Trump school of government: teaching policy in an era of political dysfunction

Schools of government have traditionally employed a technocratic approach to preparing public officials. But with polarisation straining political systems to breaking point, Paul Basken reports on calls in the US for more aggressive approaches, while Karthik Ramanna sets out how his Oxford programme attempts to repair the fractures

May 28, 2020
People tour the decaying remains of salvaged busts of former US Presidents Lyndon Johnson (L) and George Washington on August 25, 2019, in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Source: Getty

Well before Donald Trump’s surprise election win in 2016, Angela Evans saw the absolute imperative for major change in her corner of academia.

The dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs came to the University of Texas after a 40-year career in Washington that gave her a long, close look at the US’ slide into policy paralysis. The nation’s decades-long grind – with government itself the strategically chosen target – has stoked distrust in experts, voter apathy, widening income disparities, declining life expectancies and toxic politics that hinder even talk of solutions.

Her front-row view provided Evans with two key insights. First, schools designed to teach governmental affairs can’t solve all of the nation’s political woes. But, second, they can do a whole lot better than they have been doing.

Taking over at LBJ in 2016, the former deputy director of the Congressional Research Service immediately called together some 30 deans from the top US schools involved in public governance, hoping that they would work with her on a fundamental overhaul.

“If we’re going to change this,” she says, of the country’s civic rot, “we need a total transformation of how we see our educational role in the world.”

In many ways, the US’ 300-plus schools of public policy, public administration, public service or public affairs have identified and stepped up to the moment. Faculty and students can increasingly be seen visiting local communities, listening to their residents, performing sophisticated data collection and analyses, publishing complex studies, training government bureaucrats and heeding insights from top-level experts.

From Harvard University’s renowned Kennedy School and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to the humble School of Public Policy and Administration at the for-profit online Walden University, pledges of community focus and positive social change are a staple.

“We put a lot of weight on this direct engagement with practice,” says the Kennedy School’s current dean, Douglas Elmendorf. “We do want to help correct the problems,” adds Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Wilson School.

But just as 2020 brings the US its next electoral reckoning, it also provides a watershed moment for its public policy schools. In short, should their roles continue to be largely limited to studying the government’s operations and training its bureaucrats (and, if so, how well are they actually doing that)? Or should they push towards a more holistic view of their place in society and democracy, digging into the roots of the decay and reshaping themselves in a concerted attempt to redress the rot?

US President Donald Trump as the harp-playing Emperor Nero in front of a burning White House

Evans argues for the latter. She and a small band of allies aren’t yet sure what that would look like, but they think it means policy-related education that’s far more connected to other academic fields and to society as a whole, with student and faculty reward systems tied much more explicitly to real-world improvement.

But the fact that she doesn’t “have a lot of people behind me on this” has been apparent since the start of her tenure, when some of the deans of the nation’s biggest schools of public affairs – including the Kennedy and Wilson schools – took a pass on her invitation to put their heads together over how to do better.

Other deans came along, she says, but they appeared to avoid more transformative notions. The most popular suggestion involved the expansion of undergraduate programmes. That reflected agreement with her call to move policy schools beyond their traditional graduate-level core – but it may also have signalled a hesitancy among leading schools to risk cultivated reputations for impartiality by going further and engaging in an open-ended dissection of the nation’s socio-political woes.

The exact line of involvement in national politics that policy schools feel that they should try not to cross isn’t necessarily clear. But, in practice, it generally amounts to the avoidance of issues that could see big-dollar political combatants line up against researchers, sparking major controversy.

Of course, some policy schools, such as Harvard’s, have access to wealthy donors of their own, willing to help them confront major societal challenges. “The pitch is that we know how to do what we’re doing, and people who believe that support us,” Elmendorf says.

But, rich or poor, schools tend to reject restrictions on the development and publication of their research findings, while accepting de facto donor-related limits on their fundamental scopes of enquiry. A leading concern over major funders, such as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, for instance, is that while they provide critical help to cure diseases in developing countries, they could perhaps produce a greater longer-term benefit by helping to develop struggling governments and health agencies to the point where they can handle the jobs themselves.

