Policy analysis is the art and science of determining which public policy, from among alternatives, will most likely achieve a determined set of goals. The art of policy analysis involves putting together pieces to determine what will work in public policy. Central to policy analysis is an understanding of the evolutionary process of policy development as policymakers strive to improve the policymaking process in general and specific policies in particular. Policy analysis is the activity of generating knowledge both of and in the policymaking process. Creating such knowledge includes the examination of the causes, consequences, and performance of public policies and programs. Unless this knowledge is shared with decision makers and the relevant public, the process of policy analysis is unfinished.
Policy analysis is a relatively young field of study. Traditionally, institutions and the processes of public policymaking were the primary concern of social scientists and political scientists. In 1951 sociologist Daniel Lerner (1917–1980) and political scientist Harold Lasswell (1902–1978) introduced the concept of “the policy sciences.” Their work is often cited as the foundation for the evolution of how public policies are studied. Over time, the traditional approach expanded to include analysis of the content and process of actual policies, a discipline that is now commonly referred to as policy analysis.
Policy analysis, a part of the larger field of policy studies, evolved and developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Various stimuli have been cited as promoting the growth of the field. Social concerns over civil rights, women’s liberation, the Vietnam War (1957–1975), the politics of the Middle East, rising energy costs, inflation, and environmental protection were among the stimuli. The expanding relationship between government and the academic community, along with government’s increasing reliance on the assistance of the academic community for developing methods of maximizing output in the face of diminishing resources, also facilitated the expansion of the field. Additionally, government offered expanding research funding and job opportunities as it sought assistance in addressing the above-mentioned social issues. New analytical and interdisciplinary methods allowed academics and think tanks to capitalize on government expansion. The Keynesian revolution in economics (1930s and 1940s) is one such development. This revolution allowed for public sector intervention in the economic decision-making process. Applied policy research continues to play a major role in contemporary government decision making around issues of efficiency, effectiveness, and equity.
Although heavily influenced by the disciplines of political science, policy analysis is eclectic as it borrows from and lends to a myriad of academic disciplines. Economics, for example, contributes cost-benefit analysis and models relating to the optimal allocation of resources. Policy analysis also incorporates the emphasis in economics on prescriptive conclusions. Psychology lends to policy analysis the research paradigm of experimental and control groups and various techniques of statistical inference. Additionally, psychology provides theories and insights on the application of rewards and punishment as tools for promoting specific behaviors. Sociology’s concern with social problems has also added to the development of the study of public policies. In addition, the comparative analysis of public policies has roots in anthropology, geography, and history.
Methods of policy analysis vary from analyst to analyst. Various schools of thought, such as behaviorist, post-behaviorist, and rational choice theory, among others, influence analysts in terms of what types of questions are asked and what methods are employed to answer these questions. Public policy analysts rely on a number of different approaches. Analysts can take an empirical approach, designed to primarily determine the causes and consequences of public policies. A central goal of such an approach is to understand a policy problem. Such an approach tends to yield more descriptive and predictive information. An analyst can also use an evaluative approach, where the central question concerns the value or worth of past or future policy prescription. Finally, analysts using a normative approach ask what should be done. Their work thus yields more prescriptive types of knowledge. Analysts can also study policy content or the policy process itself.
Over the years, different methodological tools and approaches have been employed in the analysis of public policy. Theories derived from management, organization development, and psychology, in conjunction with the use of economic and political models, influence the techniques used by policy analysts. Analysts draw from a bank of both qualitative and quantitative methods. These include, but are not limited to, case studies, economic modeling, quasi-experimental approaches, causal-path analysis, operations research, and correlations analysis.
SEE ALSO Public Policy; Public Sector
Lerner, Daniel, and Harold D. Lasswell, eds. 1951. The Policy Sciences: Recent Developments in Scope and Method. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Nagel, Stuart S. 1975. Policy Studies and the Social Sciences. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Nagel, Stuart S. 1984. Contemporary Public Policy Analysis. University: University of Alabama Press.
Wildavsky, Aaron. 1979. Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis. Boston: Little, Brown.
Julia S. Jordan-Zachery