Policy Ideas in a Digital Age – new conference paper


Next week I am off to Grenoble to present a new paper at  Session 3 New Ideational Turns, as part of panel 84 New directions in the study of public policy, convened by Peter John, Hellmut Wollmann and Daniel A. Mazmanian, the 1st International Conference on Public Policy, Grenoble, France, June 26-28. Friday 28 June, 8.30-10.30, Sciences Library Auditorium.

Policy Ideas Paper

It is a draft paper – I welcome your comments or suggestions


This paper argues that the discussion of public policy online is offering new and exciting opportunities for public policy research exploring the role of policy ideas.  Although considerable work focuses on political ideas at the macro or mid-range, specific policy ideas and initiatives  are overlooked, thought to be “too narrow to be interesting” (Berman, 2009, p. 21) .This paper argues that the prolific use of social media among policy communities means it is now possible to systematically study the micro-dynamics of how policy ideas are coined and fostered.  Policy ideas are purposive, branded initiatives that are launched with gusto; flourish for around a thousand days; and then disappear with little trace as attention shifts to the latest and loudest.  At best, media reports will document that Birmingham’s Flourishing Neighbourhoods initiative has been “scrapped”, “Labour’s Total Place programme has been “torn up”, or the Coalition’s big society policy is “dead”.  Save for a return to the policy termination literatures of the late 1980s, our impotence in conceptualising such death-notices reveals how little effort has been invested in understanding and theorising the lifecycle of policy ideas.  In response, this paper conceptualises policy ideas, their life, death and succession.  The paper draws on a case of the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections held across England and Wales in November 2012, and the attempts of the Home Office to coin and foster the hashtag #MyPcc.

 Acknowledgement: The primary research reported was funded by British Academy Grant – SG112101 The shape of ideas to come: harvesting and analysing online discussion about public policy.  And University of Birmingham Roberts Fellowship 2008-2013.  Heartfelt thanks to the research team: Gill Plumridge, Becky O’Neil, Tom Daniels, Pete Redford, Phoebe Mau, Diha Mulla, Misfa Begum, Sarah Jeffries and Osama Filali Naji for your empathetic coding, unwavering enthusiasm and crowd-like wisdom.


Policy Ideas in a Digital Age by Stephen Jeffares

On how a picture is worth a thousand words…

There’s a slide I use when I am teaching Q methodology. It is a picture of village life – and the different ways people view living in their rural environment.  The picture is always popular.  It is a neat way of presenting Q factors that doesn’t rely on tables of data or technical terms.  Sometimes I try to claim it was my idea, or even my picture.  For the record. It wasn’t

The artist of this fine picture is the fabulous Ellie Kivinen who works for the London based research consultancy  Brook Lyndhurst

Here’s the picture.

Ellie Picture


The picture can be found on page 36 of this DEFRA fund report written by David Fell, Annie Austin and Ellie Kivinen.


oh and here’s the reference for your bibliographies:

BrookLyndhurst (2010) Social Capital and Quality of Life in Rural Areas A Report prepared for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs by Brook Lyndhurst Ltd, May (London: DEFRA)

Jolly good.

New Chapter: Beyond the Contract: The Challenge of Evaluating the Performance(s) of Public-Private Partnerships (Stephen Jeffares with Helen Sullivan and Tony Bovaird.

Fresh off the Routledge printing presses a new edited collection called Rethinking Public-Private Partnerships: Strategies for Turbulent Times

Edited by Carsten Greve & Graeme Hodge.

Together with Tony Bovaird and Helen Sullivan we have a chapter that explores the challenge of evaluating PPPs. It is chapter 9. Every library should own a copy.

Here’s the link http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415539593/

Hybrid Governance new Palgrave book by Skelcher, Sullivan and Jeffares

More great news – on the 15th February a new book will be published that I have co-authored with Prof Chris Skelcher and Prof Helen Sullivan.

The blurb sums it up nicely.

How are responses to urban policy challenges affected by new ideas about governance? How can we explain the governance transformations that result? And what are the consequences for democracy? This wide-ranging study of three European cities – Birmingham, Copenhagen and Rotterdam – shows how hybrid forms of governance emerge from the tensions between new visions and past legacies, and existing institutional arrangements and powerful actors. Hybrid governance includes public-private partnerships, stakeholders boards, and multi-actor forums operating at arm’s length to institutions of representative democracy. Offering detailed studies of migration and neighbourhood policy, as well as a novel Q methodology analysis of public administrators’ views on democracy, the book explores how actors generate new practices, shows how these develop, and evaluates the democratic implications. The book concludes that hybrid governance is both widespread and diverse, is spatially and policy specific and that actors – public managers, politicians and the public – contribute to hybrid designs in ways that promote and challenge democratic conventions.

