Public policy analysis applies the tools and methods of economics and other social sciences to the study of government actions. Policy analysts identify problems to be addressed by policy, examine a range of policy alternatives and recommend the best approach, based on empirical evidence. A variety of analytical methods exist for accomplishing these tasks.
The two main classes of policy analysis methods are qualitative and quantitative. Quantitative methods refer to a range of statistical techniques, including descriptive statistics, forecasting methods, regression, analysis of variance and cost-benefit analysis. Qualitative methods include case studies, document analysis and interviews. It is worth pointing out, however, that many types of qualitative data can be coded for quantitative analysis. For example, content analysis is a method of analysis that applies quantitative analysis to data taken from written material.
Quantitative methods of policy analysis require an in-depth knowledge of statistics, research design and the ability to use spreadsheets and other statistical software. Methods such as regression analysis, for example, estimate the effect of variables on outcomes. This type of analysis requires comprehension and application of such concepts as correlation, variance and statistical significance. Qualitative methods, meanwhile, require a careful eye for detail, as analysis often requires repeated reading of field notes and other written materials to uncover patterns and relationships within the data.
Qualitative methods of policy analysis reveal rich, descriptive detail on policy operations as well as the experiences and perceptions of people involved in the policy, including program operators and intended beneficiaries. Quantitative methods allow for more precise, scientific analysis. Not surprisingly, many policy analysts and scholars prefer quantitative methods. Policy analysts use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to report on policy implementation, policy goals and objectives, assess the extent to which policies achieved their objectives, estimate the effecs of proposed policies, and weigh the costs and benefits of various policies.
Policy analysts must avoid the “one-size-fits-all” approach when choosing methods by which to conduct an analysis. A variety of factors, including type of policy, the time frame for conducting an analysis, and budget constraints, will limit the methods available for use. Another consideration is whether the analyst is analyzing an existing policy or conducting a prospective analysis for the purpose of recommending a policy action.
The amount of time available to complete a policy analysis will help determine the type of method or methods employed. Policy analysts employed by legislators, legislative committees and governors’ offices, for example, have a shorter time frame for analysis because legislators and executives expect information in a timely manner so that they can make policy decisions. University researchers, consultants, and analysts with research institutions, in contrast, often operate with longer time frames, enabling them to conduct more in-depth analysis.