Interview with Professors Rachel Meltzer and Alex Schwartz, Authors of Policy Analysis as Problem Solving

We sat down with Rachel Meltzer, Chair of Milano’s Public and Urban Policy MS program, and Alex Schwartz, Professor of Urban Policy, to discuss their new book Policy Analysis as Problem Solving: A Flexible and Evidence-Based Framework (Routledge 2018).

We invite you to read the interview and join the authors for a book launch and panel discussion on Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at 6:00 pm.

You teach Milano’s course on policy analysis. Why write a book on it? 

AS: I have taught policy analysis for about 25 years at the New School and was never fully satisfied with the texts that were available. Some focused on key skills, but tended to do so from a narrow perspective, one based mostly on economics. Others took a broader, more critical perspective, but did not really provide guidance on how to do policy analysis. In writing this book, Rachel and I sought to offer practical and flexible advice on the practice of policy analysis while also framing policy analysis within a broader institutional and political context.

RM: Before this book, we ended up piecing together readings and material from multiple sources.  With this textbook, we tried to put everything in one place and provide a holistic framework, drawing from the many sources on which we relied, for teaching a course on policy analysis.

How does your teaching inform your book? Will the process of writing it inform your teaching going forward? 

AS: The book is very much shaped by my experience teaching policy analysis and, even more so, the Urban Policy Lab, in which teams of students advise government agencies and nonprofit organizations on all sorts of policy issues.  In writing the book I always kept in mind the challenges students face throughout the analytic process—framing the problem, identifying potential solutions, and assessing them in light of various criteria, and doing so with limited information and under tight deadlines. We discuss these challenges and offer various strategies to address them.

RM: We also address very practical issues, like managing clients, confronting ethical challenges and using Excel for cost-benefit analysis.  All of these topics came from experiences in the classroom and from working with students to navigate client-based projects.

AS: The book is informed by our teaching in another, very direct sense.  Rachel and I have tried to simulate a key aspect of the New School’s Policy Analysis course on the book’s website.  A hallmark of our Policy Analysis course is the “Trial Round,” in which student teams work on policy issues that had been the subject of the previous year’s Urban Policy Lab.  As with the Lab, students are given a “mandate” that lays out the problem and provides background information on the client. Whereas student in the Lab carry out their own research, in the Trial Round students receive a “data pack” containing all of the research conducted by the original Lab team. Students draw on this data pack to carry out all aspects of their analysis.  The book’s companion website currently features three data packs from previous Lab projects as well as the original mandates (all edited to protect confidentiality) so that readers of the book can develop their analytic skills with these cases. In other words, we’ve attempted to replicate the “Trial Round” model for policy analysis courses that adopt the text.

RM: Other textbooks might include case studies to illustrate how the analytic tools can be applied, but not the raw material for hands-on learning by the students.  The data packs are an important representation of the hands-on learning that we are committed to in the Milano courses.   

The emergence of policy analysis as a field of study has produced other books on the subject. What is your distinctive approach?

AS: We’ve tried to take a broader more flexible approach….In addition to basic precepts of microeconomics we also draw on behavioral economics and design to highlight the variety of ways by which one can conceive of potential solutions and compare them. 

RM: I also think issues of equity are more front and center in our book.  In addition, we focus on sound, but pragmatic approaches, to make the tools as relevant as possible to actual decision-making scenarios that students will face on the job.

Unlike other books, we have threaded case studies throughout the entire book, using them to illustrate the policy analytic process from start to finish. One case study concerns electoral participation and strategies to increase voter turnout. The other focuses on ways to make the  child support system in the U.S. more just for low-income parents.

What is it like to write a book together? 

AS: It was very easy.  Having both taught Policy Analysis and the Urban Policy Lab, Rachel and I share very similar views about the kinds of skills and knowledge that policy analysis requires and we were both dissatisfied in similar ways with the existing texts available on the subject. We collaborated closely in preparing the original proposal for the publisher and in deciding on the chapters to be included. We divided up the chapters equally between us. We read and commented on each other’s drafts.  In the few instances we disagreed on matters of substance it did not take long to resolve our differences.

RM: I agree—it was one of the most easy-going collaborations I’ve had!!  It was truly a joint effort, made easier by the many years of teaching Policy Analysis and Urban Policy Lab side-by-side.

Did you learn anything new in writing the book?

AS: One of the most rewarding things about writing the book was the opportunity to learn about the nation’s child support system and how it has deepened racial and economic inequality in the United States.  Having spent years researching and writing about housing policy, the book provided an opportunity to learn about another critical social issue. Our decision to use this case in the book originated from a New York Times op ed essay about the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Walter Scott, by a South Carolina policeman.  Mr. Scott had been stopped for a traffic violation. He fled from the car because he was afraid he would be jailed once again for falling behind on his child support payments.  The case illustrates the tragic unintended consequences of policies implemented in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to strengthen enforcement of child support obligations. These policies failed to distinguish between parents who could easily afford to pay child support and those could not.  Child support policies penalized low-income parents in numerous ways, at worse incarcerating them for lacking the income to pay child support.   

During the course of writing the book, I attended a conference on child support and met the director of the federal Child Support Administration during the Obama Administration. She played a key role in reforming the child support system to make it less unfair. She tutored us on the child support system, its history, its impact, and the progress made in recent years in making the system less unfair. She graciously answered all of our questions about child support and provided extensive feedback on our child-support case study.

RM: This was a very new writing project for me.  Translating my approach in the classroom to the page was very challenging; some of the concepts we address are complex and we needed to figure out how to convey them in a straightforward and accessible way.  The cases really helped with this.  I have to believe that the process will make us both better instructors in the classroom, now that we’ve thought deeply about the process over the past two years of writing the book.

About the Author