What is Public Policy Analysis?

Anonymous asked this question on 5/12/2000:

What is Public Policy Analysis? How do things really work? Are decisions made based on statistical analysis or political situations?

madpol gave this response on 5/14/2000:

Basically public policy analysis falls into two categories, the flow of questions, answers and debate prior to making a decision--which determines whether a policy or program is feasible and the priority which should be assigned to it. And the Monday morning quarterbacking that goes on after a decision is made and started to show results which determines whether a policy is sufficiently reality based to warrant continuation.

The short answer to your second question is yes. Legislative staff and interest groups prepare detailed analyses of need, costs, and projected effects of legislation and legislators tend to ignore them in favor of political considerations. Ideology, party line, agenda, pet projects and perceived need for public spending in one's district are usually the determining factors in policy votes. Legislators will also often vote for someone else's bill in compensation for support on their own legislation.

I personally ran into a good example of the need for policy analysis in the summer of 1981, when the State of Illinois briefly legalized machine guns. The intent of the bill was to license one dealer through whom municipal police departments could buy automatic weapons, but the language was so unspecific as to allow general sales. It turns out that no one--not even the 4 sponsors or the Governor's office--had actually read the bill.

JesseGordon gave this response on 5/12/2000:

The basis of public policy analysis is to present all aspects of an issue, so that politicians, or the public, or the press, can draw their own conclusions.

For example, someone asked me about the "New World Order," see . My answer is "public policy analysis" because I present four different interpretations of what the "New World Order" means, along with some political context. I could have given my OPINION on the "New World Order," but that wouldn't have been policy analysis.

That doesn't necessarily mean being non-partisan or un-opinionated, but it DOES mean presenting the opposing parties' viewpoints and opinions as well as your own.

For example, someone asked me about "affirmative action", see . I give a partisan answer, from the point of view of four different partisans. Advocates of all four points of view should agree that my statements for them accurately represent their viewpoints (if I did my analysis well!). That's the gist of policy analysis - present all the viewpoints and let the reader decide.

That also doesn't mean you have to shy away from political topics. (I define "political" as "the process of getting policy done" as opposed to "policy" which is "the issues involved."). The trick in doing "political analysis" is to avoid ADVOCATING one viewpoint or another - you present the facts and the analysis without putting in your personal bias (and of course, we ALL have personal biases!).

For example, someone asked me about "The secret of 'W's success" (about George Bush), see . My answer is "political analysis" instead of opinion, because you can't tell at the end whether I'd vote for Bush or against him (can you? Guess by writing back, and I'll tell you who I voted for in the primary).

The goal of a good policy analysis is not only to show all the sides, but to make it clear HOW you arrived at the conclusions. Then, when the reader (or politician) has a similar question, they apply the same "framework for analysis" as for the first question.

For example, someone asked me about "Who is Hillary Clinton?" (about carpetbagging), see . My answer asked a lot of questions back, like "If she produces what a New York Senator is supposed to produce, who cares about her background?" The idea there is to apply the "framework" immediately as well as in the future. The reader could apply that framework to Hillary's foreign policy stance, for instance, or any other stance.

With regards to "how things really work," the only difference between the examples above is that I write them for readers. I've written the same sorts of things (usually a lot longer!) for government officials, which you can see at . You'll see I use the same style and apply "frameworks" there too, so yes, that's the way things really work.

With regards to statistics versus politics, of course both are always relevant. Some topics more heavily rely on statistics -- for example, I did a heavy statistical analysis of pollution in a river, at . Other topics are more heavily reliant on political analysis -- for example, I wrote a comparative study of how watershed councils were set up on a bunch of rural rivers, at .

With regards to how the actual decisions are made, well, that's up to the politicians, not up to policy analysts. I'd say they only read the Executive Summary, in most cases. And they know the basic conclusion they want beforehand, and just look for research studies to back up their ideas. That means, they don't care how you got to your conclusions; they just want to know the conclusions. If they believe you're a credible authority, they accept your conclusions whether they're based on statistics, politics, or anything else. Their OPPONENTS will look at the detailed methods, which is why they care about credibility. But my phrase is "for every study, there's an equal and opposite counter-study."

Anonymous asked this question on 8/25/2000:

I am in need of some examples of public policy, whereas I am still confused by its meaning. I'm thinking an example might me mandatory retirement. If this is an example, please help me determine its aspects. Also, if it is not a good example, could you please inform me of a few other examples? Thank you!!

So for mandatory retirement, here's a public policy analysis:


* Positive if retirement benefits are sufficient to maintain lifestyle; otherwise negative since income would drop.

* Possibly negative on social/emotional issues of enforced idleness; possibly positive for creating more free time.


* Positive for replacing higher-paid longer-seniority workers with lower-paid younger workers.

* Negative for losing experience and company cultural history.

* Potentially positive as a means to override mandatory seniority rules, tenure, etc.


* Negative for loss of tax revenue from income and for loss of Social Security payments from government to retiree.

* Positive for economy in general because it "creates" a new job by retiring an older worker.

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