facts from values and accumulate knowledge using scientific tenets such as hypothesis generation, revision and falsification. This argument ties in to one of the big questions about the nature of the world and the extent to which it exists independently of our knowledge or experience of it. Fischer stresses the social context in which knowledge is produced, to argue that scientists do not produce what can meaningfully be called ‘objective truth’. Instead, they are part of communities which produce knowledge according to rules, and that some professions, following particular rules, receive more respect than others in a notional hierarchy of knowledge production. This shifts our focus to the idea of ‘interpreting’ the social world rather than uncovering its truths, and provides a case for considering the value of many (often less respected) approaches even if they do not follow the same ‘positivist’ rules.
This is an important conclusion when we consider that many of the theories discussed in the ‘1000 word’ series would be described by Fischer as ‘positivist’. In particular, debates between Fischer and Paul Sabatier (the ACF) were based largely on their very-different views about how you do science and which approaches deserve support in published academic texts.
On that basis, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) is interesting because a key aim is to take insights from critical policy analysis, about the importance of interpreting and framing the world, and use them to produce work that would satisfy the kinds of scientific requirements associated with Sabatier. They argue that, although the study of policy ‘narratives’ (often using discourse analysis) is associated strongly with post-positivist scholarship, they can be examined in a ‘systematic empirical manner’ – and that the study of narratives can be an important way to hep reconcile (to some extent) positivist/ post-positivist studies.
for more see Policy Concepts in 1000 words: Critical Policy Studies and the Narrative Policy Framework
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking
Psychology is at the heart of policymaking, but the literature on psychology is not always at the heart of policy theory. Most theories identify ‘bounded rationality’ which, on its own, is little more than a truism: people do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, all possibilities, all solutions, or anticipate all consequences of their actions. Consequently, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics – perhaps to produce ‘good-enough’ decisions. This is where psychology comes in, to:
Describe the thought processes that people use to turn a complex world into something simple enough to understand and/ or respond to; and
To compare types of thought process, such as (a) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour and (b) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly.
Where does policy theory come in? It seeks to situate these processes within a wider examination of policymaking systems and their environments, identifying the role of:
A wide range of actors making choices.
Institutions, as the rules, norms, and practices that influence behaviour.
Policy networks, as the relationships between policymakers and the ‘pressure participants’ with which they consult and negotiate.
Ideas – a broad term to describe beliefs, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems.
Context and events, to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s environment is in her control or how it influences her decisions.
Putting these approaches together is not easy. It presents us with an important choice regarding how to treat the role of psychology within explanations of complex policymaking systems – or, at least, on which aspect to focus.
Our first choice is to focus specifically on micro-level psychological processes, to produce hypotheses to test propositions regarding individual thought and action. There are many from which to choose, although from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (p 20), we can identify a basic distinction between two kinds ‘System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations … often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration’. Further, system 1 can be related to a series of cognitive shortcuts which develop over time as people learn from experience, including:
For more see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories
The combination of multiple theories in policy studies is like a valence issue in politics: few would disagree with the idea, largely because the sentiment is rather vague. Who would not want to combine the insights of a wide range of theories and studies to advance our knowledge? The more problematic and debatable part of this task relates to the details: how do we do it? I outline three main ways in which scholars address this issue and highlight the problems that may arise in each case:
Synthesis. We combine the insights of multiple theories, concepts or models to produce a single theory. One key problem is that when we produce a synthetic theory, from a range of other theories or concepts, we have to assume that the component parts of this new hybrid are consistent with each other. Yet, if you scratch the surface of many concepts – such as ‘new institutionalism’ or ‘policy networks’ – you find all sorts of disagreement about the nature of the world, how our concepts relate to it and how we gather knowledge of it. There are also practical problems regarding our assumption that the authors of these concepts have the same thing in mind when they describe things like ‘punctuated equilibrium’. In other words, imagine that you have constructed a new theory based on the wisdom of five other people. Then, get those people in the same room and you will find that they will share all sorts of – often intractable – disagreements with each other. In that scenario, could you honestly state that your theory was based on accumulated knowledge?
The ‘Complementary’ Approach. In this case, you accept that people have these differences and so you accommodate them – you entertain a range of theories/ concepts and explore the extent to which they explain the same thing in different ways. This is a popular approach associated with people like Allison) and used by several others to compare policy events. One key problem with this approach is that it is difficult to do full justice to each theory. Most theories have associated methods which are labour intensive and costly, putting few in the position to make meaningful comparisons. Instead, the comparisons tend to be desktop exercises based on a case study and the authors’ ability to consider how each theory would explain it.
The ‘Contradictory’ Approach. In that context, another option is to encourage the independence of such theories.
For more see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer
We can generate new insights on policymaking by connecting the dots between many separate concepts. However, don’t underestimate some major obstacles or how hard these dot-connecting exercises are to understand. They may seem clear in your head, but describing them (and getting people to go along with your description) is another matter. You need to set out these links clearly and in a set of logical steps. I give one example – of the links between evidence and policy transfer – which I have been struggling with for some time.
