POL S 303 A: Public Policy Formation in the United States

Meeting Time: 
MW 2:30pm - 4:20pm
GLD 322
Laura Elizabeth Evans

Syllabus Description:

Political Science 303: Public Policy Formation in the United States

Spring 2020

Dr. Laura E. Evans


Class meets online on Mondays and Wednesdays, 2:30 – 4:20

Online Office Hours:  Tuesdays and Thursdays 4:30-6:00, and by appointment.


Class Description
How does public policy get made in the United States?  This course examines the politics of the policymaking process.  Students will learn how policy agendas emerge as issues arise and problems are framed.  We’ll explore how official actors as well as unofficial actors evaluate policy alternatives and promote or deflect policy change.  We’ll identify how the legislature, the executive, and the bureaucracy organize themselves to handle policy issues.  Students will learn about effective written communication for influencing policy.  Also, the course will address how policymaking differs across national, state, local, and tribal governments.   We’ll apply these concepts to current issues in American politics.


Learning Objectives

In this class, students will learn

-why many issues do not receive serious consideration in the policymaking process and what distinguishes the issues that do.

-to identify politically feasible courses of action.

-how different political actors influence each other’s policymaking aims.

-to improve their ability to produce clear, concise, and trenchant writing.

-to improve organizational and time management skills.



Required Text:  Thomas A. Birkland.  2019.  An Introduction to the Policy Process, 5th Edition.  Published by Routledge.

Recommended Text:  Catherine F. Smith.  Writing Public Policy, 5th Edition.  Oxford University Press.             

Additional readings will be posted or linked on Canvas for specific weekly modules.



Our class meetings will be at the scheduled class time:  Monday and Wednesday, 2:30-4:20.  I will send out a Zoom link for each class meeting.  Please try to arrive (log in) at 2:25. We aim to start promptly at 2:30! 

**ANNOUNCEMENT OF CHANGE:  As of May 7th, pre-recorded lectures will be posted online.  There will be synchronous class discussion session via Zoom on Monday and Wednesday, 3:30-4:20.**

Class time will be split between lecture, Q&A, and small group discussion.  Why the use of synchronous instruction?  In brief, for this particular class, I think you’ll learn more that way.  I’ll be a more effective lecturer if I have an audience who stops me for questions and clarifications.  Also, I think it will be a more efficient use of your time than if we’re all trying to figure out asynchronous techniques.

If you cannot attend all or part of a class meeting:  class will be recorded and available via Canvas.  Also, I am glad to schedule additional office hours.  If you need help with focus, I am glad to facilitate some time management exercises as well.



For reasons of student privacy, a class recording will be available for one week only and you may not keep a personal copy of the recording.  Small group breakouts will not be recorded.  

The recording of our Zoom class sessions will capture the presenter’s audio, video, and computer screen.  Student audio and video will be recorded if they share their computer audio and video during the recorded session. The recordings will only be accessible to students enrolled in the course to review materials. These recordings will not be shared with or accessible to the public.

If students have additional privacy concerns, they may choose a Zoom username that does not include any personal identifying information.  If you select this option, please let me know in advance your username, and please stick with the same username throughout the term.  And keep it PG- or G-rated.



Our transition to online classes inevitably requires a degree of learning by doing.  In coming weeks, I reserve to option to change assessments if I think it will improve learning in this class.

I recognize you or someone close to you may be ill during the term.  Also, I recognize that you may experience unexpected demands on your time during the term. 

To that end, I have eliminated high-stakes assessments.  Even if you have a couple of bad weeks, you can succeed in this class.

You’ll have short writing projects most weeks.  Short doesn’t mean easy, though.  Aim for work that is brief but golden.  Submit work that is clear, concise, and well-edited.

Don’t try funny stuff with formatting.  Stick with 11- or 12-point font, double-spaced text, and 1-inch margins.  

Writing assignments are due via Canvas by 5:00 PM on Sundays. 

All late assignments will receive a grade penalty, unless I explicitly grant an extension in advance of the due date.


What's Good Writing?

Writing should be clear, concise, and grammatically correct.  Avoid indirect, passive, and flowery phrasing. 

A short paper is not a suspense novel:  no plot twists along the way!  The introduction should briefly summarize your key takeaways.  Best practice: write or revise the introduction after the rest of the essay is complete.

Don’t just present your conclusions.  It’s equally important to explain the rationale behind your conclusions.

With short papers, often the hardest task is to balance generalities and specifics.  You don’t want to present an argument that seems vague or disconnected from the particulars.  At the same time, you don’t want to write a paper that’s so far into the details that you lose the big picture.   

Answer all questions in the writing prompt.  Be careful that you don’t put all your energy into the first part and then run out of time for the remainder.

Know what the textbook says, even in weeks where your writing focuses on the case studies.  It’s possible to make an argument that doesn’t cite any particular passages in the textbook.  If your argument runs counter to Birkland’s arguments, however, you should address why you think he’s wrong.

It’s fine to write in the first person.


25% of Grade:  Responses to Birkland’s Questions for Discussion, Reflection, and Research

Pick one of the bullets from the end of the Birkland chapter assigned that week.  In 1 to 2 pages, answer the question(s) from that bullet.

Responses to Birkland’s Questions are due in weeks 2, 4, 6, and 10.  Most weeks, you are writing about a chapter before we review it in class.

I’ll drop the assignment with the lowest score from your grade calculation.


75% of Grade:  Policymaking Assessment

For each question, you may write about the case studies on the syllabus, or you may write about COVID-19.  If you’re following COVID-19 news and analysis, and want to write about it, do it.  If so, attach a brief bibliography that identifies your sources of information.

