Hird, John

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Professor, Department of Political Science
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Political Science
Public Policy
Environmental policy
Policy analysis
Policy expertise and advising
Regulatory policy-making
The use of information in policymaking
Throughout his career at UMass Amherst since 1989, John Hird, professor of political science and chair of the department, has focused on improving the relationship between expertise and policymaking. “Nearly all of my research,” he says, “touches in some fashion on this topic. In the classroom I encourage students to appreciate the importance of public service and prepare for careers as ‘experts.’ And my service activities aim to enhance linkages between expertise and policymaking, including my role in establishing the Center for Public Policy and Administration and its master’s degree program.”
Oddly enough, a slab of steel—Richard Serra’s 1981 sculpture Tilted Arc in Manhattan’s Federal Plaza, commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration as public art—provided the initial inspiration for Hird’s research. Many federal employees, outraged by the enormous wall, protested its visual and physical impairments, its potential as a bomb-blasting wall, and the likelihood of attracting graffiti and rats. They demanded Titled Arc’s removal. The artist claimed that as commissioned, site-specific art, it could not be relocated, stating, “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.” After much political and legal wrangling, one night four years later the sculpture was cut up and removed.
“For me,” says Hird, “the controversy spoke to important questions of politics and public policy. How are people identified in public discourse as experts? Recognizing its contingent nature, what role should expertise play in policymaking? How should policy decisions be made when experts disagree—or when experts and the public disagree? What is the relationship between expertise and political power? How can experts better represent those with legitimate claims who cannot afford expertise? Should Serra, the ‘expert’ or those who use the public plaza decide what belongs there?”
A related and persistent concern for Hird is that an elite form of expertise will dominate democratic policymaking, leading to a political process dominated by technical analysis, in which the public cannot engage, and to outcomes detrimental to the public interest. His book Superfund: The Political Economy of Environmental Risk (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) examines how the Love Canal problem, that led to the hasty passage of the Superfund, was framed by experts in a way that both precluded public involvement and through “science” systematically understated site risks. “In contrast, citizens saw the problem as dangers that corporations imposed on their communities, and the outrage factor confounded risk experts,” says Hird. “My work challenged the expertise of risk experts’ claims, and examined distributional and economic dimensions of the program.”
Since much of public policymaking hinges on advice of one form or another, the relationship of expertise to politics is central to political science and public policy. Hird’s book Power, Knowledge and Politics: Analysis in the States (Georgetown University Press, 2005) compares the impacts of nonpartisan policy research organizations (NPROs) in state legislatures.
“Although its theoretical focus involves expertise, not state politics,” says Hird, “states provide a nearly ideal venue for comparing the differential application of expertise to politics. Despite significant variation in how state legislatures deploy policy analysis, they retain similar political structures, language and so on. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, the book engages the relationship of expertise to policymaking in seldom explored ways. In short, the empirical reality rather poorly fits the traditional conception of policy analysis as disinterested analytical problem solving.”
Hird’s teaching rests on two simple principles: students learn best when they do the work, rather than being shown how to do it; and teachers are more effective when they focus on learning rather than teaching. “Obviously, one presages the other,” says Hird. “Students cannot do without being shown, and they cannot learn without being taught, but the emphasis on students rather than teachers is important. Students learn best when they engage the material through their own work, are encouraged to place their own views in a larger context, and when they are supported in learning by being encouraged to make and correct mistakes. They learn more and are better motivated to learn theory when they learn inductively.”
In his introductory public policy course, for example, Hird begins with an overview of different approaches to policy issues (libertarian, egalitarian, etc.) followed by an introduction to ten or more policy issues through in-class debates and discussion supplemented by lectures. “Any teaching approach has deficiencies,” says Hird. “In this case, it’s a loss of depth, but what students learn more broadly from these topics exceeds, in my view, what they would learn from an in-depth focus on one or a few. Also, when students debate each other, they come to understand that reasonable people can disagree about the merits of different policy beliefs. It is far too easy to write off political conflict as simply about self-interest or money. The course demonstrates that ideas and persuasion matter and that individuals can be involved in changing things they care about.” Hird’s book Controversies in American Public Policy, co-authored with former UMass Amherst graduate students Michael Reese and Matthew Shilvock and now in its third edition, was created for this course; it provides both historical background and examples for arguments involving contemporary policymaking controversies.
Ten years ago the Center for Public Policy and Administration opened its doors in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Among a handful of faculty involved in its establishment, Hird shepherded CPPA into growth and success. From lobbying for and improving physical space to hiring new faculty across disciplines to fundraising and developing new programs like the undergraduate certificate in public policy, Hird was fully immersed as CPPA’s founding director until 2006 when he stepped down to take over the leadership of the political science department.
Already the department has made big steps toward reshaping itself. Hird worked with the faculty to craft the department’s innovative faculty hiring initiative, focusing on three key areas of contemporary political change: global forces; governance and institutions; and democracy, participation, and citizenship. Last year’s successful search yielded four new faculty and the plan for this year is to make multiple additional appointments to start in the fall. He is working with department faculty to revamp the undergraduate curriculum, improve the advising system, and better connect the department with new and existing undergraduate clubs; improve the graduate program and graduate student funding; and to develop workshops to engage faculty and graduate students in themes that cross traditional sub-fields.
“I like to make things happen,” says Hird, “and I’m working with great colleagues who share the same vision of a department of wide-ranging scholars whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries to engage the major issues of the day. It’s an exciting time to be in the Political Science department.”

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