This is the only week in which I will encourage you to find advice on policy analysis by using a search engine like Google. However, you need to do it with a critical eye. You will find two kinds of advice, only one of which is useful in a straightforward way:
- Most of the advice will tell you to be concise, to keep it short for a busy audience, readable, to minimise jargon, and up-to-date, to give the impression of comprehensive research. This advice is sound.
- Some will get you to organise the advice as if the policy process were ordered into a series of discrete stages, akin to a policy cycle. This advice can be problematic.
A key message of this course is that policy processes are more like complex systems than ordered cycles. Therefore, good policy analysis should reflect on policymaking as much as policy. There is no point in coming up with a well-researched analysis of a problem and a brilliant solution if, for example, you recommend it to someone without the willingness or ability to pay attention to it or use it.
We can reinforce this point with reference to the previous lecture’s focus on 5 key concepts common to policy theories:
- There are many actors involved in policymaking, at multiple levels. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that you can make a recommendation effectively by only speaking to one policymaker or organisation, or only seeing the problem through their eyes.
- Many ‘institutions’ have their own ‘standard operating procedures’ or rules which take time to understand and influence.
- Many policymakers or departments have a well-established or powerful clientele which you should take into account.
- Your analysis might be a quick response to major social change or a key event, not a process in which you have years to plan.
- Your analysis may be more persuasive if couched in a language that tends to dominate discussion or with reference to the entrenched beliefs of policymakers or key participants.
Or, we can make the point with reference to the implications of complexity theory, discussed in the last lecture:
- In complex systems, it is unwise to expect ‘law-like behaviour’; a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
- Policymaking systems are difﬁcult to control and analysts should be prepared for the possibility that their policy interventions do not have the desired effect. Governments may be learning that they cannot simply make a policy and expect successful implementation by using a top-down, centrally driven policy strategy.
- Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must learn and adapt quickly.
Complexity, the Scottish approach, and policy analysis
The advice that tends to come from complexity studies is generally consistent with the ‘Scottish approach’ that we have begun to discuss: rely less on short term and rigid targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment; encourage trial-and-error projects that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly; and, set broad or realistic parameters for success and failure. However, policymakers are also under pressure to act to solve emerging problems and take responsibility for national strategies.
This context makes policy analysis tricky: you want to recognise the ways in which governments understand their policymaking task, and seek to operate for the long term, but also the pressures they are under to act quickly and take control.
Bardach’s 8 steps
One text which tries to combine policy analysis with a recognition of policymaking context is Eugene Bardach’s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis. His steps to policy analysis provide one (but not the only) way to structure your coursework in a way that combines empirical analysis and political awareness:
- ‘Define the problem’ involves the selective use of information (and eye-catching statistics), ideology, and persuasion, to help your problem compete with others.
- ‘Assemble some evidence’ involves ‘hustling’ relevant data in an efficient way.
- ‘Construct the alternatives’ involves generating politically feasible policy solutions.
- ‘Select the criteria’ involves recognising the political nature of policy evaluation, which is influenced by the measures you choose to determine success.
- ‘Project the outcomes’ involves predicting only relevant outcomes; the ones that key actors care about (such as cost savings or value for money).
- ‘Confront the trade-offs’ can involve working out how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs.
- ‘Decide’ involves looking at your case to see if it is persuasive.
- ‘Tell your story’ involves tailoring your case to the biases of your audience. A policy analysis is not for everyone. It is a case made to a specific audience, or several stories for different audiences.
Examples in Scotland
You should think about possible examples as soon as possible, and we can discuss your ideas in lectures this week and tutorials in week 3. Possible examples include:
- Why and how would you introduce more class testing in compulsory education? In this case, you could identify the relevance of the Scottish system of education, the moves in the 1990s to reject testing, and the role and influence of education unions or the teaching profession, and weigh these factors against the need to be seen to be responding to things like a perceived decline in pupil attainment and major inequalities in attainment.
- Can you make a case for private sector delivery in the Scottish NHS? The NHS was a key feature of the independence debate. Would it be feasible for any party to propose more private sector delivery? If only the Conservatives would try, how would you recommend they do it?
- How would you structure your advice on fracking to the current SNP-led Scottish Government?
It will be difficult for you to reflect on all of these factors in each piece of coursework, particularly since the blog needs to be eye-catching and the policy analysis needs to be short. However, you will have more space to explain your reasoning in the oral presentation and explore the politics of policymaking, and explain policy change, in the longer essay. This combination of exercises will, I hope, give you the chance to communicate similar information to different audiences, and reflect on how you do it.