Targets in the Home Office: A Long and Troubled History

The recent scandal over removals targets has focused attention on the so-called ‘target culture’ that is rife in the Home Office. In fact, the organization has been driven by targets since the early years of the Blair administration. A series of ambitious ‘stretch’ targets were rolled out as part of the system of Public Service Agreements as early as 2000.

Initially, the targets were focused on making the asylum system more efficient. A target on the processing of asylum applications aimed to speed up the turnaround of decision-making on cases. While a further target on removals (yes, they go back that far), aimed to increase the number of rejected asylum seekers who were removed from the country. In this initial phase, the targets were largely about managing internal performance within the Home Office – what I’ve called the ‘disciplining’ function of targets. And they were not popular within the Home Office – officials talked of targets as a ‘necessary evil’ for securing resources from the Treasury.

However, as asylum numbers continued to increase in the early 2000s, Blair came under severe media and political pressure to show he was managing the problem. In February 2003 he announced a target of halving the number of people seeking asylum in the UK – a high profile target, aimed at signalling the government’s commitment to tackle the issue. It was also a controversial target, as it implied deterring or preventing asylum-seekers from coming to the UK (rather than streamlining asylum procedures once they were here). And it was a hugely ambitious target, greeted with scepticism and derision by the press – the left objecting on ethical grounds, the right on grounds of its feasibility.

Blunkett’s Home Office did go on to meet the target – though how far this was a result of changing conditions in countries of origin is still debated. However, its success received a lukewarm reception in the media, teaching the government that targets do not always serve well as tools of political communication.

Targets were again deployed in 2006, to address criticism of the Home Office in the wake of the ‘foreign national offenders’ scandal. This was the revelation that a hundred or so non-UK nationals had been released from prison after serving their sentence, without being considered by the Home Office for deportation. Removals were once again in the spotlight, with officials and ministers grilled by select committees over their failure to remove around 400-450,000 rejected asylum applicants. John Reid, newly instated as Home Secretary, introduced new targets to clear the asylum ‘backlog’, including an ambitious removals target.

In the second half of the 2000s, asylum figures were declining and the issue began to recede from media and political attention. Yet by then, the target culture had taken a firm grip on the Home Office and the UK Border Agency. As one former special advisor told me, it had ‘morphed into a more technocratic approach’, with a very complicated architecture’.

As these targets became increasingly complex and technical, they began to lose their purpose as tools of political communication – or ‘signaling’ function – becoming more about internal organization. Indeed, they became a thoroughly normal tool of Home Office management. One senior official told me they had tried to do without targets for asylum processing, but quickly reintroduced them as they had lost they ‘didn’t know what success looked like’.

By the end of the decade, targets were falling into disrepute. They were criticised as clunky, distorting and simplifying; they encouraged gaming, and their centralising tendency stifled initiative. The Conservatives and their Lib Dem coalition partners vowed to eschew targets – especially as a signalling device.

Of course, there was one prominent exception: the net migration target, announced by David Cameron in early 2010. This target, as is well known, has been a ruthless driver of immigration policy, affecting all aspects of immigration policy that might have a bearing on the numbers admitted, as well as those leaving the UK. Thus it has affected policies on family migration, foreign students and labour migration, as well as, of course, influencing the decision to leave the EU.

It was natural that the net migration goal would be codified as a set of more specific targets – the Home Office’s go-to tool for performance management. And also to be expected that the targets would extend to implementation of the ‘hostile environment’ – Theresa May’s policy of enforcing immigration controls through outsourcing checks to a range of service providers, including employers, landlords, banks, education and health providers.

For me, the surprise is more in the way the media and parliamentary system has reacted to target-gate. We have had almost two decades of opposition parties, select communities and the media grilling governments on their failure to meet removals targets. This criticism has now been turned on its head: the fault lies in setting such clunky and unethical targets in the first place – not in the failure to meet them.

This is a welcome development, casting the spotlight as it does on the distorting effects of Home Office targets. It implies that politicians may in the future be more cautious about their use of targets. Unfortunately, though, I suspect that targets will continue to drive internal performance systems within the Home Office. Once you’re hooked on this tool of performance measurement, it proves very difficult to go without it.

