2.3 Understanding Policy Processes

What is a policy?

While law is a fundamental set of rules which is enforced through a set of institutions, policies are principles and rules, or commitments, to guide decisions and achieve particular outcomes. There may or may not be consequences when policy is transgressed. Policy can become law and can be used to change law. It can also guide how law is enforced.

In most countries the law making process begins with a section of government setting out a problem or issue to be addressed, then developing policy and finally expressing that policy as law. This is often a long and slow process during which proposals are debated and negotiated with various stakeholders, including opposition parties, the public and civil society. Usually research and background documents are produced (sometimes called 'white' and 'green' papers depending on the stage of the process). At this stage, stakeholders can input in a variety of ways, such as critiquing the documents; lobbying politicians; attending parliamentary committee hearings; setting up meetings with department heads or the minister; using the media to put pressure and, if these routes are not accessible or successful, by protesting and organising resistance.

This diagram is an example of the policy making process in South Africa, published by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)

See a copy of TAC's Equal Treatment Magazine, which looks at the policy making process and how policies become laws in relation to antiretroviral medicines.

How policies are made

This section draws on "Understanding Policy Processes. A review of IDS research on the environment" by Scoones (2006). Read the full article.

The creation of policy is often viewed as a straightforward, technical process - even by policy-makers. In reality, however, policy-making is complex and at times, messy. Very often it is based upon experimentation, learning from previous mistakes and changing course as a result. It requires us to acknowledge the realities of how government works and the constraints under which it operates, as well as how global debates can play out in local contexts. Understanding how policies are made and what can be done to change them, is also a complicated task.

I thought all I had to do was explain the science and all would change – I was wrong.’  (Mid-senior policy-making in the livestock sector. From Scoones 2006)

Conventionally, policy making is understood to be a linear process which passes through the following stages:

  1. Identifying a particular issue, or problem to be solved
  2. Explore the possible options that could be chosen to resolve the problem/address the issue
  3. Undertake a cost-benefit or risk analysis of each option
  4. Weigh up and make a decision about the ‘best’ option
  5. Implement the new or revised policy
  6. Undertake an evaluation to measure success at addressing the problem.

According to this rational approach, all of the evidence must be considered before a decision is reached and the policy is implemented. However, in reality, politics plays just as much of a role in the process as 'scientific' or 'expert' evidence. As with politics in general, there are always competing agendas at play. Stakeholders may not agree about what the policy problem actually is and individuals involved may bring their own value judgments to bear during the process. Policy processes will inevitably include some perspectives at the expense of others and it is often the poor and marginalized whose voices are excluded.

How does the process work?

Understanding how the policy process works is complicated because much of the discussion takes place behind closed doors and the decision-making process is very rarely transparent. Policy makers may not hear all the evidence or may make decisions on the basis of their own personal opinions or beliefs. When trying to understand how the process works, therefore, it is important to ask the right kinds of questions.

According to research conducted at IDS by Scoones (2006), there are three broad approaches to understanding how the policy process works. These can be understood as three overlapping arenas:


  1. Politics and interests. This approach asks, 'what is the policy narrative? How is it framed through research and science?' This approach focuses on the competition and bargaining between different priorities and different interest groups. It recognises that the underlying politics of an issue are often hidden in the policy-making process or dismissed as not relevant. For example, the assumption that sexuality is not relevant to poverty reduction policies can determine who is consulted and which issues are debated. For this approach, it is important to consider whose interests are being served by the policy and whose interests are excluded.
  2. Actors, networks and practices. This approach asks, 'who is involved, and how are they connected?'. This approach focuses on identifying the groups of people who establish a shared view of ‘the facts’ and set the terms of the debate along those lines. Or, it could be networks of people within and outside government that create different views of what policy should be. For this approach it is important to make an assessment of the reach and influence of these networks and their power within institutions.
  3. Narratives and discourses. This approach asks, 'what are the underlying power dynamics?'. This approach focuses on how particular narratives and ideas emerge in policy processes. For example, simple messages that are easily communicated and provide clarity tend to become normalized, especially those that speak to people’s everyday experiences. These may be simple messages that are based on assumptions about women's unpaid care work for example, thereby perpetuating certain sexual or gender norms. For this approach it is important to ask whose knowledge counts in the discussion and how did their view gain ascendancy? Also, does the form of the written policy – how the problem and proposed solution are described, give us clues to the dominant discourses at work?

