Office hours: Wed. 1:30-3:30, College Library


Public policy is defined in many ways. I think of public policy as the government’s statement of what it intends to do. Public policy is made at the international, national, state, regional, county, city, and even more local levels.

Learning about public policy—what it is, the legal framework within which it is made, the tools available to policymakers, the policymaking process, how to evaluate public policies—will strengthen your writing, analytical, research, and advocacy skills, and will better inform your participation in civil society.

This class is in the political science department because public policy is inexorably linked to questions of power. Other political science classes cover how power shifts. This class is about policy. Of course, policy emerges from and shapes politics, but it also involves evidence. Political debates define problems, goals, and agendas, but to achieve any goal through policy, evidence about the effects of different policy tools is indispensable. Evidence must come from sources that your audience will trust. Good evidence ought to be convincing to reasonable opponents of one’s policy goals. Good arguments clarify your logic, even to those who may oppose your goals.

Required Texts

Three texts are on reserve at College Library and have been ordered by A Room of One’s Own Book Store on State Street. Any edition is fine, but more recent editions have more contemporary examples. I will post other readings on Canvass or the class website.

Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Thomas A. Birkland, An Introduction to the Policy Process: Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making. Any Edition (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe).

Deborah Stone, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Any Edition (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.).


  1. Engage with public policy scholars and practitioners
  2. Understand the history and language (Birkland)
  3. Understand how scholarly and public debates inform policy (Stone)
  4. Conduct policy-relevant research
  5. Write for a policy audience
  6. Engage in public policymaking
  7. Engaging others in the policy process

“Practical wisdom includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience” - Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Learning Outcomes

My objective in teaching this course is to encourage your understanding of the policy-making process in the United States.

  • You will understand the provisions of the United States Constitution most related to the development and execution of public policy in the United States: Delegation of powers, separation of powers, federalism, and the allocation of powers within the states.
  • You will understand the difference between federalism and the allocation of authorities in the State of Wisconsin between state, county, and municipal governments.
  • You will learn to define and frame problems as an essential first step in the development of public policy.

  • You will learn to develop, analyze, and advocate policy alternatives.
  • You will learn how to write a policy memo.
  • You will learn about executive, administrative, legislative, judicial, and other governmental authorities and their respective roles in making public policy.
  • You will understand the role of politics in policy development.
  • You will learn various approaches to policy analysis.
  • You will learn about different tools and functions available to public policy-makers.
  • You will learn various approaches to evaluate the success of public policy initiatives.
  • You will learn about the role of norms and values in public policy formulation.

No screens in class (unless I give permission). Research shows that they inhibit learning and distract your colleagues.



Class attendance is required. I will take attendance at the beginning of each class. If you are going to miss class, please notify me by email in advance.

Learning environment

Learning from each other is only possible if we show the respect due to our fellow citizens of this class.

“The University of Wisconsin-Madison endeavors to maintain an environment that challenges students, faculty, and staff to develop their critical thinking capacities to their fullest potential-an environment in which controversial, provocative, and unpopular ideas can safely be introduced and discussed. The university is, therefore, unswervingly committed to freedom of speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and to the principle of academic freedom adopted by the Board of Regents in 1894, which states in part: “whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone truth can be found.”….The maintenance of intellectual freedom through the open expression of ideas will sometimes be unavoidably hurtful. Some hurtful expressions, however, play no meaningful role in the free exchange of ideas; they may, indeed, inhibit that exchange, thereby denying some individuals full participation in the learning experience. These expressions are those that clearly derogate and debase a student or students in the class on the basis of gender, gender identity and expression, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability."-UW-Madison Faculty Policy

“Diversity is a source of strength, creativity, and innovation for UW-Madison. We value the contributions of each person and respect the profound ways their identity, culture, background, experience, status, abilities, and opinion enrich the university community. We commit ourselves to the pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, outreach, and diversity as inextricably linked goals. The University of Wisconsin-Madison fulfills its public mission by creating a welcoming and inclusive community for people from every background – people who as students, faculty, and staff serve Wisconsin and the world.”-UW-Madison statement on diversity

To realize these goals, I expect us to respect our colleagues and cultivate inclusive discussions. This means that we must be careful not to mislead, degrade, interrupt someone who does not speak as much, or enforce hierarchies based on race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender expression, sexual orientation, or ability.

