4 Critical Policy Analysis

Lorayne Robertson and Bill Muirhead

This chapter will help students to:

  1. Recognize digital privacy policies in different formats from different legislative sources.
  2. Understand policy analysis as a changing landscape over time.
  3. Analyze educational policies and identify policy gaps with respect to digital privacy.
  4. Define and explore their understanding of the need for critical policy analysis.

Organization of the Chapter:

  1. Defining Policy
  2. Exploring Policy Analysis
  3. Critical Policy Analysis
Fowler (2004) defines public policy as “the dynamic and value-laden process through which a political system handles a public problem” (p. 5).

Defining Policy

Note. Yellow arrow sign, by I. Pereira, 2017.

What is a policy?

  • Intentions
  • Rules
  • Actions/Inaction
  • Values

Many definitions of policy focus only on one aspect of the policy, rather than considering the context of the policy, the values that are reflected in the policy and how different groups may be affected differently by the policy. We encourage educational leaders to consider broader definitions of policy that include these other important considerations.

Policies can be defined informally as the rules around here or more formally as the regulations, laws or legislation that a public authority, such as a government or school district, passes in a response to an issue that in their view, requires a policy. Policies represent a decision or a series of decisions that someone or a group in authority has made. Pal (2010) defines a policy as a public response to a problem, but Fowler (2004) defines public policy as “the dynamic and value-laden process through which a political system defines a public problem. It includes a government’s expressed intentions and official enactments as well as its consistent patterns of activity and inactivity” (p. 5).

Policies are not always planned as part of an agenda; they can happen when there is a convergence of issues.

Note. Ottawa freedom convoy, by V. Gagnon, 2022.

Policies are not always planned as part of an agenda; they can happen when there is a convergence of issues. Kingdon (1984) describes policy windows as opportunities that occur when regular policy development is disrupted. Here we use the example of the trucker blockade in Ottawa, Canada in February 2022 to explain Kingdon’s policy streams and windows. In response to the blockade of the capital city and the bridges between the US and Canada by the truckers, there were multiple problems creating what Kingdon calls a problem stream. In response to a blockade, there was a public focus on the problem, creating a political stream. The proposed solutions to the problem were being suggested, creating a policy stream. Different groups wanted to see different results. As public opinion became energized over the issues created at the border crossings and in the capital city, there were multiple solutions proposed. As a result of the confluence of issues (problems) and solutions (policies), politically-motivated solutions begin to emerge. Streams change when leadership changes, creating more of a crisis or moving toward the resolution of a crisis. As Kingdon (1984) explains, this confluence of the streams opens a policy window.

In earlier times when policies were analyzed, there was an aim to have policies that were perfectly well understood and with clearly delineated roles and results. Now, there is more of an agreement that policies need to consider multiple aspects of a policy, such as the values of members of society who are affected by the policy. This makes the study of policies rather cluttered and messy. Fowler (2004) studies policies in education, and she finds them to be nuanced and political. She reminds us that values shape policies. Deciding what constitutes the problem is also connected to values—take for example dress codes in schools. These dress codes can be highly value-laden and can be based on tradition and stereotypical norms. Even the decision that a dress code policy is necessary is also a value-leaden choice. Marshall argues that policies are more accurately defined as responses to problems that are identified by those who hold power (1999). For example, a decision whether or not to have a sexual harassment policy is a policy decision showing the values of those in charge (Marshall, 1999).

Exploring Policy Analysis

Yanow (2007) defines policy analysis as “a practice that entails the application of various research methods to policy issues and policy-making processes” (p. 111). Weimer and Vining (2017) define policy analysis as a “systematic comparison and evaluation of alternatives available to public actors for solving social problems” (p. 30). They note that there is a “fine line” between policy analysis and policy research which they define as a “synthesis of existing research and theory to predict consequences of alternative policies” (Weimer & Vining, 2017, p. 30). In the past, policy analysis focused on measurement based on stages of policy development, looking at how a policy was designed and comparing this to how it was implemented. This analysis was done to establish the quality of the policy. Policy analysts looked at the content of the policy, the policy design, the definition of the issue and the policy formulation, as well as its adoption and implementation. Policy analysis also looked at the impact or effects of a policy to ask whether the policy was fulfilling its stated role. Policy analysis used to be considered to be an objective process of analyzing the implementation of a policy. This analysis could include impact and efficiency evaluations such as cost-benefit comparisons. The measurement of the outcomes of a policy was done in an almost value-neutral way. More recently, policy has come to be understood as a more complex endeavour—or perhaps it could be argued that, presently, policy theorists have come to recognize more of the voices and different contexts for policy development and implementation.

