The model building now proliferates in public policy schools.
Sizable government initiatives in the postwar era created more demand for such institutions, which became “an expression of the Progressive idea that bigger government was better government,” [Pennsylvania's John] DiIulio explains. For example, he says, “no one had ever built an interstate highway system before,” and no one knew how to make the federal government work with state and local governments and for-profit contractors to make it happen. Enter public policy schools.Yes, that sounds a lot like market-failure-warrants-government-intervention, complete with Pareto Optimality conditions and omniscient experts.
The mission of these institutions began to change in the 1970s, when the Ford Foundation issued multimillion-dollar grants to eight universities, including Yale, Duke and the University of Michigan. According to Graham Allison, writing in 2006 in the Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, the new cadre of students needed to be versed in not only “budgetary cost and efficacy” but also “social equity, civil rights, and quality of life.” People who were concerned with intragovernmental relations and American federalism began to seem “old and crusty,” DiIulio says. Now the goals of these schools were to dream up ways to “make the world a better place.”
Lofty goals have often produced research and teaching that is further and further removed from the day-to-day operations of government. While the field is so disparate that “it’s hard to talk about public policy schools as a whole,” Slaughter cautions, she and other school leaders identify certain trends, including a renewed zeal for quantitative analysis. When Georgetown President John J. DeGioia announced his university’s new policy school, he explained that “the availability of massive data to provide new analytic tools have resulted in an invaluable opportunity for our university.” 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.
But policy analysis is only as good as the noisy information with which to test hypotheses.
James Wilburn, dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, worries that too often, “what gets studied depends on whether there is an available database.” He accuses economists at policy schools of being “more interested in their models than in the people” whom public policy will affect.Yes, that's an occupational hazard with economists. Unfortunately, I don't get paid any more for uncovering my own data, let alone sharing it with others, or a bonus for pointing out that "things given" need not be modified by "on a government website." And I've grown weary of applied economics workshops in which dueling specifications are more important than the conclusions. Whether a minimum wage law overcomes monopsony power becomes a struggle over difference-in-difference as opposed to some other estimator, never mind that there's no attempt to calculate the Herfindahl index for employers within the labor market.
So, what should these schools be doing in terms of training and research? DiIulio suggests that maybe it’s time for them to return to their roots, teaching students to focus on implementing policy and making the government we have work better. “These seem like technical, boring matters, [but] someone has to get under the hood,” DiIulio says. For instance, he adds with a laugh, “How do you build an IT system for a new federally financed system of health care?”What, we have to worry about building a computer system for an insurance market? Isn't the law of large numbers and mandatory risk pooling going to reduce everything else to second- or third-order smallness? On the other hand, with grants becoming harder to get and merit money a memory, there might be opportunities for professors to supplement their income, or their pensions, assisting local governments with making sense of the research.
Henry Brady, the dean at the University of California at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, told us in an e-mail that his school has been “quite successful with a real impact on bringing tough-minded economic and analytical methods into government and bringing evidence based research into the formulation of regulations and the appraisal of programs (although politicians often ignore the research).”
That last caveat may prove the most important. [New America Foundation's Anne-Marie] Slaughter notes that the research coming out of public policy schools is “less and less accessible to the lay reader. The jargon has become more and more specialized.” She says she “doesn’t know anyone in government who would read the academic journals that policy school professors get rewarded for publishing in,” and while the “need for translation [for lay readers] is ever greater, the rewards for translation in the academy are ever smaller.” Indeed, she says, “in many departments you will be less valued by your colleagues because you’re no longer doing ‘cutting edge’ research.”
If policymakers ignore policy school research or can’t understand it, what can policy professors and graduates possibly accomplish?