A second approach to creating public policy is a bit more objective. Rather than starting with what ought to happen and seeking ways to make it so, policy analysts try to identify all the possible choices available to a decision maker and then gauge their impacts if implemented. The goal of the analyst isn’t really to encourage the implementation of any of the options; rather, it is to make sure decision makers are fully informed about the implications of the decisions they do make.

Understanding the financial and other costs and benefits of policy choices requires analysts to make strategic guesses about how the public and governmental actors will respond. For example, when policymakers are considering changes to health care policy, one very important question is how many people will participate. If very few people had chosen to take advantage of the new health care plans available under the ACA marketplace, it would have been significantly cheaper than advocates proposed, but it also would have failed to accomplish the key goal of increasing the number of insured. But if people who currently have insurance had dropped it to take advantage of ACA’s subsidies, the program’s costs would have skyrocketed with very little real benefit to public health. Similarly, had all states chosen to create their own marketplaces, the cost and complexity of ACA’s implementation would have been greatly reduced.

Because advocates have an incentive to understate costs and overstate benefits, policy analysis tends to be a highly politicized aspect of government. It is critical for policymakers and voters that policy analysts provide the most accurate analysis possible. A number of independent or semi-independent think tanks have sprung up in Washington, DC, to provide assessments of policy options. Most businesses or trade organizations also employ their own policy-analysis wings to help them understand proposed changes or even offer some of their own. Some of these try to be as impartial as possible. Most, however, have a known bias toward policy advocacy. The Cato Institute, for example, is well known and highly respected policy analysis group that both liberal and conservative politicians have turned to when considering policy options. But the Cato Institute has a known libertarian bias; most of the problems it selects for analysis have the potential for private sector solutions. This means its analysts tend to include the rosiest assumptions of economic growth when considering tax cuts and to overestimate the costs of public sector proposals.

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The RAND Corporation has conducted objective policy analysis for corporate, nonprofit, and government clients since the mid-twentieth century. What are some of the policy areas it has explored?

Both the Congress and the president have tried to reduce the bias in policy analysis by creating their own theoretically nonpartisan policy branches. In Congress, the best known of these is the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO. Authorized in the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, the CBO was formally created in 1975 as a way of increasing Congress’s independence from the executive branch. The CBO is responsible for scoring the spending or revenue impact of all proposed legislation to assess its net effect on the budget. In recent years, it has been the CBO’s responsibility to provide Congress with guidance on how to best balance the budget (see Figure). The formulas that the CBO uses in scoring the budget have become an important part of the policy debate, even as the group has tried to maintain its nonpartisan nature.

A graph titled “Publicly Held Federal Debt, 1790-2009”. The x-axis ranges from 1790 to 2030. The y-axis ranges from 0 to 200, representing percentage of gross domestic product. A line starts at approximately 25% in 1790, decreases to around 0% in 1830 and remains until around 1860, increases to around 25% in 1870, decreases to around 0% in 1910, increases to around 25% in 1920 with a label “World War I”, decreases then increases to around 40% in 1935 with a label “The Great Depression”, increases to around 100% in 1945 with a label “World War II”, decreases to around 20% in 1970, increases to around 40% in 1990, and decreases to around 30% in 2010. A dotted line from 2010 shows a drastic increase to 2030 labeled “CBO’s Alternative Fiscal Scenario” and another dotted line from 2010 shows a minor increase to 2030 labeled “CBO’s Extended-Baseline Scenario”. At the bottom of the graph, a source is listed: “Congressional Budget Office, Figure 1 of “Federal Debt and the risk of a Fiscal Crisis”, July 27, 2010.”.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is responsible for studying the impact of all proposed legislation to assess its net effect on the budget and tracking federal debt. For example, this 2010 CBO chart shows federal debt held by the public as a percentage of gross domestic product from 1790 through 2010 and projected to 2035.

In the executive branch, each individual department and agency is technically responsible for its own policy analysis. The assumption is that experts in the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Elections Commission are best equipped to evaluate the impact of various proposals within their policy domain. Law requires that most regulatory changes made by the federal government also include the opportunity for public input so the government can both gauge public opinion and seek outside perspectives.

Executive branch agencies are usually also charged with considering the economic impact of regulatory action, although some agencies have been better at this than others. Critics have frequently singled out the EPA and OSHA for failing to adequately consider the impact of new rules on business. Within the White House itself, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was created to “serve the President of the United States in implementing his [or her] vision” of policy. Policy analysis is important to the OMB’s function, but as you can imagine, it frequently compromises its objectivity during policy formulation.

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How do the OMB and the CBO compare when it comes to impartiality?

Preparing to Be a Policymaker

What is your passion? Is there an aspect of society you think should be changed? Become a public policy advocate for it! One way to begin is by petitioning the Office of the President. In years past, citizens wrote letters to express grievances or policy preferences. Today, you can visit We the People, the White House online petitions platform (Figure). At this government site, you can search for petitions related to your cause or post your own. If your petition gets enough signatures, the White House will issue a response. The petitions range from serious to silly, but the process is an important way to speak out about the policies that are important to you.

An image of a comment bubble that reads “Your voice in our government”.
The White House petition website encourages citizens to participate in the democratic process.

Follow-up activity: Choose an issue you are passionate about. Visit We the People to see if there is already a petition there concerning your chosen issue. If so, join the community promoting your cause. If not, create your own petition and try to gather enough signatures to receive an official response.