Learn to build a world where everyone belongs. Take free classes at OBI University.   Start Now

In 1966, a small and committed group of revolutionaries in Oakland, California, decided to intervene against police brutality and harassment in their community. After researching the laws on self-defense and carrying guns in public (this is policy analysis!), Huey Newton and Bobby Seale found that they could carry weapons openly while observing police interactions with community members. From this interpretation of the policy and action, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense jumped into the national spotlight, becoming one of the most influential organizing groups of the twentieth century.

Policy analysis involves understanding how an existing or future policy impacts a community and how to change it in service of larger goals. Policy analysis can require many different pieces of research, but there are questions to ground in first.

First, what is your political framework for policy analysis? Agreeing on your framework can save you from conflict within your team and coalition and guard against unintended consequences. For example, a rent-relief policy might help people who can’t pay rent stay in their homes by using public dollars to pay landlords and cover any gaps. If your framework is antidisplacement, this policy might be aligned as it focuses primarily on keeping people in their homes. If your framework is social housing, you might instead push for a policy that enables the government to buy apartments and keep them affordable (as happened in Berlin). If your framework is community-controlled housing, your policy might provide money to community land trusts to buy out landlords and keep people in their homes in a permanently affordable way (as happened in Oakland). Ultimately, they are all aimed at keeping people in their homes, but they have trade-offs depending on your framework for analysis.

Second, where are you in a policy process? Here are some common steps:

  1. Identifying the problem and analyzing the root cause 
  2. Visioning and brainstorming policy solutions
  3. Researching existing laws and policies relevant to local context
  4. Learning about examples of relevant policies from other communities and advocates
  5. Designing a new local policy that fits the local needs and the city’s capacity for implementation
  6. Writing an ordinance or resolution
  7. Developing a city plan for the implementation of a new policy
  8. Evaluating how the implementation of a policy is going
  9. Organizing to amend or overturn an existing policy

Now that you have those questions settled, here is some of what your PAR group might get into:

  • Community assessment and impact: What need or vision would the policy fulfill? What is the policy’s impact? What numbers and stories will you use to back up your arguments about the policy?
    • This could involve demographic analysis (e.g., how many people are unhoused in a neighborhood or how many people will this policy impact in a city) or community surveys or interviews (e.g., people’s experience with barriers to permanent housing). 
  • Comparison policies: What are similar policies in other jurisdictions? Who helped develop them? What are their impacts?
    • National legal or organizing groups can be helpful here for identifying “sibling” policies in development or contention and their process for organizing a successful win. They can also help you understand what to replicate and what not to replicate—both in the actual policy and in the organizing work around it.
  • Understanding government infrastructure: How do different government actors and departments work together to pass and implement a policy?
    • Conversations with city staff allies, such as aides for elected officials or staff of city departments named in the policy itself, or veteran policy organizers can be helpful here. They can provide orientations to government processes that will be hard to understand via online research. Attending meetings by city council, school boards, and planning commissions can be especially helpful for understanding the interpersonal dynamics and rules (spoken and unspoken) of how things get done where you live.
  • Money tracking: Where does the funding come from and who benefits monetarily from the policy?
    • Public government has a transparent budget process, and policies themselves should say their impact on the budget. You can access public budgets online through a Google search. Tracking who benefits from a policy can take a bit more creativity. Running through the complete scenario of what it takes to implement a policy can give you some more insight into this, especially if it requires more city staff time, an outside contractor, or the purchase of materials. For example, body cameras require an increase in police department budgets and profit for a specific vendor. 
  • Text analysis and evaluation: What does the actual policy say and allow for in practice?
    • Municode is a great resource for accessing the actual text of a policy. Local newspapers will often carry a summary, but it’s important to do your own reading of the complete policy. Doing group-based reading analysis can be helpful for creating clarity on what the policy does or doesn’t do. Comparing similar policies can also show how subtle changes in language can create major differences in implementation. 
  • Policy versus practice: How does the language of the policy differ from the practice and implementation? 
    • Policies should name who is responsible for implementing them. Government staff often have a degree of wiggle room on how this happens. Assessing what elements of the policy are practice-based or in the language (via a text analysis) can help narrow where you want to take action. For example, is a new housing policy implemented by the planning department, code enforcement, or a special project of the mayor’s office?
  • Power mapping: Who has the power to pass or amend the policy? Are they in favor or support? Who has the power to change how the policy is practiced? Are they in favor or support?

Types of Knowledge Policy Analysis Generates

Community needs: Many policy analysis processes begin with a community needs assessment or a community-generated question, which helps raise new and important questions that can support strategic action around policy for years to come. For example, the Green Haven Think Tank (1971) was a group of incarcerated men who developed “The Non-Traditional Approach to Criminal & Social Justice” to research the policy roots of racial and geographic discrepancies in incarceration in New York City, leading to early foundations of action around the impacts of mass incarceration. 

