ECPR General Conference 2018 – Meeting the policy-process-community in Hamburg

Hamburg, Binnenalster

The last three days, Colette Vogeler and I visisted the ECPR General Conference 2018 in Hamburg to present our latest research, to learn about new approaches in policy analysis, and to meet the international community of scholars developing, modifying, and applying theories of the policy process. This annual event is the largest political science conference in Europe with more than 2500 scholars from around the world. Although such a large conference naturally covers the whole variety of different sub-disciplines and issue areas, in recent years the ECPR General Conference also features a very good section on policy process theories. This section and its individual panels are a great opportunity to hear about the latest results of others, receive feedback on one’s own research and to engage with a growing international community.

Colette Vogeler presenting her paper “Barriers for Sustainable Governance in the German Livestock Sector”

Colette Vogeler, who will head the Chair for Policy Analysis and Political Economy in the next semester, presented with her co-author Malte Möck the results of a research project on the water-food nexus in German livestock production. In the two presentations, one in the policy process section and one in a food governance section, Collette and Malte highlighted the problematic constellation of the specialized livestock production in North-Western Germany in terms of Nitrate pollution in the groundwater. This specific constellation of natural, economic, and policy factors has led to a governance failure. In her contributions, Colette showed how de-coupled policy-making in food and water sectors cannot solve the existing problem and how decisions in energy policy worsened the situation – hinting also at interesting cross-sectional policy effects.

Helge Staff presenting his paper “Value Acceptability in Families of Nations”

In a panel on the Multiple Streams Framework (MSF) I presented preliminary results of my dissertation project “The Political Economy of Private Security”. Making use of the recently collected data in Spain, I am now able to compare three policy processes of private security regulation in Germany, the UK, and Spain. My paper in Hamburg drew on this rich qualitative evidence of the three case studies to illustrate the working of a causal mechanism, which spells out a link between the MSF and the idea of “families of nations”. This concept developed by Francis G. Castles draws on historical, legal, and cultural factors and shows that European states cluster in their policy output in five distinct families of nations. I related this concept to one of the MSF’s criteria for survival of an idea within the discourse of the policy community: value acceptability.

After four days of inspiring panel talks, critical discussions, and meetings with colleagues in the field of policy process research from around the world, we head back from Hamburg with a whole treasure of new ideas for our current and future research projects

Helge Staff

[photos by Colette Vogeler, Johanna Hornung, and the author]

“Team Challenge 2018” succesfully completed

The “Humbergturm”

On the occasion of his appointment to full professor for Policy-Analysis and Political Economy at the University of Kaiserslautern, the team made the gift of a special “team challenge” to Georg Wenzelburger. Of the many activities to choose from he selected a hiking trip through the Palatinate Forest in combination with a wine tasting event.

Summer picnic in the “Game Park Betzenberg”

Thus, last Friday the whole team met and enjoyed a great summer team event. We first took a bus out of the city and into the cooler Palitinate Forest, where we climbed the “große Humberg” as well as the historic look-out. Then we followed a path down hill and visited the “Game Park Betzenberg” featuring many species native to the Palitinate Forest. Along the way we tasted a selection of local and foreign wines before hiking back to Kaiserslautern, thus completing the “Team Challenge 2018” and a wonderful summer team event.

Helge Staff

[photos by Georg Wenzelburger]

Teaching Policy Process Analysis (2) – “for the first time”

This summer term I had the opportunity to assist in the under-graduate seminar on policy process theories taught by Helge Staff (see also the previous blog post on our seminar). Still working to complete my Master’s degree, this opportunity allowed me to get a first glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ of university teaching. Besides preparing different data sets for the research sessions, offering individual mentoring and of course becoming an expert on all the different public policy theories, I was also offered to prepare and hold my own seminar sessions. As you can imagine, this was truly exciting for me. Through all the times of my studies, most of my experiences in talking in front of other students were twenty minutes-presentations on selected aspects of a theory or a given topic.

Kathrin Hartmann presenting the basics of the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

This time I had to prepare two seminar sessions on the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET). Even though Helge had already chosen the text for the ‘theory session’, I saw myself confronted with a lot of difficult questions. How to present and explain the PET in about fifteen minutes? How to link the PET to our chosen policy cycle on the road user charge in Germany (“PKW-Maut”)? What information do the students need to successfully complete the exercises of the ‘research session’?

Since the aim of the seminar is not only to introduce the students to different public policy theories but also to teach the basics of empirical research, I decided to also put an emphasis on that in the ‘theory session’. Thus, I gave some advice on the correct formulation of research questions and the factors which need to be considered when formulating a good hypothesis.

