The Skills of Policy Analysis?

Topics Remarks
The general skills of policy analysis Top of the list: analysis and communications
How policy analysts typically work Much is done opportunistically and on-the-fly.
An example Housing and urban development: by Sunday afternoon, please.
The Rational-Comprehensive Model Four not so easy steps.
Limits to rationality . . . imposed by real-world constraints

Overall General Skills of a Policy Analyst

The political processes built on bargaining and compromise should not be confused with the analysis of public policy as a recognized expertise. Public policy research requires training, insight, savvy, and experience. Strong analytical and communications skills are essential. An overall academic background in politics and economics helps. Technical training and experience in a particular applied field, such as health or energy, may be essential. Policy briefs must be written cogently, concisely, and quickly. Certainly, the ability to write, handle quantitative data, build conceptual models, and argue persuasively are vital. Statistical analysis must be a tool of the trade.

These are all higher-order thinking skills, presumably acquired in college or graduate school. At the March, 2007, State of the College address, President Peter Mercer remarked that employers implore colleges to inculcate three skills among its graduates, roughly translated as:

  1. The ability to speak clearly in public

  2. The ability to commit ideas and information to writing

  3. The ability to think in terms of clear and distinct ideas.

Additional technical skills are strongly recommended. Information technology skills must be mastered, including sophistication with building spreadsheets, facility with data base analysis, and Hypertext Mark-up Languages (HTML, web building). Simulation modeling, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and some computer programming skills will help greatly, although are not required. The more technical, analytical, quantitative skills, the better the analyst. These are tools, means, toward smart, effective policy making -- these skills are not ends in themselves. ^

How Policy Analysts Work

Effective policy analysis must be quick, crisp, and timely. The opportunity to contribute policy analysis depends heavily on timing in the flow of events. The formulation of policy options is usually limited in time. It is hard to sustain an issue on the agenda for an extended period. Issue displacement from the agenda intrudes and the distractions will abbreviate the attention span of even the most committed political decision makers.

Policy analysts must rely on a sound theoretical grasp of an issue, its organizational environment, and its history. They rarely have the opportunity to rigorously test these theories, even when the stakes are high. Lobbyists bent on defending particular interests, often embedded in previous rounds of policy-making, may relentlessly oppose them with their own biased technical analysis. They also know that they can count on a series of public hearings during which their theories and technical analysis will be held to close scrutiny. The analysts must organize and communicate complicated technical analysis honestly, fairly, quickly, and clearly. ^

An Example: Housing and Urban Development on Short Notice

For example, I was once asked to frame an omnibus urban development bill for the staff of Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut. My boss, a nationally respected expert in the field of housing and urban development, told me this on a Friday afternoon, asking that I present a report to him on Sunday evening, which I did. On Monday morning, the analysis went to the Senator's staff and a bill based on the brief was soon drafted. However, the bill failed to get out of committee. Two years later, I sat in an audience to hear a noted economist from MIT refer to that bill as the best piece of urban development legislation he had ever seen. One works fast and draws on acquired expertise when the opportunity is presented on the policy agenda. Success is never guaranteed.

To the proponent of rationality, such messy happenstance cries out to be sanitized. The rough and tumble of partisan politics clashes with the analytical approach to public policy which its advocates thought would provide a path out of the morass of unsavory and mindless politics, the rational-comprehensive model. The rationalist approach to policy planning is depicted as an exhaustive scientific search for options, the articulation of crystal-clear criteria, and the objective application of these criteria to pick the best option available. The rational-comprehensive model depicts analysis as triumphing over politics, a rarity. ^

The Rational-Comprehensive Model

All that would be required to achieve success was for a competent analyst to cleverly ply through several stages at the heart of the classic rational-comprehensive model:

  1. Intelligence: Consists of analysis, empirical data, trends, expert consultation. This is policy research aimed at defining the scope of the problem, examining past policy prescriptions, and identifying alternatives.

  2. Review: Specific alternatives are discussed, explained, modified. Expert testimony and hearings will be part of the process. All interested parties will most likely be heard, some more than others.

  3. Projection: What are the expected impacts? Alleviates the problem? Are impacts felt elsewhere? Who wins and who loses? What will losers do next? What are the side-effects? So what? How do all these impacts add up: Measure costs and benefits.

  4. Selection: After the analyst adds up the goods and the bads associated with each alternative, compare them, and make a recommendation, the essence of the benefit-cost methodology. Elected and appointed officials will then make the final, hopefully well-informed, decision. There are four types of goods and bads: impacts on the goals to be achieved, political impacts largely dependent on the response of winners and losers, direct costs to government, and unintended side-effects, such as environmental impacts. The policy analyst appears to frequently ignore or inadequately anticipate this stage. The policy entrepreneur will not. Yogi Berra had it right: It ain't over 'til it's over.

The President associated with the application of expertise to meet the challenges of a clearly articulated policy goal was John F. Kennedy. Although Kennedy saw few policy successes in his brief term of office, he did capture the imagination of the nation and a great swell of political and budgetary support when he envisioned an American landing on the moon by the end of the decade, the l960s. Amply funded, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) met this challenge with the voyage of the Challenger spacecraft in 1968. John MacNamara, Kennedy's and later Johnson's Secretary of Defense, epitomized the technician in government rationalizing policy processes, thus limiting the scope of politics. MacNamara's legacy included the Viet Nam war, which dealt a severe blow, to the faith in rationality objectively applied by technical experts. Even his certitude in the rational method was broken by the experience of Viet Nam. ^

Limits of the Rational-Comprehensive Model

The rational-comprehensive model is an ideal, rarely achievable in the hurly burly, boisterous activity of the real-world of policy making. The divide between analysis and selection which might appear attractive in theory must be relaxed for real-world applications. Analysis, no matter how keen, must be buttressed by sound judgment, what Aristotle called practical wisdom. This entails the weighing of values regarding consequences, ethical questions, and distributional outcomes.

A seasoned policy analyst commands respect not based solely on the ability to predict some systemic response, but to bring strategic wisdom to bear on the concrete affairs of humans in need within the context of systems of power.

A subtle shift in language accommodates this perspective. The analyst is faced not only with the abstract choice of the best alternative in the sense of cost-effective goal achievement, but optimal in the sense of probability of implementation after the next stage of the policy formulation process has commenced. Inevitably, compromise will be struck or the agenda item will move past formulation into implementation.

We might proceed to the political side of policy formulator by asking a classic question in policy-making: Why is it that our nation can put a man on the moon on schedule, but fail miserably to deal with the intractable problems exhibited by South Central Los Angeles? Put another way, why can we achieve technical success but appear doomed to political failure? ^

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Initialized: October 18, 2002 | Last Update: 05/29/2014