Producing Public Policy

A Day in the Life: The Kennedy School of Government

It's 8:30 a.m., and about 30 men and women, most in their mid-20s, straggle into the plush classroom. Some bear the look of their recent past--the collegiate T-shirts and knapsacks. Some sport the fashion of their professional future--the smartly tailored suits and briefcases Rob Portman joins them, settles on the green swivel seat and arranges his materials--notebook, pens, and breakfast: croissant, and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, from the bistro-cum-cafeteria, Soupcon.

In slightly over a year, Portman and his fellow students will have their Masters in Public Policy (MPP) from the Kennedy School of Government. But for now, they must contend with one of the most difficult first-year requirements: econometrics. The routine starts when a section leader--a second-year student--puts up announcements about review sections and problem sets on the board, and students use the time to catch up on weekend news.

Three-ring-binders snap open and shut as Professor David Wise sketches a graph on the board. Wise has the reputation of being a good teacher with a sense of humor who makes the most out of the reputedly dry subject. Today's lecture covers specification analysis, or how to interpret data to correctly identify trends. For example, how to look at the health data of a certain population to determine the effect of pollution on that community.

"There are two general problems..." Wise begins. A hand in the back shoots up.

"Excuse me, I didn't quite catch what you meant... What two problems are you referring to? I mean, specifically?" Laughter from the class.

"Well, the two problems in the whole universe both apply to this situation rather neatly "Wise quips to the amusement of the students.

The problems, as he demonstrates through equations, turn out to be the less universal, and more pedestrian, difficulties of "serial correlation"--"not Wheaties," he puns, and "heteroscedasticity."

First year students take five courses in the fall, all required by the recently developed core curriculum. In the spring, they take four core courses and their first elective. The other two credits are taken in electives one or two in a policy which should lead to a concentration and an eventual thesis or study project during the second year. Core courses are divided between the areas of management and the highly quantitative analysis the two areas in which the K-School feels its students must be well-versed. Courses like econometrics emphasize the quantitative skills which, in the age of computers, are increasingly essential for a government official.

As the lecture ends, Professor Wise reminds the class to fill out the weekly workload questionnaires and bring them to section Last term, students complained that the work--especially the beeted-up quantitative homework--was too heavy. As a result, the core program began handing out weekly rating sheets to be filled out by students and to help professors settle on a manageable pace.

As the early classes let out, the ARCO Forum approximates its Roman namesake, though on a more academic level. In small groups, students sit on balconies to discuss the problem set or an upcoming test, or to linger over coffee on the ground floor outside Soupcon before going downstairs to the library.

A 1980 graduate of Northwestern University, Portman came to the Kennedy School after a stint in Washington, where he served as a staffer on a Senate subcommittee and on the President's Council for Wage and Price Control.

A joint MPP-Law School student, Portman is well qualified to speak on the relative merits of a K-School versus a Law School education.

Quantitative Skills

Portman feels that students who choose the K-School are "predisposed towards a career in government." Public policy schools, he continues, are attractive to students because "they offer a set of quantitative skills they feel they'll need." This promise of analytical skills make public policy schools, "the best option, by process of elimination."

After graduation from the four-year program, Portman hopes to start off in a law firm for a few years before launching a career in the Justice Department. "Statistically, most joint MPP-Law School graduates start off in law firms," he said, adding, "It's easier to make the change from private to public sector than the other way around."

After lunch, Portman goes to his section of Public Management taught by Professor Mark Moore, a prominent scholar on criminal law. In it, Moore uses the case study method, employed in several K-School courses, where professors impart general theories by discussing specific policy examples. Today's case involves former New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman and the techniques she used to staff her new office as Brooklyn. District Attorney. By calling on students for answers, Moore focuses the discussion on the role of the district attorney in enforcing the law. Students are prepared for the rapid-fire questioning and are ready to defend their points to the instructor and the other students. Like most students, Portman comes to class having prepared a flowchart of the decision-making process of the district attorney's office. The 40-page case is underlined with yellow highlighter.

Throughout the discussion Moore tries to help students understand the organization of the office from a lawyer's point of view "Pretend you're from Harvard Law School," he says. "What is motivating him as a D A ?" "He wants to move on to bigger and better things," is the reply amidst a ripple of chuckles.

After class there's time for a workout at Blodgett or the ITT before the final course of the day, usually an elective held between 3:30 and 5 p.m. A typical elective is Michael Knacht's "International Relations and Public Policy." In substance, it is similar to an undergraduate government course which studies foreign governments--USSR. Germany. Japan and China--and U.S. policy towards these countries. In formal, there is much more emphasis on discussion, and Knacht knows the names of his students.

Pre-career students work habits are uniformly conscientious. Whether or not they feel that the skills and theory the Kennedy School teaches them will be useful in a public policy career, they still need to get jobs. Students may complain about the workload and the new emphasis on quantitative skills, but as Rob feels, "I'm getting something out of the time I'm putting into it."