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

Taking back control of ideas: How politicians can shape public debates on immigration

Christina Boswell and James Hampshire

New proposals on how to regulate immigration after Brexit are coming thick and fast. But there’s a lot of muddled thinking from the main political parties, especially regarding how to respond to anti-immigrant sentiment amongst sections of the public.

Politicians and commentators often fall into one of two traps. Either they take anti-immigrant sentiment as a given – a legitimate democratic preference, which needs to be taken at face value and respected. On this view, the role of mainstream political parties is to allay concerns through introducing more stringent controls and tougher integration measures.

Alternatively, politicians and pundits understand anti-immigrant sentiment as a problem of ignorance. On this account, large sections of the public hold inaccurate beliefs about the scale and impacts of immigration, and the answer is to better educate people, supply them with robust evidence and facts in order to bust the myths about immigration, and encourage a more enlightened approach.

To be sure, anti-immigrant sentiment and misinformation cannot be ignored. Opposition to immigration is often based on real anger and anxiety about voters’ socio-economic situation, even if many voters do not have accurate information about how immigration affects the economy or public services.

Yet such anxieties are not generally caused by immigration, even if they are readily channelled into concerns about it. Throughout history, immigrants and minority groups have served as a lightning rod for absorbing insecurity and social division. It is much easier to blame foreigners than to understand the complex structural factors that shape our lives.

This is where political elites and the stories they tell — or do not tell — come in. In trying to persuade a sceptical public that immigration is not the threat many of them perceive it to be, narratives and images are probably more important than statistics and data. People do not rationally weigh up evidence, and decide the most appropriate way of venting their concerns. They are far more likely to accept claims that chime with their background beliefs about society or social problems.

In a recent paper we explore how these beliefs shape debates about immigration. We begin from the observation that every society has a repertoire of background ideas which influence collective narratives about social problems. We draw on Vivien Schmidt’s distinction between two levels of ideas. The first, ‘public philosophies’, represent the broad worldviews that shape our beliefs about identity, belonging, and the good society. For example, British self-identity embodies a strong conception of fairness linked to waiting one’s turn and playing by the rules, and it has incorporated hyphenated identities in ways that suggest a less than rigid notion of ethnic criteria for membership. Anti-immigrant sentiment is often articulated in the form of resentment about protecting privileged access to welfare and jobs, rather than in cultural or racial terms.

The second level is ‘programmatic ideas’ about the sorts of policy interventions that work in steering immigration. For example, the UK government tends to emphasise border control and deterrence as effective control mechanisms, while also operating a selective immigration system based on employer demand, albeit with numerical caps. Increasingly, public debate has coalesced around the idea that higher skilled immigration brings economic benefits, while lower skilled, ‘uncontrolled’ immigration places a burden on the public purse.

These background ideas – programmatic but also public philosophies – are not immutable. There is typically a range of values and beliefs that shape narratives of social problems, and these frequently conflict with one another. Politicians can draw on these selectively to construct compelling stories about immigration and its effects.

In our paper, we identify some of the strategies through which politicians can select and shape background ideas about immigration. Political leaders can selectively marshal ideas, foregrounding particular strands of public philosophy over others. And they can draw on shared narratives about policy legacies, to discredit or bolster claims about future policies. We show how such strategies influenced discourse on labour migration in the early 2000s in the UK and Germany.

In the early 2000s, New Labour attempted to justify a new approach by invoking British values of tolerance and diversity, and was successful – at least for a brief period – in uniting mainstream parties and the media around a narrative about the economic benefits of immigration and diversity. In doing so, Blair and his cabinet tapped into public philosophies of Britain as a cosmopolitan and multicultural nation, and programmatic ideas about the importance of attracting skilled workers to boost productivity and growth.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its Green coalition partner in the early 2000s attempted to promote a similar approach, drawing on programmatic ideas about Germany as a cutting edge economy attracting the best skills. But the government was initially thwarted in making its case by a Christian Democratic opposition that invoked more protectionist ideas. Paradoxically, over time, SPD/Green ideas about Germany’s need for immigration ushered in a profound shift in background ideas about immigration. This shift underpinned incremental steps towards a more progressive and economically-oriented approach to labour migration.

