A grammar of policy analysis

Graduate students in public policy analysis and management will have come across an idealized sequence for undertaking individual policy analyses: first we define the problem, then we assemble the evidence, then we analyze it, then we specify and evaluate options, then we select a preferred one and make our recommendation. This idealized sequence, or something like it, is cast in the present tense.

My experience is that practicing analysts prefer their idealized sequence to be markedly not in the present tense:

Having completed the analysis, I wrote the memo to recommend changes.

The past gerund indicates a completed analysis, a hope that stands in sharp contrast to real-world policies that seem to be in persisting incompletion—also a very different kind of “present tense” than the one in policy schools. The practicing analyst’s sequence functions to situate analysis within a context that has existed and continues to do so outside the present tense of “we-do-this-and-then-do-that.” It makes explicit—it insists—that “having done the analysis and written our memos” assumes an ongoing outside authority without which there wouldn’t be analysis.

More, the infinitive, “to recommend,” introduces the promise that our memo will be dealt with, albeit outside our control but within a context of which we analysts are part. Indeed, the point of the past gerund/past tense/infinitive formulation is to make clear that, “objectively speaking”, analysts in the present are not to blame for anything like the real-world incompletion all around us.

The point? The gap between the two idealized sequences looks a lot like the gap between the beliefs we say we hold versus the ways we say we practice those beliefs. In neither case need the professed beliefs or practices be the ones we actually hold and undertake. The idealized grammar of policy analysis is like the sundial that marks the sunny hours outside, while we make and take time very much otherwise the second we leave the garden and enter the vestibule.

Principal source

Moretti, F. (2013). The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature. Verso: London and New York

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