Tag Archives: economics

Policy Analysis (usually) in 750 words: David Weimer and Adrian Vining (2017) Policy Analysis

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

Please note that this book is the longest in the series (almost 500 pages), so a 750 word summary would have been too heroic.

David Weimer and Adrian Vining (2017) Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice 6th Edition (Routledge)

Weimer and Vining (2017: 23-8; 342-75) describe policy analysis in seven steps:

  1. ‘Write to Your Client’

Having a client such as an elected policymaker (or governmental or nongovernmental organization) requires you to: address the question they ask, by their chosen deadline, in a clear and concise way that they can understand (and communicate to others) quickly (2017: 23; 370-4).

Their sample documents are 18 pages, including an executive summary and summary table.

  1. ‘Understand the Policy Problem’

First, ‘diagnose the undesirable condition’, such as by

  • placing your client’s initial ‘diagnosis’ in a wider perspective (e.g. what is the role of the state, and what is its capacity to intervene?), and
  • providing relevant data (usually while recognising that you are not an expert in the policy problem).

Second, frame it as ‘a market or government failure (or maybe both)’, to

  • show how individual or collective choices produce inefficient allocations of resources and poor outcomes (2017: 59-201 and 398-434 provides a primer on economics), and
  • identify the ways in which people have addressed comparable problems in other policy areas (2017: 24).
  1. ‘Be Explicit About Values’ (and goals)

Identify the values that you seek to prioritise, such as ‘efficiency’, ‘equity’, and ‘human dignity’.

Treat values as self-evident goals. They exist alongside the ‘instrumental goals’ – such as ‘sustainable public finance or political feasibility’ – necessary to generate support for policy solutions.

‘Operationalise’ those goals to help identify the likely consequences of different choices.

For example, define efficiency in relation to (a) the number of outputs per input and/or (b) a measurable or predictable gain in outcomes, such as ‘quality-adjusted life years’ in a population (2017: 25-6).

Weimer and Vining describe two analyses of efficiency at length:

  • Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) to (a) identify the most efficient outcomes by (b) translating all of the predicted impacts of an alternative into a single unit of analysis (such as a dollar amount), on the assumption (c) that we can produce winners from policy and compensate losers (see Kaldor-Hicks) (2017: 352-5 and 398-434).
  • Public Agency Strategic Analysis (PASA) to identify ways in which public organisations can change to provide more benefits (such as ‘public value’) with the same resources (2017: 435-50).
  1. ‘Specify Concrete Policy Alternatives’

Explain potential solutions in sufficient detail to predict the costs and benefits of each ‘alternative’ (including current policy).

Compare specific and well-worked alternatives, such as from ‘academic policy researchers’ or ‘advocacy organizations’.

Identify the potential to adopt and tailor more generic policy instruments (see 2017: 205-58 on the role of taxes, expenditure, regulation, staffing, and information-sharing; and compare with Hood and Margetts).

Engage in ‘borrowing’ proposals or models from credible sources, and ‘tinkering’ (using only the relevant elements of a proposal) to make sure they are relevant to your problem (2017: 26-7; 359).

  1. ‘Predict and Value Impacts’

Ideally, you would have the time and resources to (a) produce new research and/or (b) ‘conduct a meta-analysis’ of relevant evaluations to (c) provide ‘confident assessments of impacts’ and ‘engage in highly touted evidence-based policy making’ (see EBPM).

However, ‘short deadlines’ and limited access to ‘directly relevant data’ prompt you to patch together existing research that does not answer your question directly (see 2017: 327-39; 409-11).

Consequently, ‘your predictions of the impacts of a unique policy alternative must necessarily be guided by logic and theory, rather than systematic empirical evidence’ (2017: 27) and ‘we must balance sometimes inconsistent evidence to reach conclusions about appropriate assertions’ (2017: 328).

  1. ‘Consider the Trade-Offs’

It is almost inevitable that, if you compare multiple feasible alternatives, each one will fulfil certain goals more than others.

Producing, and discussing with your clients, a summary table allows you make value-based choices about trade-offs – such as between the most equitable or efficient choice – in the context of a need to manage costs and predict political feasibility (2017: 28; 356-8).

  1. ‘Make a Recommendation’

‘Unless your client asks you not to do so, you should explicitly recommend one policy’ (2017: 28).

Even so, your analysis of alternatives is useful to (a) show your work (to emphasise the value of policy analysis), and (b) anticipate a change in circumstances (that affects the likely impact of each choice) or the choice by your client to draw different conclusions.

Policy analysis in a wider context: comparisons with other texts

  1. Policy analysis requires flexibility and humility

As with Smith (and Bardach), note how flexible this advice must be, to reflect factors such as:

  • the (unpredictable) effect that different clients and contexts have on your task
  • the pressure on your limited time and resources
  • the ambiguity of broad goals such as equity and human dignity
  • a tendency of your clients to (a) not know, or (b) choose not to reveal their goals before you complete your analysis of possible policy solutions (2017: 347-9; compare with Lindblom)
  • the need to balance many factors – (a) answering your client’s question with confidence, (b) describing levels of uncertainty and ambiguity, and (c) recognising the benefit of humility – to establish your reputation as a provider of credible and reliable analysis (2017: 341; 363; 373; 453).
  1. Policy analysis as art and craft as well as science

While some proponents of EBPM may identify the need for highly specialist scientific research proficiency, Weimer and Vining (2017: 30; 34-40) describe:

  • the need to supplement a ‘solid grounding’ in economics and statistics with political awareness (the ‘art and craft of policy analysis’), and
  • the ‘development of a professional mind-set’ rather than perfecting ‘technical skills’ (see the policy analysis profession described by Radin).

