Category Archives: public policy

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies

Please see the  Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. The reference to 750 words is increasingly misleading.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies 2nd edition (London: Zed Books)

 ‘Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its cope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated?’ (Smith, 2012: 10; see also 174-7)

Many texts in this series highlight the politics of policy analysis, but few (such as Bacchi) identify the politics of the research that underpins policy analysis.

You can find some discussion of these issues in the brief section on ‘co-production’, in wider studies of co-produced research and policy, and ‘evidence based policymaking’, and in posts on power and knowledge and feminist institutionalism. However, the implications rarely feed into standard policy analysis texts. This omission is important, because the production of knowledge – and the exercise of power to define whose knowledge counts – is as political as it gets.

Smith (2012) demonstrates this point initially by identifying multiple, often hidden, aspects of politics and power that relate to ‘research’ and ‘indigenous peoples’:

 

  1. The term ‘indigenous peoples’ is contested, and its meaning-in-use can range from
  • positive self-identification, to highlight common international experiences and struggles for self-determination but distinctive traditions; other terms include ‘First Nations’ in Canada or, in New Zealand, ‘Maori’ as opposed to ‘Pakeha’ (the colonizing population) (2012: 6)
  • negative external-identification, including – in some cases – equating ‘indigenous’ (or similar terms) with ‘dirtiness, savagery, rebellion and, since 9/11, terrorism’ (2012: xi-xii).

 

  1. From the perspective of ‘the colonized’, “the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism” (2012: 1; 21-6). Western research practices (and the European ‘Enlightenment’) reflect and reinforce political practices associated with colonial rule (2012: 2; 23).

To the colonized, the ways in which academic research has been implicated in the throes of imperialism remains a painful memory’ (2012: back cover).

“The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (2012: xi).

 

  1. People in indigenous communities describe researchers who exploit ‘their culture, their knowledge, their resources’ (and, in some cases, their bodies) to bolster their own income, career or profession (2012: xi; 91-4; 102-7), in the context of a long history of subjugation and slavery that makes such practices possible (2012: 21-6; 28-9; 176-7), and “justified as being for ‘the good of mankind’” (2012: 26).

 

 

  1. Western researchers think – hubristically – that they can produce a general understanding of the practices and cultures of indigenous peoples (e.g. using anthropological methods). Instead, they produce – irresponsibly or maliciously – negative and often dehumanizing images that feed into policies ‘employed to deny the validity of indigenous peoples’ claim to existence’ and solve the ‘indigenous problem’ (2012: 1; 8-9; 26-9; 62-5; 71-2; 81-91; 94-6).

For example, research contributes to a tendency for governments to

  • highlight, within indigenous communities, indicators of inequality (in relation to factors such as health, education, crime, and family life), and relate it to
  • indigenous cultures and low intelligence, rather than
  • the ways in which colonial legacy and current policy contributes to poverty and marginalisation (2012: 4; 12; compare with Social Construction and Policy Design).

 

  1. Western researchers’ views on how to produce high-quality scientific evidence lead them to ‘see indigenous peoples, their values and practices as political hindrances that get in the way of good research’ (2012: xi; 66-71; compare with ‘hierarchy of evidence’). Similarly, the combination of a state’s formal laws and unwritten rules and assumptions can serve to dismiss indigenous community knowledge as not meeting evidential standards (2012: 44-9).

 

  1. Many indigenous researchers need to negotiate the practices and expectations of different groups, such as if they are portrayed as:
  • ‘insiders’ in relation to an indigenous community (and, for example, expected by that community to recognise the problems with Western research traditions)
  • ‘outsiders’, by (a) an indigenous community in relation to their ‘Western education’ (2012: 5), or (b) by a colonizing state commissioning insider research
  • less technically proficient or less likely to maintain confidentiality than a ‘non-indigenous researcher’ (2012: 12)

Can policy analysis be informed by a new research agenda?

