A grammar of policy analysis


Graduate students in public policy analysis and management will have come across an idealized sequence for undertaking a professional policy analysis, e.g., first we define the problem, then assemble the evidence, then analyze it so and so on until we make our recommendation. This idealized sequence, or something like it, is cast in the present tense.

My experience as a practicing analyst is that the idealized sequence of steps is markedly not in the present tense:

Having completed the analysis, I wrote the memo with my recommendations.

The past gerund, “having completed the analysis,” indicates something finished, a hope that stands in marked contrast to real-world policies in their persisting incompletion—also a very different kind of “present tense” than the one in policy schools. The starting gerund also situates more explicitly analysis within an ongoing context without which there wouldn’t be analysis.

The infinitive, “to recommend,” introduces in turn the promise that our memo will be dealt with, albeit beyond our control but within that 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.


So what?

The gap between the two idealized sequences looks a great deal 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.

This double gap between idealized versions themselves and in respect to actual practice is found through policy analysis as I know it. For example, it’s common enough that today’s accounts of policy and management be presented from not just one discipline’s perspective (say, economics), but many—including political science, psychology, organization theory, and more.

Yet what frequently gets missed are the implied hyphens, i.e., “from a socio-politico-economic-cultural-historical-psychological. . .perspective”. How could this matter, you ask?

Consider Polonius in Hamlet: “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. . .”

The hyphens there function as the performative demonstration of Polonius’s long-windedness. Interdisciplinary accounts of policy analysis and management insist that you take their added wordage as anything but long-windedness.

Or another example: “It is obviously a highly complex phenomenon that needs global cooperation as a response as well as a holistic approach because the potential collapses are interrelated” Each word is written as if it were terra firma, resolute, placed there to resist being pushed down. In fact, the sentence offers no such prospect. Each word functions as a cowpat to be stepped into and distract us.


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

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