Department of Political Science
School of Public and International Affairs

North Carolina State University

PS 310--Introduction to Public Policy—Fall 2007
Professor Thomas Birkland

William T. Kretzer Distinguished Professor of Public Policy

Caldwell 219,, 919-513-7799

Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:30 to 11:30, or by appointment. I am usually in my office by 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This syllabus and updates are available by following the link from Students who need another copy of the syllabus should look to the web version first. This document will change during the semester--please check it often.

Syllabus Update History

September 27: Group project checklist and report format is available here. Minor but important changes were made on November 16. The power point slides I used for the last lecture are here
The midterm exam is available here. The final exam is here
The lecture notes (one large PDF file) are available here. The group participation evaluation form is here
The final exam rough question pool is here  


Introduction and Overview

This course is an introduction to the public policy process in the United States. An important part of the course will involve developing an understanding of what "political" and "public policy" mean. We will then consider why some problems reach the public agenda, why some solutions are adopted and others rejected, and why some policies appear to succeed while others appear to fail. We will primarily examine policymaking at the national level, but we will also look at examples at the state and local level as well.

As you will learn in this course, the public policy process is not solely or even primarily about the sort of “politics” you read in the papers or hear castigated in the news media. Rather, the making of public policy is rather more complex and, I think, more interesting than TV, newspapers, and most civics textbooks would have you believe. I believe this course will therefore give you greater insight into how public policy—that is, government decisions to do or not do something about a problem—are made.

This course is not a survey of current events, although some sense of current social and political events and trends is important to any student of public policy. Rather, while you and I both know something about policy areas that are the most interesting to us; what’s important to a student and analyst of public policy is the tools one uses to understand and analyze policy. To learn these tools, you will learn a great deal of the theory of public policy formation. Understanding theory helps us to better ask questions about the process, and to improve our own skills in public policy.

Course Goals

You probably have your own goals as well for taking this course--let me know why you are taking this course and what you hope to learn from it.

Course Policies and Procedures

Student Responsibilities

I outline your main responsibilities here. Of course, this is not a comprehensive list—I generally expect that you will conduct yourselves like adult learners. This doesn’t mean that college should be all work and no play, but this does mean that you need to meet your responsibilities to my class and your other classes as well. If you do the work, you will do well; fail to do the work, and your grades will be poor. There is no extra credit, and no grades for effort, and I do not create “study” guides (in reality, “cramming guides”). It is unimportant whether your friends take half as long to study for this course and get just as good grades. The criterion for grading is performance.


Instructor Responsibilities

Having laid out my expectations for you, you are entitled to have high expectations of me. In exchange for your attention and cooperation, you can expect me to

Other Policies

Use your e-mail. Consistent with the new email communications policy, I will communicate with you via your NCSU email address only. You will be able to forward that mail to an address of your choice, but I require that you communicate with me using an NCSU email account only. This ensures privacy and appropriate communications.

By August 30, send me an e-mail message, from your NCSU address, with the following information:

Check your email often (especially the mornings of class days) for messages from about the course. If for some reason I need to cancel class, I will announce this via email.

Accommodation Policy. Reasonable accommodations will be made for students with verifiable disabilities. Any student who feels they may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact the instructor privately to discuss your specific needs. In order to take advantage of available accommodations, students must register with Disability Services for Students at 1900 Student Health Center, Campus Box 7509, 515-7653.

Academic Misconduct. Cheating, plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty will not be tolerated. To create a fair and equitable environment, the instructor aggressively enforces the university's policies on academic misconduct. All exams are to be completed individually. Although working together on written assignments to overcome obstacles is encouraged, each student must compose and submit their own written work, unless the assignment is for group work and all members of the group are listed as co-authors. All cases of academic misconduct will be handled as set out in university policies. For additional information see:

Exams and Grading

There will be one take-home midterm exam and one in-class final exam. There will also be an ongoing, semester-length group research project. All students must take both exams; missing one exam will result in a failing grade in the course. The final will be comprehensive.

All exams will be graded on an A, A-, B+, etc. scale, and these marks will be converted to numbers (4.0, 3.7, 3.3, etc.) for grade calculations. Grades are not assigned on a “curve”—unless the class as a whole agrees to apply a proper, normally distributed grading curve, in which for every A an F will be issued, and 68% of grades will be Bs through Ds (16% will be As, and 16% will be Fs). 

Grading Weights





Group research project, including your research portfolio


Class participation (not just attendance!)


The group project

As you will see in the schedule, a column is labeled "group research." We will be spending a good part of this course doing research on public problems and how they are addressed in the policy process. I will explain this project throughout the semester. The general concept is this: we will track policy issues through the process, from issue and problem identification through implementation. We will start on our own, but will then divide into about five groups, each of which will study a particular policy problem. Depending on what problems we, as a group, decide to study, we may have more than one group study a problem to see if they come up with similar or different findings. This project will require group work and will require reasonably intensive use of library resources, both in person and on line.