Your answer should be 2 to 3 pages long.

Policymaking Assessments are due in Weeks 3, 5, 7, and during finals week.  Often, you will be writing about content before we review it in class.

I’ll drop the assignment with the lowest score from your grade calculation.

If you have advance approval from me, you have the option of revising and resubmitting the Policymaking Assessment from Week 3, 5, or 7.  Before you write, you and I will have a conversation about the kinds of changes I expect.


Class Calendar

Week 1 (3/30-4/1):  Introduction and Context


Week 2 (4/5-4/8):  Agenda Setting

Due by 5:00 on Sunday, 4/5:  Response to Birkland’s Questions from Chapter 2 or 3.


Birkland, Chapters 2 and 3

Urban Indian Health Institute, “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls”.

Reclaiming Native Truth, “Research Findings:  A Compilation of All Research”, pages 1 to 25.


Week 3 (4/12-4/15):  Social Construction

Due by 5:00 on Sunday, 4/12:  Policymaking Assessment

              Topic:  Invisibility Is Not a Superpower. 


Birkland, Chapter 6 

Eve L. Ewing.  2018.  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.  University of Chicago Press.  Chapter 3


Week 4 (4/19-4/22): Policy Types 

Due by 5:00 on Sunday, 4/19:  Response to Birkland’s Questions from Chapter 7 or 9.


Birkland, Chapter 7 and the second half of Chapter 9 (beginning with Policy Tools).

Barry Rabe.  2018.  Can We Price Carbon?  MIT Press.  Chapter 2

(Recommended: Smith, Chapters 1 and 4)


Week 5 (4/26-4/29): Models of Decision Making

Due by 5:00 on Sunday, 4/26:  Policymaking Assessment.  Question TBA.


Birkland, Chapter 8 beginning with Decisions; and the first half of Chapter 9

Jill Lindsey Harrison.  2019.  From the Inside Out: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Federal Agencies.  MIT Press.  Chapter 6

(Recommended: Smith, Chapters 2 and 6)


Week 6 (5/3-5/6): Interest Groups and Advocates

Due by 5:00 on Sunday, 5/3:  Response to Birkland’s Questions from Chapter 5.


Birkland, Chapter 5. 

Kristin Goss’ chapter and podcast on gun control advocates,

(Recommended: Smith, Chapter 3 and Appendix)


Week 7 (5/10-5/13): Legislatures

Due by 5:00 on Sunday, 5/10:  Policymaking Assessment.  Question TBA.


Birkland, all of Chapter 4 before The Executive Branch. 

Collection of Seattle Times’ articles and podcast from Project Homeless.

(Recommended: Smith, Chapters 5 and 9)


Week 8 (5/17-5/20):  Chief Executives



Birkland, the rest of Chapter 4 (starting with the Executive Branch). 

Peter R. Neumann.  2019.  Bluster: Donald Trump’s War on Terror.  Oxford University Press.  Chapters 3 and 5

Note that you will need to access this e-book via the University Library.

(Recommended: Smith, Chapter 8 and Conclusion)


Week 9 (5/26-5/27):   Bureaucracy

No class on Monday, 5/25, due to Memorial Day holiday



Birkland, Chapter 10. 

Armada Armenta.  2017.  Protect, Serve, and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigration Enforcement.  University of California Press.  Chapter 2

(Recommended: Smith, Chapters 7 and 10)


Week 10 (5/31-6/3):  Wrap-Up

Due by 5:00 on Sunday, 5/31:  Response to Birkland’s Questions from Chapter 4 or 11.


Birkland, Chapter 11


Finals Week

Due by 5:00 on Thursday, June 11th:  Policymaking Assessment.  Question TBA.



Religious Accommodation

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy (https://registrar.washington.edu/staffandfaculty/religious-accommodations-policy/). Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (https://registrar.washington.edu/students/religious-accommodations-request/).


Academic Integrity

As a student in Political Science 303, you agree to uphold the fundamental standards of honesty, respect, and integrity, and you accept the responsibility to encourage others to adhere to these standards.

Academic misconduct is defined in Student Governance Policy, Chapter 209 Section 7.C:


If you are uncertain about whether a particular action constitutes academic misconduct, please ask me for guidance before an assignment is due.  “I didn’t know” is never an acceptable excuse for academic misconduct.



Whenever you refer to factual information or to an author’s argument, you must provide an attribution.  This applies when you quote someone or when you summarize another’s ideas or findings. 

You cannot make minor edits to another’s phrasing.  You must either quote the author or restate the author’s ideas with significantly different phrasing.  Please include a parenthetical phrase in the text that includes the author's last name and the date of publication.  If you’re referring to a quote or to information or ideas from particular page(s), include the page number(s) to which you are referring.  Example:  (Jones 2010, 22).  

You are not expected to conduct outside research for any of the assignments in this class.  If you happen to refer to an outside author’s ideas, however, then in addition to providing a parenthetical citation in the text, you should include full bibliographic information in a list of references at the end of the paper.  Check with a style manual on how to structure the bibliography.

Plagiarism is a very bad idea.  A paper that includes plagiarized materials of any kind will earn a grade of 0. 

Catalog Description: 
Policy decision making with emphasis on: how issues arise, the way they become part of the policy agenda of the executive and the legislature, how these institutions organize to handle policy issues, and the roles of the legislature, the executive, and the bureaucracy. Public policy literature and familiarization with key aspects of policy decision making at the national, state, and local levels.
Department Requirements: 
American Politics Field
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
March 5, 2020 - 9:16pm