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Policy development involves research, analysis and writing of government or organizational policies. Policies “refers to those plans, positions and guidelines of government which influence decisions” by governments, nonprofit agencies or other bodies. (Manitoba Office of the Auditor General, 2003)
This article focuses on government policy, rather than nonprofit policies and procedures, which will be explored in a future article.
Policies can be very broad or very specific, setting out specific plans and programs or instead suggesting the government’s commitment to development.
The 2012 US National Strategy on Suicide (Office of the Surgeon General, 2012) is an example of a specific policy, with 13 goals and 60 objectives that are laid out with clarity such as “Provide training to community and clinical service providers on the prevention of suicide and related behaviors”, while the UN Sustainble Development Goals (2015) are very broad, like “Affordable and clean energy” and “Reduced inequalities.”
Policy writing may be performed by Policy Analysts or Legislative Aides who work for government, Macro or Community Social Workers, or lobby groups who are advocating for a particular change in policy.
Policy Writing Steps
Policy analysis can be broken down into five steps:
- Issue Identification
- Issue Analysis
- Generating Solutions
- Performance Monitoring
In the first step, issue identification, the policy analyst will need to identify an issue. Issue identification may occur through many ways, such as constituents talking to their Members of Parliament (or Representatives), lobby groups focused on specific areas like Environmental Issues or Developmental Disabilities who notice concerns in their communities, or other issues.
In Issue Analysis, the Analyst gathers all available information and begins doing research to describe the problem. This can involve interviews, surveys, examining models and policies in other regions and the academic literature.
Generating Solutions involves, as the name suggests, generating a number of potential solutions, changes to policies or laws, or other ways of fixing the identified issues. There are pros and cons to all issues, so an important part of this step is figuring out what the most optimal solution is.
When the policy analyst reaches Consultation, the analyst will provide a draft of their copy to affected stakeholders and ensure that individuals have an opportunity to provide comment. This does not have to be limited to the public, but often public consultations are helpful.
Finally, after the policy is implemented, it should be monitored in order to see the desired outcomes. Outcomes measurement or evaluation is an important element of developing policies and programs.
Policy Issue Identification
The first step to policy development is to identify the issue. The important element here is to make sure that you are describing the cause of a situation, and not the symptoms of that situation. For instance, if an area does not have enough housing that is a symptom of something. That something could be lots of unoccupied, purchased houses. In that case, simply building more houses would likely not fix the problem. Instead, implementing a vacant or foreign buyers tax would help free up this real estate.
Other steps in issue identification is deciding what policymakers will actually focus on. For instance, governments may be confronted with many issues of which only some are within their control. Of those that are within their control, they must choose a smaller number to work with, so as to not exhaust limited resources.
Finally, you must decide on issues that can actually be tracked. Returning to our National Strategy on Suicide, “Provide training to community and clinical service providers on the prevention of suicide and related behaviors” is a measurable goal that can be tracked as the number of gatekeepers reported increases.
Policy Issue Analysis
Issue analysis involved collecting data in order to really deeply understand the issue at hand. There are multiple stakeholders who may see a problem in a certain way. For instance if school children are performing poorly on statewide tests, teachers, students, school administrators, academics, local and state government likely all have different angles on the problem. Those angles will need to be explored in order to get a deep dive into the issue.
Comparing your region with other regions to see if they are struggling with the same issue. If not – how come? If they are struggling with the same thing, what have they tried? This can help you rule out models that may appear to be effective but actually don’t work in your area.
Lots of data may be available at the municipal, state or federal level depending on your area. For instance, Statistics Canada in Canada and the US Census Bureau both collect a variety of data, along with many other agencies.
The expression, “Garbage in, garbage out” is useful here – if your data collection is insufficient or slanted rather than objective, you will find that you have an impaired understanding of the issues and therefore your solutions will not adequately fix the problem.
Generating Solutions for Policy
Generating solutions involves defining a number of ways of answering the problem. This should begin with identifying the assumptions that underlie your solution or opinion, and then by indicating what changes would need to occur in programs, legislation, or implementations in order to allow the solution to proceed.
