Skip to content Skip to navigation

What is Public Policy at Stanford?

SIEPR Gunn building and courtyard

The Stanford interdisciplinary program in Public Policy has offered a strong undergraduate major since 1980. In 2006, the Faculty Senate granted the Public Policy Program approval for a graduate program, which included an M.P.P. (a two-year professional degree) and an M.A. in Public Policy (a one-year degree). Both master’s programs were initially open only to Stanford graduate students. In the autumn of 2007-2008, the first graduate class started, comprised of three students. Since then, the program has steadily grown. The program currently offers 13 joint degrees.  In the autumn of 2009, the program also began accepting coterminal applications, which allow undergraduates to complete an undergraduate degree in any discipline and a master’s degree in Public Policy simultaneously.

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

The graduate and undergraduate programs share common education 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.

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 has scattered the analytic tools of the Classical and Enlightenment philosophers among disparate academic departments. The Public Policy teaching faculty is drawn from across Stanford University’s world-class academic departments, research institutes, and professional schools. 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. Students are prepared to draw from these disciplines to analyze and design systems and decision-making schemes through the following exercises:
  • Developing analytic skills
  • Advancing their appreciation for the complexity of large organizations as it relates to the implementation of public programs, and
  • Understanding and working within the sharp conflicts in ethical and value commitments which pervade many public policy issues

For a transcript of the informational video on our home page, please click here

Educational Objectives

  • 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 human well-being, including 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 (applications of evidence-based practices in applied fields such as health or environmental policy; practica, internships).

The 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 of 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 organizations, including foundations and not-for-profit service providers.

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.