Daily Archives: October 8, 2019

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Carol Bacchi’s (2009) WPR Approach

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary.

Carol Bacchi (2009) Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? (NSW: Pearson)

Bacchi’s ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ (WPR) approach prompts us to think about the task of policy analysis in a wider political context. It contrasts with models that take the nature of a policy problem for granted and seek solutions on that basis. Bacchi’s key distinction is between:

  • ‘problem’, which may imply that the nature of an issue is ‘fixed and identifiable’, ‘self-evident’, well-understood, agreed, or taken for granted; and
  • ‘problematisation’, which describes the ways in which people create policy problems as they make sense of them. Problem definition is a political process to identify how to define and address the social world, not a technical process built on a uniform understanding of its nature.

Bacchi presents a 6-step process to understand problem definition:

  1. “What’s the ‘problem’ represented to be in a specific policy?”

Problem definition can relate to its alleged cause (such as the lifestyle of certain populations), how far a government should go to address it (such as to regulate, fund, or exhort), and which part of government is responsible (if it is, say, a problem of public health, social security, or criminal justice).

  1. “What presuppositions or assumptions underlie this representation of the ‘problem’?”

WPR focuses on the ‘deep-seated cultural values’ that are taken for granted even though they underpin debate. Examples include the rules we use to categorise populations, distinguish between normal versus deviant behaviour, and the role of government in ‘private’ or ‘family’ life.

  1. “How has this representation of the ‘problem’ come about?”

Issues may be apparent for long periods before becoming problems for governments to solve. Explanations for intervention can include shifts in social attitudes or attention, changes in government, new information, and new technologies (such as in medicine, transport, or communication) that change social behaviour or make new interventions possible. Further, old ways of solving problems can endure long after the problem seems to have changed.

  1. “What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the ‘problem’ be thought about differently?”

Note the power to decide who – or what – is a problem (and the powerlessness to challenge that choice). A population’s ‘problems’ could be caused by their lifestyle or the ways in which we interpret their behaviour. The cause of traffic congestion could be over-reliance on cars or the absence of good infrastructure. Comparing problem definitions and cultural reference points, in different countries, can help identify which frames dominate.

  1. “What effects are produced by this representation of the ‘problem’?”

Problem definitions can help close off debate. They help alienate and stigmatise some populations. They produce positive or negative material consequences, and intended or unintended effects. Question 5 helps us ask who benefits from the current definition, and who might benefit from a new representation of the problem.

  1. “How/ where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How could it be questioned, disrupted and replaced?”

People exercise power to create or defend these ways to characterise problems, in a context in which certain practices and ideas dominate debate. Bacchi argues that researchers have a responsibility to question them, and their ‘origins, purposes, and effects’, rather than ‘buy into’ them as a natural starting point for policy analysis.

Policy analysis in a wider context: the reflection exercise

Unlike most of the books in this series, Bacchi focuses primarily on ‘problem-questioning’, not ‘problem-solving’. Researching the policymaking context raises profound issues including the:

This is a critical perspective with an in-built emancipatory function. The role of policy analysts is explicitly political, based on the assumption that policy benefits some groups and harms others, and taking ‘the side of those who are harmed’. It rejects the idea that policy analysis exists simply to reduce uncertainty with the supply of evidence. Rather, policy actors exercise power to frame issues, reduce ambiguity and determine the demand for evidence.

WPR highlights the relationship between (a) our knowledge of the policy process, and (b) the ways in which we use that knowledge to pursue a policy analysis strategy. Policy analysis is deliberately short and incomplete, often with a focus on what to exclude from discussion. It requires us to consider (a) our audience, (b) what to present and withhold, (c) how ‘manipulative’ to be, and (d) where to draw a notional line between providing evidence and advice, all within this wider political context.


Filed under 750 word policy analysis

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Eugene Bardach’s (2012) Eightfold Path

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary.

Eugene Bardach (2012) A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis 4th ed. (CQ Press)

Bardach (2012) describes policy analysis in eight steps:

  1. ‘Define the problem’.

Provide a diagnosis of a policy problem, using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention.

  1. ‘Assemble some evidence’.

Gather relevant data efficiently (to reflect resource constraints such as time pressures). Think about which data are essential and when you can substitute estimation for research. Speak with the consumers of your evidence to anticipate their reaction.

  1. ‘Construct the alternatives’.

Identify the relevant and feasible policy solutions that your audience might consider, preferably by identifying how the solution would work if implemented as intended. Think of solutions as on a spectrum of acceptability, according to the extent to which your audience will accept (say) market or state action. Your list can include things governments already do (such as tax or legislate), or a new policy design. Focus on the extent to which you are locking-in policymakers to your solution even if it proves to be ineffective (if you need to invest in new capital).

  1. ‘Select the criteria’.

Use value judgements to decide which solution will produce the best outcome. Recognise the political nature of policy evaluation, based your measures to determine success. Typical measures relate to efficiency, equity and fairness, the trade-off between individual freedom and collective action, the extent to which a policy process involves citizens in deliberation, and the impact on a policymaker’s popularity.

  1. ‘Project the outcomes’.

Focus on the outcomes that key actors care about (such as value for money), and quantify and visualise your predictions if possible. Prediction involves estimation based on experience (or guesswork), so do not over-claim. Establish if your solutions will meet an agreed threshold of effectiveness in terms of the money to be spent, or, present many scenarios based on changing your assumptions underpinning each prediction.

  1. ‘Confront the trade-offs’.

Compare the pros and cons of each solution, such as how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs, or how much security is provided by a reduction in freedom. Assess technical and political feasibility; some solutions may be technically effective but too unpopular. Establish a baseline to help measure the impact of marginal policy changes, and compare costs and benefits in relation to something tangible (such as money).

  1. ‘Decide’.

Examine your case through the eyes of a policymaker. Ask yourself: if this is such a good solution, why hasn’t it been done already?

  1. ‘Tell your story’.

Identify your target audience and tailor your case. Weigh up the benefits of oral versus written presentation. Provide an executive summary. Focus on coherence and clarity.  Keep it simple and concise. Avoid jargon.

Policy analysis in a wider context: psychology and complexity

Bardach’s classic book provides a great way to consider the wider context in which you might construct policy advice (see pp6-9):

  1. Policymaker psychology.

People engage emotionally with information. Any advice to keep it concise is incomplete without a focus on framing and persuasion. Simplicity helps reduce cognitive load, while framing helps present the information in relation to the beliefs of your audience. If so, ‘there is no way to appeal to all audiences with the same information’ or to make an ‘evidence based’ case. To pretend to be an objective policy analyst is a cop-out. To provide long, rigorous, and meticulous reports that few people read is futile. Tell a convincing story with a clear moral, or frame policy analysis to grab your audience’s attention and generate enthusiasm to solve a problem.

  1. Policymaking complexity.

Policymakers operate in a policymaking environment of which they have limited knowledge and even less control. There is no all-powerful ‘centre’ making policy from the ‘top down’. We need to incorporate this environment into policy analysis: which actors make and influence policy; the rules they follow, the networks they form, the ideas that dominate debate; and the policy context and events that influence their attention to problems and optimism about solutions.

These factors warn us against ‘single shot’ policy analysis in which there is a one size fits all solution, and the idea that the selection of a policy solution from the ‘top’ sets in motion an inevitable cycle of legitimation, implementation, and evaluation. A simple description of a problem and its solution may be attractive, but success may also depend on persuading your audience at ‘the centre’ about the need to: (a) learn continuously and adapt their strategies through processes such as trial and error, and (b) cooperate with many other ‘centres’ to address problems that no single actor can solve.




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