The policy cycle: From heuristic to a theory-informed research and advice

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Department of Social Sciences


For decades, the simple notion of the ‘policy cycle’ has been found wanting by scholars favoring more sophisticated concepts, theories, and frameworks to describe and explain the complex world of policy making. However, for practitioners and those teaching the art and craft of policy analysis, leaving their ‘policy-cycle comfort zone’ is problematic: the policy literature is often written in difficult theoretical terminology and detached from day-to-day practical experiences. Conversely, the policy cycle remains a durable heuristic and entry point for many policy instructors whether for students or practitioners. When teaching, we suggest that scholars and practitioners have in varying degrees implicit or explicit theories of good analysis and how to achieve influence. We suggest scholars and practitioners should more systematically identify and employ ‘causal mechanisms’ underlying their respective pedagogical or mentoring approaches. By doing so, practitioners and scholars alike should better understand the policy process at a more granular level and be better positioned to apply new methods and tools, such as process tracing, to produce more sophisticated and grounded policy analysis. This chapter first explores the different ways in which the policy cycle is used as a point of departure in courses for more disciplined contextual analysis and ascertaining where to invest analytic energies, a form of tacit knowledge which carries its own theories-in-use. The second section introduces the meaning of causal mechanisms and their role in explanation. The third part scans and considers the broad literature on the policy process and different areas of practice, identifying opportunities for sharing more theory-informed practical advice. The chapter concludes by suggesting a research agenda for public administration and policy scholars to consider.

Publication Title

Handbook of Public Administration: Fourth Edition