Public Policy: Reinventing the World

William Galston: "It is hard to imagine a more exciting time to undertake a career in public service."


As we entered the new millennium, average Americans were feeling confident about the future, and policymakers were as well. At home, the business cycle seemed to have been tamed, while an increasingly deregulated market was generating growth, rising incomes, and fiscal stability. Abroad, the ideological conflicts of the Cold War had given way to a shared belief in market-driven growth, open trade, and a global economic framework. To be sure, there were horrendous violations of human rights, from the Balkans to Rwanda, but they could be viewed as embers of a dying fire.

What a difference a decade makes. In retrospect, we can see that our assumptions about the world at the end of the '90s mirrored the illusions of the years before World War I and that our assumptions about ourselves recapitulated the follies of the 1920s. Global economic growth is no antidote for the poison of anger and humiliation, and innovation that outpaces regulation is just as dangerous as regulation that represses innovation. There is no alternative: We need to rethink our assumptions and change the way we conduct our public business. There will be false starts and failed experiments along the way, but in the end, if we are wise (and a bit lucky), we will emerge with the policies and institutions we need for the decades ahead.

Because so much is up for grabs, it is hard to imagine a more exciting time to undertake a career in public service. Whether the issue is long-term fiscal policy, financial regulation, healthcare, terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, or international development, old approaches lie shattered like windows after an earthquake. We have no idea what will happen during the next generation, but today's students of public policy will help invent a new world. And many are fueled by the determination to do just that.

Here, as with much else, good intentions are not enough. The course of study that prepares students for careers in public policy is very different from the curricula at economics departments or law schools, but just as demanding. The analysis of public policy is inherently interdisciplinary, and students must achieve competence in analytical methods ranging from economics and statistics to political science and even applied moral philosophy. Because so much of the daily business of evaluating existing policies and recommending new ones is conducted through memorandums, public policy students must learn how to convey their thoughts effectively to harried senior officials. And because good writing is an increasingly rare skill, public policy schools must reinforce it. While students may not enjoy it when professors point out flaws in their written presentations, this criticism sensitizes aspiring public servants to the importance of clarity and concision.

Closing the gap. Most people who teach in schools of public policy understand that public service is closer to an art than a science. Specifying optimal policies in ideal circumstances is one thing, choosing among second- and third-best policies in the real world quite another. Statistical significance is one thing, significant change in public policy quite another, a gap that only developed judgment can fill.

In the end, public service is a moral calling. Good public servants have the courage to speak the truth as they see it—and the humility to recognize the limits of their understanding. These virtues are not innate; they must be acquired over time. Academic economists often do their best work when they are young; public servants tend to peak much later in life. For most of them, as for the rest of us, it takes the memory of suppressing one's best thoughts for fear of offending those who outrank us to stiffen our spine later on; and only the experience of confidently recommending a course of action that generates bad results can sensitize us to the possibility that we might be mistaken.

Corrected on : William A. Galston is Ezra Zilkha chair in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He is also "College Park Professor" at the University of Maryland, where he taught for 17 years in the School of Public Policy.