Tag Archives: agendas

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Defining policy problems and choosing solutions

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview.

When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:

  1. ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
  2. ‘knowledge in the process’, to foster policy analysis (analysis for policy)

The idea is that both elements are analytically separable but mutually informative: policy analysis is crucial to solving real policy problems, policy studies inform the feasibility of analysis, the study of policy analysts informs policy studies, and so on.

Both elements focus on similar questions – such as What is policy? – and explore their descriptive (what do policy actors do?) and prescriptive (what should they do?) implications.

  1. What is the policy problem?

Policy studies tend to describe problem definition in relation to framing, narrative, social construction, power, and agenda setting.

Actors exercise power to generate attention for their preferred interpretation, and minimise attention to alternative frames (to help foster or undermine policy change, or translate their beliefs into policy).

Policy studies incorporate insights from psychology to understand (a) how policymakers might combine cognition and emotion to understand problems, and therefore (b) how to communicate effectively when presenting policy analysis.

Policy studies focus on the power to reduce ambiguity rather than simply the provision of information to reduce uncertainty. In other words, the power to decide whose interpretation of policy problems counts, and therefore to decide what information is policy-relevant.

This (unequal) competition takes place within a policy process over which no actor has full knowledge or control.

The classic 5-8 step policy analysis texts focus on how to define policy problems well, but they vary somewhat in their definition of doing it well (see also C.Smith):

  • Bardach recommends using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention
  • Weimer and Vining and Mintrom recommend beginning with your client’s ‘diagnosis’, placing it in a wider perspective to help analyse it critically, and asking yourself how else you might define it (see also Bacchi, Stone)
  • Melzer and Schwartz and Dunn identify additional ways to contextualise your client’s definition, such as by generating a timeline to help ‘map’ causation or using ‘problem-structuring methods’ to compare definitions and avoid making too many assumptions on a problem’s cause.
  • Thissen and Walker compare ‘rational’ and ‘argumentative’ approaches, treating problem definition as something to be measured scientifically or established rhetorically (see also Riker).

These approaches compare with more critical accounts that emphasise the role of power and politics to determine whose knowledge is relevant (L.T.Smith) and whose problem definition counts (Bacchi, Stone). Indeed, Bacchi and Stone provide a crucial bridge between policy analysis and policy studies by reflecting on what policy analysts do and why.

  1. What is the policy solution?

In policy studies, it is common to identify counterintuitive or confusing aspects of policy processes, including:

  • Few studies suggest that policy responses actually solve problems (and many highlight their potential to exacerbate them). Rather, ‘policy solutions’ is shorthand for proposed or alleged solutions.
  • Problem definition often sets the agenda for the production of ‘solutions’, but note the phrase solutions chasing problems (when actors have their ‘pet’ solutions ready, and they seek opportunities to promote them).

Policy studies: problem definition informs the feasibility and success of solutions

Generally speaking, to define the problem is to influence assessments of the feasibility of solutions:

  • Technical feasibility. Will they work as intended, given the alleged severity and cause of the problem?
  • Political feasibility. Will they receive sufficient support, given the ways in which key policy actors weigh up the costs and benefits of action?

Policy studies highlight the inextricable connection between technical and political feasibility. Put simply, (a) a ‘technocratic’ choice about the ‘optimality’ of a solution is useless without considering who will support its adoption, and (b) some types of solution will always be a hard sell, no matter their alleged effectiveness (Box 2.3 below).

In that context, policy studies ask: what types of policy tools or instruments are actually used, and how does their use contribute to policy change? Measures include the size, substance, speed, and direction of policy change.

box 2.3 2nd ed UPP

In turn, problem definition informs: the ways in which actors will frame any evaluation of policy success, and the policy-relevance of the evidence to evaluate solutions. Simple examples include:

  • If you define tobacco in relation to: (a) its economic benefits, or (b) a global public health epidemic, evaluations relate to (a) export and taxation revenues, or (b) reductions in smoking in the population.
  • If you define ‘fracking’ in relation to: (a) seeking more benefits than costs, or (b) minimising environmental damage and climate change, evaluations relate to (a) factors such as revenue and effective regulation, or simply (b) how little it takes place.

Policy analysis: recognising and pushing boundaries

Policy analysis texts tend to accommodate these insights when giving advice:

  • Bardach recommends identifying solutions that your audience might consider, perhaps providing a range of options on a notional spectrum of acceptability.
  • Smith highlights the value of ‘precedent’, or relating potential solutions to previous strategies.
  • Weimer and Vining identify the importance of ‘a professional mind-set’ that may be more important than perfecting ‘technical skills’
  • Mintrom notes that some solutions are easier to sell than others
  • Melzer and Schwartz describe the benefits of making a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
  • Dunn warns against too-narrow forms of ‘evidence based’ analysis which undermine a researcher’s ability to adapt well to the evidence-demands of policymakers
  • Thissen and Walker relate solution feasibility to a wide range of policy analysis ‘styles’

Still, note the difference in emphasis.