Here’s the Amazon link – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hybrid-Governance-European-Cities-Neighbourhood/dp/023027322X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1360687054&sr=1-1

Why do Public Policy Ideas Catch on?

Good question. Not quite a new one – actually the title of my Phd (2008). A PDF copy can be downloaded here


Here’s the Abstract –

Asking the question ‘why do ideas catch on in public policy’ reveals the inadequacy of ideational accounts to compete with the predominance of mainstream models of policy analysis. This thesis reasserts ideational accounts through the application of the political discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe. The approach posits ideas as demands operating in governing discourses and understands how general equivalent demands then become empty signifiers. This thesis develops current understanding on how general equivalents and empty signifiers function through an application to urban governance. It develops a qualitative account of governing in Birmingham using interviews between 2003-2005, and documents and media archives from the past twenty years. The thesis examines how mainstream ideational, rational, institutional and interpretative accounts understand the emergence of policy ideas and their role in coalitions, policy change and agency of actors. Discourse theory is revealed as a comprehensive approach for understanding these questions of ideas. The thesis develops a framework for the empirical application of discourse theory in Birmingham, exploring the relationship between two taken-for-granted governing discourses: renaissance and size. It shows how actors were motivated to reiterate and protect discourses from dislocation with development of the empty signifier of ‘flourishing neighbourhoods’. The thesis traces the credibility and emergence of flourishing neighbourhoods and contributes to a research agenda around hegemonic policy analysis

Public Policy special issue in Operant Subjectivity 36(2)

Great news. Following on from the Q conference at the University of Birmingham, a special issue of Operant Subjectivity (the Q methodology journal) is about to appear coedited with Dr. Rachel Baker from Glasgow Caledonian. The issue showcases four great papers applying Q to issues of public policy and public administration. The authors and their papers are profiled below.

Baker, R. and Jeffares, S (eds.) (2013) Public Policy, special issue Operant Subjectivity: The International Journal of Q Methodology, 2013, 36(2): 69161.

Operant Subjectivity: The International Journal of Q Methodology, 2013, 36(2): 7392

Young Loyalties: Loyalty Conceptions and Loyalty Conflicts of Young Dutch and English Public Administrators

Anneke Twijnstra

VU University Amsterdam

Gjalt De Graaf

VU University Amsterdam

Abstract:Public administrators nowadays find themselves in a differentiated polity, which affects them in many ways. Images of the new public administrator clash with the classic images of the ‘old’ one: the public administrator who neutrally and obediently carries out orders of elected politicians. Since Weber, many interesting studies have been done on the separation between administration and politics. In this literature it becomes clear that public administrators today serve many masters, not just politicians. Do any of the interests of their masters contradict each other? Among the various objects of loyalty—colleagues, the public good, administrators’ consciences, administrators’ organizations, the law, the organizations’ clients, and elected officials—where do the loyalties of young public administrators lie? In this study we focus on the loyalties young public administrators, that is, on the future of governance. Generational differences could have implications for, for example, recruitment, training and development, rewards and working arrangements, and management styles. To answer the research questions, we conducted an international comparative study. Twenty young English administrators and 20 young Dutch administrators Q sorted statements on their loyalties. The answer to our main research question turns out to be a mix of all possible loyalties. Our results describe five conceptions of loyalty. These results are compared to previous Q studies on the loyalties of older Dutch administrators and to a recent comparative Q study on English and Dutch administrators’ democratic subjectivities. We found two typical Dutch loyalty conceptions and two typical English loyalty conceptions. Finally, we found that different loyalty conceptions mean different loyalty conflicts.

Operant Subjectivity: The International Journal of Q Methodology, 2013, 36(2): 93113

Building Democracy: Community Development Corporations’ Influence on Democratic Participation in Newark, New Jersey

Tia Sherèe Gaynor

Marist College

Abstract: The study seeks to demonstrate how stakeholders in the US city of Newark, New Jersey, perceive the role community development corporations (CDCs) play in presenting residents with opportunities to engage with their local government. In the United States, CDCs are community-based organizations that work toward revitalizing the built environment and addressing social issues within urban and rural communities. Often, CDCs encourage residents to be more active in local government in order to influence the decisions that most impact their communities. A Q-methodology study of stakeholder perceptions on CDCs’ influence on participation in local government, drawing from Arnstein’s “ladder of participation,” contributes to a better understanding of the subjectivity associated with residents’ participation and the actions that foster or constrain that participation. Research findings suggest that stakeholders perceive CDCs to create and encourage avenues for participation that preserve the existing state of affairs. However, stakeholders’ views also indicate that residents can benefit from initiatives that transfer power away from the public administrator to them.

