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Spring 2007 Vol. 51, Number 1

Policy analysts: Shaping society through research and problemsolving
Sadie Blanchard


The research agenda

The type of research that policy analysts do depends on where they work. The mission of think tanks and associations sets the agenda for analysts who work there. For those working in government, research topics depend on the needs of the government agency.

At smaller, more specialized think tanks, analysts must be experts in their organizationís niche. Larger think tanks may also hire policy analysts to specialize in a particular area, but they might have generalists on staff who research multiple areas.

Many think tanks try to avoid an ideological bias, but others promote specific social agendas or political philosophies. Usually, analysts who work for an organization with a particular viewpoint share that view.

Policy analysts often take the initiative when deciding what to work on. They might come up with topics on their own, or they might meet in groups to generate proposals. Wilkinson, for example, chooses his work by looking for gaps in researchóissues that are important but that have not been covered.

In some organizations, analysts are constrained to topics for which they can find funding. A client or a donor might also suggest topics.

Once a researcher has an idea, he or she writes a policy proposal and submits it to a program leader for approval to undertake the project. Decisions about what to study are often driven by media and legislative interest, but that doesnít mean policy analysts pursue every current topic. Topics must be important to an organization or government program.

Policy analysts in government work on either broad or specialized issues, depending on their agency and position. These analysts must react to proposed changes in law, regulations, and policies. They also must respond to inquiries by government officials and the public.

Money matters

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not classify policy analysts as a separate occupation and, therefore, does not have data on their employment or earnings. Depending on their research specialty, workers who analyze policy might be counted as political scientists, economists, sociologists, lawyers, urban and regional planners, or natural scientists, among other titles.

Workers who analyze policy for the Federal Government usually need significant expertise and experience. Many are at the GS-15 level, which currently pays about $93,000 to $145,000, depending on experience. Some people also work as lower-level Government analysts, helping more experienced workers or focusing on small projects. These workers, who usually have at least a masterís degree, often begin at the GS-7 level, which currently pays about $31,740.

Salaries for policy analysts vary widely at think tanks and other private organizations. Analystsí earnings depend on factors such as worker qualifications and the organizationís size and budget. Earnings also depend on how the organization gets its money. Think tanks may be funded by endowments, individual and corporate contributions, contracts with public or private organizations, and grants from government agencies, universities, or foundations.

At think tanks that do not have fundraising departments or large endowments, analysts are often responsible for obtaining funding. "You have to be a combination of researcher and entrepreneur," says think-tank analyst Tom LaTourette. "You have to be enterprising in coming up with new initiatives and finding funding."

In search of funding, think-tank analysts often write grant proposals and negotiate contracts with government agencies and private organizations. Analysts first need to identify the issues that will be important to specific donors and clients, and then identify which donors and clients might be willing to offer funds. Finally, analysts must pitch their ideas to secure the funding.

Government analysts usually do not need to search for funding, although they may still need to write proposals about what they want to research and why.

Some policy analysts are hired as consultants by other organizations, including Federal agencies, State and local governments, and corporations. In such arrangements, analysts are paid to evaluate the hiring organizationís performance, identify strengths and weaknesses, and recommend changes or to help the organization make or analyze decisions about policy and procedures.

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007