Friday, April 24, 2009

Serving Intelligent Public Policy

Former colleague Bill Galston in US News on an education in public policy and career in public service:
Because so much is up for grabs, it is hard to imagine a more exciting time to undertake a career in public service. Whether the issue is long-term fiscal policy, financial regulation, healthcare, terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, or international development, old approaches lie shattered like windows after an earthquake. We have no idea what will happen during the next generation, but today's students of public policy will help invent a new world...

Here, as with much else, good intentions are not enough. The course of study that prepares students for careers in public policy is very different from the curricula at economics departments or law schools, but just as demanding. The analysis of public policy is inherently interdisciplinary, and students must achieve competence in analytical methods ranging from economics and statistics to political science and even applied moral philosophy... And because good writing is an increasingly rare skill, public policy schools must reinforce it. While students may not enjoy it when professors point out flaws in their written presentations, this criticism sensitizes aspiring public servants to the importance of clarity and concision...

Most people who teach in schools of public policy understand that public service is closer to an art than a science. Specifying optimal policies in ideal circumstances is one thing, choosing among second- and third-best policies in the real world quite another. Statistical significance is one thing, significant change in public policy quite another, a gap that only developed judgment can fill.

In the end, public service is a moral calling. Good public servants have the courage to speak the truth as they see it—and the humility to recognize the limits of their understanding. These virtues are not innate; they must be acquired over time. Academic economists often do their best work when they are young; public servants tend to peak much later in life. For most of them, as for the rest of us, it takes the memory of suppressing one's best thoughts for fear of offending those who outrank us to stiffen our spine later on; and only the experience of confidently recommending a course of action that generates bad results can sensitize us to the possibility that we might be mistaken.

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