Public Policy Schools Research Paper

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1. What Is Policy Analysis?

Before describing public policy schools, it is first necessary to describe the field of policy analysis. Although neither academics nor practitioners of policy analysis have been able to agree on a common formal definition, almost all would agree that policy analysis involves the use of formal reasoning to formulate advice for the solution of problems faced by governmental and nonprofit sectors. Of course, political leaders, decision-makers, managers, and administrators have relied on advisors over recorded time. Scholars and practitioners in many fields, particularly in the professions such as law, medicine, public health, social welfare, and urban planning, claim to incorporate policy analysis as part of their task. How then do public policy schools and their graduates differentiate themselves from the mass of advisors? They do so by using formal analytic techniques to make informed guesses about the outcomes of alternative choices, as they would be implemented on the ground in the real world.

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The modern policy analysis movement had its genesis in the United States and has spread very slowly, if at all, to other countries. For that reason, the history of public policy as it evolved into an academic curriculum is a history of the application of policy analysis in the United States.

The staffing effort of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War with the Soviet Union brought the policy analysis movement into existence. Although many historians of the policy analysis movement point to Daniel Lerner and Harold Lasswell’s call for a policy sciences field that would apply reasoned advice to all stages of the policy process (deLeon and Steelman 1999, Lerner and Lasswell 1951), in practice the field developed with the application of what might be called the optimization sciences—particularly microeconomic analysis and the techniques of operations research—to policy choices. These techniques were first used in this way during the Second Word War when the need for war mobilization led to a planned economy significantly replacing the market economy. After the war the new techniques found a home at a newly formed home for defense analysis (the RAND Corporation). Ultimately these techniques, and many defense analysts, found a home in offices or ministers of defense and then diffused throughout government. The analytic offices that were set up became an established source of policy advice using the techniques of benefit-cost analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, operations research, and policy evaluation. These techniques became the heart of the new policy analysis curriculum.

Since the 1970s in the United States, public policy schools have become major centers for graduate education for service in the public and nonprofit sectors in the United States. At many prestigious US universities they have replaced schools and programs of public administration. Their number has grown from under 10 in 1970 to over 60 in 2000. Many existing public administration programs, moreover, have incorporated parts of the public policy curricula, and in some cases have adopted public policy concentrations.

The growth in public policy schools and programs has been associated with the creation of an academic field complete with an association—the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM)—and a journal—the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (JPAM). Of equal if not greater importance has been the spread of the intellectual approach of policy analysis as graduates of policy schools have replaced traditional public administrators in high-level staff positions at the US federal, state, and local governments.

As graduates of policy programs have replaced students of accounting and public administration in various governmental staff agencies—particularly budget offices—the policy analysis movement and approach have been institutionalized within the governmental service. This institutionalization was reinforced by the slow economic growth and resulting budgetary constraints of the 1970s and 1980s which forced decision-makers to continually face tighter constraints and tradeoffs. New institutions, such as the Congressional Budget Office of the US Congress, were largely staffed by those with policy analysis training obtained either in schools of public policy or Ph.D. programs in economics.

These new staff organizations reflected the norms and values of their dominant staff professions—the graduates of economics departments and policy analysis schools and programs. Chief among these was a belief that, all things being equal, markets are the best way to allocate society’s goods and services. That a decision to use other allocation mechanisms was justified only on grounds of equity or rights (the distribution of benefits and costs and/or the existence of some activities that society believed should not be freely exchanged), or when one could show that markets had failed and that governmental intervention would (not could) lead to a more economically efficient allocation than was the case under the failed market. This reliance on markets separated the new policy analysis movement from the traditional planning approach and built within the policy analysis framework a conservative bias when it came to justification of public sector activity.

The centrality of the norms of economics to the new policy analysis movement led to a belief that analysis of policy requires the laying out of the tradeoffs inevitable in the creation and implementation of policy. These tradeoffs are reflected in the centrality of two ideas of economics—opportunity costs and the margin. The policy analyst relies on opportunity cost to inform the decision-maker that no option is free, that one can always use the resources for other activities. The concept of the margin allows the economist or policy analyst to tell the decision-maker what she he can obtain from adding or subtracting one unit of resources. The use of these concepts separates the economist and policy analyst from the political analyst, who often seeks to suppress tradeoffs so as to increase the membership of political coalitions.

A third effect was a conscious attempt to present decision makers with analyses of policy options that make choices concrete by clearly defining problems, setting out possible solutions, and specifying the criteria to be used to judge those solutions so that those decision-makers can evaluate the solutions in a comparative, predictable manner. Although students of policy analysis often wrote about qualitative as well as quantitative indicators, in practice practitioners of the new field found that their comparative advantage vs. other advisors was in the use and presentation of quantitative measures—particularly those in a benefit/cost format.

