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  • Author or Editor: Paul Cairney x
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National governments use evidence selectively to argue that a successful policy intervention in one local area should be emulated in others (‘evidence-based best practice’). However, the value of such evidence is always limited because there is: disagreement on the best way to gather evidence of policy success, uncertainty regarding the extent to which we can draw general conclusions from specific evidence, and local policymaker opposition to interventions not developed in local areas. How do governments respond to this dilemma? This article identifies the Scottish Government response: it supports three potentially contradictory ways to gather evidence and encourage emulation.

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Kingdon’s multiple streams approach is popular because its metaphor and flexible concepts can be applied empirically in most contexts. However, this feature is also its weakness. Most scholars apply MSA superficially, without describing its metaphor’s meaning or connecting concepts to empirical results. This article solves this problem by producing one MSA narrative from a diverse collection of empirical studies. Our hero is the ‘policy entrepreneur’ who knows that the pursuit of ambitious aims such as ‘evidence-based policymaking’ requires framing a problem, having a solution ready, and exploiting the motive and opportunity of policymakers to select it.

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The term ‘evolution’ is used loosely in the policy literature and its meaning is frequently unclear. This article injects clarity into debates of evolution and establishes its ability to describe and explain policy change. It has four main aims. First, it identifies the explicit and implicit uses of evolutionary theory in policy studies. Second, it considers how such accounts relate to each other and the wider literature on public policy. Third, it identifies the causal mechanisms involved in evolutionary accounts. Finally, it considers how to translate abstract theory into a more concrete set of methods and plans for empirical research.

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The relationship between evidence and policy is far from straightforward. Perspectives range from the idealism of ‘evidence-driven policy making’ (where evidence sets the agenda and drives policy choices) to the pessimism of ‘policy-based evidence’ (where evidence is sought simply to legitimise pre-set policies). Viewing the evidence and policy relationship from either of these extremes tends to result in disillusionment: either the reality does not live up to the ideal, or evidence is considered as essentially tainted and self-serving. This chapter steers a course between these extremes by drawing on political science and policy studies to provide a more nuanced and pragmatic understanding of the relationship.

It begins with an account of idealised perspectives, and contrasts these with how things play out more typically. Idealised views tend to posit a combination of comprehensive rationality, in which policy makers can process all evidence and make consistent choices, within a policy cycle characterised by a series of well-delineated stages (Box 2.1). Policy scholars usually describe these idealised conditions to show how policy making does not really work. Instead, policy makers more typically face ‘bounded rationality’, and they respond by using rational and irrational short cuts to process information. They do so in complex policy environments that usually bear little resemblance to any idealised policy cycle.

With these points in mind, the chapter then turns to an overview of policy studies theories and concepts that help to describe and explain the complexity of real-world, policy-related activities (see Box 2.2 for a summary of some key concepts and terms).

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The multiple streams approach (MSA) is one of policy scholarship’s biggest successes. Kingdon’s (1984) study is one the highest cited books in policy studies, there is a thriving programme of empirical application and theoretical refinement, its lessons are applied regularly in interdisciplinary studies, and it is relatively well known and enjoyed by practitioners and students (Herweg et al, 2015; 2017; Zahariadis, 2007; 2014; Jones et al, 2016).

Yet, its success is built on shaky foundations because its alleged strength – its flexible metaphor of streams and windows of opportunity – is actually its weakness. Most scholars describe MSA superficially, fail to articulate the meaning of its metaphor, do not engage with state of the art developments, and struggle to apply its concepts systematically to empirical research (Jones et al, 2016). These limitations create an acute scientific problem: most scholars apply MSA without connecting it to a coherent research agenda. Consequently, it is difficult to produce new knowledge systematically or describe with confidence the accumulated wisdom of MSA. As the special issue on ‘Practical lessons from policy theories’ shows, this problem is a feature of many policy theories which have expanded far beyond their original intentions (Weible and Cairney, 2018).

