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Using interpretive policy analysis (IPA) to drive positive change

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Dr Koen Bartels, Senior Lecturer in Public Management at the University of Birmingham, discusses the importance of taking an interpretational approach to policy making.

“To many people, IPA is simply a trendy beer. But to me and my colleagues, it is a well-established and compelling way of doing research.

Interpretive policy analysis (IPA) can help us to better address the pressing policy issues of our time, such as climate change, continuing discrimination of women, hostility towards refugees and migrants, and rising global economic and health inequalities.

IPA is an approach to research and evaluation that makes room for human subjectivity and historical context in order to better understand and inform policy decisions. This allows analysts to see how an individuals’ perspective on an issue can change their view of – and reaction to – a particular policy.

Taking a more nuanced approach has gained momentum with public policy makers over the last 50 years.

In the 1970s, a number of policy scholars began to question the dominant way of analysing policy. Inspired by recent advances in social theory, they pointed out that ‘facts’ cannot settle policy controversies, while language was not just used to represent policy issues, but to shape them along the lines of particular values, interests and agendas. Since then, IPA has developed and spread so extensively that a large repertoire of interpretive methods is now available that suits the analysis of every possible policy issue. There is also a dedicated journal, several academic networks and significant conference activity across the world.

When we take an interpretive approach, it will often reveal the underlying problems and unintended consequences of policies and identify innovative ways of addressing these.

Policies are inevitably understood in different ways – ways which are bound to conflict and come with significant differences in power, values and interests. If we are unaware of this diversity in interpretations, and its impact, we are bound to get stuck or do more damage than good. As Heidrun Åm of the Norwegian University of Science & Technology aptly put it in her paper, “we need an interpretive approach that is sensitive to meaning-making …, multiplicity and struggles over ideas …, seeking to understand and explain the practical bearings of specific meanings expressed and mobilized”.1

So, what can IPA do for you?

Having a skillset that enables you to take a holistic view is incredibly important when it comes to researching and recommending changes to public policy and is a determining factor in the success of those initiatives.

IPA also has a huge impact on democracy, governance and participation, where the understanding of how and when to use different approaches impacts a governments’ ability to lead and manage change. By using interpretive research, not only can we implement more contextually-suitable strategies, we can also be more critical of a policy and its performance. We can also better understand how to address policy conflict and tackle ‘malign’ policies.

The situations surrounding many public policies are also rapidly changing. Having a current contextual view of a situation enables the implementation of policies that are both timely and more effective.

There are numerous current examples where interpretive approaches have, and continue, to influence policy. By critically analysing current COVID-19 policy discourse in the UK, for example, it can predict that health inequalities will arise from the underlying behavioural ‘nudge’ approach.

It can also explain why, by revealing how what is constituted as ‘common’ or ‘public’, big companies have managed to prevent an ecologically sustainable system for salmon fishing in Norway from taking hold.

Another example is how an interpretative approach has been used to address the challenges facing post-earthquake areas in Italy. By identifying and integrating different ‘theories of change’ together with stakeholders, it can mobilise shared reflection, responsibility and future visions for community resilience within the region.

As policy makers and influencers, we really cannot underestimate the importance of IPA. Today’s public administrators need these interpretive skills to be able to implement effective policies that drive positive change within the communities we serve.”

For more information about our Online Masters of Public Administration and how it can help you in your career, visit the programme page or fill out our request for information form and a member of our Admissions Team will be in touch.


  1. Åm, H (2020) ‘Rich on Resources’ – An Interpretive Policy Analysis of Producing Public Good in Salmon Governance in Norway (Online) Available at: [Accessed 11.11.20]

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