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:
- A short description of what policy analysis is
- Summaries of many ‘how to do policy analysis’ textbooks
- Key themes relating policy analysis to research on policymaking, power, and critical policy analysis
- A series of short podcasts to accompany the book
The forthcoming book
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:
- Define a policy problem identified by your client.
- Identify technically and politically feasible solutions.
- Use value-based criteria and political goals to compare solutions.
- Predict the outcome of each feasible solution.
- 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:
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:
- New studies of policy analysts suggest that the old ways of doing policy analysis are gone.
- Modern ‘how to do policy analysis’ texts reflect this novelty somewhat, but not enough.
- One cause of the problem is a too-wide gap between policy analysis and policy process research (see 500 and 1000).
- The other cause is insufficient attention to the politics of knowledge use (see EBPM and ANZSOG).
- We should use insights from each field to close that gap.
The book describes how these texts and themes fit together:
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:
- Read the collection of summaries of policy analysis texts (scroll to the bottom)
- Read the collection of thematic posts which combine policy analysis advice and policy studies insights (next section).
- Read a pre-publication draft of the book based on the series (Paul Cairney 2021 The Politics of Policy Analysis ).
- Listen to the podcasts based on the book.
Policy analysis in a wider context: key themes
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ …
[See also Writing a policy paper, where you can scroll to the end to see the advice that Brian Hogwood would give during my undergraduate years]
Let’s continue with books on how people do policy analysis, and how analysts fit into the bigger picture
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)
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
(2) do not engage directly, but provide crucial insights into the exercise of power to produce policy-relevant research and influence policy choice