Do parliamentary research services do “policy analysis” or do they do “analysis of policy”?

“If the clients understand what ‘policy analysis’ should be, a parliamentary research service which promises to do it is creating an expectation that cannot or should not be fulfilled”

Do parliamentary research services do “policy analysis”? I was asked that recently and my answer was “no” and if both question and answer seem strange, I agree. My answer would have been different a few years ago – we even created posts titled ‘Policy Analyst’ in my then service. So what’s going on?

Firstly, there is no disagreement that parliamentary researchers analyse policy. But, strictly, that is not the same as “policy analysis”. Saying analysis of policy is not the same as policy analysis may sound very like the “Yes, Minster” official making the difference between the policy of administration and the administration of policy. It is, though, an important distinction.

Policy analysis” is both a technical term and, paradoxically, one that lacks a precise definition. It is often used without any explicit definition – it takes its meaning from the context – but, broadly, it often refers either to study of how policy is made – not interesting here – or to the process in which issues are analysed and policy solutions proposed – which is the version that is of interest. It is not simply analysis of policy but also providing conclusions and recommendations from that analysis, creating policy options and even making or proposing the selection of a policy to implement. It is that step from analysis to conclusion, recommendation and design of policy solution that is the concern.

Parliamentary research services certainly analyse policy issues, policies proposed and policies in action. What they normally cannot or should not do – neither philosophically nor practically – is devise policies or make recommendations on which policy choices to make. It is philosophical because the professional ethos is about impartiality and objectivity and to take a position on policy will prejudice that. It is practical because normally any parliamentary researcher offering recommendations or proposals would likely be out of a job following a political row created by one party or another. The work is rather to present the scientific evidence in a suitable form, maybe going so far as to indicate where the weight of evidence and scientific opinion is pointing, but leaving policy conclusions to the Members. In the rare cases where parliamentary research is done by commissioning paid external experts then those experts have the freedom to make recommendations. In-house experts could never risk to do such a thing. External experts can do ‘policy analysis’ but in-house experts can only analyse policy.

Why this matters
If the clients understand what ‘policy analysis’ should be, a parliamentary research service which promises to do it is creating an expectation that cannot or should not be fulfilled. It is likely to end in tears. Likewise if staff are told they must deliver “policy analysis” the risk is they do due diligence, learn the methods of “policy analysis” and deliver research that puts them and their service at political risk. And if external trainers are told to deliver training for a new research service in “policy analysis”, that may also lead to a dysfunctional result. Finally, are parliamentary research services really scaled to develop policy proposals?

It seems, nevertheless, that some parliamentary research services describe what they do as ‘policy analysis’ where others (most?) generally refer to the simpler and less loaded term ‘analysis’ or variations of ‘analysis of policy’. Those using “policy analysis” may be doing different work but could it just be a loose choice of term?

The IFLAPARL guidelines for research services does not use the term “policy analysis” anywhere in its text and there is no indication that I could find about offering recommendations on policy decisions. It refers to research being ‘void of political advice’. I suspect that the idea of offering policy solutions was so far removed from the culture of the authors that the concept is not even mentioned in order to be dismissed.

IPU/IFLAPARL Guidelines for parliamentary research services, p. 43

The United Kingdom House of Commons ‘Research handbook‘, also promoted on the IFLAPARL website, does refer to “policy analysis” as a function of parliamentary research. In the extract from the handbook below, the last two points might be taken as suggesting that alternative policies could be proposed by the research service, and ‘conclusions’ are definitely expected. Does ‘conclusion’ mean a policy recommendation?

The United KIngdom House of Commons ‘Parliamentary research handbook’, p. 38

It is interesting that the handbook mentions a government publication as the source of guidance for ‘policy analysis’, because it is precisely in government that you would expect conventional policy analysis to happen.

So, either we have two distinct concepts of what parliamentary research is about – policy analysis or analysis of policy – or we have ambiguous definitions of our professional work. The first could mean an interesting debate, the second would mean that services concerned have unnecessary risk. Perhaps some training and service development on ‘policy analysis’ is misplaced effort or even increases risk for new and developing services, due to this ambiguity?

What do you think? Should we take “policy analysis” as our role? Should parliamentary research services make policy recommendations or propose policy solutions? Or should we use “policy analysis” as a description of what we do, even if what we do is not policy analysis in a commonly-accepted sense of the term? Do you agree there is risk in these options? Or is the terminology of no concern?

UPDATE: Just published 27 February 2020 : Professor Paul Cairney ‘Policy analysis in 750 words

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