In that context, Smith (2012: xiii; 111-25) outlines a new agenda built on the recognition that research is political and connected explicitly to political and policy aims (2012: xiii; compare with Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies)

At its heart is a commitment to indigenous community ‘self-determination’, ‘survival’, ‘recovery’, and ‘development’, aided by processes such as social movement mobilization and decolonization (2012: 121). This agenda informs the meaning of ethical conduct, signalling that research:

  • serves explicit political goals and requires researchers to reflect on their role as activists in an emancipatory project, in contrast to the disingenuous argument that science or scientists are objective (2012: 138-42; 166-77; 187-8; 193-5; 198-215; 217-26)
  • is not ‘something done only by white researchers to indigenous peoples’ (2012: 122),
  • is not framed so narrowly, in relation to specific methods or training, that it excludes (by definition) most indigenous researchers, community involvement in research design, and methods such as storytelling (2012: 127-38; 141; for examples of methods, see 144-63; 170-1)
  • requires distinctive methods and practices to produce knowledge, reinforced by mutual support during the nurturing of such practices
  • requires a code of respectful conduct that extends ‘beyond issues of individual consent and confidentiality’) (2012: 124; 179-81).

Wider context: informing the ‘steps’ to policy analysis

This project informs directly the ‘steps’ to policy analysis described in Bardach, Weimer and Vining, and Mintrom, including:

Problem definition

Mintrom describes the moral and practical value of engaging with stakeholders to help frame policy problems and design solutions (as part of a similarly-worded aim to transform and improve the world).

However, Smith (2012: 228-32; 13) describes such a profound gulf, in the framing of problems, that cannot be bridged simply via consultation or half-hearted ‘co-production’ exercises.

For example, if a government policy analyst relates poor health to individual and cultural factors in indigenous communities, and people in those communities relate it to colonization, land confiscation, minimal self-determination, and an excessive focus on individuals, what could we realistically expect from set-piece government-led stakeholder analyses built on research that has already set the policy agenda (compare with Bacchi)?

Rather, Smith (2012: 15-16) describes the need, within research practices, for continuous awareness of, and respect for, a community’s ‘cultural protocols, values and behaviours’ as part of ‘an ethical and respectful approach’. Indeed, the latter could have mutual benefits which underpin the long-term development of trust: a community may feel less marginalised by the analysis-to-policy process, and future analysts may be viewed with less suspicion.

Even so, a more respectful policy process is not the same as accepting that some communities may benefit more from writing about their own experiences than contributing to someone else’s story. Writing about the past, present, and future is an exercise of power to provide a dominant perspective with which to represent people and problems (2012: 29-41; 52-9)

Analysing and comparing solutions

Imagine a cost-benefit analysis designed to identify the most efficient outcomes by translating all of the predicted impacts on people into a single unit of analysis (such as a dollar amount, or quality-adjusted-life-years). Assumptions include that we can: (a) assign the same value to a notionally similar experience, and (b) produce winners from policy and compensate losers.

Yet, this calculation hinges on the power to decide how we should understand such experiences and place relative values on outcomes, and to take a calculation of their value to one population and generalise it to others. Smith’s analysis suggests that such processes will not produce outcomes that we can describe honestly as societal improvements. Rather, they feed into a choice to produce winners from policy and fail to compensate losers in an adequate or appropriate manner.

[more to come]

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Michael Mintrom (2012) Contemporary Policy Analysis

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. This summary is not 750 words. I can only apologise.

Michael Mintrom (2012) Contemporary Policy Analysis (Oxford University Press)

Mintrom (2012: xxii; 17) describes policy analysis as ‘an enterprise primarily motivated by the desire to generate high quality information to support high-quality decisions’ and stop policymakers ‘from making ill-considered choices’ (2012: 17). It is about giving issues more ‘serious attention and deep thought’ than busy policymakers, rather than simply ‘an exercise in the application of techniques’ to serve clients (2012: 20; xxii).

It begins with six ‘Key Steps in Policy Analysis’ (2012: 3-5):

  1. ‘Engage in problem definition’

Problem definition influences the types of solutions that will be discussed (although, in some cases, solutions chase problems).

Define the nature and size of a policy problem, and the role of government in solving it (from maximal to minimal), while engaging with many stakeholders with different views (2012: 3; 58-60).

This task involves a juggling act. First, analysts should engage with their audience to work out what they need and when (2012 : 81). However, second, they should (a) develop ‘critical abilities’, (b) ask themselves ‘why they have been presented in specific ways, what their sources might be, and why they have arisen at this time’, and (c) present ‘alternative scenarios’ (2012: 22; 20; 27).

  1. ‘Propose alternative responses to the problem’

Governments use policy instruments – such as to influence markets, tax or subsidize activity, regulate behaviour, provide services (directly, or via commissioning or partnership), or provide information – as part of a coherent strategy or collection of uncoordinated measures (2012: 30-41). In that context, try to:

  • Generate knowledge about how governments have addressed comparable problems (including, the choice to not intervene if an industry self-regulates).
  • Identify the cause of a previous policy’s impact and if it would have the same effect now (2012: 21).
  • If minimal comparable information is available, consider wider issues from which to learn (2012: 76-7; e.g. alcohol policy based on tobacco).