In this post, I combine three concepts – policy transfer, bounded rationality, and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ – to identify the major dilemmas faced by central government policymakers when they use evidence to identify a successful policy solution and consider how to import it and ‘scale it up’ within their jurisdiction. For example, do they use randomised control trials (RCTs) to establish the effectiveness of interventions and require uniform national delivery (to ensure the correct ‘dosage’), or tell stories of good practice and invite people to learn and adapt to local circumstances? I use these examples to demonstrate that our judgement of good evidence influences our judgement on the mode of policy transfer.
Insights from each concept
From studies of policy transfer, we know that central governments (a) import policies from other countries and/ or (b) encourage the spread (‘diffusion’) of successful policies which originated in regions within their country: but how do they use evidence to identify success and decide how to deliver programs?
From studies of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM), we know that providers of scientific evidence identify an ‘evidence-policy gap’ in which policymakers ignore the evidence of a problem and/ or do not select the best evidence-based solution: but can policymakers simply identify the ‘best’ evidence and ‘roll-out’ the ‘best’ evidence-based solutions?
To read on, see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer
see also Teaching evidence based policy to fly: how to deal with the politics of policy learning and transfer
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning
‘Policy learning’ describes the use of knowledge to inform policy decisions. That knowledge can be based on information regarding the current problem, lessons from the past or lessons from the experience of others. This is a political, not technical or objective, process (for example, see the ACF post). ‘Policy transfer’ describes the transfer of policy solutions or ideas from one place to another, such as by one government importing the policy in another country (note related terms such as ‘lesson-drawing’, ‘policy diffusion’ and ‘policy convergence’ – transfer is a catch-all, umbrella, term). Although these terms can be very closely related (one would hope that a government learns from the experiences of another before transferring policy) they can also operate relatively independently. For example, a government may decide not to transfer policy after learning from the experience of another, or it may transfer (or ‘emulate’) without really understanding why the exporting country had a successful experience (see the post on bounded rationality).
The descriptive/ empirical side asks these sorts of questions:
From where are lessons drawn? In the US, the diffusion literature examines which states tend to innovate or emulate. Some countries are also known as innovators in certain fields – such as Sweden and the social democratic state, Germany on inflation control and the UK on privatization. The US (or its states) tends to be a major exporter of ideas. Some countries often learn consistently from the same source (such as the UK from the US). Studies tend to highlight the reasons for borrowing from certain countries – for example, they share an ideology, common problems or policy conditions. ‘Globalization’ has also reduced practical barriers to learning between countries.
Who is involved? Apart from the usual suspects (elected officials, civil servants, interest groups), we can identify the role of federal governments (for states), international organizations (for countries), ‘policy entrepreneurs’ (who use their experience in one country to sell that policy to another – such as the Harvard Business School professor travelling the world selling ‘new public management’), international networks of experts (who feed up ideas to their national governments), multinational corporations (who encourage the ‘race to the bottom’, or the reduction of taxes and regulations in many countries), and other countries (such as the US).
For more see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance
A stark comparison between the ‘Westminster Model’ (WM) and Multi-level Governance (MLG) allows us to consider the difference between accountable government and the messy real world of policymaking. The WM may be used as an ideal-type to describe how power is centralized in the hands of a small number of elites:
We rely on representative, not participatory, democracy.
The plurality electoral system exaggerates the parliamentary majority of the biggest party and allows it to control Parliament.
A politically neutral civil service acts according to ministerial wishes.
The prime minister controls cabinet and ministers.
We may also identify an adversarial style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. 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. Power is centralized and government policy is made from the top-down. In turn, the government is accountable to public, via Parliament, on the assumption that it is powerful, responsible and takes responsibility for public policy.
In contrast, MLG suggests that power is spread widely across the political system:
Vertically – at supranational, national, regional and local levels ((hence multi-level).
Horizontally – shared between government departments and a range of non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental (quango) bodies (hence governance rather than government).
The hook is that we are witnessing a major transformation: from national governing institutions to supranational and sub-national governing institutions; and, from central government to the different levels of government and non-governmental organizations that interact with them. MLG identifies blurred boundaries between formal and informal sources of authority which make it difficult to identify clear-cut decisions or power relations.
[for more see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas
Compare with Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge
Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas. These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. A good rule of thumb, from classic studies, is that the more profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe.
Dahl argued that elitism was unobservable; that it was ‘virtually impossible to disprove’ the idea that inequalities in society translate into systematic advantages across the political system. Dahl’s classic statement is that, ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can [or does] get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’. To demonstrate this power requires the identification of A’s: resources, means to exploit those resources, willingness to engage in political action; the amount of power exerted (or threatened) by A and the effect of A’s action on B. Dahl identified ‘key political choices’ involving a significant conflict of preferences – suggesting that the powerful are those that benefit from ‘concrete outcomes’. He identified inequalities in many areas but no overall, coordinated, control of the policy process. His work is often described as ‘pluralist’.
