Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: Part 3 – Our Users and What They Need

Focusing on the User: Who Policy Schools Teach

While students from Schools of Policy and Government go on to do a variety of work, whether in the private, nonprofit or for profit sector, most will take a role in one of three functional areas: Politics, Administration/Operations and Public Policy.

Like with much in life, there isn’t always a clear dividing line between types. In addition, over the course of their career many students will occupy jobs in all three and some roles will blend responsibilities. However, as a heuristic to help organize a policy school’s thinking around what it should teach, these are helpful definitions.

This felt further validated while reading Craig Lambert’s interesting case study on the founding of the Harvard Kennedy School (sent via co-conspirator Nicco Mele). In it, Edith Stokey, one of the school’s founding mothers, had a similar view when describing how the school’s curriculum emerged.

“Another new invention was the KSG curriculum which, from the start, emphasized policy analysis and systems analysis to improve decision-making. “That grows out of the [Robert] McNamara and the ‘whiz kids,’ ” says Edith Stokey, referring to the coterie the helped McNamara transform Ford Motor Company when he headed it in the 1950s. “But then came the discovery that good policy isn’t any use if it isn’t implemented at the street level, so we began to worry about implementation and management. Thirdly, with Neudstadt the moving force, there was growing emphasis on politics, including persuasion, legitimacy, and how get the power to get things done.”

Stokey’s three curriculum areas, roughly mapped to the roles I outlined.

A Framework for Organizing our Users

Having established these roles as the “product” that schools of policy and government produce, I’ve fleshed out personas for each. Below are illustrative examples of what a school of policy and government should focus on, from a digital perspective, to equip students with the judgment, knowledge and experience to be successful in each role:

First, I expect people may disagree as to what is most important for each role to learn. I’m okay with that. The point is that fleshing out the framework will prove useful to anyone seeking to engage in education in this space. The goal is to focus on user needs (the students) to help schools determine where to target resources and/or how to structure courses by type (and would love feedback). This is my best effort and is one way by which to structure courses (I have a second framework I do as well that I’ll be sharing in the next post or two).

In addition to understanding what type of product you are trying to create, my hope is that this chart will prevent people from creating courses that lump all the roles into a single course. There are ways that can work, but it is hard, and if you don’t structure it correctly there are real risks you’ll end up making everyone unhappy.

Second, this framework helps me because it identifies key common traits about the key roles students will have in a student body that is both:

a) insanely diverse: I mean this both in the students’ backgrounds (students range in age from 23–50+, come from over 80 countries and span the range of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socio-economic class); and

b) in terms of career focus and interest: The types of jobs people had when they arrive and when they graduate is also exceedingly diverse.

You may not suffer from problem (a) or (b) which is lucky. But most governments’ educational programs and many policy schools do, so the framework provides some structure despite this heterogeneity.

Third, our students come to us with varying degrees of knowledge and skills when it comes to digital issues and technologies. Some are software engineers and data scientists, others have never had a gmail account. Maybe in 20 years’ time the baseline level of knowledge will normalize, but I doubt it, and well, that’s so deep into my career arc it isn’t worth thinking about. Yes, I want to prepare people for careers in public service who will go on to be CIOs… AND I need to prepare that overwhelming majority who won’t and for whom digital will be just a part of their job, not all of their job. This chart gives me some lane ways to organize them and a way to begin thinking about what knowledge, in which domains, I need them to know in order to feel like the school is preparing them appropriately for each of the roles outlined.

And of course even if you don’t suffer from the challenges above, I think it still serves as a useful starting point if your students are yelling “we want more technology courses” (which they were here). This may provide a little of a map to discern what kind of digital courses, the types of case studies and possible topics for events or guest speakers, that will be useful to them.

The Goal: Digital Leaders and Partners

I’m not going to go into details about what skills, knowledge and capabilities I think students need to have (yet). But I do have two other categories of students, those who will be technology leaders and those who need to be effective partners.

I don’t expect (nor do I have the skills) to have all 110 students in my main course on technology and government — DPI-662: Digital Government — to magically emerge as Todd Park clones (although that would be amazing).

Rather, I have two goals.

The first relates to those who come to me with a strong digital background. Here the goal is to equip them with language, frameworks and tools that set them on a path where, with hard work, experience and luck, some could emerge as Todd Parks one day in the future. I take great care to attract students with digital backgrounds. It isn’t easy. But it also isn’t impossible. Policy schools need to attract students with strong digital background. It is, to put it bluntly, much easier to turn a software engineer into a policy wonk than a policy wonk into an software engineer. As a result, any school interested in focusing on digital issues will need to actively pursue and accept students with technical backgrounds. Contrary to popular belief that software engineers are impossible to hire and recruit, USDS, 18F, Code for America and numerous other programs demonstrate that many software engineers, designers, product managers, and data scientists are deeply interested in foregoing salaries to serve the public good. Cultivating this small group into the next generation of IT leaders who can help support and ultimately lead the digital transformation of governments and other important institutions at the enterprise level is a major goal of mine, and Digital@HKS.

The second group is the larger group and those who come to the school without a strong digital background. The goal here is not to magically turn them into digital experts (although some can leave HKS as effective product managers and data scientists). Rather the goal is to enable them to:

a) at a minimum: equip them with sufficient knowledge to have solid BS detecting skills to ascertain when direct reports, vendors or even executives try to push initiatives that will fail or not work from a digital perspective. (This is akin to what we try to do in statistics with many students — some arrive skilled and leave as deep experts, but most arrive with less skills. We don’t turn them into statisticians, but we enable them to spot good from bad practices.)

b) ideally: have sufficient skills to help the departments in which they work or oversee be able to adapt its work to a digital world; and

c) preferably: know how to be effective partners to CIOs, vendors and digital types so they can help support digital transformation at the agency or enterprise level when appropriate and push back when ideas are poorly conceived or technology-centric with no clear purpose.

Having now worked with several hundred students here, what is nice is that I can clearly lump them in to both buckets. I have those with clearer digital skills looking for CIO or say product management jobs and I have those that are returning to a policy area (such as housing or eduction) as an analyst or manager who have a clearer idea of what questions they should be asking before anyone starts trying to engage in technology initiatives.

This is the second in a series of pieces about how I’m wrestling with how to teach about digital technologies at policy schools. If you’re interested follow me here on eaves.ca or at the Digital@HKS blog. You can also read part one here and part two here.

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