Thursday, April 14, 2011

A great little book

A Practical Guide For Policy Analysis: the Eightfold Path To More Effective Problem Solving, 3rd Edition
by Eugene Bardach
Edition: Paperback
Price: $22.58

My review for

I have used this and earlier editions of Bardach's slim text for years in teaching social policy analysis to MSW and doctoral students for whom policy is generally not the part of the curriculum embraced with most enthusiasm. Students are happy with the slimness and low price of the book - in both respects a welcome relief from most texts. After "cracking" the book a few times, however, they realize that it is dense and challenging.

Bardach's text is demanding of both teachers and students. Policy teachers - especially those who teach social welfare policy to social work students who do not intend to become professional policy analysts - need to provide and elicit concrete examples from the students' field of concentration and probably supplement this text with readings specific to the field. Students need to wrestle with unfamiliar concepts like rent seeking and commensurability and to apply them to their own analyses. Over the years, I have come to structure the whole course more fully around the book and to "coach" students through each step of the eightfold path, with feedback from other students and the instructor at each step along the way.

What I most appreciate about the book is the way it helps students to slow down and think critically about what they are doing. The tendency is to "know" in advance what the solution to their policy problem is and so to define their job as persuading their putative client that they are right. They start with the conclusion and work backwards. Bardach pushes students to treat the policy problem to be addressed as a puzzle rather than a foregone conclusion. He stresses the need to problematize the problem and avoid smuggling a solution into its definition.

The book is not primarily about the ethics of policy analysis, but nevertheless urges the reader to consider the ethical costs of over-optimism. For those inclined to conflate good intentions with projected outcomes, this is an important caution. Bardach offers several exercises, like the worst-case scenario or the pre-mortem analysis, to counteract this tendency to "unscrupulous optimism," as Roger Scruton calls it in his book on The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope.

It is important to recognize that the book is a "practical guide" to a problem-solving and decision-making process. The process requires examination of past and current attempts to address the problem through policy, but as part of the process, not as an end in itself. The process includes defining the problem and its background, exploring alternatives (including that of letting present trends continue) according to explicit criteria for assessing their expected outcomes, coming to a conclusion, and making a recommendation that follows from the analysis.

Of all the books I have used in over 30 years of teaching policy, and despite the lack of information about current social policies, this has proved the most helpful in supporting student learning of analytic skills and critical thinking.

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