This chapter examines the nature and purposes of policy analysis, including basic steps in the policy analysis process. It also surveys the diverse ways in which analysts and research organizations engage in their work. Policy analysis, most often used to assess policy options, involves collecting and interpreting information to clarify the causes and effects of public problems and the likely consequences of policy decisions. Rational decision making, also called the rational-comprehensive approach, uses these logical steps: defines a problem, sets goals, evaluates alternatives, and recommends policy options. In contrast, incremental decision making makes more limited and gradual policy changes.
Policy analysis moves through a sequence of steps that correspond to the policy process cycle. To begin the process, defining and analyzing the problem involves describing and clarifying the nature and causes of a set of unsatisfactory conditions in society. Next, analysts construct policy alternatives to address the conditions, one of the most important parts of policy analysis. The third step involves selecting the evaluative criteria to assess the potential of each proposal. Assessing alternatives using these criteria will enable policy makers to draw conclusions about the best option to achieve the goal they seek. Despite a rigorous policy analysis, many times political influences hold sway in selection of policy.
Policy analysis is conducted by government at all levels and by a growing number of think tanks and interest groups, which may produce information with a political agenda. Policy analyses fall into three broad categories—scientific, professional, and political. All serve valid purposes but they have varying goals and objectives and use different methods. Scientific approaches are often conducted by academics to build understanding and clarify what is known. Professional approaches are employed by think tanks and use strong professional norms of analysis to produce reports. Political approaches, also employed by think tanks and interest groups, use data and arguments that support their political positions.
For given studies, analysts must choose whether to investigate root causes (underlying reasons for a problem) or proximate causes (immediate causes). Similarly, they must decide whether to conduct comprehensive analysis (rigorous and broad, which can be time-consuming and expensive) or focus on short-term policy relevance (brief investigations to answer focused questions). Another choice involves whether to use consensual norms (mainstream approaches) or contentious analysis (one that challenges current thinking). Finally, analysts must decide whether to employ rational analysis or democratic political processes in which the public is engaged. A great variety of purposes and methods of policy analysis exist; the field is replete with a growing number of organizations that employ these approaches.