When you think of public policy issues, what comes to mind for you? Is it abortion policy? Gun control? Job creation? Climate change? Health care access?
There are certain topics that capture the public imagination and get headlines. These topics are important. They impact a broad swath of people in deep ways. But what about topics that impact broad swaths of people, but small amounts?
When trying to figure out where policymakers get their information from, it’s important to gauge the “political salience” of the issue, that is, how much people are paying attention to it. For every bill that gets a headline, a legislator votes on a dozen that don’t make the news, “below the waterline” of the policy iceberg. What relevance does this phenomenon have to those of us who want policymakers to get access to the best information possible?
Ultimately, policy topics that fall “above the policy waterline” are topics that policymakers have their minds made up on. They often ran on these issues and have either sincere ideological commitments to them or promises to key constituencies that they don’t want to break. Policymakers are unlikely to be seeking out new information on abortion while in office.
At the same time, policymakers have to vote on gobs of issues that they have no knowledge of whatsoever. Most policymakers have voted on an electric bill, but they haven’t considered what competitive energy generation looks like. Many have occupational licenses, but they don’t have much information on the anticompetitive impacts of licensing.
It is in these policy areas, "below the policy waterline,” that policymakers are in need of information. And this information comes from a few different places.
First, personal experience. Take the example of agricultural subsidies: a farmer elected to office will bring a different perspective to the value of agricultural subsidies than a business owner in an urban district. These perspectives are valuable, but often incomplete: a farmer who has benefited from agricultural subsidies might overvalue these subsidies’ impact on society while the urban businessman may undervalue them.
That is why policymakers also get information from constituents. Much of the work in offices of elected officials is focused on managing flows of information from constituents. Despite cynicism on the part of the public, a string of letters from constituents or contacts from key constituents at the state level do have the power to sway policymakers, especially at the state level, and especially on issues below the policy waterline.
Constituents have a rival source of information, though: paid lobbyists. Lobbyists represent certain interests and have specialized knowledge that policymakers and their constituents often do not have. Lobbyists are valuable to policymakers because of this knowledge and are especially influential when policymakers need information and constituents are mum on an issue.
So where does objective policy analysis figure into this picture? Policy analysts who work for the state are usually funded less than private lobbying firms and are asked to cover broader topics. But objective policy analysis has its best chance to be of use to policymakers on topics below the policy waterline. This is why cost-benefit analysis thrives at the federal regulatory level: regulatory decisions are usually below the policy waterline and require specialized information on complex topics.
Ultimately, objective policy analysis supported by the state is the best counterweight against the influence of anecdote and special interests on the policymaking process. Policymakers need information on topics they have to make decisions on below the policy waterline, and thus they need a robust infrastructure of objective policy analysts in order to get this information.