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What is "Public Policy" at Stanford?

View on Stanford Campus The Stanford interdisciplinary program in Public Policy has been a strong undergraduate major since 1980. The program now offers an M.P.P. (a two-year professional degree) and an M.A. in Public Policy (a one-year degree). Both master's programs are open only to Stanford graduate students, recent Stanford alumni (2009-present) and graduating Stanford seniors. In addition, the program began accepting applications for a coterminal MA degree in Autumn 2009.  The graduate and undergraduate programs share common educational goals: rigorous training in public policy research and analysis.

Viewed as an academic discipline, public policy analysis has ancient roots in political and moral philosophy, from Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics to Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and J.S. Mill's On Liberty and Utilitarianism. However, the development of the modern university scattered the analytic tools of the Classical and Enlightenment philosophers among disparate academic departments. It is a large part of the mission of the Stanford Public Policy Program to reassemble current versions of these tools in the education of students who want to understand and contribute to sound public policy.

More specifically, the overall educational objectives of the program, and the associated areas of academic study, are:

  • Understanding the advantages of and barriers to effective human social and political cooperation (theory of collective action, game theory, organizational behavior, social psychology, politics);
  • Acquiring a framework for formulating and evaluating appropriate normative objectives, defined in terms of justice or fairness (ethics, moral and political philosophy, economic analysis of law);
  • Mastering analytical tools useful for evaluating public policies and programs in terms of their absolute and comparative efficacy in achieving given social objectives (microeconomics, welfare economics, public finance, econometric analysis, benefit-cost-risk analysis); and
  • Bringing these principles and tools into practical application for decision making in the real world, from the perspectives of political leaders as well as citizens (applied fields such as health or environmental policy; practica, internships).

An undergraduate major in public policy prepares students to participate effectively in policy and political discussion as citizens and as para-professionals in a variety of fields, to fill entry-level positions in policy research projects and organizations, and to pursue graduate studies in law, management, the health professions, and a variety of academic disciplines, including economics and political science. A Master of Arts in Public Policy provides similar tools to graduate students, chiefly those whose primary professional goals are in related fields, such as law or management. A Master in Public Policy degree is intended to prepare students for careers as professional policy analysts, usually for policy planning and evaluation units of government agencies, legislative committee staffs, the personal staffs of elected and appointed public officials, consulting firms, and non-government agencies, including foundations and not-for-profit service providers.

Students often ask about the differences between public policy as a major and related subjects, such as political science, economics, or certain fields of philosophy. Public policy analysis requires students to understand tools and principles taught in political science as well as economics, and to integrate that learning in order to pursue goals whose values are based in moral and political philosophy. In contrast, political science deals chiefly with the processes of political decision making, while economics focuses principally on efficient resource allocation. Philosophy seeks to provide a rational relationship between fundamental values and actions.

Of course, public policy analysis requires an even broader understanding than that provided by the disciplines of economics, philosophy, and political science. For example, effective analysis depends heavily on the ability to identify, collect and test appropriate data in order to identify the effects of policies and programs. That ability is derived from the study of mathematics, statistics, and econometrics. Similarly, while policy analysis itself must always aspire to rationality, the ultimate subject of analysis is individual and collective human behavior, much of which cannot easily be described as rational. Therefore study of policy analysis must also include psychology. Finally, effective policy analysis is very difficult indeed if the analyst is ignorant of the humanities, of the experiences and perspectives of cultures distant in space or time, or of the scientific method. And policy analysis is fruitless if the analyst is unable to communicate the results clearly and effectively to decision makers and lay audiences.