Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy versus Public Policy Schools in United States

Ismail Ali Manik
6 min readAug 14, 2018


In a recent article Francis Fukuyma criticized the approach and teaching in public policy schools;

But being skilled in policy analysis is woefully inadequate to bring about policy change in the real world. Policy analysis will tell you what the optimal policy should be, but it does not tell you how to achieve that outcome.

The world is littered with optimal policies that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted. Take for example a carbon tax, which a wide range of economists and policy analysts will tell you is the most efficient way to abate carbon emissions, reduce fossil fuel dependence, and achieve a host of other desired objectives. A carbon tax has been a nonstarter for years due to the protestations of a range of interest groups, from oil and chemical companies to truckers and cabbies and ordinary drivers who do not want to pay more for the gas they use to commute to work, or as inputs to their industrial processes. Implementing a carbon tax would require a complex strategy bringing together a coalition of groups that are willing to support it, figuring out how to neutralize the die-hard opponents, and convincing those on the fence that the policy would be a good, or at least a tolerable, thing. How to organize such a coalition, how to communicate a winning message, and how to manage the politics on a state and federal level would all be part of a necessary implementation strategy.

It is entirely possible that an analysis of the implementation strategy, rather than analysis of the underlying policy, will tell you that the goal is unachievable absent an external shock, which might then mean changing the scope of the policy, rethinking its objectives, or even deciding that you are pursuing the wrong objective.

Public policy education that sought to produce change-makers rather than policy analysts would therefore have to be different. It would continue to teach policy analysis, but the latter would be a small component embedded in a broader set of skills.


As Matt Andrews, Michael Woolcock, and Lant Pritchett at the Kennedy School have argued, it is important to start from a concrete problem, that is, something that other people believe to be a problem. This means that there is already a constituency in favor of change, which can be the starting point for a coalition of people who want a different outcome.

The criticism maybe relevant to public policy schools in US- but in many schools the curriculum is being continuously updated to meet the real world needs. It also depends on the person who heads the program — when Guillermo Calvo, a steller macroeconomist, became the head MPA in Economic Policy Management (MPA-EPM) program at SIPA, Columbia University, the program previously known as PEPM, the curriculum was changed to reflect a more applied and policy relevant content with emphasis on seminars led by international practitioners in the field.

Similarly Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, has some unique features in their program. We recommend the following book about the origins of the school.

“By the mid-1930s the centre of gravity in the study of public administration began to shift away from Germany and towards the United States. The Great Depression of the 1930s, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany and across much of Europe, is likely to have ignited interest in the study of good governance across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1930 Princeton University established its School of Public Affairs and in 1936 a Jewish-American football coach, businessman and politician named Lucius Nathan Littauer provided a USD2 million gift to his alma mater Harvard University to establish the Graduate School of Public Administration, which in 1966 was renamed the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

It was during the 1960s that the study of public administration was complemented by the introduction of public policy. While the discipline of public administration from its origins in Germany in the 19th Century to its transplantation in the United States in the 1930s was primarily concerned with the inner workings of government bureaucracies, the proponents of public policy education aspired to paint on a much broader canvass. The 1960s in the United States was the age of the “whiz kids” — the business leaders, academics and assorted policy wonks who were co-opted into public service by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations — many of whom believed that all challenges confronting governments, even war, could be solved using quantitative, analytical approaches.4 It was during this time, therefore, that the study of economics, statistics and other quantitative analytical methods gained prominence in the new discipline of public policy. However, the 1960s was also a period of great and largely positive social change in the United States (and elsewhere) with the civil rights movement and the advent of the Great Society.5 In this regard, therefore, the study of public policy also reflected interest in the big questions and challenges confronting society that many felt were not being addressed through the study of traditional public administration.

It is probably fair to deduce from the above brief history of the disciplines of public administration and public policy that both their origins and subsequent evolution coincided with periods of crisis, uncertainty and change; periods when people looked to governments for solutions to the great challenges of the day. At the turn of the 21st Century, the study of governance is potentially undergoing another significant transformation. Whilst for most of the 20th Century schools of public administration and public policy were largely concentrated in the United States, the early 21st Century has seen something of an explosion of such schools across Asia. Coupled with what could be described as the return of the discipline to Europe, the study of public policy and public administration is now a truly global endeavour. Not surprisingly, this new era in the study of public administration and policy is coinciding with a period of crisis (or crises even), uncertainty and great change. It has become cliché to say that the world is rapidly globalising and that our most intractable problems — from poverty to pandemics and global financial meltdown to global warming — are no longer confined within national boundaries, but an observation only becomes clichéd because it is true more often than not.6 In addition to the numerous crises and challenges, the early 21st Century is also a period char-acterised by great (and by and large positive) changes particularly in the so-called developing world, primarily in Asia but increasingly elsewhere in the world too. As hundreds of millions of people are progressively lifted out of abject poverty particularly in Asia, the centre of gravity in world politics and the economy has decisively and perhaps irrevocably begun to shift from West to East.

It is against this broad historical backdrop that the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore came into being on 16 August 2004 following a decision by the Government of Singapore to create an institution of higher learning dedicated to the study and teaching of good governance, and bequeath it with the name of the widely-respected founder of modern Singapore. The aspiration was that the LKY School should over time “become a flagship institution, another peak of excellence within NUS… [and] be regarded globally as a reference point in public policy that can provide, through rigorous intellectual study, lessons on the principles and practices of good governance, particularly concerning Asian societies and the challenges of developing, transitional and newly industrialised economies.”

— Mahbubani, Kishore. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy:Building a Global Policy School in Asia

For Discussion: What are the top Public Policy Schools outside the United States. Share your thoughts on the twitter threads below by Shanta Deverajan and Brian Levy on comments on public policy education. What are your suggested subject areas that need to be incorporated in to a 21st first century public policy syllabus — Cost Benefit Analysis, Science of Delivery, Public Management of Implementation, Monitoring Frameworks, PDIA, Factfulness, etc.

I aim in this book to combat expressive approaches to policy issues. I contend that contrary to appearances, the issues that most divide us are fundamentally about facts rather than values. (Not all the time, of course, but often enough.) In my view, expressive approaches are a great obstacle to progress. Take the question of highway safety. In 2016, nearly forty thousand Americans died in motor vehicle crashes. That number is far too high, and some imaginable approaches would help. If we can agree on the facts, we should be able to agree on what to do — or at least our disagreements should be narrowed greatly.

Sunstein, Cass R.. The Cost-Benefit Revolution




Ismail Ali Manik

Uni. of Adelaide & Columbia Uni NY alum; World Bank, PFM, Global Development, Public Policy, Education, Economics, book-reviews, MindMaps, @iamaniku