The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Bryan Jones Assumes the J.J. “Jake” Pickle Chair in Congressional Studies and Selected to Serve as Midwest Political Science Association President

Thu, March 5, 2009

The Department of Government has recruited Bryan Jones, one of the most well-known political scientists in America, to be the first occupant of the J.J. “Jake” Pickle Chair in Congressional Studies. Additionally, Jones has just been selected to serve as president of the Midwest Political Science Association. Formerly at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he directed the Center for American Politics and Public Policy and was the Donald Matthews Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Jones brings with him a record of scholarship that includes several ‘best book’ prizes from the American Political Science Association and more than $2.5 million in National Science Foundation Grants. The Pickle Chair in Congressional Studies is an endowed position in honor of former Austin Congressman J.J. Pickle. Beginning in 1963, Pickle served 31 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. The chair is intended to support and promote real-world study of the U.S. Congress.

Quite fittingly, the year Jones moved from Seattle to Austin coincides with dramatic upheaval in U.S. public policy. The overriding concern in Jones’ career has been a sustained effort to systematically measure and explain how public policies change in the United States. And, central to his research has been a ‘geological’ perspective with a rich tradition in the Department of Government. Anyone who sat through a Walter Dean Burnham lecture knows students were as likely to hear the words ‘tectonic plates’ as they were ‘presidential election’. Burnham, the Frank C. Erwin Professor Emeritus, popularized the idea that change simmers beneath seemingly static political competition, leading eventually to periodic, seismic shifts that forever change the political landscape. Bryan Jones applied a similar concept to public policy. “We have had this notion of how policy changes are a little like earthquakes,” says Jones. “Most are either very small or really large.” Jones was accompanied by a big change as he moved from Seattle. “Things are changing so fast it’ll make your head spin,” Jones said, commenting on the evolving relationship between the government and financial services industry following the 2008 banking collapses.

Continuing with the geological metaphor, Jones has focused on the amount of friction that builds in a system, and the consequent amount of force needed to break through that friction and force change. In terms of public policy, two key factors make a public policy ‘sticky’, and the stickier a policy becomes, the more friction that has built up, the more force that will be required to break it, and hence the bigger the policy change will be. One factor is the prevailing idea behind a given policy. Thinking in terms of the financial crisis, policy change entails fighting the friction built up by ideas that govern the proper relationship between the private and public sectors. A second factor is the institutional framework in which policy is made. In the American case, Jones points to ‘supermajorities’ that are required to pass legislation – the 60 votes needed to pass a bill out of the Senate, for example, helps increase friction in the system.

Jones’ vision for the Pickle Chair therefore begins with an environment free of such stickiness, where dynamism is the norm, not the exception, and where new ideas persistently bubble to the surface. Having earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 1970, Jones prizes the diversity of ideas that has always flourished in the Department of Government, and which he sees as critical to the Department’s success. He says that a diversity of ideas is necessary to generate relevant theoretical questions, and that while there is never a substitute for good data, and that ideas have to be tested systematically, that analytical rigor cannot come at the expense of pluralistic approaches and exposure to a diversity of ideas.

Jones has set no ceiling on his goals for the Pickle Chair – he wants to build a first-class American public policy and American political institutions program, and to continually make the Department’s graduate students more competitive in the job market. Congress and public policy will be the focus: “Congress is about public policy,” said Jones. “We are going to take Congress and integrate it into public policy studies, and we are going to bring the best graduate and undergraduate students into our program that we can.” A most distinctive quality that Jones carries as a teacher is his deep commitment to his students’ success, and his desire to give them the experience of doing scholarly research. He has produced a long list of outstanding doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to leadership roles in the profession. At the undergraduate level, he initiated a program at the University of Washington that recruited undergraduates into a sequence of courses and taught them quantitative data analysis, provided the opportunity to analyze existing data sets or to create original data sets, and held a series of formal poster sessions where students displayed their research findings.

Now at the University of Texas, Jones will combine his program with Sean Theriault’s pre-existing program, Researching the U.S. Congress. Since Theriault arrived on campus in Fall 2001, he has worked with 5-10 undergraduates per semester on his research projects. The students were instrumental in gathering and analyzing data for Theriault’s 2008 book, Party Polarization in Congress. Theriault feels fortunate that Jones has not only brought his research agenda, but also his energy for undergraduate research to Austin: “Bryan is one of the pre-eminent scholars studying policymaking today in the United States. I look forward to combining forces with him,” he said. “By the time the students are through with us, they’ll know how to do research and they’ll know more about the policymaking and lawmaking processes than most graduate students.”

Jones would like to see 10-15 undergraduates move through his program each year and be trained for the country’s best graduate programs. “We want to give them the research skills, analytical skills, and ideas that they need to thrive in graduate school, and we want to leave them with a project that they can take with them to graduate school, whether it is a writing sample for their application or a project that they will eventually turn into a dissertation,” Jones said. At the graduate level, Jones seeks to fund more students with research dollars generated through grants and contracts brought in by faculty. “Grant support equals more time dedicated to research, which equals publications, which equals jobs,” Jones said. “Faculty is ready for it, students are ready for it, and we’re going to improve quickly.”

Central to all of Jones’ plans is his brainchild, the Policy Agendas Project, which began with a National Science Foundation grant to systematically measure the process of policy change. The data generated by the project are freely and publicly available and come with software that allows their use in classrooms across the world. It is being used regularly in research and in undergraduate classrooms, including at Cornell University and the London School of Economics. Sam Workman, who will be joining the department as an assistant professor in January 2010, is the Project Manager. Building off of his collaborative research with Jones, Workman just set out a broad research agenda in the February 2009 issue of Policy Studies Journal. Workman was the lead author for the article, “Information Processing and Policy Dynamics,” co-authored with Jones and Ashley E. Jochim. Two graduate students, Michelle Wolfe and Joe Beth Shafran, and five undergraduates currently work for the Policy Agendas Project.

There is one final piece to the puzzle that makes the Department so well-poised to be an elite institution for the study of public policy – proximity to the State Capitol. Jones himself wrote a dissertation on the Texas Legislature – “Responsiveness and Policy: Models of Representation in the Texas Legislature.” Jones finds that many of the ideas he has worked with in his research on state and local government are applicable to what goes on in downtown Austin. “One great thing about being in Austin is certainly that you can walk down to the Capitol and talk to those people,” he said.

Compiled by Stuart Tendler

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