3. Understanding Policy Processes

STEPS Learning > Course: Pathways to Sustainability > 3. Understanding Policy Processes

This section challenges the linear, technical conception of policy processes and articulates how, in fact, policy processes and their related understandings of “evidence” are intrinsically political and value driven.

In this section, we’ll critically examine how policy change occurs (or doesn’t) as a result of such political, value driven processes. We’ll also consider the relationships between ‘experts’ and ‘citizens’ in policy processes, and how policy processes can both help to ‘open up’ but also ‘close down’ debates about pathways to sustainability.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this module, a successful participant should be able to:

  1. Articulate how policy processes are intrinsically political and value driven.
  2. Describe the relevance of attending to the intersections of knowledge/discourse, actors/networks and politics/interests in any policy area in order to expose the politics and values that underpin any policy process.
  3. Use these concepts to conduct applied analysis of policy documents and critically examine the narratives and framings that underpin them.

Essential reading

IDS Knowledge, Technology and Society team (2006) Understanding policy processes: A review of IDS research on the environment, IDS, Brighton, UK (OA)

Questions to guide reading

  1. In what ways do the authors argue that politics and values cannot be separated from processes of policy making?
  2. How does this perspective differ from traditional, linear accounts of policy making?
  3. What are the implications of this for the role of “expert” and “lay” knowledge in policy-making processes?
  4. What key concepts do the authors argue can inform a political reading of policy processes?
  5. How are these concepts operationalized in the applied examples provided in the report?

Lecture: Prof Ian Scoones, Understanding Policy Processes


Additional reading

Leach, M., Scoones, I. and Stirling A., (2010) Dynamic Sustainabilities, Chapter 6: An alternative politics for sustainability, Routledge, Abingdon

Keeley, J. and Scoones, I. (2003) Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: Cases from Africa, Ch. 2, Earthscan, London

Millstone, E. (2009) Science, risk and governance: Radical rhetorics and the realities of reform in food safety governance, Research Policy, 38(4): 624-636

Assessment activity: Applied analysis of policy documents

Multiple policy narratives can be found in any field. In this activity, participants are invited to analyse example policy documents that cut across the domains of food and agriculture, water resources, health epidemics and energy and climate change policy – all themes explored by STEPS Centre research.

Below is a list of example policy reports and documentation. Select one of these that interests you. After reading the document, try to identify the policy narratives underlying it, the actors and associated networks involved in creating these policy narratives, and the politics involved. Ask yourself, in turn, what and who has been excluded from these framings, and the implications this has for these particular policy processes.

Building on your analysis and what you have learned on this module, ask yourself the following, related questions:

  • What expertise is being deployed to justify each narrative?
  • What exclusions are resulting?
  • What pathways are being proposed (and ignored) as a result?
  • How far is it possible to establish how these narratives have been constructed, and which interest groups predominate?

Having completed this analysis, ask yourself the following overarching question and consider the implications of your answer, reflecting on your broader learning on this course:

  • How far can such analyses influence our appraisals of those narratives and pathways?

Try applying a similar analytic approach to some of the other policy documents below, or to other policy documents you find on the internet or encounter in your own research, policy and practice.

Food and agriculture policy documents

Water policy documents

Health and disease policy document

Climate and energy policy document


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