Teaching Policy Analysis as Research: Consideration and Extension of Options

By O'Connor, Mary Katherine; Netting, F. Ellen | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Teaching Policy Analysis as Research: Consideration and Extension of Options


O'Connor, Mary Katherine, Netting, F. Ellen, Journal of Social Work Education


   We cannot forget that the foremost
   requirement of analysis is a capacity for
   wonder. Wonder overcomes the policymaker's
   hubris and the academic's
   myopia. It needs to be a ceaseless wondering
   in the hope of perhaps, someday,
   together, even stumbling upon
   some answers. (Lejano, 2006, p. 255)

THE ROLE OF RESEARCH in guiding policy analysis is emphasized in textbooks in public policy (Bardach, 2005; Lennon & Corbett, 2003), public administration (Gupta, 2001), political science (Heineman, Bluhm, Peterson, & Kearny, 2002), and social work (Jansson, 2008). Jansson (2000) points out that "The rubric of policy analysis includes research into the causes of specific social problems, because analysts' perceptions of these causes powerfully shape the kinds of policy options they will consider" (p. 45). As the push toward evidence-based practice increasingly encompasses the macro aspects of the profession (Fogel, 2006; Moxley & Manela, 2001; O'Connor & Netting, in press; Ohmer & Korr, 2006), and policy specifically (Gambrill, 2006), Jansson adds that "policy analysts can avoid selection that is based on best guesses, tradition, professional wisdom, or political considerations. An empirical approach forces analysts to structure their inquiry systematically" (Jansson, 2000, p. 47). Thus, recognizing the link between research and policy analysis is an established part of the social work curriculum. However, approaching policy analysis as research seems to be something else altogether. We have given our students an incomplete picture of the challenges and opportunities of policy analysis.

For many years, we have drilled our students about the importance of using what is known about a particular problem (e.g., recent studies, needs assessments, program evaluations) to guide policy analysis and implementation. But only recently have we begun to conceptualize policy analysis as research when we teach master's of social work (MSW) foundation courses. Popple and Leighninger (2008) acknowledge that policy analysis is "analogous to the term research, which we all realize means many different things depending on how it is used by different people in different contexts" (p. 43). Much has been said about the necessity of supporting evidence-based practice, even in macro practice, but little has been done to forge a tactical connection between policy analysis and research so as to support policy practice with evidence. Little has been said about the fact that there is no perfect policy analysis framework--there are just frameworks that provide a better or lesser fit for the intended purpose of the analysis. Thus, it is incumbent upon us in this article to be as explicit as possible in explaining our rationale and strategies for viewing policy analysis as research.

In the past we handed students a packet of policy analysis frameworks and told them that there were many different ways to analyze policy. Students would look at this packet and identify one or two frameworks that they liked. They would then tuck these frameworks into their folders with a new-found confidence that they now knew "how to analyze policy." The metamessage was: Just pick a policy framework that you like and use it as a template for whatever policy you need to analyze.

We realized over time that our packet of frameworks should have contained a set of disclaimers: that these frameworks are only tools; that they are based on underlying assumptions; and that an understanding of context and of the goals of the policy analysis are needed to determine the frameworks' usefulness. As we taught our courses, we came to the conclusion that a packet of assorted policy analysis tools is just like a packet of assorted questionnaires, some of which were designed for mailed surveys and others for semistructured interviews. Each policy analysis framework is a unique tool for data collection that is intended to produce specific kinds of information. …

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