Basis for Assessment

Credit hours will be earned by attending two classes of 1.25 hours each, reading and preparing written work outside of class for 6 to 9 hours per week, submitting three policy memos, and taking a final exam.

Participation (15 X 1% = 15%)

Participation posts to Canvas are due by 7 p.m. every Tuesday

  • Weeks 2 and 3: Ask a question: post a question from the readings of least 100 words AND respond to at least one other post
  • Week 4: Gather evidence: Find a policy-relevant peer-review research paper and post at least 100 words about it on Canvas
  • Week 5: Ask a question about how our local government works (for example, about the relative authority of the Dane County Executive vs. County Board of Supervisors)
  • Week 6: Engage in policymaking: Write to a public official or agency. Post at least 100 words about it and a link to the opportunity on Canvas (e.g. Comment on a proposed federal agency policy, Comment on a proposed state agency policy, Recommend a course of action to one of your elected representatives )
  • Week 7: Engage others in policymaking: Write at least 100 words about why it is important to engage in a particular policy process and link to the opportunity on Canvass OR Write no more 240 characters (plus a link to the opportunity) on why people should engage that is shared by at least 5 other people–post a link or screenshot to Canvas
  • Weeks 8-14: Choose one of the above options. Early posts set the agenda!
  • Every week: Attend lectures or let me know ahead of time if you must miss.

Policy memoranda (3 X 20% = 60%)

You will write three policy memos to public officials following the memo template exactly.

Example memos are on Canvas. In addition to the peer-reviewed research you have shared, I compiled sources of authority and current initiatives in Dane County.

Memo #1 topic announced February 3, due by 5 p.m. February 21.

Memo #2 topic announced February 24, due by 5 p.m. March 13.

Memo #3 topic announced March 23, due by 5 p.m. April 17.

Exam (25%)

Sunday, 5/3/2020, 7:25PM - 9:25PM. Location TBD.

The exam will cover the entire course.

Please do not take this class if you cannot be present for the final exam. There will not be any alternative exam times (except per accommodations; see below).

The exam evaluates if you:

  1. did the reading thoughtfully,
  2. paid close attention in lectures, and
  3. asked when you did not understand a term or concept (raise your hand or email me anytime)

If we aim to talk the talk, we must know the key terms. I will select 20 to 30 key terms from readings and lectures. You will answer several true/false questions about each term’s use in the policy context, give an example, and, in a few sentences, explain how it helps us understand the policy process.


I will comment on your memos (click on the “rubric” button to see my comments). I expect you to take my comments into account in your next memo and write more effectively each time. If my comments are unclear, please come to office hours.

Assignments must be submitted on time. Grades will be reduced by a full grade per 24-hour period for which the assignment is late.

A: 94-100
A-: 90-93
B+: 87-89
B: 84-86
B-: 80-83
C+: 77-79
C: 74-76
C-: 70-73
D+: 67-69
D: 64-66
D-: 60-63
F: 0-59

Policy on Academic Dishonesty/Plagiarism

Academic dishonesty is broadly defined as submitting work that is not your own without attribution. This is not acceptable in any academic course. I use software tools to detect plagiarism. If you submit written work containing plagiarized material, you will receive a failing grade for the course and be reported to the University.


You are expected to do all assigned readings for each week before Monday’s class. I will call on students during class.

Each week, we will read some original research and portions of a textbook for a broader context.

Week one: Federalism

Wednesday, January 22

Week two: The Policy Process

Monday, January 27
Wednesday, January 29

Research: Egan, Part 1

Listen: More Perfect, “One Nation, Under Money” (Note: this episode includes a brief mention of sexual assault in the context of the Violence Against Women Act at minute 51. It is not graphic.)

