Expert Advice for Policy Choice: Analysis & Discourse

Article excerpt

Policy studies has been one of the most dynamic parts of the social sciences over the past several decades. There has been substantial growth in the literature, the number of courses, the number of professionals who identify themselves with the field, and, arguably, in the impact on public sector policy and programs. The policy studies field is an eclectic one, claimed by public administrators, political scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, educators, environmental scientists, and many others.

The policy studies enterprise, which I define here to include both "policy analysis" and "program evaluation," (more about this later) has struggled with its identity and with its image of itself. Ever self-critical, the field is as willing to hold up its failures as it is its successes. The assessment of the field in these books (as well as others) raises a number of issues: Does the field have an adequate and appropriate impact on decision making? Does it have credibility with both the academic community and policy decision makers? Is it overly vulnerable to political pressure? Or, alternately, unresponsive to decision maker needs? Does the policy studies field enhance the democratic process or undermine it? Can the field usefully address normative issues? Does it have adequate methodological power to answer key questions? Is it focusing on the key questions? Is the field appropriately organized and integrated or is it just a hodge-podge of sub-fields in the social sciences? How effectively do we convey the knowledge and skill in the field to new practitioners and students?

In any field of study or practice (and public policy is both study and practice) it is desirable to have a sense of progress, a perception that the field is moving forward. Are we making progress in policy studies? To answer the progress question though, we need ways to gauge positive movement. These books provide clues about what it would mean to achieve progress in policy studies--partly by the criticism they make of the current state of the field, partly by the recommendations the books contain about what should be done, and partly from inferences which may be drawn from them.

First, progress requires an effective way to incorporate values into the policy studies enterprise. To paraphrase Fischer in Evaluating Public Policy, the field needs not just to determine whether a goal has been achieved, but also whether the goal is worth pursuing in the first place. How to treat values has been a sticking point in policy studies and the social sciences generally for some time.

Second, progress requires an improved process of deliberation and policy decision making. A key subpart is that the relationship between analysts and decision makers be improved. Policy studies typically are intended for "use." A good deal of discussion and inquiry over the years has focused on the extent to which policy studies are in fact used and the impact they do or do not have on decisions. While studies may make a contribution through enlightenment rather than instrumental use, a direct contribution to the deliberations of real decision makers remains the ideal. Decision makers in this case means not only those in "authorized" positions such as legislators and administrators, but citizens and policy recipients as well. Just how policy analysts should relate to policy participants is yet to be agreed upon.

Third, progress in policy studies requires an improved linkage among a variety of fields and areas of study and practice. The linkages need to connect not only traditional disciplines like political science and economics, but also sub-areas under the policy studies umbrella like policy analysis, evaluation, auditing, performance measurement, and others. Linkages also should occur across content areas, e.g. learning from experience and analysis in health policy should assist in educational policy, and vice versa. The assertion that policy studies should be multi- or inter-disciplinary is longstanding, but how to achieve it in practice is still a concern. …