Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. This summary is not 750 words. I can only apologise.
Mintrom (2012: xxii; 17) describes policy analysis as ‘an enterprise primarily motivated by the desire to generate high quality information to support high-quality decisions’ and stop policymakers ‘from making ill-considered choices’ (2012: 17). It is about giving issues more ‘serious attention and deep thought’ than busy policymakers, rather than simply ‘an exercise in the application of techniques’ to serve clients (2012: 20; xxii).
It begins with six ‘Key Steps in Policy Analysis’ (2012: 3-5):
- ‘Engage in problem definition’
Problem definition influences the types of solutions that will be discussed (although, in some cases, solutions chase problems).
Define the nature and size of a policy problem, and the role of government in solving it (from maximal to minimal), while engaging with many stakeholders with different views (2012: 3; 58-60).
This task involves a juggling act. First, analysts should engage with their audience to work out what they need and when (2012 : 81). However, second, they should (a) develop ‘critical abilities’, (b) ask themselves ‘why they have been presented in specific ways, what their sources might be, and why they have arisen at this time’, and (c) present ‘alternative scenarios’ (2012: 22; 20; 27).
- ‘Propose alternative responses to the problem’
Governments use policy instruments – such as to influence markets, tax or subsidize activity, regulate behaviour, provide services (directly, or via commissioning or partnership), or provide information – as part of a coherent strategy or collection of uncoordinated measures (2012: 30-41). In that context, try to:
- Generate knowledge about how governments have addressed comparable problems (including, the choice to not intervene if an industry self-regulates).
- Identify the cause of a previous policy’s impact and if it would have the same effect now (2012: 21).
- If minimal comparable information is available, consider wider issues from which to learn (2012: 76-7; e.g. alcohol policy based on tobacco).
Consider the wider:
- Political context, to anticipate how policymakers, implementers, target populations, and publics would react (2012: 20). Note that some policy measures are more difficult to ‘sell’ than others.
- Policymaking context, in which policies and institutions already exist to address most policy problems in some way.
- ‘Choose criteria for evaluating each alternative policy response’
There are no natural criteria, but ‘effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and administrative efficiency’ are common (2012: 21). ‘Effective institutions’ have a marked impact on social and economic life and provide political stability (2012: 49). Governments can promote ‘efficient’ policies by (a) producing the largest number of winners and (b) compensating losers (2012: 51-2; see Weimer and Vining on Kaldor-Hicks). They can prioritise environmental ‘sustainability’ to mitigate climate change, the protection of human rights and ‘human flourishing’, and/or a fair allocation of resources (2012: 52-7).
- ‘Project the outcomes of pursuing each policy alternative’
Estimate the costs of a new policy, in comparison with current policy, and in relation to factors such as (a) overall savings to society, and/or (b) benefits to certain populations (any policy will benefit some social groups more than others). Mintrom (2012: 21) emphasises ‘prior knowledge and experience’ and ‘synthesizing’ work by others alongside techniques such as cost-benefit analyses.
- ‘Identify and analyse trade-offs among alternatives’
Use your criteria and projections to compare each alternative in relation to their likely costs and benefits.
- ‘Report findings and make an argument for the most appropriate response’
Mintrom (2012: 5) describes a range of advisory roles.
(a) Client-oriented advisors identify the beliefs of policymakers and anticipate the options worth researching (although they should not simply tell clients what they want to hear – 2012: 22). They may only have the time to answer a client’s question quickly and on their own. Or, they need to create and manage a team project (2012: 63-76).
(b) Other actors, ‘who want to change the world’, research options that are often not politically feasible in the short term but are too important to ignore (such as gender mainstreaming or action to address climate change).
In either case, the format of a written report – executive summary, contents, background, analytical strategy, analysis and findings (perhaps including a table comparing goals and trade-offs between alternatives), discussion, recommendation, conclusion, annex – may be similar (2012: 82-6).
Wider context: the changing role of policy analysts
Mintrom (2012: 5-7) describes a narrative – often attributed to Radin – of the changing nature of policy analysis, comparing:
- (a) a small group of policy advisors, (b) with a privileged place in government, (c) giving allegedly technical advice, using economic techniques such as cost-benefit analysis.
- (a) a much larger profession, (b) spread across – and outside of – government (including external consultants), and (c) engaging more explicitly in the politics of policy analysis and advice.
It reflects wider changes in government, (a) from the ‘clubby’ days to a much more competitive environment debating a larger number and wider range of policy issues, subject to (b) factors such as globalisation that change the task/ context of policy analysis.
If so, any advice on how to do policy analysis has to be flexible, to incorporate the greater diversity of actors and the sense that complex policymaking systems require flexible skills and practices rather than standardised techniques and outputs.
The ethics of policy analysis
In that context, Mintrom (2012: 95-108) emphasises the enduring role for ethical policy analysis, which can relate to:
- ‘Universal’ principles such as fairness, compassion, and respect
- Specific principles to project the analyst’s integrity, competence, responsibility, respectfulness, and concern for others
- Professional practices, such as to
- engage with many stakeholders in problem definition (to reflect a diversity of knowledge and views)
- present a range of feasible solutions, making clear their distributional effects on target populations, opportunity costs (what policies/ outcomes would not be funded if this were), and impact on those who implement policy
- be honest about (a) the method of calculation, and (b) uncertainty, when projecting outcomes
- clarify the trade-offs between alternatives (don’t stack-up the evidence for one)
- maximise effective information sharing, rather than exploiting the limited attention of your audience (compare with Riker).
- New analytical strategies (2012: 114-15; 246-84)
- Traditional analysis focuses on the successes and failures of markets and government (including serious consideration of non-governmental solutions), institutional analysis (including ‘inheritance’ and inertia), cost-benefit, and top-down implementation
- The analysis of factors such as gender and race helps to measure:
- the extent to which social groups are already ‘systematically disadvantaged’,
- the causes (such as racism and sexism) of – and potential solutions to – these outcomes, to make sure
- that new policies reduce or do not perpetuate disadvantages, even when
- politicians may gain electorally from scapegoating target populations and/ or
- there are major obstacles to transformative policy change.
The entrepreneurial policy analyst
Mintrom (2012: 307-13) ends with a discussion of the intersection between policy entrepreneurship and analysis, highlighting the benefits of ‘positive thinking’, creativity, deliberation, and leadership. He expands on these ideas further in So you want to be a policy entrepreneur?