Methods of Policy Analysis


Units: 12


The course is designed to teach principles and approaches that can help a policy analyst to:

  • determine when a policy problem exists and what is causing it;
  • develop creative alternatives to address the problem;
  • analyze the impacts of alternatives, including consideration of qualitative and political considerations;
  • develop recommendations that can be successfully adopted and implemented in a political environment;
  • present analyses and recommendations in ways that will successfully influence decisions; and
  • resolve ethical dilemmas in conflicting roles. 

The primary “methods” taught are strategies for thinking critically and creatively about public policy problems and solutions and for helping public and private leaders to make good decisions about public policies.  The course will not teach advanced methdoologies in statistics, econometrics, operations research, or financial analysis, but it will focus on ways to quickly and effectively analyze available information (both quantitative and qualitative) with limited resources and time.

During the course, students will learn by doing analyses themselves and by discussing how to analyze problems in class.  Students will examine several different complex policy problems in depth, and they will develop alternative approaches for addressing them, evaluate the impacts of those alternatives, and grapple with the complex and often conflicting considerations involved in making recommendations for action.  The specific policy problems have been selected to expose students to a range of substantive areas (e.g., criminal justice, economic development, education, energy, environmental protection, health, and human services) and to a range of generic types of public policies (e.g., regulations, entitlement programs, incentives, etc.).  

The course will also examine in depth each of the stages in the policy analysis process, beginning with the factors that determine which policy problems will be dealt with by policy-makers, and continuing with some of the principles and pitfalls involved in analyzing problems, developing and analyzing alternatives, and implementing policies and programs in a political environment.  

The topics discussed in class will be limited to U.S. domestic policy issues.  Students will need to have a reasonable degree of familiarity with U.S. federal, state, and local government institutions and programs to understand the class discussions and successfully carry out the assignments.  International students without this level of understanding may experience some difficulty and they will likely need to spend a significant amount of additional time doing background research on the topics in order to understand class discussions and successfully complete the assignments.

Effective written and oral communications are essential skills for a policy analyst.  Consequently, in the assignments in the course, students will be expected to produce well-written memoranda and other materials.  A significant portion of the grade for each assignment will be based on the quality of writing.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. Have an in-depth understanding of several complex policy issues in diverse substantive areas.
  2. Understand the major steps in the policy analysis and development process, including (a) how and when policy issues become important, and (b) how initiatives to address those issues are developed, analyzed, presented, implemented, evaluated, and terminated.
  3. Understand a number of common pitfalls in policy analysis and how to avoid them;
  4. Improve your ability to think critically about policy issues, think creatively and analytically about alternatives for addressing the issues, and think practically about successful implementation of recommended alternatives.
  5. Develop experience in doing both quick turnaround and in-depth policy analyses on complex policy issues.
  6. Improve your skills in effectively communicating policy analyses to decision-makers.
  7. Understand what it is like to work as a policy analyst in a government or civic agency and what techniques can be used to increase your effectiveness in that role.