International Policy Analysis: Methodology

1. Introduction

The last decade has witnessed many international developments that have profoundly affected the destinies of nations and humanity. The emergence of American unipolarism, the horrific attacks of September 11, and the rise of militant Islam, as well as the birth of the Euro and the business unification of affluent Europe are all important developments that have had far reaching effects on international affairs. However, these developments have been overshadowed by the rise of the phenomenon of globalisation, a process through which the developing world, riding on the strength of its low costs and ever expanding skill and knowledge base, has started integrating rapidly into the global economy.

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Most organisations operating in areas of government, business and not for profit need to work with the global community and operate in accordance with structured or informal international policies, which in turn define both their initiatives in the international arena as well as their responses to global developments. International organisations and international policy networks, in which many national bodies play a part, have significant roles in global governance. Considering that movements in goods and services are the causal factor behind the globalisation effort, multinational corporations and other organisations involved in overseas activity essentially need to have formalised international policies.

Efficient and methodical analysis of international policy is an intriguing and specialised area of social research that involves deep understanding of social theory and international affairs, as well as sound familiarity with research tools. It is the objective of this manual to elaborate and describe the methodology that needs to be followed to analyse the international policies of different organisations in diverse environmental settings.

2. International Policy Analysis

An assignment for analysis of international policy can arise either from an organisation responsible for framing the policy or from an external body wishing to analyse the policy of another organisation for specific purposes. Analysts could be part of in-house teams working on framing or implementing policies, or of external consultancies or think tanks engaged in the preparation of dispassionate appraisals. Researchers and analysts should also realise that many users of policy analyses have been disappointed with its results, despite the plethora of analytical studies and the increasing competence in the area.

The proliferation of policy analysis has not, however, been matched by an examination of whether the annual production of hundreds of thousands of memos, briefings, articles, reports, books, and sundry policy prognostications–informed and otherwise–are actually useful to policymakers. What we do know is not encouraging: “In public policy making, many suppliers and users of social science research are dissatisfied, the former because they are not listened to, the latter because they do not hear much they want to listen to” (Lindblom (Hird, 2005)

It thus becomes critically important for the analyst to understand the nature of the organisation desiring the analysis and its reasons for doing so. A thorough understanding of these reasons becomes invaluable in planning the assignment and in its subsequent conduct. Areas in international policy that need analysis are generally diverse and could encompass economic, political, security, environment or trade concerns. The framing of international policy primarily involves the evaluation and choice between different courses of action, programs and policies that are intended to address and resolve issues regarding social, economic and political issues in the global arena.

It is the objective of this manual to guide policy advisors on the adoption of a systematic approach in the conduct of international policy analysis. It draws on the writing and theory of Carl Patton and other social researchers, all of whom find place in the bibliography. A policy analysis assignment involves certain steps in its execution and calls for the observance of certain principles to ensure the validity of its result. This manual commences with a discussion of the concept of policy, especially in relation to power and governance. It, thereafter, briefly takes up the practical principles that need consideration while planning and conducting the research, and then elaborates the sequential steps required for its proper execution.


A policy, very briefly, is a formulated plan used for the guidance of decisions and action and is used by groups, associations and organisations in the governmental and private sectors. An interesting and comprehensive definition refers to policies as “political, management, financial and administrative mechanisms arranged to reach explicit goals.” (Policy, 2006)

>From universities and schools to public agencies and large corporations, policy is increasingly being codified, publicized and referred to by workers and managers as the guidelines that legitimate and even motivate their behaviour. To adapt a metaphor from Arthur Koestler (1967), policy is the ghost in the machine—the force which breathes life and purpose into the machinery of government and animates the otherwise dead hand of bureaucracy. (Shore & Wright, 1997, p. 5)

In a world that is becomingly increasingly complex, situations or problems are dynamic and incapable of proper definition. The process for policy formulation commences with the identification of issues and the development of various alternatives to deal with them. A rigorous and far-reaching assessment of the various alternatives leads to the selection of the final policy, which then needs proper implementation and monitoring. Very obviously, policies affect environments, societies and the lives of people, and while they can result in the greatest of good, they can lead to disastrous mistakes and to the commitment of the greatest crimes. The holocaust was a result of policy and so is the WHO’s global polio eradication programme.

Policies have become a major institution of western and international governance and are distinguished into formal policy, embodying policy principles and objectives, and operational policy, which comprise of mechanisms for implementation and delivery. In the international policy of a trading organisation, the formal policy may, for example, require trade with East Asia with the clear definition of environmental and child labour constraints, whereas the operational policy would detail whether the operation would be controlled by the corporate headquarters in Europe or the regional hub in Singapore.

