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 as persuasion, 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.
Dan Maffei, who served as a US congressional staffer before being elected twice as a US representative from upstate New York, shared his policy school experience with me. He attended Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to “pick up the economics and statistics offered” within their core curriculum. As a graduate student, he felt that the lack of politics as a major part of his core course experience was problematic. While there were many electives for him to take, his advisor suggested he study a policy area instead of politics. For Maffei, that advice underscores part of the policy school problem: “If you can’t convey a message and get votes, your policy agenda doesn’t matter,” he explains.
This separation played out most notably during his experience in the core ethics course taught by academics instead of practitioners. Ethics needs to be taught in a real-world context to have any relevance within a preprofessional program like a public policy school. It ought to address dilemmas in everyday life that are not a part of traditional, academic curricula: Should I do what I feel is right on this vote in the long-run or does it matter more what constituents want? Should I be loyal to my party or to my district? What are the limits of loyalty to your boss as a political staffer?
While policy programs are increasing students’ exposure to policymakers by bringing them in as speakers or fellows, academic inertia is very real. “These programs need more people with experience beyond [the study of] political science,” says Maffei. The issue isn’t that policy students don’t get to meet practitioners; it is that those practitioners have a provisional standing in these schools, so their ability to shape the curriculums and priorities of these schools is minimal. Even though some political scientists have relevant experience in practice, “there is this strange presumption [within these schools] that if someone has a PhD in political science, they must know what they are talking about,” Maffei says.
Maffei faulted faculty hiring committees for thumbing their noses at political practitioners in favor of academics. Graduate students in preprofessional programs want to be taught by experienced professionals who know the complexities of running for office and can speak to questions students have as they consider their own political futures: Is running for office all that it’s cracked up to be? How do you get to that point of running for office? How do you raise money? Many of these schools invite rotating cohorts of fellows who have worked in politics and policy, but few who have served in office: “While you occasionally get a political scientist, who enters politics, like Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, that’s exceedingly rare,” Maffei adds. “There is no back and forth between these worlds like there used to be.” The end result is that practitioners usually have little authority when it comes to matters of curriculum and faculty hiring.
An Outdated Education
Why have public policy programs failed to convey this more qualitative knowledge of politics and persuasion? Academic politics is one culprit, and public policy is a fairly new and interdisciplinary field, which makes it particularly prone to academic pressures. Knowledge within the social sciences, too, has become more specialized and consequently less accessible, which challenges the capacity of public policy programs to bridge interdisciplinary divides that are essential to providing students with a comprehensive education that prepares them for their careers.
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.
SIPA’s program does offer its students a rational actor understanding of individuals and organizations. It is a key part of politics and public policy. However, this is also a narrow and incomplete lens that should be broadened in order to reflect the new knowledge of emerging disciplines that are consistent with the historical values and goal of policy schools. For example, there is real need to address not just group outcomes but the role of individual behavior and preferences. How do these elements interact with, modify, and complicate each other in real time? Presenting them as opposite sides of the same coin preserves the artificial schism between politics and policy. They are not opposing angles; rather, they are synergistic and complementary.
Policy programs need to broaden the disciplines within their core offerings and to integrate other disciplines within the curriculum. Often students take a hodgepodge of classes in different fields, but adding a course or two outside one’s field of study misses the point: Policy programs should integrate these competing and complementary perspectives into their core courses. Core content must be more comprehensive and more interdisciplinary in order to empower aspiring public servants to solve problems beyond their immediate field-of-vision and the bureaucratic silos of public life. Accomplishing this fosters students’ ability to become empathetic bridge-builders between elected representatives and citizens.
Bridging the Gap: Realizing the Potential of Policy Schools
The lessons I learned from policy school prepped me to be an ensemble player in public policy, but not the conductor I hoped to become. The training often revealed the thought processes of policymakers, but not the empathy required to understand how the people affected by these policies thought about the same problems. Minding this gap in priorities between what policy professionals and what everyday citizens value is critical to effective policymaking. I’m not suggesting learning merely how to win votes. I’m saying that the shape of citizens’ concerns is political and requires deep democratic consideration and response. Fostering that engagement is key to policy schools living up to their promise, and policymakers have the responsibility to cultivate this empathetic engagement.
Despite the growing pains public policy schools face, their promise is great, and their mission is essential. In order to bridge the gap between the present reality and their promise, public policy schools should:
Hire administrators and faculty with a background in public policy: Not only do there need to be more practitioners in academic and administrative positions, there also needs to be a critical mass of public policy academics in and leading their own schools. A majority of deans, for example, do not have public policy degrees: Of 12 leading public policy schools, only the dean of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University has a doctorate in public administration. A similar sectarian spirit emerges within faculty: At SIPA, 24 percent of full-time faculty are political scientists and 41 percent are economists. The value-add by having deans and professors specifically trained in public policy is their learned understanding of how its components (e.g., politics, policy, economics, organizational behavior, inertia, and the media) coalesce in an academic system, in pedagogy and practice. Hiring administrators and faculty who understand the subject matter is also an external signal of value to the broader academy.
Require three core courses that examine the interplay between politics and policy:
Case-study intensive courses on modern political economy, politics in economics, and the politics of public opinion, would help students better understand the social psychology of individuals and groups. A modern political economy course threading the linkages between industry and government from the Great Depression through the aftermath of the Great Recession would provide students with the historical knowledge to understand how politics has shaped both business and markets, and vice versa.
Economics, in particular, is often taught in isolation from politics, but public servants need to fully grasp such multivariable problem-solving issues as contested Chinese mergers, bank bailouts, and economic development incentive programs to corporations. We need would, in turn, provide students with a greater understanding both of present-day political decision making and of voters’ perceptions of how politics has affected their budgets.
A course on the politics of public opinion would help these future policymakers understand citizens’ increasing distrust of government. In a world of information overload, students must learn what makes policy ideas stick. They must study how policymakers harness the attention of a vastly misinformed public—one in which people have varying amounts of information received through very different media filters.
Helping policy programs live up to their founding ideals will enable them and their students to make greater contributions to the public good. If policy school graduates can combine an understanding of rationality under a range of individual and institutional constraints while applying new knowledge of persuasion and politics to those limits, they may begin to regain the public’s trust.