Policy Wonk, Defined

Vancouver City Hall. Photograph by Yolanda Cole.

Vancouver City Hall. Photograph by Yolanda Cole in the Georgia Straight

When I’m asked, what I do, I often answer with ‘policy wonk.’  More often than not, I get a strange look in response. Admittedly, it’s an insiders term, used mainly by those who work for governments organizations and the odd NGO. However, the official term, ‘policy analyst‚’ is pretty dry and boring as a way to describe how I’ve spent over a decade of my life, so I decided to reclaim ‘wonk’ from the silos of bureaucracy and wear it with pride.

Basically a wonk is to public policy what a nerd is to math and a geek is to computers. For those looking for a more detailed definition, check out description below that I found online.

I have attempted to write my own description, but nothing I have written could match the bang-on description than the folks at policywonk.com came up with. If I have learned nothing else as a wonk, it’s that, when possible, borrow, and borrow liberally. So read on, and by the end you should have a better idea of what makes me tick—albeit with funkier eyeglasses than they typical wonk).

What is a policy wonk?

PolicyWonks are kinda hard to explain. However, you know one when you hear one.

Above all else, PolicyWonks are smart… really smart. And they like to talk and listen, but mostly to debate. They’re the ones who seem to enjoy pontificating endlessly on subjects that most people are more than happy to know that someone else cares about.

PolicyWonks often ruin a perfectly good party or football game with a discussion of the trade deficit, agricultural subsidies, or welfare reform.  And once they get going, they have an annoying habit of throwing around arguments, statistics and examples that leave the uninitiated feeling, well… dumb.

A PolicyWonk is related to the Science Nerd, but is more practical.  A PolicyWonk is related to the Technology Nerd, but understands people. A PolicyWonk is related to the Math Nerd (and many are known to be able to perform a regression-analysis), but can string together a complete sentence.

PolicyWonks also tend to shop at more upscale clothiers than their nerdy cousins. The don’t wear pocket protectors, highwaters, or black horn-rimmed glasses (though their eyewear is often embarrassing to their children). Nevertheless, the PolicyWonk is often incorrectly classified as a nerd.

PolicyWonks, then, are not always the most well-liked people. But they are respected. Sometimes even feared. Spinmeisters often want to lock them away in a policy cave, lest they undermine their webs of fantasy and fallacy.

Politicians are fair-weather friends to the PolicyWonk. Sometimes when the media notices a politician is particularly vacuous, the Politician will call a meeting with some aspiring and lonely PolicyWonk and give them vague, but nevertheless meaningless, guidance (“I think something’s wrong and we should/should not do something.”) The Politician will publish a white paper (prepared by the PolicyWonk, but never carrying the PolicyWonk’s name), issue a press release, then make a speech that actually contains an iota or shard of content. The Media—and maybe even the Politician’s spouse (or significant other…or both)‚ will be amazed. But once the credibility crisis has passed, the Politician will discard the PolicyWonk like a drunken, ugly one-night stand.

The PolicyWonk’s only true friend is‚ another PolicyWonk.

Occasionally, the PolicyWonk will see his/her ideas materialize in a policy, a regulation, a budget, or some other policy vehicle (a real PolicyWonk will understand this term). But the ultimate in PolicyWonk birthing is… ‘The Initiative’—a complex combination of some or all of the above.

The Initiative is almost always accompanied by a fantastic acronym, often conceived of by the PolicyWonk to bestow honor and respect upon it (e.g. the US A-TEAM, the ‚ “United States Alliance for Technology and Engineering for Advanced Manufacturing”).

‘The Initiative’ is cause for unbridled celebration and joy… at least until such time that a Politician or Spinmeister can glom onto and bastardize the work, turning it into something nearly unrecognizable. And then we start again… resolutely… cynically… optimistically. Some even hope for the coming of the Serious Politician… the one spoken of in hushed terms… the one who will shove aside the Spinmeister… the one who will elevate the PolicyWonk to his/her proper place of love, respect and authority.

Such is the lot of the PolicyWonk. Rarely appreciated by the People in Power (the PiPs). But when all else has failed, the PiPs discover that Policy Wonks are necessary… even useful… at times.

And while we wait, we think… we argue… we debate… we research… we analyze… we write… we edit… and then we think some more… waiting… gestating the next big Initiative…

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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.