"In our econ classes, we learned how to engage with research on a critical level to figure out if it was rigorously conducted or not, and that is incredibly useful skill. You use your research and data analysis skills to effectively map a path to better policy.”
Mintaka Angell, MPA '16, Policy Analyst, Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab
Through this practical immersion experience, called the Policy in Action consultancy, each student spends 12 weeks working with a client from the nonprofit, public, or private sector on an actual policy issue. A form of accelerated professional development, the consultancy enables the student to gain such valuable know-how as project management, stakeholder identification, and data presentation – vital for any policy-related career.
Working in the City of Providence’s Department of Economic Development, Kanika Gandhi and colleagues were tasked with expanding sustainable food systems – for instance, creating more milk processing facilities in Rhode Island to keep local milk local, instead of sending it to nearby Massachusetts or Connecticut to be processed. “The department was small, so I had tons of responsibility,” she says. “I attended meetings as the director’s right-hand woman and was directly involved with so many people. I got to make real contributions.”
Gandhi, now a paralegal-policy specialist with the Federal Trade Commission, adds, “Say what you will about state and local government, those people are dedicated and understaffed. I felt I was doing meaningful work and learning so much.”
The consultancy can have personal meaning as well as practical relevance. Fritz Bondoa, who was born in Cameroon, knew exactly what he wanted to do: research human rights abuses in his native country. He sent a proposal directly to the head of the West Africa Division in the DC office of Human Rights Watch, who signed him on. “I spent my days looking at open-source research into abuses by Boko Haram and by the Cameroonian security forces responding to Boko Haram,” he says. “At the end, I wrote up my findings in a report.”
Bondoa says Brown’s “holistic” approach prepared him well for the work. Most MPA programs, he says, “are very quantitative, but Brown’s is both qualitative and quantitative and covers a vast array of policies – both domestic and international. In terms of skill sets, whether it’s policy analysis, program evaluation, statistics or economics, the courses prepared us to tackle any policy area."
Simran Vazirani sees a direct link between the analyst position she landed after graduating and her consultancy experience at the Rockefeller Foundation, which funds initiatives designed to solve global problems like food insecurity, climate change, and gender inequity. At the Foundation, she worked with the team that helps grantees build capacity for innovation, doing research and assessment and building dashboards and logic models.
“Foundation work is not something people get exposure to in school – it exists in its own realm in the professional world,” she says. “I had interned at a lot of small nonprofits, and it was great to be on the other side of the table and see what a grant-making organization does.”
Now an analyst at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropic consulting company in Washington, DC, Vazirani helps foundations, philanthropists, and impact investors maximize the good they do. Sounds like a tall order, but she was ready.
“The consultancy was a huge factor in my getting this job and having enough knowledge to do it well,” she says. “I’m doing quantitative analysis that’s heavily informed by the methods I learned in school. And the MPA gave me a good grounding for how to find the best ways to conduct research, especially in areas where I might not have specific topic expertise.”
Mintaka Angell’s consultancy experience, at the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab, or RIIPL, was such a great fit that she parlayed it into a full-time position. Under the direction of economist and Watson faculty Justine Hastings, Angell and others liaised with Rhode Island government agencies to conduct an evaluation of a social program, such as early education, or solve a particular policy issue. Angell and her project partner worked on “finding a high-tech, low-cost way to use technology to innovate on current methods of measuring food insecurity in Rhode Island. To get really rich data as cheaply as possible,” she explains, “we ended up using smart phone technology to deliver surveys.”
After 12 weeks, they presented their findings to the policy team from of the state’s Office of Budget and Management. “It was very rewarding because we know the work we did will make a measurable impact on people’s lives in Rhode Island. We’re helping RIIPL do the necessary work to figure out the best way for the state to deliver services to its clients.”
Now a research manager/smart policy fellow at RIIPL, Angell works with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Health, helping them devise the best ways to deliver their services and make them as cost-effective as possible, “ensuring that the Rhode Islanders they serve are getting the highest possible quality services.”
The consultancy, coupled with the academic training of the program, prepared her well, Angell says. “When you’re working with policy, you need to be able to tell if someone has conducted their research with integrity and if you can trust the results. In our econ classes, we learned how to engage with research on a critical level to figure out if it was rigorously conducted or not, and that is incredibly useful skill. You use your research and data analysis skills to effectively map a path to better policy.” —Sarah Baldwin