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


Inaugural Lecture of Georg Wenzelburger

Celebrating his appointment to full professor for Policy-Analysis and Political Economy at the University of Kaiserslautern, Georg Wenzelburger held his inaugural lecture on Friday the 9th of February.  Starting on a personal note, Georg Wenzelburger first welcomed his family and friends as well as many old and new colleagues by looking back at his academic career and the crossroads he faced on his way to become a professor. Prof. Dr. Shanley E.M. Allen, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, expressed her gratitude that this path has led to him to Kaiserslautern.

The inaugural lecture by Prof. Wenzelburger then dealt with two of his past and current academic interests integrated into a new and fascinating research endeavor. Titled “The left and the right hand? On the relationship between welfare and security in times of globalization“, the lecture explored common drivers of, or a causal relationship between, the dual processes of welfare state retrenchment and penal state expansion. Drawing on the rich data and analytical results of the research project “The Politics of Law and Order”, Georg Wenzelburger mapped the development of law and order policies and related them to the dynamics of partisan competition. In this perspective, partisan competition structured by the nature of a state’s party system leads to distinct policy outputs. Returning, to the relationship between increasing security measures and decreasing social welfare, Prof. Wenzelburger strongly hinted at the prominence of a micro-level explanation: Insecurities and fears of crime at the individual level could be anticipated by political parties which in return offer policy solutions.

After the lecture, Prof. Wenzelburger invited his guests to a small reception prepared by his team. Many used the opportunity to congratulate him, to discuss about the lecture, and to enjoy a very nice evening with friends and colleagues.

+++ CfA – Workshop on case study designs and process tracing – with Peter Starke +++

We are proud to announce that in cooperation with the “TU-Nachwuchsring” we are hosting a methods workshop on case study designs and process tracing with the renowed scholar and process-tracing-expert Peter Starke, University of Southern Denmark.

The workshop takes place between the 12th and 13th of March 2018. All young scholars of the University of Kaiserslautern are invited to apply. For further information, please click here.

+++ CfP – DVPW 2018 – Panel: Policy by and for the public? +++

Jointly with Stefan Lindow, University of Göttingen, I organize a panel at the DVPW congress “Frontiers of Democracy” from the 25th to 28th of August 2018 – supported by the “Forum Junge Staats-, Policy- und Verwaltungsforschung (FoJuS)”.

In the panel “Policy by and for the public? Tracing democracy in public policy processes” we will be discussing new approaches toward theories of the policy process and how democratic practices (e.g. parties, parliaments, interest groups, or referenda) can better incorporated into these frameworks.

The Call for Papers is now open and we are looking forward to abstracts of up to 400 words till the 31st of January 2018.

The full call for papers can be accessed here.

Helge Staff

A crisis of party democracy? A practitioner visits our seminar on party politics

531.856 – that is the number of members lost by German parties between 1980 and 2007, which amounts to a loss of about 27 %. This development is, however, by no means exceptional. Across Europe the membership base of political parties erodes. But what does this change mean for political parties – and for democracy?

During this semester a Master course taught by us (Helge Staff & Georg Wenzelburger) dealt with problems like this and other questions concerning party systems and political parties. After thoroughly reviewing existing theories and empirical studies, the seminar now was happy to welcome Mr. Timo Flätgen, director general of the CDU in the Saarland, who agreed to come to the University of Kaiserslautern and talk about how his party copes with current challenges on the state and local level.

During an introductory talk and in the ensuing discussion Mr. Flätgen pointed out that parties change not only quantitatively – e.g. they lose members – but also qualitatively: While one or two decades ago many people joined the Christian Democrats because of their motivation to participate in local politics, today’s new party members have different and more diverse reasons. Many questions of the students took account of this and asked in how far social media could be used to let younger and more mobile people participate in party matters. Timo Flätgen explained how his party already employs social media but warned that in terms of content-wise discussions and democratic decision-making social media does not appear to be the best solution. Yet, with reference to the successful CDU campaign before the 2017 state election in the Saarland, Mr. Flätgen showed how a coordinated effort by the party establishment was able to mobilize party members throughout the state, who then engaged locally with the electorate.

Thus, and although Timo Flätgen also was not able to present a one-fits-all solution how to regain past membership levels, he showed how political parties can at least partially deal with the challenge of a smaller membership base. His visit to the seminar offered a great opportunity for students – and lecturers – to learn from him and to compare the academic theories and results with the experiences of a practitioner.

Workshop: “High Risk Politics”

Why do political actors take risky decisions? This very basic question was at the heart of a 5-year research project headed by Prof Barbara Vis (VU Amsterdam, now: Utrecht University). This research project was theoretically based on ideas of prospect theory (Kahneman and Tversky 1979) and very much inspired by Barbara Vis’ great work on the question of why governments adopt electorally risky welfare state cutbacks (Vis 2009a, b; Vis and Van Kersbergen 2007).

I had the honor to participate at the concluding workshop of this fascinating research project and contributed a presentation about the role of risk assessments in the context of law and order policies. My basic point was that the perceived risk of future events in the realm of crime and terror actually pushes political actors to present themselves as tough on crime or at least not soft on crime. Because crime and security are valence issues (Stokes 1963), it is suicidal for political actors to propose more crime and less security as policies to their voters which leads to a certain asymmetry in party competition. However, we also see a huge variance in terms of how strongly governments advocate tough law and order policies. My take is that we can explain this variance mainly with party competition dynamics (two party systems vs. multiparty systems) as well as the presence of right wing populist parties.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam / University of Amsterdam

The workshop was a nice opportunity to think in a much more general way about political decision-making processes and the questions how political actors assess risk, losses and gains in complex decision-making situations. Although we know a bit more about how political actors make up their minds about such questions, we are still far from knowing how risk calculations actually work. This is partly due to the fact that we don’t really know much about how political actors establish the reference point from which they assess whether they are in a losses domain (in which risky decisions are more likely to happen) or in a gains domain (where we would assume that change is unlikely). Moreover, it is also unclear how we can estimate the uncertainty whether a certain event happens or not (e.g. electoral punishment). Hence, after two days of great discussions, more new questions arose than old questions were solved. More food for thought and future research!

