Policy analysis in global affairs: What should my students read?

Policy analysis in global affairs: What should my students read?

Today, I’d like to try a bit of crowd-sourcing. Specifically, I’d like to ask readers of this blog for some help with one of my courses. The course is a graduate-level survey of international and global affairs, designed for public policy students concentrating in that area. One of the components I’m adding this year is a session explicitly focused on the topic of "policy analysis in international and global affairs." By "policy analysis," I mean the method (or for some, the art) of analyzing concrete policy problems and deciding which policy options will best achieve some intended goal.

Here’s the problem. There is an extensive literature on policy analysis, including well-known works by Eugene Bardach, Michael Munger, John Kingdon, Edith Stokey and Richard Zeckhauser, Deborah Stone, and many others. Yet the bulk of these works focus on domestic policy analysis (i.e., on the analysis of problems that policy analysts face in purely domestic contexts). So far, I have yet to discover any serious work explaining how to do policy analysis in the realm of foreign policy or international and global affairs.

There is a large literature on the analysis of military budgets and defense management–dating back to the heyday of "systems analysis" in the Pentagon-but this literature views these problems as essentially a domestic issue (e.g., the choices decision-makers make between guns vs. butter, or between Weapon System #1 vs. Weapon System #2, etc.). There are also works like Wolfgang Reinecke’s Global Public Policy, but this book is an extended argument for why we need to situate policymaking at the global rather than national level. It is not a primer explaining how one actually performs the analysis of a concrete global policy issue.

I’m not saying that such works do not exist; I just haven’t been able to find them. And assuming that there aren’t any/many, it’s interesting to speculate on why that is the case. I think it is partly because scholars in international relations have tended to focus on grand theory (realism, liberalism, constructivism, etc.), or on trying to identify recurring laws or tendencies between states or other groups. In short, they are mostly engaged in a positivist search for regularities, and trying to devise theories that explain them). In other words, most scholars stand apart from the policy process and treat international affairs as something to be studied from a safe distance, much as a biologist might study animals in the wild. There’s just not that much interest in the academy in giving students practical advice on how to solve problems, and it’s not clear that most academics would have much to contribute even if they were interested. With the exception of some important work on environmental issues (which tend to be global in scope), that task has been mostly addressed by scholars of public management or public administration, not IR.

Similarly, the field of "foreign policy analysis" tends to focus on explaining why governments make the foreign policy decisions that they do, and not on developing methods or techniques for analyzing different foreign policy options. So this literature investigates how regime type, bureaucratic politics, interest groups, social and individual psychology and any number of other "independent variables" influence government decisions. In other words, the subfield of "foreign policy analysis" does not tell you how to analyze a concrete policy problem or compare the merits of alternative policy choices.

For whatever reason, scholars working in the broad area of international and global affairs have not devoted much attention to helping would-be policy analysts learn how to do the jobs that most of them will eventually occupy. Instead, I suspect graduates of leading public policy schools end up learning this on-the-job.

One might ask: why can’t we just take the existing literature on "policy analysis" and apply it to foreign policy? I think students can get some useful insights from that literature, and that some of the specific analytic techniques developed there (such as cost-benefit analysis) are clearly germane and valuable. But there are some key differences between the situation facing a domestic policy analyst and someone addressing an international or global problem. In general, policy analysts working on domestic issues are dealing with situations where there is clear legal authority and where politics, though never absent, is less salient. If your job is figuring out how to cut costs for an urban bus system, decide how to accommodate increased enrollment in a local public school, or come up with proposal to improving health care improve, etc., the main task is to identify the goals, figure out the alternatives, identify the likely results of different choices, and eventually decide which alternative will best accomplish the intended goal. Once the decision is reached, legitimate authority to implement it presumably exists (although one may also have to develop a strategy for building sufficient political support).

In global affairs, by contrast, the rule of law is far weaker and there are often competing power centers with very different interests. Strategic interactions loom much larger, and the success of a given policy choice often depends not just on the intrinsic merits of the specific initiative but on how other key actors will respond to it. (Among other things, this is why simple game theoretic models are often useful for analyzing certain international policy problems). To the extent that the issues are truly global, the correct policy choice depends far more on bargaining, persuasion, in some cases coercion, and on developing solutions that either elicit others’ voluntary compliance or achieve the objective in the face of opposition. Such features are not entirely absent in domestic policy discussions, but they play a larger role in interactions between states, corporations, and non-state actors operating in the anarchic world of international politics.

Whatever the reason, there seems to be a large and regrettable gap in the existing literature. Note to potential authors: we need a good book or article that gives students a useful guide to performing policy analysis in international and global affairs.

Unless, of course, such a work already exists. So here’s your chance to shape what my students read next term: is there anything good to read about global policy analysis? Anybody got any good suggestions?