Subsequent debates were based on a critique of pluralist methods. Bachrach and Baratz argued that the ‘second face’ of power is exercised before Dahl’s ‘key political choices’. Power is not simply about visible conflicts. It can relate to two barriers to engagement. First, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. In such cases, power and powerlessness relates to the inability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved. Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, groups may exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others. Issues on the agenda may be ‘safe’ – more attention to them means less attention to the imbalances of power within society. Schattschneider argues (in A Realist’s View of Democracy) that the structures of government, such as legislative procedures controlling debate, reinforce this problem when determining which conflicts receive attention and which are ignored.
The ‘third dimension’ of power suggests that people or organizations can be powerful without appearing to act.
[see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas for more]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors
We need a way to describe the things that policymakers take into account when they make decisions. We also need a way to categorise these things in order of importance, from factors that simply catch their eye, to factors that seem to be out of their control and/ or force them into making particular choices.
For example, ‘policy context’ or ‘structural factors’ may be used to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s ‘environment’ is in her control. It can refer to the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass social attitudes and behaviour.
Or, we might refer to‘events’, which can be: routine, such as the elections, or unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, major scientific breakthroughs and technological change (see Weible).
Or, we might refer to policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs (Rose, 1990). The first thing that a new government does is accept responsibility for the decisions made in its name in the past. New policymakers also realise that they are engaging in governing organisations which often have well-established rules, to which they either have to adapt or expend energy to challenge.
Structure and agency
Our challenge is to find a way to incorporate these factors into a convincing account of policymaking.
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems
There is an unnecessary tendency for proponents of complexity theory to say that it is radically new; a scientific revolution; that it will change the way we think about, and study, the natural and social world. It suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down merely into the actions of its constituent parts. The metaphor of a microscope or telescope, in which we zoom in to analyse individual components or zoom out to see the system as a whole, sums up this alleged shift of approach.
Complexity theory has been applied to a wide range of activity, from the swarming behaviour of bees, the weather and the function of the brain, to social and political systems. The argument is that all such systems have common properties, including:
A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.
Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are ampliﬁed (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.
Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.
They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction.
They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.
As you might expect from a theory of many things, the language is vague and needs some interpretation in each field. In the policymaking field, the identification of a complex system is often used to make the following suggestions:
Law-like behaviour is difﬁcult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
Policymaking systems are difﬁcult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies. An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.
On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage
For more see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution
Evolutionary theory is prevalent in policymaking studies and it can be useful if we overcome some initial barriers. First, ‘evolution’ comes with a lot of baggage when we move from a discussion of animals to people. We can blame ‘social-Darwinism’ for the racist/ sexist idea that some people are more evolved than others.
Second, the word ‘evolution’ is used frequently in daily life, and academic studies, without a clear sense of its meaning. When it is used loosely in everyday language, it refers to a long term, gradual process of change. However, evolution can also refer to quick, dramatic change; the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ is that long spells of stability and gradual change are interrupted by relatively short but profound bursts of instability. When we get into the details of studies, there are other sources of potential confusion about, for example, the nature of evolution (does it refer to advancement as well as change?) and the nature of ‘selection’ (do species simply respond blindly to their environments or help create them?).
This sort of confusion can be found in the study of public policy where evolution can refer to a wide range of things, including:
the cumulative, long-term development of policy solutions;
major disruptions in the way that policy makers think about, and try to solve, policy problems;
the maintenance or radical reform of policy-making institutions;
‘emergent’ behaviour within complex systems
the trial-and-error strategies adopted by actors, such as policy entrepreneurs, when adapting to their environment;
the coming together of multiple factors to create the conditions for major policy change (which can be a creative, ‘window of opportunity’ style process, or a destructive, failure-related ‘perfect storm’ style process).
The most prominent theories of politics and policymaking draw on references to evolution in different ways. For example:
To describe these processes as ‘evolutionary’, we should use the language of evolution – variation, selection and retention – to describe and explain outcomes. The idea in the natural world is that certain beings (including humans) want to do at least two things: (1) pass on their genes; (2) cooperate with others to secure resources and share them out to their kith and kin. In the political world, the equivalent is passing on ‘memes’ (as described in the 70s by Richard Dawkins) – the ideas (beliefs, ways of thinking) that we use to understand the world and act within it:
‘Variation’ refers to the different rules adopted by different social groups to foster the collective action required to survive.
‘Selection’ describes the interaction between people and their environments; particular environments may provide an advantage to some groups over others and encourage certain behaviours (or, at least, some groups may respond by adapting their behaviour to their environment).
‘Retention’ describes the ways in which people pass on their genes (memes) to ensure the reproduction of their established rules (we might call them ‘institutions’).
The distinctive aspect of applying evolutionary theory to policymaking relates to the idea of passing on memes through the generations.
For more see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution
See also Policy in 500 Words: Social Construction and Policy Design
The 5000-word version has a detailed guide to further reading.