One of the Kennedy School’s most celebrated thinkers, Archon Fung, a former acting dean and current professor of citizenship and self-government at the institution, does get directly involved in real-world battles, such as advising state election commissioners on ways to deter redistricting abuses. Yet he also sees danger in getting too close.

“The job of the Kennedy School is training public leaders and public servants to make the most out of whatever box they’re in,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the job of the Kennedy School to help get us out of the situation, in any sort of direct way.”

As for research, some donors are looking harder at the most fundamental challenges, such as income inequality, Fung says: “But, at least in my experience, most donors want to support projects that answer questions that they’re primarily interested in.” That, he acknowledges, can mean fighting symptoms rather than causes of societal problems.

So does all this mean that the moneyed forces in society are, deliberately or otherwise, preventing public policy schools from helping to build more effective, evidence-based government? “That may be true,” concedes Sara Mogulescu, executive vice-president of the Volcker Alliance, a non-profit group advocating for good governmental practices, who has been helping Evans convene the deans. But redressing that issue is “not our lane”, she adds.

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas
University of Texas

The question then becomes: How close to that lane can policy schools get?

Joseph Nye, another former Kennedy School dean, points out that even the best-trained government professionals can’t habitually overcome poor choices by their elected leaders. And while the nation’s oldest university produces the most US presidents and members of Congress, almost none of them are graduates of the Kennedy School. Instead, elected US officials typically emerge from fields such as law and business.

That points to one important pathway for policy schools to drive change without doing it directly: training more politicians. Accordingly, during Nye’s leadership, from 1995 to 2004, he demanded a greater preference for applicants with a record of leadership – such as serving as a student body president – in the hope that graduates would later become politicians, rather than just serve under one.

The approach proved successful – but mostly with foreign students.

For years, the overseas appeal of US policy schools centred on the credential. That usually meant taking the children of the world’s political elite and providing their CVs with further polish, in preparation for careers already assured back home. Increasingly, though, enrolment is reaching into the world’s middle class, training students determined to help their local communities.

The shift is “pretty striking”, says Robert Orr, the public policy dean at the University of Maryland and current president of NASPAA, the association of public affairs schools. He recalls meeting one group of his school’s graduates now running “every major ministry” in Zhejiang, one of China’s most prosperous provinces. “These were all up-by-the-bootstraps folks when they came to Maryland,” he says.

In the domestic realm, NASPAA doesn’t keep data on how many domestic graduates of policy schools end up running for office (although it may soon devote resources to doing so, Orr says). Anecdotally, however, the breakdown appears to be that the elite schools prepare US students for careers in finance or other private-sector occupations as much as for government service. Graduates of less prestigious public policy schools, meanwhile, fill government ranks at the state and local levels.

As such, Orr says, the bulk of US policy schools aim to cultivate broad leadership abilities and don’t bother with campaign-related skills. Their methods, Orr says, rely increasingly on matching students with “real-world clients” – perhaps a local mayor or governor – who needs help on a project.

That technocratic approach can, however, produce meaningful political change, Orr says. In one case, for instance, University of Maryland students helped overhaul state domestic violence laws by developing data that made unfavourable comparisons to the situation in Texas. “Believe me,” Orr says, “that got people’s attention in Annapolis”, the state capital.

Such projects illustrate the leeway that institutions can afford themselves regarding their general commitment to avoid political activity. The Kennedy School’s Elmendorf asserts that universities are “fundamentally about teaching and research”, rather than advocacy. Yet one of the Kennedy School’s most popular courses, “Making Change When Change is Hard”, emphasises the insight that small acts can yield big effects. Its instructors, Samantha Power and Cass Sunstein, promote the concept of “nudges”, such as reducing power consumption by sending notes to homeowners comparing their usage to that of their neighbours, or painting targets on urinals to reduce mess on bathroom floors.

