How To Study Public Policy?


No single academic discipline owns public policy. As a field of study, its roots can be traced to the historical investigation of the political institutions that were engaged in making policy: the Presidency, Congress, and hopefully less so, the courts (especially the Supreme Court) and the sprawling federal bureaucracy.

Before the field of public policy assumed an identity within political science, public policy was studied through the legislative history of specific case studies. This traditional approach focused on the legal authority, procedural rules, and functional activities of the three branches of American government. The legislative history method left little legacy. The traditional approach accumulated discrete case studies but no body of theory or even a comparative perspective.

Most contemporary textbooks in the field of public policy reflect this legacy. Typically, such textbooks offer a brief but general introduction (typically around 20 pages), then launch into chapter-length discussions of some of the major substantive areas of public policy: the economy, the environment, agriculture, international trade, crime, health, taxation, foreign affairs, national defense, energy, social welfare, education, social and legal equality, civil rights, intergovernmental relations, consumer protection, business regulation, and so on. The list varies but no clear rationale dictates the choice of topic. Professors who ask students to purchase these (expensive) texts pick and choose among the (ephemeral) topics according to their interests and training. The textbooks need to be constantly updated.

Case by case descriptions provide, at best, a rich tapestry but they offer neither a set of general statements about policy making nor a framework of analysis. The specifics change annually, particularly with a new presidential administration. The textbooks must be upgraded frequently, a daunting task. Books go out of print within a few years.

Politics and Economics

The academic world reinforces specialization among scholars within the narrowed department-based academic division of labor. Public policy does not fit neatly into this organizational structure. No academic field "owns" public policy, which discourages commitment. Yet, few inside higher education or outside in the "real world" would deny the importance of public policy.

Further, scholars themselves rarely participate actively in the rough and tumble of politics and policy advocacy. They look at the policy process from the sidelines, and much will simply not reveal itself from a distance. There is no laboratory and the process does not lend itself to quantitative methods of analysis, the particular skill acquired by many researchers. So, public policy is a bad fit for the academic context.

Let's examine the background of analysts and practitioners.

The Field of Public Policy

Is there then a field of public policy or policy analysis? If so, what is its foundation? Sadly, there is no definitive answer. Consider the following statement by an acknowledged master of the art of policy analysis, Aaron Wildavsky:

The technical base of policy analysis is weak. In part its limitations are those of social science: innumerable discrete propositions, of varying validity and uncertain applicability, occasionally touching but not necessarily related, like beads on a string. Its strengths lie in the ability to make a little knowledge go a long way but combining an understanding of the constraints of the situation with the ability to explore the environment constructively. unlike social science, however, policy analysis must be prescriptive, arguments about correct Policy, which deal with the future, cannot help but be willful and therefore political.

Wildavsky founded a Ph.D. program in public policy at a highly respected university, the University of California at Berkeley. Presumably there is something in the field to study, even if its specific methodologies remain elusive.

What is hard to dispute is that the field of study is important, for public policy itself is important. Recall the introduction to this chapter which explained the scope and breadth of public policy.

Over the last two decades or so, political scientists have offered a more systematic approach to the subject, the policy process, or, as we will use here, the public policy cycle, the title to this web site. Let's take a look at that.

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork |
Initialized: June 16, 2001 | Last Update: 05/29/2014