Sign in or create an account

| Forgot Password?

7- Being a Policy Specialist

Posted on

7. Being a Policy Specialist

Andrew Coulson, Director, Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute



The term “social engineer” most often evokes thoughts of “some evil despot attempting to reconstruct society around a warped personal philosophy” (Mark Easton). Borrowing from A.E. Housman, we picture them trying to “make [us] dance as they desire, with jail and gallows and hell-fire.”


In reality, engineers are the perfect model for the way public policy analysts should function: they are servants, not dictators. Far from imposing an agenda of their own, engineers seek to ascertain their clients’ goals and then to meet them as effectively, quickly, and economically as possible. They don’t tell people what they should want, but rather how to get what they do want. Engineers begin by determining if known practices and tools, in use anywhere in the world either now or in the past, can meet specifications. They are loath to reinvent the wheel—to try to solve problems that already have effective solutions—because doing so is time-consuming, expensive, and risky. If no satisfactory solution exists, they seek to adapt an existing technology to fit the new application or criteria. Here again, and for the same reasons, their approach is to invent as little as possible. Most “revolutionary” technological advances are in fact the result of piecing together many incremental innovations. The staggering improvements in technology of the past two centuries are an irrefutable testament to the power of this approach.


So what does it take to become an effective social engineer? As with our mechanical, computer, and structural counterparts, specialization is essential. Those hired to generate electricity from water reservoirs are hydroelectric engineers—they’re the ones who know how to do it. Similarly, no one should care what a policy analyst thinks about school vouchers or charter schools unless he or she has demonstrated a comprehensive knowledge of the relevant evidence. And it is no more feasible to become an expert in every single branch of policy than it is to master every branch of engineering. Humans don’t live long enough (at least until bioengineers make a little more progress on longevity). So while there may be a role for generalists in public policy, perhaps analogous to the role of a GP in medicine, the social engineer must specialize in at least one field in order to have anything valuable to offer.


Within a policy field, however, generalization is invaluable. Social engineers must be able to weigh the relative merits of alternative policies in achieving the public’s desired ends. An analyst whose expertise is limited to curriculum and teaching methods will not be able to effectively weigh reforms in those areas against other, systemic reforms (e.g., those based on increased parental choice and competition between schools). Knowledge of the field’s international and historical context is especially important. Any one nation’s contemporary experience with a particular policy is necessarily limited, so it is typically impossible to satisfactorily evaluate the alternatives using only recent, domestic evidence.


Yet this is a key point of disagreement—particularly in the field of education. It has been argued that political, cultural, and economic factors vary too greatly across time and nations for reliable policy lessons to be drawn from these sources. Certainly it is possible to misapply such evidence, and so a policy specialist must understand the potential pitfalls of using foreign and historical evidence and learn how to overcome them. To that end, it’s useful to study an example of what not to do: the call by many U.S. commentators to emulate the Finnish education system on the grounds that the Finns took first place on a recent international mathematics and science test (PISA) administered to fifteen-year -olds. This advocacy is misguided for a host of reasons.


First, the Finnish curriculum happens to be more closely aligned with the content tested by PISA than is the case for most other developed nations. PISA emphasizes interpretation of and reasoning about “everyday” math and science, rather than the demonstration of higher level mathematical and scientific skills, which happen to be the focus of another international test, TIMSS. The Finns placed 10th in science and 14th in math on the TIMSS a decade ago and have not participated in it since. Over 200 Finnish mathematics professors signed a letter in 2005 lamenting the poor and declining mathematics skills of their entering freshmen and warning against generalizations based on misleading PISA results.


Second, Western nations are typically very diverse, having sizeable sub-populations that underperform the majority population for various reasons, even after controls for socio-economic status (Jensen). By contrast, the Finnish population is extremely homogeneous.


Third, the Finnish labor market is one of the more tightly regulated in the free world, possibly diminishing the appeal of the most demanding and highly skilled private-sector jobs and thereby raising the relative appeal of public-sector careers (including teaching) among ambitious, high-ability college students. If so, this would likely improve Finland’s teaching workforce relative to those in other nations. And, finally, Finnish commentators have themselves argued that “teachers … enjoy a higher status in Finland than in most other advanced liberal countries,” which could also lead a larger percentage of high achievers to enter the profession than in other nations.


But if nations differ in these important ways amongst themselves and over time, how are we to draw reliable lessons from foreign and historical data? One particularly effective approach is to systematically review the within-nation evidence on the relative merits of alternative policies. A comparison of state-run schools, state-funded private schools, and tuition-charging private schools within a single nation is not subject to the obfuscating effects of international differences. In fact, if we find that the same pattern of results is manifest within many different nations, it gives us much greater confidence that the obs erved effect is systemic than if we were to restrict ourselves to observing only our own nation. The greater the differences among the nations involved, the more compelling the consistency of the policy comparisons becomes.


In addition to developing specialized expertise across the breadth of his or her field, the social engineer benefits from a diverse skill set: written and oral communication, research, statistical analysis, foreign language, and computer programming skills can all be of great value. These need not all be acquired in advance of beginning a career in policy analysis, but should be accumulated as time permits and opportunities arise.


Two final attributes that all engineers must cultivate in order to be successful in the long run are humility and the ability to recognize and redress their own errors. The most reliable way to be consistently right on policy is to change your views when the evidence reveals you to be wrong. In Canada, final-year engineering students are invited by a private membership organization to participate in a ceremony called “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer.” The ceremony hinges on an oath, written in 1922 by Rudyard Kipling, to perform their duties conscientiously and honorably. Those who choose to take the oath wear a simple hammered Iron Ring on their pinky fingers, as a constant reminder of their responsibilities to the public. Though not a part of the ceremony, part of the myth surrounding it is that the first Iron Rings were fashioned from the remains of the Québec Bridge, which collapsed on August 29, 1907, due to engineer error, killing 76 people.


While they wear no such ring, policy analysts do well to remember the impact that their work can have on the lives of their fellow citizens—for good if performed with care, for ill if not.



Andrew J. Coulson is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Previously, he was senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He serves on the advisory council of the E.G. West Centre for Market Solutions in Education at the University of Newcastle, U.K., and has contributed to books published by the Fraser Institute and the Hoover Institution. He is author of Market Education: The Unknown History, the only book to address contemporary education policy questions by drawing on case studies from across the entire span of recorded human history. Coulson has written for academic journals, including the Journal of Research in the Teaching of English, the Journal of School Choice, and the Education Policy Analysis Archives and for newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Canada’s Globe and Mail. He has appeared on national television and radio. Prior to studying education policy, Coulson was a computer software engineer.

This entry was posted in Resources. Bookmark the permalink.