Ideally, to get a balanced picture of a policy-making process you need to have an understanding of all three areas and how they overlap. It is important to pay attention not just to what is in the policy but also to the issues and actors that were excluded from the policy as this may be significant. If particular perspectives or actors have been excluded it is important to try to understand why. Is it because they were too sensitive, for example, or because they did not fit with other interests? Were those actors or perspectives also excluded from policy implementation? These questions will help you to understand the power dynamics at play in the policy making process and the factors that influence the shape of the final policy.

Where does policy-making take place?

By mapping out the policy-making terrain through an examination of the politics, actors, networks and narratives in play, it can become easier to identify likely spaces for engagement and disruption. These could range from the local, regional, national, to the global. Policy is developed in a number of spaces, some more accessible than others:

1. “Invited spaces” are usually government-provided, whether in response to popular demand, donor pressure or shifts in policy. These can be one-off spaces or regular forums and are often dominated by professional policy and advocacy actors who are well-educated, resourced and networked. Marginalised voices that are allowed access, tend to be picked as representative advocates by people in power.

2. “Popular spaces” include arenas in which people come together at their own instigation – whether to protest, or provide their own services. These spaces enable people to mobilise, build arguments and alliances, gain the confidence to use their voice, and to act.

3. “Closed spaces”. Many decision-making spaces are closed. Decisions are made by a set of actors behind closed doors, without any pretence of broadening the boundaries for inclusion.

4. “Claimed/created spaces” are those which emerge out of a shared set of interests or identifications.

When looking at spaces it is important to consider how they were created, and with whose interests in mind. How might they be engaged with? What are the particular challenges in ensuring that these spaces are inclusive to those marginalised because they challenge gender and sexual norms, for example? For some of the more formal spaces, there can be risks that there is a dissonance between policy-makers perceptions and lived reality on the ground.

While certainly non-linear, the policy process is not simply chaotic and governed by chance and accident. An analysis of the policy process highlights the complex interplay of narratives underpinning the policy, the actor networks promoting or resisting it, and the political interests driving the process and opening up potential strategies and tactics. An understanding of the politics, bureaucracy, power and interests behind policies gives a sense of how their formulation and implementation are constantly open to interpretation and manoeuvre.


In their study of disability and sexuality in China, NGO Pink Space found that the policy-making process tends to rely on an assessment of 'expert' evidence supplied by professionals, scientists, researchers and government employees. The focus on 'expert' evidence makes it very difficult for disabled people, and community-based organisations, to have a voice in the policy-making process. This has meant that many of the core concerns and needs of disabled people are not currently being addressed in the more than 50 laws, regulations and policies designed to protect their rights. In particular, there is no mention of sexuality, and as a result, disabled people's sexual autonomy is severely restricted and even consensual sex between disabled people can lead to criminal prosecution.

Read the full report (forthcoming)


In their study of policy making processes in relation to the drafting of the White Paper on Families in South Africa, NGO Sonke found that while there was a desire to be consultative, there were a number of factors which inhibited the ‘public’ nature of the process. They found that the Government department responsible relied primarily on 'invited spaces', where access was only granted to those individuals, organisations or government bodies who were seen to be ‘appropriate’. They also relied on existing networks and connections which meant that the some views were invisible in the shaping of the paper. Other factors included economic pressure on the government to deliver a workable policy and pressure to deliver the paper within a particular timeframe. As a result, they found that the White Paper contains a narrow definition of families which is not representative of the diversity of family forms in South Africa.

Read the full report


Further Reading

Sumner, A., J.Crichton, S. Theobald, E. Zulu, and J. Parkhurst. (2011). What shapes research impact on policy? Understanding research uptake in sexual and reproductive health policy processes in resource poor contexts. Health Research Policy and Systems, 9(Suppl 1):S3

Hawkins, K., Wood, S., Charles, T., He, X., Li, Z., Lim, A., Mountian, I. and Sharma, J.(2014). Sexuality and Poverty Synthesis Report. IDS Evidence Report 53. Brighton: IDS.