Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Defining policy problems and choosing solutions

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

When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:

  1. ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
  2. ‘knowledge in the process’, to foster policy analysis (analysis for policy)

The idea is that both elements are analytically separable but mutually informative: policy analysis is crucial to solving real policy problems, policy studies inform the feasibility of analysis, the study of policy analysts informs policy studies, and so on.

Both elements focus on similar questions – such as What is policy? – and explore their descriptive (what do policy actors do?) and prescriptive (what should they do?) implications.

  1. What is the policy problem?

Policy studies tend to describe problem definition in relation to framing, narrative, social construction, power, and agenda setting.

Actors exercise power to generate attention for their preferred interpretation, and minimise attention to alternative frames (to help foster or undermine policy change, or translate their beliefs into policy).

Policy studies incorporate insights from psychology to understand (a) how policymakers might combine cognition and emotion to understand problems, and therefore (b) how to communicate effectively when presenting policy analysis.

Policy studies focus on the power to reduce ambiguity rather than simply the provision of information to reduce uncertainty. In other words, the power to decide whose interpretation of policy problems counts, and therefore to decide what information is policy-relevant.

This (unequal) competition takes place within a policy process over which no actor has full knowledge or control.

The classic 5-8 step policy analysis texts focus on how to define policy problems well, but they vary somewhat in their definition of doing it well (see also C.Smith):

  • Bardach recommends using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention
  • Weimer and Vining and Mintrom recommend beginning with your client’s ‘diagnosis’, placing it in a wider perspective to help analyse it critically, and asking yourself how else you might define it (see also Bacchi, Stone)
  • Meltzer and Schwartz and Dunn identify additional ways to contextualise your client’s definition, such as by generating a timeline to help ‘map’ causation or using ‘problem-structuring methods’ to compare definitions and avoid making too many assumptions on a problem’s cause.
  • Thissen and Walker compare ‘rational’ and ‘argumentative’ approaches, treating problem definition as something to be measured scientifically or established rhetorically (see also Riker).

These approaches compare with more critical accounts that emphasise the role of power and politics to determine whose knowledge is relevant (L.T.Smith) and whose problem definition counts (Bacchi, Stone). Indeed, Bacchi and Stone provide a crucial bridge between policy analysis and policy studies by reflecting on what policy analysts do and why.

  1. What is the policy solution?

In policy studies, it is common to identify counterintuitive or confusing aspects of policy processes, including:

  • Few studies suggest that policy responses actually solve problems (and many highlight their potential to exacerbate them). Rather, ‘policy solutions’ is shorthand for proposed or alleged solutions.
  • Problem definition often sets the agenda for the production of ‘solutions’, but note the phrase solutions chasing problems (when actors have their ‘pet’ solutions ready, and they seek opportunities to promote them).

Policy studies: problem definition informs the feasibility and success of solutions

Generally speaking, to define the problem is to influence assessments of the feasibility of solutions:

  • Technical feasibility. Will they work as intended, given the alleged severity and cause of the problem?
  • Political feasibility. Will they receive sufficient support, given the ways in which key policy actors weigh up the costs and benefits of action?

Policy studies highlight the inextricable connection between technical and political feasibility. Put simply, (a) a ‘technocratic’ choice about the ‘optimality’ of a solution is useless without considering who will support its adoption, and (b) some types of solution will always be a hard sell, no matter their alleged effectiveness (Box 2.3 below).

In that context, policy studies ask: what types of policy tools or instruments are actually used, and how does their use contribute to policy change? Measures include the size, substance, speed, and direction of policy change.

box 2.3 2nd ed UPP

In turn, problem definition informs: the ways in which actors will frame any evaluation of policy success, and the policy-relevance of the evidence to evaluate solutions. Simple examples include:

  • If you define tobacco in relation to: (a) its economic benefits, or (b) a global public health epidemic, evaluations relate to (a) export and taxation revenues, or (b) reductions in smoking in the population.
  • If you define ‘fracking’ in relation to: (a) seeking more benefits than costs, or (b) minimising environmental damage and climate change, evaluations relate to (a) factors such as revenue and effective regulation, or simply (b) how little it takes place.

Policy analysis: recognising and pushing boundaries

Policy analysis texts tend to accommodate these insights when giving advice:

  • Bardach recommends identifying solutions that your audience might consider, perhaps providing a range of options on a notional spectrum of acceptability.
  • Smith highlights the value of ‘precedent’, or relating potential solutions to previous strategies.
  • Weimer and Vining identify the importance of ‘a professional mind-set’ that may be more important than perfecting ‘technical skills’
  • Mintrom notes that some solutions are easier to sell than others
  • Meltzer and Schwartz describe the benefits of making a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
  • Dunn warns against too-narrow forms of ‘evidence based’ analysis which undermine a researcher’s ability to adapt well to the evidence-demands of policymakers
  • Thissen and Walker relate solution feasibility to a wide range of policy analysis ‘styles’

Still, note the difference in emphasis.

Policy analysis education/ training may be about developing the technical skills to widen definitions and apply many criteria to compare solutions.

Policy studies suggest that problem definition and a search for solutions takes place in an environment where many actors apply a much narrower lens and are not interested in debates on many possibilities (particularly if they begin with a solution).

I have exaggerated this distinction between each element, but it is worth considering the repeated interaction between them in practice: politics and policymaking provide boundaries for policy analysis, analysis could change those boundaries, and policy studies help us reflect on the impact of analysts.

I’ll take a quick break, then discuss how this conclusion relates to the idea of ‘entrepreneurial’ policy analysis.

Further reading

Understanding Public Policy (2020: 28) describes the difference between governments paying for and actually using the ‘tools of policy formulation’. To explore this point, see ‘The use and non-use of policy appraisal tools in public policy making‘ and The Tools of Policy Formulation.

p28 upp 2nd ed policy tools

2 Comments

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

2 responses to “Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Defining policy problems and choosing solutions

  1. Pingback: Policy Analysis in 750 Words: complex systems and systems thinking | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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

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