The Art of Policymaking: Tools, Techniques and Processes in the Modern Executive Branch


George E. Shambaugh IV & Paul J. Weinstein Jr.

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    List of Boxes


    • ACA Affordable Care Act
    • AFDC Aid to Families With Dependent Children
    • APA Administrative Procedure Act
    • BTU British Thermal Unit
    • CBO Congressional Budget Office
    • CEA Council of Economic Advisers
    • CENTCOM Centralized Joint Command of the U.S. Military With Jurisdiction in the Middle East
    • CEQ Council on Environmental Quality
    • CIA Central Intelligence Agency
    • COLA Cost of Living Adjustment
    • COS Chief of Staff
    • CRA Community Reinvestment Act
    • DNC Democratic National Committee
    • DNI Director of National Intelligence
    • DOD Department of Defense
    • DPC Domestic Policy Council
    • DPP Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan
    • DSCC Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
    • EEZ Exclusive Economic Zone
    • EOP Executive Office of the President
    • EPA Environmental Protection Agency
    • EU European Union
    • FCC Federal Communications Commission
    • FEC Federal Elections Commission
    • FEMA Federal Emergency Management Agency
    • GAO General Accounting Office
    • GSA General Services Administration
    • HHS U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
    • HUD U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
    • INS Immigration and Naturalization Service
    • ISF Iraq Security Forces
    • JCS Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • LRM Legislative Referral Memorandum
    • NAFTA North American Free Trade Agreement
    • NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration
    • NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization
    • NEC National Economic Council
    • NEPA National Environmental Policy Act
    • NGA National Governors’ Association
    • NSC National Security Council
    • NSS National Security Staff
    • NSTC National Science and Technology Council
    • OC Office of Communications
    • OCA Office of Congressional Affairs
    • OCAF Office of Cabinet Affairs
    • OIRA Office of Information and Regulatory Review
    • OIA Office of Intergovernmental Affairs
    • OLA Office of Legislative Affairs
    • OMB Office of Management and Budget
    • ONDCP Office of National Drug Control Policy
    • OPA Office of Political Affairs
    • OPD Office of Policy Development
    • OPE Office of Public Engagement
    • OPEC Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
    • OPL Office of Public Liaison
    • OSTP Office of Science and Technology Policy
    • PCAST President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology
    • PO Press Office
    • PRC People’s Republic of China
    • Q&As Question and Answer Sheets
    • RNC Republican National Committee
    • ROC Republic of China on Taiwan
    • SAP Statement of Administrative Policy
    • SBA Small Business Administration
    • SO Speechwriting Office
    • SOTU State of the Union
    • SSA Social Security Administration
    • SSI Supplemental Security Income
    • UN United Nations
    • UNSC United Nations Security Council
    • USIP United States Institute of Peace
    • WTO World Trade Organization


    The first edition of The Art of Policymaking: Tools, Techniques, and Processes in the Modern Executive Branch hit bookstore shelves early in 2002. It provided students and practitioners with a detailed explanation of the specific tools, techniques, and processes used to create, analyze, and implement policy in the United States. The second edition expands the scope and depth of the first edition in multiple ways.

    • New presidents. We expanded “Part I: The Policymakers” to reflect upon and compare the organizational structures and policymaking processes in the executive branch as they evolved under Presidents William J. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack H. Obama. Just as the original edition offered important information and guidelines on how the White House policymaking process worked to a new president, the second edition is designed to assist President Obama’s successor.
    • Rise of the budget process in policymaking. We expanded “Part II: Tools of the Trade” by adding a new chapter on the budget process and economic policymaking. We also expanded “Part III: Case Studies” to include a case study that focuses on budget negotiations in the Obama administration.
    • Cross-administration comparisons. The second edition provides case studies regarding social policy, economic policy, and foreign security policy during different administrations. In particular, we supplement our analysis of the Clinton economic plan with an assessment of the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission (on which co-author Paul J. Weinstein, Jr. served as senior adviser) during the Obama administration. In addition, we supplement our chapter on the beginning of U.S. war in Iraq during Desert Shield and Desert Storm with one analyzing President George W. Bush’s decision to change U.S. strategy and dramatically increase the number of U.S. personnel on the ground in Iraq through a policy that became known as “the surge.” With these additions, students can compare how economic and security policymaking varies across multiple administrations.