Each of the available solutions is going to have positives and negatives. Negatives may affect some stakeholders or many, and may have financial impacts on the government or on the stakeholders themselves. For example, environmental regulations may improve air quality in a town (and therefore reduce the impact of asthma), but with a cost on local industry. Detailed calculations would be necessary to evaluate the net impact on the area.
Examples of implications of policy from the British Columbia Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development (2012):
One final element in determining solutions is to identify the outcomes that will be measured and expected. In the example of children performing poorly on statewide tests, the rate of children passing the test in the region after the implementation of a new program may be one way to measure the effectiveness.
Although consultation is listed as the 5th of 6 policy analysis steps, in fact it will be throughout the entire step of developing policy. Consultation in a government setting will start with the Ministry (and often the Minister leading it) who will set the priorities for their Ministry.
As the policy takes shape, consultations will occur inside and outside of government, especially with affected stakeholders and lobby groups. The types of consultations can include distributing drafts, holding public “town halls”, private meetings, and so on. Many governments provide policies on their website and take feedback from the internet as well.
Policy Performance Monitoring
Performance monitoring begins after the policy has been implemented. Like any program implemented by a nonprofit, government programs must be evaluated as well. The reason that performance monitoring is a preferred term is that some policies may not be evaluated in the same way that programs are, especially if the subject of the policy is very broad (e.g. affordable and clean energy.)
If a policy leads to the creation of specific programs, those programs will often have evaluations attached to them that can make for fertile performance monitoring. As an example, the National Suicide Strategy goal to train gatekeepers will lead to the expansion of programs like ASIST, safeTALK and QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). These programs can be evaluated for their effectiveness and the increase in trained individuals, in order to prove that the goal is being met.
Policy Writing Template
One example of a framework for an actual written policy is given by Young & Quinn (2002) at the Open Society Institute. Their review of common policy writing templates shows the following structure:
- Table of Contents
- Abstract/Executive Summary
- Problem Description
- Policy Options
- Conclusion and Recommendations
This final document could be between 5,000 and 20,000 depending on the depth and the amount of background information provided. Shorter policy documents are more common for those distributed to the public while longer documents are used internally in government, or with other policy analysts.
Policy Writing Training
Training in policy writing is usually on-the-job. For instance, many beginning Policy Analysts get their start doing internships for governments. Most policy analysts hold Bachelor’s degrees however it is also very common to see individuals with Master’s or PhD degrees.
Relevant courses from Athabasca University that may help an individual become a policy analyst:
- GOVN 403 – Public Policy in a Global Era
- HIST 328 – History of Canadian Social Policy
- HSRV 311 – Practice and Policy in the Human Services
- HSRV 322 – Ideology and Policy Evolution
- MHST 605 – Demysitfying Policy Analysis and Development
A Masters in Public Administration (MPA), Masters of Social Work (MSW) or MA in Political Science may also give the student the advanced analytical and writing skills required to work as a Policy Analyst. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) includes policy writing resources to help policy writers meet US government standards.
Policy Writing Courses
Policy writing courses are available that may help analysts build fundamental skills. Most of these are available through governments, rather than online given the limited audience for many of these organizations. Completing internships with governments or lobby groups may help aspiring policy writers gain access to this training.
British Columbia Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. (2012) Sharpen Your Policy Skills. Municipal Administration Training Institute (MATI) Foundations Program. Retrieved on March 31, 2017 from http://www.lgma.ca/assets/Programs~and~Events/MATI~Programs/MATI~Foundations/2013~Presentations/NICOLA-MAROTZ-Policy-Skills-Workshop-Manual-Revised-July2013.pdf
Manitoba Office of the Auditor General. (2003) A Guide to Policy Development. Retrieved on March 30, 2017 from http://www.oag.mb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/PolicyDevelopmentGuide.pdf
Young, E. & Quinn, L. (2002) Writing Effective Public Policy Papers: A Guide for Policy Advisers in Central and Eastern Europe. Open Society Institute (OSI). Budapest, Hungary: Open Society Institute. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 from http://www.icpolicyadvocacy.org/sites/icpa/files/downloads/writing_effective_public_policy_papers_young_quinn.pdf