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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Learning from the experience (1): Case studies as a strategy to teach on public policy

[Editor’s Note: This post is the first of a series of posts produced by Carlos Alza, ordinary lecturer and Public Policy and Public Management Coordinator of the School of Government Government (PUCP – Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú).  The series focuses on how developing content to teach on public policy is a capacity building challenge in itself.]

Since Lasswell (1951) draw the idea of policy analysis, and the bureaucratic paradigm, described by Weber, was contested by the New Public Management, the theories of Political Science and Public Administration have searched for new models to understand something that is quite immaterial, something that we cannot touch: public policies.

According to Hugh Heclo (1972), public policy is a non-defined phenomenon; that is to say, a policy is not material, and it cannot be touched, hugged or felt physically as a material object. Public policies, according to Heclo, are analytical categories, hence they are ideals; they emerge from an analytical and reflexive process in which policy analysts, policy researchers and policy makers participate. Therefore, our question is: Where are public policies? How do they become real? How does a concept become material? How do we conceptualise a reality that we cannot touch? At the end of the day, what do the governments do?

These questions have guided my thoughts about public policy during my academic and professional experience. I have worked more than ten years in the public administration, and I could see and participate in that complex environment: the bureaucracy. After this experience, our question is still valid: Where is public policy? From the academic life, and following a variety of authors as Lindblom (1991), Hood (1998), and Stein & Tomassi (2006), I would say that public policy are the centre of what any government does. They are continuously emerging from political processes that shape this Leviathan. The analyst is responsible for rebuilding, redrawing and –when formulating policies- designing them, in order to understand them or intervene on them.

If this is so, another question is: How can we teach public policy without a physical observation unit? Guided by this concern, I took contact with the methodology of case studies. A case is an educational technology that can also become an important tool for policy analysis. A case study has the extenuating advantage of reconstructing decisional processes, and of providing some order to the complexity, through the lenses of the analyst, the academic, and also the lenses of the policy maker. In fact, a case study can rebuild, explain and help to understand complex phenomena. Create a case generates, in turn, knowledge and evidence about a reality that –if we were not part of it- is hidden to the researcher, or that we only can know through formal tools.

Convinced of this approach, in 2012 I convened a working group of under and postgraduate students of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in order to write eight case studies about Peruvian public policy experiences . Such cases would allow us to recognise the policy process and enable learning and teaching within a problem-based collaborative environment (2004).

Three of those cases[1] depict agenda-setting processes and strategies, as well as the use of evidence in the policy making process. Other three cases[2] are oriented to feature design and implementation policy processes, considering managerial leadership and evidence based policy making processes. One of those cases[3] is focused in policy design, and another one[4] shows a variety of strategies and trade-offs among public officials and civil society organisations during a very well know violent social conflict.

However, in this occasion we decided not to conduct re-created or fictional case studies (as teaching cases usually are). We chose instead to produce real cases based on genuine experiences.  We believed that their production process would be a valuable opportunity to generate capacities and strengthen skills in lecturers, professors, researchers and students. Moreover, this research would create evidence on the real policy practices (these are usually called research cases (Stake; 1995). In the second part of this series of posts we will further analyse the differences of both type of cases and their implications.


[1] “No more death”, the Peruvian femicide policy case; “The law of sorrow”, the cinematography legislation policy in Peru (2009-2012); and “A pressure environment”, the creation of the ministry of environment in Peru case (2007).

[2] “Reconverting the Programme”, the labour reconversion programme case in Peru (2009-2011); “An opportunity to Serve (SERVIR)”, the creation of the public management body case in Peru; “One place, less time”, the case of the MAC (better citizen service centre) implementation.

[3] “Focus on results”. The Strategic Budgeting Programme for Small enterprises case.

[4] “Chronicle of a conflict foretold”. The social conflict in Bagua case (June 2009).


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