What Is Policy Analysis? A Critical Concept in Public Administration

woman analysis

Policy Analysis at a Glance

Social, economic, and political variables influence policy decisions and outcomes in public administration. To develop, adopt, and implement policies that have the greatest benefits, individuals in public administration must master the concept of policy analysis.

What is policy analysis? According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is the examination and evaluation of available options to address various economic, social, or other public issues. Effective policy analysis, whether to enact new policies or amending existing ones, is critical in the policymaking process. The process includes many facets, involving empirical research and statistical data collection, as well as the participation of key stakeholders such as economists, community members, and public officials tasked with enacting policy.

Pursuing a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree can provide students with the foundation to apply this critical skill to a career in public administration.

Modern society is complex and growing more so every day. Governments rely on a robust array of policies to address a web of interconnected challenges related to issues like public safety, education, and infrastructure. Individuals involved in public administration may find it challenging to identify the best way to tackle those challenges. What is the most effective way to improve air quality? How can a society optimize access to education? How should a municipal government pay for an expensive infrastructure project?

These questions often have multiple answers. Policy analysis can help determine the best option that will produce the most desirable result. What policy analysis does is help lay out the goals of a potential policy, examine the various strengths and weaknesses of each policy option, and identify the most viable one. For example, when determining how to pay for a costly infrastructure project, a policy analysis would consider the various methods to do so. Raising taxes could be one solution. Cutting the budget for a department or reallocating funds from a different project may be another. Through policy analysis, those in public administration can identify the best solution.

Public Policy Keeps Changing

Public policy is subject to the surrounding political, social, and economic conditions. This dynamic underscores the need for ongoing policy analysis. A policy enacted five or even two years ago may no longer be relevant. Therefore, administrators must regularly evaluate policies that address both present and future concerns.

Policy Analysis in Corporations

While policy analysis is a feature of public administration, private enterprises employ it. For example, corporate policies regarding the privacy of consumer and employee data are subject to evolving laws and regulations. Failing to update these policies can put businesses at risk of legal action.

While the public policy in its development stage is theoretical, its implementation is tangible and has a real-world impact. As such policy analysts should involve key stakeholders throughout the process. Stakeholders may include economists who can examine the cost-benefit ratio of a particular policy, community partners who can provide context and assess a policy’s real or potential impact, and government officials who will implement policy and can speak to its feasibility. When the policy process involves stakeholders before implementation, policymakers can avoid misunderstandings and increase the likelihood of success, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Benefits of Policy Analysis for Public Administrators

Effective policy analysis relies heavily on empirical research, pulling from both qualitative and quantitative sources. Personal interviews with policymakers and community partners constitute the former and provide valuable context. These firsthand accounts can explain how the proposed policy would affect members of the community, its potential economic and budgetary impact, as well as the legal and political landscape that surrounds the policy.

Qualitative research may also involve a literature review that examines the existing body of research on a particular policy issue. Analysts can identify current policy options as well as gaps in existing research to further narrow options and solutions. This type of research empowers policy analysts to learn important lessons from past policy attempts, both successful and unsuccessful. A proposed policy may seem innovative and cost-effective, but a literature review of past attempts may illuminate potential pitfalls.

Different from qualitative research, the quantitative study involves statistical data review and cost-benefit analysis, comparing the potential benefits of a policy with its expected or known costs. While conducted in monetary terms, many aspects of public policy may not be easily measured in dollars and cents.

A human element is involved in the creation of any policy. Both the officials responsible for implementing policy and those it impacts can influence a policy’s outcome. Cost-benefit analyses can fail to capture those nuances, which is why personal interviews (a form of qualitative research) also are an important part of the process.

Environmental scans are another aspect of forecasting policy options. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines an environmental scan as the collection of information about events, trends, and expectations that have the potential to influence the policy process.

Health care organizations frequently use environmental scans. For example, Public Health Ontario performed an environmental scan as part of its policy analysis when examining how to safely reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the results, the health care institution was able to identify how other jurisdictions approached reopening schools, examine variables, and make an informed policy decision about the safest way to reopen schools.

How to Develop the Skills of Policy Analysis

Through Norwich University’s online MPA program and its Policy Analysis and Analytics concentration, those who are interested in a public administration career can cultivate the skills to conduct effective policy analysis. The curriculum provides the opportunity to analyze data, build decision-making skills, and use real-world software for data analysis through the following core and concentration-specific courses:

Foundations of Public Administration and Policy              

This core course focuses on governance, intergovernmental relationships, policies, and strategic planning, plus the influence of variables such as politics, social change, and fiscal constraints. It also introduces fundamental concepts including the role of leadership and the need for ethics and accountability in public administration. Students in this course will hone their skills in critical analysis, research, and writing.

Public Administration Research and Analysis

Students learn the methodologies of public administration research—including surveys, case studies, and interviews — and their application to policy development and evaluation. The course also highlights quantitative and qualitative statistical techniques commonly used in public administration and social science research.

Methods of Policy Analysis

This concentration course explores various policy analysis methodologies and how they can help individuals better understand complex policy issues. The curriculum examines multidisciplinary research strategies, data collection and analysis, establishing evaluation criteria, and identifying policy alternatives.

Tools for Policy Analysis

Students in this concentration examine the tools and techniques associated with policy analysis, such as scientific research, design, implementation, and evaluation. This course instructs participants on analyzing policies and making recommendations at all levels of government as well as the nonprofit sector. It also teaches various software applications used in data collection and analysis.

Pursue a Career in Policy Analysis

The ability to conduct effective policy analysis is one of the most fundamental skills policymakers need and critical to success in any public administration role. The Policy Analysis and Analytics concentration offered through the Norwich University online MPA program teaches the skills to master policy analysis and its many facets.

Learn more about how Norwich University provides students with the foundation to pursue a rewarding career in public administration.



Policy Analysis, Britannica
Importance of Policy Evaluation, Houston Chronicle
Environmental Scan of School Reopening During COVID-19, Public Health Ontario