Most Useful Concepts

Concepts selected on the basis of competency standards established for the policy profession

Atlas Concepts are largely “curriculum-derived” from required university courses. This page displays a “practice-derived” subset of Atlas concepts that support required professional competencies. This subset might therefore be considered to be “the most useful concepts in practice.”

To select such concepts we use framework described in Policy Profession Competencies and Atlas Topics, based on the Level 2 requirements in UK Policy Profession Standards 2019. The table below displays core concepts from the Atlas that strongly support the policy profession competencies listed in those standards. Our selection responds to the detailed competencies listed for Level 2 policy professionals. Because many of the selected concepts are useful to more than one detailed competency, we have assigned each to one of the 17 competency areas rather than to a detailed competency. Similarly, although some of the selected concepts are useful to competencies in more than one area, we have listed each concept only once on the table, placing each in the competency area judged most crucial.

The Most Useful Concepts in Practice

120 selected core concepts organized by policy profession competency area

Analysis and Use
of Evidence

Knowledge of Policy Making

Policy Analysis

Policy Design

Public Policy

Policy Consistency

Elements of Policy Content

Types of Reasoning in Policy Analysis

Rational Decision Making Model

Lindblom’s Incrementalism and Muddling Through

Satisficing Behaviour

Policy Design and Social Values

Dirty Hands

Moral Dilemma

Policy Framing

Framing the Problem

Issue Framing

Focusing Event

Policy Window

Path Dependence

Conceptualizing Interests in Policymaking

The Role of Ideas in Policymaking


Symbolic Representation and Narrative

Futures, Foresight and Horizon Scanning

System Crisis vs. Policy Problem


Future Shocks

Statistics and Data Analysis

Mean and Median


Sampling Bias

Normal Distributions

Type I and Type II Errors

Simple Linear Regression

Causal Effect

Randomized Controlled Trial (RTC)



Opportunity Cost

Pareto Efficiency

Market Failure


Command and Control Solutions vs. Taxes and Subsidies

Public Good

Common Resource

Free Riding

Tragedy of the Commons

Welfare Economics

Principal-Agent Problem

Returns to Scale

Discount Rate

Net Present Value (NPV)


Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Science, Technology, and Evidence

Evidence and Policy

Claims, Reason, and Evidence


Politics and

Advising, Briefing and Drafting

Writing a Briefing Note

Smith’s 3-Step Approach to Policy Communication

Policy Issue Paper

Young and Quinn’s Writing Checklist for Problem Definition

Communications Plan

Behn’s Craft of Memo Writing

Using Plain Language

Making Slide Presentations

Elevator Pitch

Working with Parliament or Equivalent

Westminster System

Speaking Truth to Power

Policy Advisory Systems

Cabinet Decision-Making System

Political Executive vs. Civil Service

Constitutional Convention of a Politically Neutral Civil Service

Ministerial Responsibility

Political Neutrality

Political Aide

Stakeholder Engagement

Consulting Stakeholders and Engaging Citizens

Interest Group


Policy Community

Advocacy Coalitions

Policy Networks

Partnerships and Horizontal Management

Working Intergovernmentally

International Relations

Intergovernmental Relations


Guardians vs. Spenders


Government Program

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

Reading a Financial Statement

Performance Reporting


Understanding the Delivery Context and Effective Implementation Planning

Classification of Policy Instruments

Bardach’s Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving

Principal-Agent Problem

Downs’ Typology of Officials

Leonard’s Note on Public Sector Strategy-Building

Kennedy School’s Value-Capacity-Support Model

Public Value Scorecard

Bardach’s Step One – Define the Problem

Bardach’s Things Governments Do

Risk Mapping

New Public Management

Program and Project Management

Eggers & O’Leary’s Project Management Framework for Implementation

Identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT)

VMOSA – Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies, and Action Plans


Contrasting Purposes of Evaluation

Categories of Program Evaluation

Logic Models

Attribution Problem

Cost-Benefit Analysis in Evaluation

Cost-Effectiveness Analysis

Discount Rate

Net Present Value (NPV)

User Centred Design, Digital and Behavioural Insights

Communication Nudges and Behavioural Economics

Open Government


Management Improvement Methodologies – TQM, Six Sigma, and Lean

Persuasion and Negotiation

Aristotle’s 3 Rhetorical Appeals – Legos, Ethos, and Pathos

Orren’s 20 Principles of Persuasion

Fisher and Ury’s Four Principles of Negotiation

Determine your BATNA and Reservation Value

ZOPA – Zone of Possible Agreement

Dealing with Difficult People

Commercial Impact

Using Regulation-Based Policy Instruments

Unintended Consequences

There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch – TANSTAAFL

Benefit of a Subsidy – Economic vs. Legal Incidence

Burden of a Tax – Economic vs. Legal Incidence

Tax Revenue and Deadweight Loss

Analysis and commentary

Competency area descriptors

The competency areas in the table are identical to those found in is found in UK Policy Profession Standards 2019, Policy Profession Standards – a framework for professional development with the following minor modifications to enhance their comprehensiveness and comprehensibility outside the UK:

