Special Issue: The politics of policy analysis: theoretical insights on real world problems

How can policy process research help to address policy and policymaking problems? This special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy seeks to address that question by examining the theory and practice of policy analysis. The call for papers sought state of the art articles that conceptualise the politics of policy analysis, and empirical studies that use theoretical insights to analyse and address real world problems. Contributions could draw on mainstream policy theories to explain how policymaking works, and/ or critical approaches that identify and challenge inequalities of power. Both approaches identify three general reference points or assumptions.

First, policy analysis is not a disinterested, objective search for truth and an optimal policy solution. It is not a technocratic process that can be separated from politics. Techniques such as cost-benefit analysis require technical skills, but are not a substitute for political debate. Therefore, phrases like ‘evidence based’ do not describe policymaking well.

Second, policy analysis is not part of a simple, orderly policy process. It does not contribute to a tightly managed policy cycle consisting of linear and clearly defined technical stages. Policymaking is a highly contested but unequal process. Many policymakers, analysts, and influencers cooperate or compete to use information selectively to define problems, and select policy solutions with inevitable winners and losers, in processes over which no actor has full understanding or control.

Third, optimal policy and linear policymaking are not good ideals anyway. The language of optimality depoliticises policy analysis and reduces attention to policy’s winners and losers. Simple images of policymaking suggest that policy problems are amenable to technical policy solutions. They downplay power and contestation. Ignoring or denying the politics of policy analysis is either naïve, based on insufficient knowledge of policymaking, or strategic, to exploit the benefits of portraying issues as technical and solutions as generally beneficial.

Further, governments are not in the problem solving business. Instead, they inherit policies that address some problems and create or exacerbate others, benefit some groups and marginalize others, or simply describe problems as too difficult to solve. The highest profile problems, such as global public health and climate change, require the kinds of (1) cooperation across many levels of government (and inside and outside of government), and (2) attention to issues of justice and equity, of which analysts could only dream.

This description of policymaking complexity presents a conundrum. On the one hand, there exist many five-step guides to analysis, accompanied by simple stage-based descriptions of policy processes, but they describe what policy actors would need or like to happen rather than policymaking reality. On the other, policy theory-informed studies are essential to explanation, but not yet essential reading for policy analysts. Policy theorists may be able to describe policy processes – and the role of policy analysts – more accurately than simple guides, but do not offer a clear way to guide action. Practitioner audiences are receptive to accurate descriptions of policymaking reality, but also want a take-home message that they can pick up and use in their work. Critical policy analysts may appreciate insights on the barriers to policy and policymaking change, but only if there is equal attention to how to overcome them.

We see this Special Issue as not only the source of five new articles (by Claudio M. Radaelli; Joshua Newman and Michael MintromJohanna Hornung; Kennet Lynggaard and Peter Triantafillou as well as Céline Mavrot, Susanne Hadorn and Fritz Sager) but also the spark for a longer term discussion about how to engage head-on with this theory-practice conundrum. In this more general project, we seek new research that can perform a dual purpose, to:

  1. improve policy theories and generate new empirical insights, and
  2. provide practical lessons to non-specialist audiences, many of whom would otherwise use too-simple models of policymaking to guide their understanding.

The following blog posts engage with these issues in five different ways:

Occupy the semantic space! Opening up the language of better regulation

Evidence-Based Policy, Artificial Intelligence, and the Ethical Practice of Policy Analysis

Social identities and deadlocked debates on nuclear energy policy

Discourse analysis and strategic policy advice: manoeuvring, navigating, and transforming policy

Blood, Sweat, and Cannabis: Real-World Policy Evaluation of Controversial Issues  

You can also read the full introduction to the Special Issue: Cairney, P. (2023) ‘The politics of policy analysis: theoretical insights on real world problems’, Journal of European Public Policy.


The author of this blog post is Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling, UK