What is the lesson from this for political leadership on immigration issues? We suggest that political elites can play an important role in shaping narratives of immigration. While they need to anticipate and respond to voters’ preferences, politicians can also exercise influence by invoking background ideas about what sorts of approaches are feasible and legitimate.

Invoking public philosophies, especially those based on normative values, can be used to mobilise identification with – even pride in – shared values and history. See, for example, how the Blair government’s references to Britain’s history of openness underpinned support for immigration policy liberalization. Or, more recently, how invoking Britain’s legacy in assisting Jewish refugees through the Kindertransport has been used by campaigners such as Lord Dubs to exert a powerful moral effect in debates on child refugees.

Yet these examples stand out precisely because they cut against the grain of recent developments in the UK. As the narratives of the far right and the anti-immigrant press have gained prominence, the onus has shifted from public philosophies based on openness and diversity, to those invoking protectionism and nationalism. This has enabled the emergence of beliefs that immigrants are responsible for social problems such as hospital waiting times or housing shortages.

These beliefs will not be shifted by bombarding voters with data, since people rarely change their minds when presented with contrary evidence. Paradoxically, therefore, a more rational debate about immigration cannot be purely rationalistic. Instead, politicians who want to challenge ignorance and prejudice need to construct narratives about immigration and its place in our society which draw on existing public philosophies of openness and inclusion. These public philosophies do exist and they have been mobilized in the recent past. They can and should be resuscitated.


Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy | 1 Comment

Assessing proposals for post-Brexit immigration policy: devolution or a tiered approach?

It’s been a busy few days for immigration policy wonks. On Thursday 5th, the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, headed by Chuka Umunna, proposed a new approach to immigration policy, including proposals for more robust measures on integration and for the devolution of immigration policy-making to sub-national regions. And on Saturday, Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds put forward a plan for a post-Brexit immigration policy based on preferential treatment for EU nationals.

While these contributions proposed different approaches, they were based on similar premises, namely:

  1. That the British public has articulated a clear preference for more robust control of immigration; and that political parties need to recognise and respond to this desire, or risk further erosion of trust and a serious democratic deficit.
  2. That labour migration brings important economic and social benefits, and many sections of the British economy are dependent on migrant labour. Thus a radical restriction of current flows would be neither economically desirable, nor feasible.

Taken together, these two considerations imply a serious tension between popular preferences for restriction, and the economic case for a more liberal approach. In previous blogs, I have shown how this is a classic dilemma for liberal democratic welfare states. So how do the recent proposals seek to resolve the tension?

Both of the proposed approaches involve setting up channels to sustain current inflows of EU immigration, but in a way designed to reassure voters that the UK does effectively control immigration. Indeed, the real challenge lies in this second aspect of the proposals: how far they can convince voters that a post-Brexit Britain immigration policy is meeting public concerns about the scale and impacts of immigration.

The all-party group on social integration suggests two main ways of reassuring the public that the government is serious about controlling immigration. (1) First, the proposal revives a well-established ‘dualist’ approach in post-war UK immigration policy: restricting new entry, whilst promoting the rights and integration of those immigrants already here. The proposals of the all-party group reinvigorate the focus on integration, which has effectively been sidelined by a government keen to encourage return migration in order to meet its net migration target. The paper proposes financial support for local communities and new policies to promote integration as well as introducing more robust language requirements. This is certainly welcome, and could potentially go some way to alleviating local grievances and tensions, at least in the medium to long-term (although injecting resources into integration always runs the risk of exacerbating local grievances about immigrants are receiving preferential treatment).

(2) Second, the proposal seeks to address the tension between public concerns and economic considerations through a differentiated regional approach. It suggests that the devolved administrations and city-regions be given more autonomy in setting thresholds and selecting which types of labour migrants to admit. The rationale for this is that different regions in the UK may have distinct preferences and needs – for example as a function of varying demographic profiles, economic sectors, or public attitudes. The report mentions the Canadian regional points-based system as a possible template for this, but suggests the need for further discussion of the different options.

