Research note. Science and Policy Analysis in the OIRA

Research note by Beryl A. Radin

The article “Science and Policy Analysis in the U.S. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)” focuses on one expression of the relationship between science and policy analysis: the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget. It has used a classic policy analysis technique — cost–benefit analysis — as the way that the White House will review regulations. This discussion highlights the utilization of the cost–benefit method in the OIRA decision-making process, the roles of various actors in the system, and the response to that use by various policy actors. It illustrates the difficulty of utilizing rational analytical methods in an environment of political conflict.

For many observers, the role of science and scientists in the policy process has changed in contemporary America. They argue that challenges to science in the 21st century are dramatically different from those raised in earlier times. Although there are clearly changes in the view of science and the context in which this operates, the problems today share common attributes with past attempts to link science and policy.

OIRA is not usually viewed as a classic policy organization but as a unit that attempts to exert centralized control on a diffuse, decentralized system. But it is the unit that has consistently used a classic policy analysis technique — cost–benefit analysis — as the way that the White House will review regulations emerging from the Executive Branch.

Unlike the experience of other countries, this element in the U.S. process has emphasized a methodology drawn from the economics field and has engendered a conflict between economists and scientists in the process. This case illustrates the difficulty of utilizing rational analytical methods in an environment of political conflict and raises similar problems to those raised in the evidence-based literature.

This article begins with a review of experience that began as a result of World War II and summarizes the issues that surfaced during that period. It then discusses different lenses that have been used to examine the relationship between science and scientists and the policy process. Five approaches are utilized to indicate the perspectives of different actors who emerge in this debate: scientists, politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats, and economists. This chronological approach allows one to capture the changes that have occurred in the policy analysis field responding to social, economic, and political changes.

Although there are a number of issues that can be drawn from the activities of OIRA from the Nixon era to Obama, two problem areas appeared over the years that are particularly important: controversy about the use of cost benefit analysis and the extent of authority of the office. These concerns have surfaced in both Republican and Democratic administrations and have received extensive attention in the academic literature.

The OIRA experience provides an example of ways in which the imperatives of science and policy analysis intersect. As this account indicates, there are many ways to approach that experience. I have noted that there are multiple players involved in the activity of this organization. A summary of this experience illustrates the complexity of the science-policy relationship and the changing role of policy analysis in that relationship. The two issues that have been emphasized — use of CBA and the debate over authority — are closely intertwined and play an important role in the conflict about the level of centralization in the government (within the executive branch and between the government and the private sector).

Although the U.S. experience with OIRA reflects some unique attributes of the American system, the lessons from that experience are relevant beyond U.S. borders. Evidence-based policy development pits rational processes against the attributes of the real world of political decision making (bargaining, entrenched commitments, and diverse stakeholder values and interests). The U.S. experience also suggests that use of CBA raises special problems for the advocates of evidence based policy development.

The U.S. experience calls on us to acknowledge that conflict between the rational and political is likely to be inevitable. It challenges us to be modest about our expectations of overcoming that conflict.

BerylRadinBeryl A. Radin is a member of the faculty at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute of Georgetown University in Washington, DC. An elected member of the National Academy ofPublic Administration, she was the Managing Editor of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory from 2000 to 2005. She is the Editor of the Georgetown University Press book series, Public Management and Change.

Her government service included two years as a Special Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget of the US Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies.