On policy analysis

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It’s funny how it is so easy to take a phrase – in this case ‘policy analysis’ –  for granted and assume you get what it means, but then the minute you start reading about it you doubt yourself.  I’m getting tied in knots about how to parse the phrase (a bit like second hand japanese car salesman.  Is it about second hand japanese cars? or a japanese salesman?).

Okay so this is my meandering about policy analysis and phrases that build on it.

The first element I read a while ago.  In a book by Hill (2013).  Policy analysis may be done with an interest in understanding policy (analysis OF policy), it can also be done with an interest in improving the quality of policy (analysis FOR policy).  But cutting across that the interest could be in the means or process of policy or in the substantive content or ends of a policy.  So you can kind of have a little quadrant in your head.

  • analysis OF policy (process) – e.g. how did this tobacco policy form
  • analysis OF policy (content) – e.g. what is the tobacco policy
  • analysis FOR policy (process) – e.g. how ought tobacco policy be ‘made’ (perhaps to avoid interference by tobacco companies) – what can be called process advocacy
  • analysis FOR policy (content) – e.g. what evidence should be taken into consideration in a tobacco policy – what can be called policy advocacy

The first two seem to have a descriptive feel, the second too more of a normative/prescriptive one.

So then you start thinking about who does policy analysis and in what role.  Very roughly there could be a distinction between

  • academics/researchers – I’d say they do policy research but it seems the phrase policy analysis is often used, therefore it is possible to confuse with
  • people involved in doing policy work (esp subset called policy analysts)

It’s tempting to think that academics/researchers are concerned with analysis OF policy, whilst policy workers are involved in analysis FOR policy.

But that’s not really the case, policy research can be applied and include ‘implications’ at the end of the content of the paper.  Academics/researchers can often be commissioned to develop reports/evidence base/evaluations for a particular policy.  Or they could choose to use their research findings to advocate for certain policies.

Policy workers at a local level could do analysis OF policies developed nationally or internationally, and sometimes policy workers in government need to take a neutral stance rather than advocate for certain positions.  Those in NGOs/think tanks have a different constraint but do have to adopt their organisational perspective, rather than just go it alone.


So I was relatively settled with these distinctions and tensions within then, until I started reading longer phrases like interpretive policy analysis or dramaturgic policy analysis.  Is that the analysis of interpretive policies or the analysis of policies from an interpretive perspective? And is it interpretive analysis OF policy or interpretive analysis FOR policy?

Fortunately for me, Richard Freeman has answered the ‘What is interpretive policy analysis’ question as a FAQ on his website.  I.P.A is “distinctive in attending to the interpretations policy makers themselves make”.

Whilst it can be analysis of policy, he implies it has a role in analysis for policy

“Its questions are not ‘What should we do?’ but ‘What are we doing?’, ‘How do we do what we do?’ and perhaps ‘How do we work out what we should be doing?’. Its focus is on the assumptions and practices of policy. In this way, it generates among policy makers a second order of awareness of what they do and what they might do differently.”

Sounds like reflective practice to me.  But Freeman explains that its methods are ethnographic and text based and talks about how findings are communicated to policy actors to help them in these reflections.  That assumes that IPA is done by researchers with the findings ‘transferred’.  Yet surely the whole idea of second order awareness could happen through practice development and/or action research done by policy actors themselves.

Now admittedly I’ve only had a quick look on amazon look inside, but Yannow and Schwartz-Shea (2014) book on ‘Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive turn’ does include action research as a form of research used in interpretive approaches. I see too that enthnography and dramaturgical analysis is included in their table of interpretive research methods on page xxiii.  So probably over-simplifying – ‘interpretive policy analysis’ can be taken to be ‘not-positivist’. Or you can get more specific, such as ethnographic policy analysis or dramaturgic policy analysis.  It’s a way of indicating the epistemological/methodological lens you are taking.

Before I finish, just want to throw in one additional related phrase ‘comparative policy analysis’.  This seems to be about comparing policies/policy processes between different jurisdictions.  So it could be the difference between two or more nations or two or more regions/states/local authorities within a nation.  That seems a little clearer – better not think about it for too long!



Hill, M, (2013) The public policy process, Pearson Education Ltd., Harlow, Essex

Freeman, R. (undated), What is interpretive policy analysis, available at http://www.richardfreeman.info/faqs.php [accessed 8 March 2016]

Yanow, D. and Schwartz-Shea, P. (2014), Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive turn, Routledfe, Abingdon, Oxon



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