Policy actors: Ball et al., (2011) raise awareness of the role of policy actors; these are the persons who must make the policies work in schools. These policy actors receive the policies, and they are also responsible for enacting them or making them happen. Policy actors might be in charge of championing the policy and recruiting others to join the policy movement; conversely, policy actors in schools could be critics of the policy (Ball et al., 2011).

Policy contexts: Some policy theorists (e.g., Ball et al., 1994; Bowe et al., 1992) proposed that policies go through cycles in their development and implementation. Three different contexts which influence the design, production and the effects of a policy were identified. In the context of influence, different interest groups can struggle over the construction of the policy and its discourses. In the context of policy text production, the policy analyst can ask which stakeholder groups were represented in the construction of the text, and who was excluded? And whose interests was the policy intended to serve? Multiple considerations fall under the context of practice, such as how well the policy is received, and to what degree the policy is open to interpretation (Bowe et al., 1992; Vidovich, 2001).

Policy trajectory: While some might argue that a policy remains the same once it has been written down and published, in fact, policies go through processes that can almost seem to take on a life of their own (Ball et al., 1994; Gale, 1999). Each policy undergoes its own journey or process as it is interpreted by those responsible for implementing or championing it. In the end, the policy is not just a text because it also contains actions (Gale, 1999). The text itself might also be incomplete. It may have contradictions, omissions or ambiguities (Bowe et al., 1992). Policies “land” into contexts of practice—Ball et al. (1994) sees policies as “textual interventions into practice” (p. 18). As policies are pronounced, they may pose problems for those in schools, and it cannot be assumed that every policy actor will interpret the policy in the same way. Policy enactment is affected by other factors such as understanding, cooperation, and resources (Ball et al., 1994).

Policy levers: There may be different responses to a policy such as acceptance, compliance, non-compliance and resistance. According to Steer et al. (2007), policy levers are the functional mechanisms that governments can use to ensure that policies are implemented. For example, the use of technology could be a learning expectation that is measured on the Ontario report card. If something is measured for the report card, it would ensure that it is taught; this is a policy lever.

Note. Train station, by A. Rainer, 2020.

Innovation-policy gap: Davis (2014) identified that the speed of technological progress created a gap between the innovators and policymakers stating that the pace of technological innovation was exceeding the pace of legislation or policy. He writes that, “policymakers are challenged to keep up with the latest developments in features, functionality, and business models. Meanwhile, technologists are innovating on a daily basis, often ignoring the potential impact that future legislation or policy might have on their endeavours” (Davis, 2014, p. 87). Davis also identified that other contexts such as social, political and cultural were shifting in addition to the technological, contributing to the innovation-policy gap.

Critical policy analysis

Theorists such as Marshall (1990) have argued that policy problems and analysis were traditionally addressed by the mainstream theorists who did not understand or acknowledge who was left out in policy discussions. Winton (2020) states, “Critical policy analysis refers to a body of research undertaken by scholars and activists in the pursuit of social justice” (p. vii). Diem et al. (2014) argue persuasively that education is changing and becoming more complex. Critical education theorists have emerged who are questioning taken-for-granted assumptions about education (e.g., Apple, 2012; Kincheloe, 2008). Diem and her colleagues challenge the traditional, positivist view of policy analysis which follows a sequence of steps (e.g., policy design, implementation and evaluation) designed toward measuring positive change. Instead, Diem et al. (2014) introduce research on an exciting new field: critical policy analysis. This more critical approach to policy analysis recognizes that policy problems in the past were defined and analyzed frequently by the mainstream (Marshall, 1990). As a result, Diem and her colleagues have really expanded how we think about policy analysis.

Diem et al., (2014) identify five fundamental concerns of critical policy theorists:

  1. The difference between the rhetoric of the policy and the reality of policy in practice need to be examined.
  2. The policy’s roots and how they emerged. What issues was the policy intended to solve? Was its intent to maintain the dominant culture? How did the policy change over time? How did it become institutionalized?
  3. Who were the winners and the losers as a result of a policy? Who gets what?
  4. The effect of the policy on equality and privilege. How might a policy enforce or reproduce social inequality?
  5. Do policy resistors engage in activism and participatory methods to build agency for policy change?

We agree that policy analysis is enabled through the design of frameworks. IN a discussion of policy processes, Sabatier (2007) describes policy frameworks as structures that consist of different descriptive categories or constructs; showing the relationships among them help to explain a phenomenon or what is happening. Such is the case with the Critical Policy Analysis Framework that we have designed.

