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The Atlas Blog
Ruminations on public policy and mangement from the Atlas Editors


 Featured Post 1

How much is a topic?
Ian D. Clark, 29 January 2014



The primary building block of the Atlas of Public Policy and Management is the topic. As discussed in Atlas Research Methodology and Classification System, topics are the only content categories assigned exclusively to one or another of the 34 subjects that we use to delineate the field of public policy and management.

We Atlas editors currently use two topic categories – teaching topic and advisory topic – and we are considering adding a third – research topic. But what exactly are these things we call topics?

Remembering the fun that Kennedy School MPP 1972 students had in responding to our professors’ admonitions to quantify things in order to understand them better, here is a numerical characterization of topics.

In the Atlas a teaching topic is defined as “a coherent body of concepts and readings suitable for a single 3-hour class in an MPP or MPA program.”

This implies that today a Harvard MPP student will be taught 252 topics in the eighteen 14-week courses required for her degree. Using the Kennedy School’s domestic student budget numbers of $46,561 in annual tuition and fees and $25,711 in non-tuition costs, this works out to $574 per topic. Five hundred miles west and slightly to the north, a Toronto MPP student is being taught 192 topics in the sixteen 12-week courses required for graduation. Annual tuition for domestic students is $15,327 and if we use non-tuition costs figure of $20,000,* this works out to $368 per topic. If we include the contribution made by the province of Ontario in the form of its annual $9,000 per student grant for professional Master’s programs, this would bring the cost per topic for the Toronto MPP to $462.

A complete estimate of the costs from the consumer/funder perspective should include foregone income. This will vary substantially among individual students depending on how advanced they are in their careers when they enrol. If we assign a value of $30 per hour to the 3 hours in class and the 4.5 hours outside class that the average student takes to do the hundred-odd pages of required readings and/or problem set and essay writing associated with a class, this increases the cost of learning a topic by $210. The totals now become $799 per teaching topic at Harvard and $593 at Toronto.

From the producer perspective, if professors have annual salary and benefits costs of $200,000 and if faculty consume 2/3 of the institutional costs, and if professors spend 40 percent of their time teaching, and they teach 3 courses a year, the institutional cost of a course is $40,000 which works out to an annual cost per teaching topic of $2,857 at Harvard and $3,333 at Toronto.

Now let us consider advisory topics. In the Atlas we define an advisory topic as “a coherent body of practice advice and explanatory material provided to government in a report from an international governmental organization (IGO).” If the staff cost per year (including prorated costs of accommodation and other expenses) at IGOs and governments is $200,000 and each report requires 5 staff-years within the agency and the same number from member governments, then the cost of an IGO report is $2 million and, assuming two topics per report, the cost of an advisory topic is $1 million.

We are thinking of adding a third topic category in the Atlas called a research topic to help respond to a Call for Papers for a proposed special issue of the Policy Studies Journal entitled, “Exploring the Theoretical Nexus between Public Policy and Public Management.” A research topic could be defined for these purposes as “a coherent body of concepts, argument and references suitable for presentation at a scholarly conference or publication in a scholarly journal.” How much do research topics cost? If professors spend 40 percent of their time on research and produce 2 scholarly articles per year, then using the assumptions noted above, the cost per article would be $60,000. To make the numbers round, let us assume that it requires 16-17 articles to generate a settled idea of a new topic in public policy and management. This would imply that, like its advisory cousin, the cost of a research topic is $1 million.

So how much is a topic? Although these calculations are intended to be whimsical, the lesson to be drawn is the serious one that I assume my professors were trying to teach MPP students 43 years ago – a topic is something that has costs and requires choices. In a world of limited time and resources, we should think carefully about what topics we teach and what topics we research in our MPP and MPA programs.


*The Toronto numbers are in Canadian currency. The estimates of non-tuition costs, hours of study per class and foregone earnings are from an informal poll of Toronto MPP students in January 2014. There was high variation among students, with the range of study hours per class from 3.5 to 7 and of foregone income from $20 per hour for students with no previous professional work experience to several times that for students who had been in professional practice before enrolling in the program. If the proportion of Harvard students with prior work experience is higher than that at Toronto, its numbers for foregone income would be higher. The estimate of the provincial grant per MPP student comes from page 109 of Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario, Clark, I.D., D. Trick and R. Van Loon, 2011.