People often want to behave better, says Iris Bohnet, the Kennedy School’s academic dean. She describes nudges as a science-based attempt to “bridge the intention-action gap”. Indeed, the idea has gained such currency on the other side of the Atlantic that the UK government has, since 2010, had its own “nudge unit” (officially, the Behavioural Insights Team and, since 2014, a semi-independent company), focused on promoting behavioural change. But it is not without controversy. Its reputed advice that the public would be unwilling to endure long periods of lockdown was widely seen as the reason for the UK government’s highly contested refusal to close schools or ban large gatherings in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Moreover, the pathway to rational scientific reasoning in public policy analysis will always suffer detours caused by human error and bias. One longstanding example that has attracted heavy attention during the current presidential race involves “data-driven” policing. Harvard scientists were among its early proponents. For a while, Fung recalls, “this was the cat’s pyjamas at the Kennedy School” and was held up high in one of its teaching case studies. But it gradually became clear that assigning police patrols based on existing crime patterns fuelled racial abuses. “I’m not sure that we teach that case as much as we used to,” he admits.

Another racially tinged case study, concerning the notorious 2014 death of Eric Garner while being arrested by New York City police, also “didn’t go over well” with some students, Fung concedes. The account of how the police came to choke to death a black man suspected of nothing more serious than selling single cigarettes from a pack is now being reworked with the help of Cornell Brooks, a Kennedy School professor and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Students are often the first to notice and complain about diversity-related failings, Fung says, as the student body’s diversity level changes every year. “The curriculum changes much, much more slowly, and the faculty changes even slower,” he says – even in schools with a mission to tackle diversity issues.

Elmendorf also welcomes student-led pressure. Other effects of it at Harvard, he says, include a growth of faculty and an expansion of case studies to better reflect the concerns of South Asia and Africa. Yet, he concedes, “We have not made as much progress in the last few years at building that capacity.”

People demonstrate in London, England after grand juries decided not to indict the police officers involved in the death of Eric Garner in New York

Some at public institutions feel that their greater diversity makes their policy schools much better than the privates at addressing grassroots concerns. “Frankly, I don’t even care what Harvard and Princeton do – they are so unlike anything else,” says Kathryn Newcomer, one of Evans’ partners in her endeavour to remake policy schools and a professor in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University, where she was director for 12 years.

However, gains in student diversity within policy schools may be especially under threat at public institutions, Orr says. The problem, in his view, is an ongoing series of Trump administration attacks on federal loan-forgiveness provisions for graduates who work in the public sector. Elite schools are generally better able to cover costs for their students; Princeton’s Wilson School, for instance, spares its students any tuition or fees. The elites, however, may be less effective at identifying and battling the most important problems in society.

Stanley Katz, a Wilson School professor since the early 1980s, says wealthy donors and other outside economic forces may have played a role in that deprioritisation. But, by now, he adds, the main driving forces are internal, reflecting a generation-long trend in which institutions and their faculty have come to value the production of statistical analyses over pursuing broader efforts to improve societal well-being.

Some top policy schools also stand accused of providing academic respectability – from speaking engagements to faculty positions – to enablers of the societal forces that their own research findings might have led them to critique. Recent examples include Elmendorf’s offer of Kennedy School fellowships to Trump operatives Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer, in line with his public desire to invite more conservative voices on to campus. And after Princeton hosted H.R. McMaster, one of the Trump administration's national security advisers, a top Wilson School leader approvingly reported that its students had been politely focused on his military expertise.

More fundamentally, policy schools face the question of whether to actively welcome students who seek careers beyond the government, such as private-interest lobbying.

In that regard, policy schools may be headed down a pathway that ultimately undermines their stated missions, according to Carol Chetkovich, an emeritus professor of public policy at Californian liberal arts institution Mills College. After studying the growth in non-governmental career pathways among Kennedy School graduates, Chetkovich concluded that students were being taught to regard public service as having limited career potential.