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations:
The ‘social construction of target populations’ (SCTP) literature identifies:
The value judgements that policymakers express when justifying their agendas to legislatures and the public.
The enduring impact of these value-driven policies beyond the terms of single elections (and often long after they have left office).
Schneider, Ingram and Deleon identify the importance of this process in three main steps.
First, when competing for elected public office, people articulate value judgements and make fundamental choices about which social groups should be treated differently by government bodies. They present arguments for rewarding ‘good’ groups with government support and punishing ‘bad’ groups with sanctions. This description, which may seem rather simplistic, highlights the tendency of policymakers to make quick and superficial judgements, and back up their impressions with selective facts, before distributing rewards and sanctions. There is a crucial ‘fast thinking’ element to policymaking. Policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution.
Second, these judgements can have an enduring ‘feed-forward’ effect: fundamental choices based on values are reproduced in the institutions devoted to policy delivery. Policy designs based on emotionally-driven thinking often become routine and questioned rarely in government.
Third, this decision has an impact on citizens and groups, who participate more or less in politics according to how they are characterised by government. Some groups can become more or less powerful, and categorised differently, if they have the resources to mobilise and challenge the way they are perceived by policymakers (and the media and public). However, this outcome may take decades in the absence of a major event, such as an economic crisis or game-changing election.
Overall, past policies, based on rapid emotional judgements and policymakers’ values, provide key context for policymaking. The distribution of rewards and sanctions is cumulative, influencing future action by signalling to target populations how they are described and will be treated. Social constructions are difficult to overcome, because a sequence of previous policies, based on a particular framing of target populations, produces ‘hegemony’: the public, media and/ or policymakers take this set of values for granted, as normal or natural, and rarely question them when engaging in politics.
[see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations for more]
[see also Policy in 500 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis and Policy Entrepreneurs]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis:
‘Ideas’ are the beliefs we develop and use to understand and interpret the world. Some beliefs are so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we generally take them for granted. Others are more visible – our beliefs about policy problems help us argue for particular solutions. Indeed, ‘policy solution’ is closer to the intuitive meaning of ‘I have an idea’. Kingdon grapples with this dual role for (or meaning of) ‘ideas’ by considering how policy solutions are received within government or wider policy networks. His starting point is the phrase ‘an idea whose time has come’, which implies ‘an irresistible movement that sweeps over our politics and our society, pushing aside everything that might stand in its path’. He argues that such notions are misleading because they ignore the conditions that have to be satisfied – during a brief ‘window of opportunity’ – before a policy will change significantly. Three separate ‘streams’ must come together at the same time:
Problem stream – attention lurches to a policy problem. Problems are policy issues which are deemed to require attention. There are no objective indicators to determine which problems deserve attention, and perceptions of problems can change quickly. Problems get attention based on how they are ‘framed’ or defined by participants who compete for attention – using evidence to address uncertainty and persuasion to address ambiguity. In some cases, issues receive attention because of a crisis or change in the scale of the problem. Only a tiny fraction of problems receive policymaker attention. Getting attention is a major achievement which must be acted upon quickly, before attention shifts elsewhere. This might be achieved by demonstrating that a well thought out solution already exists.
Policy stream – a solution to that problem is available. While attention lurches quickly from issue to issue, viable solutions involving major policy change take time to develop. Kingdon describes ideas in a ‘policy primeval soup’, evolving as they are proposed by one actor then reconsidered and modified by a large number of participants (who may have to be ‘softened up’ to new ideas). To deal with the disconnect between lurching attention and slow policy development, they develop widely-accepted solutions in anticipation of future problems, then find the right time to exploit or encourage attention to a relevant problem.
Politics stream – policymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy. They have to pay attention to the problem and be receptive to the proposed solution. They may supplement their own beliefs with their perception of the ‘national mood’ and the feedback they receive from interest groups and political parties. In some cases, only a change of government may be enough to provide that motive.
[see post for more]
[compare with the more recent Policy in 500 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework:
Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith developed the ACF to describe and explain a complicated policymaking environment which:
contains multiple actors and levels of government;
produces decisions despite high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity;
takes years to turn decisions into outcomes; and,
processes policy in very different ways. Some issues involve intensely politicized disputes containing many actors. Others are treated as technical and processed routinely, largely by policy specialists, out of the public spotlight.
The ACF’s key terms are:
Beliefs. People engage in politics to translate their beliefs into action. There are three main types. ‘Core’ are fundamental and unlikely to change (like a ‘religious conversion’) but too broad to guide detailed policy (such as one’s views on human nature). ‘Policy core’ are more specific (such as the proper balance between government and market) but still unlikely to change. ‘Secondary Aspects’ relate to the implementation of policy. They are the most likely to change, as people learn about the effects of, say, regulations versus economic incentives.
Advocacy coalition. A coalition contains, ‘people from a variety of positions (elected and agency officials, interest group leaders, researchers) who share a particular belief system’ and ‘who show a non-trivial degree of coordinated activity over time’.
