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14. Policy ‘Outside the Box’
Tyler Grimm, Director of Research, Public Notice
Let’s say you don’t have a Ph.D. from a top ten program, haven’t worked on Capitol Hill for 20 years, and don’t consider yourself an expert in a particular area of public policy. Can you still toil in the industry of ideas without being a research assistant for life?
The answer may surprise you.
Here is a textbook definition of policy analysis: “determining which of various alternative policies will most achieve a given set of goals in light of the relations between the policies and the goals” (Stuart S. Nagel, Policy Analysis Methods, 1999).
The reality, however, is far more multifaceted than this vanilla description lets on.
The day-to-day happenings of a policy analyst—or anyone working in policy, for that matter—consist largely of activities related to the following: conducting research for future reports and studies, giving testimony before legislative bodies, writing op-eds, blogging, giving media interviews, and participating in forums and events.
At the end of the day, the goal is to influence public discourse toward what you believe to be the proper way for society to be organized (or disorganized). Bias is inherent in the process, which provides for a rather healthy form of competition through which the best ideas (hopefully, but not often) come to fruition.
But injecting perspective into a debate is a complicated production process and requires many different types of players. It is not a task solely for pocket-protector-wearing, chart-drawing, number-crunching, multiple degree-holding think tank wonks.
There are varying degrees of seriousness for organizations that do policy work. Some groups are very serious-minded legacy institutions such as the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and others that take pride in the number of Ph.D.’ s and former high-ranking officials they keep on staff. Subjecting their work to intellectual rigor is a must, and their work-process is typically very rigid. These groups would like to consider themselves very academic; some describe them as universities without students.
But once you look beyond stereotypical careers at established organizations, you’ll find a surfeit of opportunities.
A more exciting incarnation of policy work is advocacy. Many groups focused on “getting the message out” rely heavily on people who can articulate and debate policy in a way that delivers it to a mainstream audience. These kinds of organizations are mostly inhabited by motivated, smart individuals who can own an issue, have a strong delivery in messaging and are determined to change the minds of those in the court of public opinion.
In many ways, these roles are just as important as the raw research. We can have the greatest ideas ever conceived, but without a trajectory for implementation, they are worthless.
Furthermore, what good is research if no one can understand it?
The group I work for, Public Notice, is dedicated to distilling complex issues into digestible facts. Average Americans (and even average journalists) do not have time to become well-versed in economic policy, though it is a central force driving how society functions. Such a resource allows people who aren’t experts to cut through the clutter and make decisions on their own.
Other groups focus on outreach to Capitol Hill. This field of policy work is more about persuasion than research. Usually, this involves a thorough understanding of policy research, but not necessarily the ability to produce it. Those who excel in this field have superb interpersonal skills, something often lacking in the world of policy work.
It is also worth mentioning that “outside the box” policy analysis could include public-sector work, working someplace like the Office of Management and Budget or Department of Education. Some bemoan government work (with good reason), but it is a decent way to quickly get acquainted with a policy area and often requires little credentials for entry-level positions. The vast majority of people working at these institutions did not study the budgetary research or learn how to cross-reference fifty different educational standards. Nearly all of it came from on-the-job training.
If you are serious about policy work, it’ s up to you to figure out where you best fit into the process to then begin honing your skills. If you are worried you don’t have the chops for any policy work, you are probably wrong (if you’re right, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly). This line of work is 80 percent passion. A commitment to finding better solutions to problems and winning important debates goes a long way.
Not all jobs in policy are a fast track to the fame associated with cable television appearances and conference speeches. However, being able to influence how we are governed is a never dull an d often rewarding career choice for those with sufficient fire in their bellies.
Tyler Grimm is director of research at Public Notice, an independent nonprofit dedicated to providing facts and insight in a nonpartisan way on the economy and how governm ent policy affects Americans’ financial well-being. Grimm also serves as research assistant to Stephen Moore, senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial page. He has been published in The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy and The Wall Street Journal, among other places. He has also contributed to several studies and books, including Art Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Peter Tanous’s The End of Prosperity, and Glenn Beck’s number one New York Times bestseller Arguing with Idiots. Grimm received a degree in government and international politics from George Mason University, where he was a member of the policy debate team, and also spent a semester at Oxford University studying postmodernism and contemporary political thought. Grimm hails from a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa.
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