Thinking about Policy

When you read about complex local or national issues, you may feel like a puppy lost in the political woods. But using this set of ten questions will help you think productively about current policies or  help you create or advocate better policies.

So, most of these questions can be used four different ways:

1)  You can be a citizen who just wants to make up his or her mind about a policy that in operation.

2)  You can be someone who is deciding whether or not to support a proposed policy.

3)  You can be someone who is comparing proposed policies, or a policy change.

4)  You can be someone is taking the lead in designing or promoting a new policy, a new solution to some problem.

What follows are a summary of ten key questions called 4P-6Q. It may be that just using these 10 questions can help you get a much better sense about a policy. After that, there’s a more detailed set of questions that are still organized around the 4P-6Q questions, but they provide more depth. Probably only the people who are designing new policies or who have a huge stake in one policy will need the more in-depth questions.


The 4P-6Q Policy Method

The four “P’s are:

1. Who are the players? (And what players can be added or subtracted?

2. What are the precedents (the past actions that have worked or been tried)?

3. What are the politician’s interests?

4. Who has the power? (And how can the power structure be changed?)

The other six questions (the 6-Q) come from a policy method developed in Quebec. (Thank you, Canada!) The questions are in two groups. The first three questions have to do with policy effectiveness, and the second three have do with policy implementation.


5. How effective is the policy on the target problem?

6. What are the unintended consequences?

7. What is the impact on the various groups and players involved?


8. What are the costs of the policy? (financial and social)

9. Is the policy feasible and realistic?

10. Is the policy acceptable to all the players?


The following section gives more details on the ten areas. By the way, it probably helps to think of policy as drama. Successfully implemented policies are stories with happy endings. Poorly designed policies are tragedies, even if they just waste time and money.


1. Players

A love triangle drama has three main players. But a policy drama can have a dozen or more! Here’s a list of potential players that influence government policy dramas. Some of the players are hidden, and not even people! Sometimes the word “stakeholders” is used instead of players, but sometimes groups that don’t have a stake in the outcome still influence policy. Use this as a checklist to make sure you’ve thought of all the players related to the policy or issue you’re thinking about.

  • The politicians that are involved – both in the decision and in the appropriations (who pays for it.)
  • Their constituencies
  • The politician’s senior staff
  • Public opinion, prevailing morality, and culture
  • Lobbies
  • Business leadership
  • Their stockholders
  • Unions
  • Union leadership (may have other interests than the union members)
  • Media impact (corporate, alternative, blogs) and the messaging about the issue
  • The nonprofit sector
  • The state of the economy and market
  • Natural events such storms, droughts, earthquakes
  • Technology
  • The laws made / and regulatory bodies / standard procedures
  • Other countries
  • Other urgent issues that compete for attention or money
  • The law of cause and effect.
  • Entropy (the tendency for things to fall apart or become disordered without maintenance.)
  • The players’ deeply-held or unchangeable beliefs about some of the other players or about the issue. For instance, deep-seated racial prejudice becomes a player, a force, almost independent of the people who have it. It can become “the elephant in the room” that affects things and is not mentioned. We also mention it separately from culture and prevailing morality because it only needs to be in one or more key players, not necessarily in the whole culture.


2. Precedents

Some questions to ask:

a. What has been done in the past? What is the history of this issue?

b. What has been tried elsewhere that has worked well or poorly in other cities or countries?


3. Politician interests  (and other decision-maker interests)

Ideally, politicians should be asking questions like, “How does this help my constituents, the people who elected me?” and “How does this impact the rest of the country?” But in addition to these questions, a politician is usually asking other questions:

“Will this help me get re-elected?” In other words, will this please the lobbies that will donate to my re-election campaign? Or, “Will this help me in a run for a more powerful position?”

“Will this displease the people who I will work for once I am out of office?” Often these are lobby groups.

“How will my peers and the House or Senate leadership react? Will it increase my power and prestige in the House or Senate?

“How will this play in the media?” [And if it’s not likely to be popular: “How can I spin this?]

