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Spring 2007 Vol. 51, Number 1

Policy analysts: Shaping society through research and problemsolving
Sadie Blanchard

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 national defense.

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 relocated.

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 expenses.

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 programs.

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.

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007