5 Policy research including narrative policy analysis

Policy research can concentrate on the policy arena and feed into policymaking, or it can describe policy itself. However, these are ideal types. Policy can be thought of as a form of intention, from a particular point of view. That is, polices are a way of talking about the collective intentions of institutions such as governments. Indicators of a particular policy might include various legislative, fiscal or organisational measures, but these are evidence for policy rather than policy itself.

A simplistic way of looking at policy making is the rational, linear process depicted in Figure 4. Here a problem is identified, options are investigated, a set of alternatives is drawn up and a choice made between them under a set of declared criteria. This is then implemented and hopefully the impact is assessed some time later. Research might play a role in this process during the investigation of policy options and selection between them, as well as any impact assessment.

This model is subject to challenge because, even though research processes and policy processes have influence on one another, it is not true to say that policy gives rise to research or vice-versa. Instead they can be seen as coupled – the influence works in both directions. The rest of this section will develop this more sophisticated understanding of policy and its relationship with research.

Figure 4 A linear model of policymaking
Figure 4 A linear model of policymaking

Public policy is a term used to describe a number of different things. These include:

  • Public Policy as a product: Public Policy is sometimes described in terms of the products which arise from it or which embody it, such as laws, position papers, policy briefings and so on.
  • Public Policy as an activity or process: public Policy has also been characterised as ‘what organisations do’ (Mayers & Bass, 1999, pg. ii).
  • Public Policy as an Intention: A broader way of thinking about policy is to treat it as a form of collective intention, representing the views of public or private sector institutions such as governments, corporations and NGOs. (Increasingly non-state organisations are putting resources into formulating internal and external ‘policies’)

Taking these views of policy allows one to see that a statement that a policy exists is not straightforward. Policy and policymaking processes are complex rather than linear, and there is no direct causal link with policy-oriented research. Research and policy do not generally give rise to one another in a straightforward way. What one can say is that these two complex areas of activity do often have an effect on one another. As researchers, this has implications for how we go about doing research.

The validity of research findings for a particular audience can depend utterly on the methods employed; and policy audiences are no different. The contribution which research might make to a particular policy debate may not be a researcher’s first priority. But, if they are sensitive to how their research is used, the nature of a policy audience is a consideration in research design. A method that can be used to illuminate policy debates and understand the needs of policymakers in complex policy arenas is narrative policy analysis.

4.2 Participatory action research

5.1 Narrative policy analysis