Such a devolved approach could in principle cater for differential economic and demographic conditions. It is less obvious how far it would address public concerns about control. One key aspect here is the question of retention. Regional systems are unable to limit the onward movement of those granted permanent residence or citizenship (it would be difficult to limit free movement once someone has accrued extended UK residency rights). This has been a feature of the Canadian and Australian regional systems, where studies have shown that there is often substantial onward movement once people are entitled to relocate. Another concern is that a differentiated regional approach may not lead to a reduction in aggregate net migration figures. Indeed, such an approach would need to be accompanied by much more nuanced, regional data on net migration than are currently available. (Or, of course, scrapping the net migration figure entirely…)

On a more symbolic level, it is difficult to see how a UK government could claim to be asserting control while devolving decision-making to regions and cities (possibly run by left-wing administrations!).

There are also questions about how far regions can act as legitimate decision-making units on an issue as salient as immigration. The devolved administrations represent more mature polities, in which many institutions and policies are already autonomous, and the public is accustomed to its (regional) political parties articulating distinct claims and representing the distinct preferences of that geographical unit. This is less clearly the case for the ‘city areas’ identified in the paper (although London may be an exception). Given the asymmetrical nature of federalism in the UK, it’s unclear how a separate regional approach to immigration would be legitimate for most sub-national areas. Indeed, any regional deviation from the (more restrictive) UK-level ‘default’ would need to be carefully deliberated and justified at regional level, in order to avoid the sort of elitist, economically driven policy that is now perceived to have been so problematic at UK level over the past decade. So while this devolved approach may conceivably work for a region like Scotland (and has been mooted here for a decade or more), it’s less clear how it could offer a more general fix across the UK.

So what of the second proposal from Kinnock and Reynolds? Their favoured approach is to address public concerns about immigration control through another form of disaggregation: not differentiating between regions, but between skills levels. They suggest granting preferential treatment to EU nationals, but separating these into two distinct ‘tiers’ (not to be confused with the current 5-tier immigration system). The proposed tier 1 would cover high skilled professions (they name doctors, engineers and teachers as examples). EU nationals with the relevant skills, qualifications, and with a job offer, would be allowed to work in the UK in these occupations. Tier 2 comprises semi and low-skilled workers who would be admitted in accordance with quotas set by the government and social partners, in an arrangement reminiscent of post-war European guest-worker systems.

This approach makes a nod to survey findings that British voters are more accepting of the economic case for high skilled workers than they are for low-skilled. Admitting high skilled professionals is likely to be more politically palatable. But the approach also preserves channels for low-skilled employment which, after all, comprises the bulk of EU immigration. (Even though EU nationals in the UK are on average better qualified than UK ones, many end up taking on less skilled jobs.) Importantly, the authors want to ensure these quotas are not so generous as to displace indigenous workers, or to disincentivise investment in training, or restructuring sectors with low productivity.

Kinnock and Reynolds further suggest that this approach would provide a good basis for negotiating more extended access to the single market – it offers a ‘win-win’ for the UK and EU. Here I am less convinced. If this 2-tier system isn’t a case of the ‘cherry-picking’ so castigated by EU leaders, I don’t know what is. It seems unlikely that the EU would accept this package as remotely equivalent to sustaining rights of free movement. The notion that the stay of highly skilled EU nationals would be permitted only for specified occupations and contingent on a ‘confirmed’ job offer implies a rather restrictive regime – certainly compared to current free movement provisions, and even in comparison to typical points-based systems, under which individuals can enter and seek work based on their occupational qualifications or human capital. It is even less appealing for low-skilled workers, who enter under a quota scheme and are presumably locked into lower-skilled jobs with limited possibilities of mobility.

However, leaving aside the question of how it would play in Brexit negotiations, this second approach may be more promising in terms of winning public support. Basing labour migration policy on hard-nosed economic arguments about skills or occupational shortages may well play better with the public, offering a clear narrative about the rationale for admission. And the onus on selecting which sectors and occupations need immigrant labour would help signal that the government is in control.

Such an occupational/sectoral approach could incorporate a regional dimension – but indirectly, through the sectors it prioritises. It could include more extensive regional lists to reflect distinct labour needs in different parts of the country. And, as suggested in the report, it could revive something like the Fresh Talent initiative that would allow graduates of UK universities to work in the UK once their studies are finished – an approach that again can work well for regions and cities hosting large numbers of students.

