Applying theories of the policy process

To move beyond the simple problem-solving model, some academics have looked deeper into the field of policy studies to bring what Cairney (2015) calls the ‘science of policymaking’ to the question of evidence use (see also Lin and Gibson 2003; Smith 2013). So, for example, in his recent book, Cairney employs a broad body of policy studies theories and concepts in order to help explain evidence use within two specific policy areas - environmental policy and health and advocacy. Theories and approaches he draws on include the following:

  • • John Kingdon’s (1995) ‘multiple streams’ model of policy change and ‘punctuated equilibrium’ theory, which emphasises the time dimension in evidence use and recognises that evidence may influence policy at key moments or alternatively only after long periods of time.
  • • ‘Social construction theory’ and the ‘narrative policy framework’, which emphasise the importance of the framing of a policy issue in shaping how evidence is used or what evidence is seen to be relevant.
  • • The ‘advocacy coalitions framework’, which highlights how evidence can be utilised within a process of policy change that reflects competition between rival groups and where policy stakeholders’ belief systems work to shape the relevance of evidence.
  • • Studies of ‘policy transfer, diffusion and learning’, which highlight the importance of local political context and the generalisability of efforts to replicate or emulate policy activities in other settings.
  • • ‘Complexity theory’, which particularly warns against assumptions of predictability across decision-making systems (including in the use of evidence). A number of features of complex systems that are seen to be relevant to shaping how evidence is used include the presence of positive and negative feedback processes, the importance of initial conditions and path dependency, and emergent outcomes based on multiple interactions of actors within the system.

Smith follows a similar approach, drawing on many of these same policy theories to explore how research influences two particular public health case studies: those of tobacco control and health inequalities. In her review of policy concepts, she places particular emphasis on ideational theories that focus on how policy paradigms, policy frames and policy solutions all end up being constructed with reference to evidence. She concludes that, for her cases, ‘it makes more sense to study the political influence of ideas than evidence’ (2013, p. 108, emphasis in original).

A final example of authors applying policy studies theories to study evidence use can be seen in a slightly earlier volume edited by Lin and Gibson (2003), which explores evidence use in health policy. In one chapter, for instance, Gibson draws on a range of political theories, including David Dery’s idea of ‘organisational epistemology’ and Michel Foucault’s ideas of ‘governmentality’, to critique the ‘two communities’ model of evidence use as failing to capture the nature of health policy change (Gibson 2003). In the same volume, Lewis utilises Kingdon’s ‘policy streams’ model to describe the process of policy change, while focusing on argumentation and framing theories to emphasise the importance of these discursive practices in shaping evidence use (Lewis 2003).

It is, perhaps, remarkable to see just how large a number of theories are drawn upon to help us understand evidence use within policy decisions. Yet one explanation for this is due to the fundamentally complex and multifaceted nature of the policy process into which evidence is expected to fit. Policy change involves individuals pursuing their interests, but it also involves networks working together, as well as the discursive construction of those interests in the first place. Policymaking can be driven by ideas, but it can also be shaped or constrained by institutional arrangements. All of these features can therefore be important with regard to evidence utilisation, and different theories and models may be applied to consider each of them. John (1998) provides a useful overview of the different approaches of the field of policy studies, noting that, in addition to well-established bodies of theories focusing on interests, ideas, institutions and networks, there are also cross-cutting theories of the policy process that have been developed to help explain policy change. However, he notes that no single one of these can explain all aspects of policymaking; rather, as Cairney (2007) has expressed, they provide ‘multiple lenses’ by which to understand different features of the policy process.

Policy theories can therefore be immensely useful in understanding evidence use from the perspective of describing policy change. Yet while this book shares conceptual origins with some of these other recent works, the focus here is different in one key respect. Other authors have particularly drawn on policy studies theories to conduct analyses of the utilisation of evidence in specific case studies of policy change. In contrast, this book began from a concern over the political origins of the two forms of bias detailed in Chapter 1: technical bias, in which evidence is misused or manipulated for political reasons; and issue bias, in which appeals to evidence serve to obscure key social values or impose political priority in unrepresentative ways. Therefore, our focus here is not so much on empirical analysis of a case study of policy change, but rather on addressing the question of how to improve the use of evidence in policy more generally.

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