The politics of policymaking

Course content

This course aims to introduce students to the political nature of the policy and decision-making process. It invites students to critically consider rational problem-solving accounts of policymaking in light of theories and empirical case studies that highlight the role of power and beliefs in policy decision-making and implementation. The course explores the different ways in which institutions, ideology, and participation in shaping who gets to decide what, when, for whom, and to what end. In it, students will explore questions like: ‘What is the nature of policymakers’ rationality?’ and ‘Is evidence-based policymaking non-ideological?’.

In sum, the course aims:

To introduce students to the theories, concepts and methods with which to compare, critically understand and systematically 

  • analyse the policy process, from decision-making to implementation and beyond;
  • To familiarise students with the role of power and beliefs in ordering policy preferences, shaping institutions and structuring group participation in the decision-making process;
  • To provide students with a critical understanding of the role past and present policies play in shaping people’s lived experience;
  • To help students acquire the practical skills to research and critically analyse, evaluate and generate well-founded and insightful assessments of the impact of policies on different groups’ political, economic, and social equality.


To do this, the course is structured into four parts. Part one introduces the different accounts of the policy process, contrasting linear, rational, instrumental problem-solving conceptions to those that underscore the role of power, affect, and belief in making and implementing public action. Part two focuses on the different actors, venues, and processes involved in the policy process in a way that draws attention to the central role of struggles over meanings, values, and resources. Drawing on empirical case studies, part three problematises contemporary accounts of rational, ordered, and ‘neutral’ policymaking, recasting it as a complex process in which ideology and social norms retain a central role. Finally, part four explores the way in which policy itself structures people’s lived experience and can contribute to creating and entrenching differences in status and welfare for different groups.

The weekly content is structured as follows:

  1. 1. Introduction:
  2. 2. The evolving ‘policy sciences’
  3. 3. Policymaking as ‘powering and puzzling’
  4. 4. In/Out: The power in participation
  5. 5. The politics of institutional design
  6. 6. The politics of policy problems
  7. 7. Beyond ideology? Parties, Promises, and New Public Management
  8. 8. ‘What matters is what works’: The politics of evidence
  9. 9. Accounting for complexity: Governance vs Government
  10. 10. Persuasion or problem-solving? The politics of effective policy analysis
  11. 11. Deserving vs Undeserving: Policymaking as social construction and choice-making
  12. 12. Policymaking ‘for democracy’?
  13. 13. The politics of policy success (and failure)
  14. 14. Conclusion

Bachelor: 7,5 ECTS

Kandidat: 7,5 ECTS

Learning outcome


On completion of the course, students should be able to:

  • Identify, summarise and differentiate between key theories and concepts used to describe and explain the policy process;
  • Critically interpret current public policy research on issues of participation, institutional design, and complexity, reflecting on methodological and theoretical strengths and weaknesses;
  • Describe and evaluate the different roles of actors, institutions and ideas in shaping policy decisions;
  • Describe and contrast between different conceptions of decision-maker rationality.



On completion of the course, students should be able to:

  • Organise and carry out policy analyses that are sensitive to issues of power and belief, and communicate policy-relevant information effectively across a range of formats including independent research and through oral contribution to group discussion;
  • Engage in critical and theory-informed debates about policy processes and outcomes;
  • Compare and evaluate different aspects of the policy and decision-making process using theoretical and conceptual insights from the new policy sciences.



On completion of the course, students should be able to:

  • Reflect on how to engage effectively in the policy process;
  • Critically evaluate a diverse range of academic and lay policy-relevant information;
  • Collaborate with peers in problem-solving and discussion tasks on topics related to the politics of the policy process;
  • Plan and manage a free written research assignment on a policy topic of interest;
  • Connect key policy concepts and theories to areas of public intervention beyond those discussed in class.

Classes will comprise mini-lectures, small group exercises, presentations by students on the key reading or their assignment topic, and frequent whole-group discussion.

The following are an indicative list of key readings associated with the course:

Bacchi, Carol (1999) Women, policy and politics. The construction of policy problems. London: Sage.

Schneider, A.L. and H.L. Ingram, (2005), Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions Public Policy. Albany: SUNY Press.

Zittoun, P., (2014), The political process of policymaking: A pragmatic approach to public policy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Cairney, P., (2016), The politics of evidence-based policy making. Palgrave Macmillan.

Compton, Mallory, and Paul ‘t Hart (eds). 2019. Great Policy Successes. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (Available through Open Access)

John, Peter. 2018. Theories of Policy Change and Variation Reconsidered: A Prospectus for the Political Economy of Public Policy. Policy Sciences 51(1): 1-16.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2016. Governance: What Do We Know, and How Do We Know It? Annual Review of Political Science 19:89-105.

Pierre, Jon, and B. Guy Peters. 2000. Governance, Politics and the State. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peters, B. Guy, and Jon Pierre. 2006. Governance, Government and the State. In The State: Theories and Issues, Colin Hay, Michael Lister, and David Marsh (eds), pp. 209-222. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mukherjee, Ishani, and Michael Howlett. 2015. Who Is a Stream? Epistemic Communities, Instrument Constituencies and Advocacy Coalitions in Public Policy-Making. Politics and Governance 3(2): 65-75.

Blyth, Mark. 2003. Structures Do Not Come with an Instruction Sheet: Interests, Ideas, and Progress in Political Science. Perspectives on Politics 1(4): 695-706.

Howlett, Michael. 1991. Policy Instruments, Policy Styles and Policy Implementation: National Approaches to Theories of Instrument Choice. Policy Studies Journal 19(2): 1-21.

Béland, Daniel. 2010. Reconsidering Policy Feedback: How Policies Affect Policies. Administration & Society 42(5): 569-590.

Cairney, Paul. 2013. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Theories. Policy Studies Journal 41(1): 1-21.

Rochefort, David A., and Roger W. Cobb. 1993. Problem Definition, Agenda Access and Policy Choice. Policy Studies Journal 21(1): 56-71.

Schneider, Anne, and Helen Ingram. 1993. Social Construction of Target Populations: Implications for Politics and Policy. The American Political Science Review 87(2): 334-347.

Capano, Giliberto, and Andrea Lippi. 2017. How Policy Instruments are Chosen: Patterns of Decision Makers’ Choices. Policy Sciences 50(2): 269-293.

Dunlop, Claire A., and Claudio M. Radaelli. 2018. The Lessons of Policy Learning: Types, Triggers, Hindrances and Pathologies. Policy & Politics 46(2): 255-272.

Geva-May, Iris. 2001. When Motto is ‘Till Death Do Us Part’: The Conceptualization and the Craft of Termination in the Public Policy Cycle. International Journal of Public Administration 24(3): 263-288.

Peters, Guy B. 2018. Policy Problems and Policy Design. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
  • Students will be frequently encouraged to discuss their ideas for the written assignment with the course convenor as well as with their peers in class;
  • A portion of three weekly session will be devoted to discussing, in detail, how to plan and execute the assignment;
  • Students will get informal feedback on their ideas and arguments in the course of class discussion;
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Free Written Assignement
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

Criteria for exam assesment

  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28


Course number
7,5 ECTS
Programme level
Full Degree Master

1 semester

Department of Political Science, Study Council
Contracting department
  • Department of Political Science
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Social Sciences
Course Coordinator
  • Emily Flore St Denny   (2-6c6b47706d7a35727c356b72)
Saved on the 29-10-2021

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