Can anyone use the ‘tools’ of policy analysis?

We often use the metaphor of ‘tools’ to describe the ways in which people use public policy analysis. For some, the suggestion is that – like a hammer and chisel – anyone could pick them up and use them. Yet, let’s think about that metaphor some more:

  • Anyone can use a hammer and chisel, but many people lop of their fingers or break things while doing so.
  • You use a hammer and chisel for a particular purpose, such as to create a sculpture. We can all whack a bit of stone with a blunt object, but it takes skill to turn it into something worth your attention.
  • Many tools require training before you should use them: power tools, lasers, MRIs, the screws to insert frames into broken bones, and so on.

My argument is this: you wouldn’t trust a political scientist to make you a piece of art, fix your window, do your laser eyesight correction, or scan your brain, because it is generally not a good idea to pick up and use these tools without training. So, have a quick think about who you would trust with policy tools if they just picked them out of the shed and used them for the first time.

What sort of training do you need to use policy analysis tools effectively?

Let me give you three examples, bearing in mind that the tools metaphor will get annoying soon:

  1. You like the look of the policy cycle.

It offers a simple way to turn evidence into policy: you use evidence to identify a problem, provide a range of feasible evidence-based solutions, choose the best solution, then legitimise, implement, and evaluate the solution. However, you soon find that the cycle is the equivalent of, say, a manual carpet sweeper. The technology has moved on, and we now have a much improved understanding of the policy process. In empirical policy analysis, the cycle remains as a way to begin our discussion before identifying more useful concepts and theories.

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know about the state of the art of the technology we use.

  1. You like the look of multiple streams analysis.

It too offers a simple way into the subject. Further, it remains a well-respected and much-used tool for analysis. Let’s say it is like the X-ray. It has been used for decades and it remains a key tool in medicine (and security). You need some training to operate it and, crucially, your training would not stop at ‘here is how we used it in the 1980s’.

In other words, many people pick up Kingdon’s classic book and apply its simple insights without much reference to 3 decades of conceptual advance (much contemporary MSA was developed by other people) and hundreds of other empirical applications.

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to keep up to date with the ways in which people use the technology.

  1. You want to pick and choose insights from several theories.

This is a fairly common exercise: people pick and choose concepts, adapt them to produce their models, and apply different concepts in different ways. If you are optimistic, you will think of something like a Dremel which has the same starting point/ base unit and dozens of compatible attachments. If, like me, you are not so optimistic, you imagine a frying pan radio or an X-ray machine glued onto the side of an MRI. It can be fruitful to combine the insights of concepts and theories, but not without thinking about the trade-offs and the compatibility between concepts (which prompts some scholars to identify one kind of tool to replace another).

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know how compatible each tool is with the other, and if one is used to replace another.

This last point is crucial if you want to go beyond using a tool for a one-off project, to compare your insights and lessons with other people. Many people will want to know how you fared when you used the same tools/ approach/ language as them, and you can learn from each other’s experiences. Indeed, the aim of theory is to produce comparable and, if possible, generalisable insights, Relatively few people will want to learn from someone who glues an X-ray to an MRI, and it will be difficult to generalise from the experience.

The upshot is that you can indeed pick up some policy analysis tools and use them to improve your understanding of the world. Indeed, I encourage you to do so in this series of posts which outlines the concepts you are most likely to see stocked in Home Depot.

However, I also suggest that you use them as the first step of your project (or engage the help of more qualified people), since most of these concepts come with a training manual that can take years to read.

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Filed under 1000 words, public policy

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