This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview.
If we take key insights from policy theories seriously, we can use them to identify (a) the constraints to policy analytical capacity, and (b) the ways in which analysts might address them. I use the idea of policy analyst archetypes to compare a variety of possible responses.
Key constraints to policy analytical capacity
Terms like ‘bounded rationality’ highlight major limits on the ability of humans and organisations to process information.
- Humans use heuristics or cognitive shortcuts to process enough information to make choices, and institutions are the rules used by organisations to limit information processing.
- Policy actors need to find ways to act, with incomplete information about the problem they seek to solve and the likely impact of their ‘solution’.
- They gather information to help reduce uncertainty, but problem definition is really about exercising power to reduce ambiguity: select one way to interpret a problem (at the expense of most others), and limit therefore limit the relevance and feasibility of solutions.
- This context informs how actors might use the tools of policy analysis. Key texts in this series highlight the use of tools to establish technical feasibility (will it work as intended?), but policymakers also select tools for their political feasibility (who will support or oppose this measure?).
How might policy analysts address these constraints ethically?
Most policy analysis texts (in this series) consider the role of professional ethics and values during the production of policy analysis. However, they also point out that there is not a clearly defined profession and associated code of conduct (e.g. see Adachi). In that context, let us begin with some questions about the purpose of policy analysis and your potential role:
- Is your primary role to serve individual clients or some notion of the ‘public good’?
- Should you maximise your role as an individual or play your part in a wider profession?
- What is the balance between the potential benefits of individual ‘entrepreneurship’ and collective ‘co-productive’ processes?
- Which policy analysis techniques should you prioritise?
- What forms of knowledge and evidence count in policy analysis?
- What does it mean to communicate policy analysis responsibly?
- Should you provide a clear recommendation or encourage reflection?
Policy analysis archetypes: pragmatists, entrepreneurs, manipulators, storytellers, and decolonisers
In that context, I have created a story of policy analysis archetypes to identify the elements that each text emphasises.
The pragmatic policy analyst
- Bardach provides the classic simple, workable, 8-step system to present policy analysis to policymakers while subject to time and resource-pressed political conditions.
- Dunn also uses Wildavsky’s famous phrase ‘art and craft’ to suggest that scientific and ‘rational’ methods can only take us so far.
The professional, client–oriented policy analyst
- Weimer and Vining provide a similar 7-step client-focused system, but incorporating a greater focus on professional development and economic techniques (such as cost-benefit-analysis) to emphasise a particular form of professional analyst.
- Meltzer and Schwartz also focus on advice to clients, but with a greater emphasis on a wide variety of methods or techniques (including service design) to encourage the co-design of policy analysis with clients.
The communicative policy analyst
- C. Smith focuses on how to write and communicate policy analysis to clients in a political context.
- Compare with Spiegelhalter and Gigerenzer on how to communicate responsibly when describing uncertainty, probability, and risk.
The manipulative policy analyst.
- Riker helps us understand the relationship between two aspects of agenda setting: the rules/ procedures to make choice, and the framing of policy problems and solutions.
The entrepreneurial policy analyst
- Mintrom shows how to combine insights from studies of policy entrepreneurship and policy analysis, to emphasise the benefits of collaboration and creativity.
The questioning policy analyst
- Bacchi analyses the wider context in which people give and use such advice, to identify the emancipatory role of analysis and encourage policy analysts to challenge dominant social constructions of problems and populations.
The storytelling policy analyst
- Stone identifies the ways in which people use storytelling and argumentation techniques to define problems and justify solutions. This process is about politics and power, not objectivity and optimal solutions.
The decolonizing policy analyst.
- L.T. Smith does not describe policy analysis directly, but shows how the ‘decolonization of research methods’ can inform the generation and use of knowledge.
- Compare with Hindess on the ways in which knowledge-based hierarchies rely on an untenable, circular logic.
- Compare with Michener’s thread, discussing Doucet’s new essay on (a) the role of power and knowledge in limiting (b) the ways in which we gather evidence to analyse policy problems.
Using archetypes to define the problem of policy analysis
Studies of the field (e.g. Radin plus Brans, Geva-May, and Howlett) suggest that there are many ways to do policy analysis. Further, as Thissen and Walker describe, such roles are not mutually exclusive, your views on their relative value could change throughout the process of analysis, and you could perform many of these roles.
Further, each text describes multiple roles, and some seem clustered together:
- pragmatic, client-orientated, and communicative could sum-up the traditional 5-8 step approaches, while
- questioning, storytelling, and decolonizing could sum up an important (‘critical’) challenge to narrow ways of thinking about policy analysis and the use of information.
Still, the emphasis matters.
Each text is setting an agenda or defining the problem of policy analysis more-or-less in relation to these roles. Put simply, the more you are reading about economic theory and method, the less you are reading about dominance and manipulation.
How can you read further?
Michener’s ‘Policy Feedback in a Racialized Polity’ connects to studies of historical institutionalism, and reminds us to use insights from policy theories to identify the context for policy analysis.
I have co-authored a lot about uncertainty/ ambiguity in relation to ‘evidence based policymaking’, including:
- Fostering Evidence-informed Policy Making: Uncertainty Versus Ambiguity(PDF)
- To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty
- How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies
See also The new policy sciences for a discussion of how these issues inform Lasswell’s original vision for the policy sciences (combining the analysis of and for policy).