    Why is this book still needed? While students of American government and public policy are generally well informed about the institutional characteristics of the American political system, and most understand basic political science theories about politics and governance, many lack a practical understanding of how to assimilate and apply this knowledge to the actual formation and implementation of policy. Furthermore, the extreme polarization of politics today has led many students, scholars, and practitioners to focus on executive-legislative relations. Although this is important, many are entering government and politics with strong ideological positions but little understanding about the role that the executive branch plays in actually creating and implementing policy.

    The second edition of our book addresses these problems by explaining how senior officials within the executive branch of government manage the policymaking process. We also provide practitioners and students with a detailed description of the tools and techniques used throughout the executive branch to create and implement policy.

    The art of policymaking is the art of leading people and managing problems by using a process that enables the president to make and implement the best possible decisions for the nation. When used effectively, the tools, techniques, and processes of policymaking enhance the president’s ability—and the abilities of those he charges with the responsibility to act—to lead the policymaking process by promoting the president’s agenda, by serving as an honest broker among competing stakeholders, and by acting as an incubator of ideas. The tools, techniques, and processes also help the president manage policymaking by providing staffing functions, by coordinating the agencies and departments within the Executive Office of the President, by designating accountability, and by monitoring policy implementation and execution. We argue, in particular, that the policymaking process operates best when the authority, responsibility, and accountability for a particular policy are clearly specified and all policymakers with a stake in the policy believe that the process provides a legitimate and effective means of voicing their concerns to the president or those responsible for policy development.

    Understanding the specific tools and techniques used in policymaking is critical because the likelihood that policymakers will support the formulation, adoption, and implementation of a particular policy is often as much a function of the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of the process of policymaking as its substantive merits. When the process is considered to be illegitimate or ineffective, policymakers will circumvent the process and use other means—such as leaking information to the media, ignoring established chains of command, and/or using alternative means to contact the president or other key decision makers directly—to promote their objectives. Such activity undermines the policymaking process because it tends to present the president or other key decision makers with a biased view of the issue at hand and it often sparks retaliatory action by others who do not share that view. The end result is often either an ill-considered policy or, more likely, political deadlock on both the issue at hand and other policy proposals considered to be important to political opponents.

    In order to prevent this problem, it is vital for the student and the practitioner to understand the process itself along with the tools and techniques that can make it work effectively. When applied appropriately, they can facilitate policymaking by providing a recognized means of communication among interested parties, thereby enhancing both efficiency and the perception of procedural legitimacy. In contrast, when the tools and techniques are ignored, the process unravels. An effective process does not guarantee that the final policy decision will be the best of all possible decisions, but it increases the probability that the decisions made will reflect the input and evaluation of a variety of competing values and objectives. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that the policy will be supported and adopted. The goal of this book is, thus, to complement existing studies and theories of the policymaking process by providing students and practitioners with the tools, techniques, and processes necessary to make the policymaking process function effectively. By doing so, it also seeks to demonstrate the impact of procedural legitimacy on the policymaking process and the corresponding fruitfulness of incorporating the tools, techniques, and processes of policymaking into extant theories of the policymaking process.

    We could not have written this book without the insights and contributions made by many individuals within the administrations of George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack H. Obama. Paul J. Weinstein, Jr. would particularly like to thank former Vice President Albert Gore, Jr.—who gave him his first opportunity to work in government and politics—and former President William J. Clinton for giving him the opportunity to serve his country and to hone the skills that are presented in this book. In addition, the authors would like to thank all those who helped make this book possible. Although it is not possible to list all those who contributed to this project, a few people deserve special recognition: Kris Balderston, Erskine Bowles, John Bridgeland, Victor Cha, Marc Dunkelman, Peter Feaver, Tom Freedman, Al From, Ben Ginsberg, Stephen Hadley, Mark Jacobsen, Colin Kahl, Matthew Kroenig, James Kvaal, Lindsay Lewis, Gene Ludwig, Will Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, Jr., C. Thomas McMillen, Dana Milbank, Sarah O’Byrne, Jay Parker, Bruce Reed, and Alan Simpson. We thank Kelsey Larsen and Sirvart Tokatlian for their research and editorial assistance on the second edition. In addition, we would like to offer special thanks to Jacquelyn Shambaugh and Jessica Milano; George Shambaugh, III; Lynne Weinstein; William Straus; and Paul Weinstein, Sr. for their tireless support throughout this endeavor.

