When Will Wilkinson decided to major
in philosophy, his father wondered about the usefulness of
the degree. "My dad asked if I was going to work in a
philosophy factory," says Wilkinson. "And now, I
guess I do."
Wilkinson is a policy analyst for a think
tank in Washington, D.C. As his anecdote suggests, think
tanks are, in a sense, idea factories. They employ policy
analysts to research complex problems and recommend
solutions. Issues range from education to healthcare to
In fact, the ideas for many current laws
and policies originated with policy analysts in think
tanks and other private organizations. Policy analysts—also
called researchers, scholars, and fellows—work to raise
public awareness of social issues, such as crime
prevention, access to healthcare, and protection of the
environment. And in the solutions they propose, these
policy analysts hope to influence government action.
Policy analysts who work for governments
create policy and evaluate program effectiveness; some
help to decide which private organizations should be
awarded publicly funded grants. For example, policy
analysts might suggest ideas for a county recycling plan,
report on how well a State project met its objectives, or
propose funds for relief organizations to aid rebuilding
after a natural disaster. Analysts in government provide
decisionmakers with data and hypotheses about the effects
of different policies.
Keep reading to find out more about policy
analysts’ work. For the purpose of this article, policy
analysts are defined as workers who concentrate on
researching, evaluating, and shaping public policy. You’ll
learn what they do, how their research agenda is
determined, what they earn, and how they train for these
careers. You’ll also learn where to get more information
about opportunities in this occupation.
How they shape policy
Policy analysts work to influence
political and social decisions. Although their tasks vary,
most policy analysts work in one or more of four areas:
collecting information, analyzing potential policies and
making recommendations, evaluating the outcomes of
existing policies, and sharing information with the public
and government officials.
Some analysts also evaluate policy
philosophically. They critique the principles behind
policies and describe the values that they believe should
drive policy decisions.
Collecting and compiling information. Policy
analysts gather information, especially statistical data,
to help explore issues and explain the solutions they
propose. When used correctly, statistics can identify
hidden problems and reveal the effectiveness or
ineffectiveness of policies. Policy analysts gather new
statistics by conducting their own surveys, or they
compile existing statistics into an analysis that conveys
a new meaning.
For example, one think-tank policy analyst
collected data and calculated how many low-income parents
were aware of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The
calculation allowed her to determine whether parents were
benefitting from this program.
Analyzing effects and recommending
policies. Policy analysts identify current or
impending problems, create solutions, and evaluate other
proposed solutions. Once a problem is recognized,
researchers might attempt to determine its causes. They
may then analyze how various policy ideas and proposals
could affect the problem and suggest solutions. After
riots in Paris in 2005, for example, the Council on
Foreign Relations published an analysis that attempted to
explain the riots’ underlying social causes. The council
then recommended ways in which the French Government could
address these problems.
Identifying causes and solutions is
difficult, however. Social and political problems usually
have many interrelated causes that are hard to isolate,
and the actual effects of policies often differ from their
intended results. Policy analysts use surveys,
cost-benefit analysis, focus groups, and other tools to
gauge potential policy outcomes.
Sometimes, policy analysts study the effects of new
technology. Analysts at the U.S. Federal Communications
Commission, for example, study telecommunications
technology and market conditions. They might propose
changes to existing regulations in response to a new
technology, or they might identify benefits and drawbacks
to a proposed change in telecommunications rules.
Evaluating outcomes. Often,
analysts try to evaluate results by determining whether an
existing policy has been effective. They might begin by
asking whether the policy achieved its goal. Again, they
might use statistics to answer this question. They also
might use focus groups or try to identify any unintended
consequences, as when analysts at the National Bureau of
Economic Research studied whether a policy aimed at moving
low-income families to middle-class neighborhoods affected
the academic performance of children whose families had
Policy analysts might also address a
policy’s cost. They might ask if a program has cost more
than expected and if its benefits have outweighed
The goal in these evaluations is to see
how to improve a policy—or, perhaps, whether it should
be expanded or scrapped.
Sharing information. To share
their ideas and change public policy, think-tank analysts
market their information to a wide audience that includes
policymakers, the media, academia, and the public. Policy
analysts write books, papers, briefs, and fact sheets.
Some create electronic newsletters and send them to
members of Congress to update them on subjects discussed
on Capitol Hill. To cover some topics, analysts write
issue guides that provide facts, answers to common
questions, graphs, and links to relevant publications.
Others write editorials for newspapers and magazines. In
addition, writing for Web sites and Web logs, or blogs, is
becoming increasingly widespread.
Analysts also write reports and speeches.
Many give oral briefings that summarize their findings.
And analysts working for either private institutions or
government agencies are sometimes asked to testify before
Congress, advise Government officials, speak at
conferences, or appear as experts on television news
Philosophizing. Some analysts debate the moral
dimensions of the law. Exploring moral questions underlies
many endeavors of policy analysts. For example, policy
analysts must make a value judgment to define what is
"good" before they can determine whether a
policy has led to a good outcome. Ethics are sometimes the
crux of the debate. Policy analysts whose education or
interest is in ethics or philosophy often focus on these
philosophical dimensions of policy debates.
Download the PDF
(508K) of the entire article.