Trees and Water: Mainstreaming Environment in the Graduate Policy Analysis Curriculum
In this article, we describe and evaluate a teaching project embedded within a core policy analysis course that allows students to engage with a major public policy issue—in our case, environmental policy—without a corresponding cost in terms of reducing curricular space for developing general policy analysis skills. We think that a win-win arrangement is attainable: a fairly intense immersion into a key thematic area of public policy and a correspondingly more vivid, realistic, and integrated treatment of general policy analysis. The project has the potential to allow teachers and students to explore in depth and develop the skills and appreciation required for practice in any major policy area, even in tightly packed graduate policy programs.
1. Searching for a Win-Win Design: More Policy Analysis Theory and More Sector-Specific Content
In tightly packed graduate policy programs, the curriculum leaves little space for teachers and students to explore and develop an appreciation and the skills required for the practice of any major policy area that is outside their rather narrowly defined primary areas of concern.
Students are expected to rapidly develop knowledge of and basic skills in general themes about policy processes and trends, and later to specialize in one or at most two focal areas of policy interest through electives. This limits the opportunity to impart policy-relevant knowledge about a range of major public policy concerns, such as environmental policy or health policy, to a larger nonspecializing audience. We feel this is unfortunate. Moreover, because of time constraints, even the basic knowledge and skills in public policy processes and analysis are often less developed than would be ideal.There is substantial evidence from the literature on public affairs education that action learning in the form of in-depth, student-led exploration of well-defined themes contributes greatly to general learning objectives (Breen, Matusitz, & Wan, 2009; Hartley, 2009; Kramer, 2007) but that such activities are infrequent because of packed curricula and time pressures. Our own institute used to provide an end-of-program, 6-week, full-time “synthesizing exercise” for Masters students, to expose them more intensively to the interface of theory and reality; but this was displaced eventually due to the need (for purposes of academic accreditation) to use that space to ensure appropriate depth in all students’ thesis work.In this article, we describe and evaluate the design of a project embedded within a core policy analysis course that allows students to engage in a major area of public policy—in our case, environmental policy—without a corresponding cost in terms of reducing curricular space for general policy analysis skills. While the rest of the article focuses specifically on how we integrated environmental policy into the general policy analysis course, we should emphasize here that the architecture of this teaching experiment can be adapted to serve any major area of public policy based on the instructors’ and students’ interests, and that the article can be read equally fruitfully by viewing the use of environmental policy as an illustrative tool rather than as a primary policy concern.
The first half of the article describes in detail the considerations behind the course design, including the large-scale environmental policy analysis project, in comparison to our previous approach. The second half then presents our experiences with the redesigned course, in terms of course management and dynamics, and levels of student achievement and fulfillment of learning objectives.Our own decision to focus on environmental policy was based on several factors. The advent of climate change as an increasingly likely potential calamity has propelled environmental policy into the mainstream of core global policy concerns. There is now a more broadly shared interest in environmental policy as, in the absence of ready technical solutions, climate change requires us to reflect on basic questions of production and consumption. In recognizing the more systemic roots of climate change issues, which require natural and social scientists, engineers, and philosophers (among others) to work together, a transdisciplinary space for inquiry and action has emerged.
The outcomes of these debates, as well as the processes they will use and the forums where they will be conducted, concern us fundamentally as policy scientists, in our positive as well as our normative analyses and engagements.We are required to understand emerging trends, and we are also required to train future actors in these arenas. Managing these policy questions requires integrative skills and the ability to make decisions while being cognizant of competing values, claims, and priorities, all in a context characterized by incomplete and conflicting knowledge and information. Stimulating and developing knowledge about environmental issues in a range of students broader than those that fall under the generic label “environmental studies” has thus become an important challenge confronting graduate public policy and management programs. We offer one technique to address this need.We think that a win-win arrangement is attainable: on the one hand, a fairly intense immersion in key environmental policy themes, made possible by the very nature of the issue that renders it a more accessible and familiar policy area to students than most others; and on the other, a correspondingly more vivid, realistic, and integrated treatment of general policy analysis themes—about debates over facts and values, rights and responsibilities, focus and feasibility.In our course we focused on two increasingly stressed resources—forests and water—with very different characteristics that are critical to sustainable development and planetary resilience. Questions about “trees” and “water” are no longer domains of specialization, but have become mainstream global problems with potentially far-reaching consequences.