We have created a policy analysis framework that guides critical policy analysis and also reflects the complexity of today’s policy analysis. The development and use of a general framework helps to identify the elements and relationships among these elements that one needs to consider for institutional analysis. Frameworks organize diagnostic and prescriptive inquiry. They provide the most general list of variables that should be used to analyze all types of institutional arrangements. Frameworks provide a metatheoretical language that can be used to compare theories. They attempt to identify the universal elements that any theory relevant to the same kind of phenomena would need to include. Many differences in surface reality can result from the way these variables combine or interact with one another. Thus, the elements contained in a framework help analysts generate the questions that need to be addressed when they first conduct an analysis.

Applying a Critical Policy Analysis Framework

Policy Influences Policy Texts Policy Implementation

Policy Privileges

(critical policy analysis)

  • Assumptions
  • Belief systems
  • Stance: traditional vs. contemporary
  • Legislation: Acts, laws, Charters, Policy memos
  • Curriculum policies
  • Rhetoric or Discourse
  • Pronouncements e.g., media releases
  • Policy trajectory
  • Policy actors
  • Policy levers
  • Policy contexts
  • Policy responses: (compliance, non-compliance)
  • Policy history, complexity
  • Policy implications
  • Policy vacuums/gaps
  • Rhetoric vs. reality
  • Policy alternatives and resistance
  • Who has (traditional) power and voice in the policy process?
  • Who is missing?
  • What is the stated public problem that the policy addresses?


  • What are the intended and unintended repercussions?
  • Policy privileges
  • Who has access?
  • Who has power?
  • Who owns the data?
  • Equity: Who benefits? Who is marginalized?

We would argue that a curriculum policy that does not teach about digital privacy or how to use social media in a manner that considers personal futures is one that has policy gaps and lacks relevance for today’s students and instructors. Students need the support of both their parents and teachers to understand and navigate online. A curriculum policy can help students understand that free apps come with the cost of personal data and digital privacy. Students need to learn that their newsfeeds are curated and tailored to preferences that students establish through their digital footprint. Students also need to know how their data becomes linked to their parents’ accounts, and everyone needs to understand how their accounts become linked to their friends’ and relatives’ accounts through social media and to the information that is publicly available through voter lists and other public databases. Additionally, the school curriculum should acknowledge the realities of students’ lived experiences online outside of school. Without this, there is a policy gap, and the curriculum becomes increasingly less relevant and unable to prepare students for work, life and personal safety in a digital era. We would describe the present Ontario curriculum as a policy desert with respect to curriculum expectations related to digital privacy.

Note. Child with phone silhouette, by A. Burden, 2017.

An examination of the global bans on cellphones in schools reveals that educational authorities can use a discourse surrounding their technology that promotes and affirms school district decision-making surrounding technology, or they can use a discourse that inhibits innovation. For example, using the word restriction with respect to cell phone use is not enabling language. A policy discourse that describes technology as exceptional and something for which the province grants permission works against technology innovation and acceptance (Robertson, 2017).

In August 2019, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced restrictions on the use of cell phones and other personal mobile devices in Ontario classrooms to take effect in November 2019. This was a missed opportunity for Ontario Education to support the many forms that technology-enabled learning takes in schools across the province (Robertson, 2017; Robertson et al., 2020).

Cell phone bans in general are problematic because these types of restrictions do not encourage schools and teachers to leverage the capacity of smartphones for learning. Most educators are aware that today’s smartphones are hand-held computers—they have replaced cameras, audio recorders, scanners, navigation systems, personal trackers, bank machines and other devices. They also have maximum portability and functionality, and a cellphone’s effectiveness for learning is close to a laptop. With hand-held devices, students can learn at any time and from anywhere. These technologies replace and augment student access to information and learning. The portability of hand-held devices makes education more accessible and more affordable.

Restricting cell phone use in schools is an equity issue. In the past decade of wireless substitution, many students are in homes that use phones for internet access. Cherwinski (2020) reports that 39% of persons with low income in Ontario do not have internet access, whereas only 1% of high-income earners in Ontario lack internet access at home. American research finds similarly that families who rely on smartphones are more likely to be rural, non-white, and have less income compared to homes with multiple computers (Blumberg et al., 2016).

A critical policy analysis on a government ban on cell phone use then asks important questions such as, “Whose voices are present in this policy design and whose are missing?” and is an example of how critical policy analysis research works in the pursuit of social justice. The examination of cause and effect associated with a policy can lead to multiple perspectives which are often overlooked when developing a policy. Thus, critical policy analysis helps to establish a 360-degree view of known and unknown consequences of policy outcomes.


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