    We also greatly appreciate the input and support of the editors at CQ Press.

    About the Authors

    Dr. George E. Shambaugh, IV is associate professor of international affairs and government in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and former chairman of the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He holds a Ph.D. and M. Phil. in political science and an M.A. in international affairs from Columbia University, and a B.A. in government and physics from Oberlin College. His research focuses on topics of international political economy, international politics, foreign policy, and the environment. Dr. Shambaugh is the author of States, Firms, and Power: Successful Sanctions in U.S. Foreign Policy (SUNY, 1999), co-author of the first edition of The Art of Policymaking: Tools, Techniques, and Processes in the Modern Executive Branch (Longman, 2003), co-editor of Anarchy and the Environment: The International Politics of Common Pool Resources (SUNY, 1999), and co-editor of three issues of Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in American Foreign Policy (McGraw-Hill, 2006, 2008, 2010). His articles have appeared in a range of journals including the American Journal of Political Science, International Studies Quarterly, The Journal of Peace Research, Review of International Studies, Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, International Politics, Environmental Politics, International Interactions, and Security Dialogue. He has received grants and awards from the National Science Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the MacArthur Foundation, the International Studies Association, the American Political Science Association, and the Oberlin Alumni Foundation, and he has been a MacArthur Foundation and Dwight D. Eisenhower/Clifford Roberts Fellow.

    Paul J. Weinstein, Jr. is the director of the M.A. in Public Management program at Johns Hopkins University. He holds a M.A. in international affairs from Columbia University and a B.S. in foreign service from Georgetown University. A veteran of two presidential administrations, he was senior adviser to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (Simpson-Bowles), which was created by President Obama to address the nation’s mid- and long-term fiscal challenges. Weinstein formerly served as special assistant to the president and chief of staff of the White House Domestic Policy Council and then later as senior advisor for policy planning to the vice president during the Clinton-Gore administration. Prior to that, Weinstein served as a legislative aide to then-Representative C. Thomas McMillen (D-MD) and then-Senator Albert Gore, Jr. (D-TN). Since 2001, Weinstein has served as a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, where he was chief operating officer for five years. He also consults for the Promontory Interfinancial Network. He has advised numerous elected officials, including former governors Jennifer Granholm and Christine Gregoire. Weinstein has taught at Johns Hopkins University since 2003 and has also lectured at Columbia University and Georgetown University. He is co-author of the first edition of The Art of Policymaking: Tools, Techniques, and Processes in the Modern Executive Branch (Longman, 2003). He has written chapters in a number of other books, and his writing also has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, New York Newsday, Forbes, Investor’s Business Daily, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Monthly, New York Daily News, and Politico, among others.


    We dedicate this book to Emily, Natalie, Parker, and the next generation of political leaders in the executive branch.

  • Glossary

    Action-Forcing Event:

    A potential or existing situation that necessitates presidential action or review. Examples of action-forcing events include the onset of a military conflict that threatens the United States, an upcoming vote on important legislation, and the issuing of an executive order by the president.

    Adhocracy Model:

    Policymaking management model that is highly decentralized and encourages creativity at the expense of accountability. It does rely on regularized and systematic patterns of providing advice to the president.

    Administration Policy:

    Policy becomes “administration policy” when the Office of Management and Budget prepares a Statement of Administrative Policy (SAP). See also Statement of Administrative Policy (SAP).


    An “agency” or “department” is a federal entity that is chartered by Congress or the president to develop policies, run programs, and issue and enforce regulations.

    Agency-Owned Issues:

    As part of the Legislative Referral Memorandum (LRM) process, executive agencies may oversee and coordinate issues without direct presidential involvement. The strategy of identifying “agency-owned” issues allows the president to stay out of potentially contentious debates on issues or legislative proposals that are not of major importance to the country as a whole. See also Legislative Referral Memorandum (LRM).


    Support for a proposal. Gaining buy-in from all interested parties is equivalent to achieving a consensus the proposal should move forward.

    Cabinet-Level Status:

    Status granted to agencies or individuals that Congress has determined should serve as preeminent advisors to the president and whose programs and responsibilities are of vital national interest. The president can include the heads of particular agencies in his cabinet, but only Congress can grant the whole agency cabinet status. Cabinet agency heads are included in the presidential line of succession.


    Policy tools that use incentives, rather than penalties, to achieve a policy goal. Examples include grants, prizes, tax incentives, and loans.