Indeed, I suspect this sort of approach may well emerge as the preferred framework for post-Brexit immigration policy: a system that gives preferential treatment to EU nationals in a way that largely preserves current flows; while allowing more leverage in identifying sectors or occupations in need of labour. Whether or not it constitutes much of a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations is more doubtful. But such preferential treatment could be assist the conclusion of bilateral arrangements with other EU member states – for example ensuring skilled UK nationals can also work in Munich, or that UK pensioners can still spend their retirement years in the Costa del Sol.

In short, both reports contain very useful ideas. We need a revived focus on integration and enhanced support for local areas. We should further explore options for devolved arrangements – although I am doubtful how far these would be politically viable beyond the case of Scotland. And we need to consider how best to sustain current EU mobility in a way that reassures the public that the UK is managing immigration. It won’t be enough to keep us in the single market. But the alternative would be an unmanaged approach that fails to address local pressures and integration challenges, and that probably ends up admitting high numbers of immigrants without a clear narrative about choice and control. A bit like the current approach, then, but with far higher levels of disaffection on the part of disillusioned Brexit voters.

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

What might a post-Brexit immigration policy look like?

In previous blogs, I’ve explored the possibility of a deal that combines Single Market access with some restrictions on free movement. Legally and technically, this still seems possible, and there are certainly precedents that could be built on. But it’s looking more and more remote in political terms – especially given the more hardline approach being articulated by Theresa May on free movement, and increasing anxiety among EU leaders about a Brexit ‘contagion’ effect.

So let’s assume the UK negotiates a deal involving withdrawing from provisions on free movement. What sort of immigration policy would be likely to follow? Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, I would suggest policies will seek to preserve current flows of EU immigration as far as possible.

First, we shouldn’t expect to see a substantial decrease in the volume of EU immigration. There will be strong pressures to protect immigration flows for businesses and service providers in those sectors heavily dependent on EU nationals. Where such dependency exists, it will be extremely difficult for the government to restrict flows. Indeed, this has been the clear lesson from the Conservative attempt to limit non-EU immigration since 2010. Despite introducing an array of measures to try to meet its net migration target, it has failed to reduce non-EU flows, largely because of the substantial costs that would accrue to business and higher education. If non-EU flows were so difficult to restrict, there’s no reason to think EU flows will be any easier to limit.

Indeed, many leading Brexiteers were keen to stress that leaving the EU was not about reducing immigration per se, but controlling which immigrants we admit. So we shouldn’t expect a huge change in the volume of flows, or the sectors and occupations in which EU immigrants work.

Neither should we expect a significant change in the composition of flows. There will be good reasons to sustain current EU flows. Businesses will have adapted to recruiting and employing workers from particular countries or places. They may rely on employees with particular linguistic skills, knowledge of local markets or contacts. And not least, the UK government may want to create channels for EU immigration as part of reciprocal agreements. So there may be a case for sustaining current patterns of inflow to ensure similar outflows of UK nationals to particular EU countries can continue.

This all implies that the UK will have a strong interest in creating new or expanded channels to recruit a good proportion of those EU immigrants who would previously have entered via free movement provisions. So what sorts of policies might best support these flows?

May’s government has shown little enthusiasm for the sort of points-based system previously advocated by Gove and Johnson. However, the government might want to consider introducing some other kind of human capital-based system for attracting high skilled EU workers. This could be something along the lines of the ‘fresh talent’ scheme for EU graduates. This scheme allowed graduates of Scottish universities to work for up to 2 years in Scotland, and then either leave or switch to another visa scheme. It would be a good way to ensure an ongoing supply of EU students to UK universities – which is likely to be a priority post-Brexit. And it would imply a continued flow of young, qualified graduates with good knowledge of UK life, but with a clear limit to the duration of the scheme.

