The once legendary definition by American political scientist Thomas Dye: “Policy analysis is what governments do, why they do it and what difference it makes” has not remained uncontested. More recently, policies, i.e., collectively binding decisions on policymaking in policy areas, are understood to go beyond state actions (e.g., passing and implementing laws). Today, the onus is on the multi-layered interactions of state and private actors in policymaking. Nevertheless, state actions and their consequences in the form of change or stability of public policy remain the focus of policy research.
Against this backdrop, policy researchers are interested in a variety of questions. The ability to determine whether a policy measure (e.g., the minimum wage introduced in Germany in 2015 or the Electric Mobility law from 2015) constitutes fundamental policy change or only a superficial change or whether there is no change in a policy area at all is usually the first step in advancing policy knowledge.
The most important question in policy research asks why policies were passed: Why has a political measure (or a bundle of measures), e.g., the nuclear energy phase-out, the energy transition, or the law to introduce a women’s quota in private companies and civil service as of 2016, taken a certain shape and not another? Why do environmental policies differ between Germany and the United Kingdom? Why do countries faced with similar demographic problems introduce fundamentally different policies in response? Why did various areas of German social policy, e.g., labor market and pensions policies, recently undergo a radical policy change, at least in part? Why are there new instruments in environmental policies? Non-decisions need to be explained, as well: Why did Germany refrain from introducing a minimum wage for such a long period of time? Why has fracking not been regulated in Germany, yet?
In addressing these and similar questions, particular attention is paid to the relative impact of different explanatory factors and how they interact: What role do actors and their interests, perceptions, ideological orientations, and their resulting actions play? What is the significance of institutions and how do the characteristics of the policy issue at hand influence the political process? How does scientific policy advice affect the decision-making process? Which significance do situational events like crises, catastrophes or scandals attain? The analysis can attempt to explain a particular policy (considering various possible factors); it can also test the impact of a certain explanatory factor (e.g., the federal distribution of powers in Germany, the expansion of the European Parliament’s decision-making powers, the number and characteristics of veto players, the composition of multi-party governments or the role of scientific policy advice). Acknowledging these aspects, modern policy research does not limit its concept of the political process to mere problem-solving. Instead, power and ideologies are considered as well. Policy research takes these genuinely political aspects into account to explain policies, even if they do not serve to solve a problem and appear irrational at first glance.
In addition, policy research addresses several other questions: It can serve to examine how certain coordination mechanisms function (such as the OMC in EU employment policy), to evaluate the implementation, effect or “success” of a certain policy, to compare the performance of a group of countries in a policy area (e.g., the OECD), or develop one or several solution(s) to a defined policy problem in a more advice-oriented fashion. What role scientific policy advice can or should play in policy processes is also a question of policy research.
In a certain sense, policy research runs "across" the traditional division of political science in Germany into “Government Studies” (Regierungslehre, roughly equivalent to, e.g., American Politics), Comparative Politics, and International Relations. It examines the patterns, causes or effects of policies at all territorial levels: the municipal level, the state level, the national level, in a cross-country comparison, at the EU level or in transnational contexts.
More on Policy research:
Reiter, Renate/Töller, Annette Elisabeth (2014): Politikfeldanalyse im Studium. Fragestellungen, Theorien, Methoden. Baden-Baden: Nomos (UTB) (reviewed in German here).
When we think of administration, we first think of the familiar national administrations, such as municipal administrations or the ministerial administrations of the federal and state governments. However, as European integration has progressed over the decades, European administrative structures have also emerged – the EU Commission, the comitology, numerous agencies, and administrative networks. Today, they are of great importance for those working in national administrations and national politics, but also for national companies, interest groups, other social groups, and associations, and finally, European citizens. Their institutional structure, their capacities to act, and their actual actions in certain policy fields (e.g., environmental policy, competition policy) as well as the theoretical classification of European administrative structures and the explanation of their administrative actions are therefore central objects of political science and administrative science research interested in European issues today.
This research also pays attention to the structures of interest mediation in the EU. Interest groups have long played an important role in the EU, e.g., in the context of networks or corporatist arrangements and especially as lobby groups in defining issues and formulating policies. As representatives of specific individual interests (e.g., the automotive industry or certain corporations) or intermediaries for public interests (e.g., environmental protection), they solicit attention and support for their concerns from the various representatives of the European institutions. In addition to describing the specific structures of interest intermediation and the central actors within them, the main concern for political and administrative science is to gain an understanding of the dynamics of interest intermediation in the EU with the help of different concepts and theoretical approaches.
Furthermore, corruption and anti-corruption have become core topics of administrative and political science research, so they should be considered when analyzing European administration, as well. Since the mid-1990s there has been a global anti-corruption boom, which has led to the formation of numerous international anti-corruption regimes that increasingly influence anti-corruption or corruption-fighting policies at national and European levels.
The focus of this module is to apply a political science approach to aspects of state activity, theories of policy research, and the relationship between the state and the economy. In terms of content, we deal with questions of different forms of state activity and political control of private economic activities as well as corresponding interactions.
One seminar provides a political science perspective on the privatization of government functions. Although privatization has now occurred in many countries and different areas, the extent of privatization differs between countries and sectors. Moreover, they are often politically controversial and can be a starting point for political conflict. Also, social power relations can change when state functions are privatized. Political science addresses what privatization is, what forms it takes, when and where privatization processes occur and what the causes are.
A second seminar focuses on the transformation of welfare statehood in different countries and in different fields of social policy (e.g., retirement and pension policy, family policy). Here, we first deal with basics such as the definition of a "welfare state" and types of welfare statehood. On this basis, we focus on the emergence of new social risks (e.g., reconciliation of family and work, atypical employment) and the transformation of welfare states. From a political science perspective, we are particularly interested in the causes and explanations of (different) welfare states and processes of change.
Currently, an additional seminar on "Umwelt und Partizipation" (Environment and Participation) is being developed for module MV2. Starting in June 2020, this module will be revised as part of the project "Digital mainstreaming in university education in political science " (DigiStream; funded by the Stifterverband and the NRW Ministry of Science).