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Public Policy


State of the Art: Public Policy

Course Description

Problems and solutions for these problems come and go. Decisions are made, or clear decisions are avoided. And such policy decisions are implemented or find trouble on their path. Policies may be successful, but often something goes different from what was expected. Estimations of the possible solutions to a problem may appear too optimistic, political intentions may founder in conflict, and sudden events can make other problems more urgent and push a policy to a lower position on the agenda.

How can all this be understood? For this, you need a conceptual lens that provides you a sharper view at the world of policy making. This course presents such a conceptual lens based on two central elements in the policy process: the attention to problems, and the tone and ‘image’ of such problems as they emerge and travel their way through society and political institutions. A better understanding of the origins and creation of policy from its emergence on the agenda is fundamental to any kind of professional work related to policy making, analysis and evaluation that you may aspire after you concluded your master program.

At front stage are the questions what elected and nonelected policy makers do with policy problems. Which issues are addressed, which ignored, how does this happen, and why? Also, the definition of policy problems and the search for solutions is not a monopoly of government institutions. Governance usually is a mixture of the state, the market, and civil society. Policy making involves both ‘puzzling’ and ‘powering’, pushing an pulling for influence of actors with stakes in the matter.

In this course we examine key elements of policy making and its dynamics over time, such as the rise and fall of problems, agenda building, policy change and the points of resistance that must be overcome before such change is possible. These elements of attention and change over time are related to the way images of problems are created and the scope and tone of debate is shaped by actors. Policy making happens in many different venues, and these have their own type of effect on the level of attention and the way in which the problem is defined.

The literature used in this course consists of the award-winning book Policy Paradox, which provides one part of the conceptual lens on public policy we use. This book helps you to decompose the elements of policy and understand the way in which problems and solutions are constructed. Another part of the lens we use comes from literature on agenda setting and deals with the fundamental concept of attention. Finally, we use literature that provides a view into different types of policy making venues, such as the media, political institutions, and bodies of expert knowledge and policy advice.

Course objectives

This course aims to enlarge your conceptual, integrative and reflective skills when analyzing public policy. You will literally read today’s and tomorrow’s news on problems and solution in policy making in a different way after this course.

The three main objectives are that you can: *Understand and explain the conditions under which attention to problems rises and falls, and how major changes in public policies occur, and what prevents such changes. *Reproduce how policies are socially constructed, by identifying the way of portrayal of problems, show how the selection of goals and solutions has happened, and what the origins of such goals and solutions are. *Apply the central concepts in this course to a real world case in a small group project, and report about this case.


Wednesday 5-9-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.06

Working group 1
Wednesday 12-9-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 19-9-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SH K.VOORHOUT
Wednesday 26-9-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 3-10-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 10-10-201211:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 17-10-201211:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01

Working group 2
Wednesday 12-9-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 19-9-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SH BEN.HOUT
Wednesday 26-9-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 3-10-2012 11:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 10-10-201211:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 17-10-201211:00 13:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01

Working group 3
Wednesday 12-9-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 19-9-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SH K.VOORHOUT
Wednesday 26-9-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 3-10-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 10-10-201213:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01
Wednesday 17-10-201213:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.01

Working group 4
Wednesday 12-9-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 19-9-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SH BEN.HOUT
Wednesday 26-9-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 3-10-2012 13:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 10-10-201213:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01
Wednesday 17-10-201213:00 15:00 CDH-SCHOUW A2.01

Wednesday 24-10-201209:00 12:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.06

Wednesday 16-1-2013 09:00 12:00 CDH-SCHOUW A0.06

Mode of instruction

This course begins with a plenary lecture presenting the main elements used for analyzing public policy, and pointing the way how the successive week themes connect to each other.

From the second course week on, there will be work groups in which assignments are presented, discussed and evaluated. These assignments are about empirical cases in which the conceptual (‘theoretical’) equipment provided by the literature is applied. This entails a major part of the course work for all students.

Assessment method

Three separate group assignments (40% of your final individual grade).
A written exam (60% of your final individual grade).

The three assignments are meant as a training exercise in applying the conceptual lens provided in this course. They are graded to offer an incentive, but in case after the exam your final course result would be negatively influenced by the average for your three assignments, we disregard this average. Thus, the assignments can only have a positive effect on your final grade.

Course material is also obligatory for the assignments and exam as far as it is set out in sheets, handouts and other information media.


Deborah Stone, Policy Paradox. The Art of Political Decision Making, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2001 (revised edition).

An e-syllabus provided via blackboard.

Case material, mostly collected by students in group assignments.


The Instructors use Blackboard. This page is available from 1 September 2012.



Contact information

Lecturers of this course are Dr. Arco Timmermans and Petya Alexandrova MSc.