Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
MPA

A Renewed Commitment to Graduate Education

December 7, 2020

In the six years since it came under the auspices of the Watson Institute and underwent a total overhaul, the Master of Public Affairs program has thrived, making a name for itself internationally as a distinctive one-year program. “We are committed to continuous improvement,” says Eric Patashnik, its director. “Accordingly, based on advice we received from an external review team in 2019, we are instituting further curricular upgrades to ensure we offer students the best education possible.”

The two summer courses that kick off the program, Economics for Public Policy and Statistics for Public Policy, have long been integrated, to great success. Next year, the other two summer courses, Statistics for Program Evaluation and the new Economics of Government Intervention, will be similarly integrated as well, with a weekly joint lab session and a joint final project. The integrated approach will teach students to apply concepts learned in both courses to specific policy challenges – such as how to allocate limited funds across programs and regions to maximize the reduction of child poverty in a developing country.

“In an increasingly complex world, public policy leaders need to be able to use the insights of multiple disciplines to analyze problems and craft innovative solutions,” Patashnik, who is on sabbatical, explains. “That’s why our curriculum draws on tools from across the social sciences and emphasizes strategic thinking.”

Another change entails expanding the Policy-in-Action consultancy from one half to a full spring semester. The consultancy enables students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-world public policy problems posed by client organizations like government agencies and NGOs. Students “learn by doing” as they work in teams to produce a professional-level product, such as a program evaluation, cost-benefit analysis, or an implementation plan.

“Students really appreciate [the consultancy] as both a resume builder and as an opportunity to put the skills they learned at the start of the program into practice,” says Associate Director Olivia Whalen. With help identifying the best possible applied learning and professional development opportunities, students can choose to do their consultancy with a local or national client, or with a client from across the globe. Recent clients include the Clinton Foundation, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the Federal Communications Commission. 

Spreading the consultancy across the semester also means that students can enroll, for their electives, in full spring-term courses offered by Watson and the rest of the University, enabling them to engage centers of excellence all across campus. In addition, the consultancy provides a chance for them to expand their professional network and learn to work alongside classmates with skills, backgrounds, and perspectives different from their own. The student body, which includes fifth-year Brown graduates from a range of disciplines, professionals with several years of experience, and international students, is remarkably diverse, Interim Director Shankar Prasad says.

One of the program’s signature features, the Data-Driven Policy track, remains unchanged and fully in place, for, as Prasad notes, it has never been more relevant. This year, consultancies for the track feature several opportunities with the City of Providence’s Department of Innovation, including analyzing the “tech gap” for minority-owned restaurants, developing a pilot Mayor’s Guaranteed Income program for 50 households, and redesigning of the City of Providence’s bidding process and procurement system. Other MPA consultants will work at The Policy Lab on data-driven projects with an array of government and organizational partners, including the United Way of Rhode Island and the US Office of Evaluation Sciences.

“Being able to leverage the power of big data analysis to craft better, smarter policy solutions to problems facing our society today is a really powerful thing,” Prasad says. “It’s an incredibly useful tool and will set our students apart once they graduate. The world we’re moving into is a digital world.”

“All across the world today, we find ourselves living in profoundly challenging and often distressing times,” says Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute “But when I witness on a daily basis our MPA students’ ambition to achieve positive change through public service, I am filled with optimism. We owe these students the best, most comprehensive, and up-to-date curriculum that we can possibly offer. After all, equipping our students to realize their dreams is the best way to ensure a brighter tomorrow for us all.”

-- Sarah C. Baldwin