“Do I owe any group or individual a favor? Is this the time to pay back?”

[Regardless of what the majority of constituents want]  “Is this what I’d like to make happen?”


4. Having answered the previous questions about players, precedents and politician interests…

A. Who has the power over the decision?

B. Who controls the implementation?

C. Is there still time and possibility to change the power dynamics to either change the momentum completely, or make adjustments in the policy implementation?


[Effectiveness — the next three steps]

5. Impact on the Target

A. If it’s a current policy, what is the data about impact? What are the trends?

B. If it’s a new policy, is there any data from a trial run of the policy, or from a similar policy on a similar group of people. If so, how relevant is the data to the proposed population of people?


6. Unintended Consequences and side effects

Trying to foresee consequences and their costs is sometimes difficult – or it can be as easy as asking people with experience and expertise. Many policies that look good at first, have many hidden costs that make them either counterproductive, or “two steps forward in one area, and two steps back in another.”

A.  What are the impacts on other programs coming out of the same budget? In other words, is this a good use of funds relative to how the money could be spent?

B. Similarly, will working on this prevent other worthy projects from getting enough time to be done right?

C. What are the likely impacts on the environment, the local or national economy, the political power structure and communication channels? You can also foresee some consequences if you study similar policies in other cities or countries.


7. People often look at the impact on the target group and they forget that almost all the players are somehow affected. Most players have gained or lost: credibility, or time, or money, or some other form of power. Different policies may also have economic, social, or environmental impacts as well.

You sometimes foresee many of the unintended consequences by just going down the list of players and thinking about how they will likely be affected. Or you can contact some of the players or their staff.


[Implementation — the next three steps]

8. Costs.

A. What are the costs? When do they have to be paid? (In other words, are the major costs up front, at the end, or distributed over time?)

B. Who pays? Are the costs shared appropriately?

C. How do the costs compare with other policies that might address the problem differently?

D. If this policy is meant to be ongoing, will the funding be there for the long term?

E. If there is a delay to this project, will costs become excessive? – This might be because the problem is growing fast.


9. Feasibility

A. Are there any technological obstacles? Are there any obstacles to getting any materials needed to implement the policy?

B. Are there manpower obstacles? In other words, do the people in charge of implementation have enough workers with the needed skills?

C. Are there legal or regulatory obstacles?

D. If a coalition is needed to implement the policy, how stable is it? Are their any foreseeable weaknesses in the coalition? Whether or not there are, is their some plan B or reserve funds to deal with unexpected problems?

E. If it is a long-term policy is some form of ongoing assessment and “in-flight correction” built into the plan?


10. Acceptability

In the feasibility section, you estimated whether or not you would have the people needed to implement the policy. These are some of the players. Now you want to find out for sure if the policy actually is acceptable to them and to all the other players. This is finding out if people will buy-in, and if not what the obstacles are. There are different variations:                                     

A. If the policy is already in operation, you or someone is surveying the players to get their judgments and reaction to the various aspects of the policy (effectiveness, unintended consequences, fairness, implementation, cost, feasibility, etc.)

B. If the policy is being proposed or designed, then the feedback of the players can be used to negotiate the details of the policy.  For instance, if some key group won’t buy in without certain concessions, these might drive up the estimated cost. Then that new higher cost might affect whether or not some other players buy-in.

Another example: Talking to certain players might make you aware of some unintended environmental consequences that will drive up the cost of the program and also slow down implementation. Then you must revise the policy plan and show it around again.

C. If you are designing policy, some kind of strategy should be developed to minimize the number of drafts of the policy plan, and to minimize the cost and time needed to develop the policy. For instance, you should first determine if there are any “deal-killers” or things that would make the policy unfeasible from the start. This might be some regulation in place that precludes the approach, or some key player who is dead-set against the policy. Then you approach some of the most powerful players who can influence or bring along others.



Method for Synthesizing Knowledge About Public Policies, Authors:  Florence Morestin, François-Pierre Gauvin, Marie-Christine Hogue and François Benoit. National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy, Quebec, Canada; September 2010.


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