Georg Wenzelburger

[Photo by Georg Wenzelburger]


  • Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky. 1979. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk.” Econometrica 47(2):263-292.
  • Stokes, Donald E. 1963. “Spatial Models of Party Competition.” American Political Science Review 57(2):368-377.
  • Vis, Barbara. 2009a. “Governments and unpopular social policy reform: Biting the bullet or steering clear?” European Journal of Political Research 48(1):31-57.
  • Vis, Barbara. 2009b. “The importance of socio-economic and political losses and gains in welfare state reform.” Journal of European Social Policy 19(5):395-407.
  • Vis, Barbara and Kees Van Kersbergen. 2007. “Why and how do political actors pursue risky reforms.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 19(2):153-172.

Conference: “Tag der Politikwissenschaft 2017”

An increasingly popular view on the main theoretical approaches used in Policy Analysis differs between two main camps (for a recent article by Georg Wenzelburger, click here): policy output theories – focusing on single variables or factors – and policy process theories, which place emphasis on the specific course of a policy – from its origins as an idea, through agenda setting, and up to its adaption by the political system. Due to the specific mixed method research design employed in my dissertation project “The Political Economy of Private Security”, I aim to establish a certain synthesis between both approaches in order to arrive at a better integration of the quantitative and qualitative analyses.

At the conference “Tag der Politikwissenschaft 2017” in Graz,  organized by the Austrian Political Science Association (ÖGPW), I now had the chance to present this general idea illustrated by first results of a qualitative case study. My work draws heavily on the revised Multiple Streams Framework developed by Herweg et al. (2015), but differs in the way single variables of policy output theories are “blended in”.

Karl-Franzens-Universität/University of Graz

The preliminary results of my case studies confirm the utility of such an approach. Via a most detailed tracing of single policy processes based on document and interview data, it is possible to identify not only the drivers and stages of the process according to the Multiple Streams Framework but moreover also single causal mechanisms which shape the form of the later policy. In the present paper I was able to show how the idea of distinct “families of nations” developed by Francis Castles, can be linked to the discourses of policy communities on the micro level. In these communities experts debate new policy ideas, which need to meet certain criteria in order to survive. One of these criteria is “value acceptability”. It means that national expert discourses rest on a basic set of normative assumptions about how things should be done. For my policy field of interest – the regulation of private security industries – this relates to ideas about the appropriate role of market and state. And in fact, the studied case – a recent reform of German private security regulation – provides amble evidence for such a mechanism: Alternative policy ideas do not survive the early expert discourses, because they do not fit with an important norm – here the “Gewerbefreiheit”.

The commentaries and suggestions by the colleagues on my panel were encouraging and I will proceed in the project by employing the same “blended” hypotheses to my next case: a major Spanish law on private security from 2014. I hope to find further evidence for the mechanisms identified in the German and British cases. This careful analysis is enabled by a synthesis of policy output and policy process theories within the revised version of the Multiple Streams Framework I apply.

Helge Staff

[photo by Helge Staff]

Workshop: “Policy-Making in Hard Times”

How does the recent economic and financial crisis in Europe (2007-2013) impact on policy-making? Did the EU dismantle policies in recent years? What is the impact of austerity measures on the Southern member states? And how could one actually measure the policy impact of the crisis across countries and policy fields?

These were some of the questions that a mixed group of young and experienced scholars of public policy engaged with during a recent workshop on “Policy-Making in Hard Times” in Barcelona. Jointly organized by Prof. Dr. Christoph Knill and his team, LMU Munich, as well as by the IBEI in Barcelona, and funded by the DAAD – the workshop provided a unique environment to discuss individual research projects and the general theme of crisis effects.

In my contribution to the workshop I focused on a potential case of a fascinating “cross-policy compensation effect” – meaning a change in policy field A caused by a change in policy field B. Following up on our research in the project “The Politics of Law and Order”, I explored whether a thesis by the reknowned US-crimologist Loic Wacquant holds true in the “most likely setting” of the recent economic crisis in Europe.

Wacquant offers a straightforward explanation for the link or pattern between welfare state retrenchment and security policy expansion confirmed on the macro level by comparative criminology and political economy (click here, for a recent study by Georg Wenzelburger). In the paper, presented at the workshop, I calculated several statistical models using different measurements of policy change in both fields – including the legislation data collected during the project “The Politics of Law and Order”. In addition, a case study of a single piece of budget policy, UK’s Spending Review 2010, which I also analyze in the project “The Political Economy of Private Security”, served to test for the causal mechanism suggested by Wacquant on the micro level.

In sum, neither the quantitative nor the qualitative approach were able to confirm the presence of a cross-policy compensation effect modelled according to Wacquant in Europe, before, amidst, or after the economic crisis. Although the study is still very much preliminary and deserves further scrutiny, it suggests to look elsewhere for alternative causal mechanisms explaining the pattern of parallel developments in the welfare and security state.

Helge Staff

[photo by Dionys Zink, graphic by Helge Staff]