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1st Interpretive Policy Analysis conference

The Interpretive Practitioner: From Critique to Practice in Public Policy Analysis

When: 8-10 June 2006

Where: Birmingham (UK)

Organisation: Institute of Local Government Studies (Inlogov), School of Public Policy, University of Birmingham, UK.


This conference was designed to draw together existing knowledge on the interpretive practitioner and the challenges of democratic policy making and to stimulate new lines of inquiry and research strategies. The theoretical critique and empirical studies from the postpositivist policy analysis tradition seeks to raise questions about the way in which actors in the public policy arena make sense of the environment and structures within which they operate, create projects and catalyse collective action, and engage in processes of institutional design and re-design. It draws significant attention to the implicit and explicit dominance of positivist ontology and epistemologies in the field of public policy research, public administration and management. This dominance is shown to support elite technocratic forms of decision-making, privilege a pretence of scientism over the wide ranging multi-disciplinary methodological forms present in practical processes of crafting policy, insulate the policy decision process from politics, and fail to provide its professed predictive models. In response, policy scholars worked out alternative methods, frameworks, models to move policy analysis along more grounded orientations that are relevant to specific contexts in which policy problems are constructed.

This alternative set of approaches seeks to engage with the complexity of the social world, especially highlighting the democratic dimensions of the policy process. It emphasizes that policy actors are located in the context of a wider public interest and ethics and calls for a new ethos for public administrators, concerned more with creating public projects in collaboration with citizens than with directing bureaucratic systems. It has generated new interest in the theory and practice of deliberative democracy and dialogic or communicative rationality to introduce novel arenas and modes of action for policy practitioners, going far beyond the traditional norms of representative democracy.

Methodologically, with the need to make sense of these role ambiguities, institutional voids, and value complexities scholars have called for an interpretive practice of policy analysis. The collective process of interpretation is generative of new democratic insights and understandings, codified in formal and informal institutional arrangements that in themselves are dynamic. Nascent attention has turned to the practices of interpretive policy analysis and research by addressing questions such as:

  • What does this orientation mean for conflict resolution within communities?
  • What are its implications for policy evaluations?
  • What understandings of network management does it provide?
  • How does it impact leadership?
  • How do practitioners learn?
  • How might the concept of storylines be used, and what is their value for practitioners?
  • How can this orientation be applied to ‘management’ in the public sphere?
  • How does it impact collaboration between state and civil society?

It is proposed that ‘Interpretive Practitioners’ are actors in the policy process and may include elected office holders, public administrators, active citizens, and board members of quasi-governmental and community organisations. They also include policy analysts and consultants working with public organisations. These are ‘practitioners’ in the very specific mode of engagement in collective projects in the public interest, typically outside or across the boundaries of governmental bureaucracies.

The conference was connected to launch of a new research/teaching facility for Interpretive Policy Analysis at the School of Public Policy at the University of Birmingham, and in anticipation of the launch of a new journal(Journal of Interpretive Policy Analysis).  The conference consisted of both full group settings as well as theme based round-tables where participants discussed papers in an interactive format.

Out of the three days, one full day was allocated for interaction between doctoral/post-doctoral researchers and more established scholars. This day specifically engaged with questions relating to the ongoing challenges of discursive-interpretive policy inquiry posed by the positivist mainstream, that newer researchers face in every step of their developing career such as the PhD proposal, defense, and publication processes. Established academics drew out lessons from their own research and experience in focused sessions along several themes addressing the quantitative-qualitative methods question, rigour in research, crafting research and articles for publication, and responding to specific challenges, for example – “So, what’s your dependent variable?”.

The themes for the conference were:

  • New strategies for interpretive research – Explorations in methodology
  • Discourse, Agency and Policy making
  • Generating institutional designs (Impact on public organizations)
  • A new ethics for democratic action
  • Revisiting the fact-value debate in Public Policy Analysis


Dr. Steven Griggs

Prof. Chris Skelcher

Dr. Navdeep Mathur