Why You Should Study Public Policy in the Age of Trump

01/05/2017 02:33 pm ET | Updated Jan 05, 2017

By Michael Doonan

Donald Trump

With the election of Donald Trump, it’s critical that our public policy students double down on their own careers because policy analysis has become more—not less—important. I say that because many of our students are concerned, asking, “Why would I want to start a public policy career in the federal government at this time?” While data and analysis seem to have taken a back seat to tweets and tabloid-type rants, good policy demands that we know how policy impacts people and be prepared to offer alternatives that forward social justice.

At Heller, we focus on social policy, including health, behavioral health, poverty alleviation, children, youth and families, and women, gender and sexuality. We’re interested in social justice issues, in broadening equity, and all of those things have been challenged by the recent election.

The country is divided—we’re more polarized than ever. The new administration is going to appoint some fairly conservative secretaries and administrators who are going to make it more challenging to achieve some of the goals that our students traditionally care about. And so, the question is: Why study public policy now?

First, we need to assess the impact of new potential policy and particularly how policy impacts vulnerable people. We have to interject this information into the debate. Second, we need to gear up for the next round of progressive social policy. If the goal is to expand economic opportunity, provide a quality education to all children, reduce income inequality, promote affordable housing, make health care affordable and universal, assure equal pay for equal work or reduce discriminations for the LGBT populations, we need to know what solutions hold the most promise. We don’t want to miss a window of opportunity. When the political environment is right, you need to have policies ready to go.

My own experience is a good example. I worked for the Clinton healthcare plan in the 1990s. I watched it fall apart and I was career depressed, much like many people are right now. At that point, I decided to return to school. I came to Heller to recharge my batteries, and to focus on what the states and localities could do. I wanted to understand how those levels of government could influence federal policy down the road.

By coming to Heller, where I could study both political science and health services, I was able to play some part in Massachusetts’ healthcare reform efforts. It was RomneyCare, which happened before ObamaCare. The Commonwealth got to 97, 98 percent coverage, and that turned out to be a model for national reform.

I saw that state reform can definitely influence national reform, and in some ways it almost has to, especially when there is gridlock in Washington. Of course, now that system of healthcare reform is being challenged, and we’re going to need a response to that system. If the Affordable Care Act changes in particular ways, we must demonstrate how that will impact low-income, vulnerable populations. We also need to show how it will impact hospitals and other power centers. We need to be ready for those changes. The MPP program at Heller prepares students to do that.

It prepares them to look at issues from multiple perspectives: economic, political science, sociology and research methods. You must understand problems in numerous ways, and then develop potential solutions and evaluate them. Students also develop their communications skills so they can take their writing and public speaking to the next level. If you don’t have those skills, nothing will come from your ideas.

Finally, our students need experience on the ground. They need to do internships and fellowships. Unlike other programs, we support and facilitate those in a major way, so that when they leave here, students are immediately prepared to make change. They can do better than my generation did with some of these intractable problems.

I encourage people to keep their eyes open at the state level. As I mentioned previously, many policies are foreshadowed in state governments before they go national. There’s healthcare reform, but also there is a lot happening in environmental protection. Take fuel efficiency standards for cars. It wouldn’t have happened nationally if it didn’t happen in California first. Auto manufacturers didn’t want to make different cars for California than for the rest of country, so in the end, they acceded to having higher standards. This works on conservative causes, too. For example, pro-life groups state-by-state are limiting or restricting one small rule at a time, which could ultimately have a major impact nationally on access to these health services.

Some people may say that my argument is partisan. I believe there are conservative solutions to problems, just like I believe there are liberal solutions. But Trump’s perspective and policy prescriptions are ambiguous, subject to change and most often not based on research or evidence. “Facts” are created and subjective. Analysis and data are manipulated and used out of context. This is the exact opposite of what public policy schools need to do.

The solutions our students develop need to be rooted not just in their opinions and in their values, but in a concrete understanding of social policy and social science. The agencies of the federal government use data and analysis. Governors and mayors use it to shape programs. The truth is, we want to know the impact of new policy and be in a position to offer alternatives when the time is right. Regardless of our president, we need people who can do that, and we prepare students to do that at Heller.

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