Consider the wider:

 

  1. ‘Choose criteria for evaluating each alternative policy response’

There are no natural criteria, but ‘effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and administrative efficiency’ are common (2012: 21). ‘Effective institutions’ have a marked impact on social and economic life and provide political stability (2012: 49). Governments can promote ‘efficient’ policies by (a) producing the largest number of winners and (b) compensating losers (2012: 51-2; see Weimer and Vining on Kaldor-Hicks). They can prioritise environmental ‘sustainability’ to mitigate climate change, the protection of human rights and ‘human flourishing’, and/or a fair allocation of resources (2012: 52-7).

  1. ‘Project the outcomes of pursuing each policy alternative’

Estimate the costs of a new policy, in comparison with current policy, and in relation to factors such as (a) overall savings to society, and/or (b) benefits to certain populations (any policy will benefit some social groups more than others). Mintrom (2012: 21) emphasises ‘prior knowledge and experience’ and ‘synthesizing’ work by others alongside techniques such as cost-benefit analyses.

  1. ‘Identify and analyse trade-offs among alternatives’

Use your criteria and projections to compare each alternative in relation to their likely costs and benefits.

  1. ‘Report findings and make an argument for the most appropriate response’

Mintrom (2012: 5) describes a range of advisory roles.

(a) Client-oriented advisors identify the beliefs of policymakers and anticipate the options worth researching (although they should not simply tell clients what they want to hear – 2012: 22). They may only have the time to answer a client’s question quickly and on their own. Or, they need to create and manage a team project (2012: 63-76).

(b) Other actors, ‘who want to change the world’, research options that are often not politically feasible in the short term but are too important to ignore (such as gender mainstreaming or action to address climate change).

In either case, the format of a written report – executive summary, contents, background, analytical strategy, analysis and findings (perhaps including a table comparing goals and trade-offs between alternatives), discussion, recommendation, conclusion, annex – may be similar (2012: 82-6).

Wider context: the changing role of policy analysts

Mintrom (2012: 5-7) describes a narrative – often attributed to Radin – of the changing nature of policy analysis, comparing:

  1. (a) a small group of policy advisors, (b) with a privileged place in government, (c) giving allegedly technical advice, using economic techniques such as cost-benefit analysis.
  2. (a) a much larger profession, (b) spread across – and outside of – government (including external consultants), and (c) engaging more explicitly in the politics of policy analysis and advice.

It reflects wider changes in government, (a) from the ‘clubby’ days to a much more competitive environment debating a larger number and wider range of policy issues, subject to (b) factors such as globalisation that change the task/ context of policy analysis.

If so, any advice on how to do policy analysis has to be flexible, to incorporate the greater diversity of actors and the sense that complex policymaking systems require flexible skills and practices rather than standardised techniques and outputs.

The ethics of policy analysis

In that context, Mintrom (2012: 95-108) emphasises the enduring role for ethical policy analysis, which can relate to:

  1. ‘Universal’ principles such as fairness, compassion, and respect
  2. Specific principles to project the analyst’s integrity, competence, responsibility, respectfulness, and concern for others
  3. Professional practices, such as to
  • engage with many stakeholders in problem definition (to reflect a diversity of knowledge and views)
  • present a range of feasible solutions, making clear their distributional effects on target populations, opportunity costs (what policies/ outcomes would not be funded if this were), and impact on those who implement policy
  • be honest about (a) the method of calculation, and (b) uncertainty, when projecting outcomes
  • clarify the trade-offs between alternatives (don’t stack-up the evidence for one)
  • maximise effective information sharing, rather than exploiting the limited attention of your audience (compare with Riker).
  1. New analytical strategies (2012: 114-15; 246-84)
  1. the extent to which social groups are already ‘systematically disadvantaged’,
  2. the causes (such as racism and sexism) of – and potential solutions to – these outcomes, to make sure
  3. that new policies reduce or do not perpetuate disadvantages, even when
  4. politicians may gain electorally from scapegoating target populations and/ or
  5. there are major obstacles to transformative policy change.

