By The Citizen Staff
Capping more than seven months of research, meetings and phone calls; the Kennedy School second year Masters of Public Policy (MPP) students turned in their culminating project last week.
The Policy Analysis Exercise (more commonly known as the PAE) is an extensive research project for an organization or government agency that aims to solve a policy or management problem.
Working in tandem with a faculty advisor through a specialized seminar, students shape a project on any area of interest – from evaluating the economic benefits of trails in Maine to analyzing zero tolerance discipline in schools.
PAEs are borne out of summer internships, past work experiences, proposals from the Career Advancement database or class projects. The final product is a 40-page double-spaced consulting report or briefing book to be presented to the student’s client.
The Citizen (with the help of faculty advisors) selected the five coolest PAEs of the 2012-2013 school year. A brief synopsis of each follows:
1. Leon Ratz, Organizing for Arms Control: The National Security Implications of the Loss of an Independent Arms Control Agency
Hometown: Fair Lawn, New Jersey
Occupation before HKS: Student (Boston College)
Partnering Organization: Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., President Clinton’s Special Representative on Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
Established during the early months of the Kennedy Administration, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency served as Washington’s independent advocate for arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation interests. In 1999, however, the agency was abolished and its functions folded into the State Department. This project argued that the decision to merge the agency was a mistake, one that has led to negative consequences for both arms control and national security.
About the Project
“Despite the fact that the Cold War is more than twenty years behind us, our arms control challenges are becoming increasingly complex. Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and North Korea’s nuclear tests are placing renewed strain on the global non-proliferation regime. Further rounds of nuclear arms reduction (should there be any) will likely go hand-in-hand with decreased tolerances for uncertainty in verification, creating new technical challenges for old arms control problems. Missile defense, the global proliferation of nuclear energy, and the specter of nuclear terrorism further complicate the arms control and non-proliferation picture.
For thirty-eight years, the United States had an executive branch agency that did nothing else but work on arms control and non-proliferation challenges, not all-too-unlike the challenges we face today. In 1999, however, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was abolished, largely as a result of a political bargain struck between the Clinton Administration and Senator Jesse Helms. Now that ACDA is gone, do we have an organizational structure that is optimally designed to handle these challenges? The findings of my report suggest that the answer is no.
I wanted to write about this subject ever since I learned about the extraordinary achievements of this small agency (it negotiated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to name a few of its accomplishments). I was always puzzled by the government’s decision to get rid of such a low-cost agency which had done so much for national security during and immediately after the Cold War.
As I learned writing this report, ACDA’s abolition was the result of a political bargain done mostly behind closed doors. Fourteen years later, we’re now faced with the negative consequences of the agency’s abolition, including the loss of arms control technical expertise and the weakening of a deliberative arms control decision-making process. Nobody had written extensively about the implications of ACDA’s loss, so I thought I would take up the challenge –and I’ve honestly enjoyed every minute of it.”
Advice to MPP1s: “Choose a topic that you’re passionate about—you’ll be spending a lot of time with it!”
2. Colin Schwartz, Is Your Food “Natural”: What Does “Natural” Mean and How Should it be Regulated?
Hometown: Simi Valley, CA
Occupation before HKS: Government relations manager for state health department trade association
Partnering Organization: Food & Water Watch
Food labeled as “natural” would likely not meet consumer expectations. Most companies use the term to maximize profit without substantively changing their product – what experts call label-washing. Therefore, it is incumbent on the federal government to enforce stronger regulations to make the term more meaningful.
About the Project
“Food claims can be important for conveying accurate information to help consumers make more informed decisions. However, the term ‘natural’ carries very little to no information because federal regulators have not been able to establish a strong regulatory model. In this vein, ‘natural’ is a uniquely difficult regulatory issue because unlike other food claims, it does not have a uniform and agreed-upon definition. Despite this, regulators have come up with various definitions that further complicate its usefulness and integrity.
Under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ‘natural’ means without artificial ingredients and does not contain substances not normally expected to be present whereas, under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it means without artificial ingredients and no more than minimally processed. Much of this is up to interpretation and many exceptions have been granted. My PAE reports that the lack of strong and consistent federal regulation has contributed to three major problems: (1) diminished consumer confidence and corporate accountability of ‘natural’, (2) rampant illegal use under federal law and (3) unfair competition with organic.
