If you’re interested in a particular social or political issue, try to learn as much as you can about it. For example, if you’re interested in protecting the environment, check out the Web sites of well-known environmental think tanks—such as the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, World Resources Institute, Worldwatch Institute, Resources for the Future, and Earthwatch Institute—and government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of the Interior.
Talk to your high school teachers and college professors about opportunities in public policy. An information interview with a policy analyst can provide a good overview of the career. If you’re in college, consider becoming a student member of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM). Student membership benefits include a subscription to the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, reduced registration rates for all APPAM activities, and access to networking events. Finally, visit PublicServiceCareers.org to learn more about education requirements and potential career paths in public service and public policy.
Education funding. National defense. Gun control and gun rights. The Affordable Care Act. Protecting the environment. Social Security reform. Labor issues. Tax reform. Crime prevention. These are just some of the complex issues that government officials and private citizens wrestle with on a daily basis. Policy analysts work for government agencies, think tanks, corporations, and other employers to provide information and advice on these and many other topics to decision-makers. Although their duties vary by employer and job title, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that most policy analysts work in one or more of four areas:
Policy analysts gather information and statistics by conducting surveys, gathering data from existing surveys and reports, analyzing election results, and talking with other experts and regular people about the issues. They use this information to support the overall work of the organization (such as one that specializes in encouraging gun control measures), identify emerging issues with a government program (such as Social Security), or determine the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a particular program or a proposed law.
Policy analysts use surveys, focus groups, cost-benefit analyses, and other tools and strategies to identify current or potential problems with a law or initiative, then develop solutions and compare them to ones that have been proposed by their colleagues or groups that have different ideas about how the issue should be addressed. For example, an environmental think tank or state-level government agency on the Gulf Coast might analyze how various policy proposals would address rising ocean levels and coastal erosion in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.
Policy analysts frequently assess whether an existing policy or law has been effective or achieved its objectives, with an end goal of recommending that it be retained as is, expanded, or eliminated. One major law that is under constant debate is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Policy analysts on both sides of the political spectrum use focus groups, statistical research, and other investigative methods to determine if the ACA should be kept or repealed.
The hours of research, discussion, and study culminate in the dissemination of the information that has been collected. The potential audience for this information varies, but often includes legislators and other government officials, members of the media, academia, and the public. Policy analysts write fact sheets, reports, white papers, and entire books about their findings, as well as publish blogs, Tweets, and print and digital editorials. They also give speeches, testify before Congress and state legislatures, meet with government officials, and serve as experts on radio and talk shows.
Some analysts focus on the philosophical dimensions of policy debates, and provide their opinions regarding a proposed or existing policy’s morality or ethics. Policy analysts who work for think tanks that do not have large endowments or that lack fundraising departments may be required to write grant proposals and negotiate contracts with private organizations and government agencies.