Everything you wanted to know about studying Public Policy
UPES School of Business hosted a webinar on studying Public Policy with Professor Alasdair Roberts, Director, School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts. He talked about the evolution of the discipline, admission and career prospects worldwide, and why governing India in 2050 would be an interesting experiment
Given the challenges the world is facing today, it is essential to inculcate a problem-solving mindset among students who will become the leaders of tomorrow. A field of study that helps students understand how to solve people’s issues is Public Policy. This is why it has become a sought-after sector in the last decade.
‘Public Policy’ program was started at the UPES School of Business (SoB) in 2015. To acquaint students with the subject, SoB organised a webinar featuring Professor Alasdair Roberts, Director, School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts.
Professor Roberts has a degree in Law from the University of Toronto. He did his Master’s and PhD in Public Policy from Harvard University. Prof. Roberts writes extensively on problems of governance, law and public policy. His recent books are: Four Crises of American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2017), Can Government Do Anything Right? (Polity Books, 2018), and Strategies for Governing: Reinventing Public Administration for a Dangerous Century (Cornell University Press, 2019).
The session was moderated by faculty Payal Dey. Excerpts:
Evolution of Public Policy
Prof. Roberts: In North America and Western Europe, there are different terms that are used interchangeably for referring to the subject. It is called public policy, public administration, or public affairs. There used to be distinctions between public policy and public administration, but the lines have now blurred.
Public administration as a field has been in North America for about 80 years; public policy is a new variation on it that started around the 1970s. Primarily, it involves thinking about the ways in which governments should address public problems.
These are complicated puzzles with deep trade-offs. They go directly to the question of how you help people. What is the right thing to do in terms of efficiency? What is the right thing to do from the point of view of ethics and fairness? What is politically and administratively feasible?
Twenty years ago, there was a pro-market emphasis. The idea was you keep governance limited, and let the market solve most of the issues. However, we have realised how mistaken that view was.
The pandemic provides a powerful example of having governments that can work well. Issues about internal security, economic opportunity, fairness or addressing the climate crisis are problems that are going to profoundly affect billions of people around the planet over the next century. If you are in this area of public policy, you will be deeply engaged in addressing these problems.
Difference in the understanding of public policy in India as compared to the US
Prof. Roberts: One of the books I wrote titled ‘Blacked out: Government Secrecy and the Information Age’ is about the Right to Information and it opens with a story of my visit to Rajasthan. The book that I am doing right now, which is called ‘Super States’ also has a chapter about India talking about distinctive challenges. In 2050, India is going to be the most populous country in the world surpassing China. It will have around 1.7 billion people, which is going to be an interesting experiment in governance. Nobody in human history has ever tried to govern a country with that many people in it. Hence, immense public policy challenges will unfold.
When I first visited India in 2001, public policy was not an active field. Today, there is a great interest in it. This is also an opportunity to do innovative work in India. I, along with my colleague, Professor Arun Mehra, did a study of all the questions that were asked in the UPSC examinations in public administration over the last 10-15 years. In part one of the exam, we observed what kind of questions were being asked. We pulled out every academic and every scholar that was mentioned in part one of the exam and made a list. We got about 60 people.
Roughly, about 50 of those 60 people were American academics. It was clear to us that there was a mismatch between part one and part two of the exam. Part one of the theory was about American scholars who were not writing about India. And in part two, there were practical problems of governance facing India. The problem was part one and part two did not talk to each other.
One of the challenges for India is of thinking about governance that is suited to Indian realities rather than following the American trends. The other thing about that exam is that the literature is traditional public administration literature. It doesn’t have a lot of emphasis on the newer public policy.
The other observation I would make is that all the countries that are pioneers in public policy are wealthy, stable, liberal democracies. So, if you are studying public policy in the United States or Canada or Western Europe, you take a lot of things for granted. You take for granted that you have a well-functioning bureaucracy. You don’t worry about corruption, especially at the low level. You take for granted a certain level of infrastructure and security.
There is an index called the ‘Fragile State Index’ that ranks different countries based on their stability. India is ranked as a fragile nation. There are many things that you cannot take for granted such as infrastructure and basic bureaucratic capacities. You have a different set of priorities.
Therefore, the opportunity in India is to find a way to talk about public policy that addresses these Indian realities. The Centre for Policy Research is running a short course called ‘Building State Capacity’. Now that is not a phrase you would ordinarily hear in American public policy.
What we want to do is to build a field that addresses Indian realities. It will be relevant for a large part of the world. Most populous countries in the world are fragile states grappling with state capabilities.
So, if you can develop a curriculum that is suited for the Indian context, it is applicable to many other countries as well.
How to pick the right public policy course
Prof. Roberts: I have taught in the US for many years, and I am a Canadian. I also ran a Master’s program at Queen’s University in Canada. And Canada is a parliamentary system like India.
When you look at different schools, you will find that they emphasise different elements. So, when you are looking at a program, you want to know about the flavour of the program – whether it is a focus on new technologies or social justice; not all programs will fit your interest. You also want to ask about context, whether it is international or comparative.
For every school, there is a team responsible for recruitment and admissions. Students should feel free to contact them. Their job is to help prospective students think about their options.
India broadly has three-year undergraduate programs. Master’s admissions in the US, however, requires a four-year undergraduate degree. How can students comply with that additional one-year requirement?
Prof. Roberts: In Canada, a three-year BA is familiar; in America, you need four years. So, you need to fill in that fourth year with say a post-graduate diploma. Though many American schools understand that challenge and accommodate that reality. We are exploring ways of working with Indian universities.
Apart from a degree, what kind of qualification do colleges in the US or Canada look for in a student applying for a Master’s program?
Prof. Roberts: The first thing that people would be looking at is academic qualifications. They also see that students are familiar with quantitative analysis. It would be prudent to have some coursework in your degree that shows a capacity to work with numbers, whether it is a statistics course or an economic course.
The second thing is looking at interest in public service and policy. Admission officers would be looking at the activities you engaged in to see if you have done any work in that area. Some universities also look for work experience.
In our line of work, communication is crucial; to be able to write effectively is important. So, when looking at a student’s file, admission officers gauge the personal statements to see if the student can write effectively.
Types of teaching methodologies in the US and Canada
Prof. Roberts: The lecture method is less prevalent in the US and Canada. Professors are usually cautious about lecturing too much and prefer to go with the discussion format actively. So, you don’t just go in, listen to the lectures, make notes and give the examinations.
Then there is a strong emphasis on case-method teaching. This technique was borrowed from business schools many years ago, and it is now established in public policy as well.
In the case method, students would get a 30-page fact situation. Something has happened at a place, and it usually ends with a problem. Now, a decision-maker needs to figure out what to do about the issue. So, there is a discussion in the classroom about what would you do in that situation.
To watch the full session, please refer to the link below. https://www.facebook.com/UniversityofPetroleumandEnergyStudies/videos/301739164936873/?redirect=false