Community impact analysis: Policy analysis can also document or project future impacts of policy—numbers and story-based—as crucial evidence in advocacy efforts, giving a more complete picture of issues. In considering a rent control law in a California city for example, organizers had to more deeply understand how many people were renters, what they were paying, how it would impact small landlords, and what types of units would qualify to better understand their potential for support. 

Understanding existing policies: In researching policy, you may discover that policies already exist, previously existed, or are legally not possible. In the rent control example, it was important to review other local and state policies to have a foundation to build on and not replicate mistakes. 

Political landscape: The power mapping and coalition building that policy advocacy requires can also create a better understanding of the political landscape, what is possible now, what might be possible in the future, and what kinds of gaps in the organizing ecosystem exist. For example, a policy analysis process might reveal a divided city council, indicating the need to elect a new city council member or shift to a ballot approach.

How Policy Analysis Can Build Relationships and People Power

At some point, policy analysis will likely require the strengthening or creation of new relationships, which can build strategic power through coalitions, proximity to decision-makers, or the activation of the broader public. This can come through building relationships with elected officials, city staff, or other organizing groups that have a shared interest in a policy. Policy efforts and analysis can also be activated at a broader scale (see the previous Black Panther example) because they often are tied to a concrete outcome or need. It’s important to remember that this can also create inversions of expectations—for example, a policy passes but is watered down at the last minute or even loses. This can lead to disillusionment among the people involved in the organizing process. Addressing this by building deeper relationships and placing your group’s work within a larger context of struggle is important for navigating expectations.

Time, Capacity and Resources, and Tools Needed

At its most basic, policy analysis can involve a group-based reading of the text to generate a shared understanding of a policy. But the larger arc of policy analysis—which can include community needs assessment and visioning, power mapping, organizing, and monitoring—can take years and the resources of multiple organizations. For this reason, it is important to do your research on how the policy relates to your more deeply held political strategy and theory of change. For example, Critical Resistance created a tool for the abolition of the prison industrial complex to assess if the policy is something to pursue further. Assessing both the policy and your resources can also help shape your tactics, which might include collaboration with policy-makers, community organizing and direct action, a lawsuit, or a ballot initiative. Each of these has its own timelines, challenges, and resource needs. Last, policy requires engaging different skill sets and expertise, especially lawyers at some point along the process. Working with people who will share their knowledge of the field can strengthen your group’s capacity.

A table showing reformists reforms vs. abolitionist steps in policing
Critical Resistance: Reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps in policing

Pitfalls, Challenges, and Myths

Unintended consequences: Because policies need to be practiced, there is a lot of room for a good policy to go bad. Policies can also trigger unexpected actions by other departments that might not have been considered or shifts in an economic or political landscape. For example, when a public health-focused policy required lead testing as a way to protect young children, it unwittingly led to the evictions of some families as housing code violations were uncovered while testing for lead. 

Passing does not mean implementation: The passing of a policy doesn’t mean it will happen in real life! Researchers in marine conservation have identified this as the policy placebo effect, where the passing of policies generally makes people think something is being done about an issue, even if it hasn’t produced any real material change. Including some way to monitor the implementation of a policy can be equally important to get one passed. Similarly, a policy might get overturned or amended down the line. Ultimately, policies are only as strong as those who support or oppose them and how they are practiced over time.

Tending relationships: Policies go through a highly politicized and technocratic process to be born. They also often take a long time to pass. Residents often don’t get the final say on what gets included or taken out of a policy at the last minute, or they may step away from a process before it is completed, which can lead to co-optation and fracture in relationships. Framing expectations and having conversations around the likelihood of compromise and the amount of time required to pass policies can be extremely helpful for sticking together through these changes.

Weaving in Cultural Strategy

Policy may as well be a specific language guarded for interpretation by a select few. Written in the language of governance and designed with future legal challenges in mind, policy can be off-putting and confusing. Worse yet, policies are often hard to find and read at all. Finding ways to interpret policy in ways that expand accessibility and reclaim some of the power from the authoritative language can strengthen the reach and relevance of a PAR process. Inspired by know-your-rights murals in Brooklyn about filming police, one PAR process interpreted two new housing laws in their city through a know-your-rights mural, highlighting key and accessible language from the mural and creating a visually compelling symbol of the laws. In another process, participants interpreted a law through blackout poems; poems written by taking the policy and crossing out words until a poem is left that distills the core meaning. This can also reclaim some elements of agency and power. For example, after reading through the Texas law banning critical race theory, a group wrote nine-word poems using six words from the policy and adding three of their own. The group reflected that initially reading the law was depressing and difficult, but the poetic reinterpretation was parallel to how they hoped to take action. Importantly, it also allowed them to read through the law closely, which very few had done previously.

Related Resources