You can read more about the target culture in UK government in my new book, Manufacturing Political Trust: Targets and Performance Measurement in Public Policy.

Read more about the ESRC project underpinning the research here, and a this links you to a blog summarising the project findings.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Immigration control in the UK and the ‘Windrush children’

Mike Slaven and I have published a new article tracing how and why the Home Office introduced a series of largely symbolic measures to control Commonwealth immigration in the 1960s. This is the first article from our ESRC project on Seeing Illegal Immigrants: State Monitoring and Political Rationality‘. The article has been published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Why symbolise control? Irregular migration to the UK and symbolic policy-making in the 1960s 

by Mike Slaven and Christina Boswell


It has frequently been observed that irregular migration is a common object of symbolic policy-making: the use of cosmetic adjustments to signal action, rather than substantive measures that achieve stated goals. Yet there is little research analysing the considerations driving policy actors to adopt such approaches. Drawing on existing literature, we distinguish three theoretical accounts of symbolic policy-making: manipulation, compensation, and adaptation. We explore these accounts through examining the emergence of symbolic policies in UK immigration control in the 1960s. Through detailed archival research, we reconstruct the deliberations leading to a series of Home Office decisions to crack down on irregular entry – decisions which officials felt were not operationally sensible, but which were based on popular political narratives of the problem. We conclude that the UK’s adoption of symbolic policy was a clear case of adaptation: a series of concessions to simplistic notions of control that did not chime with official views of what would work, and which were reluctantly embraced for reasons of political expediency. In conclusion, we suggest the need for more fine-grained analysis of the deliberations underpinning decision-making in bureaucracies, in order to produce more nuanced accounts of political rationalities in the area of immigration policy.

You can read a blog exploring the implications of the article’s findings for the current debate on the ‘Windrush children’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rethinking Policy Impact: Four Models of Research-Policy Relations

Christina Boswell and Katherine Smith

Political scientists are increasingly exhorted to ensure their research has policy ‘impact’, most notably via Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact case studies, and ‘pathways to impact’ statements in UK Research Council funding applications. Yet the assumptions underpinning these frameworks often fail to reflect available evidence and theories. Notions of ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ are typically premised on simplistic, linear models of the policy process, according to which policy-makers are keen to ‘utilise’ expertise to produce more ‘effective’ policies. Such accounts overlook the rich body of literature in political science, policy studies, and sociology of knowledge, which offer more complex and nuanced accounts.

In a paper just published in the PalgraveComms series on the Future of Research Assessment, we set out four different approaches to theorising the relationship between knowledge and policy (summarised in diagram below): (1) knowledge shapes policy; (2) politics shapes knowledge; (3) co-production; and (4) autonomous spheres. We consider what each of these four approaches suggests about approaches to incentivising and measuring research impact.

The first approach focuses on how research can be used ‘instrumentally’, to adjust policy. On this account, policy-makers draw on research and ‘evidence’ to produce more effective policies. As many have pointed out, this model – which underpins REF and HEFCE approaches to impact – relies on a rather simplistic model of the policy process, according to which policy-makers seek out the best evidence to adjust policy in a way that will improve policy outputs. But more sophisticated accounts of policy-making have long questioned this linear, rationalist account.

A more nuanced version of the instrumentalist account can be found in Carole Weiss’s notion of the conceptual, or ‘enlightenment’ function of knowledge. Weiss’s argument is that research can influence policy, but more typically in the form of ideational adjustments, brought about through incremental processes, typically influenced by a diffuse body of research rather than individual findings.

What implications would this account have for efforts to incentivise, measure and reward research impact? Weiss’s notion of research as ‘enlightenment’ challenges the notion that researchers or institutions should be rewarded for claims about the impact of individual studies. Instead, impact frameworks should be oriented towards encouraging collaboration and shared research agendas. And they should assume that research generally has a longer-term, incremental impact, often through shaping the framing of policy problems.

The second set of theories focuses on how politics and policy shape knowledge production and use. These accounts imply the need to be far more sceptical of the impact agenda: indeed, it is naïve to assume that researchers can speak truth to power. The upshot is that researchers should not be rewarded for their supposed impact, since policy actors employ research for political reasons, rather than to improve the quality or effectiveness of policies.