Context: The United States Constitution (as amended, 1992)

Week three: Institutions

Monday, February 3: Guest Speaker, Thomas Durkin, Research Librarian Wednesday, February 5

Research: Egan, Part 2

Listen: The Federalist Society “A Preview of County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund”

Context reading: Birkland, Chapter 1-3

Week four: Policy Actors and Evidence

Monday, February 10
Wednesday, February 12

Research: Egan, Part 3

Listen: Moonshots-Thomas Kalil

Listen: Informing Policy-Jenni W. Owen

Context: Birkland Part II, Chapters 4-7

Policy Memo Research Assistance with Thomas Durkin:

  • Monday, February 10th from 6:00-7:00 pm in Memorial Library room 231
  • Tuesday, February 11th from 5:30-6:30 pm in Memorial Library room 231
  • Wednesday, February 12th from 5:30-6:30 pm in Memorial Library room 231

Week five: Policy Tools

Monday, February 17
Wednesday, February 19: Guests: Cap Times reporters Natalie Yahr and Abigail Becker

Listen: SSN: Paying for Pollution-Leigh Raymond

Context: Birkland Part III, Chapters 8-11, Bardach Appendix B (PDF online)

Optional Listen: When pop culture and local government collide: local government reporters review Parks and Recreation, Sim City, The Simsons, The Wire, and Gilmore Girls

Memo 1 due by 5 p.m. February 21.

Week six: Theories of the Policy Process

Monday, February 24: Guest Speaker: Dane County Executive, Joe Parisi
Wednesday, February 26

Research: There are too many lawyers in politics. Here’s what to do about it.-Lee Drutman

Listen: SSN: Lawyers, Lawyers, and More Lawyers-Adam Bonica

Context: Birkland Part IV, Chapters 12-13

Week seven: Politics and Rationality

Monday, March 2
Wednesday, March 4

Research: TBD

Listen: NPR: Obama Office Alters More Federal Rules Than Bush

Context: Stone, Introduction and Chapters 1-3

Week eight: Policy Goals and Tradeoffs

Monday, March 9
Wednesday, March 11

Research: TBD

Listen: SSN: Death by a Thousand Cuts

Context: Stone, Part II

Memo 2 due by 5 p.m., March 13.

Week nine: Framing Problems

Monday, March 23: Tentative Guest Speaker
Wednesday, March 25

Research: TBD

Context: Stone, Part III

Polis and market models of society

Week ten: Solutions

Monday, March 30
Wednesday, April 1

Research: TBD

Context: Stone, Part IV

Week eleven: Policy Feedback

Monday, April 6
Wednesday, April 8

Research: Mettler, Suzanne. 2002. Bringing the state back in to civic engagement: Policy feedback effects of the GI Bill for World War II veterans. American Political Science Review 96(2): 351-365.

Research: How Mass Imprisonment Burdens the United States with a Distrustful Underclass-Vesla M. Weaver

Listen: SSN: 147: In Government We Distrust-Suzanne Mettler

Week twelve: The Role of Evidence in Messy Policy Processes

Monday, April 13
Wednesday, April 15

Research: TBD

Context: TBD

Memo 3 due by 5 p.m., April 17

Week thirteen: Laws that Govern Lawmaking

Monday, April 20: Tentative Guest Speaker
Wednesday, April 22

Research: Beyond Adversary Democracy-Jane Mansbridge

Listen: Citizens’ Initiative SSN 117: The Citizen Expert-John Gastil

Listen: What is the Local Voices Network?

Context: TBD

Week fourteen: “Best” Practices

Research: TBD

Context: TBD

Monday, April 27
Wednesday, April 29: Final exam review

Academic Integrity

By enrolling in this course, each student assumes the responsibilities of an active participant in UW-Madison’s community of scholars in which everyone’s academic work and behavior are held to the highest academic integrity standards. Academic misconduct compromises the integrity of the university. Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, and helping others commit these acts are examples of academic misconduct, which can result in disciplinary action. This includes but is not limited to failure on the assignment/course, disciplinary probation, or suspension. Substantial or repeated cases of misconduct will be forwarded to the Office of Student Conduct & Community Standards for additional review. More information at

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities is a shared faculty and student responsibility. Students are expected to inform me of their need for instructional accommodations by the end of the third week of the semester, or as soon as possible after a disability has been incurred or recognized. I will work either directly with you or in coordination with the McBurney Center to identify and provide reasonable instructional accommodations. Disability information, including instructional accommodations as part of a student’s educational record, is confidential and protected under FERPA. The University of Wisconsin-Madison supports the right of all enrolled students to a full and equal educational opportunity. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Wisconsin State Statute (36.12), and UW-Madison policy (Faculty Document 1071) require that students with disabilities be reasonably accommodated in instruction and campus life.