Category Archives: JEPP The Politics of Policy Analysis

Discourse analysis and strategic policy advice: manoeuvring, navigating, and transforming policy

Dr Kennet Lynggaard and Professor Peter Triantafillou introduce the fourth article – ‘Discourse analysis and strategic policy advice: manoeuvring, navigating, and transforming policy’ – to be published in the Journal of European Public Policy Special Issue ‘The Politics of Policy Analysis’. They explore and conceptualizes how discourse analysis can be used as the foundation for policy advice. The article highlights how discourse analysis may provide strategic advice for policy actors (including politicians, policy strategists, public managers, and citizen groups) to shape policy. They compare strategies to underpin policy advice: to manoeuvre within a dominant ‘discursive framework’, navigate between different and conflicting discourses, or seek to transform existing discourse.

In the past, discourse analytical approaches have been somehow reluctant in offering strategies for policy advice. This reluctance relates partly to the critical ethos often associated with discourse analysis. It may follow the view that policymaking is often non-rational and not a linear process, which makes policy advice very demanding. Yet, this reluctance limits the utility of discourse analysis for providing new and partly alternative policy ideas and advice on how to steer policy processes and outputs. It also confines the practical use of one the key analytical merits of discourse analysis, namely to capture and analyse complex societal problems. Perhaps more than ever, western liberal democracies are faced by highly complex problems such as financial crises, long-term unemployment, pandemics, and global warming, demanding innovative policy solutions and solutions that may also better ensure minority interests or have democratic credence.

In this article, we explore the prospects of discourse analysis for offering policy advice and extend the scope of discourse analysis from explaining and critiquing discourses to also include changing or modifying the ways in which they are turned into policy. We elaborate and analyse discursive agency as a means of strategically operating within and using a given discursive context. Discursive agency, we argue, comes in three general types of agency – manoeuvring, navigation and transformation – and seven specific ones – normative power, manipulation, exclusion, multiple functionality, vagueness, rationalism, and securitisation.

The three general types of discursive agency and associated specific ones are illustrated by three examples. German labour market reforms from the early 2000s and the recent reform proposals introduced in 2021 serve as an illustration of how the German Social Democratic Party has successfully been manoeuvring within an existing German ‘version’ of neoliberal discourse with the purpose to consolidating status quo labour market policies.

To illustrate navigation as a type of discursive agency, we use the example of Danish Social Democratic minority government during the Covid-19 pandemic from spring 2020 to spring 2022. Like many other governments in Europe, the Danish government navigated between the epidemiological discourses encouraging the protection of life and wellbeing of the population and the liberal discourses ensuring individual freedoms.

Finally, deliberate attempts to transform a discourse is illustrated by the European Parliaments declaration of climate and environmental emergency in late 2019, which allow for the adoption of extraordinary policy measures with potential radical societal consequences.   

We argue that discourse analysis should use its insightful and often critical analyses of political struggles and how they affect the solution of real-world problems to also engage in strategic policy advice. It is highly useful for all policy actors to be aware and reflective of the various forms of discursive agency, both in cases where they want to use them for what many would think are benevolent purposes and in cases where other policy actors may try to push less benevolent policies. In the latter situation, awareness of the opponent’s strategic choice of discursive agency may prove useful for hindering undesirable policies.

Lynggaard, K and Triantafillou, P. (2023) ‘Discourse analysis and strategic policy advice: manoeuvring, navigating, and transforming policy’, Journal of European Public Policy,

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Social identities and deadlocked debates on nuclear energy policy

Dr Johanna Hornung introduces the third article – Social identities and deadlocked debates on nuclear energy policy – to be published in the Journal of European Public Policy Special Issue ‘The Politics of Policy Analysis’. Hornung uses the issue of energy transitions to show that academics can translate conceptual advances into new avenues of research for analysts. The aim is to go further than encouraging an ‘evidence informed’ process, which is the usual – ineffective – refrain of scientists. Rather, try to understand why policymaking bottlenecks have arisen. Entrenched positions may reflect the ‘dominant identities’ of key participants, which have developed in relation to context-specific events, choices, and debates, prompting social groups to fiercely protect their stances. The implications for policy analysis are profound, since these stances may be impervious to the use of evidence and argumentation to update or challenge beliefs.

Among the multiple crises that our society faces today, the energy crisis is one of them. First put on the agenda in the context of a sustainability-oriented supply of energy, the debate on alternative energy sources has been fueled by global conflicts. It seems almost natural that in times when governments are considering the regulation of energy use in winter, or the reduction of temperatures in public swimming pools, that they are also open-endedly discussing solutions for providing energy efficiently and sustainably.

Yet, it seems as if some options are by default excluded from some national debates, while they are prominently adopted in others. This suggests that logics other than a rationalist or evidence-informed solution – based on a thorough weighing of costs and benefits – are at work.

