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by J.B. Wogan
July 24, 2014Eight months ago, The Washington Post published a provocative Sunday op-ed with the headline, Want to Govern? Skip Policy School.
The authors argued that schools of government did not prepare students
for a career in public service. New findings from a survey of senior
state and local public officials contradicts that thesis.
Among those who attended graduate school in a government-related
field, 88 percent agreed that their coursework prepared them for their
current careers in government. On a separate question, 91 percent said
they would prefer to hire someone with a graduate degree in a
The results offer a stark contrast to a critical assessment of policy
schools by James Piereson, president of the conservative William E.
Simon Foundation, and Naomi Schaefer Riley, a conservative journalist,
in a Dec. 6, 2013 edition of The Washington Post. Piereson and
Riley wrote the schools curricula and missions have become at once too
broad and too academic, too focused on national and global issues at
the expense of local and state-level ones. Its not clear that the
schools are preparing their graduates to fix all that needs fixing.
Piereson and Riley measured policy schools largely by whether
government is effectively addressing the big issues of the day, such as
partisanship, terrorism, climate change and budget deficits. They also
highlighted conflicting missions of academia and government, which often
lead to faculty dedicating too much time on theoretical research and
not enough time understanding and teaching practical, if more mundane,
aspects of day-to-day governance.
With its survey, Governing pursued a different line of
inquiry: Do people who attended policy school and now work in government
think their education was worthwhile?
To shed light on this question, a research arm of the magazines
parent company, e.Republic, surveyed a systematic random sample of 189
senior state, county and city officials -- representing a mix of
elected, appointed and civil service positions. Everyone who
participated came from the Governing Exchange research community, a pool of government officials who agree to take occasional online surveys by email invitation.
The survey took place between June 30 and July 17, with a margin of
error of 7.13 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level. Survey
participants are not representative of all government employees -- only
senior-level officials working in state and local governments. While
the survey went out to 818 public officials, only 388 decided to respond
and only 56 percent said they had earned a graduate degree in a
government-related field. The findings below pertain to those 189
individuals with a graduate degree.
While respondents were uniformly positive about their experiences
with graduate school, what that education actually looked like in terms
of courses taken and skills acquired varied dramatically. The wide range
in what public officials say they learned in graduate school is largely
explained by the diversity of master degrees people earned: public
administration, public policy, public affairs, urban studies, urban
planning, public health, political science, education, library science
and others. The pie chart below shows the distribution of graduate
degrees obtained by respondents. The most prevalent type of degree was a
master in public administration.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
The survey also listed common courses taught in policy programs and
asked respondents to mark which ones they took. The course with the most
overlap was statistics, with 83 percent. Most respondents also said
they took courses in management, the policy process and public finance.
Relatively few (17 percent) said they took econometrics, which combines
statistical analysis techniques with economic theory.
In general, the courses that most people said they took were also the
courses that they ranked as most helpful in their current career. One
exception was statistics, which fewer than a quarter of respondents
considered to be in their top-three most helpful courses. Some
respondents added courses in the write-in box that they considered
helpful in their career, but were not listed as multiple-choice options,
such as organizational theory, planning law and human resources.
As for skills acquired in graduate school, respondents mostly listed
soft skills as useful in their career, such as working on a team,
speaking in public and managing projects. Again, there was overlap
between the skills most people said they learned and the skills that
people ranked as most helpful. One exception was regression analysis, a
statistical analysis technique used to demonstrate correlation between
two plausibly related variables, which can inform practitioners
understanding of how policy links with social outcomes. Though 46
percent said they learned regression analysis in school, only 7 percent
considered it a top-three skill for their career.
Respondents may have given lower priority to technical skills, such
as budgeting, program evaluation and regression analysis, because they
are managers, not subject-matter experts or recent hires. About 77
percent of respondents said they had been working in government for more
than 10 years; another 13 percent had been government workers between
five and 10 years.
Its the technical skills that help you get in the door for the
first job, said Maria Aristigueta, the director of a public policy and
administration program at the University of Delaware, but its the soft
skills that become necessary to move up in the organization.
Students who havent worked in government before really need those hard skills, said Justin Marlowe, a Governing
contributor who teaches budgeting and financial management at the
Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. They
want to be able to market themselves as someone who can jump in and do
something without a lot of hand-holding," he said. Managers, on the
other hand, can hire analysts for technical work, but want help
developing a leadership style and finding ways to best oversee a team.
Aristigueta also noted that program evaluation -- especially at the
state or local level -- is often carried out by contractors or
consultants that conduct assessments of government programs. Thus,
program evaluation might be a helpful skill for working on state or
local policy, but less so if a student hopes to be a direct employee of
Shelley Metzenbaum, president of a good-government nonprofit called
The Volcker Alliance, said the survey should inform future research on
the usefulness of government-related degrees. Metzenbaum told Governing last year that part of the Alliance's mission is to bridge a gap that currently exists between academia and the public sector. As in the Post
op-ed, Metzenbaum called attention to the stilted language of academic
journal articles, which often can't be digested quickly and lack
actionable findings for practitioners.
While the Governing survey can't be generalized to the
overall population of government workers, it's "a question provoker,"
she said, and might lead to future study of specific schools, professors
and even textbooks that public officials say were most helpful in
preparing them for their current work.
Full Disclosure: the author of this story has a master's degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University.
View the original article on Governing.