Therefore, while Mintrom’s (2012: 3-5; 116) ‘Key Steps in Policy Analysis’ are comparable to Bardach and Weimer and Vining, his emphasis is often closer to Bacchi’s.

The entrepreneurial policy analyst

Mintrom (2012: 307-13) ends with a discussion of the intersection between policy entrepreneurship and analysis, highlighting the benefits of ‘positive thinking’, creativity, deliberation, and leadership. He expands on these ideas further in So you want to be a policy entrepreneur?

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: William Riker (1986) The Art of Political Manipulation

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary.

William H. Riker (1986) The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Most texts in this series describe the politics of policy analysis, in which your aim is to communicate with a client to help them get what they want, subject to professional standards and ethics (Smith, Bardach, and Weimer and Vining).

Such texts suggest that the evidence will not speak for itself, and that your framing of information could make a big difference between success and failure. However, they tend to dance around the question of how to exercise power to maximise your success.

The consequence may be some bland Aristotle-style advice, in which you should seek to be a persuasive narrator by combining:

  • Pathos. The appeal to an audience’s emotions to maximise interest in a problem.
  • Logos. The concise presentation of information and logic to make a persuasive case.
  • Ethos. The credibility of the presenter, based on their experience and expertise.

Studies of narrative suggest that these techniques have some impact. Narrators tap into their audience’s emotions and beliefs, make a problem seem ‘concrete’ and urgent, and romanticise a heroic figure or cause. However, their success depends heavily on the context, and stories tend to be most influential of the audiences predisposed to accept them.

If so, a key option is to exploit a tendency for people to possess many contradictory beliefs, which suggests that (a) they could support many different goals or policy solutions, and (b) their support may relate strongly to the context and rules that determine the order and manner in which they make choices.

In other words, you may not be able to ‘change their minds’, but you can encourage them to pay more attention to, and place more value on, one belief (or one way to understand a policy problem) at the expense of another. This strategy could make the difference between belief and action.

Riker (1986: ix) uses the term ‘heresthetic’ to describe ‘structuring the world so you can win’. People ‘win politically because they have set up the situation in such a way that other people will want to join them’. Examples include:

  1. Designing the order in which people make choices, because many policy preferences are ‘intransitive’: if A is preferred to B and B to C, A is not necessarily preferred to C.
  2. Exploiting the ways in which people deal with ‘bounded rationality’ (the limits to their ability to process information to make choices).

For example, what if people are ‘cognitive misers’, seeking to process information efficiently rather than comprehensively? What if they combine cognition and emotion to make choices efficiently? Riker highlights the potential value of some combination of the following strategies:

  1. Make your preferred problem framing or solution as easy to understand as possible.
  2. Make other problems/ solutions difficult to process, such as by presenting them in the abstract and providing excessive detail.
  3. Emphasize the high cognitive cost to the examination of all other options.
  4. Experiment with choice-rule options that consolidate the vote for your preferred option while splitting the vote of others.
  5. Design the comparison of a small number of options to make sure that yours is the most competitive.
  6. Design the framing of choice (for example, is a vote primarily about the substantial issue or confidence in its proponents?).
  7. Design the selection of criteria to evaluate options.
  8. Design a series of votes, in sequence, to allow you to trade votes with others.
  9. Conspire to make sure that the proponent of your preferred choice is seen as heroic (and the proponent of another choice as of flawed character and intellect).
  10. Ensure that people make or vote for choices quickly, to ward off the possibility of further analysis and risk of losing control of the design of choice.
  11. Make sure that you engage in these strategies without being detected or punished.

The point of this discussion is not to recommend that policy analysts become Machiavellian manipulators, fixing their eye on the prize, and doing anything to win.

Rather, it is to highlight the wider agenda setting context that you face when presenting evidence, values, and options.

It is a truism in policy studies that the evidence does not speak for itself. Instead, people engage in effective communication and persuasion to assign meaning to the evidence.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to expect success primarily from a well written and argued policy analysis document. Rather, much of its fate depends on who is exploiting the procedures and rules that influence how people make choices.

See also:

Evidence-based policymaking: political strategies for scientists living in the real world

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything

Please note: some of this text comes from Box 4.3 in Understanding Public Policy 2nd ed

box 4.3 Riker topbox 4.3 Riker bottom

 

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Policy Analysis (usually) in 750 words: David Weimer and Adrian Vining (2017) Policy Analysis

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary.

Please note that this book is the longest in the series (almost 500 pages), so a 750 word summary would have been too heroic.