Operant Subjectivity: The International Journal of Q Methodology, 2013, 36(2): 114134

Understanding Deliberative Citizens: The Application of Q Methodology to Deliberation on Policy Issues

Simon Niemeyer

Australian National University

Selen Ayirtman

Curtin University

Janette HartzKarp

Curtin University

Abstract: This article argues that deliberation provides a suitable method for understanding what the public ideally wants when it comes to decision making. Q methodology provides the basis for an ideal approach for understanding what is happening during deliberation and for developing a deeper understanding of the choices being made. The approach reported in this article involves using Q sorting in conjunction with a survey of policy preferences, both administered before and after deliberation. The focus is a deliberative process conducted to decide the future of the ageing Fremantle Bridge, where the issue involved conflicting values. The Q analysis revealed three main positions (factors) in relation to the issue, each tending to correspond to different kinds of options for replacing the bridge. Overall, deliberation resulted in a move away from concern about the heritage value of the old bridge and toward a safety-oriented position. There was also a corresponding change in preference in favour of options that participants believed would improve safety. The approach provides information that is useful for policy making because it identifies the main reasons driving the formation of public opinion and the circumstances in which opinions change when the public is given the chance to fully reflect on the outcome.

Operant Subjectivity: The International Journal of Q Methodology, 2013, 36(2): 135161

Q Methodology to Support the Design and Evaluation of Stakeholder Dialogue

Eefje Cuppen

TU Delft, The Netherlands

Abstract: Most of today’s pressing societal problems—such as issues related to energy supply, food, biodiversity and mobility—are characterized by scientific uncertainties and high stakes. Policymakers have to deal with situations in which different people (scientists and stakeholders) have different ideas about what exactly the problem is and how it should be solved. These types of policy problem have been labelled wicked problems. Stakeholder dialogue can be used as a vehicle to inform policymaking on wicked issues. A stakeholder dialogue is geared towards learning about the diversity of perspectives on a problem and its potential solutions. This process of problem structuring needs to be supported by specific tools, methods and procedures. One of the biggest challenges for stakeholder dialogues is to find methods that can be used to design and evaluate dialogues in a way that does justice to the wicked nature of the policy issue at stake. Q methodology is a useful and appropriate method for selecting stakeholders who represent the diversity of perspectives and for evaluating the learning about perspectives that occurs in stakeholder dialogue. This article demonstrates how Q methodology was applied for these purposes in a stakeholder dialogue on sustainable bioenergy in the Netherlands.

On Silos and why we thought joint commissioning was a good idea

The following post first appeared on the INLOGOV blog 23rd January 2013



Stephen Jeffares

I heard it again – in a discussion on last Tuesday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Nick Herbert’s piece about the civil service – the problem is that silos remain .

Most of us have never seen a silo in real life, although those who have spent time on farms know that it is a really big tank or pit for storing grain or animal feed.  But we learn on our MBA courses and from our management textbooks about the curse of the silo mentality.   They say we need to drive silo working out – we need to work across boundaries, we need to collaborate, work in partnership.  So much of what is wrong with how we do public policy is blamed on working in silos.

Couple this with the popularity of separating those that steer from those that row and we find an increased importance placed on commissioning.  For several years consultants have dined out on their ability to tell us that commissioning is not the same as procurement, for procurement is just one important aspect of the complex but vital process of commissioning.  But, they tell us, the worst thing you can do is commission in a silo.  No no.  We need to commission jointly, with others.  Why?  Well, two reasons.  First, because the world is complex and cannot be solved by the efforts of one department or organisation alone.  Second, all the reform and hollowing out of the last decades has meant our public services are fragmented in terms of budgets and decision making capacity.  So joining up how we commission is a no-brainer.

Is it any wonder, then, that we ended up with the marriage of the concepts of joint and commissioning.  But as a compound: ‘Joint commissioning’. It is rather an ugly and unwieldy pairing.  But both concepts are viewed as desirable and essential, therefore joint commissioning is the solution.  Nowhere was joint commissioning seen as more desirable or essential as in health and social care.

