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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Carol Bacchi’s (2009) WPR Approach

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

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

Bacchi’s ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ (WPR) approach prompts us to think about the task of policy analysis in a wider political context. It contrasts with models that take the nature of a policy problem for granted and seek solutions on that basis. Bacchi’s key distinction is between:

  • ‘problem’, which may imply that the nature of an issue is ‘fixed and identifiable’, ‘self-evident’, well-understood, agreed, or taken for granted; and
  • ‘problematisation’, which describes the ways in which people create policy problems as they make sense of them. Problem definition is a political process to identify how to define and address the social world, not a technical process built on a uniform understanding of its nature.

Bacchi presents a 6-step process to understand problem definition:

  1. “What’s the ‘problem’ represented to be in a specific policy?”

Problem definition can relate to its alleged cause (such as the lifestyle of certain populations), how far a government should go to address it (such as to regulate, fund, or exhort), and which part of government is responsible (if it is, say, a problem of public health, social security, or criminal justice).

  1. “What presuppositions or assumptions underlie this representation of the ‘problem’?”

WPR focuses on the ‘deep-seated cultural values’ that are taken for granted even though they underpin debate. Examples include the rules we use to categorise populations, distinguish between normal versus deviant behaviour, and the role of government in ‘private’ or ‘family’ life.

  1. “How has this representation of the ‘problem’ come about?”

Issues may be apparent for long periods before becoming problems for governments to solve. Explanations for intervention can include shifts in social attitudes or attention, changes in government, new information, and new technologies (such as in medicine, transport, or communication) that change social behaviour or make new interventions possible. Further, old ways of solving problems can endure long after the problem seems to have changed.

  1. “What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the ‘problem’ be thought about differently?”

Note the power to decide who – or what – is a problem (and the powerlessness to challenge that choice). A population’s ‘problems’ could be caused by their lifestyle or the ways in which we interpret their behaviour. The cause of traffic congestion could be over-reliance on cars or the absence of good infrastructure. Comparing problem definitions and cultural reference points, in different countries, can help identify which frames dominate.

  1. “What effects are produced by this representation of the ‘problem’?”

Problem definitions can help close off debate. They help alienate and stigmatise some populations. They produce positive or negative material consequences, and intended or unintended effects. Question 5 helps us ask who benefits from the current definition, and who might benefit from a new representation of the problem.

  1. “How/ where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How could it be questioned, disrupted and replaced?”

People exercise power to create or defend these ways to characterise problems, in a context in which certain practices and ideas dominate debate. Bacchi argues that researchers have a responsibility to question them, and their ‘origins, purposes, and effects’, rather than ‘buy into’ them as a natural starting point for policy analysis.

Policy analysis in a wider context: the reflection exercise

Unlike most of the books in this series, Bacchi focuses primarily on ‘problem-questioning’, not ‘problem-solving’. Researching the policymaking context raises profound issues including the:

This is a critical perspective with an in-built emancipatory function. The role of policy analysts is explicitly political, based on the assumption that policy benefits some groups and harms others, and taking ‘the side of those who are harmed’. It rejects the idea that policy analysis exists simply to reduce uncertainty with the supply of evidence. Rather, policy actors exercise power to frame issues, reduce ambiguity and determine the demand for evidence.

WPR highlights the relationship between (a) our knowledge of the policy process, and (b) the ways in which we use that knowledge to pursue a policy analysis strategy. Policy analysis is deliberately short and incomplete, often with a focus on what to exclude from discussion. It requires us to consider (a) our audience, (b) what to present and withhold, (c) how ‘manipulative’ to be, and (d) where to draw a notional line between providing evidence and advice, all within this wider political context.


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