How do I teach policy analysis?

One thing I write with reasonable regularity on student essay feedback is “don’t just describe,analyse”.  This applies most often to work addressing a particular sociological theory, set of literature, or policy area.  With this in mind, I put together the following model for policy analysis and have been using it in undergraduate seminar groups for a couple of weeks.  Responses were pretty good; students commented that they are generally not taught such practical techniques in their methods course and it’s useful to be able to apply these things with some guidance – in the first week I introduced the model and each class used it to look at a particular piece of policy (in this case, a specific NHS document on breastfeeding); and the following week we broadened it out to look at a broader range of documents (on men’s health); then last week a more independent session on alcohol in pregnancy, including some visual materials as well as text.

The model is essentially a series of questions to ask of any piece of policy (or whatever you’re looking at), building into an outline for analysing a single item or set of items.  Some I’ve classified as essential, some as the extra bits to encourage more critical thinking, although the differences are negotiable!  I’d be interested to hear from anyone who spots any additional aspects I’ve missed…

1. INTRODUCTION:  What is the overall aim of the document?  What is it for, and who is the intended audience? (General public, specific demographic groups, policy-makers, practitioners, service users, commercial enterprises, third sector organisations, researchers?)

Booster questions: Why is this issue/topic perceived as a problem?  Should it be?

2. CONTEXT: What has been the historical development of the issue?  What is the current situation – cultural and political context, news events and reports, recent research?

Booster questions: Why has this document been published now?  What is it about the current political, social or economic climate that has made it necessary or possible?

3. CONTENT: What is actually being said and by whom?  What evidence is being used to back up arguments and is it used well?  Are statistics used appropriately?  Can it be trusted as a source?

Booster questions: What is the author’s motive/angle?  Is there an underlying ideology or political agenda being pushed?   How else could these aims be achieved?

4. PRESENTATION: What kind of language is used and how easy is it to read/understand?  Are there significant words or phrases that are used or repeated?   What is the layout of the document, its style, how does it use illustrations or diagrams?

Booster questions: How does the presentation of the content fit with the intended audience?  How might it have been different is written by or for a different group?

5. IMPLICATIONS: What are the potential outcomes or consequences arising from this document?  What has been the response of the public, the media, organisations or groups identified at step 1?  What is your own response to it?

Booster questions: So what?  How much of an impact has the document had and was it as intended?  Why (not)?  Link it with other publications on the topic – what are the common themes and significant differences?  Who has a different view?

6. CONCLUSION: What actions are required as a result of this document?  Is there a specific call to action included or implied?  What is the overall message?

Booster questions: Link the document being studied back out into wider themes: what does it contribute to debates on identity, gender, deviance…?

Please feel free to re-use the model (with appropriate acknowledgement) – I’ve got a set of class handouts formatted for seminar use that I’d be happy to share if you get in touch, and please let me know how you get on.


Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy at the University of Kent with interests in health professions, clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She tweets about her research @HCPerrin and blogs at Academish.


Categories: Higher Education

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