Practical Lessons from Policy Theories: a new agenda

Weible workshop 2Professors Chris Weible and Paul Cairney were the successful applicants for our 2019 special issue call for proposals. This blog post summarises a recent workshop held in Colorado on their topic Practical Lessons from Policy Theories by way of presaging some of the key research themes they will pursue in their special issue.

Policy theories provide profound lessons for people trying to understand and engage with the policy process. As policy scholars we often take them for granted, but for non-specialists they can represent a new way of thinking. So, sharing these insights helps scholars and practitioners. Explaining our theories clearly gives us a new way to take stock of policy theory: how does it help us think about and act within the policy process?

That’s why we asked a group of experts to describe the ‘state of the art’ in their field and the practical lessons that they offer.

Weible workshop 1

In our initial workshop – co-sponsored by Policy and Politics, the Workshop on Policy Process (WOPPR) and School of Public Affairs, UC Denver – we build on three key themes:

  1. Beware simple solutions and myths of false hope

Too many commentaries on politics and policymaking compare their experiences with false expectations. Usually, these inflated expectations relate to the capacity of policymakers to understand and respond to problems quickly. Some expect major policy change after a change of party in elections. Some see centralisation as a quick fix to fragmented policymaking. Some think that science can solve the problems of policymaking. These myths provide false hope, and simplistic solutions to complex problems. In contrast, policy theories acknowledge power and complexity, study the policy process systematically to gain comparative insights and some general conclusions, and help us produce more effective strategies for the real world.

  1. Engage with the policy process that exists, not the one you’d like to see

Our analysis of real world policymaking contains three key elements.

First, policymakers only have the resources to pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. They are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ways to process information as efficiently as possible. Whenever they make authoritative choice in one issue, they have to ignore 99 others. They draw on ideology and emotion to limit policy analysis. Or, they choose one simple way to understand a complex problem, which limits the relevance of information and experts.

Second, policymakers operate in complex policymaking environments over which they have limited control. Elected policymakers at the ‘centre’ delegate most policy responsibility to other actors, form networks with the actors who give them information and advice, inherit ways of thinking about problems, policies, and policy delivery from their predecessors, and respond to events. There is no ‘policy cycle’ in which a small group of key actors, aided by expert analysts, gather evidence comprehensively, then make, implement, and evaluate policies in an orderly series of stages.

Third, policymaking involves cooperation to solve policy problems, but also power and conflict, winners and losers.

  1. Develop strategies to engage with, or seek to reform, the policy process

People seeking influence can increase chances of success if they: understand how policymakers ‘learn’ from new information; identify the right policymakers, the ‘venues’ in which they operate, and the ‘rules of the game’ in each venue; form coalitions to engage in those venues; shape agendas by framing problems and telling good stories, design politically feasible solutions, and exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for their selection. People seeking to reform aspects of policymaking can learn how governments can process information more effectively, and design institutions to foster greater cooperation.

Our initial workshop helped us share these ideas, and our panel workshop helped us explain these ideas in an accessible way, to encourage greater demand for these insights.

You can view the panel workshop below and follow our progress via some further posts on this blog and Paul Cairney’s. We will be exploring these themes further in our special issue for Policy & Politics entitled ‘Practical Lessons from Policy Theories’ forthcoming online in 2018.

If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested to read Evidence translation: an exploration of policy makers’ use of evidence by Jo Ingold and Mark Monaghan. FREE to read until 15 June 2017.

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