Policy Analysis in Practice


Units: 12


Successful policy analysis in real-world settings is far more than being able to analyze data, run regressions, use optimization models, or identify market failures.  It involves:

  • anticipating issues that may need analysis;
  • determining when a problem exists that warrants government action;
  • determining what is causing a problem and what other factors affect it;
  • developing creative alternatives to address the problem;
  • analyzing the impacts of alternatives on different political interests, both quantitatively and qualitatively;
  • assessing the uncertainties in impact estimates;
  • defining and prioritizing the goals to be achieved in making policy decisions;
  • comparing alternatives in order to support decisions that can be successfully adopted and implemented in a political environment;
  • communicating the results of analyses and recommendations in ways that will successfully influence policy decisions; and
  • resolving ethical dilemmas policy analysts can face in carrying out their work. 

The course is designed to teach you how to carry out all of these tasks successfully.  You will learn a systematic multi-step process for conducting policy analyses on realistic policy problems.  You will gain experience in applying that process to a variety of different policy problems through both class discussions and assignments.  The examples used will primarily be based on real-world cases, with all the complexity that implies.  The course will also improve your understanding of how public policies are actually developed, analyzed, and implemented in the real world, and it will show you how the work that policy analysts do can help to improve this process and lead to more effective policies and programs. 

The focus of the course will be on how to analyze new policy problems and issues, not how to evaluate existing or past programs.  Although we will review the results of some policies and programs that have been developed in the past, the primary goal of that will be to apply lessons from those experiences in analyzing new problems and developing policies to address them.

Statistics, econometrics, operations research, financial analysis, and other sophisticated analytical tools are taught in depth in many other courses at the Heinz College and elsewhere at Carnegie Mellon, and you will not learn more of these types of methodologies in this course.  Instead, this course should complement those other courses by helping you understand when and how to apply analytic methodologies effectively in addressing real world problems.  In addition, the course will demonstrate approaches to analysis that can be used when data or time are insufficient to allow use of complex methods, as is often the case in many policy analysis roles. 

Learning Outcomes

If you successfully complete this course, you will:

  1. Understand the key steps needed to analyze complex policy problems and to help public officials make decisions about public policies.
  2. Gain experience in carrying out each of those steps in order to analyze real-world problems in a wide range of different policy areas. 
  3. Understand how and when policy problems gain the attention of policy-makers.
  4. Understand many of the common pitfalls in policy analysis and how to avoid them.
  5. Improve your ability to think critically about policy problems, develop creative alternatives for addressing problems, identify the advantages and disadvantages of policy alternatives, and anticipate what is necessary for successful implementation of policies.
  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.

Prerequisites Description

This course is designed for students in the Master of Science in Public Policy and Management program who have skills equivalent to what is taught in the School’s core courses in economic analysis, statistical methods, management science, financial analysis, organizational design, policy and politics, and professional writing.  In addition, an understanding of American government institutions and programs will be necessary in order for a student to participate effectively in the class discussions and to successfully complete the assignments.