Public policy evaluation is one of the most interesting and eye-opening ways to examine the impacts of government policy. University scholars, government agencies, think tanks and other researchers all evaluate public policy. Evaluation opens the programmatic "black box" to examine how government policies are designed and implemented and to gauge their effects, intended and otherwise.

Public Policy Analysis: A Primer

Learn the legislative history of the policy you're evaluating. If you're evaluating a federal policy, the Congressional Record, available in many libraries, contains a bill's legislative history. All public policy exists in a political context, so it is important to know how a policy came to exist in its current form. The political process has a long history of making deals to ensure passage of a particular law. Compromises made in the legislative process often affect the implementation and the outcomes of a particular policy.

Identify the key stakeholders in a policy. This means identifying not only the agency charged with implementing the policy being evaluated but also the intended recipients of services.

Describe the policy being evaluated. This evaluation will include an overview of the policy, its goals and objectives, the agency or agencies charged with its implementation or enforcement and the activities undertaken.

Collect the data needed for evaluation. The data may be qualitative, quantitative or a combination of both. The type of evaluation you are doing will ultimately determine the types of data you'll need to collect.

Analyze the data. Depending on the types of data you collect and the nature of your evaluation, analysis may involve qualitative, quantitative or a combination of both methods. When describing program activities or experiences, qualitative analysis is appropriate. Quantitative analysis is used when trying to assess policy outcomes and impacts.

Report your conclusions based on the analysis. This should include specific recommendations for policy changes or program improvements.


  • Because of the large size of many public policies, many evaluations may focus on particular aspects, such as the program's implementation. Be careful about attributing outcomes to specific policies. Determining causality is a complex task. Evaluation findings may be unfavorable in the short term, because many policy effects take years to appear.