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:
- ‘Define the problem’.
Provide a diagnosis of a policy problem, using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention.
- ‘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.
- ‘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).
- ‘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.
- ‘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.
- ‘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).
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?
- ‘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):
- 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.
- 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.