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Semester 1

Understanding Public Policy (SCPL08012)


Social Policy





Normal Year Taken


Delivery Session Year



Course Summary

The course will be of interest to those with an interest in how public policies, which affect our everyday lives, are made by politicians, government officials, campaigners, experts, and various other actors. Students of economics, law, politics, sociology, and many other disciplines, that are interested in the applied study of government will find much to interest them. The overall aim of this course is to introduce students to a range of theories and concepts used in the academic study of public policy. The course will explore issues that cross the remits of different levels of government (local, regional, national, international/supranational). The course will be presented in a way that facilitates a comparative analysis of political systems in different places and at multiple levels. The course will bring together academic expertise and practical experience, by inviting policy practitioners to present case studies.

Course Description

Public policy affects us all in countless ways every day. But how is public policy made? Which voices matter? How do they come to matter? Why do certain problems grab public attention, whilst others fail to? Why is it so hard to change long-established policy? How do different actors deploy different forms of power to shape policy development? What is the best way to measure the success or failure of a policy? These are just some of the questions with which the academic study of public policy is concerned. This course will provide students with a firm grounding in public policy. The course will be: organised thematically; will focus on comparative analysis; will challenge conventional wisdoms; will engage with policy developments here in Scotland but also beyond and internationally; will be historically informed; and will bridge the gap between academic theory and the practice of public policy. The course is organised thematically. After a few weeks during which key concepts such as the policy cycle and power will be introduced, the course proceeds on a weekly basis to combine academic study of a specific theory or set of concepts in the public policy literature with a distinct case study. For example, a case study of lowering the vote age to 16 is paired with public policy literature on framing and policy narratives. A case study of British parliamentary debates on whether to use force in Syria is paired with public literature literature on the role of historical thinking and analogical reasoning in policy decisions. A case study of post-16 educational policies in various European countries is paired with academic literature on the role of institutions in shaping policy. The course is designed to facilitate the comparative analysis of public policy, both across different states and also across different levels of government. The course content draws liberally on policy examples from across Europe and North America, and also on historical examples as well as contemporary policy issues and challenges. The course will be historically informed, breaking away from the temptation to study public policy in a technical, ahistorical way that sees policies developing in something of a vacuum. Understanding public policy as a process of ongoing debate and change, rooted in particular historical circumstances and contexts enriches the study of policy considerably. The course is explicitly designed to draw comparisons between academic theory and the practice of public policy. The course will therefore employ a number of case studies to give life to the theories and concepts explored and will feature lectures by professional policymakers and academics who have experience of advising governments, parliaments, independent commissions, etc. The reading materials for the course will include a mixture of academic literature from leading journals and briefs and reports from policy organisations, both governmental and non-governmental.

Assessment Information

Written Exam 0%, Coursework 90%, Practical Exam 10%

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