Political Analysis Principles
How should politicians, bureaucrats, expert commentators, the media and citizens conduct and/or present policy analysis?
"Policy Analysis" sounds like complicated stuff, but it is not.
"Policy Analysis" is about putting analytical information in front of decision makers so they can make informed decisions on public policies.
There are four elements to policy analysis.
First, there are options. If there are no options, there are no choices and consequently no decisions to be made.
Second, there are issues/objectives against which the options should be considered. An objective is a benefit to be achieved, while an issue is a negative consequence to be reduced or avoided. Most public policies are pursued in relation to one or more objectives, so all options need to be assessed in terms of effectiveness in achieving the one or more objectives. For most Canadians, economic development is a key priority, so this is a typical objective for most decisions. In Canada, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act requires public decisions to take into account their environmental impact; negative environmental impacts are an issue to be avoided. Public cost is an example of a second issue to be avoided or minimized.
Third, there is the analysis. This is the rigorous process of gathering relevant information each option for each issue/objective.
Fourth, and finally, there is the handling of values. Values are relevant in assessing the importance of issues or objectives. Individual decision makers have different values. As a consequence, given identical information on options, issues/objectives and the analysis of options in terms of issues/objectives, individual decision-makers can reach different conclusions and decisions because they hold different values. While the policy analyst should not impose his or her views on a decision-maker, the analyst can provide factual information to help the decision-maker determine which issues are more important than others.
The "policy analysis" process can normally be reduced to a table, with options listed across the top, issues/objectives listed down the left side, issue/objective assessment information listed in the second column, and each option assessed in terms of the issues/objectives in the interior cells of the table. It is up to decision makers to complete the priority column for issues and objectives. The table below illustrates what the "policy analysis" table might look like.
|Option 1||Option 2||Option 3|
|Objective 1||Information on the relative importance of Objective 1||?||Analysis of Option 1 by Objective 1||Analysis of Option 2 by Objective 1||Analysis of Option 3 by Objective 1|
|Objective 2||Information on the relative importance of Objective 2||?||Analysis of Option 1 by Objective 2||Analysis of Option 2 by Objective 2||Analysis of Option 3 by Objective 2|
|Economic Development Impact||Information on the relative importance of Economic Development||?||Analysis of Option 1 by its Impact on Economic Development||Impact on Economic Development||Analysis of Option 3 by its Impact on Economic Development|
|Administrative Cost||Information on the relative importance of Administrative Cost||?||Analysis of Option 1 by Administrative Cost||Analysis of Option 2 by Administrative Cost||Analysis of Option 3 by Administrative Cost|
|Impact on the Environment||Information on the relative importance of Environmental Impact||?||Analysis of Option 1 by its Environmental Impact||Analysis of Option 2 by its Environmental Impact||Analysis of Option 3 by its Environmental Impact|
This all seems obvious. The ideas would normally be covered in the first year program of business management or administration.
It is not obvious why the obvious is done so infrequently. One would think that Cabinet processes of the Government of Canada would, for example, require public servants to present policy analysis within this type of simple, visually complete framework. Unless there have been recent changes, Cabinet processes do not require this. Print, television and radio journalists spend hours trying to explain public policy issues to the Canadian public; unfortunately, they too grapple with presenting complex information in an understandable way.
What are the consequences?
- Important options are not taken into consideration. In many instances, initial options can be modified to mitigate or eliminate concerns that arise.
- Objectives and issues are often not taken into consideration. Listen to two "so-called" experts analyze a policy. It is often apparent that they are talking about different objectives or issues, and not understanding each other in the process.
- There is little sifting through objectives and issues to determine relative importance. As a consequence, important objectives and issues get lost and trivial issues take on disproportionate importance.
- There is often no rigorous assessment of options against objectives and issues. Important information from scientific and other studies frequently gets lost.
- It is difficult to get multiple parties to come to a reasonable accommodation on policies when there is no framework available for the parties to discuss a subject. A framework that incorporates the interests of all parties allows all parties to understand points of agreement and disagreement, and proceed to work from that point toward agreement.
- In a decision making system where the role of values is not explicitly addressed, it becomes easy for ideology to take over. Ideology is simplifying mechanism for those lacking the capacity or time or interest to assess pragmaticly issues and objectives against options to produce the best decisions.
- Partisan political interests seem to take undue prominence in today's world. Governments make decisions based on whether a particular decision will advance their narrow political interests of maintaining themselves in power. Political interests have some relevance, but one would hope that values related to the public interest would be the primary drivers of decisions, and not narrow, partisan, political self-interest.
While this website illustrates an approach to policy analysis, the bigger vision is a "policy-pedia". That is, an open, factual, reliable, non-partisan, non-prescriptive information source for policy analysis that the confused public can use as a resource.