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Policy analysis as a clinical profession

Thinking like a policy analystI just finished reading Dr. Iris Geva-May’s 2005 edited book “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession“. I have always respected the work of Dr. Geva-May, as she is someone I know from my PhD days through Dr. Michael Howlett (perhaps the most prolific and influential scholar of public policy worldwide). Mike is a good friend of mine and has been my mentor since when I started my PhD program at UBC, and we remain close to this day. Dr. Geva-May and Dr. Howlett have been extraordinarily influential in the field of comparative policy analysis (they co-edited the Handbook of Comparative Policy Analysis, one of my favorite reads). Iris is the founding editor of the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis (JCPA, one of the top ranked journals in the field), and Mike is one of the managing editors.

Since comparative public policy is exactly what I do, I am a big fan of Mike and Iris’ work. Thusly, it’s no wonder I always refer to their scholarship in my teaching and research. I began reading “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst” because I am back again teaching public policy theory and practice courses and I wanted to see what was out there that I could use for readings and to improve my teaching. Last semester I taught Public Policy Analysis for the first time at CIDE (I had already taught this course and variants of the same at UBC) and I’m teaching it again this fall. Like I did when I was at UBC, I tried to make my course as pragmatic and practical as possible.

This is because I am interested in teaching my students how to do actual policy analysis instead of just making them write research papers. In my courses (all of them, from those I taught at UBC to those I teach now at CIDE) I have always asked my students to do practical stuff, and the writing output that comes out of these projects are also varied: a 24 hour policy analysis, a case study, policy memoranda, briefing cards, etc. I teach my students how to write policy content.

I’ve been pondering a lot about what skills do we need to teach since we started the Bachelor of Public Policy program at our campus of CIDE (Region Centro), but this reflection began when I was still a faculty member at The University of British Columbia, in their Department of Political Science. I’ve always been keen to teach my students skills that will get them hired. Job markets worry me not so much for me, but for my own students. Every semester that I see a new cohort of students graduate, my inner dialogue always starts with a bit of self-doubt: “Did I do enough to prepare these students to learn? Did I teach them enough skills that they can now go out into the world and sell them to local governments, activists, lobbyists and think tanks?“. I think it IS my duty to teach my students stuff that they will use in their careers or that they can use to advance their own work trajectories.

My good friend Dr. Debora VanNijnatten (Wilfrid Laurier University) recently visited CIDE to give a seminar and do a short research stay, and she also shared a few ideas on practical applications and exercises that we could do at CIDE with our Public Policy undergraduate students, many of which I had already implemented with my UBC students, but I am now keen to do with my CIDE cohorts. That’s where Dr. Geva-May’s book comes handy. This is an edited volume to which many of the brightest minds in policy analysis contributed. It’s an edited volume where the contributors share their ideas about specific teaching methods, writing outputs and analytical exercises. As such, this is not a book to assign to your students, but to your faculty who teach policy analysis.

The main thrust of the book is that you should teach policy analysis as a clinical profession, where you behave like those in the medical field would: you diagnose an illness (a policy problem, in this case), and you find solutions to said problem (policy options). Much like workers in the medical field (and this is one of the key ideas of the book and one I take to heart), policy analysts must make decisions under uncertainty. They have to design policy options under time pressure, faced with resource constraints and political attacks from multiple angles. Geva-May and her book contributors make a very strong case for teaching our students to treat policy analysis like a clinician would do.

I have to admit that I love teaching with case studies (remember, I have an MBA, so I am used to the Harvard-style case study), although in “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst”, Eugene Smolensky makes a convincing case for why he doesn’t teach with case studies (although I side with Leslie Pal who argues that the case study method is a very good technique to teach policy analysis. Weimer and Vining side with Pal in that they see the value of creating the P Case Study (i.e. the policy analysis case study). This is not exactly the same type of case study that you would see in Harvard-style, business school Masters of Business Administration training, but it would focus on specific clinical responses to policy problems. Again, the whole philosophy of seeing policy analysis as a clinical exercise shines through the Weimer and Vining and Pal chapters.

While the entire book is valuable, I found a lot of really interesting insights in several specific chapters. I ran simulations when I taught Environmental Politics and Policy, and I did the same when I taught Global Environmental Politics. So, I was very drawn to Luger’s chapter on supplementing case studies with policy simulations. This semester, I plan to run a simulation of a decision-making process for a municipality, since I have the most friends in local governments (though I also have friends in the Mexican federal cabinet).

Another key and insightful exercise that Debora recommended that I also believe is key for everyone doing policy analysis at the undergraduate, graduate and PhD level is the capstone project, as proposed by Peter DeLeon and Spiros Protopsalis. DeLeon and Protopsalis suggest that students (in their case, Masters’ level students) should tackle real policy problems and use their capstone project beyond a simple graduation requirement and more as an exercise in real-life policy analysis. Dennis Smith outlines the experience of one of the best schools in public affairs, public administration and policy analysis, the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, also known as the NYU/Wagner School.

While the book is mostly on pedagogy, Beryl Radin’s chapter on the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and how you can analyze policy goals through the policy process, and Peter May’s chapter on policy maps and political feasibility are good chapters to assign to your students if you want to simultaneously teach the techniques and have them see through the technique to understand the underlying pedagogy. I will give these chapters a second read, because I might actually assign them in my Public Policy Analysis course.

I already had a pretty solid syllabus for Public Policy Analysis, but reading Iris Geva-May and her collaborators has made me rethink what I want to teach in the class and the pedagogical techniques that I was planning to use. “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst” made me feel particularly drawn to experimentation with several techniques I had used before but I had left behind when I started teaching at CIDE. This happened because I wasn’t teaching public policy courses per se, but more area studies (e.g. Regional Development, and State & Local Government). But now that I am back teaching core public policy courses, I am also back to thinking more deeply about these issues, and I’m grateful to Dr. Iris Geva-May for assembling “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst”. It really will be very helpful not only for my own teaching but as we discuss the future of the Bachelor of Public Policy Program at CIDE, and even the Masters in Public Policy and Management and the Doctor of Philosophy in Public Policy programmes.

Posted in academia, policy analysis, policy instruments, public policy theories, teaching.

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