Beyond targeting graduates or introducing a points-based system, there are two main options for sustaining high skilled EU immigration. The first is an expansion of the current 5-tier system. The government could expand Tier 2 to allow more skilled EU immigrants to be employed in the UK, including through intra-company transfers, and the occupational shortage list. However, it may be difficult to prioritise EU nationals under the existing scheme. Non-EU governments whose nationals are currently admitted under the Tier system may be concerned their nationals will be displaced, and such a two-track scheme may be complex to explain and cumbersome to administrate.

A second scenario, therefore, is a series of bespoke arrangements for EU nationals. For example, the government could introduce a more lax residency test for EU nationals, allowing employers to recruit them for jobs that can’t be filled by UK nationals (e.g. after advertising nationally for a set period). Or they could identify occupations, skills or sectors for which employers are permitted to recruit EU nationals (similar to the current occupational shortage list). A third alternative would be to allow those with qualifications in a relevant occupation or sector (e.g. ICT ) to enter the UK for a specified period to look for work (a model for this would be the German Green Card scheme). Such schemes would need to be relatively attractive in terms of length of stay and residency rights, to appeal to highly qualified immigrants.

What of low-skilled work? We know that a large proportion of EU immigrants fill jobs at the lower end of the skills spectrum, for example in hospitality and catering, health and social care, manufacturing and construction. An end to free movement will cause just as much disruption for this part of the labour market. Here, I suspect the government will be more circumspect about introducing new schemes for recruiting EU immigrants. While there appears to be public support for high-skilled migrants, public anxiety has tended to focus on workers filling lower-skilled jobs.

But eliminating demand for such labour would require radical restructuring in a number of sectors, and/or providing sufficient incentives for domestic workers to meet gaps in labour supply. In many cases, such as seasonal jobs or jobs in remote areas, it may be impossible to address shortages without relying on foreign labour. It is therefore likely that the government will need to introduce flexible schemes for sustaining labour supply for certain low-skilled occupations. One option would be to use the (as yet unused) Tier 3 of the current system. However, I suspect the government is more likely to opt for temporary or seasonal schemes where it can. Not only do such schemes allow more flexibility in recruitment, they also imply immigrants will only stay for a short period, thus reducing concerns about integration and impacts on public services. Where immigrants stay for under 12 months, it also means they won’t show up on the net migration statistics, and so will remain under the radar of the government’s net migration target. So for both practical and political reasons, lower-skilled jobs may be the object of temporary labour programmes, possibly administered via bilateral agreements with those EU countries that currently supply large numbers of workers.

In short, I think we can expect a post-Brexit immigration policy to largely replicate current inflows of EU nationals, in terms of both volume and composition. But it will do so in a way that is far more cumbersome and bureaucratically burdensome. And, especially for those employed in low-skilled and temporary work, it will imply a far less attractive bundle of entitlements and labour standards. This, in turn, may even contribute to a higher risk of EU workers undercutting UK nationals, through accepting lower salaries and more precarious conditions. This may be good news for businesses employing EU workers. But it’s hardly good news for EU nationals, and is surely not what was intended by ‘taking back control’.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration | 1 Comment

Targets and Political Trust: Findings from our ESRC Project

In a slightly longer blog than usual, I set out the main findings from our recently completed ESRC project

Targets and performance indicators have become ubiquitous as techniques of governance. Governments and public service agencies have employed an array of such tools to steer, monitor and evaluate performance. Political leaders have also developed targets to signal their commitment to policy goals. Yet after more than three decades of performance measurement in public policy, most  commentators agree that such tools have produced numerous adverse effects. Performance measurement techniques imply focusing on a limited range of quantitative features or goals, thereby narrowing down the focus of policy-making and political debate. They can create perverse incentives and encourage gaming. Not least, the use of such tools can erode trust within organizations, and even undermine confidence in political leaders and politics.

Given these short-comings, what explains the persistent appeal of performance measurement? And what effects do such techniques have on policy, politics, and public administration? The Politics of Monitoring was a three-year project sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which explored the factors shaping the use of targets and performance indicators in UK policy and politics; and examined their various effects on policy-making and public debate. The project focused on three policy areas: immigration, climate change, and defence procurement. Here I present some of the main findings of the project.


