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Policy Analysis in 750 words: Marleen Brans, Iris Geva-May, and Michael Howlett (2017) Routledge Handbook of Comparative Policy Analysis

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary (and click here for the full list of authors). This post is a mere 500 words over budget (not including these words describing the number of words).

Brans et al 2017 cover

Marleen Brans, Iris Geva-May, and Michael Howlett (editors) (2017) Routledge Handbook of Comparative Policy Analysis (London: Routledge)

The Handbook … covers … the state of the art knowledge about the science, art and craft of policy analysis in different countries, at different levels of government and by all relevant actors in and outside government who contribute to the analysis of problems and the search for policy solutions’ (Brans et al, 2017: 1).

This book focuses on the interaction between (in Lasswell’s terms) ‘analysis for policy’ (policy analysis) and ‘analysis of policy’ (policy process research). In other words,

  • what can the study of policy analysis tell us about policymaking, and
  • what can studies of policymaking tell budding policy analysts about the nature of their task in relation to their policymaking environment?

Brans et al’s (2017: 1-6) opening discussion suggests that this task is rather unclear and complicated. They highlight the wide range of activity described by the term ‘policy analysis’:

  1. The scope of policy analysis is wide, and its meaning unclear

Analysts can be found in many levels and types of government, in bodies holding governments to account, and outside of government, including interest groups, think tanks, and specialist firms (such as global accountancy or management consultancy firms – Saint-Martin, 2017).

Further, ‘what counts’ as policy analysis can relate to the people that do it, the rules they follow, the processes in which they engage, the form of outputs, and the expectations of clients (Veselý, 2017: 103; Vining and Boardman, 2017: 264).

  1. The role of a policy analyst varies remarkably in relation to context

It varies over time, policy area, type of government (such as central, subnational, local), country, type of political system (e.g. majoritarian and consensus democracies), and ‘policy style’.

  1. Analysis involves ‘science, art and craft’ and the rules are written and unwritten

The process of policy analysis – such as to gather and analyse information, define problems, design and compare solutions, and give policy advice – includes ‘applied social and scientific research as well as more implicit forms of practical knowledge’, and ‘both formal and informal professional practices’ (see also studies of institutions and networks).

  1. The policy process is complex.

It is difficult to identify a straightforward process in which analysts are clearly engaged in multiple, well-defined ‘stages’ of policymaking.

  1. Key principles and practices can be institutionalised, contested, or non-existent.

The idea of policy analysis principles – ‘of transparency, effectiveness, efficiency and accountability through systematic and evidence-based analysis’ – may be entrenched in places like the US but not globally.

In some political systems (particularly in the ‘Anglo-Saxon family of nations’), the most-described forms of policy analysis (in the 750 words series) may be taken for granted (2017: 4):

Even so, the status of science and expertise is often contested, particularly in relation to salient and polarised issues, or more generally:

  • During ‘attempts by elected politicians to restore the primacy of political judgement in the policymaking process, at the expense of technical or scientific evidence’ (2017: 5).
  • When the ‘blending of expert policy analysis with public consultation and participation’ makes ‘advice more competitive and contested’ (2017: 5).
  • When evidence based really means evidence informed, given that there are many legitimate claims to knowledge, and evidence forms one part of a larger process of policy design (van Nispen and de Jong, 2017: 153).

In many political systems, there may be less criticism of the idea of ‘systematic and evidence-based analysis’ because there less capacity to process information. It is difficult to worry about excessively technocratic approaches if they do not exist (a point that CW made to me just before I read this book).

Implications for policy analysis

  1. It is difficult to think of policy analysis as a ‘profession’.

We may wonder if ‘policy analysis’ can ever be based on common skills and methods (such as described by Scott, 2017, and in Weimer and Vining), connected to ‘formal education and training’, a ‘a code of professional conduct’, and the ability of organisations to control membership (Adachi, 2017: 28; compare with Radin and Geva-May).

  1. Policy analysis is a loosely-defined collection of practices that vary according to context.

Policy analysis may, instead, be considered a collection of ‘styles’ (Hassenteufel and Zittoun, 2017), influenced by:

  • competing analytical approaches in different political systems (2017: 65)
  • bureaucratic capacity for analysis (Mendez and Dussauge-Laguna, 2017: 82)
  • a relative tendency to contract out analysis (Veselý, 2017: 113)
  • the types and remits of advisory bodies (e.g. are they tasked simply with offering expert advice, or also to encourage wider participation to generate knowledge?) (Crowley and Head, 2017)
  • the level of government in which analysts work, such as ‘subnational’ (Newman, 2017) or ‘local’ (Lundin and Öberg, 2017)
  • the type of activity, such as when (‘performance’) budgeting analysis is influenced heavily by economic methods and ‘new public management’ reforms (albeit with limited success, followed by attempts at reform) (van Nispen and de Jong, 2017: 143-52)

Policy analysis can also describe a remarkably wide range of activity, including:

  • Public inquiries (Marier, 2017)
  • Advice to MPs, parliaments, and their committees (Wolfs and De Winter, 2017)
  • The strategic analysis of public opinion or social media data (Rothmayr Allison, 2017; Kuo and Cheng, 2017)
  • A diverse set of activities associated with ‘think tanks’ (Stone and Ladi, 2017) and ‘political party think tanks’ (Pattyn et al, 2017)
  • Analysis for and by ‘business associations’ (Vining and Boardman, 2017), unions (Schulze and Schroeder, 2017), and voluntary/ non-profit organisations (Evans et al, 2017), all of whom juggle policy advice to government with keeping members on board.
  • The more-or-less policy relevant work of academic researchers (Blum and Brans, 2017; compare with Dunn and see the EBPM page).
  1. The analysis of and for policy is not so easy to separate in practice.

When defining policy analysis largely as a collection of highly-variable practices, in complex policymaking systems, we can see the symbiotic relationship between policy analysis and policy research. Studying policy analysis allows us to generate knowledge of policy processes. Policy process research demonstrates that the policymaking context influences how we think about policy analysis.

  1. Policy analysis education and training is incomplete without policy process research

Put simply, we should not assume that graduates in ‘policy analysis’ will enter a central government with high capacity, coherent expectations, and a clear demand for the same basic skills. Yet, Fukuyama argues that US University programmes largely teach students:

a battery of quantitative methods … applied econometrics, cost-benefit analysis, decision analysis, and, most recently, use of randomized experiments for program evaluation’ that ‘will tell you what the optimal policy should be’, but not ‘how to achieve that outcome. The world is littered with optimal policies that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted’.

In that context, additional necessary skills include: stakeholder mapping, to identify who is crucial to policy success, defining policy problems in a way that stakeholders and policymakers can support, and including those actors continuously during a process of policy design and delivery. These skills are described at more length by Radin and Geva May, while Botha et al (2017) suggest that the policy analysis programmes (across North American and European Universities) offer a more diverse range of skills (and support for experiential learning) than Fukuyama describes.

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