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13- Policy Analyst

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Roles Within a Think Tank

13. Policy Analyst

Joe Coletti, Director of Health and Fiscal Policy Studies, John Locke Foundation



The policy analyst makes a think tank a think tank. Without the analyst, the organization could be a 501(c)3 blog, newspaper, event producer, or political group. It would not, however, be a policy research institute. Policy analysis and recommendations are the essence of a think tank.


Policy analysts work on their own or in a team to track national trends, academic research, political currents, and the arcane details of laws and regulations. This also includes following the money and understanding what the budgeted funds buy. Determining the effectiveness of government programs can require another level of investigation. Some analysts undertake this themselves, while others wait for government agencies or academic researchers to do this.


The main focus for a policy analyst is crafting policy papers that critique current policy proposals, examine existing policies, and offer alternatives. In many think tanks, however, the policy analyst is in charge of marketing his or her ideas in other formats. This may involve scheduling events, bringing in speakers, being interviewed by media, writing opinion pieces for newspapers, writing in national publications, answering questions from legislators and staff, and speaking to activist or community groups.


At times, the policy analyst may also testify before elected bodies—town councils, county commissions, school boards, or legislative committees. In these situations, the analyst is expected to serve as an outside expert, though the degree of formality can differ based on the speaker and the audience. In general, some written version of the comments, whether the presentation used or a planned speech, is useful to complement the talk itself.


Part of the job each day is reading news, journals, blogs, and policy reports from other organizations. At many think tanks, the analyst will also be expected to turn this information into blog posts to share insights or links to previous publications and outside sources. A growing number of analysts and think tanks also post their comments on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or use to track and share relevant links.


A final aspect of the job is fundraising. Every person who works at a think tank is responsible for developing the resources that will help the organization continue its work. Sometimes, this role is explicit and the policy analyst is given a budget and a fundraising target. Organizational culture and the analyst’s own strengths and weaknesses more often will determine what role, if any, the analyst has in this process.


That is a summary of what policy analysts do. Summarizing what it takes to be a policy analyst is a bit trickier. Besides having an interest in policy and supporting free-market principles, there are not many similarities among policy analysts. Regardless, here are a few common qualities that help policy analysts excel.




The ability to think critically about policy is important. Good policy analysis requires deciphering government budgets and financial statements, which differ in significant ways from similar documents in the private sector.




Once you have deciphered where the dollars come from and where they go, you still need to understand what effect they have. Because governments often measure programs by inputs instead of outputs, a policy analyst has to be able to understand specialist literature in legal or academic journals.




In most policy areas, the analyst will also need to be proficient in interpreting data sources and working with them in spreadsheets to perform calculations and create new tables or graphs. Visual representation of data is becoming a very important explanatory tool, in print and especially online.




The most common way to communicate ideas is with words. Whether that is 140 characters on Twitter, a wall post on Facebook, a status update on LinkedIn, an op-ed, a research paper, or a book, the policy analyst needs to be able to write. Writing with style, humor, and precision are helpful, but it is important to know the audience and the format. Humor does not always translate, nor is it always appropriate. Translating complex topics and months of research into something others can understand takes effort and talent. Some of us rely more on effort, but it is essential to have a working knowledge of the English language as a starting point.




Public speaking generally requires less precision with the rules of English than writing does. Speaking does, however, require more comfort with the subject, more knowledge of the audience, and greater ability to translate thoughts into words quickly.




Legislation can gain momentum overnight. Unexpected events can change the dynamics of a debate. Even ideas that languished for a century and seemed dead can come back like another Freddie Krueger movie. Policy analysts have to be able to switch gears, adapt their priorities, and respond, especially during the legislative session.


Time Management


With so many changing demands on the policy analyst’s time, a valuable skill is the ability to manage one’s day without a lot of supervision. Know what is important. Know what can be delayed. Know how long it takes to write 250 words. Plan for the unexpected, and keep track of deadlines.


Political Sense


It is important to understand what will work politically. This does not mean the policy analyst will only write or recommend what is politically viable, but it is important to know which recommendations will not go far. Sometimes, allies can be found in unexpected places if a policy is phrased the right way at the right time. Other times, the best policy idea peddled in overly adversarial terms can alienate natural supporters. Public choice theory is a good foundation for developing political sense.




One way to defuse a bad situation or disarm critics is with humor. Laughter and smiles make people more willing to accept challenging ideas. It breaks down their defenses. As defenders of liberty and promoters of small government, policy analysts in the movement are going to experience more defeats than victories. A sense of humor will offset the some of the inherent disappointments.




The people who survived prisoner of war camps and other difficulties were not the wild-eyed optimists who expected to be released by Christmas, nor the pessimists who thought they would never get out. They were the ones who had faith that they would get out eventually. Freedom and liberty are hard work. Have faith that others treasure it enough to join you in that work.



Joseph Coletti is director of health and fiscal policy studies a t the John Locke Foundation. In addition to producing the biennial “Freedom Budget,” he has authored reports on the state’s spend-and-tax budgeting cycle, better ways to fund roads and schools, the earned-income tax credit, business incentives, tax increment financing, government employee compensation, and an ea rly look (in July 2005) at the infamous feasibility study behind the Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids. In health policy, Coletti has examined Medicaid spending and offered ways to fund the state’s High Risk Pool without new taxes. His writing has been in such publications as Health Care News, Global Corporate Xpansion, and the Leland Tribune. He has spoken at health care and tax policy conferences, civic groups across North Carolina, and appeared on radio and television, including WUNC’s The State of Things and CNBC Asia. Coletti received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He lives in Cary, N.C., with his wife and their two children.


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