Most analyses of targets and indicators suggest that they are favoured as a means of steering or controlling performance. Such techniques emerge as a response to the outsourcing of public services to  semi-autonomous agencies and the private sector. Performance measurement is a means of enabling governments to govern ‘at a distance’. We suggest that this is only part of the story. Building on Michael Power’s work on auditing, we show how targets and indicators have an important symbolic role: they act as a ‘ritual of verification’ (Power) to those seeking to steer performance. They offer  symbolic reassurance to the authors of targets and their audiences. Targets establish clear thresholds to guide decisions about bestowing and withholding trust. This helps assuage the anxiety of those  attempting to steer policy-making and implementation. The use of performance measurement also helps bestow credibility on organizations and their political leaders, shoring up confidence in their capacity to control policy-making and implementation. In this way, targets and indicators help address problems of trust in the dealings between political leaders and those tasked with elaborating and implementing policy.

We also show how targets have an important outward-facing function. They are adopted to demonstrate to the public that the government is improving public services, and delivering on its pledges.  Targets create an especially robust and precise tool of accountability. The appeal of this tool is particularly strong given the widely observed crisis of political disenchantment. The allure of targets thus lies not just in their promise of steering public administration, but also in their capacity to address problems of declining public trust in government.

Targets therefore have a dual function: they are adopted to address problems of trust between political leaders and their administrators; and to create public trust in the goals and conduct of political leaders. How far have targets succeeded in producing trust at each of these levels?


The dual function of targets described above can create a number of organizational problems. In our study of asylum targets under the Labour government between 2000-2010, we found that technical  targets designed to steer Home Office performance lacked political resonance, prompting politicians to resort to more politically appealing targets, notably Tony Blair’s prominent target of halving asylum applications. Yet these more politically compelling targets created various pressures and tensions in the Home Office. Targets aimed at mobilising public support were not well designed to address organizational problems (see Boswell 2015 for a full account, or this blog for a shorter version).

In our analysis of targets on defence procurement and asylum, we also found evidence of widescale ‘decoupling’: a gap between formal compliance with targets, and informal organisational practice, which deviated from the underlying rationale informing the targets. Literature on decoupling suggests that such forms of reinterpretation or subversion will be limited where organizations are subjected to clear, precise and robustly monitored targets. Yet in the 2000s, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office were successful in decoupling their informal practice from formal compliance with targets. Ultimately, it took highly intrusive political intervention by No.10 in the mid-2000s to bring about comprehensive reform of Home Office and UKBA practices. This achieved a closer alignment between formal and informal practices – although at a severe cost to organizational morale and trust between political leaders and civil servants.

In the Ministry of Defence, by contrast, No.10 was unable to impose the top-down reforms required to meet targets. This partly reflected the lower political salience of defence procurement. Asylum had become such a high profile public issue by the early 2000s that the Labour government felt its credibility was dependent on being seen to get a grip on asylum numbers. Defence was never similarly high profile. Moreover, No.10 and the Treasury felt they had less traction over the Ministry of Defence, given the technical complexity of procurement issues, as well as the distinct culture guiding the organization. You can read more about decoupling in the MoD and Home Office in Boswell and Fleming 2015.


It has long been observed that policies can get lost in implementation. We explored some of the problems of implementation by comparing how targets were appropriated and applied in the areas of climate change, defence procurement and immigration.

In Boswell and Rodrigues (2016), we developed John Kingdon’s idea of ‘multiple streams’ to try to understand differential implementation across sectors. We suggested that implementation is most likely to be successful where the policy emanating from central government converges with organizational constructions of problems, and where such policies are sustained by strong political commitment from the centre.

We developed a model of different implementation scenarios, based on combinations of these conditions. We applied the model to the case of targets in our three policy areas between 2000-2010. CO2 targets took the form of ‘bottom-up’ implementation, where policies matched organisational problem constructions, but there was limited political commitment from the centre. The Departments for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) were keen to enhance their leverage by foregrounding the targets. Implementation of defence procurement targets, as we saw, was characterised by widespread decoupling, with the MoD resisting an approach it felt did not address organizational problems, and No.10 lacking sufficient political commitment to impose compliance. Asylum targets initially saw similar decoupling, but intrusive intervention from No.10 led to coercive implementation, which eventually produced an alignment of organizational and political goals.

