By Peter John (@peterjohn10), University College London

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In the UK, we are at the start of the university term, and the new cohort of students has just arrived. Last week was their induction; this week the students receive their first lectures. I am teaching an introduction to public policy course for our master’s students, a module called Theories and Actors in the Policy Process, this year along with my colleague, Albert Weale. We introduce the main theories and approaches in public policy and illustrate them with cases and examples.  I imagine it is not that different to many other courses across the world. It is important to get this course right, partly for pedagogic reasons in that it is a gateway to other courses we offer, and also because many of our students have backgrounds other than public policy, even if they did politics as their first degree. Also, many did arts or science subjects beforehand, and of course some have spent time out of university in the outside work of actual policy-making. Most of all, it is a course that should make students enthusiastic about their subject, especially after the first lecture.  So there is a high level of expectation riding on this event—how can a lecturer successfully meet it?

As exciting and interesting as I find public policy, it is an enormous subject, and some of the introductory writing might seem a bit old to today’s students, some of it written in the 1950s. I even wrote a paper this year saying there was not much theory going on in public policy studies at the moment, and that public policy lacks strong, testable models. Do I doubt like the classic Church of England vicar who loves the ceremonies but does not really believe?  Actually, doubts aside, I am passionate about the study of public policy. I think it is an essential subject to study, as it offers understanding the key features of our society today and shows how our welfare depends on political choices.  Scholars of public policy seek answers to fundamental questions: how do we arrive at decisions to provide public goods and services, how effective are policy-makers at doing their job, what is the role of values in shaping policy decisions, is the public world corrupted by private interests, how can we get more efficiently-run public services, and how does the design of institutions affect collective welfare?  In seeking answers to these questions, public policy offers an integrated account of the modern political system rather than chopping it up into different elements of voting, representation, legislative bargaining, local interests and so on. Public policy is able to encompass all that and make general statements about how political systems produce concrete actions that affect how citizens live their lives. In this way we are addressing the key problems of society today and we seek to understand how actors in the political process deal with them. By implication, we offer an understanding of possible solutions to public problems, such as the environment, terrorism, crime or unemployment.  An introductory lecture in public policy should convey this sense of the importance and the challenge of understanding it.  This is not that far away from what we are doing at the Journal of Public Policy, seeking to publish work that tries to answer the big questions.  And of course in order to answer them, researchers need state of the art methods, something I hope the students will start to understand too.  So I am very much hoping the lecture goes well and achieves what I intend it to.  If the students have high expectations about this lecture, then so does their lecturer.

One thought on “Giving That Introductory Lecture in Public Policy

  1. Postscript from the author: last night, I gave the lecture to a packed audience, and hard to say how well it went. But the night before I managed to break my foot, so gave the lecture with my plaster in full view. As I said to the students, I was making an obvious play for the sympathy vote so I could have read out the London telephone directory if had wanted to and they would have still liked it!

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