Policy analysis education/ training may be about developing the technical skills to widen definitions and apply many criteria to compare solutions.

Policy studies suggest that problem definition and a search for solutions takes place in an environment where many actors apply a much narrower lens and are not interested in debates on many possibilities (particularly if they begin with a solution).

I have exaggerated this distinction between each element, but it is worth considering the repeated interaction between them in practice: politics and policymaking provide boundaries for policy analysis, analysis could change those boundaries, and policy studies help us reflect on the impact of analysts.

I’ll take a quick break, then discuss how this conclusion relates to the idea of ‘entrepreneurial’ policy analysis.

Further reading

Understanding Public Policy (2020: 28) describes the difference between governments paying for and actually using the ‘tools of policy formulation’. To explore this point, see ‘The use and non-use of policy appraisal tools in public policy making‘ and The Tools of Policy Formulation.

p28 upp 2nd ed policy tools

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Policy in 500 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

See also the original – and now 6 years old – 1000 Words post.

This 500 Words version is a modified version of the introduction to chapter 9 in the 2nd edition of Understanding Public Policy.  

UPP p147 PET box

 Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) tells a story of complex systems that are stable and dynamic:

  • Most policymaking exhibits long periods of stability, but with the ever-present potential for sudden instability.
  • Most policies stay the same for long periods. Some change very quickly and dramatically.

We can explain this dynamic with reference to bounded rationality: since policymakers cannot consider all issues at all times, they ignore most and promote relatively few to the top of their agenda.

This lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change, while intense periods of attention to some issues prompts new ways to frame and solve policy problems.

Some explanation comes from the power of participants, to (a) minimize attention and maintain an established framing, or (b) expand attention in the hope of attracting new audiences more sympathetic to new ways of thinking.

Further explanation comes from policymaking complexity, in which the scale of conflict is too large to understand, let alone control.

The original PET story

The original PET story – described in more detail in the 1000 Words version – applies two approaches – policy communities and agenda setting – to demonstrate stable relationships between interest groups and policymakers:

  • They endure when participants have built up trust and agreement – about the nature of a policy problem and how to address it – and ensure that few other actors have a legitimate role or interest in the issue.
  • They come under pressure when issues attract high policymaker attention, such as following a ‘focusing event’ or a successful attempt by some groups to ‘venue shop’ (seek influential audiences in another policymaking venue). When an issue reaches the ‘top’ of this wider political agenda it is processed in a different way: more participants become involved, and they generate more ways to look at (and seek to solve) the policy.

The key focus is the competition to frame or define a policy problem (to exercise power to reduce ambiguity). The successful definition of a policy problem as technical or humdrum ensures that issues are monopolized and considered quietly in one venue. The reframing of that issue as crucial to other institutions, or the big political issues of the day, ensures that it will be considered by many audiences and processed in more than one venue (see also Schattschneider).

The modern PET story

The modern PET story is about complex systems and attention.

Its analysis of bounded rationality and policymaker psychology remains crucial, since PET measures the consequences of the limited attention of individuals and organisations.

However, note the much greater quantification of policy change across entire political systems (see the Comparative Agendas Project).

PET shows how policy actors and organisations contribute to ‘disproportionate information processing’, in which attention to information fluctuates out of proportion to (a) the size of policy problems and (b) the information on problems available to policymakers.

It also shows that the same basic distribution of policy change – ‘hyperincremental’ in most cases, but huge in some – is present in every political system studied by the CAP (summed up by the image below)

True et al figure 6.2

See also:

5 images of the policy process

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Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition

All going well, it will be out in November 2019. We are now at the proofing stage.

I have included below the summaries of the chapters (and each chapter should also have its own entry (or multiple entries) in the 1000 Words and 500 Words series).

2nd ed cover

titlechapter 1chapter 2chapter 3chapter 4.JPG

chapter 5

chapter 6chapter 7.JPG

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10

chapter 11

chapter 12

chapter 13



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Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.

Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), but also social groups and individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).

Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.

In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:

Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.

Example 2. ‘Epistemic violencedescribes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.

It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas

Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything


Filed under 500 words, agenda setting, public policy, Storytelling

How do we get governments to make better decisions?