Thus from this perspective, the fundamental idea of promoting research ‘impact’ ought to be resisted, since the take-up of research is contingent on political agendas, rather than the societal utility of the research. This perspective also draws attention to the risk that moves to incentivise impact may lead to the politicisation of research, as researchers may reorient their research in a way that fits existing political agendas.

The third set of theories builds on the notion of co-production. Similar to the second approach, such accounts see knowledge as profoundly shaped by politics. But the notion of co-production focuses not just on the social and political constitution of science. It is also attentive to the other direction of influence: the ways in which governance is itself constituted by scientific knowledge. So rather than limiting its attention to how politics shapes knowledge, the notion of co-production posits that scientific and expert knowledge contribute to the construction of political reality.

Co-production accounts imply the need for a far more sophisticated, ethnographic methodology for examining how research and governance are mutually constitutive. They also argue that social science should not necessarily be understood as the ‘solution’ to social problems. Through its various scientific and technical innovations, science does not simply solve governance problems, but it also creates new ones – implying that the effects of research on policy are not always be benign or helpful. These accounts provide a radically different way of thinking about research impact, and suggest that approaches to incentivising and rewarding impact ought to do more to consider the desirability of such impact, ideally on a case by case basis.

The fourth approach, by contrast, posits that science and politics are autonomous systems, each guided by a distinct logic. Science is preoccupied with questions of truth and verifiability, while politics is preoccupied with power, and the production of collectively binding decisions. Each system relies on the other in importance ways; for example, science depends on resources from the political system. But there is no overarching causality between the two systems: science cannot ‘cause’ changes in politics. Instead, politics needs to observe and give meaning to science from its own, political, perspective.

Viewed from this perspective, the impact agenda should be treated cautiously by researchers. As with the second group of theories, systems theorists would argue that politics only selectively deploys scientific findings, insofar as they are meaningful to the political system. Perhaps more seriously, the impact agenda has risks diverting science from its core task of developing truth claims.

Both the second and fourth accounts suggest that the very idea of trying to incentivize the use of research in policy is flawed. On these accounts, we should be cautious about adopting systems that reward researchers for influencing policy. Such impacts are spurious, in that their apparent influence is down to pre-given interests or independent political dynamics; or they are the result of researchers aligning research questions and approaches to pre-fit political agendas. By rewarding researchers for achieving impact we are adopting an arbitrary incentive system that is at best decoupled from research quality, and at worst, threatens the integrity and independence of social science.

For those more sympathetic to the idea of ‘research impact’, the first and third approaches might offer more hope. Nonetheless, both approaches caution against rewarding individual researchers for ‘achieving’ research impact based on narrow indicators (e.g., citations in policy documents).

The enlightenment model suggests that research impact involves subtle, incremental and diffuse ideational adjustments over a long period of time, which are generated by a wide range of research insights rather than specific individual findings. Thus impact frameworks should reward collaborative endeavours that build incrementally on a wider body of work, and that may bring about subtle conceptual shifts, rather than clearly identifiable policy changes. Here, then, the focus might be on rewarding collaboration and knowledge exchange activities, rather than rewarding evidence of ‘demonstrable impacts’.

Co-production approaches, by contrast, would imply the need for much more in-depth, qualitative research on the complex relationships between knowledge and governance. But such approaches have also pointed to the performative effects of research: the ways in which (social) science can re-shape the social world it seeks to describe. This implies that models to promote engagement with knowledge users need to be attentive not just to the complex pathways to research impact, but also to the very real ethical implications of research influence. Not only can the impact agenda affect the practices of social science, as is widely recognised in social science literature; social science can also instigate new policy problems. Proponents of policy impact should have a care what they wish for.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Free Movement of Workers: Scotland’s Needs are Different but Flexibility Likely to Go

As the UK starts considering what its immigration policy will look like after Brexit, it is becoming clearer quite how well the EEA free movement provisions have worked for industry, public services, and for many local communities. This means it is going to be extremely hard to replace it in a way that suits all those who feel they have a stake in future UK immigration.

