Political Science for Public Policy

This information is for the 2023/24 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Lloyd Gruber


This course is compulsory on the Double Master of Public Administration (LSE-Columbia), Double Master of Public Administration (LSE-University of Toronto), MPA in Data Science for Public Policy and Master of Public Administration. This course is available on the MPA Dual Degree (LSE and Hertie), MPA Dual Degree (LSE and NUS) and MPA Dual Degree (LSE and Tokyo). This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

This course has a limited number of places after students for whom it is compulsory have been accommodated (it is controlled access). Priority is given to students from the School of Public Policy, students from other programmes will be considered if places remain.

Course content

Whenever experts get together to debate public policy, attention usually focuses on what the relevant political players should be doing differently – and better:  Which policies should a country’s government be adopting (or discarding) to stimulate growth and reduce poverty?  What new trade or aid strategies should policymakers in the industrialised world be implementing to help poorer countries develop?  What should world leaders be doing to address climate change?  In practice, however, people in positions of power often do their own thing.  The experts may be well intentioned.  They may be right that policy reforms X, Y, and Z are ‘urgently needed’.  It may be true that, if implemented effectively, these measures would improve living standards or reduce greenhouse gas emissions or spare civilians caught up in a bloody war of attrition.  But that doesn’t mean any of these measures will get adopted.  Most will never make it onto the political agenda, let alone into legislation that endures long enough to improve people’s lives.  Rather than let this reality be a source of frustration, students who take this course will come away with a deeper understanding of the political incentives that drive policy changes forward, or sometimes backwards, in the real world.  Attention will focus on the political pressures that motivate and constrain policymakers across all sectors – public as well as private and non-profit – and at all levels – global, national, and local.  Students will be exposed to a wide variety of political economy concepts along the way, a theoretical toolkit we’ll use to understand several concrete cases of public management and mis-management.  Why did policymakers fail to anticipate the Covid pandemic?  If you were in a position to improve the way your country delivered public services, how would you go about it, or (to back up a step) what would you need to do to put yourself in that position, to make yourself the policymaker?  Are democratic institutions still fit for purpose, or has rising political polarization rendered them unworkable?  Do international organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations and the World Trade Organization really benefit all nations, or just rich ones?  Are the world’s poor stuck with a global balance of power that favours the wealthy, or is China’s rise a global game-changer?  If you are curious about the larger political forces driving some countries ahead while others stagnate or decline – and you want more experience putting cutting-edge policy analysis techniques and political economy theories to work in solving some of the today’s most pressing policy problems – this course is for you.


This course is delivered through a combination of lectures and seminars totalling a minimum of 60 hours across Autumn Term and Winter Term. 

Formative coursework

Every student will deliver one practice presentation during the first several weeks of the course.  Students can expect detailed feedback on the substance of these presentations as well as their delivery (presentations will be videoed where possible).  Each student will also be invited to submit an individually-authored ‘practice’ policy memo on one of two different questions distributed in week 2.  These memos are optional, but those who write them will have their submissions returned – with comments – shortly thereafter.

Indicative reading

  • Jennifer Bussell, Clients and Constituents: Political Responsiveness in Patronage Democracies (Oxford, 2019)
  • Anand Giridharadas, The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age (Allen Lane, 2022)
  • Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale, and Taha Yasseri, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action (Princeton, 2016)
  • Lloyd Gruber, Ruling the World: Power Politics and the Rise of Supranational Institutions (Princeton, 2000)
  • Anne Appelbaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends (Penguin, 2021)
  • Martha Finnemore and Judith Goldstein, eds., Back to Basics: State Power in a Contemporary World (Oxford, 2013)
  • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Crown, 2012)
  • William Roberts Clark, Matthew R. Golder, and Sona Nadenichek Golder, Principles of Comparative Politics: International Student Edition, 3rd ed. (CQ Press, 2017)
  • Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (Crown, 2022)


Exam (60%, duration: 3 hours, reading time: 15 minutes) in the spring exam period.
Policy memo (20%) and presentation (20%) in the AT.

All students will be required to take part in a Development Policy Application (DPA) project stretching over several weeks of Autumn Term. A specific – and current – issue of major importance to developing countries will be introduced in the first week of this exercise.  Each student will then be asked to prepare an individually-authored policy memo on the topic.  This memo will be worth 20% of the overall course mark.

In the second part of the exercise, students will be randomly assigned into small groups and begin preparing a jointly-delivered oral presentation making the (political) case for their group’s preferred policy.  These presentations will take place towards the end of the term and will count for a further 20% of the overall course mark.

The Summer exam paper will encourage students to think creatively about the ideas and arguments presented in the course and will include at least one short essay question. This last component of the assessment will count for 60% of the student's overall course mark.

Student performance results

(2019/20 - 2021/22 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 17.1
Merit 79.4
Pass 3.5
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: School of Public Policy

Total students 2022/23: 136

Average class size 2022/23: 17

Controlled access 2022/23: Yes

Lecture capture used 2022/23: Yes (MT & LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.