Focusing on the debate on energy sources currently led in France and Germany, I start from the puzzle that (1) nuclear energy is very differently considered in both countries, and (2) the debates seem to be deadlocked nationally. More specifically, nuclear energy is an option that is not seriously considered as an alternative source of energy in Germany, neither politically nor in public debates. By contrast, France builds heavily on nuclear energy and perceives it as a sustainable source, thereby providing an answer to the current tradeoff between cheap, available, but unsustainable sources of energy on the one hand (especially gas and coal) and between cost-intensive sustainable sources of regenerative energy (especially solar and wind), which are not (yet) able to sufficiently cover demand.

To explain these deadlocked stances on nuclear energy, I apply a social psychological lens on social identities. The idea of the Social Identity Approach (SIA) and the perspective on Social Identities in the Policy Process (SIPP) is to focus on group dynamics and the effects that group identification has on individual thinking and behavior. The main argument is that instead of joining groups on the grounds of shared preferences, individuals hold preferences as a result of group membership. By belonging to a certain social group, individuals take over norms, values, and behavior, which manifest themselves the longer the group exists, the more contact individuals have with other group members, and the stronger the group identity is connected to the topic at hand.

For example, in France, the dominance of nuclear energy can be explained by the presence of a social group within the public sector, including actors from the sectoral industry, who themselves are closely tied to the state administration.

However, in Germany, the opposition towards nuclear energy is closely tied to the Green party, whose group identity is anti-nuclear at its core, which hampers an evidence-informed debate on nuclear energy.

I demonstrate these claims with a discourse network analysis of the period following the EU’s decision to label nuclear energy as climate-friendly.

Understanding the deadlocked debates on energy sources as expression of group identities, that dominate discourses and policymaking on nuclear energy, provides two important insights

1. If the energy decision is dependent on identity – and not on beliefs or rationally formed preferences – new information does not lead to learning or a decision based on an exchange of informed arguments.

2. If it is a question of social identities, overcoming the deadlock is only possible if superordinate social identities are provided, or if social groups are transformed.

These insights contribute to completely different practical advice: to achieve an evidence-informed debate on nuclear energy, it is necessary to pay attention to social group dynamics and the identity of groups, and not to the provision of rational arguments.

This article does not take a stand for or against nuclear energy. Rather, it shows that policy theory insights help to identify and resolve deadlocked debates.

Hornung, J. (2023) ‘Social identities and deadlocked debates on nuclear energy policy’, Journal of European Public Policy,

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Evidence-Based Policy, Artificial Intelligence, and the Ethical Practice of Policy Analysis

Dr Joshua Newman and Professor Michael Mintrom introduce the second article – Mapping the Discourse on Evidence-Based Policy, Artificial Intelligence, and the Ethical Practice of Policy Analysis  – to be published in the Journal of European Public Policy Special Issue ‘The Politics of Policy Analysis’. They explore the role of artificial intelligence (AI) as a new technology that may encourage old ideas about policy analysis. The ability to use AI, in tandem with ‘big data’, to process huge amounts of policy relevant information, raises (again) the prospect that key parts of decision-making can be routinised and removed from politics. Yet, applications so far show that each aspect of that process contains – or hides – a multitude of political decisions that should be surfaced to allow proper debate and routine accountability.

Evidence-based policy is a hotly debated topic. Supporters argue that public sector decision making is in bad shape, influenced primarily by ideological thinking, pressure from special interest groups, and heavy demands on resource-poor public servants who are frequently asked to provide crucial advice within short timeframes. Critics argue that information is subjective, and decision-making is necessarily political, so evidence-based policy is in any case both unachievable and undesirable. However, this is where the debate has stalled.

We are rapidly entering an age of advanced computer systems that can recognise patterns, analyse large datasets, and autonomously improve their own programming, functions that are often referred to as ‘artificial intelligence’, or AI. The use of AI in the public sector is on the rise, in areas of service delivery as diverse as education, traffic management, and criminal justice.

What impact will AI have on how we think about evidence-based policy? Can we call information generated by computer algorithms, ‘evidence’? Are we prepared to deal with the ethical concerns inherent in letting computers inform decisions with material consequences for the lives of ordinary citizens and service users?

In this article, we argue that in light of advances in AI, debates about evidence-based policy will need to be updated. By looking at different arguments in support of and critical of evidence-based policy, and the various concerns that have been raised with respect to the ethical dilemmas related to using AI for public service delivery, we outline eight different directions in which the debate could advance. Then, using the SyRI welfare fraud detection scandal that brought down the government in the Netherlands in 2021 as an illustrative example, we show how different perspectives on evidence can actually be combined in a way that lets us see many sides of a complex issue at once. Discussions about the use of — or even the existence of — evidence in public sector decision making may already be lively, but the advent of AI threatens to make these debates even more competitive. However, it is possible that arguments that seem to be at odds could be made to work together, to support a more holistic understanding of how computers and automation can influence decision making, and how to prepare for policy controversies in an AI-enabled future.