  • “Knowledge of Policy Making in your Policy Area” becomes “Knowledge of Policy Making” with no change to the competency descriptions
  • “Science and Technology” becomes “Science, Technology, and Evidence” with no change to the competency descriptions
  • “Working with Parliament” becomes “Working with Parliament or Equivalent” with minor changes to the competency descriptions to include equivalent entities in different levels of government
  • “Devolution” is not included
  • “Working Internationally and Exiting the European Union” becomes “Working Intergovernmentally” with changes to drop references to the European Union and to include working with other governments within and outside the country
  • “Commercial” becomes “Commercial Impact” with no change to the competency descriptions
  • “Communicating with Influence” becomes “Persuasion and Negotiation” with no change to the competency descriptions
  • The vertical ordering in the columns is modified slightly to place the more quantitative areas at the bottom: Statistics and Data Analysis; Economics; Science and Technology; Finance; and Commercial Impact.
Different types of concepts

The Atlas uses the term “concept” to cover a variety of discrete conceptual items that contribute to mastering specific skills and knowledge requirements in the competency framework. The table below provides a typology with examples and illustrates that some concepts have a “how to” emphasis while others have a “why does” emphasis. For our purposes a useful concept could be, for example, a crucial definition, an important distinction, an insightful typology, an applicable model, or a comprehensive checklist. Learning these concepts should help policy professionals perform the work that the practitioners who created the skills and knowledge requirements had in mind when they developed the competency framework.

Typology for concept entries, with examples
“How to” emphasis “Why does” emphasis

Identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT)

Bardach’s Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving

Definitions and Illustrations


Government Program


Bardach’s Things Governments Do

Young and Quinn’s Writing Checklist for Problem Definition

Distinctions and Comparisons

Contrasting Purposes of Evaluation

Political Executive vs. Civil Service

Tips and Effective Practices

Smith’s 3-Step Approach to Policy Communication

Behn’s Craft of Memo Writing


Types of Reasoning in Policy Analysis

Elements of Policy Content

Rules and Advice

Constitutional Convention of a Politically Neutral Civil Service

Speaking Truth to Power

Theories and Frameworks

VMOSA – Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies, and Action Plans

Eggers & O’Leary’s Project Management Framework for Implementation

Normative Models

Kennedy School’s Value-Capacity-Support Model

Fisher and Ury’s Four Principles of Negotiation

Descriptive Models

Lindblom’s Incrementalism and Muddling Through

Rational Decision Making Model

The meaning of core

What does it mean to be a core concept? Concepts (see Defining Core) are deemed to be core if syllabi descriptions and feedback from students suggest that they are being taught in required courses in MPP and MPA programs. We engaged students as research assistants to identify the most important concepts taught in class or referenced in the required readings. A concept that was judged important for understanding a topic in a required course was deemed to be a core concept.

The Atlas framework is designed to have 120 core topics so that the core content of an MPP or MPA program could be taught in a total of 120 course-weeks of instruction – equivalent to 10 one-semester courses. The current list of 120 topics on the Atlas of Public Management can be viewed at Topics. Although our process of identifying the concepts within each topic is not yet complete, on 3 June 2019 a total of 1,032 core concepts have been elaborated (on 889 Atlas concept pages plus 143 OnlineStatBook core concept entries in Quantitative Methods). The mean number of concepts per topic is about 10. We therefore expect that the 120 core topics would generate about 1,200 core concepts.

Public policy and management is a dynamic field, where one could expect any list of core topics to change over time. However, our sense is that the set of core topics is relatively stable with perhaps 5 percent of the topics changing each year. Similarly, the core concepts within any topic will also change over time, but we believe they have similar stability.

Judgement in selecting concepts

The selection of “most useful concepts” requires a degree of subjective judgement and individual selections can obviously be debated. As noted above, our selection responds to the detailed competencies expected of Level 2 policy professionals that are listed in use framework described in Policy Profession Competencies and Atlas Topics. Because many of the concepts selected are useful to more than one specific competency, we have grouped the selected concepts under higher-level competency areas rather than under the detailed competencies themselves. Although some of the selected concepts are useful to competencies in more than one competency area, we have listed each concept only once on the table, placing each in the competency area judged most crucial.

