The Public Policy Theory Primer

Kevin B. Smith and Christopher W. Larimer

Third Edition • July 12, 2016 • 288 pages

Print ISBN: 9780813350059 • $40.00 USD$51.99 CAN

Ebook ISBN: 9780813350417 • $24.99 USD$24.99 CAN

Courses: ,

More by these authors: ,

Order an Exam or Desk Copy

Click here to read a sample from the new edition.

A Transition Guide is available for professors who are considering The Public Policy Theory Primer, 3rd Edition for their courses. Please fill out the online form, and a press representative will be in touch shortly to grant access.

An Online Study Guide containing tips for how to think about and answer the questions in the appendix of the third edition of The Public Policy Primer is available for immediate download.
Download Online Study Guide (PDF, 360 KB)

If you have any questions or issues, please email

Public policy is a broad and interdisciplinary area of study and research in the field tends to reflect this. Yet for those teaching and studying public policy, the disjointed nature of the field can be confusing and cumbersome. This text provides a consistent and coherent framework for uniting the field of public policy. Authors Kevin B. Smith and Christopher W. Larimer offer an organized and comprehensive overview of the core questions and concepts, major theoretical frameworks, primary methodological approaches, and key controversies and debates in each subfield of policy studies from the policy process and policy analysis to program evaluation and policy implementation.

The third edition contains the latest scholarship and approaches in the field, including new and expanded coverage of behavior economics, the narrative policy framework, implementation studies, the policy regime approach, and field experiments. Now with an appendix of sample comprehensive exam questions, The Public Policy Theory Primer remains an indispensable text for the systematic study of public policy.

Kevin B. Smith is professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Christopher W. Larimer is associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1: Public Policy as a Concept
and a Field (or Fields) of Study

Defining Public Policy
Defining the Field(s) of Public Policy Studies
The Policy Sciences: A Very Short History of the Field of Policy Studies
The Fracturing of the Policy Sciences
Why Build When You Can Beg, Borrow, and Steal?

Chapter 2: Does Politics Cause Policy?
Does Policy Cause Politics?

Good Policy Theory
Policy Stages: A First Attempt at Policy Theory
Stages Model: Descriptive or Predictive?
Another “Theory” of Public Policy: Policy Typologies
Typologies as Non–Mutually Exclusive Categories
Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here?

Chapter 3: Who Makes Decisions? How Do They Make Decisions?
Actors and Institutions

Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism
Incrementalism in Practice
Public Choice and the Tiebout Model
The Tiebout Model: Citizens as Efficient Policymakers?
Institutional Rational Choice

Chapter 4: Whose Values? Policy Design
Objective Policy Design?
The “Paradox” of Policy Design
Social Constructions and Target Populations
“Democratic” Values and Policy Design
Narrative Policy Framework
Testing Policy Design Theories?

Chapter 5: Where Does Policy Come From?
The Policy Process

Process and Power
Policy Subsystems and Issue Networks
Advocacy Coalitions: Theory or Framework?
Punctuated Equilibrium: A Descriptive Framework for
Policy Change
Assessing the Value of PET
Garbage Cans and Policy Windows: A Multiple Streams
Approach to Policy Change
A Theory of Policy Change?

Chapter 6: What Should We Do?
The Field of Policy Analysis

The Rationalist Approach
The Post-Positivist Approach
Post-Positivist Methods
An Emerging Middle Ground?

Chapter 7: What Have We Done? Impact Analysis
and Program Evaluation

Impact Analysis and Program Evaluation
The Core Elements of Impact Analysis
The Logic and Theory of Impact Analysis
Program Theory
Research Design in Impact Analysis

Chapter 8: How Does It Work? Policy Implementation
Three Generations of Implementation Studies
First-Generation Implementation Studies: Understanding
Implementation Is Important
Second-Generation Studies: Understanding Implementation Is
Third-Generation Studies: Understanding Implementation Is . . .
A Fourth Generation?

Chapter 9: New Directions in Policy Research
Policy Change, Irrationality, and Social Utility
Policy (All) Decision Making Is Emotional
An Evolutionary Approach to Policy Science
Putting It All Together
An Application to Criminal Justice Policy
Conclusion: Answering the Call for Better Theory and
Better Methodology

Chapter 10: Do the Policy Sciences Exist?
The Theoretical Contributions of Policy Studies
Key Problems
Conclusion: Whither Policy Studies?

Appendix: Questions for Discussion or
Comprehensive Exam Prep


Praise for Prior Editions

The Public Policy Theory Primer will give students a ‘30,000 foot view’ of the field of policy studies, and provide the necessary context and overview to process the wide variety of perspectives and approaches. This is the much-needed missing piece that will allow the next generation of policy scholars to move the field forward.” —Robert Wood, University of North Dakota

“Much more than a primer, this text recognizes the changing dynamics of policy science, emphasizing the latest research in implementation studies. Perfect for graduate seminars and students studying for comprehensive examinations, just about everything you need to know about the field of policy science is in this book.” —Jacqueline Vaughn, Northern Arizona University

“Smith and Larimer’s tour de force provides both summary and serious critique of the field of policy studies. It will contribute to the future development of the field by presenting both students and their professors the first serious holistic evaluation of the entire field, rather than the partial views usually addressed in texts. It will be the standard reference for years to come.” —Bryan D. Jones, University of Texas at Austin

“Smith and Larimer’s classification system is sensible and comprehensive, arguably the best scheme for organizing the field of policy studies in print…I expect that over the next decade, nearly every graduate student in political science and public affairs will be introduced to the field of public policy through the book under review.” —Perspectives on Politics

If you are a professor or course instructor, please use the following form to give us feedback on The Public Policy Theory Primer: