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Course Overview


Following a summer internship in a Washington DC public policy think tank, a student said this: “In public policy work, if you can’t write it or say it, you can’t do it.”


She's right, according to my own practical experience as a communications consultant to government .   Additionally, my theoretical perspective as a writing teacher tells me that effective language use, or communication skill combined with situational know-how, can make a difference in the world. Therefore, I developed this course to prepare people to effect real change by communicating well in democratic public decision-making.


You will find the course useful if:

  • you are studying the social sciences or humanities to prepare for a career in professions of politics, government, public relations, law, public policy, journalism, communications, social work, public health
  • you are (or might in future be) an intern or an administrator in government or in a nongovernmental organization concerned with public affairs
  • you are preparing to enter (or already practicing in) a publicly regulated industry or business
  • you have (or seek) a job as a communications officer in government
  • you have (or seek) a job as a public policy/public relations director in a non-profit organization or as a public affairs liaison in a corporation, trade organization, professional association, or public service agency
  • you are a journalist, blogger, or concerned citizen who writes or talks about public affairs

What is the course about?

Public policy making in a democracy is an institutional and political process of solving problems. Communication---both written and oral---is essential to the process.

A public policy process includes the following activities:

  • defining the problem
  • developing knowledge of prior action or inaction on the problem;
  • proposing policy alternatives
  • deliberating the alternatives
  • adopting policy
  • administering and implementing policy
  • changing policy 


Actual processes are not so linear as this list suggests, so the list should not be taken as a step-by-step description of what happens in every instance.   Rather, it represents generic activities in a logical order.  Real public policy making incorporates those activities, but they do not always occur in this order, or in a single pass, or in a simple way. Actual processes are messy.


Each activity relies on associated communication practices and their products.  For example, defining the problem might generate a set of notes for personal use on experiences with problematic conditions, an oral briefing for an elected official about the problematic conditions, a memo for a legislative committee chair summarizing analysis of policy options, all of those and more.  Public problem definition is conducted by composing, presenting, and exchanging such communications.


What is expected? What will you do?

Course learning proceeds by first considering the meanings and kinds of public interest, then by performing two major projects, problem definition and public deliberation. Consideration of public interest is overtly theoretical, while the projects are overtly practical. However, all integrates. Theory and practice are inseparable, although our emphasis will shift from one to the other over the semester. We start with theory and continue with practice.

You are expected to proceed along two parallel lines of development, learning more about a chosen problem and learning to communicate publicly.

You will produce a sequence of documents associated with the activities outlined in the policy-making process, above. In other words, you will 'walk through' making your concern into a policy problem. You will produce a sequence of policy-process documents. Here's an ordered list of the products:

• defining the problem (preliminary problem description)

• developing knowledge of action or inaction on the problem (legislative history report)

• arguing policy alternatives (issue guide to the problem, with recommendation)

• defining the problem (final problem definition)

• publicly deliberating problems (committee member statement, witness testimony statement)


• Please refer to the course syllabus, now, for details on the projects.