The reliance on analytic techniques and on policy options separated economists and policy analysts from traditional American public administrators. Since the progressive era and the early academic writings of Woodrow Wilson on public administration (Wilson 1887), students of public administration had operated under the belief that it was possible to separate the creation of policy from its efficient administration. Although by the 1960s most public administrators knew that this dichotomy between politics and policy on the one hand and administration on the other was a myth, much, if not most, of the public administration approach still centered on the efficient running of bureaus and departments. Consequently, to a great extent, the educational core of masters in public administration programs reflected this approach with required courses on the functional skills needed by a line manager—budgeting, organizational behavior, personnel management, and the role of an unelected civil servant in representative government.

2. What Are Public Policy Schools And How Do They Differ From Other Programs?

The first public policy schools and programs were created in the US in the late 1960s. With considerable philanthropic support, 1971 had founded nine schools or programs in the United States. In a pattern that has continued to this day, several existing programs quickly adopted the new approach and curricula of the policy school movement.

The advocates and sponsors of these new schools and programs sought to apply the new optimizing techniques of policy analysis to the problems facing nations in the late 1960s—particularly the problems facing urban areas. At this time it was still widely believed that government could solve social problems if the right policies were found, created, adopted, and implemented. Thus, the initial educational effort sought to support positive public sector activity to solve problems, a view that has much less support today. The creators of the new programs also sought to do for education towards public service what the changes in business administration education had done for business administration in the mid- 1950s—replace a curriculum centered on institutional description and anecdotes with one grounded on analytics.

2.1 Similarities Across The Schools

Although one can point to many differences among the original nine policy schools and programs—one had a heavy emphasis on undergraduate education, a second only offered a Ph.D.—viewed from afar their similarities far outweighed their differences. With the exception of the one that only offered a Ph.D, all focused their graduate education efforts on a Masters degree that was viewed as a terminal professional degree rather than a step toward a doctorate. In most cases they labeled this primary degree the masters in public policy (MPP).

2.2 Concentration On Analytics And Professionalism

The basic analytic public policy core set of courses has remained quite similar since the founding of the nine original schools. It centers on a combination of three yearlong sequences of analytic skill offerings—in economics, quantitative methods, and political and organizational analysis—one or more workshops in which students undertake policy analyses for real, as against hypothetical, clients, and a required summer internship. Some programs also required courses in individual and/or policy ethics. Others required courses in legal analysis. Initially the economics sequence centered on microeconomics, although several of the programs required a microeconomics– macroeconomics sequence. Although centered on courses on descriptive and inferential statistics, many of the initial required curricula also included material drawn from decision analysis, game theory, and operations research.

The political and organizational analysis sequences were included so that students trained in technical skills would also graduate from the programs with the political and managerial skills needed to enact, implement, and administer policies. Of all the required sequences in the policy analysis curriculum, political and organizational analysis has remained the most problematical. From their inception public policy programs rejected the public administration separation of politics from administration. Instead it was assumed that to be an effective analyst one had to be an effective political actor and manager. But unlike economics with its instrumental approach, the academic discipline of political science was largely descriptive and as such was less useful for a professional curriculum. This posed and still poses a great challenge to the public policy faculty charged with the political and managerial core of the policy curriculum. Attempts have been made at a number of institutions to take the findings of political science and public administration research and, through the use of decision forcing case studies, to build a prescriptive and strategic approach to management. Students were challenged to go from answering the descriptive question, ‘What are the political forces or organizational tendencies which affect the kind of policy we can formulate?’ to the more instrumental question, ‘What do I, as analyst or manager, need to do, as I shape my policy prescriptions or implement the chosen policy, to ensure that the political forces and organizational tendencies do not succeed in frustrating or changing desirable policy in undesirable ways?’ (Fleishman 1990, pp. 743–4).

Many observers have felt that this attempt has been only partially successful, however. To overcome this deficiency some scholars have focused on identifying examples of ‘best practice’ that might form the basis of improved political and organizational behavior (Bardach 1994, 2000). Others, criticizing the lack of scientific rigor in this approach, have urged their colleagues to create a body of knowledge in which statements of appropriate political and organizational actions are subject to formal hypothesis testing (Lynn 1994).

The professional nature of public policy programs is reflected in the fact that, unlike the traditional pattern in which professional masters students simply take graduate courses offered by the economics and political science departments, the required policy analysis courses were and are especially designed for a professional program. The goal in most cases is to recast traditional material in a policy centered, problem solving framework and to present the material in an instrumental rather than descriptive manner. As indicated, political science approaches are largely descriptive, and the new programs, therefore, had to take this material and turn it on its head by presenting it in a fashion that would allow future practitioners to use it as a lever to achieve policy and managerial goals— what might be called political and managerial engineering.

One constant across nearly all the original courses was the focus on domestic policy. Over time international material slowly entered the curricula, but this occurred largely through applications of the analytic skills of the curricula (such as benefit cost analysis) to international situations, such as whether a water project should be built in another country. In recent years several policy schools have moved into the area of economic development, but almost all have avoided the traditional subjects of international relations and country analysis.

2.3 Differences Between Public Policy And Public Administration Programs

The new public policy programs sought to replace the existing public administration educational model of public administration. In addition to their focus on analytic skills, the new programs differed from their public administration counterparts in their large required set of core courses, the absence of required concentrations, and the greater number of economists and statisticians on the faculty.

