Policy Analysis in 750 words

This page explains the relationship between policy analysis, policymaking, power and politics. It introduces a new book and contains a series of blog posts and podcasts on how to do (and reflect on) policy analysis. Please scroll down and browse the whole page, which helps you navigate the blog post series containing:

  1. A short description of what policy analysis is
  2. Summaries of many ‘how to do policy analysis’ textbooks
  3. Key themes relating policy analysis to research on policymaking, power, and critical policy analysis
  4. A series of short podcasts to accompany the book

The forthcoming book

pivot PA book cover snipped 23.11.20

explanation of politics of policy analysis book and blog

What is policy analysis?

‘Policy analysis’ describes the identification of a policy problem and possible solutions. In other words, it is the analysis for policy, not of policy (although not everyone uses this definition). Some analysts stop when they make a recommendation, while others monitor and evaluate outcomes. We can begin with a classic approach built on 5-steps:

  1. Define a policy problem identified by your client.
  2. Identify technically and politically feasible solutions.
  3. Use value-based criteria and political goals to compare solutions.
  4. Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.
  5. Make a recommendation to your client.

However, as this post summarising key texts demonstrates, each policy analysis guide describes the scope of policy analysis, and number and type of steps, in different ways:

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Classic 5-step advice

If you scroll down this page, you will see full summaries of these key texts in policy analysis, which present the most common advice about how to ‘do’ policy analysis (see Policy analysis texts: the initial list).

The wider context of policy analysis

These guides do not give us a full picture of the political and policymaking contexts in which policy analysis takes place. This series helps address that problem. It provides insights from policy theories and policy studies to situate policy analysis advice within the study of politics, power, and public policy. Look out for these key points along the way:

  1. New studies of policy analysts suggest that the old ways of doing policy analysis are gone.
  2. Modern ‘how to do policy analysis’ texts reflect this novelty somewhat, but not enough.
  3. One cause of the problem is a too-wide gap between policy analysis and policy process research (see 500 and 1000).
  4. The other cause is insufficient attention to the politics of knowledge use (see EBPM and ANZSOG).
  5. We should use insights from each field to close that gap.

The book describes how these texts and themes fit together:

abstract politics policy analysis

This combination of ‘how to’ advice and ‘what actually happens’ research allows you to produce policy analyses and reflect on the political and pragmatic choices you need to make.

Policy analysis is not a ‘rational’ or ‘technocratic’ process and we should not pretend otherwise.

Rather, our aim in this series is to understand policy analysis through the lens of the policy theories that highlight:

  • a competition to frame problems and identify the technical and political feasibility of solutions; in
  • a policymaking environment over which no one has full understanding or control (even if elected policymakers need to project their control to boost their image of governing competence), during which
  • governments add new policy solutions to an existing, complex, mix of solutions (rather than working from a blank canvas).

How to navigate this series

You can navigate this series in four main ways:

  1. Read the collection of summaries of policy analysis texts (scroll to the bottom)
  2. Read the collection of thematic posts which combine policy analysis advice and policy studies insights (next section).
  3. Read a pre-publication draft of the book based on the series (Paul Cairney 2021 The Politics of Policy Analysis ).
  4. Listen to the podcasts based on the book.

Policy analysis in a wider context: key themes

1. Defining policy problems and choosing solutions

This post identifies the difference between policy studies and policy analysis, partly to show that (a) your knowledge of policy processes should influence (b) the ways in which you conduct policy analysis. High technical proficiency can only take you so far, without an awareness of the constraints posed by politics and the policy process. In other words, pragmatic policy analysis is not simply about working out what policymakers are willing to do. It is also about the limits to their knowledge of, and control over, their policymaking environment.

2. What can you realistically expect policymakers to do?

This post contrasts the task of policy analysis in two main scenarios: (a) ideal-type policymaking built on comprehensive rationality and policy cycles, and (2) real-world policymaking, characterised by bounded rationality and policymaking complexity, in which policymakers have limited knowledge of, and even less control over, policymaking. The latter reminds us not to assume that policymakers understand the problems they seek to solve, or can predict the effect of their solutions.