David Weimer and Adrian Vining (2017) Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice 6th Edition (Routledge)

Weimer and Vining (2017: 23-8; 342-75) describe policy analysis in seven steps:

  1. ‘Write to Your Client’

Having a client such as an elected policymaker (or governmental or nongovernmental organization) requires you to: address the question they ask, by their chosen deadline, in a clear and concise way that they can understand (and communicate to others) quickly (2017: 23; 370-4).

Their sample documents are 18 pages, including an executive summary and summary table.

  1. ‘Understand the Policy Problem’

First, ‘diagnose the undesirable condition’, such as by

  • placing your client’s initial ‘diagnosis’ in a wider perspective (e.g. what is the role of the state, and what is its capacity to intervene?), and
  • providing relevant data (usually while recognising that you are not an expert in the policy problem).

Second, frame it as ‘a market or government failure (or maybe both)’, to

  • show how individual or collective choices produce inefficient allocations of resources and poor outcomes (2017: 59-201 and 398-434 provides a primer on economics), and
  • identify the ways in which people have addressed comparable problems in other policy areas (2017: 24).
  1. ‘Be Explicit About Values’ (and goals)

Identify the values that you seek to prioritise, such as ‘efficiency’, ‘equity’, and ‘human dignity’.

Treat values as self-evident goals. They exist alongside the ‘instrumental goals’ – such as ‘sustainable public finance or political feasibility’ – necessary to generate support for policy solutions.

‘Operationalise’ those goals to help identify the likely consequences of different choices.

For example, define efficiency in relation to (a) the number of outputs per input and/or (b) a measurable or predictable gain in outcomes, such as ‘quality-adjusted life years’ in a population (2017: 25-6).

Weimer and Vining describe two analyses of efficiency at length:

  • Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) to (a) identify the most efficient outcomes by (b) translating all of the predicted impacts of an alternative into a single unit of analysis (such as a dollar amount), on the assumption (c) that we can produce winners from policy and compensate losers (see Kaldor-Hicks) (2017: 352-5 and 398-434).
  • Public Agency Strategic Analysis (PASA) to identify ways in which public organisations can change to provide more benefits (such as ‘public value’) with the same resources (2017: 435-50).
  1. ‘Specify Concrete Policy Alternatives’

Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).

Compare specific and well-worked alternatives, such as from ‘academic policy researchers’ or ‘advocacy organizations’.

Identify the potential to adopt and tailor more generic policy instruments (see 2017: 205-58 on the role of taxes, expenditure, regulation, staffing, and information-sharing; and compare with Hood and Margetts).

Engage in ‘borrowing’ proposals or models from credible sources, and ‘tinkering’ (using only the relevant elements of a proposal) to make sure they are relevant to your problem (2017: 26-7; 359).

  1. ‘Predict and Value Impacts’

Ideally, you would have the time and resources to (a) produce new research and/or (b) ‘conduct a meta-analysis’ of relevant evaluations to (c) provide ‘confident assessments of impacts’ and ‘engage in highly touted evidence-based policy making’ (see EBPM).

However, ‘short deadlines’ and limited access to ‘directly relevant data’ prompt you to patch together existing research that does not answer your question directly (see 2017: 327-39; 409-11).

Consequently, ‘your predictions of the impacts of a unique policy alternative must necessarily be guided by logic and theory, rather than systematic empirical evidence’ (2017: 27) and ‘we must balance sometimes inconsistent evidence to reach conclusions about appropriate assertions’ (2017: 328).

  1. ‘Consider the Trade-Offs’

It is almost inevitable that, if you compare multiple feasible alternatives, each one will fulfil certain goals more than others.

Producing, and discussing with your clients, a summary table allows you make value-based choices about trade-offs – such as between the most equitable or efficient choice – in the context of a need to manage costs and predict political feasibility (2017: 28; 356-8).

  1. ‘Make a Recommendation’

‘Unless your client asks you not to do so, you should explicitly recommend one policy’ (2017: 28).

Even so, your analysis of alternatives is useful to (a) show your work (to emphasise the value of policy analysis), and (b) anticipate a change in circumstances (that affects the likely impact of each choice) or the choice by your client to draw different conclusions.