I will, in many cases, further explain an assignment through supplementary pages linked to this page. Visit this web site often for this information.

Books and other readings

These books are required and are available at the NCSU bookstore. You’re free to order books online from Barnes and Noble or or any other source, if you choose, but if you are reading this for the first time on the first day of class (or later), you should go to the bookstore.

Thomas Birkland, An Introduction to the Policy Process: Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making. second edition, 2005. My goal in writing this book was to cover important themes in policymaking in a more readable way. The organization of the course follows the organization of the book. I have made substantial changes between the first and second editions, so the second edition is the assigned text.

Deborah Stone, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. 2001. This is one of my favorite books on the policy process. Stone begins by contrasting two ways of thinking about politics and policy decisions: the market model, or a model of individual exchanges, and a polis model, which describes decision making as a community, consensus building process. From this base, Stone explores the deeper meanings of terms like “equality,” “liberty,” and “security” in ways you may not have thought about before. The writing style is fairly clear, and I think you will enjoy it.

“Current Events”

I strongly suggest you get into the daily newspaper habit New York Times (  or the Washington Post (



Please note: this schedule is subject to change as course needs warrant. I will announce changes in class and, in particular, via email.

Wk Day Date Lecture Topic Readings Group Research
1 Thursday
Introduction to the class, topics, readings, course policies    
2 Tuesday
Studying public policy Birkland, Chapter 1  
Ways of thinking about Policy: Market versus Polis Stone, Part I  
3 Tuesday
Ways of thinking about Policy: Market versus Polis Stone, Part I Read my page on the problem statements, how to improve them, and class expectations for sound, solid research here.
    Class discussion: What are the two most important problems government should address? How do you know? Provide data and evidence (go to the library!). Prepare to share with class.
4 Tuesday
Historical and structural context of policy Birkland, Chapter 2

Read this discussion of problems and of researching problems.


Also, the topics and the broad topic areas are here.

Historical and structural context of policy Birkland, Chapter 2 Selection of five problems, and group project preference (which problem do you want to study?) Form groups and meet--begin research on this question: what sort of ideas are being offered to solve the problem?
5 Tuesday
Policy Goals and Problems Stone, Parts II and III  
Policy Goals and Problems Stone, Parts II and III  
6 Tuesday
Policy Goals and Problems Stone, Parts II and III  
Policy Goals and Problems Stone, Parts II and III IN CLASS DISCUSSION: Have you changed your conception of the problem you identified? What different ways are there to conceive of the problem?
7 Tuesday
Official and unofficial actors Birkland, Chapters 3 and 4  
Official and Unofficial Actors Birkland, Chapters 3 and 4  
8 Tuesday
Official and Unofficial Actors Birkland, Chapters 3 and 4 TAKE-HOME, OPEN-BOOK MIDTERM EXAM HANDED OUT TODAY; DUE IN CLASS ON OCTOBER 18.
9 Tuesday
Agenda Setting, Power and Interest Groups Birkland, Chapter 5 Which groups want policies to change? Which interest groups want policies to stay the same? Why? Are some groups more "visible" on the agenda than others? How do you know?
10 Tuesday
Agenda Setting, Power and Interest Groups    
Why does policy change?    
11 Tuesday
Why does policy change?    
    Do the ideas for solutions actually exist in some policy form? Federal or state? Laws or regulations? What sort of tools are used? If the ideas aren't enacted, or are (in your analysis) poorly implemented, what better ideas ("tools") are out there? Were there periods of policy change?
12 Tuesday
Policies and policy types Stone, Part IV; Birkland, Chapter 6 and 7  
Prof Birkland out of town for APPAM--no class   Work in your groups during this period
13 Tuesday
Policy types, policy design and tools    
Policy Tools, Implementation and Failure Birkland, Chapters 7 and 8  
14 Tuesday
Policy Tools, Implementation and Failure Stone, Part IV Was implementation of the existing ideas successful? What new ideas should be implemented? What reasons are there to believe that the new ideas would be better or more easily implemented than the existing ideas?
15 Tuesday
Models of the policy process Birkland, Chapter 9 What recommendations for policy do you have? Prepare a presentation to persuade decision makers--this should be your final group report, plus a 10 minute presentation (with or without powerpoint or other visual aids).
Models of the policy process Birkland, Chapter 9  
16 Tuesday
    Group Presentations

Group Presentations and final summary: where do I go from here?

Final take-home exam handed out in class today. It is due on Friday, December 14 at 4:00 pm via email or in my office. NO LATE PAPERS WILL BE ACCEPTED.