Another matter requiring judgement is how best to select concepts for the highly analytical competency areas, particularly with Statistics and Data Analysis and with Economics. These correspond to the core subjects of Economic Analysis and Quantitative Methods, each of which has 12 core topics and about 150 core concepts. Although policy professionals who rely heavily on quantitative analysis to perform their work might find most of the 300-odd core concepts in these two subjects to be highly useful, we have selected only 10 percent of them for the “most useful concepts” table. The 30 that we selected do not require sophisticated mathematics to understand and we believe all are highly useful to policy professionals in a wide range of duties. They have been assigned to three competency areas: 17 to Economics, 8 to Statistics and Data Analysis, and 5 to Commercial Impact.

In judging the utility of the curriculum-derived concepts in the real world of practice, we were assisted by page view data for the Atlas of Public Management generated by Google Analytics. Google Analytics does not identify individual users but we can infer, from the names of the servers, that users come roughly equally from academic institutions and governments. (See Who is Using the Atlas?)

Coverage and completeness

One might ask whether our curriculum-based approach to determining core concepts might miss concepts that are useful in practice but are not yet being taught in university courses. Although there will always be some lag between use in practice and teaching in a university, we believe that our list of core concepts includes most of the pertinent practice-based concepts because we have drawn on recently delivered, practice-oriented courses. These courses have been designed by former practitioners who continue to engage with current practitioners, many of whom participate in the course delivery.

What can we learn from the number of entries in the “most useful concepts” table? There are 120 entries. This number constitutes one tenth of the 1,200 core concepts projected from the curriculum-based Atlas framework. In other words, roughly 10 percent of the core concepts taught in MPP and MPA programs can be considered “most useful in practice.”

Distribution of concepts among competency areas

We can see that some competency areas have more entries than others. Can any useful conclusions be drawn from the uneven distribution of entries among the competency areas? After all, it is unlikely that the designers of the UK Policy Profession Standards 2019 assumed that each competency area required the same amount of learning content to master. And, in any case, concept entries can differ in their volume of conceptual content. Nevertheless, it is worth commenting on the lack of entries for four competency areas with few entries: Futures, Foresight, and Horizon Scanning; Science, Technology, and Evidence; Commercial Impact; and Finance.

  • The Futures, Foresight, and Horizon Scanning competency area is notable because the subject matter implied by the area description and its Level 2 competencies described in Policy Profession Competencies and Atlas Topics has a scope comparable to an Atlas topic, and led to the recent creation of an identically named core topic, Futures, Foresight, and Horizon Scanning, in the rather eclectic Atlas core subject of Analytic Methods. The task for the Atlas editors is now to find course syllabi and reference material that describe the inherent concepts.
  • The lack of entries in the Science, Technology, and Evidence competency area is due primarily to the absence of an aligned Atlas core subject, reflecting the absence a tradition of required MPP or MPA courses in this area. As can be seen at Subjects, we have identified a non-core subject called Science, Technology and Innovation but we have not yet populated it with topics and concepts. We have also included the topic Evidence and Decision Making in the core subject of Policy Analysis and Process, but this topic is yet to be populated with concepts.
  • The explanation for the lack of entries in the Commercial Impact competency area is similar. There is no Atlas core subject (i.e., no tradition of specific courses in MPP and MPA programs) that comprehensively addresses the competency, as set out in competency area description and its detailed Level 2 competencies. This raises the question of whether MPP and MPA curricula, as well as the suite of Atlas subjects, should put more emphasis on this subject matter.
  • In the case of the Finance competency area, the importance of the subject matter has been recognized in the Atlas framework with the core subject, Public Financial Management, but its 6 core topics have yet to be elaborated and populated with concepts.
Using the “most useful concept” table

How might the “most useful concepts” table be used? For a student about to graduate from an MPP or MPA program and enter the policy profession, the “most useful concepts” table provides a way of organizing important things to know. Further detail on each of the 120 entries can, or soon will, be found on the Atlas of Public Management. Once the student learns the nature of the policy work in which she or he will be engaged, the table’s organization of the 120 concepts by competency area should help determine priorities for study and review.

Related resources

The page, Using the Atlas to Gauge Concept Usefulness, provides links to a number of tables in the Atlas that can help to gauge the usefulness of concepts. These tables draw on perspectives of university instructors, MPP/MPA students, government instructors, and Atlas users.

A page entitled, The May 6 Concept Collection, provides a fairly exhaustive list of Atlas concepts that can serve as “candidate concepts for a treatise on policy analysis and implementation that includes concepts in governance and institutions, evaluation and performance measurement, ethics and accountability, socioeconomic and political context, economic analysis, and leadership and communications.”

For a recent data on which concepts on the Atlas are most used, see Who is Using the Atlas? and Most Viewed Concepts.


UK Civil Service Learning (2019), Policy Profession – Policy Profession Standards, at, accessed 31 March 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 17 March 2021.

Image: Cropped from Useful Techniques of Building Online Presence For Your Brand at, accessed 2 June 2019.