Policy Analysis in 750 Words: What can you realistically expect policymakers to do?

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview.

One aim of this series is to combine insights from policy research (1000, 500) and policy analysis texts.

In this case, modern theories of the policy process help you identify your audience and their capacity to follow your advice. This simple insight may have a profound impact on the advice you give.

Policy analysis for an ideal-type world

For our purposes, an ideal-type is an abstract idea, which highlights hypothetical features of the world, to compare with ‘real world’ descriptions. It need not be an ideal to which we aspire. For example, comprehensive rationality describes the ideal type, and bounded rationality describes the ‘real world’ limitations to the ways in which humans and organisations process information.

 

Imagine writing policy analysis in the ideal-type world of a single powerful ‘comprehensively rational’ policymaker at the heart of government, making policy via an orderly policy cycle.

Your audience would be easy to identify, your analysis would be relatively simple, and you would not need to worry about what happens after you make a recommendation for policy change.

You could adopt a simple 5-8 step policy analysis method, use widely-used tools such as cost-benefit analysis to compare solutions, and know where the results would feed into the policy process.

I have perhaps over-egged this ideal-type pudding, but I think a lot of traditional policy analyses tapped into this basic idea and focused more on the science of analysis than the political and policymaking context in which it takes place (see Radin and Brans, Geva-May, and Howlett).

Policy analysis for the real world

Then imagine a far messier and less predictable world in which the nature of the policy issue is highly contestedresponsibility for policy is unclear, and no single ‘centre’ has the power to turn a recommendation into an outcome.

This image is a key feature of policy process theories, which describe:

  • Many policymakers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government (as the venues in which authoritative choice takes place). Consequently, it is not a straightforward task to identify and know your audience, particularly if the problem you seek to solve requires a combination of policy instruments controlled by different actors.
  • Each venue resembles an institution driven by formal and informal rules. Formal rules are written-down or widely-known. Informal rules are unwritten, difficult to understand, and may not even be understood in the same way by participants. Consequently, it is difficult to know if your solution will be a good fit with the standard operating procedures of organisations (and therefore if it is politically feasible or too challenging).
  • Policymakers and influencers operate in ‘subsystems’, forming networks built on resources such as trust or coalitions based on shared beliefs. Effective policy analysis may require you to engage with – or become part of – such networks, to allow you to understand the unwritten rules of the game and encourage your audience to trust the messenger. In some cases, the rules relate to your willingness to accept current losses for future gains, to accept the limited impact of your analysis now in the hope of acceptance at the next opportunity.
  • Actors relate their analysis to shared understandings of the world – how it is, and how it should be – which are often so well-established as to be taken for granted. Common terms include paradigms, hegemons, core beliefs, and monopolies of understandings. These dominant frames of reference give meaning to your policy solution. They prompt you to couch your solutions in terms of, for example, a strong attachment to evidence-based cases in public health, value for money in treasury departments, or with regard to core principles such as liberalism or socialism in different political systems.
  • Your solutions relate to socioeconomic context and the events that seem (a) impossible to ignore and (b) out of the control of policymakers. Such factors range from a political system’s geography, demography, social attitudes, and economy, while events can be routine elections or unexpected crises.

What would you recommend under these conditions? Rethinking 5-step analysis

There is a large gap between policymakers’ (a) formal responsibilities versus (b) actual control of policy processes and outcomes. Even the most sophisticated ‘evidence based’ analysis of a policy problem will fall flat if uninformed by such analyses of the policy process. Further, the terms of your cost-benefit analysis will be highly contested (at least until there is agreement on what the problem is, and how you would measure the success of a solution).

Modern policy analysis texts try to incorporate such insights from policy theories while maintaining a focus on 5-8 steps. For example:

  • Meltzer and Schwartz contrast their ‘flexible’ and ‘iterative’ approach with a too- rigid ‘rationalistic approach’.
  • Bardachand Dunn emphasise the value of political pragmatism and the ‘art and craft’ of policy analysis.
  • Weimer and Vininginvest 200 pages in economic analyses of markets and government, often highlighting a gap between (a) our ability to model and predict economic and social behaviour, and (b) what actually happens when governments intervene.
  • Mintrom invites you to see yourself as a policy entrepreneur, to highlight the value of of ‘positive thinking’, creativity, deliberation, and leadership, and perhaps seek ‘windows of opportunity’ to encourage new solutions. Alternatively, a general awareness of the unpredictability of events can prompt you to be modest in your claims, since the policymaking environment may be more important (than your solution) to outcomes.
  • Thissen and Walker focus more on a range of possible roles than a rigid 5-step process.

Beyond 5-step policy analysis

  1. Compare these pragmatic, client-orientated, and communicative models with the questioning, storytelling, and decolonizing approaches by Bacchi, Stone, and L.T. Smith.
  • The latter encourage us to examine more closely the politics of policy processes, including the importance of framing, narrative, and the social construction of target populations to problem definition and policy design.
  • Without this wider perspective, we are focusing on policy analysis as a process rather than considering the political context in which analysts use it.
  1. Additional posts on entrepreneurs and ‘systems thinking’ [to be added] encourage us to reflect on the limits to policy analysis in multi-centric policymaking systems.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under 750 word policy analysis, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

One response to “Policy Analysis in 750 Words: What can you realistically expect policymakers to do?

  1. Pingback: Policy Analysis in 750 Words: policy analysis for marginalized groups in racialized political systems | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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