Students playing the “PET memory”

Due to special circumstances, both sessions were held on the same day which meant three hours of teaching for me and even more important: three hours of learning for the students. Since I remembered attending such long sessions myself, which sometimes felt longer than they actually were, I tried to break the classic seminar structure and let the students play a modified parlor game. In my case, I decided to develop a little “memory” covering all the significant terms of the PET. Groups of students would then compete with each other who could match all the PET terms with the adequate description correctly first.

For the ‘research session’, we analyzed budget data on federal spending in transportation policy collected by the Federal Statistical Office. Before doing so, I gave a brief introduction to Excel, which I chose as the best opportunity for the analysis in our seminar context. Afterwards, students were asked to discuss and interpret the given data concerning the research question: Can significant changes be observed in budget data during the period between 1963 and 2011? I had prepared a working document which detailed the single steps towards analyzing the data. The students executed these steps and in the end, and after only one hour, we were able to arrive at the classic and basic PET result of a general incremental policy development punctuated by a few instances of radical change.

An absolute necessity in this seminar setting – a close mentoring of the student’s individual research process

To sum up my first teaching experience: After all my preparations, reading and thinking about structures and the methods of teaching, I was still very excited before the seminar actually started. Today, knowing it all went well, I can say: I am already looking forward to organize and execute the tutoring sessions on term paper writing which will take place in the following three months. Look out for my report on those, here on this blog!

Kathrin Hartmann

[photos by Helge Staff]

Interviewing policy experts (2) – a research trip to London

In a previous blog post on my dissertation and the experience of a research trip to Spain, I already commented on the highly useful technique of semi-structured expert interviews to collect qualitative data on policy processes. It is the insider perspective of persons who actually participated in the policy process, which can provide a unique insight into an often complicated series of events and the interrelation between these events.

Scenic view of London from Bankside

To conclude my qualitative data collection and finalize the last case study I am working on, I traveled last week to London and interviewed policy experts both on the process of the Spending Review 2010 and the Private Security Industry Act 2001. This latter process is comparable to the two other policy processes of private security regulation in Spain and Germany which I analyze. The policy process of the Spending Review 2010, however, is different in so far as here the interesting outcome is a severe cut in police and Home Office (about 23 % ) spending implemented by the Conservative-Liberal coalition in 2010. However, cutting public spending on police and other public security services – while societal demand for security is growing – is thought to be an important driver of the growth of private security services.

Spending Review 2010: Cuts in £ billion

Yet, my preliminary analysis suggests that “security” was not at all of importance in the policy process of the Spending Review 2010: Between the years 2006 and 2009 – and accelerated after the crisis hit – the latter chancellor George Osborne formed an opinion on cutting public spending to base the UK’s finances on a more solid foundation. Within the election campaign 2010 all parties promised to ‘tackle the deficit’, yet differed in the envisaged degree and timing of the cuts. The decisive moment for this general direction of the policy process were the negotiations between Labour, the Liberal-Democrats, and the Conservatives following the general election on the 6th of May 2010. Within days the Liberal-Democrats negotiated with both parties and arrived at a consensus with the Conservatives to form a coalition devoted to immediate cuts of £6 billion in 2010/2011 and further cuts to be decided upon in a comprehensive spending review.

Not much involved in the Spending Review process – Houses of Parliament, London

This process of the spending review – like the June emergency budget directly following the election – was characterized by a series of negotiations between the individual departments and the Treasury, which already had identified saving capacities in the single departments. But the final number was up for negotiation between the department heads and – for the most part – Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary of the Treasury. My interview partners having participated in one, two or even all three important steps of the process (pre-election, coalition negotiation, Spending Review) agreed in the conclusion that the policy issue of security was not important in this process. The issue area had not been ring-fenced like others (NHS, foreign aid) in the coalition negotiations and thus everybody, also the Home Office, ‘had to give their share’. Thus, the severe cuts in police spending seem to be driven most importantly by a low salience and by factors exogenous to the policy area like the intent of the government to show the financial markets their credibility in cutting the UK’s rising deficit.

Over the next weeks I will assess these preliminary results more carefully drawing on literature and document data before applying my hypotheses based on an updated Multiple-Streams-Framework. Thus, at the end of the summer I hope to have concluded the work on all six case studies of policy processes. The following fall/winter term I will devote to further quantitative analyses and writing up my dissertation thesis to be concluded – hopefully – over the next year.

Helge Staff

[photos by the author]

How algorithms affect penal policies…

In the US, decisions of the justice system are increasingly affected by algorithmic decision making systems. They are used in almost all US states and assist decision-makers in a wide range of decisions, e.g. about probation or the risk assessment for recidivists.

