Policy Research

Public policy can be defined as written, formalised principles and guidelines that determine how governments translate their views and visions into programmes aimed at meeting the needs of the public.

Policy research can be done at all the stages of the policy-making cycle. Its main purpose is to provide policymakers with quality information that can improve the impact, effectiveness and acceptability of policies, among others. There are various methods that can be applied in policy research.  Policy study scholars have come up with various models depicting the policy-making cycle:

Policy-making Cycle

Research input is required at all the five stages above starting at the agenda setting stage. At this stage, stakeholders identify a problem that needs to be addressed and also contextualises the same. At the agenda setting stage the objectives behind the policy are, therefore, set or redefined. Research at this stage involves attempts to fully understand the problem at hand as well as its symptoms. Research also identifies the nature and characteristics of stakeholders involved including communities and publics. Research is important in ensuring that the problem is not misdiagnosed and could be designed as qualitataive, qualitative, or mixed methods depending on the peculiar nature of the policy to be set as well as its context.

Research output obtained in previous stage is important in the formulation of the actual policy or policies as well as their implementation. Research can be conducted on the best ways to implement the policy. It is also not uncommon to study the adoption rates of a policy including the challenges behind low adoption of the policy among stakeholders. Finally, public policy needs to be evaluated for effectiveness and this is where evaluation research sets in. Evaluation research is discussed in a later section of this website.

Types of studies involved in policy research

Policy research can be conducted as qualitative studies that aim to capture the perceptions, beliefs, experiences and sentiments of public policy stakeholders at different stages of the policy-making cycle. Qualitative studies can utilise semi-structured or unstructured interviews, focus groups, public meetings, online discussions and other flexible data collection methods that afford respondents the ability to be more expressive of themselves.

These involve the gathering, analysis and reporting of numerical data as a way of providing policymakers with reliable and valid information for use and consideration along the stages of the policy making cycle. Quantitative studies encompass many methods and research designs including experiments and quasi-experiments, surveys (discussed later), descriptive studies, cause-and-effect studies among others.

Within the qualitative, quantitative and mixed research realms, several research strategies can be applied. These are briefly discussed below.

Case studies

In policy research, case studies are important for assessing the experiences that other groupings that have introduced similar or related policies. Case studies can make use of qualitative and quantitative methods. They are thus important in looking at policy implications from a real world or realistic viewpoint in comparison to a conceptual viewpoint like most studies.

Surveys

Surveys collect policy-related data from identified stakeholders. The belief behind surveys is that if policy stakeholders are asked about their perceptions, experiences, opinions and expectations, they will be able to effectively provide critical data that can be used in policy research. This strength of surveys is seen by some scholars as its weakness as well.  Targeted respondents may not have detailed knowledge in policy areas even if the policy or policies concerned affect them. They may also decide not to give their true reflection on the policy matters at hand. This is common when respondents fear that their true views may be rendered “politically incorrect” or may get them into trouble.

Censuses, Referendum

In some instances, policymakers may opt to include whole populations in the determination of public policy choices. Instead of surveys that target a sample of a specific population, they can include all the identifiable respondents to participate. At national level, referendum can be carried out to determine mostly constitutional actions that have major ramifications on public policy.

Document review research

Because public policies are made in references to and in relation to constitutional, legal and governmental sources, document review research is in pre-and post policy implementation research. In post implementation research, policy stakeholders such as governmental bodies, non-profit organisations, civic society and community groups, among others produce formal reports and other documentations making the ability to analyse and review secondary sources critical in policy research. Where documents reviewed involve a great deal of academic sources, the same process is called a literature review although document research analysis is more detailed in nature.

As a continent we have many problems and problems need solutions. Solutions need knowledge.