Comprehensive Exams

As my doctoral program prior to 2003 was a “special arrangement – interdisciplinary Ph.D.” program, there was no set departmental requirements that determine the format and content of the candidacy examination. To get through this process, I had to invent and defend the proposal for what the ‘comps’ would look like.

My candidacy exams involved an oral defence of written papers, and in September 2003 I defended a set of three comprehensive exam essays in a meeting with my committee. In that series of papers, I dealt with the study of public policy, which was broadly characterized as being concerned with the “processes of identifying and analyzing public issues, the means by which a course of action (or inaction) is taken in response to perceived public problems, how effect is given to that course of action, and what affect the entire process has on the issue or problem being addressed.” This set of three papers was narrowly focused on the “early” aspects of the public policy process, centring on the questions of whether and how to address (or not address) the issue under consideration.

Specifically, the three papers dealt with

  • Paper #1 – policy analysis: A survey of the literature in the expansive field of policy analysis, from its origins through to its present state: Tracing the lineage from the emergence of the policy sciences through to the current state of the theory and practice of policy analysis, this survey reviewed the evolution of the field of policy analysis over the past half century. This literature was woven around the general theme of the continual erosion of the rational policy approach as the foundation for “good” policy making and the attendant struggle to rescue policy analysis as an aid to the exercise of precautionary adaptive governance in an environment marked by uncertainty and complexity.
  • Paper #2 – the communication of advice from analyst to decision maker: A survey of the literature surrounding the presentation of written and visual information (in both text and graphic form) in both traditional paper forms and modern electronic displays, specifically as that presentation is aimed at communicating the outputs of the policy analysis process into the political decision making arena: This paper surveyed the literature surrounding the act of transmitting policy analysis into the political decision making arena through the presentation of textual and visual information, as deployed across a range of mediums from traditional paper documents to modern electronic multimedia interfaces.
  • Paper #3 – the interaction between policy advice and political decision making: A survey of the literature across a number of disciplinary perspectives grouped broadly under the heading “decision analysis”: this survey sought to ground the previous two literature reviews in an appraisal of what challenges await policy analysis as it enters the political environment. This vast literature was organised around a number of disciplinary approaches to decision analysis: political; economic (including rationality and public choice approaches); institutional and sociological; and psychological. The broad theme sketched ran from the difficulties that policy analysis faces in seeking to influence policy debates to having an impact in that arena.

The key arguments I made I made in those papers were:

  • The Persuasion Approach: The policy analyst’s task involves the ethical attempt to persuade a decision maker of the value of an analysis and / or recommendation.
  • The Rhetorical Perspective: Attention to the interests of the receiver (e.g., “knowing the mind of the Minister”) provides the best platform from which to attempt the persuasion approach.
  • The Nature of Decision Making: “Knowing the mind of the Minister” has two routes:
    • The traditional insider’s profile
    • Understanding the nature of decision making (including heuristics, biases and irrationality.)

The comprehensive exams concluded with a tentative hypothesis:

In seeking to persuade a decision maker to accept a recommendation, the policy analyst should use a rhetorical perspective grounded in an understanding of the nature of decision making.

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