Chapter 2.1: Formulating the policy questions

This chapter explains what makes policy questions different from other question types (e.g. research questions) before considering policy questions in the broader context of the policy cycle.

Before delving into the process of formulating policy questions it is important to distinguish them from other types of questions, notably research questions. 

Understanding the research questions

A research question can be simply defined as a question that a research project seeks to answer. An example would be “What has been the government’s response to the growing congestion problem?” This descriptive question, although important, can be enhanced by focusing on the why rather than what i.e. why has the government responded to the situation in this particular way? 

The shift from what to why adds depth to the research question, making it more analytical. Some research questions may require one to evaluate or reach a value-based conclusion on a certain action. “Has the government been effective at reducing congestion?” is an example of this question type. 

Understanding the policy questions

Policy questions are different. Whereas research questions are primarily aimed at the acquisition of knowledge, policy questions focus on the action. As such, policy questions are always practical, not theoretical. Policy questions require an answer in the form of a statement on what should be done, not a statement setting forth what we know or should know. So instead of asking what or why something happened, a policy question asks how something should be done e.g. how should the government respond to the deteriorating traffic situation? 

The presence of policy questions in the political sphere does not mean that public decisions should be made without knowledge. Quite the opposite - policy action should be informed and evidence based. The point is simply that by introducing policy questions to the debate, we help focus our attention on practical steps, and in doing so make our deliberation more forward-looking. 

Dependence between the two

One can go even further and claim that to answer a policy question one must answer many research questions. For instance, to answer “How should the government respond to the deteriorating traffic situation?” one may require insight into the following:

  • What is causing the problem e.g. roadworks, events, high share of private vehicles in the modal split?

  • Why did previous attempts fail?

  • Do we know of any international best-practice examples that can be copied?

  • Have they been successful?


Constructing the policy questions

Good policy questions are not produced spontaneously but rather emerge as you go through the different stages of policy design. 

  1. Problem setting: Here, issues to be addressed are identified and legitimised as a collective problem. Activities at this stage typically include the analysis of existing policies as well as the mapping of stakeholders that can influence and be influenced by the outcome. 

  2. Policy formulation: Once the problem has been defined, it is important to formulate an overarching goal with a set of corresponding objectives for the desired policy. The goals are more high-level in nature (reducing the congestion in the city centre), whereas objectives are quite specific and measurable (reducing road congestion by 25% over 10 years). At the end of policy formulation, a set of alternative responses (scenarios) is created to see which intervention best meets the stated goals/objectives.

  3. Scenario analysis: Alternative outcomes are evaluated at this stage. For best results, scenario analysis should combine quantitative and qualitative techniques. The former can include simulations, web mapping and statistical analysis; the latter focus groups, expert panels and public debates. 

  4. Decision making: In the final step, scenario results are assessed by a competent authority who then needs to formulate a broad approach along with more operational actions needed to achieve the policy goal.

The four stages of policy design create favourable conditions in which policy questions can be constructed and answers to these questions can be formulated in the form of actionable strategies. The process of analysis, design and experimentation is crucial if one is to successfully develop and find answers to relevant policy questions. 

To better illustrate how policy questions transition from problems to actions, PoliVisu provided several examples in D3.5 The PoliVisu Policy Making Model. Feel free to explore this table at your convenience.

▶ Finding the right data