Newman, J. and Mintrom, M. (2023) ‘Mapping the Discourse on Evidence-Based Policy, Artificial Intelligence, and the Ethical Practice of Policy Analysis’, Journal of European Public Policy,

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Occupy the semantic space! Opening up the language of better regulation

Professor Claudio Radaelli introduces the first article – ‘Occupy the semantic space!’ – to be published in the Journal of European Public Policy Special Issue ‘The Politics of Policy Analysis’. Radaelli analyses the regulatory reform agenda of international organizations to shine a light on the language of depoliticization. He highlights a tendency for policymakers to use the phrase ‘Better Regulation’ as a tool to describe policy activities as self-evident, common sense, or natural (who would not want regulation to be better?). This approach helps to insulate current approaches from debate. Such cases studies highlight the need for policy actors to challenge attempts to ‘occupy the semantic space’.

What do ‘better regulation’, ‘policy coherence’, ‘agile governance’, ‘smart cities’, and ‘social value judgements’ have in common? They are all part of our contemporary language of governance. Policymakers use them every day. International organizations publish indicators on the progress made by individual countries in achieving better, coherent, agile governance. But, there is something else.

Look at the semantics

Semantically, these conceptual entities have something important in common. It is difficult to object to language that points to something naturally desirable. Who can argue for worse regulation or policy incoherence? The whole semantic space is kind of already taken, occupied by the dominant language of governance. Then, you either talk within that language or you do not find semantic space to explore, argue for, and organise alternatives. In a recent article, I explore what happens with this language of governance.

I explore in detail better regulation as policy reform agenda. This appears at first glance unquestionable, universally desirable. Yet, the content of better regulation is actually assembled in distinctive ways – such as the pivotal role of economics as justification for regulatory choice, the concerns about excessive regulatory burdens, the imperative to use regulation to stimulate innovation. Again, I am not saying these are wrong concepts. But they are one of the ways we can reason about regulation, not the only one. Instead, with better regulation, it looks like there is no other way.

As political theorist Michael Freeden would say, concepts are assembled in morphologies that make up an ideology. I use ideology not in the sense that this reform agenda is ideological or false consciousness. Ideology, in this case, is how concepts are assembled and work together.

A semantic double act

So, how do concepts work together? First, the adoption of better regulation language limits semantic fragmentation within large coalitions for reforms, for example it keeps together the delegates of the Regulatory Policy Committee of the OECD. Imagine a semantic big tent where all delegates can say ‘we are all for better regulation’ whilst at the same time muting the difference between those of us who want to cut regulation and those who care more about the quality of regulation than its quantity.

This is the first move of the semantic act: all concepts are essentially contestable, but here, in this language, they appear de-contested. The second move is to erect a semantic wall that leaves no space to those outside. There is no semantic room for those who disagree with better regulation, only the absurdity of asking for ‘worse’ regulation. It is a bit like saying ‘here, we are all liberals’ (although policy disagreements exist within the liberal front) and vehemently discrediting how the concept of freedom is understood by libertarians. 

Not just language

It is not just a story about language. It is a story about how dominant policy coalitions shield internal conflict (by de-contesting concepts) and make it difficult to build alternative agendas.

I extend the analysis to other domains, such as policy coherence – a morphology of concepts that has been proved analytically flawed, yet it still seduces policy-makers and generates guidance documents of international organizations like the United Nations. In certain domains, these semantic constructions obfuscate winners and losers (as in the case of smart cities), in others they do not provide the correct basis for taking decisions (such as social value judgements).

So what?

In terms of policy practice, to understand how polysemy works brings in transparency. It allows a more diverse dialogue about the advantages and limitations of reform agendas, without obfuscating practice under generically attractive labels.

Providers of public management executive training should be able to discuss the tools they teach by opening up the semantic horizon, considering concepts that allow for an open discussion with practitioners. For policy entrepreneurs who want to contest dominant language, the pathway is the following: show the fragility of the intellectual foundations of certain morphologies of concepts, expose internal ambiguity camouflaged by decontestation, gain a discursive level-playing-field, re-configure polysemy in ways that are more transparent and inclusive.

Looking critically into the language that is taken for granted in international organizations, governments, and many schools of public policy is a valuable task. Unveiling and exposing the double act can empower alternative coalitions but also benefit the members of the dominant coalition willing to reduce ambiguity and increase transparency in the connection between language and practice. To expose ambiguity helps a dominant coalition to move forward – for example the OECD has carried out a project on moving beyond the classic perimeter of better regulation, discussing four beliefs systems.

And what about us, policy researchers? In the end, all concepts are contestable: policy researchers can contribute to keep this important door (to contestation) open. The identification and critical discussion of dominant language offers citizens the possibility to discuss what is really ‘better’ and ‘for whom’.

Claudio M. Radaelli (2023) ‘Occupy the semantic space! Opening up the language of better regulation’, Journal of European Public Policy, (Special Issue: The politics of policy analysis: theoretical insights on real world problems)

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