Blog & Updates
This is the second part of the conversation between two SURREAL ESRs about doing policy analysis. Read the first part of this conversation.
Policy analysis is becoming an increasingly popular tool in science because it serves to enrich current scientific understandings of everyday problems by helping to understand the context of policy decisions while also providing practical recommendations to policymakers. But doing a policy analysis is not free from challenges. Two SURREAL ESRs are doing policy analysis.
Usha is analyzing documents consisting of several plans and policies, grey literature including scientific literature. She is aiming to find the connection between different sectoral policies such as energy, health, and welfare.
Daina is doing an analysis of urban policies that address the social determinants of mental health. She is reviewing the urban policies of different European cities.
Let's go through the rest of their conversation about their experiences in doing the policy analysis.
Daina: The way I currently think about it is that we need a range of different methods in policy analysis. Some questions are better answered quantitatively, but some only by talking to the stakeholders or looking at the policy documents. For example, it is interesting to research how certain topics appear on the policy agenda, but this is not a question that an RCT can answer.
We need a range of different methods in policy analysis to capture the different dimensions of the policies
Usha: I am reading and analyzing the policy documents and other published and unpublished documents. Since I am looking into how the energy transition system considers health aspects. I am analyzing documents related to the energy sector, here in Estonia and at the EU level. But I felt like document analysis is not enough, so I am also interviewing a range of stakeholders to understand further the elements I find during the document analysis. But I started with theories about social factors affecting health, and the combined role of social and technical aspects in today's world. I already sense that analyzing the findings will be quite challenging. I may have to choose what to focus on and what to leave out. But I also figured that I could use systems perspectives to show how different elements are connected and affect people's health.
Daina: At our department, we are using a system thinking lens to understand complex problems. It has helped me a lot to see policies as a dynamic, interconnected system rather than separate interventions that only affect their primary outcome.
Using theoretical frameworks and systems thinking lens help understand the policies as a dynamic and interconnected system and link the dots of different factors that affect people`s health.
One of my main tasks is to evaluate urban policies across different European cities. I hope to do that by applying a mixed-methods approach – some quantitative methods like natural experiments and looking qualitatively at the various contextual factors relevant to those policies. From a practical point of view, this is difficult as policy documents are in local languages. You have to have a certain understanding of the historical context, the government structure, and where to find credible sources of information.
Usha: I am also facing these practical challenges. Besides, it's tricky to understand how the policy was made in the first place and changes made over the periods; because every country has its own structure and style of policymaking.
“Some challenges in doing a policy analysis are that policy documents are in local languages, understanding the historical context, government structure, culture of policymaking, and modifications on certain policies over the period in addition to finding a credible source of information.
Daina: Another vital aspect is that certain policies often overlook unintended consequences. For example, an urban renewal policy may achieve its goal to make the neighborhood livelier and more livable, but unfortunately, it also drives the increase in housing (rental) prices, and consequently, some residents are not able to afford living there anymore.
Usha: Definitely, and it takes quite a bit of time to see those effects, right? Policies that seem very worthy at the moment to tackle some issues may turn out disastrous for other matters over the period of time. Take the example of fossil fuel mining. Fossil fuel mining started to fulfill the need for energy, but now we have started seeing the effects of mining on environmental degradation and climate change. Of course, the immediate impact of mining is on pollution and health, but its relation with climate change is relatively recent evidence.
Certain policies often overlook unintended consequences, especially those that appear after a long period of time.
Daina: Well, suppose policies are designed separately from each other; a health policy at the department of public health and the economic policy at the department of finance can be successful in their respective domain but have negative consequences for each other. For example, it is good that people are consuming more products for economic growth, but it often damages the environment and consumers' health. So, when considering the impact of a policy beyond its primary aims, the predictions of the change it will achieve in society can be quite different than intended. Therefore, when it comes to my research in mental health, I look not only at health policy documents but also at development, social and other policies, as those actions in seemingly unrelated fields create the conditions that consequently affect our mental health.
We discussed the policymaking process and policy analysis; based on your learnings, what would you recommend to other early-stage researchers who want to do policy analysis?
Usha: I think policy analysis in the public health field is still an unexploited field. As you mentioned earlier, policymaking doesn't exist in a vacuum, so familiarizing oneself with the historical and political context would be a good start. But I definitely recommend analyzing the policies through systems thinking lens. Analyzing sectoral policies and linking with health scenarios is crucial because it helps foresee the unintended consequences of the policy, especially in these rapidly changing times.
Daina: I could not agree more. Thinking deeply about the system where a particular policy is embedded is a good start.
Analyzing a policy beyond its primary aim, or analyzing various sector`s policies using systems thinking lens helps foresee the unintended consequences.