Orr pushes back on such notions. Even if policy school graduates do enter the private sector, he says, they bring with them the ethics and concern for society that they were taught. Moreover, “the purists kind of miss the reality that [the distinction between the public and private sectors] is a messy, grey space,” he adds.

Either way, four years after Evans began convening the policy school deans, US society appears ever more ungovernable, politically divided and vulnerable to disinformation and emotional manipulation.

Evans sincerely welcomes her colleagues’ enthusiasm for expanding their work at the undergraduate level. Their chief model these days is Arizona State University, which, since 2015, has been running a public service academy similar to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, in which military training is provided alongside an undergraduate education. Participating undergraduates choose a social mission to accompany their academic major, and are then matched with internships and other related work experiences that fit alongside their studies.

But meaningful change to the degree and seriousness with which policy schools attack the deep problems roiling US society will have to come at the postgraduate level, Evans says.

Evans’ time at the Congressional Research Service, a federal agency tasked with supplying lawmakers with policy and legal analyses, helped convince her that the country’s most pressing problems are not going to be solved by even more policy and legal analyses. “I’m not interested in iterative changes,” says Evans, a psychologist by training. “We’ve been too timid.”

Her prescriptions include pushing faculty even harder out into their communities and rewarding them financially and professionally for what they do there. As in much of higher education, she says, public policy faculty feel their advancement is tied too closely to their work within a narrow field, judged by low-relevance metrics such as rates of journal publication and citation.

When researchers do produce work of societal value, Evans says, they too often aren’t “aggressive or courageous enough” to fully promote it. “In some places, deans don’t have scholars’ backs when they go out and do this,” she adds.

Her plan also envisions leveraging more opportunities within institutions. Policy schools nationwide enrol only about 11,000 students at the master’s level, says the Volcker Alliance’s Mogulescu. Far more students in other fields could benefit from government-related expertise, she agrees – which would also drive societal improvement.

While still consulting with her group of deans, Evans is struck by the lack of the philanthropic funding that she believes is needed by Texas and other schools to begin testing some of their ideas.

But even her ally, Kathryn Newcomer, stands by the idea of policy schools, first and foremost, as the training grounds for serious government professionals. “This too shall pass,” she says, of the nation’s bitter political divide. “It doesn’t matter what Trump is doing – there are important services that are being delivered every single day in every city and state across the country. He is an aberration.”

The Wilson School’s Rouse agrees that the nation’s political tensions will calm without any rush into wholesale change by policy schools. “I think our political scientists would say we’ve seen other periods when Washington wasn’t working as well, and there are periods when it did seem to be working well,” she says.

Policy schools may be uncertain of their own value, she adds, because their graduates lack the clearly defined roles and career measurements afforded by occupational licensing in fields such as law or medicine. But policy school graduates are already making major contributions to national well-being, she says. Examples include Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton graduate and former Wilson School dean who is now leading the New America thinktank in pushing for improvements in voting systems.

But another former Kennedy School dean, Graham Allison, is sympathetic to the reformers. The nation’s woes do go well beyond what can be fairly attributed to any educational institution, Allison says. Yet the problem is serious enough to warrant a much harder assessment by the nation’s policy schools: “I wish that we had more intellectual effort going into trying to help clarify why [the national political malaise exists] and what to do about it,” Allison says.

Evans sees the need to fight at all levels of political power. She cites the example of a project in which LBJ School researchers have been talking directly with Austin-area residents to learn what might lead them to embrace alternative energy sources. Another example is researchers’ adaptation of their community partnerships after the coronavirus outbreak to teach the residents how to slow its spread. Yet the state’s top elected officials countered such messages by pushing citizens to quickly reopen their businesses. “There are more important things than living,” explained the Texas lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick. “And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren.”

Policy schools somehow need to compete with that level of influence, Evans says. “Minor curricular changes are not going to hack it,” she has concluded. “It’s going to have to be a totally different way that we see our schools.”