Policy learning. Coalitions learn from policy implementation. Learning takes place through the lens of deeply held beliefs, producing different interpretations of facts and events in different coalitions. Learning is a political process – coalitions selectively interpret information and use it to exercise power. In some cases, there are commonly accepted ways to measure policy performance. In others, it is a battle of ideas where coalitions ‘exaggerate the influence and maliciousness of opponents’. Technical information is often politicised and a dominant coalition can successfully challenge the data supporting policy change for years
Subsystems. Coalitions compete with each other to dominate policymaking in subsystems. Subsystems are issue-specific networks. They are pervasive in government because elected officials devolve policymaking responsibility to bureaucrats who, in turn, consult routinely with participants such as interest groups. While the literature on ‘policy communities’ and ‘monopolies’ describes the potential for insulated relationships between a small number of actors, the ACF identifies many actors in each coalition
Policy broker and sovereign. Subsystems contain actors who mediate between coalitions and make authoritative decisions (although policymakers may be members of coalitions).
Policy change over a ‘decade or more’. We are generally talking about relationships, policies and change over a full ‘policy cycle’.
Enlightenment. Core beliefs are ‘normative’ and ‘largely beyond direct empirical challenge’; unlikely to change during routine policy learning in one cycle. However, they may change over decades.
[see post for more]
Note: PET has changed a lot, as reflected in Policy in 500 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory:
Policymaking can appear stable for long periods, only to be destabilised profoundly. Most policies can stay the same for long periods while a small number change quickly and dramatically. Or, policy change in one issue may be minimal for decades, followed by profound change which sets policy on an entirely new direction. The aim of Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory is to measure and explain these long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. The key concepts are:
Bounded rationality. Policymakers cannot consider all problems and their solutions at all times. For example, government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. They ignore most and promote few to the top of their agenda.
Disproportionate attention. Policymakers often ignore issues or pay them an unusual amount of attention. The lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change. Intense periods of attention to some issues may prompt new ways to understand and seek to solve old problems.
Power and agenda setting. Some groups try to maintain their privileged position by minimizing attention to the policy solutions which benefit them. Others seek to expand attention, to encourage new audiences and participants, to generate debate and new action.
Framing. Groups compete to influence how a problem is framed (understood, defined, categorized and measured) and therefore solved by policymakers. For example, it may be framed as a problem that has largely been solved, leaving the technical details of implementation to experts, or a crisis which should generate widespread attention and immediate action.
Policy monopolies. Groups may enjoy a ‘monopoly of understanding’ when policymakers accept their preferred way to frame an issue for long periods, perhaps even taking it for granted. This monopoly may be ‘institutionalised’ when rules are created and resources devoted to solving the policy problem on those terms.
Venue shopping. To challenge a monopoly in one venue (such as the executive, or one type of government at a particular level), groups may seek an audience in another (such as the legislature, the courts, or another type or level of government).
In Agendas and Instability (1993; 2009), Baumgartner and Jones, use a case study approach to examine these processes in detail.
[see the post for more, and compare with Policy in 500 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing:
‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.
For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.
However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:
Intentional framing and cognition.
The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):
We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.
In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).
In policy theory, framing studies focus on ambiguity: there are many ways in which we can understand and define the same policy problem (note terms such as ‘problem definition’ and a ‘policy image’). Therefore, actors exercise power to draw attention to, and generate support for, one particular understanding at the expense of others. They do this with simple stories or the selective presentation of facts, often coupled with emotional appeals, to manipulate the ways in which we process information.
2.Frames as structures
Note: there is a separate EBPM podcast series and page EBPM | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy (wordpress.com)
Note: this is a longer lecture, and one of many (see also ANZSOG | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy (wordpress.com) and The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking: ANZSOG talks)
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’:
The term ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’ is in common currency in media and social media. It often represents an ideal which governments fail to reach. A common allegation is that policymakers ignore and/ or do not understand or act on the correct evidence. However, if you look at policy studies, you tend to find highly critical discussions of the concept, and the suggestion that people are naïve if they think that EBPM is even a possibility. Some of this is simply to do with a lack of clarity about what EBPM means. Some of it is about the claim in policy studies that people don’t understand the policy process when they make EBPM claims. We can break this down into 2 common arguments in policy studies:
1. EBPM is an ideal-type, only useful to describe what does not and cannot happen
EBPM should be treated in the same way as the ideal-type ‘comprehensively rational policymaker’. By identifying the limits to comprehensive rationality, we explore the implications of ‘bounded rationality’. For example, by stating that policymakers do not have the ability to gather and analyse all information, we identify the heuristics and short cuts they use to gather what they can. This may reveal their biases towards certain sources of information – which may be more important than the nature of the evidence itself. By stating that they can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of the issues for which they are responsible, we identify which issues they put to the top of the agenda and which they ignore. Again, there is a lot more to this process than the nature of the evidence – it is about how problems are ‘framed’ by their advocates and how they are understood by the policymakers held responsible for solving them.