2. An Environmental Policy Analysis Project as an Ongoing Strand Within a Course on Policy Analysis
Course Objectives and StructureOur course, Policy Analysis and Design, is the second-semester core course in a Public Policy and Management (PPM) specialization within the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) Master of Arts in Development Studies curriculum. ISS in The Hague (http://www.iss.nl) is a graduate school of development studies oriented to an international clientele drawn from around the world. Most of ISS’ students enter with 2 to 15 years of work experience. Founded in 1952, ISS is now part of Erasmus University Rotterdam.Policy Analysis and Design is a standard-length course, which in our system represents about 35 hours of classroom teaching and tutorial time and a target of about 200 hours of student input in all, spread over 12 weeks, for an average student to obtain an average mark.
This figure of 200 hours includes the time for reading and project and exam preparation. The objective of this course is to make students “more thoughtful, effective, and equitable participants in policy analysis” through imparting knowledge in (a) the understanding of policy theories, concepts, tools and techniques; (b) skills in their use; and (c) awareness of value aspects in policy analysis. It builds upon a first-semester course, Policy Processes in Context, in which students are introduced to the history of the field of public policy analysis, its main concepts, and the diverse perspectives through which the field is approached and constructed. Students who have not taken the latter course may register for Policy Analysis and Design subject to the instructor’s permission. These students take a two-session remedial tutorial on some classic introductory readings on public policy.In terms of content, the course is divided into three blocks. The first block, Standard Analytic Approaches, deals with policy analysis from economics and systems analysis perspectives. The topics are representative of different important strands in policy analysis and public management: the “logical framework approach” (known also under the labels of objectives-oriented management and results-based management), which follows systems analysis approaches, usually within a top-down management perspective; cost-benefit analysis, which represents and slightly adjusts market-based economic thinking; cost-effectiveness analysis, which is at the intersection of the two previously mentioned strands; and multi-criteria analysis, which here represents a move toward a more debateoriented, participatory approach and brings in a wider range of value criteria (Gasper, 2006).
We cover the principles underlying these methods, their rationales and contributions, and their limitations and potential biases.The second block, Policy and Policymaking as Political Argumentation, addresses the use of language and arguments in policymaking, including the typical elements of policy arguments and systems of arguments, and how to construct, test, and present them more effectively (Apthorpe & Gasper, 1996; Dunn, 2008; Fischer & Forester, 1993). It helps students to probe the meaning of key terms used, such as efficiency and effectiveness (Gasper 2004, ch. 3), and how to critically investigate, evaluate, and construct a policy argument. It gives particular attention to drawing out and reflecting on the assumptions about values—including values about outcomes and values about processes, and how value conflicts are handled—as well as the assumptions about policy instruments.The third block, Exploratory Approaches in Policy Design and Assessment, looks at more advanced skills of general relevance in policy analysis, notably: (a) how to analyze and assess a policy position not only as a system of arguments but also as involving the use of particular mental frameworks, images, and packages of assumptions, which typically reflect the worldview of particular “interpretive communities”; (b) how to contribute to building alternative frameworks, arguments, options, and scenarios; and (c) how to understand and participate in inter-, not only intra-, community deliberations. So the block includes attention to both exploratory cognitive techniques and the social processes of discussion and decision making that can contribute to group (re-)formation and rethinking (White, 1990).
Our Traditional Teaching MethodEarlier versions of this course always included group-based case study and workshop exercises in which students were provided with one or a few relatively short readings on each of a series of policy issues—ranging from privatization to national parks management to casino gambling—that they were required to analyze and present to the class. The objective was for students to explore policy processes in terms of the range of stakeholders involved and their political views, the technical and financial constraints on potential solutions, and the limits of comprehensive rational planning and policymaking. These exercises would increase in intensity through the course, and each exercise would cover a completely different policy issue.As activity-based learning exercises, these case studies and workshops supported several of our course’s learning objectives that were aimed at building core intellectual skills, such as (a) to find, integrate, and analyze facts while exercising good judgment; (b) to work collaboratively; (c) to reason, debate, and defend positions; and (d) to respond to problems arising from incomplete information and uncertainty.
