England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Beyond magical thinking: Why it is still worth trying to improve the policy process


Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

As an academic with a long-standing interest in citizen engagement, it felt like Christmas had come early on a drizzly morning in November 2019. I had been randomly selected to participate in my local borough’s inaugural Citizens’ Assembly, the Kingston Assembly on Air Quality. The Kingston Assembly was part of an initial wave of over 40 experiments across the UK (following thousands of others across the globe). I had previous experience running, facilitating and observing Citizens’ Assemblies, and interviewing the specialists who commission, design and deliver them. Now I had the unique opportunity to see things from the other side.

But, even amid the excitement, a new puzzle had begun to gnaw away at me at this stage. Attention in the academic literature has slowly shifted from an emphasis on the novelty and feasibility of innovations like Citizens’ Assemblies, and towards an emphasis on a broader question of impact on policy – more precisely, to their lack of tangible impact. Ironically, most actors engaged in practice had long known about the problems of impact, having experienced up close how citizen recommendations usually get marginalised, cherry-picked or simply forgotten about in the messy policy process. Indeed, it was this wisdom of experience that was puzzling me. Given that those involved in commissioning, supporting and running these events cannot possibly be in it for the money (budgets are shoestring!), why would they continue to devote resources and energy to something that seemingly won’t – that most know won’t – make much difference?

Taking a wider view, this apparently irrational commitment to the cause of democratic innovation is not unique. It is just one prominent example of how ideals to improve the policymaking process attract unflinching support from a range of policy actors, despite the intimate personal experiences of failure and frustration. Similar patterns can be seen around commitments to evidence-based policymaking, long-term prevention, collaboration and transparency. All sound lovely in theory. All seem to achieve little progress in practice. But actors continue to cling to these causes, even as the disappointments pile up. Are all these seemingly intelligent people engaged in magical thinking?

My experience as a deliberating citizen at the Kingston Assembly – and the novel perspective it afforded me – helped me to make new sense of this apparent magical thinking in policymaking, to better understand the nuanced motivations of the reflective practitioners who promote these ideals, and ultimately to appreciate the quiet stoicism of actors committed to promoting better ways of making policy.

So, why do policy actors cling to seemingly naïve ideals?

In even casual discussions with the organisers and officials at the Kingston Assembly, it was abundantly clear they were not naïvely expecting the event to deliver a miracle. They were acutely aware that participants were unlikely to uncover a novel solution to the problem of declining air quality, that this event was just one input among many to policymaking on the issue, and that the borough council had limited capacity to take meaningful action anyway. So why were we all there? What were these actors hoping to get out of it? And what can these answers tell us about the staying power of magical ideals to enhance the policymaking process more broadly?

Managing (political) uncertainty

First, I found that policy actors in and out of government were hoping to learn valuable new lessons. They valued the Kingston Assembly as revealing new possibilities in dealing not so much with the scientific understanding of air quality (which is reasonably settled), but with the political uncertainties of improving air quality. The event, they hoped, would give everyone a better understanding of how the general public feels about the issue of air quality and the range of interventions they would be willing to tolerate.

The broader lesson is that clinging to ideals about better policymaking helps actors to deal with uncertainty. Thorny policy problems often have an uncertain array of causes, an unproven set of interventions, and/or a risk of political backlash and inadvertent consequences. In these circumstances, understandably, decision-makers are rarely keen to take radically progressive action. But committing to citizen engagement, transparency, collaboration, prevention or evidence-based policymaking can help to unpack these uncertainties and lay the groundwork for future progress.

Managing complexity

Second, I found that these actors were trying to advance instrumental aims. Policy actors invested their own hopes in what it might achieve. Experts and activists (and some councillors and officials) used the event to ratchet up pressure for urgent action. Industry representatives (and other councillors and officials) used the event to deflect responsibility for the challenges of dealing with air quality onto others.

More broadly, then, clinging to ideals for better policymaking also helps policy actors to navigate complexity. Problems like poor air quality have a multitude of causes and impacts that cut across silos, levels and sectors. But committing to citizen engagement, transparency, collaboration, prevention or evidence-based policymaking can be a useful way to push preferred solutions onto (or off) a crowded policy agenda, and direct and deflect responsibility for taking action.

Managing contestation

Third, I found that these actors were willing to buy into the Kingston Assembly as a process to help manage political conflict. Policymaking on air quality is underpinned by clashing world views and interests, as demonstrated in the current spate of protests about the incoming ULEZ across London boroughs. The truly magical thing is that the Kingston Assembly was ‘safe’ enough to receive institutional support while simultaneously promising to be radical enough to get buy-in from activists in civil society.

Perhaps the key reason, then, that policy actors cling to ideals for better policymaking is that doing so helps to deal with contestation. Difficult policy issues like air quality are beset by clashing values and interests. But committing to citizen engagement, transparency, collaboration, prevention or evidence-based policymaking sets a common ground through which actors can channel their political advocacy and manage that conflict.

Believing in magic

Overall, then, the message is a cautiously hopeful one. Policy actors, particularly the officials, civil society representatives and experts who pursue progressive change – support ideals like citizen engagement not because they are naïve fools or cynical hacks. They do so because, little by little, and despite failures and frustrations, it helps them to advance hard-fought progress on otherwise intractable policy problems. That quiet stoicism seems pretty magical to me.

At LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre, we host contributions from academics and researchers working on public policy and local government. Prof. John Boswell’s new book, Magical Thinking in Public Policy is an excellent read with plenty of food for thought for policy makers.


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