New Jersey Policy Lab: The Challenges Associated with Making “Good” Public Policy

by Stuart Shapiro for New Jersey Policy Lab

The New Jersey State Policy Lab is dedicated to improving public policy through careful analysis of data and program evaluation. As many of our first projects near their conclusion though it is important to keep in mind both the limitations and strengths of good policy analysis.  Most importantly, while good analysis provides information to decision-makers that helps them set policy, it usually doesn’t tell policy-makers which choice to make.

For example, take a look at some of the results from our affiliated researchers to date.  Professors Noland and Zhang have found that adoption of online grocery shopping has expanded due to the Covid-19 pandemic but that the expansion is uneven across different demographic groups.  There are many possible policy implications, including the expansion of broadband access, and internet training for older users but it will be up to policy-makers to decide whether these are worthwhile.

Similarly, the Cornwall Center in a series of excellent blog posts here and here has identified sources of disparities in educational opportunities across the state.  Their work shows that there are clear benefits to expanding access to higher-level math classes earlier in children’s education and to AP classes as they approach the end of high school.  But how do we do so? How much should we spend and what do we give up?

I’m struck by this challenge as one of the most passion-inspiring public policy debates takes place in towns across New Jersey.  What should we do about schools in the wake of the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19?  Different communities have made different choices angering people on both sides of the debate.

Both sides first resort to the “follow the science,” argument.  Those who want schools to remain open point to Covid’s generally benign effects on children, and the reduced severity of the Omicron variant.  Those who believe that schools should close cite the unbelievable contagiousness of the Omicron variant and the danger that remains for unvaccinated and immunocompromised populations who could overwhelm hospitals if they become severely ill.

Policy analysis can illuminate the debate but, like science, it cannot answer the questions definitively.  Because of policy analysis, we know that school closures have led to mental health challenges for children, and exacerbated educational disparities. We haven’t had time for a careful academic analysis of hospital overcrowding due to Omicron, but initial reports are worrying.  We won’t know whether these will be exacerbated by school openings until long after decisions need to be made.

None of this is to say that policy analysis is not helpful.  The information revealed by studies like those in the above paragraphs is crucial for policy-makers.  Policy-making is always about tradeoffs and analysis often helps illuminate these.  Sometimes, like in the case of Covid-19 related school closures, the tradeoffs are excruciating.  Good analysis can support policies that are clear winners (vaccination for example and widespread access to cheap testing) but can’t tell policymakers how to make the “close calls.”  At the bottom line, our decision-makers should have the best information possible available to make better decisions. That’s the goal of policy analysis in general and here at the New Jersey State Policy Lab.