    Centralized Management Model:

    Policymaking model that centralizes the decision-making process among a key set of senior officials who serve to filter information to the president. The process emphasizes that accountability and information flow vertically toward the top.

    Central Limit Theorem:

    A theorem that provides the mathematical justification for making inferences about a population based on a sample.

    Cognitive Bias:

    An unmotivated decision-making bias that results from an inability of individuals to process excessive or insufficient amounts of information. Individuals exhibiting a cognitive bias will tend to interpret information and events in ways that conform to what they expect to see, given their beliefs about how the world works and their understanding of the specific context at hand.

    Concurrence/Nonconcurrence Sheet:

    A document circulated to agency senior staff before a memorandum from an interagency working group is submitted to a cabinet secretary. Each member of the senior staff must express his or her viewpoint on the memorandum before it is submitted.

    Confidence Interval:

    When calculating poll results, the range of the unknown variable within a population estimated from a sample and the confidence level that the range covers its true value.

    Congressional Review Act:

    The federal legislation that requires agencies to submit new regulations to the Congress and the General Accounting Office (GAO) before they can take effect.

    Decision-Making Memorandum:

    One of the primary means of communicating and exchanging ideas in the policymaking process. It plays a critical role in agenda setting, policy formation, and policy implementation. The most important of these roles is setting agenda by identifying which events have sufficient importance to the executive and to the United States of America to necessitate the policymaker’s attention.


    An individual who is directly subordinate to the head of an agency, department or office.

    Deputy Level:

    Events or meetings that generally involve only deputies.

    Dial Group:

    See Focus Group.

    Efficiency Criterion:

    One of the primary means used to evaluate policy options. This approach measures policy efficiency by determining the relationship between the value of the ends and the value of the means.

    Executive Orders:

    Presidential directives that carry the force of law. These orders derive their legal authority from the Constitution, treaties, and statutes. They do not require the approval of Congress to take effect, but they can be overturned by Congress (with the passage of a law) or by a future president.

    Fact Checking:

    Checking a public statement or release for factual errors. Sometimes factual discrepancies are incredibly subtle. What appears to be factually accurate to a speechwriter may, in fact, be a major error to a policymaker.

    Focus Group:

    A group of individuals with specific similar characteristics who are asked to view or listen to a speech, commercial, or policy statement and state their degree of approval or disapproval of certain phrases, words, or proposals.


    A situation in which decision makers in a group begin to evaluate and rationalize problems collectively, develop illusions of invulnerability and unanimity, view other groups and opponents as less capable, tolerate only self-censorship, and pressure internal dissenters to conform.

    Independent Agencies, Departments, and Bureaus:

    Entities that exist within the executive branch, and whose leadership are typically nominated by the president, but are not directly overseen by the White House. These agencies tend to have certain characteristics that enable them to avoid political pressure (to some extent) from the White House and Congress. These include full or partial self-funding, terms of office that do not coincide with those of elected officials, or membership allotments that are unaffiliated or cross political parties.

    Information Memorandum:

    A memo providing information on an issue/potential action item requiring a decision at a later date. Unlike the decision-making memorandum, the information memorandum should not make policy recommendations. See also Decision-Making Memorandum.

    Interagency Working Group:

    A working group that involves several agencies and is directed to develop a policy proposal or position on a policy area.


    “Approved leaks” refer to information that is intentionally provided to the media in an informal manner in order to mobilize public support. “Unapproved leaks” refer to information that is provided to people outside of the formal decision-making apparatus without the knowledge or consent of the executive. Unapproved leaks can weaken the president by making the internal control mechanisms seem irrelevant and thus promoting chaos within an administration.

    Legislative Referral Memorandum (LRM):

    The formal oversight process run by OMB to resolve policy conflicts and guarantee that resulting legislation or actions are consistent with the policies and objectives of the president. The guidelines for the LRM process are set out in OMB Circular A-19.

    Mall Intercept Method:

    A method of polling in which passers-by are asked for their opinions regarding a variety of issues.

    Motivated Bias:

    Bias that results from a subconscious tendency to interpret information in ways that match some underlying motivation. In other words, people tend to see what they want to to see. In such circumstances, the policy decision is usually made first and is followed by extensive justifications and rationalizations.

    Multiple Advocacy Model:

    Policymaking model designed to expose the president to competing arguments and viewpoints in a systematic manner.

