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

3 responses to “How to teach public policy to non-specialists

  1. Sheryl Foster

    I just stumbled across your blog and your text book. I teach policy analysis to non-specialists. It is too bad we don’t have a book like yours geared to the US system. It looks like you make the concepts very accessible. I will have to continue to visit your blog.

  2. Michelle

    Do you have any textbook suggestions for public policy in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian settings, or where they are the appearance of democratic processes and mechanisms, but constant coups and tearing up of constitutions making for chronic instability?

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