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Prepared to make a difference

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A lot has changed over 95 years…the program's name, core curriculum, size, physical location, the student body nickname (anyone else miss 'IPPSters'?), and more. But our graduates share a commitment to public service and a belief that first-rate quantitative and political analysis can and should help solve public policy challenges. Here three alums – representing three eras from our history – reflect on their Ford School education, their careers, and their continuing connections with the school.

three alumni that made a difference

Speaking with Ford School alumni, one quickly learns that policy professionals in the local, national, and international realms deal with many of the same challenges—challenges for which the school helped prepare them. By gaining an understanding of the influence of the political environment and the value of quantitative analysis in policymaking, Ford School students gain the skills necessary to apply theory to real-world problems, balance stakeholder needs, and implement successful initiatives.

When Rich Hughes (MPA '61) was in graduate school, about a third of the class was headed for careers in municipal government. Even the students who arrived in Ann Arbor from abroad tended toward an interest in local or state issues. "Several of my classmates were international students, mostly from India," Hughes recalls, but "they all had a state or local focus."

More recent graduates have had a wider range of faculty interests, coursework, and internship opportunities to engage with while in school. But even those who have gone on to careers with international organizations have found common threads with earlier eras, including the importance of well-run, accountable local governments.

When Dileepan Siva (MPP '04) traveled to India as an undergraduate studying public health, he was frequently asked, "What are the challenges in your community?" Siva notes that "While the context may have been different, the actual problems were almost identical."

After graduating from the Ford School, Siva spent several years with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). He explained that the political consulting and poll watching he did for NDI in Zimbabwe was about connecting people to their local and provincial governments. It's the same challenge he saw earlier in his career, when Los Angeles Unified was working on public high school reform. The underlying problem in both places was constituent access and the ability to hold state and local government accountable to deliver services.

Hughes has witnessed similar challenges. A consultant for municipal governments, he says the core question is how to sell program analysis and establish relationships while taking into account the political environment. When Hughes worked with San Diego, deciding how many police officers were required to provide the services needed was not about the city's crime or emergency statistics. "The numbers didn't make a difference—it was about who supported the police more."

IPPS-era graduate Cheryl McMillen (MPP '90) agrees. "You absolutely have to do analysis, but when it gets down to it, it's the political environment that moves policy."

She should know. As the Director of Health Benefits and Income Support for the Department of Health and Human Services, McMillen is constantly negotiating the political environment. For example, when the Secretary and the Attorney General announced plans for HHS to intensify its focus on health care fraud and abuse, many in HHS had numbers at the ready to show how effective fraud prevention measures could be implemented.

Politically, however, the department needs to find a balance between prevention and prosecution. "Arresting people gets attention, it's an action. Prevention is hard to prove and not very sexy," McMillen says.

Still a part of the core curriculum today, Political Environment of Policymaking was a formative MPP course for McMillen. "We read an Ibsen play, Enemy of the People," she remembers. In the play, a town's doctor discovers that their water source is poisoned—but the mayor refuses to do anything. "The town's new baths, a major source of income, are in danger of shutting down if the water pollution is acknowledged," McMillen explains. "The play illustrates the need to find a balance between evidence and policy [creation]. That message is still very relevant."

Siva's current work at Synergos has taken him into new policy territory, centered on partnerships among the nonproft, corporate, and public sectors. Siva views social enterprise as the next big thing, the "fourth sector," and he is enthusiastic about the possibilities created by an increased emphasis on corporate social responsibility.

Corporations, with their immense reach, expertise, and ability to draw on capital, are especially well positioned to work on environmental and social issues. "In a partnership, government and business can hold each other accountable," Siva says. "For example, the water shortage problem in the Himalayan Basin won't be solved by the governments of China or India. But because they rely on the business of both countries, it's in the best interest of corporations to work on this issue."

Though his interests have long been around addressing poverty and social injustice in developing countries through NGOs, he found that the Ford School's emphasis on quantitative analysis and the political environment prepared him well for his current work on multi-sector partnerships.

Hughes echoes Siva's sentiment about the lasting impact of his graduate education and adds, "The Ford School attracts and educates people who believe in service and are out to make a difference." An Alumni Board member, he is also excited about new developments in the Ford School's curriculum, noting that "what hasn't changed are the values of the faculty and the inquisitiveness and motivation of the students."

After all, while the curriculum and internship opportunities at the Ford School have expanded over time, what makes policy effective and what gets it implemented has not changed.

Emphasizing the importance of both quantitative analysis and the political environment, of public accountability at all levels, the Ford School continues to turn out lifelong learners with the skills, commitment, and curiosity to generate real policy impact.


Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2009 State & Hill here.


Open publication