However, none of these four objectives was fully realized due to the limited scope of each of the exercises. The achievement of the first objective, related to skills development in finding, integrating, and analyzing facts, was limited due to the exercise being restricted to the analysis of only a few given texts. Time constraints did not permit us to assign students tasks that would require them to do independent research and incorporate their findings into their analyses.With regard to the second skill, although the students were divided into groups and required to prepare the presentation as a team, the limited scope of each exercise and the fact that only a group grade was awarded (or that some exercises were purely for learning purposes, not also for assessment) meant that some students could free-ride without much resistance from the other students, whose main aim was to get through the exercise as quickly and as well as possible. This limited effective collaboration and teamwork to the more conscientious students. The benefits of “forcing” effective participation from potential free riders in a group were perceived by those students as much less than the costs of confronting them.The third skill was realized also only to a limited extent because although there was a space—typically of about 10 minutes—after the student presentations to discuss and critique their material, we used this space more for providing feedback rather than for students to actively debate and defend their positions and conclusions. Moreover, the fact that students felt no ownership over the texts on which the exercise was based meant that they often did not engage fully with the content.
The fourth skill was also little developed: given the limited number of texts involved as the basis for the presentation, students did not engage much with issues of incomplete information and uncertainty. Instead, they effectively drew a boundary around the given material, and relegated incomplete information and uncertainty to ceteris paribus status.Our Redesigned Methods for Teaching and Learning—The Environmental Policy Analysis ProjectHaving in mind these limitations, we redesigned the course in 2009 by introducing a policy analysis project (PAP) to run throughout the term. Two broad topics were selected, and each student was assigned to a group to work on one of the topics. Our intention was to replace the discrete and limited case study and workshop activities with a comprehensive activity that would run throughout the semester. This activity would present the students with a broadly defined policy issue and require them to generate the information and arguments required to support their diagnoses and proposals.
We expected 25 to 30 students to enroll in the course and decided that, given the need for intensive tutoring and feedback, four groups would be the maximum that we could reasonably accommodate into the course schedule. Eventually, 32 students enrolled and we made four groups of eight, with two groups per topic. Initially, we feared that this could give unwieldy groups, but in the end this was not a problem.
When we began brainstorming about potential policy issues that could serve as the topics for these exercises, we were concerned about whether students would be able to make reasonably detailed policy analyses for a topic they had not previously been exposed to in anything more than a superficial manner. Surely it would require a substantial investment of time to develop an understanding of the literature that underpins any important and complex policy issue? Given what we expected our students to deliver (which we describe later), we concluded that the issues selected would have to be in some sense popular; that is, issues students would have been naturally and repeatedly exposed to over a considerable period. This would reduce the need for us to spend time familiarizing the students with the basic aspects and importance of the topic. We were also concerned whether some students would resent having to invest a considerable amount of their time focusing on a policy problem that was outside their main and immediate academic and professional interests.We decided that environmental issues satisfy the criteria of sufficient popularity and prior general exposure. First, environmental issues have long figured prominently and in detail in general news coverage, which means that the students enter the course with a basic familiarity with the intellectual terrain.
Second, nearly all students seem to have a natural affinity for the issues, inasmuch as the theme is broad enough to include a wide variety of intellectual and analytical approaches, ranging through the natural sciences to the social sciences and the humanities. Finally, these themes are in the general community interest domain, and their decision dynamics are not restricted to narrowly defined, epistemic communities. This means that a variety of policy approaches are relevant in their study.We chose two themes within the broad field of environmental and resource issues. Two student groups were assigned to each theme, which facilitated a degree of competition and critical feedback between paired teams.The first theme, which we will call “Trees,” asked students to develop advice for policymakers on the trade-offs between forest protection and economic growth.
The students were given the following scenario: They are in a mid-sized developing country with a substantial forest endowment. The students were told that this could be any country of their choice, but that they needed to focus on generic policy issues rather than on country-specific facts and figures. In the end, one of the groups chose Peru and the other chose Nepal, which we found to be apt. They were then told that thus far the governments of their countries have pursued an environmental policy that has prioritized economic growth over forest protection.
The national environment policy is now being debated in the legislature and the wider polity, and the concerned policymakers want independent analyses of the fundamental trade-offs involved and the short- and long-term consequences of prioritizing forest protection over economic growth, and vice versa. One group of students was told to argue for better protection, and the other was instructed to argue for accelerated economic growth. We also told the students that they should think about these national and local concerns about deforestation as embedded within the cross-border debates around climate change.The second theme, which we call “Water,” asked students to advise the government in a large city in a developing country on how to meet its population’s need for water and sanitation services and also reduce environmental pollution through the construction of wastewater treatment facilities. The students were provided with the following scenario: The chief executive of the city needs a large amount of financing to increase the capacity of the city’s water agency to extend water and sanitation services to the growing population of the city. However, the government is fiscally constrained, and multilateral aid agencies say they are unwilling to provide funding unless the chief executive agrees to a privatization program. As with the previous groups, the Water groups were able to choose any city; but they both settled on thinking in generic terms of a city in a developing country as the basis for their project rather than identifying a particular city.