Practical Principles of International Policy Analysis

International policy can appear to be contradictory and difficult to understand. The analyst must try to understand and focus on the central and essential core of the policy, which in turn could involve cost, environmental, humanitarian or nuclear proliferation concerns. Policies frequently have several and opposing objectives, some of which suffer from poor definition. Analysts must thus try to focus on the core issues for analysis and not spend time on peripheral matters. Carl Patton and David Sawicki (1993) in their book “Basic Methods of Policy Analysis and Planning” state that that the principles described below should help in planning and conducting an analytical assignment on international policy.

Ideally, analysts should base their approach on using analytical tools appropriate to the issue at hand and refrain from thrusting their preferred method onto the assignment. The chosen method should be simple, transparent, logical, based upon common sense and tailored to the issue under scrutiny. In many cases, policies are uncertain about issues and there is a lack of clarity in approach. Researchers must thus be ready to take uncertainty in their stride and realise that despite their best efforts some areas will remain cloaked in uncertainty; this constraint should however not be allowed to retard the progress of the analysis or devour too much of the time allotted for the assignment.

International policy involves factors that are frequently alien to domestic situations and requires an understanding of different cultures and political systems. An international aid organisation, for example, may have to provide succour to the citizens of a country known to have a notoriously corrupt government. In the absence of quantitative data, which is usually the norm in such cases, any analysis of international policy must necessarily depend upon subjective interpretation for projecting outcomes. While some factors of international policy are bound to be subjective and incapable of interpretation or analysis through numerical data, numbers do throw light on many issues and are useful for projecting outcomes. The use of quantitative techniques and numerical data thus becomes important, wherever appropriate. Simplicity in analysis and the use of figures are also often effective in driving home the distinguishing features of different alternatives, especially during client interaction.

It is also very important for analysts to check their facts exhaustively, try to appreciate the viewpoints of people with radically different opinions and arrive at analyses, not opinionated decisions.

Steps in Policy Analysis

Effective analysis of international policy requires an understanding of world affairs, a firm grounding in the social sciences and familiarity with quantitative and qualitative research tools. Moreover as much of the data is subjective and needs informed interpretation, international policy analysis falls as much in the domain of art as that of science. Given the choice between too much of structure in charting of an analytical assignment and leaving everything to the judgement of the researcher, it is advisable to follow a few sequential steps in the conduct of the assignment. Policy analysts, as a rule follow a series of six easily distinguishable steps. While some experts advocate the breaking of these steps to make the process simpler, this manual stays with the practice of adopting six important steps. These steps start with the definition of the problem and are followed by establishment of criteria for evaluation and collection of evidence, identification of alternatives, evaluation of alternatives, distinguishing among alternatives, and finally implementation and monitoring of policy.

a. Definition of the Problem

A policy analysis exercise must necessarily commence with the definition of the problem. This step is crucial and integral to the success of the project. It provides the reason for the exercise and gives direction for gathering of evidence. While a certain amount of experience helps in defining and detailing the issue, the process should be iterative and the “definition’ exercise repeated a few times. A meaningful effort at problem definition will enable the researcher to state the problem appropriately, determine its scale, eliminate extraneous matter, and question both the thinking and the definition of the issue. While defining the problem it is important to use quantitative data, study similar projects and locate relevant data. This will help in removing uncertainties, illuminating objectives, resolving divergences and focussing on the essence, i.e. the core issue. “Problem definition is a crucial step. However, because it is hard to get it right (the) same step (might be needed) again and again. Over the course of analytic work, empirical and conceptual understanding will evolve.” (Bardach, 2000, p. 7)

b. Establish Evaluation Criteria

The next step involves the establishment of criteria for evaluation and collection of evidence. This is essential to crystallize the modus of measurement of policy goals, bring about uniformity and establish similar criteria for assessing different alternatives and policy outcomes, desirable or otherwise. A number of factors, including costs, net gains, efficacy, fairness, organizational comfort, legal validity and suitability need consideration while establishing evaluation criteria. Most of the time spent on policy analysis happens because of the time required to gather data and time needed to think. While thinking is obviously by far the more important activity, data gathering is laborious and takes time. Data helps in three ways in the projection of realistic outcomes of policy and in the analysis of its implications.