    Non-Program Offices:

    These include an agency’s budget office, the office of the general counsel, the office of the chief of staff, and an agency’s policy and research office.

    Office of Management and Budget (OMB):

    One of the most powerful agencies in the federal government, OMB is located in the Executive Office of the President (and physically across the street from the White House). The agency is charged by Congress to prepare the president’s budget submission each year and to maintain the federal government’s books. The agency is also responsible for overseeing the management of programs and the review of federal regulations.


    Typically in November, OMB “passes back” drafts of agencies’ budgets for the next fiscal year, kicking off last-ditch negotiations before OMB prepares a final budget proposal in January. Passbacks require agency budgeteers to revise the drafts and address any concerns with OMB officials.

    Policy Authorization Tool:

    A tool that provides the legal basis to implement policy. Examples of policy authorizing tools include legislation, executive authority, treaties, and legal precedents.

    Policy Implementation Tool:

    The means by which a policy is designed to achieve a goal or a set of goals. Examples include targeted tax incentives, grants, regulations, and media campaigns.


    The head of an agency, department, or office.

    Principal Level:

    Events or meetings that generally involve only principals.

    Procedural Legitimacy:

    Legitimacy derived from the process by which decisions are made.


    Ceremonial statements made by the executive that are of general interest (such as declaring National Flag Day). Occasionally, however, they are used for substantive statements of general policy (such as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation) or for announcements of certain presidential decisions.

    Program Offices:

    Offices that run the specific programs that Congress has established by statute. Examples include Head Start, Pell Grants, and food stamps.

    Public Policy:

    The sum of government activities, whether pursued directly or through agents, that have an influence on the lives of citizens.

    Random Sample:

    A sample group from a population in which all elements of the population have an equal chance of being chosen or a known probability that they will be missed.

    Reliable Question:

    A polling question that will be interpreted the same way by different respondents or by the same respondent at different times.

    Sequential Approach:

    An approach to policymaking that divides the policymaking process into a series of sequential stages—including problem identification, formulation, adoption, implementation, and evaluation—and categorizes policy actions as they vary from stage to stage.

    Situation Room:

    The situation room is located in the basement of the West Wing of the White House. It serves as a base of operations and provides support for the NSC and the President when managing sensitive issues and crises.


    Marketing efforts used to promote support for a particular policy. Policy spin is factual evidence presented in a way to support a proposal or position. It is not meant to mislead but rather to inform the public in a way that puts a proposal in the best light.

    Statement of Administration Policy (SAP):

    Statements that provide a direct and authoritative way for the administration to let the Congress and, via the press, the American people know the views of the president on a particular bill or legislative issue.

    Strain Toward Agreement:

    The motivation of policymakers with common as well as competing interests to reach a collective solution to the problems at hand.


    Individuals, agencies, departments, and interest groups in the policymaking community with vested interests in the issues or policies at hand.

    State of the Union (SOTU):

    An annual address presented by the president of the United States to the United States Congress. The address can be given by correspondence, but since the Wilson presidency, it has typically been delivered by the president before a joint session of Congress. The address reports on the condition of the nation and allows the president to outline his legislative agenda and national priorities to Congress.

    Statistical Inference:

    A process of analyzing data to infer information about a population. It enables pollsters to use a small sample of individuals to provide a reasonably accurate picture of a much larger population.

    Tax Credit:

    One type of targeted tax incentive that reduces one’s tax liability (what a taxpayer owes).

    Valid Question:

    One that clearly reflects the underlying issue that the analyst is interested in.

    Views Letters:

    To assist the president in deciding his course of action on a bill, OMB may request that each interested agency submit a “views letter” that specifies its analysis and recommendation of a particular policy proposal within 48 hours. OMB then prepares a memorandum to the president on the enrolled bill, comprising these views letters along with its summary of the bill. OMB identifies significant issues raised by various agencies and provides its recommendations.

    War Room:

    A rapid response operation that brings together representatives from every department into one room.

    Weekly Report:

    A mechanism that provides decision makers with important information on a regularly scheduled basis.

    West Wing:

    Since it was first constructed under President Theodore Roosevelt, the West Wing of the White House has served as the office building of the senior members of the White House staff. The building contains the Oval Office, the vice president’s office, and the National Security Council’s situation room, where the president’s staff monitors the world 24/7.

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