Wednesday 9 September 2015

A post-carnival drinking world?

I’ve just recently had an academic article published that tries to go beyond my previous work on the carnivalesque to argue that this is a useful concept not only to make sense of drinkers’ behaviour, or the government’s understanding of ‘problem’ drinking, but also producers’ approach to trying to sell the idea of drinking in a particular way.

The only thing is – and I don’t want to turn this into a classic academic moan about the delay in getting academic articles published* – that I wonder whether this neat argument now holds.  Of course you should all head to the website and read the paper (or email me for a copy), but this idea that we were all excited by (and/or concerned by) carnivalesque drinking possibly held true in 2008-09, when these ideas were first running round my head.  It’s not so clear that it’s accurate in 2015.

In the past year or so, I’ve been thinking about the parallels with 100 years ago.  Why aren’t certain policies seriously considered – notably the sort of control introduced by the CCB during World War One?  I had been thinking about this in terms of neoliberalism, but then books by Rob Duncan and Henry Yeomans have prompted further thoughts of this kind.

I gave a seminar presentation trying to draw out parallels between the policy and pub positions of now and 100 years ago, and I think it’s worth noting that in both periods, policymakers have been concerned by vertical drinking, people drinking without food and determined drunkenness.  Parallels can certainly be drawn between the ‘improved pubs’ of the interwar period and the Wetherspoons and similar today – indeed David Gutzke has done precisely this in his latest book.

In a nutshell, whether you’re reading Gutzke, Yeomans or Duncan, the parallels are immediately apparent: what’s defined as ‘respectable’ drinking for both policymakers and brewers/pubcos looks much the same in 2015 as 1915, and isn’t defined by quantity consumed as much as controlled (middle-class) domesticity.  For all that today’s public health campaigners are concerned by the quantities of alcohol that people consume at home, domestic drinking continues to struggle to enter the policy debate as a key issue, except where it amounts to ‘pre-loading’.

True, one can be a little more sceptical of pubco motives (and I am).  The same company will operate one bar that embodies the ideals of ‘respectable’ drinking, and another that takes advantage of the cultural capital and respectability it has earned.
The sign outside the Mitchells & Butler's venue in Bournemouth 60 Million Postcards

Picture from the website of the Mitchells & Butler's venue in Bournemouth Brasshouse
Despite this, though, we do seem to be genuinely beyond a period in which expansion and the explicit promotion of the carnivalesque is deemed acceptable or desirable for venues and alcohol producers.  It just doesn’t seem to be a wise business strategy.  This may owe something to the youth market being more ‘sober’ than to some idea of public acceptability, but nevertheless it suggests a different public policy environment.

I don’t know of a comprehensive analysis of the shift in motifs and approaches of alcohol advertising over the past 20 years, but there must be something out there.  Certainly there’s a difference between the Bacardi cat, Smirnoff nightlife and WKD, when compared with more recent campaigns by Thatchers or Strongbow (or maybe this even more recent one).  The first three suggest clubbing and the carnivalesque, playing with accepted roles and normal vision.  The latter ones are more about a legitimate reward for a job well done: time with friends and family.

But perhaps this says more about the differences in marketing for spirits and RTDs compared to cider and wine?  I don’t know, but it’s at least worth thinking about: are we living in a post-carnival world?  And even if the newer Bacardi strapline is ‘untameable’, which sounds pretty Dionysian, the feel is quite different from that cat or Vinnie Jones a decade ago.

I’ve written before about how alcohol needn’t always be a big political issue, and how there needn’t be an adversarial relationship between industry and public health campaigners.  This was what happened after WW1: alcohol wasn’t a significant political issue and that was partly down to the industry continuing to operate while the broad aspirations of campaigners were met.  The carnivalesque is a concept that makes sense of the somewhat adversarial policy debate.  Perhaps, with falling rates of consumption today, ‘binge’ drinking possibly going out of fashion, and an industry that seems more interested in selling domesticity and friendship, the carnivalesque is yesterday’s news.

*Though this one did take over 18 months from first submission, and quite possibly won’t be in print for another year.

Monday 7 September 2015

Educating local policymakers in the art of making policy

I’ve recently had an article published where I suggest that recent changes in the supply of intoxicating substances and treatment for their misuse mean that local decisions are more important than there were in the New Labour years, when policy in the field was pretty strongly centrally controlled.  Now, where we had the NTA setting very clear requirements for local treatment systems, public health and local authority officials have a fair amount of autonomy about what they commission, and the local supply of alcohol and particularly new psychoactive substances is heavily dependent on operational decisions by police, licensing and trading standards.

As a result of this claim, I have suggested that some locally-based policy research would be useful.  That is, while we have pretty good stuff on national policymaking through the likes of James Nicholls, Vital Katikireddi and Paul Cairney, we’re less strong on how similar processes operate at a local level.

I’m not talking about how ‘street level bureaucrats’ like frontline treatment staff or job centre employees turn national policy into reality.  What I’m interested is that you could actually have a situation where rather than the government defining what the priorities and aims for drug treatment are (reducing acquisitive crime and HIV and Hepatitis transmission), these are set by local politicians and officials, and vary from one county to the next.  Maybe Cornwall decides it’s concerned about ‘binge’ drinking while Devon thinks it’s all about ‘legal highs’ and steroid use.

There might be nothing wrong with that, but it seems unlikely that the decision will have been taken on anything like a scientific ‘evidence-based’ rationale – and in fact it’s not possible to set prioirities simply on the basis of evidence.  You could get some analysis that shows the relative costs and benefits of different priorities and interventions, but you wouldn’t be able to action them all, and so the decision about which to invest in will be necessarily political, or subjective.  (I know, this isn’t a new point for me to make.)

So what I’m interested in is how these decisions are taken.

There was also, not so long ago, a call put out for applications to the NIHR for researchers to engage in ‘knowledge mobilisation’ activities.  This project aims to get research findings out to the coal face to make a difference to practice.  For example, there’s a pilot trying to make commissioners of care more aware of research, which will then be evaluated to find out what ‘works’ in making their decisions more research (or evidence) based.

And, (without forcing it to happen just so I had something to blog about) I started to wonder whether these two things could be linked.

I started to wonder: doesn’t policy research have implications for policymakers too?  I’m not just interested in finding out how people make those increasingly important local decisions I was talking about; I want to know if we can improve the policymaking process.

This isn’t just about making it more closely approximate some idealised technocratic evidence-based process.  I don’t think policy can ever be anything other than political, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, we should embrace it.

National policymakers are well aware of this, and academics producing research are perhaps catching on too – there are certainly enough people writing about this and the way ‘knowledge exchange’ should happen.

But in attending various conferences over the past few years, and particularly since my job moved over to a public health department earlier this year, I wonder whether this has translated to all (local) policymakers, given those changes outlined in my article, whereby there’s something of a double whammy for the sphere of substance misuse: there’s increased local autonomy that means people who were previously technocrats are more like policymakers; and at the same time that autonomy comes with increasing political oversight, as funds have been consolidated into local authority budgets when they used to sit within the NHS, with its very different ‘commissioning’ and budgeting processes.

So if there’s an opportunity for knowledge mobilisation in this area, I’d say it wasn’t to increase commissioners’ awareness of the evidence base for treatment or prevention, so much as to sensitise people who have now become local policymakers to the latest research on the policymaking process, so this can be as good as possible.  As I wrote in a previous post, I don’t think public health officials do themselves any favours when they ignore the political nature of policymaking and imagine it is simply about listening to the evidence and taking either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ decision.

Now that would be an interesting bid for NIHR funding: educating new local policymakers in the art of policymaking.