This approach requires some knowledge of policy theories (see 1000 and 500) to appreciate the importance of factors such as networks, institutions, beliefs and motivation, framing, lurches of attention, and windows of opportunity to act (compare with ‘how far should you go?’).

Indeed, pp259-323 has useful discussions of (a) strategies including ‘co-optation’, ‘compromise’, ‘rhetoric’, Riker’s ‘heresthetics’, (b) the role of narrative in ‘writing implementation scenarios’, and (c) the complexity of mixing many policy interventions.

  1. Normative and ethical requirements for policy analysis

Bacchi’s primary focus is to ask fundamental questions about what you are doing and why, and to challenge problem definitions that punish powerless populations.

In comparison, Weimer and Vining emphasise the client orientation which limits your time, freedom, and perhaps inclination to challenge so strongly.

Still, this normative role is part of an ethical duty to:

  • balance a ‘responsibility to client’ with ‘analytical integrity’ and ‘adherence to one’s personal conception of the good society’, and challenge the client if they undermine professional values (2017: 43-50)
  • reflect on the extent to which a policy analyst should seek to be an ‘Objective Technician’, ‘Client’s Advocate’ or ‘Issue Advocate’ (2017: 44; compare with Pielke and Jasanoff)
  • recognise the highly political nature of seemingly technical processes such as cost-benefit-analysis (see 2017: 403-6 on ‘Whose Costs and Benefits Count’), and
  • encourage politicians to put ‘aside their narrow personal and political interests for the greater good’ (2017: 454).



Filed under 750 word policy analysis, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Policy in 500 Words: applying economics to politics

Rational choice theory can be defined as the application of economic methods and insights to the study of politics. It can help inform major questions in public policy, including:

  • Should we try to get people to change their behaviour, perhaps ‘for their own good’ or to act in the ‘collective’ rather than their own narrow self-interest?
  • If so, how? Should we rely on the state to address ‘collective action problems’?
  • If so, should we use incentives, coercion, and/ or ‘nudges’ to change behaviour?

In other words, we ask if it is appropriate to change public behaviour and, if so, what means are most effective.

A classic approach is to make some simplifying assumptions – for example, about people’s ability to process information and rank their preferences when making choices – to help us imagine how they might act in particular situations.

For example, people might ‘free ride’ if they can benefit from a good or service without paying for it. This insight underpins the argument that the state must intervene to solve ‘market failure’, such as in the provision of ‘public goods’ (which are ‘non-excludable’, i.e. no-one can be excluded from enjoying their benefits, and ‘non-rival’, i.e. their use by one person does not diminish their value to another).

Or, people might contribute to Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’: the potentially catastrophic, cumulative effect of individual choices regarding scarce ‘common pool resources’ such as fertile land, unpolluted water, clean air, and fishing stocks. It is in our collective interest to act collectively to manage such resources, but individual interest to take a little bit more. So, if we all act individually, not collectively, the scarce resource is ruined.

Hardin’s solution to this problem is ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’, such as state intervention. He recommends taxation as a good example of a coercive device. However, state intervention is not a panacea and it produces major unintended consequences. So, this recommendation prompts two key discussions that are central to contemporary studies of public policy:

  1. The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) is a key development

Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work challenges the idea that state intervention is necessarily the best solution to collective action problems. It demonstrates the potential for non-market solutions based on a combination of trust and less coercive means to minimize the costs of monitoring and enforcing collective agreements. This approach involves individuals seeking agreements with each other that could be enshrined in a set of meaningful rules (institution). The rules may be enforced by a private authority, and the ‘commons’ would remain common and actors would observe each other’s behaviour and report rule-breaking to the third party that everyone pays for and agrees to respect.

  1. Should we nudge instead of coerce?

Behavioural economics takes insights from psychology to identify the cognitive biases that influence human choice. It has become associated with the idea of ‘nudge’, in which we influence people’s behaviour by exploiting their biases (such as by having them opt-out-of rather than opt-into services, or making it easier to process the information required to make choices).

Take home message for students: don’t just reject rational choice because you read that it uses wackily unrealistic assumptions. Instead, focus on the practical benefits of different ways of thinking. In this case, what issues do these simple models raise? Then note the links between classic and modern studies. Behavioural economics draws insights from psychology to get a better understanding of ‘rational choice’ but you can see the same broad aim to understand how people might act and if we should try to change such action. The IAD also informs the study of state and market failure: can we say with any certainty what governing set-up is best?

500 words series https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/500-words/

1000 words series https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

1 Comment

Filed under 500 words, public policy