In a new article, computer scientists from the Algorithm Accountability Lab at the TUK, Prof. Katharina A. Zweig and Tobias Krafft, have joined forces with Georg Wenzelburger and put together a paper that discusses 1) how algorithms affect decision-making in the criminal justice system and 2) what difficulties and challenges arise from this from a political science perspective and theories of democracies. The paper entitled “On chances and risks of security related algorithmic decision making systems” has been accepted by the European Journal of Security Research and can be accessed here.

Server cluster at the University of Kaiserslautern

Certainly, this first paper is only the beginning of a longer collaboration between the Professorship for Policy Analysis and Political Economy with the Algorithm Accountability Lab. There is too much going on in this interesting field – especially from a public policy perspective. Algorithms are used in education policy (deciding in France about who is entitled to enroll in certain universities), in social policy (assisting employment agencies in their decisions about what candidate to propose a job offer), and, not least, in law and order policies. From a public policy perspective, it is important to first assess how such systems are used in different countries, how they are embedded in bureaucratic decision-making, and, most importantly, to analyze the policy process (including the various actors and interests involved in it) that led to the decision for or against the use of a certain algorithm.

Georg Wenzelburger

[photo by Thomas Koziel, provided by KLUFOS, University of Kaiserslautern]

Teaching Policy Process Analysis (1)

This summer term I am teaching an under-graduate seminar on policy process theories and wanted to spice it up a little by making the seminar more research focused. This led to a more elaborate seminar design featuring alternating theory- and research sessions, the continuous analysis of a real German policy process, and the iterative execution of small research processes by the students – with the ultimate aim of a first empirical term paper to be written over the summer break.

Together with my teaching assistant, Kathrin Hartmann, I will report over the coming months on this extra-ordinary teaching experience in a mini-series on this blog. This first episode will deal with the structure and background of the seminar while latter episodes cover individual sessions or the tutorials on term paper writing by Kathrin Hartmann.

Kathrin Hartmann (center) tutoring a small group of students

The core idea of the seminar is to introduce the students to the analysis of policy processes by teaching core policy process theories and to give them the chance to directly apply them in a structured setting. To achieve this the seminar proceeds along the stages of the policy process (Agenda-Setting, Decision-Making, Implementation, Evaluation) – but not just theoretically but quite practically by researching step by step the recently introduced road user charge in Germany (“PKW-Maut”).

For each stage, one or two theories of the policy process have been selected. In the first session on a theory, the theory itself is discussed and we develop together a research question for our selected policy process, evaluate the state of the literature (to an extent), and define a hypothesis. Based on these first three steps of the research process, the students engage in the following session in a structured analysis. This is facilitated by the use of  very limited research questions, narrow hypotheses, simple methods and carefully prepared data.

Gathering the results of the 2nd session

A huge advantage of the seminar – and one of the main reasons why the seminar can be offered in this way – is the presence of my TA, Kathrin Hartmann. The seminar is supported by a small grant from a program specifically designed to promote empirical research by students in their first or second semester and to especially encourage female students in pursuing an academic career.

Kathrin Hartmann offers a range of services to the seminar and the students by preparing data for the research sessions, assisting the student research groups in the seminar, offering individual mentoring, and by organizing and executing voluntary tutoring sessions on term paper writing over the course of the summer.

In sum, the seminar is intend to teach policy process analysis and by doing so to introduce the students to the world of empirical political science research at the same time. To be continued…

Helge Staff


Why does ‘private security’ grow? A short literature review

As part of the project “The Political Economy of Private Security“, Helge Staff has authored a short review of the literature on the question “Why does ‘private security’ grow?”. Aimed at a general audience the article was published in “DSD – Der Sicherheitsdienst” – a key industry journal of the German private security sector.

You can access the article (pg. 38) in German here.

Process Tracing – A Methods Workshop

Since George & Bennett’s influential book “Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences” was published in 2005, qualitative work in the social sciences increasingly claims to identify “causal mechanisms” and to apply a technique called “process tracing”. But what does “process tracing” actually mean and how can we use it for better qualitative research?

In order to update our knowledge of this method, which we apply in several research projects (e.g. in “The Politics of Law and Order”  or in “The Political Economy of Private Security“) and to give other, especially young scholars, at the University of Kaiserslautern a chance to get to know it first hand, Georg Wenzelburger invited Peter Starke to come to Kaiserslautern. Prof. Dr. Peter Starke, University of Southern Denmark, has not only applied the method intensively in his own research but has also published a very good German handbook article on the subject.