2. Scientists use evidence to highlight policy problems, but not to promote policy change
[... see the post for more]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Networks, sub-government and communities:
‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process.
... [but what does network mean? ...]
Let’s explore this potentially-confusing combination of ‘universal’ and specific meanings by beginning with the ‘logic’ of policy communities:
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.
Broadly speaking, this logic is likely to hold in many countries and eras (including the current ‘age of austerity’), but this level of abstraction also masks important variations over time and in different countries. For example, my bullet-point description derives largely from studies of the UK from the late 1970s. Their main targets were studies of Westminster politics, ‘centring on an adversarial parliamentary arena where successive changes of government would lead to major changes in policy imposed from the top down’ (Jordan and Cairney, 2013: 236). Instead, policy communities are pervasive and most decisions are beyond the reach, or attention, of ministers.
[see the post for more ...]
Please note: this discussion is based largely on the 1st edition of Understanding Public Policy. The second edition devotes most of chapter 7 to
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons (podcast in S2 500 words series] [see also Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD
‘Rational choice theory’ is easy to caricature and dismiss, but difficult to define and describe, because it refers to a very broad and diverse body of work. So, we can identify some broad features but recognise that some studies display them more than others:
Inspiration – the application of ideas and methods from economics to politics.
Approach – models and deductive reasoning. It creates models of the world based on a small number of propositions and a logical examination of their connections.
Assumptions – ‘instrumental rationality’. Individuals fulfil their preferences according to their beliefs regarding the most appropriate means to achieve them. This is an ‘intentional’ explanation of behaviour based on the goals of individuals rather than motivation by ‘habit, tradition, or social appropriateness’*
Aim – to establish how many, or what proportion of, political outcomes one can explain with reference to the choices of individuals under particular conditions.
We can also identify two main types. The first is the abstract work which often involves building models or creating discussions based on openly unrealistic assumptions – for example, people have perfect information and judgement; they can act ‘optimally’ when faced with any situation.
‘Optimally’ is potentially misleading, since it refers to an ability to fulfil their individual preferences, by ranking them in order and being able to fulfil them. It does not necessarily refer to an optimal overall outcome, because things get complicated when many individuals, each seeking to fulfil their preferences, interact. We should also note that ‘rational’ refers to the ability to reason and act on reason (crucially, we do not have to assume that rational beings are selfish beings).
The second type involves more detailed and/ or realistic assumptions regarding the preferences of individuals and how they relate to specific institutional settings. In this case, the aim is to help explain outcomes.
The first type of work is a logical exercise, to help think through problems and often produce ‘paradoxical results’. Famous examples include:
[see the post for more]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism:
[see also Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism]
[see also Policy concepts in 1000 words: Institutional memory (guest post)]
The study of public policy would be incomplete without an understanding of policymaking institutions. The study of political science would also be incomplete without turning our understanding of terms such as ‘institutions’ upside down. ‘Institution’ may in the past have referred to organizations such as legislatures, courts and executives. With ‘new institutionalism’, it refers to two factors: regular patterns of behaviour; and the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence such behaviour.
These rules can be formal, or enshrined in a constitution, legislation or regulations:
The constitutional nature of political systems – such as confederal or federal; federal or unitary; presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential; unicameral or bicameral; containing constitutional courts; or holding procedures for regular referendums.
Their operating procedures – including electoral systems, party systems, rules of government formation and executive–legislative relations, the role of public bureaucracies, and the extent to which group-government relations are ‘institutionalised’ (such as in formal corporatist arrangements).
Their regulatory frameworks – including the rules governing the operation of economic organizations, interest groups, and public organizations, and the rules governing the provision of public services.
Rules can also be informal, and are described variously as habits, norms, practices or rules that develop without a grand plan. As such, they are often unwritten and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation.
In practice, we may identify a mix of formality and informality – the combination of written regulations and unwritten understandings of how organisations are expected to operate. This helps explain why political systems often operate rather similarly in practice despite having different constitutional arrangements. For example, the commonly perceived logic or benefit of subsystem/ policy community arrangements helps explain why they are central to most systems.
So far, so good. The problems begin when we try to move from this rather intuitive and broad discussion, to produce concrete studies and detailed approaches. There are three main problems to look out for:
. We may not know what an institution is. Instead, we often use the ‘I know it when I see it’ approach. For example, the Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions dedicates at least one chapter to: the state, civil society, economic institutions, constitutions, federal and territorial institutions, executives, legislatures, courts, bicameral structures, public bureaucracies, the welfare state, regulations, local government, political parties, electoral systems, direct democracy, international and non-governmental institutions. This is a wide range of activity, brought together largely because definition of institution is vague.
2. We may not agree what new institutionalism is.
[see the post for more]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism:
Note: I don’t write so much about incrementalism in the 2nd edition. If you would like more of the background, please see see chapter 5 in the 1st ed of Understanding Public Policy
A classic starting point in policy studies is to compare ideal-types (which might be ideals to aspire to) with the real world. The classic example is comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality. The idea is that elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process (aims are identified, the means to achieve those aims are produced and one is selected) and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility.
