When people at a party ask me what I do, I tell them literally: I’m a policy analyst. After the blank stare, I then decide how I want to answer.
If I’m feeling like pivoting towards talk about which movies were snubbed at the Oscars or what a post-Urban Ohio State athletic program looks like, I usually just say “I figure out if laws work.”
If there seems like potential interest, though, I’ll use this analogy:
“Policy analysis is to economics as engineering is to physics.”
Yes, policy analysis brings in insights from political science, sociology, and even sometimes psychology. But at its heart, the sort of work analysts do is figuring out how changes in public sector policy impact the amount and distribution of resources in society and the well-being of members of that society.
So just as the engineer applies the lessons of physics to practical problems, like building a bridge or wiring a house, the policy analyst applies the lessons of economics to practical problems such as local economic development, poverty alleviation, and improving population health.
David Weimer and Aidan Vining make a distinction in their policy analysis textbook Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice between “academic social science research,” “policy research,” and “policy analysis.”
Academic social science research is, according to Weimer and Vining, focused on constructing and testing theories for the purpose of understanding society. Academic social science research uses rigorous methods to find “truth,” and rarely faces external time constraints. This makes it often irrelevant to the information needs of decision makers.
Policy research is one step closer to policy relevance. Policy research is the practice of trying to analyze the effects of public policies already in place or project large-scale social impacts of public policy structure. Policy research is how I would classify much of the work being done in think tanks: it is focused on analyzing policy to see what its impact is, but it still is rarely directly applicable to policy problems. Much of the work that happens at the National Bureau of Economic Research gets into policy research territory.
Policy analysis, by contrast, is designed to bear directly on present public policy problems. Policy analysis is the systematic comparison of policy alternatives in order to inform a decision with a short time window. Policy analysis is often housed directly within government offices, such as cost-benefit analysis conducted by agency analysts at the federal level. Analysis synthesizes policy research and sometimes academic social science research to compare alternative public policy options and project their impacts for specific public policy decision makers.
Policy analysis has its limitations. The necessary time constraints of the political process give analysts less time to divine absolute “truth.” That being said, these limitations are far from damning of the project of policy analysis. A policy decision making process without analysis is much scarier than a policy decision making process with it.
Analysis is the public sector’s version of the “valley of death.” While the United States boasts both the most robust research university system in the world and an extremely well-funded industry of lobbyists, advocates, and activists, the public sector and public sector-adjacent analysts who translate and distill research for policymakers are few and far between. Recent research by Scioto Analysis suggests that a full cost-benefit analysis, the most rigorous form of policy analysis, has not been carried out in Ohio in over a decade.
If you find this problem interesting, feel free to email me and we can talk about ways to work together solving it. If not, I’m certainly happy to talk film or football.