Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. As usual, the 750-word description is more for branding than accuracy.
‘The basic relationship between a decision-maker (the client) and an analyst has moved from a two-person encounter to an extremely complex and diverse set of interactions’ (Radin, 2019: 2).
Many texts in this series continue to highlight the client-oriented nature of policy analysis (Weimer and Vining), but within a changing policy process that has altered the nature of that relationship profoundly.
We can use Radin’s work to present two main stories of policy analysis:
- The old ways of making policy resembled a club, or reflected a clear government hierarchy, involving:
- a small number of analysts, generally inside government (such as senior bureaucrats, scientific experts, and – in particular- economists),
- giving technical or factual advice,
- about policy formulation,
- to policymakers at the heart of government,
- on the assumption that policy problems would be solved via analysis and action.
- Modern policy analysis is characterised by a more open and politicised process in which:
- many analysts, inside and outside government,
- compete to interpret facts, and give advice,
- about setting the agenda, and making, delivering, and evaluating policy,
- across many policymaking venues,
- often on the assumption that governments have a limited ability to understand and solve complex policy problems.
As a result, the client-analyst relationship is increasingly fluid:
In previous eras, the analyst’s client was a senior policymaker, the main focus was on the analyst-client relationship, and ‘both analysts and clients did not spend much time or energy thinking about the dimensions of the policy environment in which they worked’ (2019: 59). Now, in a multi-centric policymaking environment:
- It is tricky to identify the client.
- We could imagine the client to be someone paying for the analysis, someone affected by its recommendations, or all policy actors with the ability to act on the advice (2019: 10).
- If there is ‘shared authority’ for policymaking within one political system, a ‘client’ (or audience) may be a collection of policymakers and influencers spread across a network containing multiple types of government, non-governmental actors, and actors responsible for policy delivery (2019: 33).
- The growth in international cooperation also complicates the idea of a single client for policy advice (2019: 33-4)
- This shift may limit the ‘face-to-face encounters’ that would otherwise provide information for – and perhaps trust in – the analyst (2019: 2-3).
- It is tricky to identify the analyst
- Radin (2019: 9-25) traces, from the post-war period in the US, a major expansion of policy analysts, from the notional centre of policymaking in federal government towards analysts spread across many venues, inside government (across multiple levels, ‘policy units’, and government agencies) and congressional committees, and outside government (such as in influential think tanks).
- Policy analysts can also be specialist external companies contracted by organisations to provide advice (2019: 37-8).
- This expansion shifted the image of many analysts, from a small number of trusted insiders towards many being treated as akin to interest groups selling their pet policies (2019: 25-6).
- The nature – and impact – of policy analysis has always been a little vague, but now it seems more common to suggest that ‘policy analysts’ may really be ‘policy advocates’ (2019: 44-6).
- As such, they may now have to work harder to demonstrate their usefulness (2019: 80-1) and accept that their analysis will have a limited impact (2019: 82, drawing on Weiss’ discussion of ‘enlightenment’).
Consequently, the necessary skills of policy analysis have changed:
Although many people value systematic policy analysis (and many rely on economists), an effective analyst does not simply apply economic or scientific techniques to analyse a problem or solution, or rely on one source of expertise or method, as if it were possible to provide ‘neutral information’ (2019: 26).
Indeed, Radin (2019: 31; 48) compares the old ‘acceptance that analysts would be governed by the norms of neutrality and objectivity’ with
(a) increasing calls to acknowledge that policy analysis is part of a political project to foster some notion of public good or ‘public interest’, and
(b) Stone’s suggestion that the projection of reason and neutrality is a political strategy.
In other words, the fictional divide between political policymakers and neutral analysts is difficult to maintain.
Rather, think of analysts as developing wider skills to operate in a highly political environment in which the nature of the policy issue is contested, responsibility for a policy problem is unclear, and it is not clear how to resolve major debates on values and priorities:
- Some analysts will be expected to see the problem from the perspective of a specific client with a particular agenda.
- Other analysts may be valued for their flexibility and pragmatism, such as when they acknowledge the role of their own values, maintain or operate within networks, communicate by many means, and supplement ‘quantitative data’ with ‘hunches’ when required (2019: 2-3; 28-9).
Radin (2019: 21) emphasises a shift in skills and status
The idea of (a) producing new and relatively abstract ideas, based on high control over available information, at the top of a hierarchical organisation, makes way for (b) developing the ability to:
- generate a wider understanding of organisational and policy processes, reflecting the diffusion of power across multiple policymaking venues
- identify a map of stakeholders,
- manage networks of policymakers and influencers,
- incorporate ‘multiple and often conflicting perspectives’,
- make and deliver more concrete proposals (2019: 59-74), while recognising
- the contested nature of information, and the practices sued to gather it, even during multiple attempts to establish the superiority of scientific evidence (2019: 89-103),
- the limits to a government’s ability to understand and solve problems (2019: 95-6),
- the inescapable conflict over trade-offs between values and goals, which are difficult to resolve simply by weighting each goal (2019: 105-8; see Stone), and
- do so flexibly, to recognise major variations in problem definition, attention and networks across different policy sectors and notional ‘stages’ of policymaking (2019: 75-9; 84).
Radin’s (2019: 48) overall list of relevant skills include:
- ‘Case study methods, Cost- benefit analysis, Ethical analysis, Evaluation, Futures analysis, Historical analysis, Implementation analysis, Interviewing, Legal analysis, Microeconomics, Negotiation, mediation, Operations research, Organizational analysis, Political feasibility analysis, Public speaking, Small- group facilitation, Specific program knowledge, Statistics, Survey research methods, Systems analysis’
They develop alongside analytical experience and status, from the early career analyst trying to secure or keep a job, to the experienced operator looking forward to retirement (2019: 54-5)
A checklist for policy analysts
Based on these skills requirements, the contested nature of evidence, and the complexity of the policymaking environment, Radin (2019: 128-31) produces a 4-page checklist of – 91! – questions for policy analysts.
For me, it serves two main functions:
- It is a major contrast to the idea that we can break policy analysis into a mere 5-8 steps (rather, think of these small numbers as marketing for policy analysis students, akin to 7-minute abs)
- It presents policy analysis as an overwhelming task with absolutely no guarantee of policy impact.
To me, this cautious, eyes-wide-open, approach is preferable to the sense that policy analysts can change the world if they just get the evidence and the steps right.
- Iris Geva-May (2005) ‘Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession’, in Geva-May (ed) Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession (Basingstoke: Palgrave)
Although the idea of policy analysis may be changing, Geva-May (2005: 15) argues that it remains a profession with its own set of practices and ways of thinking. As with other professions (like medicine), it would be unwise to practice policy analysis without education and training or otherwise learning the ‘craft’ shared by a policy analysis community (2005: 16-17). For example, while not engaging in clinical diagnosis, policy analysts can draw on 5-step process to diagnose a policy problem and potential solutions (2005: 18-21). Analysts may also combine these steps with heuristics to determine the technical and political feasibility of their proposals (2005: 22-5), as they address inevitable uncertainty and their own bounded rationality (2005: 26-34; see Gigerenzer on heuristics). As with medicine, some aspects of the role – such as research methods – can be taught in graduate programmes, while others may be better suited to on the job learning (2005: 36-40). If so, it opens up the possibility that there are many policy analysis professions to reflect different cultures in each political system (and perhaps the venues within each system).
- Vining and Weimar’s take on the distinction between policy analysis and policy process research