Understanding Public Policy URBAN5093

  • Academic Session: 2023-24
  • School: School of Social and Political Sciences
  • Credits: 20
  • Level: Level 5 (SCQF level 11)
  • Typically Offered: Semester 1
  • Available to Visiting Students: Yes

Short Description

This course provides an in-depth understanding of how public policy is made. It reflects on the ways that analysts have explained how public policy problems come to be identified, how solutions are sought, how evidence is used and, using real world examples, considers how these models relate to the fast-paced, practical world of contemporary public policy implementation.


The course will be delivered in 3 hourly blocks in semester 1, once per week, over 9 consecutive weeks.

Requirements of Entry

Mandatory Entry Requirements:


Excluded Courses






The course is assessed by means of coursework in the form of an extended essay (maximum 4,000 words) on a topic chosen by the student from a list of alternatives.

Course Aims

This course aims to introduce different ways of thinking about what policy is and how it is formulated: the actors, institutions, ideologies, evidence, opinion and other factors that influence policy-making and policy outcomes. It explores different theories of the policy making process and how these relate to contemporary debates and practical challenges facing policy-makers.  It considers what is meant by policy 'success' and how this can be delivered and evaluated, raising important, contested issues about the complexity of public policy and the broad range of actors affected to question 'success for whom'? It aims to explore how the changing macroeconomic environment presents particular challenges for public policy making.

Intended Learning Outcomes of Course

By the end of this course, having undertaken the associated reading and assignment, students will be able to: 

■ describe and critically evaluate different theories of  the policy making process, including the policy cycle, rational and incremental models of policy making, top down and bottom up understandings of implementation, and the role of evidence-based policy;

■ explain the role of power in the policy process and the ways it can be exerted in policy networks and more participative policy processes;

■ critically account for the main internal and external factors shaping what government does and what actually happens 'on the ground', including the role of agencies, public servants, the private sector, the media and those subject to that policy;

■ critically evaluate the conditions which underpin relative policy success and failure;

■ apply assessment of key challenges and constraints facing contemporary public policy makers at local, national and international levels to explain real world policy choices;

■ make effective use of different types of evidence in evaluating policy processes and outcomes; and

■ demonstrate competence in critical thinking and writing about the policy process.

Minimum Requirement for Award of Credits

Students must submit at least 75% by weight of the components (including examinations) of the course's summative assessment.