3. What you need as an analyst versus policymaking reality

This post uses the distinction between policy studies and policy analysis to show that there a major difference between: (1) functional requirements, or what you need from policymaking systems, to manage your task (5-8 step policy analysis) and understand and engage in policy processes (the policy cycle), and (2) actual processes and outcomes. Policy concepts and theories tell us that bounded rationality limits the comprehensiveness of your analysis, and policymaking complexity undermines your understanding and engagement in policy processes. That’s life, eh?

4. Reflecting on your role as a policy analyst.

This post identifies a collection of policy analyst archetypes. It explores how key texts identify ethical ways to gather and use information while addressing bounded rationality and policymaking complexity.

5. Complex systems and systems thinking

This post identifies the potential usefulness of ‘systems thinking’ in policy analysis, but only if we can clarify its meaning. It explores 10 different meanings, and encourages you to choose how to define it in practice.

6. Entrepreneurial policy analysis

This post connects Mintrom’s valuable work on policy analysis and policy entrepreneurship. It then draws on policy studies to qualify the impact of entrepreneurs: most policy actors fail, their success is better explained by their environments, and relatively few people are in the position to become entrepreneurs.

7. Who should be involved in the process of policy analysis?

This post compares two stories of policy analysis – ‘evidence based’ and ‘co-produced’ – to highlight key trade-offs when you seek to use ‘the evidence’ and encourage wider participation.

8. Policy analysis for marginalized groups in racialized political systems

This post highlights the need to identify the role of race and racism in public policy. It then considers the implications for ‘pragmatic’ policy analysis. In most posts, pragmatism is a sensible response to bounded rationality, policymaking complexity, and the need to secure political feasibility. In this post, it may be seen as a euphemism for conservativism and the protection of the unequal status quo.

9. How much impact can you expect from your analysis?

Thus post identifies (a) the policy analysis strategies associated with maximising impact, subject to (b) the policymaking conditions that produce maximal or minimal interest in policy analysis and research evidence.

Policy analysis texts: the initial list 

The initial list of texts is based heavily on a module guide by Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega. 

Let’s begin with posts summarising books on ‘how to do policy analysis’ …

Eugene Bardach (2012) A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis 5th ed. (see also A step-by-step policy analysis using Bardach’s Eight Step Model)

Catherine Smith (2015) Writing Public Policy: A Practical Guide to Communicating in the Policy Making Process 

David Weimer and Aidan Vining (2017) Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice, 6th Edition 

Michael Mintrom (2012) Contemporary Policy Analysis  (see also Contemporary Policy Analysis (Mintrom 2012))

Dunn, W. (2017) Public Policy Analysis 6th Ed.

Meltzer, R. and Schwartz, A. (2019) Policy Analysis as Problem Solving 

Thissen, W. and Walker, W. (Eds.). (2013) Public Policy Analysis 

Let’s continue with books on how people do policy analysis, and how analysts fit into the bigger picture 

Radin, B. (2019) Policy Analysis in the Twenty-First Century 

Geva-May, I. (2005) ‘Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession’  (scroll down after Radin) (see also Policy analysis as a clinical profession)

Marleen Brans, Iris Geva-May, and Michael Howlett (2017) Routledge Handbook of Comparative Policy Analysis

Policy analysis texts: the expanded list

Let’s expand the reading list with books that:

(1) engage directly with policy analysis to problematize current advice

Carol Bacchi (2009) Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? 

Deborah Stone (2012) Policy Paradox

(2) do not engage directly, but provide crucial insights into the exercise of power to produce policy-relevant research and influence policy choice

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies (also discusses Audre Lorde, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Sarah Ahmed)

Using Statistics and Explaining Risk (David Spiegelhalter and Gerd Gigerenzer)

Barry Hindess (1977) Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences

William Riker (1986) The Art of Political Manipulation