Post-Normal Policy Interactions: Paradoxes for Science-Policy teams

Kirsty Blackstock, Kerry Waylen & Keith Matthews

The premise of Post-Normal Science (PNS) is to focus on how knowledge is (co)-produced and used by different actors in different contexts. One activity within MAGIC has explored use of the Quantitative Story Telling (QST) methodology within European policy domains, working with actors from EU policy institutions in ‘mixed science-policy teams’.  During the QST cycle exploring the progress of the EU towards Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), we engaged with actors in 13 European policy organisations. Most of these individuals worked within the Directorate Generals (DGs) of the European Commission.  Although we were warned that transdisciplinary working in such settings would be difficult, we persisted and made some useful contacts who helped deepen our understanding of how the SDGs and sustainable agriculture are understood and operationalised within different DGs. However, reflecting on our experiences of trying to complete the full QST cycle (outlined in Figure 1 below) has led us to identify several paradoxes regarding working in mixed teams. We present a selection of these paradoxes below.


Figure 1: Steps in Quantitative Story Telling Cycle


Engage many versus engage few

We received advice to engage with more actors or other groups beyond the EU institutions, to raise their awareness amongst the many other stakeholders of the agri-food system. This advice emphasised the distributed nature of the responsibility to achieve change for sustainability. Yet at the same time, we were encouraged to engage with targeted stakeholders in a more in-depth way to build interpersonal trust and confidence.  Whilst both responses are understandable, it was impossible to engage with every possible relevant group and also build in-depth relationships with strategic individuals.

Focus on specific problems or highlight systemic issues

Some stakeholders expressed desires for more specific and targeted advice that would help inform current policy questions and processes. These stakeholders suggest that awareness of current policy context is important. We had contextualised the quantified metrics in light of current policy objectives, but some expected more specific policy recommendations. In parallel, other stakeholders commented that the value of new approaches such as MAGIC is to highlight aspects of the system that are not currently well-considered by policy-making. PNS also encourages us to avoid reducing systemic problems to single aspects. However, a detailed evaluation of specific policy instruments is more constructive and salient to individual bureaucrats than a systemic diagnosis of (un)sustainability.

Provoke reactions versus build relationships

Most advice on science-policy interactions advises building interpersonal relationships. This was mirrored by the instinctive approach of some MAGIC team members when attempting to make contacts or when reacting to questions from participants, i.e. giving emollient responses to questions and making enquiries about participants’ own work. However, the QST cycle is premised on questioning the robustness of current framings that shape policy responses to sustainability challenges, with the normative goal of questioning the status quo. Such a critical stance can make building relationships more difficult.

These tensions suggest QST is not easily implemented to satisfy all expectations and interpretations. Our work’s contribution to PNS is to illustrate the tensions and challenges inherent when working with actors working on processes and in institutions that do not (yet) reflect the post-normal ethos. One potential solution is to find a policy entrepreneur to champion a post-normal approach within the existing institutional arrangements. Such interactions require significant scientist investments of time and energy to locate and engage such champions, and the use of science to support transformation from the inside, potentially at short notice. Putting PNS into practice may first depend on adapting to prevailing norms and expectations – as well as responding to policy cycles and opportunities – before science-policy relationships are sufficient to allow its more provocative and challenging ways of working.

Image credit: DG Regio Communication Unit