Paul Cairney

University of Stirling
History and Politics

University of Stirling
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My research includes exploring how we might combine the insights of multiple theories, including the theories that are used most extensively in the current literature (such as punctuated equilibrium theory and the ACF) and overarching descriptions of multiple theories (such as 'evolutionary' or complexity theory). Using those insights to explain comparative policy processes in different ways, including comparing country and international level responses to global tobacco control, and comparing policy processes within a devolved UK. I'm working with Chris Weible on the theme 'practical lessons from policy theories', and applying such lessons to the study of 'evidence based policymaking'.

Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS)
Abstract: There is extensive health and public health literature on the ‘evidence-policy gap’, exploring the frustrating experiences of scientists trying to secure a response to the problems and solutions they raise and identifying the need for better evidence to reduce policymaker uncertainty. We offer a new perspective by using policy theory to propose research with greater impact, identifying the need to use persuasion to reduce ambiguity, and to adapt to multi-level policymaking systems. We identify insights from secondary data, namely systematic reviews, critical analysis and policy theories relevant to evidence-based policymaking. The studies are drawn primarily from countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We combine empirical and normative elements to identify the ways in which scientists can, do and could influence policy. We identify two important dilemmas, for scientists and researchers, that arise from our initial advice. First, effective actors combine evidence with manipulative emotional appeals to influence the policy agenda – should scientists do the same, or would the reputational costs outweigh the policy benefits? Second, when adapting to multi-level policymaking, should scientists prioritise ‘evidence-based’ policymaking above other factors? The latter includes governance principles such the ‘co-production’ of policy between local public bodies, interest groups and service users. This process may be based primarily on values and involve actors with no commitment to a hierarchy of evidence. We conclude that successful engagement in ‘evidence-based policymaking’ requires pragmatism, combining scientific evidence with governance principles, and persuasion to translate complex evidence into simple stories. To maximise the use of scientific evidence in health and public health policy, researchers should recognise the tendency of policymakers to base judgements on their beliefs, and shortcuts based on their emotions and familiarity with information; learn ‘where the action is’, and be prepared to engage in long-term strategies to be able to influence policy; and, in both cases, decide how far you are willing to go to persuade policymakers to act and secure a hierarchy of evidence underpinning policy. These are value-driven and political, not just ‘evidence-based’, choices.
Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence Based Policy Making (London: Palgrave Springer)
Abstract: Policymakers cannot consider all evidence relevant to policy problems. They use two shortcuts: ‘rational’ ways to establish the best evidence, and ‘irrational’ decision-making, drawing on emotions, beliefs, and habits to act quickly. Most scientific studies focus only on the first short cut. They identify uncertainty when policymakers have incomplete evidence, and try to solve it by improving the supply of information and encouraging academic-practitioner networks and workshops. They do not respond to ambiguity, or the potential for policymakers to understand, and seek to solve, problems in very different ways. Cairney identifies more effective ways to engage with policymakers to maximize the use of scientific evidence. A good strategy requires scientific advocates to engage in a process of framing and persuasion by, for example, forming coalitions with actors with the same aims or beliefs, and accompanying scientific information with simple stories to exploit or adapt to the emotional and ideological biases of policymakers.
Cairney, Paul. 2012. Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues." Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Abstract: A major new introduction to theories of public policy. The author provides an accessible assessment of a wide range of theories and models from policy cycles, policy transfer, rational choice and socio-economic explanations to multi-level governance, advocacy coalitions and punctuated equilibrium and of their value to policy analysis.
Cairney, Paul, Donley Studlar and Haddii Mamudu. 2012. "Global Tobacco Control: Power, Policy, Governance and Tranfer." Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Abstract: Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death and disease in the world. This has been known for some time but the responses of governments to this problem have varied enormously. Many countries which now have comprehensive tobacco control regimes did very little to regulate tobacco until the 1980s. Further, many countries still have very limited tobacco controls. The book raises two key questions: Why is there often such a wide gap between the size of the policy problem and the government response? And why, if the problem is the same across the globe, does policy vary so markedly across political systems? This is the first major book by political scientists explaining global tobacco control policy. It identifies a history of minimal tobacco control, linked to the power of the tobacco industry, then charts the extent to which governments, aided by public health advocates, have regulated tobacco domestically and internationally in the modern era.
Cairney, P. 2013. "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?". Policy Studies Journal, 41 (1):1-21.
Abstract: The combination of multiple theories in policy studies has a great potential value—new combinations of theories or concepts may produce new perspectives and new research agendas. However, it also raises important ontological, epistemological, methodological, and practical issues that need to be addressed to ensure disciplinary advance. This article identifies three main approaches: synthesis, in which we produce one theory based on the insights of multiple theories; complementary, in which we use different theories to produce a range of insights or explanations; and contradictory, in which we compare the insights of theories before choosing one over the other. It examines the issues that arise when we adopt each approach. First, it considers our ability to “synthesize” theories when they arise from different intellectual traditions and attach different meanings to key terms. Second, it considers the practical limits to using multiple theories and pursuing different research agendas when academic resources are limited. Third, it considers the idea of a “shoot-out” in which one theory is chosen over another because it appears to produce the best results or most scientific approach. It examines the problems we face when producing scientific criteria and highlights the extent to which our choice of theory is influenced by our empirical narrative. The article argues that the insistence on a rigid universal scientific standard may harm rather than help scientific collaboration and progress.
DOI: 10.1111/psj.12000

Substantive Focus:
Education Policy
Environmental Policy
Health Policy SECONDARY
Social Policy
Comparative Public Policy PRIMARY

Theoretical Focus:
Policy Process Theory PRIMARY