Lessons Learned–Public Policy Analysis

IMG_0142-1Happy New Year!

Each New Year provides an opportunity to reflect on how to improve ourselves, our families, and our extended communities.  Each year, it seems that extended communities continue to expand.

This year, as I think about how we can engage in positive social action in order to improve the living/economic conditions in more families and extended communities,  I begin to reflect on the advantages and limitations in employing a few analytical frameworks or tools for highlighting potential opportunities and or for solving intractable social problems.  Moreover, I am reminded of the folly of attempting to solve some intractable problems through public policy processes and/or limited perspectives–lessons I learned in graduate school.

Analytical tools and analysis of policy options, though worthwhile, often reflect overt or covert values.  Nonetheless, a combinations of perspectives, interdisciplinary approaches, and analytical frameworks, which acknowledge imbedded values, can be helpful and serve as frameworks for identifying some options to our seemingly intractable American challenges.

I admit it was enlightening, and somewhat fun in graduate school, to be introduced to, and contemplate the advantages and limitations of the social, political, and philosophical frameworks of Henry David Thoreau, Emile Durkheim,  Graham T. Allison, and many others  However, it is the public policy analysis essay of Richard R. Nelson that highlights advantages and limitations of analysis of policies that continues to resonate with, no haunt me, still–when seeking frameworks for positive social action for our families, extended communities, and the future of America.

Though he is known more as a political economist, it was Nelson’s extended essay in the text, The Moon and The Ghetto: An Essay on Public Policy Analysis, that I have reread, reviewed, and contemplated for decades since graduate school–searching for expanded lenses–a framework epiphany that has the power to provide direction.

It is probably the simplicity of Nelson’s question that both intrigues me and still begs for rational, political, and larger societal perspectives.  In his essay, Nelson queries–If a society has the resources, scientific knowledge, and technological capacity to land a man on the moon why does that same society seem unable to solve problems of economic, educational, housing and other “unevenness of human progress” as exemplified in urban ghettos?  Nelson, 1977, offers, “It is apparent that the American political economy pays far less attention to certain values and interests than to others because the voices of certain groups are determining (14).”  In his analysis, Nelson discusses the need to “lay out the topography of political impasse and highlight the arena of battle” that will ultimately furnish direction.

While I continue to reread Nelson’s public policy analysis, my current understanding is that there are interwoven layers of societal forces that include diverse perspectives, shifting political will, the limitations of rational analysis, and social/technological “know how” that are very difficult to harness effectively to solve these seemingly intractable social problems that hinder more widespread societal economic and lifestyle evenness.

Thus, in the Moon and the Ghetto, Nelson shows the advantages and limitations of three policy conceptual frameworks to illustrate the complexity of using rational analysis on specific case studies.  By using these frameworks and the case study methodology, Nelson shows how specific societal problems can be explored by focusing on different aspects such as inadequate policy processes, inadequate organizational structures, or inadequate resource and development.

Nonetheless,  Nelson does not leave us with a definitive framework–all of the aforementioned analyses highlight specific areas, but they appear to fail to provide direction for resolving the problems of “unevenness of human progress” that continue to exist in too many American cities and towns.

As we move forth in the new year, and prepare for the challenges that will inevitably engross many Americans, we are still faced with the question of how can public policy analyses, political processes, or organizational changes add value? In what directions do we want to travel to address the “unevenness of human progress”?  How can interdisciplinary approaches and various disciplines contribute to illuminating the policy dialogues?

Reginald M. Clark (1983), employing a totally different lens attempts to shed light on the question of unevenness of educational attainment in urban Chicago communities by suggesting that we might want to focus on “family worlds.”  Clark’s ethnographic research identified specific and identifiable family interactions that produce high-achieving or low-achieving students well-prepared or ill-prepared for post-secondary education.

As we make plans for 2015, it might be a worthwhile intellectual endeavor to identify where we want to go as a family, community, and country, while at the same time taking a closer look at family worlds and how they are related to the larger public policy issues, political fixes, and social unevenness.

In 2015, how can various  and multidimensional frameworks provide directions for where we want to go?  What are acceptable solutions?

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