What is Public Policy at Stanford?

Students at Commencement

The Public Policy program is an interdisciplinary major, minor or graduate program of study. The degree programs share common educational goals: rigorous training in public policy research and policy analysis.

All Public Policy degree programs culminate with a capstone project: either a practicum, in which students conduct policy research for an outside client under faculty supervision or a thesis. Through our program, students will:

  • Develop analytic skills
  • Advance appreciation for the complexity of organizations as it relates to the implementation of public programs
  • Understand and work within the sharp conflicts in ethical and value commitments pervading many public policy issues

More information can be found on our website regarding requirements for the undergraduatecoterminal, and graduate programs in Public Policy.

Educational Objectives

  • Understand the advantages of and barriers to effective human social and political cooperation
  • Acquire a framework for formulating and evaluating appropriate normative objectives, defined in terms of human well-being, including justice or fairness
  • Master analytical tools useful for evaluating public policies and programs in terms of their absolute and comparative efficacy in achieving given social objectives
  • Bring these principles and tools into practical application for decision making in the real world, from the perspectives of political leaders as well as citizens

Public Policy vs. Related Fields

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 understand 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 is founded on emotion and instinct. Therefore the study of policy analysis must also include psychology and related neurosciences. 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. Communication skills are an essential element of effective policy analysis.