Policy analysis in a wider context: comparisons with other texts

  1. Policy analysis requires flexibility and humility

As with Smith (and Bardach), note how flexible this advice must be, to reflect factors such as:

  • the (unpredictable) effect that different clients and contexts have on your task
  • the pressure on your limited time and resources
  • the ambiguity of broad goals such as equity and human dignity
  • a tendency of your clients to (a) not know, or (b) choose not to reveal their goals before you complete your analysis of possible policy solutions (2017: 347-9; compare with Lindblom)
  • the need to balance many factors – (a) answering your client’s question with confidence, (b) describing levels of uncertainty and ambiguity, and (c) recognising the benefit of humility – to establish your reputation as a provider of credible and reliable analysis (2017: 341; 363; 373; 453).
  1. Policy analysis as art and craft as well as science

While some proponents of EBPM may identify the need for highly specialist scientific research proficiency, Weimer and Vining (2017: 30; 34-40) describe:

  • the need to supplement a ‘solid grounding’ in economics and statistics with political awareness (the ‘art and craft of policy analysis’), and
  • the ‘development of a professional mind-set’ rather than perfecting ‘technical skills’ (see the policy analysis profession described by Radin).

This approach requires some knowledge of policy theories (see 1000 and 500) to appreciate the importance of factors such as networks, institutions, beliefs and motivation, framing, lurches of attention, and windows of opportunity to act (compare with ‘how far should you go?’).

Indeed, pp259-323 has useful discussions of (a) strategies including ‘co-optation’, ‘compromise’, ‘rhetoric’, Riker’s ‘heresthetics’, (b) the role of narrative in ‘writing implementation scenarios’, and (c) the complexity of mixing many policy interventions.

  1. Normative and ethical requirements for policy analysis

Bacchi’s primary focus is to ask fundamental questions about what you are doing and why, and to challenge problem definitions that punish powerless populations.

In comparison, Weimer and Vining emphasise the client orientation which limits your time, freedom, and perhaps inclination to challenge so strongly.

Still, this normative role is part of an ethical duty to:

  • balance a ‘responsibility to client’ with ‘analytical integrity’ and ‘adherence to one’s personal conception of the good society’, and challenge the client if they undermine professional values (2017: 43-50)
  • reflect on the extent to which a policy analyst should seek to be an ‘Objective Technician’, ‘Client’s Advocate’ or ‘Issue Advocate’ (2017: 44; compare with Pielke and Jasanoff)
  • recognise the highly political nature of seemingly technical processes such as cost-benefit-analysis (see 2017: 403-6 on ‘Whose Costs and Benefits Count’), and
  • encourage politicians to put ‘aside their narrow personal and political interests for the greater good’ (2017: 454).

 

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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Catherine Smith (2016) Writing Public Policy

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary.

Catherine Smith (2016) Writing Public Policy (Oxford University Press)

Smith focuses on the communication of policy analysis within US government. Effective communication requires conceptual and contextual awareness’. Policy actors communicate from a particular viewpoint, representing their role, interests, and objectives.

In government, policy analysts often write (1) on behalf of policymakers, projecting a specific viewpoint, and (2) for policy makers, requiring them to (a) work remarkably quickly to (b) produce concise reports to (c) reflect the need to process information efficiently.

Actors outside government are less constrained by (1), but still need to write in a similar way. Their audience makes quick judgements on presentations: the source of information, its relevance, and if they should read it fully.

‘General Method of Communicating in a Policy Process’

Smith identifies the questions to ask yourself when communicating policy analysis, summarised as follows:

‘Step 1: Prepare’

  • To what policy do I refer?
  • Which audiences are relevant?
  • What is the political context, and the major sites of agreement/ disagreement?
  • How do I frame the problem, and which stories are relevant to my audience?

‘Step 2: Plan’

  • What is this communication’s purpose?
  • What is my story and message?
  • What is my role and interest?
  • ‘For whom does this communication speak?’
  • Who is my audience?
  • What will they learn?
  • What is the context and timeframe?
  • What should be the form, content, and tone of the communication?

‘Step 3. Produce’

  • Make a full draft, seek comments during a review, then revise.

Smith provides two ‘checklists’ to assess such communications:

  1. Effectiveness. Speak with an audience in mind, highlight a well-defined problem and purpose, project authority, and use the right form of communication.
  2. Excellence. Focus on clarity, precision, conciseness, and credibility.