This is a guest post by Chris Koski (left) and Sam Workman (right), discussing how to use insights from punctuated equilibrium theory to reform government policy making. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Koski Workman

Many people assume that the main problem faced by governments is an information deficit. However, the opposite is true. A surfeit of information exists and institutions have a hard time managing it.  At the same time, all the information that exists in defining problems may be insufficient. Institutions need to develop a capacity to seek out better quality information too.

Institutions, from the national government, to state legislatures, to city councils – try to solve the information processing dilemma by delegating authority to smaller subgroups. Delegation increases the information processing capacity of governments by involving more actors to attend to narrower issues.

The delegation of authority is ultimately a delegation of attention. It solves the ‘flow’ problem, but also introduces new ‘filters’.  The preferences, interests, and modes of information search all influence the process. Even narrowly focused smaller organizations face limitations in their capacity to search and are subject to similar forces as the governments which created them – filters for the deluge of information and capacity limitations for information seeking.

Organizational design predisposes institutions to filter information for ideas that support status quo problem definitions – that is, definitions that existed at the time of delegation – and to seek out information based on these status quo understandings.  As a result, despite a desire to expand attention and information processing to adapt to changes in problem characteristics, most institutions look for information that supports their identity.  Institutional problem definitions stay the same even as the problems change.

Governments eventually face trade-offs between the gains made from delegating decision-making to smaller subgroups and the losses associated with coordinating the information generated by those subgroups.

Governments get stuck in the same ruts as when the delegation process started: status quo bias that doesn’t adjust with change problem conditions.  There is a sense among citizens and academics that governments make bad decisions in part because they respond to problems of today with the policies of 10 years ago.  Government solutions look like hammers in search of nails when they ought to look more like contractors or even urban planners.

Governments should not respond simply by centralizing

When institutions become stultified in their problem definitions, policymakers and citizens often misdiagnose the problem as entirely a coordination problem.  The logic here is that a small group of actors have captured policymaking and are using such capture for their own gain.  This understanding may be true, or may not, but it leads to the “centralization as savior” fallacy.  The idea here is that organizations with broader latitude will be better able to receive a wider variety of information from a broader range of sources.

There are two problems with this strategy.  First, centralization might guarantee an outcome, but at the expense of an honest problems search and, likely, at the expense of what we might call policy stability.  Second, centralization may offer the opportunity for a broader array of information to bear on policy decisions, but, in practice will rely on even narrower information filters given the number of issues to which the newly centralized policymaking forum must attend.

More delegation produces fragmentation

The alternative, more delegation, has significant coordination challenges as we find bottlenecks of attention when multiple subsystems bear on decision-points.  Also, simply delegating authority can predispose subsystems to a particular solution, which we want to avoid.

We’d propose: Adaptive governance

  • Design institutions not just to attend to problems, but to be specifically information seeking. For example, NEPA requires that all US federal decision-making regarding the environment undergo some kind of environmental assessment – this can be as simply as saying “the environmental will not be harmed” or as complex as an environmental impact statement.  At the same time, we’d suggest greater coordination of institutional actions – enhance communication across delegated units but also better feedback mechanisms to overarching institutions.
  • Institutions need to listen to the signals that their delegated units give them. When delegated institutions come to similar conclusions regarding similar problems, these are key signals to broader policymaking bodies.  Listening to signals from multiple delegated units allows for expertise to shine.  At the same time, disharmony across delegated units on the same problems is a good indicator of disharmony in information search.  Sometimes institutions respond to this disharmony by attempting to reduce participation in the policy process or cast outliers as simply outliers.  We think this is a bad idea as it exaggerates the acceptability of the status quo.
  • We propose ‘issue bundling’ which allows for issues to be less tied up by monolithic problem definitions. Policymaking institutions ought to formally direct delegated institutions to look at the same problem relying upon different expertise.  Examples here are climate change or critical infrastructure protection.  To create institutions to deal with these issues is a challenge given the wide range of information necessary to address each.  Institutions can solve the attention problems that emerge from the multiple sources by creating specific channels of information.  This allows for multiple subsystems  – e.g. Agriculture, Transportation, or Environmental Protection – to assist institutional decision-making by sorting issue specific – e.g. Climate Change – information.

Our solutions do solve fundamental problems of information processing in terms of sorting and seeking information – such problems are fundamental to humans and human-created organizations.  However, while governments may be predisposed to prioritize decisions over information, we are optimistic that our recommendations can facilitate better informed policy in the future.