Benefits to employers

Let’s start with economic and labour market goals. Not only did free movement provide a ready source of labour across skills levels, occupations and regions. It also offered firms a flexible channel for recruitment, which bypassed the various bureaucratic hurdles of the UK immigration system. Unlike provisions for recruiting non-EEA nationals under ‘Tier 2’, employers did not have to undertake a resident labour market test, apply for sponsor status or impose skills or salary thresholds. So employers in all sorts of firms and public sector organisations could recruit suitably qualified staff without high costs and red tape. And they could do this for lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs, something not possible under the Tier 2 route, which is restricted to high qualified workers, and those earning at least £30,000 (or £20,800 for new entrants) – barring some exceptions.

Benefits to employees

Of course, this highly flexible arrangement has not been without its problems. Many EEA nationals have ended up taking jobs below their skills level, at lower wages and with less secure contracts than equivalently qualified UK workers. And some sectors have avoided investing in technology and switching to less labour intensive models because of the availability of low-cost labour. But clearly, EEA mobility has been a boon to many employers, especially smaller firms and those requiring lower-skilled employees.

The second virtue of this model was to allow EEA migrants a high degree of flexibility in their mobility decisions. The free movement framework has allowed them to hold down often precarious, seasonal and low-paid work, because of the possibility of returning home between jobs, bringing over family to help with caring, accessing tax credits and benefits, as well as public services. And it has allowed people to adjust their plans on where to live and work, and when to stay or return, allowing them to deal with uncertainty and risk, and their changing life circumstances.

This set of arrangements has undoubtedly facilitated the flexible matching of labour to skills across the country – and has aided integration in local communities. By contrast, Tier 2 provisions impose a much more rigid framework, with limited potential for these types of adjustments.

Flexibility across the UK

But I want to emphasise a third way in which these provisions have been flexible: they have served to accommodate quite divergent immigration goals across areas of the UK. Let’s consider how immigration has been framed over the past decades. At UK level, the rhetoric on EEA mobility initially revolved around its benefits for the UK labour market and economy. At a time of high employment and economic growth in the early to mid 2000s, EEA workers filled shortages, boosted productivity and growth, and contributed to the public purse.

As the UK economy contracted after 2008, and successive governments started to limit immigration, the story amongst economic experts and business circles was still one of addressing skills shortage – with the emphasis shifting to the highly qualified. Increasingly, those with lower skills were seen as a problem, and the EEA framework blamed for preventing the government from selecting those (high-skilled) immigrants seen as most economically beneficial.

Scotland and free movement

But in Scotland, EEA nationals across all skills levels continued to be welcomed as contributing not just to the economy, but to key demographic goals. And here we need to understand the radically distinct ways in which immigration is framed in Scotland. Contrary to the labour market/economic model prevailing in the South East of England (and in the UK debate more generally), Scottish policy makers have long viewed immigration as a crucial part of their population growth strategy.

Scotland was plagued by a declining population until the late 1980s. And with its longer, traumatic history of depopulation in the 19th century, the spectre of population decline continues to weigh heavily in government planning. Through the 2000s and 2010s, Scotland was able to stem population decline – and indeed enjoy modest growth – thanks to immigration. Some of this immigration is from the rest of the UK, but increasingly, the lion’s share has been from overseas, and especially EEA countries. In 2016, for example, Scotland experienced net immigration of 31,700 – of which 22,900 (72%) were from overseas, and just 8,800 from other parts of the UK.

Now population growth isn’t just about abstract numbers. It underpins economic growth, and – crucially – helps offset the acute problems caused by population ageing. Scotland’s population is set to age more swiftly than the UK average, creating huge fiscal problems (paying for pensions, health and social services), as well as labour shortages. Immigration is seen as key to addressing this.

Depopulation is felt most acutely in remote rural and coastal areas of Scotland. Here, the effects of declining and ageing population are already setting in, creating not just labour shortages in key industries (e.g. agriculture, forestry, food processing and tourism), but also jeopardising the provision of public services such as health and schools. Again, EEA nationals have helped offset these problems, with families settling across all areas of Scotland, and integrating into local communities.

Thus for Scotland, immigration isn’t just about an economic calculation based on labour and skills gaps. It is also about addressing a wider set of demographic challenges, with very real consequences for wider society, including the viability of remote communities.