Our Redesigned Methods for Teaching and Learning—The Sequence of ActivitiesOver the course of the semester, the students were required to prepare a policy analysis report. The target length of the report was 50 to 80 single-spaced pages (i.e.
, 7 to 10 pages of output per student) and it consisted of three parts, corresponding to the three blocks of the course. These three parts were built up through three assignments, each due at the end of the corresponding block. Each assignment required, for each group, a 30-minute classroom presentation and an accompanying draft written report. After a week to incorporate feedback received during their presentation, each group submitted a final written report to obtain more detailed feedback from the instructors (rather than at that stage to obtain a grade).The first assignment covered the methods introduced in Block I and required students to prepare an analysis of the problem situation using the logical framework approach: The assignment thus included a stakeholder analysis, problemtree analysis, alternatives analysis, and tentative solution-tree(s) analysis as well as a set of criteria for evaluating the policy alternatives by using a multi-criteria decision approach. Our teaching objectives were to enable students to undertake comprehensive analyses of policy problems—using tools such as problem trees— to determine, classify, and analyze the various interest groups through stakeholder analysis and to create a policy evaluation framework using multi-criteria analysis. The unstated objective was for students to realize how complex policy problems and solutions become as we probe them in greater depth.
To accelerate the process of problem analysis, one of the instructors and the teaching assistant prepared a bibliography of about 60 relevant articles for each of the two themes. Endnote files including the articles’ abstracts were provided to the students, who were instructed to divide the articles among the group and first to scan them for content and relevance. This stage was, as we had expected, the most stressful for the groups as they had to quickly absorb the material and develop their initial problem trees. There was an initial shock when the volume of references was first presented to the groups, since each member felt she or he had to read each article, but this dissipated after it was explained that dividing the readings among themselves would result in an individual load of seven or eight articles each.The second assignment was due at the end of Block II, and it required students to prepare two types of policy argument structures for each of at least two policy positions. One structure is an adjusted version of the well-known Toulmin format for describing argument structure (Toulmin 1958), which is applied to policy arguments in, for example, William Dunn’s standard textbook (2008) and by many other authors.
The format has several attractions: It encourages digging out underlying assumptions and identification of possible counterarguments and qualifications. Toulmin’s own diagrammatic format is, however, prone to misuse by nonexperts, and a tabular format prepared by R. V.
George proves more workable and reliable (Gasper & George, 1998). Table 1 shows that format applied repeatedly, to describe a whole set of arguments that have interconnections. This layout, whether with one or multiple rows, is called a synthesis table (Gasper, 2000, 2002).The Toulmin-George format applies to any argument or system of arguments. It gives no policy specifics to guide people’s thoughts; its role instead is to guide people to think in a context-specific way about the case concerned.The other format derives from Ralph Hambrick’s identification of the types of proposition that he found in a large set of U.S.
policy documents (Hambrick, 1974). Gasper (1996) arranged these 10 or so types into a series of three stages that show the imputable structure of a typical policy argument. Its first stage contains the cause-effect story contained in a policy proposal. The second stage contains “normative propositions” that proffer the normative justification for such a policy initiative, in terms of the quality of both the processes and the outputs.
It attempts to convert the if-then proposition to a means-ends proposition in which both the means and the ends have been validated as sufficiently justified. The third stage involves testing the means-ends proposition in a variety of ways. A detailed illustration of the format—prepared by one of the Trees groups—is provided in the Appendix. Used as a design tool, not merely as a tool to describe an existing position, the stage of tests will typically identify gaps and weaknesses that require at least modification of the set of instrumental propositions, try to include measures that cope with the actual constraints, substantially reduce the undesirable external impacts, and maximize the desirable and reinforcing external impacts, and overall try to increase the coherence of the proposal.
Table 1. Synthesis Table for Presenting the Structure of an Argued PositionTrees andWater: Mainstreaming Environment in the Graduate Policy Analysis Curriculum