Revamped Applied Policy Seminar launches students into "real world" policy challenges

January 24, 2012

For the Winter 2011 Applied Policy Seminar (APS), now called Strategic Public Policy Consulting or SPPC, Huron Consulting Group tasked Kim Dunham (MPP '11) and her team of MPP students with assessing the firm's ability to extend into a new market. The students were responsible for creating a series of memorandums, developing a final report, and presenting their findings in front of the company's chief executive officer.

At first glance, this may seem like a project suited to seasoned analysts, but consulting projects like Dunham's are a typical experience for students in the APS. The course gives students a chance to tackle a real policy problem for a real client. And it can yield some unexpected results: Dunham knew she would be providing her client with final deliverables, but she did not anticipate getting a job offer in return.

"I knew Pete [Fritz (MPP/MBA '10), from Huron Consulting] would be a great client to work for, and I thought the topic would be interesting." Dunham said. "I did not in my wildest dreams think I would end up working there after school."

The Ford School revamped the APS in Fall 2010, expanding the range of potential projects, offering it every semester, and giving it more emphasis within the Ford School curriculum. The changes were designed to incorporate students' diverse interests, and to encourage them to broaden their skills and scope of experience.

"[Applied policy skills are] hard to teach in the classroom, but it's really powerful when students learn [them] in the context of a real world problem and in collaboration with one another and a client," Professor Elisabeth Gerber said, "where they're all trying to solve a similar problem and answer a similar question [from different perspectives]."

Clients include organizations from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and represent a broad range of policy issues and challenges. They've included the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), the General Motors Foundation, Amnesty International USA, Huron Consulting Group, and Direct Relief International.

Nathan Rix (MPP '12) knew that he was interested in doing research and analysis for federal agencies, but he wanted experience to back up his interests. His APS project on behalf of the GAO required him to create federal reports about the treatment of and workplace protections for foreign workers contracted on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rix believes that the experience helped him during his interviews for the competitive Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) program.

"I was actually able to say [in a PMF interview that] I'm familiar with how the GAO does analysis," Rix said. "I talked about how I'd be able to build on what I learned at the GAO if I were a PMF."

Although the APS can lead students to solidify their desired career path, it can also help to rule out particular policy areas or sectors. For Brendan Egan (MPP '12), his APS work with the General Motors Foundation was an opportunity to explore the realm of corporate foundations for the first time.

"I had always been involved or had experience with private family foundations rather than corporate foundations," Egan said. "But seeing the unique challenges that these corporate foundations [face] when they're trying to make their giving decisions and also dealing with the corporation itself, it was really enlightening for me."

Egan determined that he would not pursue a career in private corporate foundations after finishing the project, but the experience allowed him to evaluate his options before embarking on his job hunt.

Students aren't the only ones who benefit from the APS—clients can reap the rewards of having a small team of intelligent and committed students providing them with consultative services. For example, Huron Consulting Group continued to use the documents and literature Dunham's team created following the project's completion.

"It felt really good to me my first week of work after so many people had come up to me and said 'I looked at your presentation' or 'I heard about your presentation'," Dunham said. "My first Friday I sat down and wrote an email to my teammates and said 'I just wanted to let you guys know, so many people around the office have seen our work and think it's great'."

One year after graduation, Dunham's APS experience came full circle when she became the client for a new batch of Ford School student consultants. Dunham's return exemplifies a critical component of the APS' success—alumni engagement. Projects can come from a variety of sources, but most originate from Ford School alumni and their connections. Alumni-initiated projects open students to a broad range of unique policy challenges, and allow the Ford School to deepen its connections to policy-focused organizations.

"[Under the redesigned Applied Policy Seminar model], we're interacting in a more in-depth way with more organizations, and looking at [a wider range of] policy issues and problems," Gerber remarked. "[In the process, we're] helping the outside world understand what we do here at the Ford School."

When asked about returning to the Ford School as a client, Dunham noted that it feels strange, but that she is hopeful about the results.

"Who knows," she joked, "Maybe we'll hire another Ford School alum and then next year they can run an APS [project]!"