To begin with, “policy” is the process by which the government sector interferes with the free operation of the private, non-profit, or personal sectors in order to correct some deficiency or flaw in the operation or outcomes of that sector. In other words, policy is a governmental plan for changing the way things operate in order to achieve a better outcome than what is likely to occur without intervention.
Any policy analysis will have four parts: Definition of the problem, Criteria for making a choice, Alternative choices available, and feasibility analysis. We will consider each of these in turn, drawing heavily on the work of MacRae & Wilde, Policy Analysis for Public Decisions.
Problem definition: Always be aware of the difference between the “problem situation” and the analyst’s problem. Usually, as you delve into a problem, you will find your focus diverging from that of the general public. While the substantive concerns of those who have come to specialize in an issue may determine the policy, the concerns of the general public will determine its acceptance (think of Hillary Clinton’s abortive effort to develop single-payer health care). A “problem situation” arises when people notice a “significant discrepancy” between what they perceive happening and what they think should be happening. Usually, this concern is based on some underlying (and usually unexpressed and sometimes even unacknowledged) values. From the analyst’s point of view, these initial problems usually have to be redefined before they can be analyzed. Some “problems” may be inescapable (broken hearts seem to go with adolescence), or may go away of their own accord (like most acne). Some observed “problem” behavior may, in fact, be “typical” (like children darting into traffic). Often problems are stated in terms of finding blame, which generally works against rational analysis (the current “no child left behind” debate might be a good example). Sometimes problems that seemed so obvious are completely recast with the discovery of new data (before the diagnosis of ADHD, a number of children were labeled as willfully disruptive). In coming to a definition of the problem, the analyst must always look behind the initial definition because that definition is always related to an apparent “cause.” Sometimes the causal relationship withstands scrutiny; often it does not. Redefining the problem can create a more general coalition is support of the problem; on the other hand, it can also diffuse the issue and lose the initial clarity it brought with it. In any event, do not attempt to analyze a problem when there is no hope of implementing a solution. Policy is the marriage of an issue with resources to solve it; if there are no resources, there is no problem.
Criteria for Choice: Before jumping to solutions or a family of possible solutions, take the time to lay out in advance the rules by which you (and anyone following your analysis) will know whether you have arrived at an acceptable solution. There are two essential criteria for choosing among alternative solutions: desirability and feasibility. The desirability of a solution is determined by its clarity (quantification goes a long way to clarify what is going on), consistency (ability to reconcile values—and “disvalues,” or shortcomings), and generality (usefulness of a solution over a wide range of circumstances). Feasibility is a subjective criterion; it is a measure of the willingness of people to act on a solution. Often desirability and feasibility do not coincide (Jesus advised the rich young man to sell all he had and follow around with the disciples if he wished to obtain eternal life; the young man turned away disappointed).
Alternative Choices: First, name each alternative. Then define each of them precisely—use behavioral terms if it all possible. Then analyze the consequences of each alternative, assuming a) that all the specified activities are accomplished and b) assuming only some of the activities are accomplished. This “risk assessment” or “robustness test” can uncover major differences between alternatives—all of which accomplish their end if everything goes as planned, but have very different consequences under less ideal conditions. You can look for alternatives from a number of sources. Always, one alternative is the “do nothing” alternative; never forget it. You might also find alternatives in the operation of the market, in the experience of others, or from scientific research. Whatever their source, the choice among alternatives will depend on the prediction of their consequences (both intended and unintended consequences). Among the more insidious of the unintended consequences is the tendency of people to react to the actions you are trying to elicit (sometimes they will try to give you what they think you want—whether or not it really is what you want—and sometimes they will attempt to purposely withhold it).
Feasibility Analysis: Assessment of feasibility begins as soon as the analysis begins. Determine potential support and opposition—and develop your support (don’t try to dissuade your opposition; it is enough if they just don’t push their point). This can be done through persuasion, communication, organizing, mobilizing public support, bargaining (which includes threatening), and public demonstration. In practice it can also include deception and force, but these are not considered ethical tools in an analysis.
MN Council on Foundations. (2004) “Supporting Minnesota’s Youth: The State of the State’s Youth Development Funding” available at http://www.mcf.org/mcf/giving/youthreport.htm
Planning (June, 2007): Isabelle Groc, “Family Friendly” (pp. 8-14); Mark Hinshaw, “Why Raise Your Kids in the Suburbs?” (pp. 15-16); Warner, Anderson & Haddow, “Putting Child Care in the Picture” (pp. 16-19).
Mark Hinshaw, True
Kristen Anderson, Planning for Child Care (CA: Solano Press, 2006)
© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 2 May 2005