There have been some recent attempts to solve this problem by encouraging conceptual clarity via hypothesis production and testing (Cairney and Jones, 2016; Cairney and Zahariadis, 2016; Herweg et al, 2015). However, this solution only appeals to a niche audience of MSA scholars. Most readers and users of MSA draw on Kingdon’s (1984) classic metaphor without taking their research to the next level by engaging with over 30 years of subsequent research and theoretical refinement. Kingdon’s study of US federal politics in the 1980s can only take us so far.

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First published as a special issue of Policy & Politics, this critical and practical volume challenges policy theory scholars to change the way they produce and communicate research.

Leading academics propose eight ways to synthesise and translate state of the art knowledge to equip scholars to communicate their insights with each other and a wider audience. Chapters consider topics such as narratives as tools for influencing policy change, essential habits of successful policy entrepreneurs, and applying cultural theory to navigate the policy process.

Providing theoretical clarity and accumulated knowledge, this text highlights the vital importance of translating policy research in practical and understandable ways.

The articles on which Chapters 2, 3 and 5 are based are available Open Access under CC-BY-NC licence.

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Background:

Policymaking environments are multi-centric by necessity and design. Alcohol premises licensing is governed by Scottish legislation, which also allows for local autonomy.

Aims and objectives:

To describe the obstacles faced by local public health actors in seeking to influence the alcohol premises licensing system in Scotland as an example of local advocacy efforts in multi-centric policymaking.

Methods:

Snowball sampling identified and recruited 12 public health actors who were actively seeking to influence alcohol premises licensing, along with a national key informant. In-depth interviews (n=13) discussed challenges experienced and perceptions of best strategies for success. Interviews (69m average) were audio-recorded, transcribed, and analysed using an inductive framework approach.

Findings:

Most interviewees operated in local premises licensing arenas, influencing national legislation only through intermediaries. Challenges to engagement included: unfamiliar conventions, stakeholders and decision-making cultures, resources, data gaps, and licensing boards’ prioritisation of economic growth. Their preferred solution was a strengthening of national legislation to constrain local autonomy, but they adapted their strategies to the challenges faced.

Discussion and conclusion:

The adoption of a particular objective in national government (a public health objective for alcohol licensing) may not remove the need for effective local advocacy in a multi-centric system. Local policymakers have their own conventions, processes and views on evidence, and successful advocacy may involve diverse strategies and relationship building over time. Practitioners advocating policy change may benefit from a better understanding of prior research on how to bring about such change; scholars of such processes could better engage with this audience.

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We challenge policy theory scholars to change the way we produce and communicate research: translate our research to a wider audience to gauge the quality of our findings. Explain state of the art knowledge to others to aid communication among ourselves. If we succeed, we can proceed with confidence. If not, we should reconsider the state of our field. Our aim is to show leadership by subjecting ourselves to this challenge. We introduce a special issue that represents the state of knowledge in eight theories and combine their insights to produce theoretical tenets across the field of policy processes.

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We challenge policy theory scholars to change the way we produce and communicate research: translate our findings to a wider audience to gauge the clarity and quality of our findings. Policy theories have generated widespread knowledge of the policy process, but the field is vast and uncoordinated, and too many scholars hide behind a veil of jargon and obfuscation. Some of the most visible outcomes – such as limited relevance to practitioners, and anxiety and confusion among students or early career researchers with a limited grasp of a complex field – reflects a less visible but more worrying academic problem: we often assume, rather than demonstrate, that policy process research contains insights that add cumulative and comparable knowledge to the field.

Yet, if we do not take the time to check if we understand the state of the art, and can share a common understanding with our peers, how can we state that we are accumulating knowledge collectively rather than producing work of limited relevance beyond our own narrow individual concerns? Is there genuinely a cohesive, advancing, field of policy theories or are we each producing our own theories and assuming they are useful to others? We need to ask these searching questions more often and place them front and centre of academic debate.

Some thematic reviews already try to compare insights across many theories (Heikkila and Cairney, 2017) but they only scratch the surface and provide limited assurance about a coherent policy process research agenda. We need more work from theory-specific experts to explain their theories and empirical knowledge clearly enough to help others gauge progress and compare it to progress among other approaches.

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