Sunday, December 8, 2013

More Than One Way to Skin a Policy Cat

Ok, perhaps not the best title, but this op-ed in the Washington Post is going to get a heap of play (already has early on a Sunday morning).  Such as:

Before I go on, I should clarify that I teach at a kind of a policy school--one focused on International Affairs, and not a "Public Policy" school but the basic points in the piece speak to me one way or another.  Plus I live in Canada, which might mean we don't have quite the same challenges ... but we do with a recent proliferation in policy schools including those that focus on International stuff.

First, I do think one basic premise is correct: given the number of graduate students flowing through existing programs, anyone should think a few times and even, dare I say it, do a real market analysis before starting a new graduate program in the 21st century.  Sure, setting up MA producing programs is far better than yet more PhD programs (although the one can lead to the other), but given that governments (federal, state, municipal) have been downsizing, I find it hard to believe there is demand for yet more students with policy degrees.

Second, I don't think the rest of the argument really applies that much.  Talking to Anne-Marie Slaughter might be helpful but not for evaluating if there is too much focus on the international level.  When I was at Texas Tech, I learned that there are heaps of PP/PA programs (public policy, public admin) that do focus on the municipal level.  So, perhaps some stats here would have been handy about the numbers of programs with their different foci and any real trends towards more International programs.

Third, I guess that the authors do not use any numbers is because they think that numbers may not be all that helpful given the middle of the piece.  "The new emphasis on big data is reminiscent of the Progressive idea that if we just gather enough information, the policy conclusions will be obvious to all."  Maybe not, maybe there is a bit of a fetish for big numbers, but perhaps it might be better to actually know what is going on and then figure out if there are good policy solutions than to just guess, right?

Fourth, yes, much policy research is written in ways that are hard to digest, but this entire article ignores the reality that there is something out there that is bridging this gap..... the internet.  Twitter, blogs, facebook, and other internet stuff gives those in these schools a greater ability to sell their arguments in different ways.  Communicating to politicians, interest groups, and voters via social media offsets these other trends at least somewhat.

The irony of this article is that it has as one main source, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a person who has greatly extended her reach and influence via twitter.  Her engagement of all kinds of folks online is a good example of how to connect people to the research produced by those at policy schools.  Dan Drezner (@dandrezner) and Roland Paris (@rolandparis) are excellent examples of people at policy schools engaging way beyond the traditional audiences to communicate their research and the research of others to interested folks.  Monkey Cage is just one prominent example of a group of scholars doing much "translation" of jargon-filled academic pieces into stuff people beyond the academy can read and digest.  Indeed, the authors of this op-ed apparently do not read the Washington Post, where both the Monkey Cage and Max Fisher (who does much of the same stuff as MC but from the perspective of a journalist) reside.  Indeed, for an article about the present and future of policy stuff, it is strange to see that it touches on the internet only once (reference to Obamacare).

Finally, this piece underestimates our products--our students.  We train them to think about implementation, policy evaluation, analysis, new issues, lasting institutions, and all that so that when they get government jobs (my school has an excellent record of placing folks in government ... when it is hiring), they use these tool and this education for the rest of their careers.  This means that we have a lasting impact on policy--not just via folks who read our stuff but via the folks making policy.

I moved to Ottawa for many reasons, but one key element was to be more policy relevant--to write stuff that speaks to policy makers, to train the next generations of policy analysts, and to engage with the policy community.  Thus far, 1.5 years into it, I have no regrets.  Many of my students already have some kind of government gig--co-ops, internships, real jobs.  I am having heaps of interactions with the policy community--I have presented the Dave and Steve book to multiple policy audiences just in the past month--not to mention heaps of beers in the Byward Market.  And when I have these interactions, folks indicate that they have read my stuff.  But my story is just one.  We need to get a few more to have anecdata.

Again, the article does have some value, especially to spur debate and induce people to provide some data (!) to see what the trends really are.  But the reality is that the folks at policy schools are doing their jobs (training, research, disseminating) far better than this article contends.

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