Smith then focuses on specific aspects of this general method, including:

  • Framing involves describing the nature of the problem – its scope, and who is affected – and connecting this definition to current or new solutions.
  • Evaluation requires critical skills to question ‘conventional wisdom’ and assess the selective use of information by others. Use the ‘general method’ to ask how others frame problems and solutions, then provide a fresh perspective (compare with Bacchi).
  • Know the Record involves researching previous solutions. This process reflects the importance of ‘precedent’: telling a story of previous attempts to solve the problem helps provide context for new debates (and project your knowledgeability).
  • Know the Arguments involves engaging with the ideas of your allies and competitors. Understand your own position, make a reasoned argument in relation to others, present a position paper, establish its scope (the big picture or specific issue), and think strategically (and ethically) about how to maximise its impact in current political debates.
  • Inform Policymakers suggests maximising policymaker interest by keeping communication concise, polite, and tailored to a policymaker’s values and interests.
  • Public Comment focuses on the importance of working with administrative officials even after legislation is passed (especially if ‘street level bureaucrats’ make policy as they deliver).

Policy analysis in a wider context

Although Smith does not focus on policy process theories, knowledge of policy processes guides this advice. For example, Smith advises that:

  • There is no linear and orderly policy cycle in which to present written analysis. The policymaking environment is more complex and less predictable than this model suggests (although Smith still distinguishes heavily between legislation to make policy and administration to deliver – compare with the ACF)
  • There is no blueprint or uniform template for writing policy analysis. The mix of policy problems is too diverse to manage with one approach, and ‘context’ may be more important than the ‘content’ of your proposal. Consequently, Smith provides a huge number of real-world examples to highlight the need to adapt policy analysis to the task at hand (see also Bacchi on analysts creating problems as they frame them).
  • Policy communication is not a rational/ technical process. It is a political exercise, built on the use of values to frame and try to solve problems. Analysis takes place in often highly divisive debates. People communicate using stories, and they use framing and persuasion techniques. They need to tailor their arguments to specific audiences, rather than hoping that one document could appeal to everyone (see Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox).
  • Everyone may have the ability to frame issues, but only some policymakers ‘have authority to decide’ to pay attention to and interpret problems (see PET).
  • Communication comes in many forms to reflect many possible venues (such as, in the US context, processes of petition and testimony to public hearings alongside appeals to the executive and legislative branches)

See also: Policy Analysis in 750 words (the overview)

 

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: how do policy theories describe policy change?

The 1000 words and 500 words series already show how important but difficult it is to define and measure policy change. In this post, Leanne Giordono and I dig deeper into the – often confusingly different – ways in which different researchers conceptualise this process. We show why there is such variation and provide a checklist of questions to ask of any description of policy change.

Measuring policy change is more difficult than it looks

The measurement of policy change is important. Most ‘what is policy?’ discussions remind us that there can be a huge difference between policy as a (a)  statement of intent, (b) strategy, (c) collection of tools/ instruments and (d) contributor to policy outcomes.

Policy theories remind us that, while politicians and political parties often promise to sweep into office and produce radical departures from the past, most policy change is minor. There is a major gap between stated intention and actual outcomes, partly because policymakers do not control the policy process for which they are responsible. Instead, they inherit the commitments of their predecessors and make changes at the margins.

The 1000 words and 500 words posts suggest that we address this problem of measurement by identifying the use of a potentially large number of policy instruments or policy tools such as regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal.

Then, they suggest that we tell a story of policy change, focusing on (a) what problem policymakers were trying to solve, and the size of their response in relation to the size of the problem, and (b) the precise nature of specific changes, or how each change contributes to the ‘big picture’.

This recommendation highlights a potentially major problem: as researchers, we can produce very different narratives of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data than others.

Three ways to navigate different approaches to imagining and measuring change

Researchers use many different concepts and measures to define and identify policy change. It would be unrealistic – and perhaps unimaginative – to solve this problem with a call for one uniform approach.

Rather, our aim is to help you (a) navigate this diverse field by (b) identifying the issues and concepts that will help you interpret and compare different ways to measure change.

  1. Check if people are ‘showing their work’

Pay close attention to how scholars are defining their terms. For example, be careful with incomplete definitions that rely on a reference to evolutionary change (which can mean so many different things) or incremental change (e.g. does an increment mean small or non-radical)? Or, note that frequent distinctions between minor versus major change seem useful, but we are often trying to capture and explain a confusing mixture of both.