Existing public administration programs had a small set of core required programs (four to five courses) and lasted a year to a year and a half. The new public policy programs were two-year programs with a large number of required core courses (at least a full year’s worth at a minimum and in some cases up to two-thirds of a standard two-year course load). In most cases students were required to take these courses in a set sequence. The average public administration program (MPA) offered many specialties or concentrations (with a mean of five in 1984). (Ellwood 1984). Initially at least, public policy masters (MPP) programs almost totally focused on the analytic techniques taught in their large cores. In 1971, in the United States, the average MPA program faculty member’s doctorate was either in political science or public administration (21 and 20 percent in 1971). Economists represented only 9 percent. In the new public policy schools and programs economists represented a plurality (31 percent in 1971) and in some cases a majority of the faculty with political scientists being the second most represented discipline (23 percent) (Ellwood 1984).

3. Changes And Challenges To Public Policy Schools

Masters programs in public policy currently dominate graduate education for public and nonprofit service in the United States. Graduates from the programs are now found in key decision-making positions throughout government and the nonprofit sector. However, recent developments provide a challenge to the future of the approach and the field.

3.1 The Decline In The Belief That The Public Sector Can Solve Problems

The public policy school initiative was fostered by the belief that better public policies could lead to the solution of public problems—particularly those of the poor and of urban areas. Over the past three decades this belief has attenuated if not disappeared in the United States and elsewhere. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, in the United States government is now seen as the problem, not the solution. Public service itself has become less attractive. The private sector increasingly has come to be seen as the creator and locus of heroes. Private sector remuneration has grown at a far faster pace than public or nonprofit sector pay.

The effect of all these changes has been to draw graduates of public policy programs away from careers in the public and nonprofit sectors toward jobs in the private sector. One recent study found that between 1973 and 1993, in the United States, the percentage of MPP graduates taking jobs in the public sector declined from 76 to 49 percent (Light 1999). At the largest US MPP program this percentage dropped to 28 percent for one year in the late 1990s before rebounding to the mid-40 percent range. This trend poses this question, will policy programs continue to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ as they have over the past three decades?

3.2 The Difficulty Of Management And Leadership Education

As indicated above, from the beginning of the policy school movement it was understood that high technical skill was but a necessary condition for an effective policy analyst. The sufficient condition was the acquisition of political, leadership, and managerial skills. The inclusion of a required sequence of political analysis and management in most programs was meant to impart these skills. But this effort has always been the most problematic endeavor of public policy education. Academics simply know less and have a more difficult time imparting what they know to practitioners in these areas than they do when it comes to technical skills. Moreover, from the beginning, management skills were grafted on to a curriculum focusing on the skills needed by staff analysts. In contrast to masters of business administration (MBA) programs in business schools, where the entire curriculum (or at least the first year of required courses) was seen as management education, policy schools sought to condense courses in accounting, finance, marketing, and operations into one or two required offerings. The result has never been totally satisfying.

3.3 The Tradeoff Between Breadth And Depth

The original public policy curricula focused on imparting the skills that would be needed by policy analysts who, acting as advisors to decision-makers, would create policies that would hopefully solve society’s problems. Over time policy schools have moved away from this narrow focus on the training of staff to a broader focus of training future managers and leaders. Moreover, the initial narrow focus on domestic policy has also broadened. Today the policy schools seek to serve the needs of students with a wide set of career goals. Some want to become elective officials, some political activists, some social activists, some career civil servants, some managers of nonprofit organizations, and some private sector consultants. The percentage seeking careers in technical policy staff positions has become smaller and smaller. As the programs have tried to meet the needs of this increasingly diverse set of students, they have to some extent lost the coherence and depth of the required set of skills that made up the core of their curricula.

As they have tried to serve future elected officials, political activists, public and nonprofit managers, as well as policy analysts, some policy schools have dropped such topics as decision analysis and operations research from their core set of requirements. Others have moved to the creation of tracks or concentrations, with some providing more quantitative, analytic rigor. Some have approved these changes as responding to the needs of a new set of students while others fear that public policy by trying to be relevant to all will lose its distinctive purpose.

3.4 The Intellectual Challenge

Professional education always faces the challenge that it is simply an applied or less rigorous version of the material offered by the traditional academic professions. Frequently this charge is misplaced. The need to apply theory to actual situations often leads to new breakthroughs—sometimes theoretical breakthroughs. Such was the case with the creation of the modern theory of finance in business schools.

It was hoped that implementation theory or principal-agent theory would be the public policy equivalents of the business schools’ finance theory. But this has not occurred. Implementation theory has never got beyond its inductive beginnings and principle-agent theory is limited when applied to the multiple-goal, multiple-agent world of the public sector (Moe 1984). This has meant that public policy education has remained derivative and applied. For the long-term health of the public policy movement within the academy, overcoming this weakness is perhaps the greatest challenge to the field.


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