People’s needs for support or treatment do not neatly divide across how we organise health services and care services.   While not everybody requiring acute health treatment requires social care, many with long term chronic illnesses require both.  Nowhere is this more apparent in what happens when older or vulnerable adults are discharged from hospitals.  So, often, it makes sense that within localities decisions and priorities should be commissioned jointly, and over the last decade, structures and practices have been aligned in the name of joint commissioning.  However, such reforms can be expensive, destabilising and reveal profound professional tensions.

Various changes occurred over the last 10 years in the name of joint commissioning, with localities introducing social care partnerships, pooled budgets and, in some, full blown care trusts.  The structures imposed depended on the discretion of local authorities, the PCTs and the Council.  Some chose to share chief executives.  Service users and carers might have seen no difference, or perhaps were confused by the change in logos and livery.  The staff involved in the change, with their strong professional identities as occupational therapists, district nurses, social workers, care home managers, were told that this was an opportunity to work differently. In some cases, the changes were symbolised by lifting and shifting to a single site, to new purpose built office locations – no more NHS or Council badges – there’s a new ID card in town, swinging from a fresh corporate lanyard.

But to what avail?  The shift to joint commissioning means that we also have to be interested in evaluating.  Not just the processes, but the outcomes.  With further integration on the horizon, the question on everybody’s lips is what good this has brought.  Was it worth the effort?  The answer to the question has to go further than populist or political expediency: did it save money or did more people get seen sooner?

To answer the question we need to start by asking  – what do you want from this joint commissioning?  When you explore the ambitions for these joint arrangements in literature and in conversation with professionals, not one but a whole range of competing aspirations arise.    In a project funded by the SDO and led by colleagues at HSMC, I had the opportunity to do just this – to capture the range of aspirations for joint commissioning.  A full report of the research and the findings, published earlier this month, can be found here.

In terms of what joint commissioning meant to different people, four broad points of view emerged. Yes, predictably, there were timely aspirations about productivity, saving money, efficiencies.  In contrast, though, there were those who focused on implications for people, service user and carer involvement, personalisation, choice.  A third set of aspirations focused on what comes from partnership – the development of synergies, the benefits of closer working, joint location; and a fourth set revolved around aspirations and implications for professions – developing professional empathy of the challenges faced, but also concerns for maintaining professional identity and autonomy.

And it’s here that we get to the problem of motherhood and apple pie – so often an issue in public policy.  Read off a list of 40 aspirations for joint commissioning – synergy, empathy, cost saving, choice, user involvement, and we’ll say yes to all, all of the above please.  But spend some time in conversation with people working in joint commissioning arrangements and it soon becomes apparent that there are different priorities that can easily conflict, either implicitly or explicitly.

Joint commissioning, like so many policy ideas, is what Cornwall and Eades call a ‘buzzword that has become a fuzzword’, one that clouds rather than clarifies understanding.  The turning point for our research was when we asked our respondents, those working in joint commissioning across England, to prioritise differing (competing?) outcomes.  They rank ordered them using a tool called POETQ.  We found two things.  First, that everybody is unique, that everybody had a different take on what was more important.  But second, and perhaps most importantly, there were patterns.  Taken as a whole we found five distinct viewpoints (page 87 of the report) on what they thought joint commissioning would achieve.  The technique allowed us to cut through the nebulous language that collects around policy ideas.  It also challenged our assumptions that people think according to their professional group or position in the hierarchy.  These insights then guided the remainder of the project and our visits to our five case study localities.

The current reforms that focus on integrated working and the creation of Clinical Commissioning Groups are in some part a shift in emphasis and in some part a renewal of language.  If there is one thing I have learnt from spending time thinking about joint commissioning, it is that we need to accept that public policy labels activity and coins and fosters policy ideas.  Some of these ideas are old wine in new bottles, or existing bodies in new raincoats.  But not everybody involved has the same memory or associations. For some these approaches are genuinely new. Therefore whatever approach we take, we need to ensure that it allows us to unpick and clarify these policy ideas and their associated meanings: this should be our first priority.  While we cannot easily predict what will be the next big idea, what we can be sure of is that analogies like ‘silo mentality’ run deep and will shape new policy ideas yet to be coined and fostered.  But when the next big idea appears on the horizon we needn’t shy away from nebulous language or accept notions without question.  Assisted with tools like POETQ, next time we’ll be ready.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the INLOGOV blog, the University of Birmingham or National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

This research is discussed at greater length in the article Beyond the Berlin Wall?, by Helen Dickinson, Stephen Jeffares, Alison Nicholds, and Jon Glasby, published in Public Management ReviewThe article can be viewed here.