A One-Size fits all approach will cause problems

EEA mobility has masked these differences. It has proved adept in addressing a wide range of economic, social and demographic challenges across the UK. But the types of immigration policies likely to replace this framework are unlikely to be so accommodating. The emphasis in current debates – including the leaked Home Office paper – is on more limited routes, which prioritise high skills, with lower-skilled occupations enjoying only restricted rights, and no pathway to permanent settlement. This package will do little to attract the volume of immigration sought by the Scottish government. And it will prove difficult, if not impossible, to attract and retain migrants not meeting these skills requirements, especially remoter areas.

The UK government is predictably wary of allowing Scotland and other regions to pursue a more liberal approach (various options for ‘differentiated’ or ‘regionalised’ policies have been mooted – see our paper on this subject). With the government’s net migration target still in place, and the perceived need to show that Brexit will bring back ‘control’ of immigration, the last thing Theresa May wants to do is let the Scots develop a more permissive approach. All the more so given expected media reporting on Scotland as a ‘back door’ to the rest of the UK.

But the UK government would do well to acknowledge the very different set of concerns animating Scottish policy-makers – concerns which, significantly, are shared across all the main political parties in Scotland. Westminster and Whitehall need to engage in debate about the demographic challenges facing Scotland – and recognise the country’s distinctive policy approach to its framing of immigration goals. EEA mobility has masked these divergences. Brexit will mean they surface with a vengeance, creating another faultline in already fraught Union politics.

This blog was first posted on the Scottish Centre for European Relations website.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Scottish independence | Leave a comment

After border control: how internal controls are becoming the most potent tool in immigration enforcement

Last Wednesday, the UK Government published its long-awaited Position Paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland, setting out how it hoped to maintain a border-free zone with Ireland once it has left the EU.

Section 2. of the paper deals with maintenance of the Common Travel Area – suggesting how the UK and Ireland might sustain free movement and rights of Irish and UK nationals post-Brexit. Many commentators have questioned how these provisions can be preserved, once the UK starts to impose restrictions on the free movement of EEA nationals. But the paper helpfully clarifies a few misconceptions that have caused much confusion over the past month.

The key point is that any immigration restrictions on EEA nationals are likely to be enforced post-entry. In other words, immigration control won’t take place at the border, but once people are in the UK. Indeed, it is likely that EEA nationals will continue to be able to enter the UK (as visitors) after Brexit. What will change is not their ability to travel to the UK, but their right to reside and work in the country. Once the UK leaves the Single Market, it is assumed that EEA nationals will no longer enjoy an automatic entitlement to live and work in the UK. And these new restrictions will be enforced through checks and controls on access to employment, benefits and services.

The UK is rightly confident in its ability to enforce immigration rules through such internal checks. Over the past few decades the government has been rolling out its capacity to control non-nationals resident in the UK. Key to this approach is to enlist organizations in other sectors – whether employers, social services, higher education, healthcare, private housing, or banks – to enforce restrictions on the access of irregular immigrants to social and economic services. Most notably, employers and higher education organizations have been given the role of ‘sponsors’ who are delegated the responsibility of monitoring employees and students from outside the EU. These policies are intended to create a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants, making it impossible for them to carve out a viable life in the UK. This approach recognises that border control cannot effectively stop irregular migration, a large portion of which involves overstay of visas.

Of course, it is always possible that EEA nationals may successfully evade these controls. But they will have limited incentives to do so – given the risks and difficulties associated with trying to access employment, housing, banking or health without authorisation. Indeed, the types of mobility most associated with irregular stay and work involve those employed in lower-skilled, lower-paid and less regulated sectors – such as informal work in domestic services or some areas of agriculture, construction, hospitality and catering, where employers may have less incentive to check documentation and employ workers on the books. Recall, too, that those most likely to be drawn into such irregular work and stay are those with limited life prospects in their country of origin – those without attractive or viable alternatives. So irregular status in the UK is unlikely to be an appealing long-term prospect for nationals from relatively stable and prosperous EEA countries.