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Conceptual ‘brand-stretching’ and the Policy Agendas Project

Darren Halpin and I are working on a paper about ‘brand stretching’ (his phrase) in policy studies. It might begin like this:

“Baumgartner and Jones’ (1993) Agendas and Instability has become one of the most influential accounts of the policy process. They explain, in a convincing way, why stable political arrangements and policy continuity may be disrupted by often-sudden instability and potentially profound policy change.  The book provides a rich study, of policymaking over several decades, to illustrate these mechanisms at work. While it contains case studies in US politics, many of the concepts it uses, and processes it identifies (such as ‘venue shopping’ and ‘framing’) can be described as ‘universal’; applicable to many (if not most) cases in the US and other countries.  Indeed, Jones and Baumgartner’s (2005) Politics of Attention takes us in that direction by identifying the ‘general punctuation hypothesis’ and applying it to aggregate budget and legislative data. The US political system as a whole demonstrates these long periods of stasis and bursts of activity, producing a large number of minor policy changes and small number of major changes. Crucially, this quantitative exercise is theory driven and consistent with the original argument. It allows us to identify, systematically, these important policymaking patterns and explain why they occur. When driven by the original authors, the research agenda is clear and consistent and has stood the test of time.

However, the Policy Agendas Project has also become a multi-country, multi-author, comparative research program. Other authors examining over fifteen countries such as the US, UK, Denmark, Korea and Australia, are engaged in a comparative effort to understand the dynamics of policy change and stability.  This expansion presents two major challenges. First, international brand expansion needs go hand in hand with coordination. The PAP is one of many comparative theories which originated from US studies of the US. A key question for scholars studying the political systems of other countries is: do their insights travel well?  To answer the question, we need to know which aspects of US-based theories are derived from particular aspects of the US political system and which are ‘universal’ processes, concepts or causal factors broadly applicable to many systems.  For example, ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1976) limits the extent to which all policymakers can pay attention to issues – so they must ignore most while promoting a small number to the top of their agenda – while the processes, institutions and histories of specific political systems help explain how and why some issues are addressed and others ignored.  The task for comparative policy scholars is to explore the extent to which we can separate, analytically, the universal from the specific elements and compare their effects on policy processes and outcomes.  This requires a common language which is precise and clear enough to help us produce separate studies and compare them in a meaningful way.

Second, however, that coordination and common language may not always exist. While Jones and Baumgartner often play an important part in the coordination and direction of country-level studies, they also play a less direct role in the gathering, interpretation and presentation of the data. New approaches and research questions have developed, and the project appears to have taken on a life of its own. On the one hand, this is a good development – more people with their own ideas produce the potential for theoretical and empirical innovation. On the other, it produces the potential for confusion, as people start to use the original terms in different ways and/ or use ‘policy agendas’ as an umbrella term under which to pursue their own pet projects (often through separate conferences, internal codebooks, and bespoke terminology and forms of analysis). We use the phrase ‘brand-stretching’ to describe instances where the attractiveness of an original idea is used to support scholarship that, in many respects, shows increasingly tenuous links with the original.

What characterises the comparative project is the large scale collection of quantitative data sets that map the way institutions and actors – including the media, legislatures, administrative systems, and the public – prioritise attention to policy issues. Armed with code books that systematise and categorise policy areas, scholars have coded numerous aspects of policy activity in many countries. From a methodological and data perspective, the project seems to stand in stark contrast with the originating idea. In particular, we identify a tendency for quantitative data to be gathered without the same theory-driven approach. New authors may identify interesting patterns of behaviour or outcomes without demonstrating the same understanding of the policy process and what causes these outcomes. They may introduce the research and data without even showing a working knowledge of the original punctuated equilibrium concepts. In this context, we identify the potential for new work in comparative politics to undermine existing work in policy studies.  For example, a comparative politics study may be set up on the assumption that the primary source of variation is by country rather than by policy area or issue.

Brand-stretching is not specific to the policy agendas project. Rather, it is a general unintended consequence of major theories ‘catching fire’ and (a) attracting the attention of a large group of scholars (b) in multiple countries, or (c) seeking to apply the same concept to many countries. For example, Poteete et al’s (2010) Working Together considers how to coordinate multiple research projects on the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD), and Weible et al’s (2009) ‘Taking Stock’ considers how the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) has changed after its application in over 80 studies.

We use this comparative theory-expansion experience to perform a similar ‘stock taking’ exercise for the comparative agendas project (CAP). First, we summarise the Baumgartner and Jones policy agendas project (PAP), identifying its main features: focus, concepts, methods, and findings. Second, we summarise the CAP and compare it to the original, considering the extent to which the original brand has been stretched. Third, we identify the main ways in which other theory/ project leaders have dealt with the potential for brand stretching – and apply these insights to the CAP”.

Hopefully it reads as a positive-but-concerned discussion – as a way to help protect the classics. Poteete et al provide a much more extensive discussion of this issue when discussing the management of the IAD.


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