Healing fractured societies: The Oxford programme building unlikely coalitions

How do you get people to work together when they have different views on what is the right thing for our common good? This is the animating question of our time, and certainly a key one for schools of government.

Imagine you are US House speaker Nancy Pelosi trying, post-election, to get your raucous Democratic caucus of moderates, liberals, progressives and even the odd conservative to play on the same team – not to mention work across the aisle with the Republican confederation. Or imagine you are the World Health Organisation head Tedros Adhanom trying to keep your 34-nation executive board functioning while ostensibly allied nations are side-swiping each other in a race to acquire surgical face masks during a global pandemic. Such feats can seem impossible.

Over four annual iterations, I have been part of a project that takes on such challenges, albeit on a smaller scale. The University of Oxford’s Master of Public Policy programme, run by the Blavatnik School of Government, aims to improve governments worldwide by elevating their capacity to serve their populations’ diverse needs. Every year it brings together about 120 public leaders from about 50 countries, selected for their analytical merits, their depth of commitment to public service and their potential to help drive the learning of others.

Naturally, they bring a diverse range of rigorously reasoned and deeply principled views on what makes good policy. Participants have included figures from both India and Pakistan, both Israel and the Arab world, and from both political sides of Colombia’s decision to make peace with the terrorist group FARC. Some are under 25 year of age; others bring over 25 years of experience at senior levels of government.

We get them working together to address the great global challenges of our time, including climate change, demographic shifts, growing inequality, rising extremism and technological obviation of human skills. But people cannot work together if they talk past each other, so we set three purely procedural ground rules (“shared commitments”).

The first is to “be authentic and passionate”. This recognises that participants’ convictions are what makes them sources of learning for others, so no one should self-censor for fear of causing offence. The second commitment is a corollary: “let others be so as well”.

The third commitment is to recognise that how we say things is just as important as what we say. If your objective is to persuade others, taking responsibility for how your words and ideas land on them, while difficult, is imperative. It distinguishes our learning community from a debating society – and the many legislatures that resemble one – where words are delivered to showcase intellect, wit or ideological purity, rather than to educate and build empathy.

It might seem Panglossian to suggest that Pelosi or Adhanom should get their respective teams to watch how they speak as much as what they say – but it wasn’t that long ago when this was the norm in politics. Restoring that norm depends in part on emphasising its upsides to all players – not least its ability to create more buy-in for particular agendas, resulting in more enduring policies.

The best way to help participants internalise these rules is to get them solving problems together (a more unifying experience than problem diagnosis since it doesn’t centrally involve apportioning blame). We focus on three types of problems. The first are low-stakes ones that are not directly related to our core purpose as a school of government but are useful to get people comfortable with each other (“ice breakers”). Then there are two types of mission-critical problems: those with short-term deliverables – urgent policy problems whose solution often requires small, tactical compromises  – and those with long-term deliverables: the thorny policy issues of our generation.

Politicians and diplomats often focus almost entirely on big problems because that is what the public expects. But we have found that progress in those areas depends on learning to work better across differences by also engaging on smaller problems. We tackle all three kinds at once.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

When participants with heterogeneous views arrive in a community, such as a master’s programme or a legislature, they may experience a form of impostor syndrome, feeling they are not qualified to be there, or they may perceive themselves as above the community. Our ice-breakers often have a physical component, such as a simulated rowing race; “sweating together” is especially useful for breaking down such barriers of perception.

As for the mission-critical problems, the short-term ones are useful to encourage experimentation and entrepreneurship. Exercises such as a simulated press conference, where a ministerial team has to defend an unpopular decision, necessarily abstracts away important elements of the real world, but they allow our teams to try new solutions and make progress on tactical approaches to managing across differences.

This trust-building helps with the real prize: the longer-term problem-solving. We encourage participants to engage in continuous learning exchanges. For instance, we use a framing paper on tax reform to get them to consider how tax systems will need to be reimagined in light of rising income inequality and the technological obviation of many traditional jobs.

