Policy Analysis in 750 words

This new series contains:

(1) Summaries of key texts in policy analysis, which present the most common advice about how to ‘do’ policy analysis (identify a policy problem and possible solutions)

informed by

(2) Insights from policy theories and policy studies, to situate this advice within the study of politics, power, and public policy.

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).

You can navigate this series in two 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.

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