Using Interpretive Policy Analysis to drive positive change

Interpretive policy analysis

Dr Koen Bartels, Senior Lecturer in Public Management at the University of Birmingham, discusses the importance of taking an interpretive approach to policy making

To many people, IPA is simply a nice beer. To me and my colleagues, it is a well-established and compelling way of doing research.

Interpretive policy analysis (IPA) can help us to better address the pressing policy issues of our time, such as climate change, continuing discrimination of women, hostility towards refugees and migrants, and rising global economic and health inequalities.

IPA is an approach to research and evaluation that makes room for human intersubjectivity and historical context in order to better understand and inform policy processes. This allows us to see how policies have a multiplicity of meanings, which are communicated and mobilized in struggles over political power and societal change.

An innovative approach

Taking a more innovative approach has gained momentum with public policy scholars over the last 50 years.

In the 1970s, a number of policy scholars began to question the dominant way of analysing policy. Inspired by recent advances in social theory, they pointed out that ‘facts’ cannot settle policy controversies. In addition, they argued that language was not just used to neutrally describe policy issues, but to shape them along the lines of particular values, interests and agendas.

Since then, interpretive policy analysis has developed and spread so extensively that a large repertoire of interpretive methods is now available that suits the analysis of every possible policy issue. There is also a dedicated journal, several academic networks and significant conference activity across the world.

When we take an interpretive approach, it will reveal the underlying problems and unintended consequences of policies and identify innovative ways of addressing these.

Policies are inevitably understood in different ways, ways which are bound to conflict and come with significant differences in power, values and interests. If we are unaware of this diversity in interpretations, and its impact, we are bound to get stuck or do more damage than good.

So, what can interpretive policy analysis do for you?

Having a skillset that enables you to take a holistic view is incredibly important when it comes to researching and recommending changes to public policy and is a determining factor in the success of those initiatives.

IPA provides a range of participatory approaches that both enable democratic empowerment and effective governance.  By using interpretive research, not only can we implement more contextually-suitable strategies, we can also be more critical of how a policy is framed and performs. We can also better understand how to address policy conflict and improve a government’s ability to lead and manage change.

The situations surrounding many public policies are rapidly changing. Having a current contextual view of a situation enables the implementation of policies that are both timely and more effective.

There are numerous current examples where interpretive approaches have, and continue, to influence policy. By critically analysing current Covid-19 policy discourse in the UK, for example, it can predict that health inequalities will arise from the underlying behavioural ‘nudge’ approach.

It can also explain why, by revealing how what is constituted as ‘common’ or ‘public’, big companies have managed to prevent an ecologically sustainable system for salmon fishing in Norway from taking hold.

Another example is how an interpretive approach has addressed the challenges facing post-earthquake areas in Italy. By identifying and integrating different ‘theories of change’ together with stakeholders, it can mobilise shared reflection, responsibility and future visions for community resilience within the region.

As policy makers and influencers, we really cannot underestimate the importance of IPA. Today’s public administrators need these interpretive skills to be able to implement effective policies that drive positive change within the communities we serve.

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Senior Lecturer in Public Management
Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham
Phone: +44 (0)800 032 7101
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