Policy Analysis

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) defines policy analysis as the disciplined application of intellect to public problems.

Pal writes (pages 15):

“This definition is similar to Dunn’s: “policy analysis is a process of multidisciplinary inquiry designed to create, critically assess, and communicate information that is useful in understanding and improving policies” (Dunn, 2008, p. 1).

“… policy analysis is a cognitive activity – a thinking game, if you will – a large part of which focuses on public policy outputs in terms of their problem definition, goals, and instruments.

“Ours is a broad definition and is complemented by a thicket of other conceptual terms such as policy studies, “policy science,” and “policy evaluation.” The central distinction to keep in mind is between a style of policy analysis that is more explanatory and descriptive and a style that is more applied or prescriptive, or between what Harold Lasswell (1970) called “knowledge of the policy process” and “knowledge in the policy process.”

Three implications

Pal notes (pp. 16-17) that this definition has three important implications (emphasis added):

“The first is that, at least insofar as policy analysis seems to be allied with scientific disciplines, not just anyone can do it well. Ordinary citizens have opinions about public policy, but their views may be determined by  prejudice or what happened to be on that morning’s front page. Sometimes people have extraordinarily strong views about policy that they cannot explain. Once again, this would seem to fall short of policy analysis. The issue this raises, of course, is the division between citizens and experts. Can policy analysis be performed only by those trained to do it? Put another way, do ordinary citizens, when they contemplate public policy issues, engage in “real” policy analysis or merely in fuzzy thinking, and can experts put aside their own personal opinions? These are not merely abstract, philosophical issues; they strike at the heart of the policy process, the engagement of citizens, and the incorporation of expertise in policy advice.

The second implication, given that policy analysis should be disciplined and systematic, is that there will be both good and bad analysis. More disciplined and systematic analysis will be superior to the less disciplined and systematic. This understanding implies some intersubjective standard of judgment that will act as a benchmark for all participants in the analytical process. It points to the need for some training, especially in the use of more technically oriented forms of analysis and data generation (e.g., opinion surveys, cost-benefit analysis). Nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged that policy analysis contains an irreducible element of interpretation and perspective: that it is a form of “practical reason” that relies on a variety of techniques, a good deal of judgment, experience, and exploration (Sanderson, 2009). There is no exact science, for example, of structuring policy problems. As we noted earlier, policy problems are almost always complex and multi-faceted, and so defining or structuring the problem depends very much on which elements the analyst emphasizes and how those elements are imaginatively combined. Yet all analysis should not be viewed as purely subjective. As was mentioned, a substantial part of policy analysis does rely on specific methodological techniques of data gathering, research, and assessment. Moreover, in a democratic policy process, policy problems should be debated and exposed to discussion and criticism, as a means of correcting mistakes as well as generating intersubjective consensus.

“The third implication is that policy analysis, however much it may draw on other scientific disciplines, is a specific form of inquiry. Policy analysis, for example, has a unique focus when compared to other disciplines: public policies and the several elements that comprise them, along with the processes that produce them and the impacts they ultimately have. Policy analysis has its own traditions of debate, its journals, its schools, and its characteristic intellectual paradigms and issues. It is also different from politics and management: “politics, policy and management draw on three different traditions of enquiry and use three different ways of thinking and operating. Politicians use the world of semantics – they craft meaning with words (usually spoken). Policy advisors use the world of schematics – they design strategies and draw diagrams to represent how reality can be changed. By contrast, managers use the real world of practice – they deliver results through people and organizations” (Quirk, 2011, p. 11).

Gender, culture, and religion in policy analysis

Expanding on the second implication above, Pal writes (page 17-18):

“But policy analysis has, as well, to be self-aware and self-critical in an effort to remove as much unintentional bias as possible. One major example of this type of effort is the treatment of gender in policy analysis. A partial solution has been the development in the last decade of specific techniques of gender-based analysis (GBA), which seek to assess the differential impact of public policies, programs, and legislation on women and men. GBA is designed not to be an add-on in the analytical process, but a perspective that is woven through each step and phase (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2010). A recent development has been the extension of GBA to analyzing government budgets and their differential impacts on men and women (Bakker, 2006). A complementary concept is gender mainstreaming, an organizational strategy to ensure that a gender perspective is reflected in all types of organizational activities. The United Nations has made a strong commitment to gender mainstreaming, “ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities – policy development, research, advocacy/dialogue, legislation, resource allocation, and planning, implementation and monitoring of programmes and projects” (United Nations, 2011).

“Policy analysis is also complicated by possible cultural and religious biases – some Aboriginal groups and ethnic minorities argue that prevailing policy reflects the biases and interests of the ruling majority. Most public policy issues will not be as strongly marked by such disputes, but, as we noted earlier, values are at the heart of all policy debates, no matter how apparently technical. And values can be strongly linked to “ways of life” or community sensibilities. Consider for a moment the response authorities face when they decide, for rational reasons, to close schools. Or what municipalities might have to deal with when suggesting name changes to streets.”

See also: Pal’s Types of Reasoning in Policy Analysis

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Policy Analysis and Process (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101 Policy Analysis and Process.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

The sources quoted by Pal in the excerpts above are:

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. (2010). Working guide on gender-based analysis. At http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100028541/1100100028545, accessed 27 March 2017.

Bakker, I. (2006). Gender budget initiatives: Why they matter in Canada (Alternative Federal Budget 2006, Technical Paper 1). Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Dunn, W. N. (2008). Public policy analysis: An introduction (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lasswell, H. (1970, March). The emerging conception of the policy sciences. Policy Sciences, 1, 3–13.

Sanderson, I. (2009, December). Intelligent policy making for a complex world: Pragmatism, evidence and learning. Political Studies, 57, 699–719.

Quirk, B. (2011). Re-imagining government: Public leadership and management in challenging times. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

United Nations, Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. (2011). Gender mainstreaming. At http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/gendermainstreaming.htm, accessed 27 March 2017.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 27 March 2017.

Image: CleverTogether, at https://clevertogether.com/web/poliwiki-crowdsourcing-policy-analysis/, accessed 27 March 2017.