Opinion: Public Policy Ignores History at Its Peril

Jerry Wei, MPP

Rigorous, thoughtful, and targeted policy analysis can help address a wide variety of today’s problems: from climate change, to healthcare, to Islamic extremism.  However, what’s sorely lacking in contemporary public policy analysis today is a consistent reflection on history and history’s impact on policy issues. Policy analysts and the public prioritize the surety of “hard” analysis and facts over the perceived hemming and hawing of the “what-ifs” of history. As a result, presidential race polling averages, randomized control trials, and “nudges” get more attention than long, considered histories.

Our collective neglect of history leads to several negative outcomes: 1) Narrowly-educated policy professionals, 2) imbalanced organizations that prioritize functional skills over deep subject matter expertise, and 3) public ignorance.

MPP Curricula Are Lacking

The problem begins with what Master of Public Policy—where students learn to analyze policies— and Master of Public Administration –where students learn to manage public organizations—programs teach. As terminal Masters, these programs are designed for skill acquisition; they provide tools for young professionals to use in their new policy roles. These programs teach standardized statistical models, economics, survey methods, semi-structured interview techniques, and case study analysis, all of which provide neat roadmaps that allow a professional to spit out the “right answer.” This is also precisely what afflicts the study of public policy: scientism—a belief that scientific approaches and empirical research constitute the “gold standard” for learning and research.

Discussions with contacts in public policy programs around the country reinforce my view. Our programs not only steep us in the tools of empiricism, but also shape our opinions about the relative value of different analytical methods—with “soft” qualitative (and especially historical) approaches at the bottom rung of the ladder.

This shouldn’t be so. There are valuable works out there that can teach the budding policy analyst the value of history, and its uses in policy. Thinking in Time: the Uses of History for Decision-Makers by Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May and The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan are just two sterling examples of works that can humble policy students and ignite in them a lifelong quest to accrue more historical knowledge. Thinking in Time, for example, uses historical cases of decision-making to show the reader the importance of societal context in historical analysis. The authors also provide suggestions for how decision-makers can improve their use of history.  MacMillan’s Uses and Abuses, which details how countries struggle with their own histories, serves as a warning to budding policy analysts of the misuses of history.  Few public policy syllabi list readings from these books or other readings on the uses of history.

The Rise of the Empirical Organization

Scientism has seeped into policy organizations as well. The credibility revolution in economics has changed the employment landscape for young policy professionals, confirming to them that their choice to take more methods classes was sound (for example, see the rise in the number of analysts conducting “impact evaluations”). Analysts can now produce seemingly “convincing,” “authoritative” answers to policy questions using improvements in research designs, data, and more powerful computing. This in turn has led stakeholders to demand measurable results from organizations. From the rise of impact evaluations in international development, to the spread of performance metrics in government, agencies and nonprofits are playing the accountability game. To their detriment, they sometimes forgo tough and risky, but necessary, programs and policies in favor of those they know will produce numbers that are satisfying to their overseers.

Demand for a certain kind of accountability and results has also driven organizations to double down on technical specialization in their workforce. Budget and contracting analysts cycle through vastly different federal agencies regardless of their knowledge of the policy area. Economists and statisticians, not policy historians, staff research departments. Impact evaluation teams land a contract to evaluate a women’s empowerment program in Cote d’Ivoire in one quarter and a contract to evaluate a police-training program in Pakistan in another. Lost in this cycle of increasing specialization is the value of open-ended inquiry, or of deep knowledge of a subject and how that can contribute to policy formation or evaluation by challenging assumptions and models.

Explainer Journalism, Social Media Activism

Led by the media, the lure of credibility, facts, and hard numbers has also spread into our social discourse, beyond the secluded realm of policy professionals to the wider public. “Facts,” succinct “explainers,” and data journalism are ubiquitous on social media and often dominate the news agenda. This has only sped up the pace at which people’s’ opinions on an issue are set. The authoritativeness of a chart or a statistic can shape public perceptions, especially for young people, on an issue, even if that fact was out of context or simply wrong. People now race each other to post their hot take on the news story du jour, hectoring their network to take some kind of action or to reconsider their stance on an issue or person.

What Now?

Is the picture as bad as I paint it? Perhaps not. To ape the language of our new age, I merely assembled a model based on a series of stylized facts. But we as policy students can take several steps to ensure that scientism does not win the day:

  • Read more history (I think this is obvious).
  • Encourage your policy programs to incorporate more readings on the uses and abuses of history in public policy.
  • Question facts, findings, and figures. Consider the context and what may be missing before forming an opinion or taking action.
  • Approach your careers with humility. Do not trust twenty or thirty-somethings who call themselves an “expert” or “-ist” in a subject or technical area.  Realize that a policy career entails life-long learning.

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Public Policy Ignores History at Its Peril

  1. Jerry….I agree with you completely about this. Indeed, i think that it may be worth considering by the TSPPPA curriculum committee. Certainly in the policy areas in which I work, a(n) historical perspective is most useful. Keep up the good work. It might interest you to know that a number of academic economists are also of the opinion that history needs to come back into the graduate economics curriculum as well.


  2. When I teach my urban policy classes, I often incorporate elements of history, but I don’t identify it as such. Sadly, students sometimes see study of the past as esoteric. Or worse, that the instructor can’t be bothered to update class materials to talk about what’s going on today. Fair enough.

    In the classroom, I have found a good way to talk about history is to focus on how we got to where we are now. How did transportation policy decisions of the past contribute to our traffic problems today? How did housing and other policies of the 20th century contribute to disparities in housing wealth by race? Why are we still struggling to provide a free and appropriate public education to all children in the U.S.? Even better is when I can introduce alternative interpretations, and challenge students to assess them.

    Thanks for addressing this topic.


  3. Jerry,

    I was thinking about this topic this morning and inadvertently ran across your post. My thoughts just before I read your article, is that we often fail to appreciate the limits of our policy research tools (regression analysis, CBA, econometrics, etc.) and as you mentioned, we think in silos (MPP vs. MPA). I agree with your concern about the lack of historical context, but I’d also add that policy wonks often fail to appreciate non-quantifiable factors that cause programs and policies to fail. For example, cross-organizational conflicts (intra and inter-organization), and other behavioral factors must be considered. Many students I’ve talked to however, are far more concerned about learning the “hard skills” and believe that management and organizational theory is not important or is just “common sense.” Anyways, you wrapped up your article brilliantly by asking everyone to approach their careers with humility!

    Best – Eric Flanagan


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