Peter Starke (on the right) discussing individual research projects with two participants

Supported by the TU-Nachwuchsring (network for the promotion of young scientists)  the short methods workshop was held from the 12th to the 13th of March. On the first day, Peter Starke introduced the participants to the basis of good qualitative research in social sciences: the case selection. Whereas quantitative research can draw on large numbers of cases or even random sampling, qualitative research dealing with a few or even only one case needs to pay special attention to case selection in order to avoid methodological pitfalls. After also discussing the notion of causal mechanisms (in difference to a simple X-Y relationship), Professor Starke began the second day by illustrating the use of certain “tests” in process tracing which help to assess the weight of a particular piece of evidence speaking in favor or against a hypothesized causal mechanism. The workshop concluded by also considering “best practices” of process tracing as well as the drawbacks of the method.

Throughout the whole workshop Peter Starke encouraged and gave ample opportunity for the participants to directly apply the learned lessons to their own research. In direct talks he offered his help with any individual problems within a particular research project. The diversity of the participants, who came from different disciplines and three faculties of the University, led to a lively interdisciplinary debate and also showed the methodological potential of process tracing beyond political science and policy analysis.

Helge Staff

Interviewing policy experts – a research trip to Spain

As part of the project “The Political Economy of Private Security” I spent the last five days in Madrid and Barcelona interviewing policy experts on how the 2014 reform of Spanish private security regulation came about. This detailed tracing of the “Ley 5/2014 de seguridad privada” is one of six case studies of my project. These detailed case studies of single policy processes are intended to show whether and – more importantly – how the factors, analyzed on the macro-level and via quantitative methods, play out in terms of specific causal mechanisms.

Congreso de los Diputados – lower house of the Spanish parliament

Analyzing these policy processes in the abstract and theoretical terms of causal mechanisms, which I model via an updated version of John Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework, requires a detailed knowledge of the policy process itself. A central source of this policy process knowledge are for me the persons who have actually taken part in the process. Academic literature, newspaper articles, policy reports, committee documents, or Parliamentary debates are other valuable sources, yet talking to the very people who have “made” the policy offers unique insight knowledge.

And indeed, the interviews of the past week showed once again that policy-making is often an long-term endeavor of dedicated people seizing the opportunity of the moment: Spanish private security regulation, enshrined in an act of 1992, became over the years in need of revision and a wide coalition of actors across industry, unions, administrators, and the police were ready for change. In 2011 the victory of the Popular Party, sympathetic to the idea of private security regulation reform, was an ideal “window of opportunity” actively seized by policy experts engaged with the issue.

A sign of the private security company “Prosegur” in the streets of Madrid

The technique of semi-structured expert interviews is a common and often used method of data collection in qualitative research and I can only encourage  especially students to just give it a try (for an early but very insightful guide to expert interviews, see Dexter [1969] 2006). Over the next weeks I will transcribe and analyze the interviews more carefully, collect further data on the process via various sources, compare and thus “triangulate” the data in order to get a full picture of the process. Only on this basis I can in the next step truly relate the data to my hypothesized causal mechanisms. Thus, this research trip to Spain was only one but an important step in the case study and the overall dissertation project “The Political Economy of Private Security”.

Helge Staff

“Aftershocks” – Ten Years after the Financial Crisis

About ten years after the financial and economic crisis hit Europe, the annual meeting of the DVPW’s (Germany’s Political Science Association) section on Political Economy now dealt with the outcomes and aftershocks of the most severe crisis since WWII. Held at the “Schader-Forum” in Darmstadt from the 22nd to 23rd of February 2018, we (Georg Wenzelburger and Helge Staff) had the chance to participate in the lively discussions, presentations, and roundtables.

Our own contribution focused on one of the professorship’s current research areas: the interrelation between the policy areas of social and penal policy (see, also Georg Wenzelburger’s recent Inaugural Lecture). Taking the crisis as a unique policy setting we asked, whether the crisis in Europe reinforced a policy compensation effect between welfare and law & order or whether both policy sectors have developed in parallel due to fiscal constraints. We basically developed two competing hypotheses from the literature: The first – based on comparative criminology – suggests that the crisis reinforced a compensation effects between the policy sectors. Whereas the welfare state gets cut amidst the crisis, the state’s potency and punitivity in issues of law & order is increased.

The second hypothesis understands the crisis as an event which severly constraints all public budgets and therefore leads to a parallel retrenchment of both welfare and penal policy. Thus, the paper essentially is a much more mature and significantly enhanced version of the study I presented in November at the workshop “Policy-Making in Hard Times” in Barcelona.

The results of our quantitative and qualitative analyses using different measurements of the two policy areas were not completely harmonious but supported the compensation-effect-hypothesis more so than a fiscal-constraint-hypothesis during the crisis. This preliminary result – to be refined by further testing – related well to the conference’s many discussions on the mid- to long-term effects of the recent economic and financial crisis.

Helge Staff