Daily Archives: January 12, 2015

How to teach public policy to non-specialists

Write a textbook or find one already written. This isn’t just a self-promoting statement. I partly wrote a textbook because I couldn’t find a way to teach public policy theories without one. Consider your other choices:

  1. A course guide/ syllabus with representative books and articles per topic per class. In most cases, there are no representative texts that will do the job. In the main, scholars write for other scholars. They publish articles with a very specific aim. They don’t have the space to set things out in an accessible way. They don’t say how their work relates to the work of everyone else. So, when you try to recommend a small number of texts, you find that they are too specialist and they provide minimal context. In most chapters of textbooks, you will find an attempt by one scholar to combine all of this mess into one coherent account of a significant part of the literature.
  2. A book that brings together the state of the art in an edited volume. In cases like the excellent Theories of the Policy Process (or other, as good, ‘handbooks’ on policy concepts), often the main authors (or the nearest best thing) try to sum up their work. However, they are still speaking to other scholars. Indeed, in the TOPP series, they now update their progress since the last edition – which is great for me, and other academics, but not great for students with no prior knowledge of the field.
  3. The key book. In some cases, you can point to the book/ article that set the field on fire. A good example is Agendas and Instability by Baumgartner and Jones. I recommend this book highly, and often argue that it remains the best thing they have written (all things considered). However, it is also over 20 years old (or, over 5 years old if you get the 2nd edition with the added chapter at the end) and it does not include much reference to the quantitative and comparative work that they have done since.

So, you need something that students can get into before they get into the harder-to-reach literature; to stop them giving up when they find some initial, not-very-accessible, articles inaccessible; and to encourage them to read further. Even then, policy theory is a tough sell, which partly explains why I am forever seeking ways (such as 1000 words posts, but see also ICPP ‘Policy Approaches’) to make the initial explanation shorter and more straightforward.

This is not a process of dumbing down. Instead, it’s good teaching. It’s an attempt to see the topic through the eyes of someone who has (as yet) done little reading on it, does not have enough knowledge of the wider literature to understand it, and is looking to build on something they understand.

In more general terms, it’s good communication. The same process, to turn something specialist into something readable to non-specialists, is useful when we engage with other audiences:

All of these things require a level of simplicity and clarity that we don’t always find in the specialist journals, no matter how many we read.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

Policy concepts in a tweet


I have been trying to summarise complex policy concepts in 1000 words, to make the study of public policy more accessible to students and people with a general interest. The aim is to condense hundreds of thousands of words into one short description, as a way to get people interested. Of course, you have to grab people’s attention in a tweet first, so I wondered if I could sum up each concept in well under 140 characters. See if you can tell what the topic is before you click. If not, can you think of a better short description?

  1. Policy concepts in a tweet: public policy is about much more than ‘whatever governments choose to do or not do’ http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-gG
  2. Policy concepts in a tweet: How can we measure policy change if we don’t know what policy is? Like this … http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ji
  3. Policy concepts in a tweet: describing policymaking as cycles & stages to show how the policy process does *not* work http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-cB
  4. Policy concepts in a tweet: there is no apolitical way to measure the success and failure of policies http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ga
  5. Policy concepts in a tweet: policymakers have to take shortcuts to make quick decisions with limited information http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-cx
  6. Policy concepts in a tweet: ‘Evidence Based Policy Making’ (EBPM) doesn’t happen, and maybe it shouldn’t http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-dR
  7. Policy concepts in a tweet: policymakers are driven by rules, both formal (e.g. constitutional) and informal (norms) http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-k1
  8. Policy concepts in a tweet: when people don’t cooperate well on their own, can the state intervene and do better? http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-kT
  9. Policy concepts in a tweet: most policy is made by junior civil servants working with bodies such as interest groups http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-jG
  10. Policy concepts in a tweet: long periods of stability & continuity disrupted by short bursts of instability & change http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ak
  11. Policy concepts in a tweet: forming meaningful coalitions with like-minded people to translate beliefs into policies http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-an
  12. Policy Concepts in a tweet: policy won’t change without high attention, feasible solution & the motive to adopt it http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-au
  13. Policy Concepts in a tweet: the ‘policy environment’ constrains some policy solutions and facilitates others http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-ay
  14. Policy Concepts in a tweet: policy seems to ’emerge’ in the absence of government control. Here’s why it happens … http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-aC
  15. Policy Concepts in a tweet: socioeconomic factors may seem impossible to ignore & can be beyond policymakers’ control http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-jM
  16. Policy Concepts in a tweet: is it more effective to distract people, or influence how they think, than win disputes? http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-aP
  17. Policy Concepts a tweet: power is shared across many levels & types of government and with non-governmental bodies http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-bT
  18. Policy Concepts in a tweet: governments import policies from elsewhere without learning why they were successful http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-cK
  19. Policy Concepts in a tweet: ideally we’d want to combine the insights of many policy theories, but we don’t know how http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-aF
  20. Policy Concepts in a tweet: policy comes from the decisions of emotional policymakers with flawed thought processes http://wp.me/p3Ovrd-kF


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Filed under 1000 words, public policy