One purpose is to assess the nature and extent of the problem(s) you are trying to define. A second is to assess the particular features of the concrete policy situation you are engaged in studying. The third purpose is to assess policies that have been thought, by at least some people, to have worked effectively in situations apparently similar to your own, in other jurisdictions, perhaps, or at other times. (Bardach, 2000, p. 8)

c. Identification of Alternatives

Establishment of evaluation criteria leads to the next step, i.e. the identification of alternatives. The generation of alternatives requires imagination, knowledge and the ability to constructively brainstorm with other experts. The challenge of identifying alternatives, as good or possibly superior to the given policy, calls for combining ideas from different alternatives as well as from the one under study. It is important at this stage to assess the impact of any change in public policy that could have taken place in the interim or may well take place in the short and medium term. Public policy changes can occur due to a number of reasons, namely changes in the political establishment following elections, changes in budget, changes in the political structure of foreign countries or occurrences of disasters like the Tsunami or the Bird Flu epidemic. International policy, by its very nature is not prone to change at short notice and the assimilation of the possible effect of future changes into the generation of alternatives has proved to be very helpful in projecting policy outcomes.

d. Assessment of Alternatives

The identification of alternatives results in a need for their evaluation in terms of the benefits that each of them could provide vis-a-vis established criteria. Data collection may again be required at this stage for the assessment of different alternatives and the projection of possible outcomes. This is a crucial phase of the process as new aspects of the problem could now surface, leading to reiteration of the various steps of the analysis. The evaluation of alternatives should actually focus on evaluating the outcomes of the different proposals as trade-offs between different alternatives cannot occur in the absence of projected outcomes. The criteria for evaluation should encompass different perspectives like costs, efficacy, fairness, equity and justice. Carl Patton (1993) states that evaluative criteria could also include issues like free markets, economic freedom, capitalism, “freedom from government control,” equality of opportunity, equality of result, free speech, religious freedom, privacy and safety. The analyst must bear in mind that the objective of the exercise is analysis for a specific user and not the handing down of a considered decision and should thus try to be as broad ranging as possible in the choice of evaluative criteria.

e. Distinguish and Display Alternatives

Evaluation of alternatives and outcomes makes it possible for the analyst to assess the extent of benefits met by individual alternatives, in the context of previously decided criteria, and in distinguishing between them. In case of conflict between alternatives that do not easily fit into the matrix of benefits, it is possibly advisable to go by the alternative that suits existing public policy. Issues of legality and political acceptability are also very important while distinguishing between alternatives and it would be patently unwise to consider alternatives, which while satisfying other criteria, skirt legal requirements or could end up as politically difficult to implement. While distinguishing and displaying alternatives, the analyst should focus on simplicity of presentation, use of tables and quantitative data and the highlighting of worst and best case scenarios for each alternative. The report must be clear, simple, tabulated properly and be easy to comprehend.

f. Implement and Monitor Policy

Once a policy alternative is accepted it is the role of the analyst to round off the exercise by planning for its implementation and creating a system to monitor policy outcomes. The monitoring and effective implementation of international policy is crucial as improper application and inadequate monitoring could result in undesirable outcomes and policy failure. International policies need to be very carefully monitored during implementation to ensure that unintentional changes do not occur and actual outcomes can be measured against those projected.

3. Conclusion

The analysis of International Policy falls under the domain of applied social research and is a complex task that requires knowledge of social sciences, grounding in international affairs and familiarity with the tools of social research. A detailed and comprehensive understanding of the core issues involved in policy analysis assignment is a sine qua non and possibly the most crucial part of the analytical process. International policy analysis involves the use of quantitative and qualitative data, a variety of approaches to the subject and choice of appropriate methodology. Analysts must be ready to work “out of the box” at all times, especially in the identification of various alternatives.

Policy analysis, while it uses scientific and statistical tools, is very interpretative in its approach and liable to bias. It is thus imperative that the exercise has a structured and phased approach and that all assumptions are identified clearly. Records should be kept accurately, information must be accessed from multiple sources and relevant professional and ethical considerations addressed appropriately to ensure the success of the exercise.


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Hird, J. A. 2005, Policy Analysis for What? the Effectiveness of Nonpartisan Policy Research Organizations. Policy Studies Journal, 33(1), 83+.

Hogwood, B. W., & Gunn, L. A. 1984. Policy Analysis for the Real World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patton, C and Sawicki, D, 1993, Basic Methods of Policy Analysis and Planning, 2nd Ed., Prentice Hall, USA

Policy, 2006, Wikipedia, Retrieved January1, 2006 from

Roe, E. 1994. Narrative Policy Analysis: Theory and Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rust, M. 2001, November 19. Who Bought off the Think Tanks? Corporations Eager to Do Business with China Have Cozied Up to Conservative Think Tanks, Raising Concerns about Their Influence Level on Foreign-Policy Analysis. Insight on the News, 17, 20+.

Shore, C. & Wright, S. (Eds.). 1997 Anthropology of Policy: Critical Perspectives on Governance and Power. London: Routledge.

Thomas M. Meenaghan, Keith M. Kilty and John G. McNutt Social Policy Analysis and Practice. 2005. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 32(3), 208+.

Wignaraja, G. (Ed.). 2002. Competitiveness Strategy in Developing Countries: A Manual for Policy Analysis. London: Routledge

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