The analysis showed how organisations can shift between modes of implementation over time, responding to changes in organisational problems and central political commitment to the policy. You can read our article here, or have a look at our policy briefing for Discover Society.


If targets have generally failed to steer public administration in the way intended, how well have they succeeded in building public trust? Targets promise to provide an especially precise and rigorous mechanism of accountability. But our 65 interviews with political actors suggest that targets rarely bring political dividends to their authors. For a start, they often set overly ambitious goals, creating clear political risks. Even when targets are met, they rarely yield the expected media attention or rise in public satisfaction. Our respondents stressed how disappointed Labour politicians and officials were that the media was not interested in reporting on successful targets.

This is confirmed by our analysis of media coverage of asylum and net migration targets between 2002-2014. We found that press reporting is largely impervious to data demonstrating performance to target. Instead, trust in political leaders is grounded in more impressionistic cues such as the perceived integrity of politicians. Thus although Blair’s government was able to meet its target of halving asylum applications, press reporting was largely sceptical of the government’s motives and methods of meeting the target. By contrast, Cameron’s inability to meet his ambitious net migration target was widely put down to external and intractable obstacles beyond his control.

The analysis challenges mainstream accountability models, according to which public support is based on an appraisal of the performance or conduct of politicians. Instead, it suggests that the types of judgements underpinning political support and trust are based on more impressionistic beliefs about the values, integrity and authenticity of those asserting claims. (This research is forthcoming – please see our project website for updates.)


Targets may have a limited or even negative impact on public trust. Yet they can have a number of other, often anticipated, effects on political debate. One of these concerns the effects of quantitative measures on the way issues are framed. The use of numbers to describe policy problems and goals can carry particular authority in political debate. Statistical measures are associated with impartiality, rigour and precision. They can be embraced as offering particularly robust tools for holding political leaders to account.

Such quantitative framings also carry strong appeal to journalists, offering compelling and authoritative data, and a means of exposing government transgressions. And even where targets and indicators are contested, they can still provide political opponents with an excellent tool for critiquing a government’s record. So opposition parties end up inadvertently buying in to targets, even if they opposed them. At the same time, quantitative targets or indicators provide very simplifying and often distorting descriptions of policy problems. In order to quantify policy issues, we need to classify the entities involved as discrete and equivalent units. Such abstractions can compress important nuances and variations. These simplified classifications can also prove to be very rigid: once statistical categories are created, it may be difficult to adjust or retract them. For these reasons, the authors of targets can become locked in to quantitative formulations of policy problems.

We discuss some of these questions in a co-authored chapter on how targets constrain policy-making. You can also read about the distorting effects of targets in two of our working papers. Yearley and Rodrigues (2016) explore how targets on C02 emissions were effectively ‘blackboxed’: they became taken for granted as ways of framing the problem, thereby removing them from scientific and political scrutiny. Boswell’s (2016) paper on the effects of the net migration target discusses how the target influenced political debate through a ‘classification’ and a ‘measurement’ effect. The argument is also summarised in this blog, and in an article for the Herald.

You can download a PDF pamphlet of the findings here. For more information on the project, please see our website:

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Targets | Leave a comment

Seeing Illegal Immigrants

We have now officially launched our new ESRC project on ‘Seeing Illegal Immigrants: State Monitoring and Political Rationality’.

The two-year long ESRC-funded project focuses on the ways states have ‘seen’ unauthorized migrants in France, Germany and the UK from the late 1960s to the present day.

We explore which forms of illegality states monitor, and which are left unscrutinised; and investigate the techniques states use to produce knowledge about illegal populations. In doing so, we aim to shed light on what we call the ‘logics of monitoring’ shaping the monitoring practices of different parts of the state. Do public authorities maximise surveillance and control of illegal residents, or do they prefer to cultivate a form of benign neglect or even ‘strategic ignorance’ of these groups?

Our website is up and running, and we have already posted 3 blogs. You can read about the project and the research team here.

If you would like further details about the project, please follow us on Twitter or contact us by e-mail at



Posted in Immigration, Symbolic politics | 1 Comment