I am not a professional policy analyst. I have a good friend who worked, first at the Congressional Budget Office and now for a House committee, doing just that–using econometrics to forecast the costs of potential changes to federal health care entitlements. Most social workers will never approach that level of intense focus on the technical analysis of policy options. I would argue that we don’t have to. Nor, however, can we content ourselves with always ‘borrowing’ the analyses of others. There are three primary reasons why social workers need to sharpen our own policy analysis skills, even if such analysis will only ever be part of our engagement with policymaking.
1. We can apply our own value and ethical lens, as well as control the input of policy-specific information, when we conduct our own analysis. Other analyses may rely more on cost-benefit questions, for example, than we feel is appropriate from the standpoint of social work values, and, when we do our own analysis, we can decide the criteria on which to judge a set of policy options and how to rank those criteria.
2. Engaging in policy analysis helps us to prepare to explain, defend, and modify our policy proposals. When we really understand the trade-offs inherent in any policy development, and when we know the components of a policy and how those components are, independently and as a unit, responsible for the outcomes that the policy can claim, then we have a better sense of how modifications will impact our results, how we might effectively communicate about the policy, and what must be protected.
3. We cannot understand how others approach our policy analysis, or how to begin to see things from our opponents’ perspectives, if we are not ourselves engaged in the process of examining a policy, its origins, its assumptions, its strengths, and its weaknesses. When social workers take others’ analyses at face value, we dull our own critical-thinking skills, and these are precisely the skills we need to succeed in the advocacy arena.
All of that being said, I have always had difficulty precisely defining where, for me, policy analysis ends and advocacy begins. I don’t believe in ‘neutral’ analysis–if you’re not going to make a judgment about how to best go about solving the social problems that vex our society, why bother to ask the questions at all? I do believe that there are distinctions between analysis and advocacy; I just recognize that, in my own practice, it is more of a fuzzy line than a strict demarcation which divides them. Contained here is a lecture I use to start my Advanced Policies and Programs course, as well as links to some additional material that I have found helpful. I will continue to add more resources, including reviews of some of the very good writing out there on policy analysis models and their application.
Lecture on Policy Analysis Frameworks