Its comparator is ‘bounded rationality’ (coined by Simon) which suggests that policymakers’ ability to make and implement decisions is more problematic. We question our ability to separate values and facts. We note that policymakers have multiple, often unclear, objectives which are difficult to rank in any meaningful way. We wonder if the policy process is so ordered and linear (or if policymakers sometimes select a solution that already exists to a problem defined for them). We know that policymaking organizations have limited knowledge and research capabilities; that they have to use major shortcuts to gather a limited amount of information in a limited time. We know not to seek policymaking perfection, but something that is good enough. We don’t ‘maximize’ – we ‘satisfice’.
[see the post for more on incrementalism ...]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation):
Policy success is in the eye of the beholder. The evaluation of success is political in several ways. It can be party political, when election campaigns focus on the record of the incumbent government. Policy decisions produce winners and losers, prompting disputes about success between actors with different aims. Evaluation can be political in subtler but as-important ways, involving scientific disputes about:
How long we wait to evaluate.
How well-resourced our evaluation should be.
The best way to measure and explain outcomes.
The ‘benchmarks’ to use – should we compare outcomes with the past or other countries?
How we can separate the effect of policy from other causes, in a complex world where randomised-controlled-trials are often difficult to use.
In this more technical-looking discussion, the trade-off is between the selection of a large mixture of measures that are hard to work with, or a small number of measures that are handpicked and represent no more than crude proxies for success.
Evaluation is political because we set the agenda with the measures we use, by prompting a focus on some aims at the expense of others. A classic example is the aim to reduce healthcare waiting times, which represent a small part of health service activity but generate disproportionate attention and action, partly because outcomes are relatively visible and easy to measure. Many policies are implemented and evaluated using such proxies: the government publishes targets to provide an expectation of implementer behaviour; and, regulatory bodies exist to monitor compliance.
Let’s consider success in terms of the aims of the person responsible for the policy. It raises four interesting issues:
The aims of that policymaker may not be clear. For example, they may not say why they made particular choices, they may have many reasons, their reasons may not be specific enough to be meaningful, and/or they may not be entirely truthful.
Policymaking is a group effort, which magnifies the problem of identifying a single, clear, aim.
Aims are not necessarily noble. Marsh and McConnell describe three types. Process measures success in terms of its popularity among particular groups and its ease of passage through the legislature. Political describes its effect on the government’s popularity. Programmatic describes its implementation in terms of original aims, its effect in terms of intended outcomes, and the extent to which it represented an ‘efficient use of resources’. Elected policymakers may justify their actions in programmatic terms, but be more concerned with politics and process. Or, their aims may be unambitious. We could identify success in their terms but still feel that major problems remain unsolved.
Responsibility is a slippery concept. In a Westminster system, we may hold ministers to be ultimately responsible but, in practice, responsibility is shared with a range of people in various types and levels of government. In multi-level political systems, responsibility may be shared with several elected bodies with their own mandates and claims to pursue distinctive aims.
[see the post to read more ..]
From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Policy Cycle and its Stages:
The classic way to study policymaking is to break it down into stages. The stages have changed over the years, and vary by country, but the basic ideas remain the same:
Descriptive. Let’s simplify a complex world by identifying its key elements.
Prescriptive. Let’s work out how to make policy, to translate public demands into government action (or at least to carry out government policy).
[image of the policy cycle]
A cycle divides the policy process into a series of stages, from a notional starting point at which policymakers begin to think about a policy problem to a notional end point at which a policy has been implemented and policymakers think about how successful it has been before deciding what to do next. The image is of a continuous process rather than a single event. The evaluation stage of policy 1 represents the first stage of policy 2, as lessons learned in the past set the agenda for choices to be made in the future:
Agenda setting. Identifying problems that require government attention, deciding which issues deserve the most attention and defining the nature of the problem.
Policy formulation. Setting objectives, identifying the cost and estimating the effect of solutions, choosing from a list of solutions and selecting policy instruments.
Legitimation. Ensuring that the chosen policy instruments have support. It can involve one or a combination of: legislative approval, executive approval, seeking consent through consultation with interest groups, and referenda.
Implementation. Establishing or employing an organization to take responsibility for implementation, ensuring that the organization has the resources (such as staffing, money and legal authority) to do so, and making sure that policy decisions are carried out as planned.
Evaluation. Assessing the extent to which the policy was successful or the policy decision was the correct one; if it was implemented correctly and, if so, had the desired effect.
Policy maintenance, succession or termination. Considering if the policy should be continued, modified or discontinued.
The cycle is useful in many ways. It is simple and understandable. It can be applied to all political systems. The emphasis on cycles highlights fluid policymaking. There is also a wide range of important studies (and key debates) based on the analysis of particular stages – such as the top-down versus bottom-up approaches to the study of policymaking.
