Old Post: On Partisan Analysis

[Originally posted December 2005]

Dear Sarah,

Welcome aboard! I’m excited to have you join our team. I’ve heard lots of good things about you. In particular, you’ve been commended to me as intellectually bright and technically sharp. I look forward to seeing you contribute to our work and watching you grow as a policy analyst.

I don’t know about you, but in my mind, a good orientation can make or break one’s work experience. A proper orientation helps people hit the ground running, while an inadequate one can leave people confused, frustrated, and stalled. So I’m glad we have this time together, so that I can best acquaint you to our office and our work.

In particular, I want to impress upon you this notion of “partisan analysis,” a phrase coined by Charles Lindblom in the 1960’s. For someone as versed in technical policy analysis as you, this concept may seem anathema. You might think that analysis, by definition, is non-partisan in nature. You might even be an analyst for the very reason that it is the opposite of partisanship, in all of its ugly politicking and dirty deal-making.

But bear with me as I propose a healthy marriage between impartial analysis and partisan politics. First of all, may I suggest that policy-making cannot effectively be parsed down to a logical and sequential process, in which superior technical analysis can arrive at an optimal solution. Rather, policy-making considers issues that are complex, usually devoid of discreet beginnings or ends, and often without a consensus on what the actual problem is. Also, solutions involve multiple parties, none of whom has enough direct influence to carry the situation, most of whom have different opinions on what’s important, and all of whom deserve to have some say on what is decided.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of technical analysis is limited in many ways. Because solutions are not often universally and equally beneficial to all involved parties, analysts can and do disagree on which values and interests are most important. Some public issues require vast financial resources and long time windows to properly analyze, costs which may be prohibitive to bear. Finally, even in a hypothetical situation of universal consensus and unlimited resources, some issues defy easy answers; as Alice Rivlin conceded, even after many years and studies “little is known about how to produce more effective health, education, and other social services.” Indeed, it is unrealistic to think that if we only had enough time and money, we could solve all of life’s problems.

This is not an indictment of the present policy-making process, just a description of it. Which brings me back to this notion of partisan analysis, an attempt to marry technical analysis with political processes. Partisan analysis incorporates the helpful role of what might be considered a more scientific approach to policy-making, while acknowledging its limitations (as described above) and accepting the added effectiveness that a more politically strategic process can have on arriving at beneficial and workable solutions.

For example, the strategic approach accounts for the interactive nature of the policy-making environment, and as a result usually does a better job than the more detached scientific approach in arriving at a solution that correctly weights the various interests and values of all of the involved parties. Edward Banfield distinguishes between a “central decision,” made deliberately by someone, and a “social choice,” the accidental by-product of the actions of two or more actors. Partisan analysis can, at its best, simultaneously maximize the decision-making ability of the central authorities and the efficiency of the interactive process by which the involved actors discuss and decide.

So I hope I’ve persuaded you that there is a happy medium between isolated technical analysis and uninformed political brawling, and I hope you can keep this all in mind as you tackle your first assignment, preparing a study on fixed-route mass transportation for the governor. My management style is to hire smart people, orient them well, and then get out of their way; so accordingly, let me leave you with a few guiding principles and then let me just leave you alone, so that you can do what you’ve been hired to do.

On the scientific side, I need your best work on: the impact of commute times on worker productivity; the environmental benefits of increased mass transit usage; a cost-benefit analysis that incorporates dollars spent on upfront and ongoing upgrades, as well as dollars saved on highway construction and maintenance; and a prioritization of routes based on contributions to economic growth and usefulness to key industries.

On the strategic side, I need you to account for and comment on: which of the project’s potential benefits resonate the most with voters; where interest groups line up on mass transit; what is the geographic distribution of “swing vote” legislators; and how we can best adjust our plan if we need to appease parties that stand to lose as a result of it.

I am counting on you to deliver a study that is technically proficient and politically savvy. Have fun with it, and let me know if there is anything I can do to support your work.

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