My profession, policy analysis

–I graduated with a master’s in public policy studies from the University of Michigan in the early 1970’s and with a PhD in public policy from the University of California Berkeley toward the later 1980’s. I still self-identify as a practicing policy analyst.

–When I first started out, a debate was between the enlightenment function and the engineering function of knowledge in advancing public policy. What was the better objective: enlightening the assumptions underlying decisonmaking or engineering better policies? Frankly, I don’t remember ever seeing it that way.

What appealed to me from the get-go was policy analysis’s melding of Rationalism and Pragmatism. Rationalism in the normative sense we should try to plan and implement step by step, pragmatism because we are judged by the consequences in doing so.

–One misconception has been the notion that in its early days policy analysis assumed problems were simpler and could be solved by the best and the brightest. That is not how I remember my graduate training.

I had the good fortune to have been a student of and worked with Pat Crecine, the founding director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies (now the University of Michigan’s Ford School) and Aaron Wildavsky, a founder of the now Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Two different people you can’t imagine, but one insisting to his first-generation students that policymaking was complex, while the other was the last person on earth who would say policy implementation was simple.

–Another misconception has been that professionalization would get rid of the blindspots, when in reality a field’s strengths are often its blindspots. I remember a well-known policy academic upbraiding me that the “policy cycle” from policy formulation through policy evaluation/termination was a signal advance over early notions of muddling through and incrementalism. You only need implement something you planned to realize that the cycle’s stage of “implementation” is itself a lethal critique of anything like a formal policy cycle.

–It’s true it’s harder to recapture that sense of policy analysis recasting difficult problems more tractably in the same way that policy analysis originally recast public administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (I remember being excited by Graham Allison talking about his then-novel multiple paradigms for explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis to our undergraduate class.)

But this admission doesn’t go far enough to the wider truth at work since then. One way I think about what has happened to the policy analysis I’ve known over the last half century is to distinguish between (1) the discipline as taught in graduate schools and the profession that policy analysts think they are joining upon graduation and (2) the profession as it is actually practiced at any one time or in any one place and the actual careers that policy analysts have across time and place.

For me, my career–and those of some others–have been a policy optic with which to recast the profession in which I actually work and to recast the problems addressed in real time and over time. Over the course of the careers with which I am familiar, what matters has always been fast-paced or rapidly changing. I’ve never worked with others on a major topic or in an important situation that wasn’t polarized or polarizing .

–I’d like to think the preceding points don’t signal a regret or an end. I promised myself I’d never be one of the WhenWee’s, that tribe who patter on about “how things were better back when.” So chalk up the above less as a valediction and more as an anticipation.

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