 Image: Courtesy of FOTOSEARCH  

 Links to All Posts

How much is a topic?
Ian D. Clark, 29 January 2014

After Grenoble     
Leslie A. Pal, 14 July 2013

Information Power: Singapore     
Leslie A. Pal, 1 May 2013

The public management of happiness, Part II
Leslie A. Pal, 30 April 2013

Hats off to Harvard for posting HKS syllabi
Ian D. Clark, 13 March 2013

The public management of happiness      
Leslie A. Pal, 12 March 2013


 Featured Post 2

After Grenoble     
Leslie A. Pal, 14 July 2013

Image courtesy of Ville de Grenoble

I’ve recently returned from the 1st International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP), held June 26-28 in Grenoble. I’ll discuss the connection between the conference and the Atlas and public management in a moment, but first some background on the conference itself.
Somewhat surprisingly, this is the first stand-alone, international conference on public policy as a field or discipline in itself. Public policy is usually considered a sub-field in political science, and more rarely in economics and in public administration/management. So, there are research committees on public policy in the International Political Science Association, and similar groups in the American Political Science Association and the European Group for Political Research. When these groups meet, there are obviously panels on various aspects of public policy. There is something known as the Interpretive Policy Analysis association that meets annually, but this represents just one approach in the field. The difference with ICPP was that, as one speaker put it, “all the tribes were gathered in one place.”
The conference web site ( helpfully has the entire program, and with over 90 panels and some 600+ papers (most available as PDFs on the site) it provides a rich window into the variety of approaches and empirical concerns in the field. Interestingly, the organizers (full disclosure: I was on the organizing committee) expected only about 200 participants, and they got more than 900. This may display as much enthusiasm for Grenoble as it does policy studies, but it says something about the existence of a global epistemic community around policy studies.
Two observations on the conference itself. First, the range of theoretical approaches has not changed or evolved that much over the past decade. The opening plenary was on “approaches” with leading exponents of the major ones, and I felt transported back to my doctoral student days as I was reviewing the literature and getting ready for the comprehensive examination – pretty much the same stuff. Second, it was a remarkably “academic” conference – nary a practitioner could be found in the thicket of eggheads. I heard several comments that it seemed somehow odd that a field that purports to study something practical – the making of public policy – was not itself engaged with practitioners and speaking directly to the policy process. Which brings me to the Atlas.
An interesting question is the relationship between public policy and public management. The Atlas has a domain of policy subjects, and my co-investigator on the project, Ian D. Clark, sees public policy as more or less a subset of public management. He’s experimenting with developing a “map” of the ICPP papers according to the Atlas template to see how much of a fit there is. (See ICPP ResearchMap.) That’s a work in progress, but has yielded some interesting insights, not least of which is that many of the papers seemed to fall comfortably within our mapping scheme.
The larger question of disciplinary boundaries is still pertinent, however. Since ICPP was a public policy conference, few spoke about public management per se. Yet many papers touched on public management issues, not least since public policy is designed and implemented by public authorities. In practical terms, the two disciplines have had different trajectories. Public administration/management has the longer pedigree, going back to the founding of the American Political Science Association in 1903 (of the first eleven presidents of the APSA, five came from the field of public administration). Public policy as a modern field of study can be traced to Lasswell’s work in the early 1950s. Quite naturally, as public policy struggled to find its ecological niche, it strove to distinguish itself from other disciplines, public management included. So, one view is that they are in fact different disciplines. Another is that policy is a subset of management (I haven’t heard anyone argue the opposite). Does this matter, or is it the stuff of harmless debate in faculty clubs (if any faculty clubs still exist)? I can think of one practical implication. If they are different disciplines, then policy people don’t need to know about management, and management people don’t need to know about policy. If they are somehow married (I won’t conjecture on who heads the household), they should get to know each other much better, and not sleep in separate bedrooms.


 Image: Courtesy of Ville de Grenoble 

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