Of course, participants are unlikely to fully “solve” such problems in a few sittings, but by equipping them with skills in teamwork and tactical compromises, we start to see them make progress. Economic neoliberals, who might have dismissed as “socialism” any consideration of a global wealth tax, become aware of its apparent unavoidability. Progressives, who might have summarily written off the neoclassical privilege of capital over labour income, leave with an understanding of the system’s merits. The result is a consensus reform proposal that is more likely to be politically durable across organisations, nations, systems and time.

Participants learn two key skills as they navigate solutions for the longer-term problems. The first is to set an ambitious yet attainable, incremental agenda. You cannot set out to solve the entirety of climate change and expect people to follow you; you need to establish trust by delivering on solutions to smaller, more manageable chunks of such problems.

The second skill is in forming pragmatic coalitions. Solving generational problems requires unlikely coalitions built across differences and is reliant on mutualism. To trust each partner to do what it is uniquely suited to do, you need to be able to decipher, empathise with and manage around their underlying motives, which can be quite different from yours.

These lessons might seem obvious, but it is remarkable how often they are ignored. All too often, we see leaders and organisations trying to do too much, too soon. Obamacare is a good example. If, instead of ramming it through against even significant intra-party opposition, the Democrat leadership had chosen to start smaller, they could have attracted wider support for 2010’s Affordable Care Act. Leaders often don’t see this because they are blinded by a desire to secure their legacy. But how secure is that legacy if their signature legislation constantly faces the threat of repeal?

Participants also need opportunities for professional development. Peer feedback is the backbone to getting people better at working across differences. If a community is authentic about internal feedback, it will get better at doing what is expected of it – but the technique is often underused because it can easily be mismanaged.

We start with peer feedback on the shared physical tasks, with the aim of getting the team to deliver better on a well-defined outcome, such as winning the rowing race. Because the feedback is bidirectional, participants implicitly think more carefully about how they frame what they say.

Peer feedback takes practice, but as the skill develops, we encourage participants to employ it in their shared efforts to address the mission-critical problems. Yet people must be in the right mindset to deliver and receive it; we strive to avoid “assaulting” people with feedback when they are not expecting it.

We also give participants space to reflect on their own performance in a one-to-one session with a trusted adviser. The job of the mentor is to ask: “How do I support the mentee to emerge more resilient from each failure, ready to take fresh, intelligent risks?” Finding the right mentors is critical.

It is not fanciful to imagine that these techniques might also work for national and international bodies. Career advancement is a real goal for many legislators and diplomats, and peer feedback can be an invaluable aid to it. Moreover, all successful professionals care about how they will be perceived in history; the trusted counsel of peers and mentors can be a useful check on their rasher instincts.

Not everything has worked. In an early attempt at allowing our participants to own some of the challenges of managing group dynamics, we supported them in creating a “government” among themselves. This is, after all, a programme designed to improve the quality of government. But this necessarily involves assigning certain participants power over others, often resulting in fragmentation of the group into constituencies of gender, race, regions, class and ideology. Whatever government emerges is almost set up to fail because it is experienced as exclusionary by a significant minority. We now allow relationships to mature before setting participants on the delicate task of apportioning power.

The other lesson we have learned is to allow time for groups to focus inwards – however exclusionary and undemocratic that may sound. Social media, with its endless cycle of posturing and attention-seeking, is particularly destructive to trust-building – especially when some members of a group take online their opposition to what is currently being expressed, violating the shared commitment to take responsibility for careful phrasing. I would advocate a moratorium on social media, at least when the group is first forming relationships.

What has worked for us may not work facilely across other organisations, legislatures or systems. But perhaps we can at least provoke some ideas for what will. Healing our fractured societies is the charge of the moment for schools of government, and, in this endeavour, we must deploy all sensibility.

Karthik Ramanna is professor of business and public policy and director of the master of public policy programme at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.


Print headline: How do you teach policy in Trump’s world?

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