Mission Failure

Matthew Sawh at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Exposing the problems of policy schools can ignite new ways to realize the mission of educating public servants in the 21st century….

Public policy schools were founded with the aim to educate public servants with academic insights that could be applied to government administration. And while these programs have adapted the tools and vocabularies of the Reagan Revolution, such as the use of privatization and the rhetoric of competition, they have not come to terms with his philosophical legacy that describes our contemporary political culture. To do so, public policy schools need to acknowledge that the public perceives the government as the problem, not the solution, to society’s ills. Today, these programs need to ask how decisionmakers should improve the design of their organizations, their decision-making processes, and their curriculum in order to address the public’s skeptical mindset.

I recently attended a public policy school, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), hoping to learn how to bridge the distrust between public servants and citizens, and to help forge bonds between bureaucracies and voters who feel ignored by their government officials. Instead of building bridges across these divides, the curriculum of my policy program reinforced them—training students to navigate bureaucratic silos in our democracy. Of course, public policy students go to work in the government we have, not the government we wish we had—but that’s the point. These schools should lead the national conversation and equip their graduates to think and act beyond the divides between the governing and the governed.

Most US public policy programs require a core set of courses, including macroeconomics, microeconomics, statistics, and organizational management. SIPA has broader requirements, including a financial management course, a client consulting workshop, and an internship. Both sets of core curricula undervalue the intrapersonal and interpersonal elements of leadership, particularly politics, which I define aspersuasion, particularly within groups and institutions.

Public service is more than developing smart ideas; it entails the ability to marshal the financial, political, and organizational supports to make those ideas resonate with the public and take effect in government policy. Unfortunately, these programs aren’t adequately training early career professionals to implement their ideas by giving short shrift to the intrapersonal and institutional contexts of real changemaking.

Within the core curriculum, the story of change is told as the product of processes wherein policymakers can know the rational expectations of the public. But the people themselves have concerns beyond those perceived by policymakers. As public servants, our success depends on our ability to meet people where they are, rather than where we suppose they should be.  …

Public policy schools must reach a consensus on core identity questions: Who is best placed to lead a policy school? What are their aims in crafting a professional class? What exactly should a policy degree mean in the wider world? The problem is that these programs are meant to teach students about not only the science of good government, but the human art of good governance.

Curricula based on an outdated sense both of the political process and of advocacy is a predominant feature of policy programs. Instead, core courses should cover how to advocate effectively in this new political world of the 21st century. Students should learn how to raise money for a political campaign; how to lobby; how to make an advertising budget; and how to purchase airtime in the digital age…(More)”