  1. Look out for different questions

Multiple typologies of change often arise because different theories ask and answer different questions:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework distinguishes between minor and major change, associating the former with routine ‘policy-oriented learning’, and the latter with changes in core policy beliefs, often caused by a ‘shock’ associated with policy failure or external events.
  • Innovation and Diffusion models examine the adoption and non-adoption of a specific policy solution over a specific period of time in multiple jurisdictions as a result of learning, imitation, competition or coercion.
  • Classic studies of public expenditure generated four categories to ask if the ‘budgetary process of the United States government is equivalent to a set of temporally stable linear decision rules’. They describe policy change as minor and predictable and explain outliers as deviations from the norm.
  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory identifies a combination of (a) huge numbers of small policy change and (b) small numbers of huge change as the norm, in budgetary and other policy changes.
  • Hall distinguishes between (a) routine adjustments to policy instruments, (b) changes in instruments to achieve existing goals, and (c) complete shifts in goals. He compares long periods in which (1) some ideas dominate and institutions do not change, with (2) ‘third order’ change in which a profound sense of failure contributes to a radical shift of beliefs and rules.
  • More recent scholarship identifies a range of concepts – including layering, drift, conversion, and displacement – to explain more gradual causes of profound changes to institutions.

These approaches identify a range of possible sources of measures:

  1. a combination of policy instruments that add up to overall change
  2. the same single change in many places
  3. change in relation to one measure, such as budgets
  4. a change in ideas, policy instruments and/ or rules.

As such, the potential for confusion is high when we include all such measures under the single banner of ‘policy change’.

  1. Look out for different measures

Spot the different ways in which scholars try to ‘operationalize’ and measure policy change, quantitatively and/ or qualitatively, with reference to four main categories.

  1. Size can be measured with reference to:
  • A comparison of old and new policy positions.
  • A change observed in a sample or whole population (using, for example, standard deviations from the mean).
  • An ‘ideal’ state, such as an industry or ‘best practice’ standard.
  1. Speed describes the amount of change that occurs over a specific interval of time, such as:
  • How long it takes for policy to change after a specific event or under specific conditions.
  • The duration of time between commencement and completion (often described as ‘sudden’ or ‘gradual’).
  • How this speed compares with comparable policy changes in other jurisdictions (often described with reference to ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’).
  1. Direction describes the course of the path from one policy state to another. It is often described in comparison to:
  • An initial position in one jurisdiction (such as an expansion or contraction).
  • Policy or policy change in other jurisdictions (such as via ‘benchmarking’ or ‘league tables’)
  • An ‘ideal’ state (such as with reference to left or right wing aims).
  1. Substance relates to policy change in relations to:
  • Relatively tangible instruments such as legislation, regulation, or public expenditure.
  • More abstract concepts such as in relation to beliefs or goals.

Take home points for students

Be thoughtful when drawing comparisons between applications, drawn from many theoretical traditions, and addressing different research questions.  You can seek clarity by posing three questions:

  1. How clearly has the author defined the concept of policy change?
  2. How are the chosen theories and research questions likely to influence the author’s operationalization of policy change?
  3. How does the author operationalize policy change with respect to size, speed, direction, and/or substance?

However, you should also note that the choice of definition and theory may affect the meaning of measures such as size, speed, direction, and/or substance.

 

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Let’s combine conceptual insights

A short blog post for policy process theory specialists and Gilmore Girls enthusiasts.

Being cited in the bibliography of other scholars is lovely, and I appreciate it very much. Indeed, if you do it to me, early enough in the journal submission, there is a good chance it will come to me for review, and my heart will swell with joy while I read it.

If so, I have one small request:

1. If you want to argue something like “Cairney says ‘hey, let’s compare many theoretical insights, what can possibly go wrong?'”, then you want this one:

Paul Cairney (2007) ‘A Multiple Lens Approach to Policy Change’, British Politics, 2, 1, 45-68 PDF

Season 4 Netflix GIF by Gilmore Girls  - Find & Share on GIPHY

2. If you want to say something like “here are the three main things that Cairney says will probably go wrong”, then you want this one:

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?’ Policy Studies Journal, 41, 1, 1-21 PDF

Cant Look Season 3 GIF by Gilmore Girls  - Find & Share on GIPHY

3. If, after reading this full-of-himself post you want to say something like ‘this joker Cairney should get over himself’, then you should cite them all to project a sense of completeness.

Season 3 Netflix GIF by Gilmore Girls  - Find & Share on GIPHY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know. You don’t have to think about it much, and Kirk is funny. He’s that guy in Guardians of the Galaxy that sort of causes a mutiny unintentionally then regrets it.

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