What may be more of a headache for the UK government is potential cross-border flows of non-EEA nationals, especially those with the features described above – escaping difficult conditions at home, and employed in lower-skilled and less regulated sectors. Here, there may be some potential for cross-border movements resulting in irregular stay and work. But here, as the paper points out, UK and Irish policy is broadly aligned. Neither country is part of the Schengen Zone – and they have developed close cooperation on visa and entry policies for third country nationals. The principal risk here is if Ireland were to join Schengen – a prospect that seems highly unlikely, given both Ireland and the EU’s support for sustaining the CTA.

So the paper doesn’t offer much that is new or surprising on immigration control. But the paper’s explicit clarification of these points about border and internal immigration control does offer food for thought.

First, it weakens one of the arguments marshalled against Scotland (or other parts of the UK) adopting a differentiated approach to immigration. One of the main arguments against such a devolved approach is that it risks onward movement from Scotland to the rest of the UK – Scotland would become a ‘back door’ for immigrants. But this position paper acknowledges that this is not a problem in relation to Ireland, even in the event of the UK leaving the Single Market – that much immigration control effectively takes place post-entry, and that it is possible to align visa policy for third-country nationals. So that knocks out one of the main arguments for refusing Scotland more autonomy over its immigration policy (see our recent paper on this-authored with Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie).

Second, it implies that future UK immigration policy may rely more on such internal controls. The subtle message of the paper seems to be: trust us, we have further plans in this area. The area of internal immigration controls has evolved rapidly over the past years. But successive governments have also been frustrated at resistance from some sectors, who are reluctant to play a role in enforcement (teachers and doctors have been notably reticent about complying). Remember, too, the demise of Labour’s universal ID card plan – a scheme which may well be revived to deal with new migration control challenges. It wouldn’t be surprising if such proposals find their way back onto the agenda. In short, we are likely to see a further push for these forms of post-entry control.

As a final thought, if the UK is developing internal enforcement in this way, it begs the question as to whether such controls could address concerns about EEA immigration – those very concerns that prompted many to support Brexit. One of the reasons the UK has implemented free movement provisions in a less robust way than some of its continental neighbours is its lack of state capacity to monitor the whereabouts of non-nationals (an issue we are exploring in our ESRC project on “Seeing Illegal Immigrants”). The UK lacks the type of registration system and ID cards that most EU countries have had for decades. The UK is also hampered in this by its welfare system. EU countries with contributory welfare systems are better equipped to exclude new (EU) immigrants from welfare benefits. In the event of the UK deciding it needs to accept free movement provisions to retain access to the Single Market, the UK government is likely to need to rethink these provisions.

So whether in or out of the Single Market, we should watch this space. The exigencies of immigration control are likely to have a profound effect on how the state monitors, and allocates resources to, its population.






Posted in Brexit, Immigration | Leave a comment

Sustaining Immigration to Scotland After Brexit: What are the Options?

Today we launched a report which looks at the options for a ‘differentiated’ approach to immigration policy in Scotland.

The report provides a rigorous tool for appraising a range of approaches, drawing on experiences from across Europe, Canada and Australasia. The different options are rated on their potential to address Scottish immigration needs and also their practical and political viability for the UK as a whole.

The report says that the schemes best suited to address Scotland’s economic and demographic needs – such as the points-based system used in Australia and Canada – are potentially the most difficult to sell politically. The Australian/Canadian systems offer a flexible tool for selecting immigrants, and foster integration through allowing generous access to permanent residence.

While such a scheme would be practically viable for Scotland, it would require a substantial shift in public perceptions and in the position of the current UK Government, which favours reducing immigration.

More politically feasible options include making smaller adjustments to the current immigration system to meet skills and labour shortages. Options include adjusting current Tier 2 schemes to allow lower skills or salary thresholds for Scottish employers, or reintroducing a post-study work scheme.

The report warns against regulating lower-skilled immigration through temporary and seasonal schemes that offer limited rights and protection for workers. It is in lower-skilled jobs ¬ the part of the economy that employs most EEA nationals – where labour gaps are most likely to appear post-Brexit.

Instead, there is a need to design systems that encourage the workers that Scotland needs to settle and integrate in Scotland.

The report was co-authored with Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie, colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. You can read the full report here.

