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In the Classroom: Bureaucracy matters


A School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs professor is on a mission to prove that bureaucracy matters. When Linda Kowalcky asked 18 graduate students enrolled in her “Strategizing Public Policy” course what went wrong with the proposed ban on refugees entering the U.S., they quickly identified the problem.

“No one really knew what to do,” one student said.

“You had this inconsistency of implementation across the U.S.,” Kowalcky told students on Feb. 23. “That’s a high profile example where you see the bureaucratic process fail.”

“It’s important to understand what bureaucracy is,” she added. “It’s an organization that translates policy into action … It’s not boring if you think of it as really the key to success in a policy decision.”

Kowalcky is putting her students to the test by asking them to propose a topic that works within her class framework and then write a semester-long paper that is broken into two parts—a background memo and a strategy memo.

“In the real world, it’s essential to be able to communicate ideas to the broad public—so they practice by trying to persuade their classmates,” said Kowalcky, professor of the practice in public policy and urban affairs. “As you can imagine, topics are all very different. It’s a lot of fun for me to learn from students and for them to learn from each other.”

Brian Walker, a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy (MPP) with a focus on healthcare quality and health policy, is looking at the process to advance a policy on mental health access for veterans with a dishonorable discharge because traditionally, he says, they don’t have access to the VA or other mental health services.

“The big takeaway of this class is knowing the different levels of government that are involved and really looking at the stakeholders,” said Walker, who served in the U.S. Navy for more than eight years and worked for the VA Boston Healthcare System for about three years. “We all have huge aspirations for what we want to do in our career fields and so it’s really knowing how we can tackle things realistically while also understanding that often it does take years. This class really just helps open our eyes to the intricacies behind the different forms of government.”

Traditional policy analysis primarily focuses on policy content, developed through a rigorous and logical scholarly process. And the messiness of politics is left to others. As a practitioner, Kowalcky’s experience is that policy happens within a complex web of overlapping institutions and political opportunity or constraints. While students have many opportunities to build their policy analysis skills, they don’t have as many chances to develop policy strategy skills, she said.

The goal of the course, Kowalcky said, is to understand how to craft effective strategies for advancing public policy changes at the federal, state, and local level and to examine policy development within that framework, not as a separate process. Students, therefore, interpret theory through the lens of policy case studies.

“This semester, for example, we’re looking at legalization of marijuana, affordable housing, education reform, and health care reform,” Kowalcky said. “Many students tell me they’ve never had to think about policy from this perspective.”

For first-year student Devin Hall there have been many aha moments in class. “It happens a lot because you’re differentiating between different levels and who plays what role in determining a policy,” said Hall, who is enrolled in the MS in Urban and Regional Policy program and aspires to address opportunity gaps in education or poverty alleviation. “You always wonder how policies come into play and the power system behind that.”

First-year MPP student Evaristus Odinikaeze is interested in the intersection of law, public policy and behavioral sciences. Kowalcky’s class, he said, is helping him understand the scope and scale of conflict.

“By looking at conflict from a policy perspective, it is showing us how we can articulate policies that will contain or escalate whatever conflict that we are addressing,” he said.

Click here to learn more about graduate programs in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.


Published On: March 10, 2017 |
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