However, the stages approach is no longer central to policy studies, partly because it does not help explain what it describes, and partly because it oversimplifies a complex world (does it also seem to take the politics out of policymaking? In other words, note the often-fraught politics of seemingly-innocuous stages such as evaluation). The policymaking system may be seen more as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes. Indeed, many of the theories or concepts outlined in this series serve as replacements for a focus on cycles (see the The Advocacy Coalition Framework and Multiple Streams Analysis).
The prescriptive side of cycles and stages is a bit more interesting, ... [see the post for more]
From the Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy change and measurement post:
[see also Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy change
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: How do policy theories describe policy change?]
The first thing we learn when we study public policy is that no-one is quite sure how to define it. Instead, introductory texts focus on our inability to provide something definitive. That is OK if we want to pretend to be relaxed about life’s complexities, but not if we want to measure policy change in a reasonably precise way. How can we measure change in something if we don’t know what it is?
A partial solution is to identify and measure types of public policy. For example we might treat policy as the collection of a large number of policy instruments or decisions, including:
Public expenditure. This includes deciding how to tax, how much money to raise, on which policy areas (crime, health, education) to spend and the balance between current (e.g. the wages of doctors) and capital (building a new hospital) spending.
Economic penalties, such as taxation on the sale of certain products, or charges to use services.
Economic incentives, such as subsidies to farmers or tax expenditure on certain spending (giving to charity, buying services such as health insurance).
Linking government-controlled benefits to behaviour (e.g. seeking work to qualify for unemployment benefits) or a means test.
The use of formal regulations or legislation to control behaviour.
Voluntary regulations, such as agreements between governments and other actors such as unions and business.
Linking the provision of public services to behaviour (e.g. restricting the ability of smokers to foster children).
Legal penalties, such as when the courts approve restrictions on, or economic sanctions against, organizations.
Public education and advertising to highlight the risks to certain behaviours.
Providing services and resources to help change behaviour.
Providing resources to tackle illegal behaviour.
Funding organizations to influence public, media and government attitudes.
Funding scientific research or advisory committee work.
Organizational change, such as the establishment of a new unit within a government department or a reform of local government structures.
Providing services directly or via non-governmental organizations.
Providing a single service or setting up quasi-markets.
I say ‘partial solution’ because this approach throws up a major practical problem: we do not have the ability to track and characterise all of these instruments in a satisfactory or holistic way. Rather, we have to make choices about what information to use (and, by extension, what to ignore) to build up a partial, biased, picture of what is going on. Here are some of the practical problems we face:
[please see the post for more]
From the What is Policy blog post:
Compare with What is the Policy Process? and What is public policy and why does it matter?
The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:
Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off the public, media and government agenda.
The second thing we do is point to the vast scale of government, which is too big to be understood without some simplifying concepts and theories. It is also too big to be managed. We soon learn that the vast majority of policymaking takes place in the absence of meaningful public attention. The ‘public’ simply does not have the time to pay attention to government. Even when it pays attention to some issues, the debate is simplified and does not give a good account of the complicated nature of policy problems.
We also learn that government is too big to be managed by elected policymakers. Instead, they divide government into manageable units and devolve almost all decisions to bureaucrats and organisations (including ‘street level’). They are responsible for government, but they simply do not have the time to pay attention to anything but a tiny proportion.
So, a big part of public policy is about what happens when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name. That’s what makes it seem so messed up and so interesting at the same time.
It’s also what makes policy studies look so weird. We often reject a focus on high-profile elected policymakers, because we know that the action takes place elsewhere. We often focus on the day-to-day practices of organisations far removed from the ‘top’ or the ‘centre’. We ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to gain several perspectives on the same thing. We spend a lot of time gnashing our teeth about how you can identify and measure policy change (still, no-one has cracked this one) and compare it with the past and the experience of other countries. We try to come up with ways to demonstrate that inaction is often more significant than action. When you ask us a question, your eyes will glaze over while we try to explain, ‘well, that’s really 12 questions’. We come up with wacky names to describe policymaking and bristle if you call it ‘jargon’. It’s because policymaking is complicated and it takes skill, and some useful concepts, to make it look simple.
To read more, see: Policy Concepts in 1000 words
Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling.
This is the series of podcasts that accompany a series of blog posts (1000 word and 500 word) that accompany the book Understanding Public Policy.
From the Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words page:
These blog posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes (many of which I introduce in 12 things to know about studying public policy and explore in 5 images of the policy process).
The podcasts (‘Series 1’) are 10-15 minutes long, focusing on one theory or concept.
From the Policy in 500 words page:
The aim of this series is to focus more on getting you started with the study of public policy: why do these topics matter and why should you study them in more depth? If all goes well, they should overlap and complement the 1000 words series.
The podcasts (‘Series 2’) are 30+ minutes long, focusing on multiple theories or concepts (and recorded in the room with MPP students).
See also the separate series (posts and podcasts) Policy Analysis in 750 words