You can also read coverage of the report in the Herald.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Scottish independence | Leave a comment

The rejection of expertise damages public debate, but it also creates risks for populist governments

One common feature of populist anti-immigration movements is their eschewal of expertise. Populist movements mobilise support through claiming to articulate the interests of ‘the people’ as against established institutions and elites. They mobilise support against a discredited ruling elite and their values: not just those seen as part of the political and economic establishment but also the media, academics and other experts (Canovan 1999). While populism does not necessarily imply the rejection of technocratic measures (Mudde 2004), populist styles of mobilisation tend to reject complex, technical arguments in favour of simple claims and spontaneous action.

This implies that populist claims are not typically backed up with ‘evidence’ or specialised experience. Part of their appeal may derive precisely from their defiance of such expertise. As Michael Freeden puts it, populist claims are characterised by their simplicity and urgency – they should not be ‘adulterated by reflection and deliberation’. And they promise immediate fulfilment – dispensing with planning and negotiation in order to achieve instantaneous results.

This might imply that populist parties are shifting debate away from more technical or evidence-based forms of deliberation – what in previous work I have termed ‘technocratic modes of settlement’. They are the defenders par excellence of supposedly ‘democratic’ modes of settlement. They want to let ‘the people’ decide.

Yet moderate parties do not necessarily embrace this anti-expert mode of settlement. They may continue to evoke more technocratic or expert sources to underpin their claims. They may still see evidence and specialised knowledge as carrying particular authority in debates on immigration. In this sense, the mode of settlement for weighing up rival claims may itself be contested: there may be quite different understandings of what constitute appropriate ways of evaluating competing claims. In other words, there may be a divide between protagonists who continue to invoke expertise as relevant to deliberation on immigration policy issues, and those who see it as irrelevant.

This type of fracture appears increasingly evident in public political debates across liberal democratic countries experiencing a rise in populist parties. It implies that political contestation goes beyond substantive claims about appropriate policies: it involves more radical disagreement about what constitute legitimate and appropriate modes of settling political debate. So the divide is not just ideological, it reflects fundamentally different epistemological positions.

This is not just a problem for public political deliberation. It also creates a number of challenges for policy-making in national administrations. One of the features of populist claims-making is that it is not constrained by evidence or expert knowledge about the causes and dynamics of social problems, or about the sorts of interventions that may be effective in steering them. Thus the populist rejection of expertise creates an awkward gap between the types of claims grounding pledges, and prevalent modes of knowledge use within the civil service. Populist politics invokes different causal stories about policy problems and responses, drawing on quite distinct sources of knowledge (such as anecdote, public myths, or dystopian scenario-building).

The gap is likely to be especially pronounced where populist movements offer up specific pledges or commit themselves to precise outcomes which can be measured. Incumbents seeking to mobilise support through signalling commitment to populist goals will face substantial challenges when it comes to implementing them.

This clearly creates political risks for populist parties that achieve political power. In many ways, such movements will be more comfortable in opposition than as incumbents. Once in power, they risk being exposed as unable to deliver their simplistic and overly ambitious pledges. This creates what I have termed a ‘populist gap’: a discrepancy between what opposition parties may claim, and what they can feasibly achieve once in government.

How populist-oriented governments manage this risk depends in part on how far they can sustain their narratives about policy problems and their government’s performance, in the face of contradictory evidence. Where the impacts of interventions are diffuse and difficult to measure and attribute, populist governments may evade exposure – and this may well be the case in areas such as immigration control and immigrant integration.

But where their performance is subject to such observation and measurement, then they may be exposed as unable to achieve their goals – as may be the case with, for example, reducing asylum or immigration inflows. In such areas, voters are likely to be disillusioned at the failure of governments to deliver.

So while we may be distressed at the eschewal of expertise and evidence, it is precisely this rejection that creates the most serious risks for populist governments. Where their claims cannot be delivered, they risk exposure. And this exposure is most likely to occur in those areas where their outputs can be monitored.  In this sense, we might want to embrace quantitative targets as a tool for exposing the unfeasibility of governments’ promises. Targets may be distorting and simplifying, but their capacity to hold expose unrealistic claims that have no grounding in evidence creates a strong tool of accountability.

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Symbolic politics | Leave a comment