While ‘natural’ is an unprecedented issue, equally vague terms that lack consensus-based definitions are likely to be created by an increasingly complex food industry. The federal government will have to better regulate these kinds of claims to make sure they are not false or misleading. In this respect, ‘natural’ is both the most notorious form of label-washing today and a potential regulatory model for resolving forms of label-washing tomorrow.
My client is a non-profit consumer advocacy organization interested in knowing more about the regulatory history and current status of ‘natural’ in addition to having regulatory recommendations as a model for what could be done. My client plans on using my report and sharing it with partner organizations to add to ongoing advocacy efforts.”
Advice to MPP1s: “Pick a client that is responsive, grateful, knows what they want and you both understand what you are doing. Also, overloading yourself is unnecessary – be strategic in picking the PAE that gives you the maximum returns and be realistic about your time commitment and the demands of the topic.”
3. Amanda Olberg, Teacher Compensation System Analysis
Hometown: New York City
Occupation before HKS: Research Assistant, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Partnering Organization: Uncommon Schools Troy and Rochester
Uncommon Schools Troy and Rochester manages five charter schools in upstate New York. In the past, teacher compensation decisions at the network’s schools have been made at the individual school level. This project contributed to the network’s efforts to formalize a teacher compensation system for the network as a whole.
About the Project
“The appropriate design of a teacher compensation system is important for advancing the organizational mission of supporting student achievement at the highest levels. Teachers are widely recognized in literature and practice as the most important school-based factor in student learning, and compensation system design has significant implications for teacher recruitment, retention and effectiveness, as well as for school budgets.
In my PAE, I addressed three central research questions: 1) On a network level, how does Uncommon Schools Troy and Rochester currently compensate its teachers? 2) How should the network revise its teacher compensation system? 3) What is the appropriate change management for the transition to a revised teacher compensation system? In pursuit of these research questions, I conducted a literature review, interviewed the network’s ten school leaders, analyzed the network’s compensation data and considered alternative compensation models in five case studies of high-performing charter management organizations.
In my PAE, I proposed two options for revising the network’s teacher compensation system: a salary schedule model and a performance bands model. Uncommon Schools Troy and Rochester is currently in the process of selecting the option best suited to the network and further tailoring that option to the network’s needs, with the objective of implementing a revised compensation system for the 2013-2014 school year.
Although I had previously done research on teacher compensation in an academic context, this PAE was my first chance to work on teacher compensation in a real-world setting and have the opportunity to be a part of directly making change.”
Advice to MPP1s: “Work on a project that matters to your client organization, and make sure that your contact person at your client organization is as excited about the project as you are. This will position your project to be successful and also make the experience fun.”
4. Helena Pylväinen, The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF)
Hometown: West Bloomfield, Michigan
Occupation before HKS: Program Evaluation
Through an online survey of nearly 800 women veterans, this project found that the most important issues for military women transitioning to civilian life were: (1) finding a sense of purpose, (2) finding employment and (3) strengthening social relationships. This finding held regardless of whether respondents faced gender-related challenges such as Military Sexual Trauma or parental responsibilities. Respondents also reported that the resources available for finding employment and finding a sense of purpose were much less adequate than resources to meet their health and educational needs.
About the Project
“Many people assume that I am a veteran when I tell them about my PAE topic. I’m not. I chose to study women veterans because I am passionate about gender equity and because, as an American, I believe I share responsibility for the welfare of our nation’s veterans.
Women currently make up 9 percent of the U.S. veteran population and this figure will increase to 16 percent by 2032. What does this mean for government agencies and Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) working to ensure all returning veterans are well supported in their transitions to civilian life? Do services, programs and support strategies need to be adapted to the changing veteran gender composition?
There is some evidence that women veterans have higher rates of unemployment and homelessness than male veterans or female civilians, and face particular health challenges, but how do these issues relate to the actual types of services and support women veterans need?
When I began my research, I was surprised to see how little data we have about women veterans. The monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment figures contain such a small subsample of women veterans that subgroup comparisons aren’t even statistically significant, and the rates fluctuate wildly from month to month. The data available also isn’t very rich — what can unemployment numbers or health studies say about the overall needs and priorities of women veterans?
I decided to conduct an online survey to obtain some information directly from women veterans. Since it is virtually impossible for someone outside of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to obtain a representative random sample of veterans, I decided to use online social networking to reach as large and diverse a group of women veterans as possible. To my surprise — and to the credit of the HKS Armed Forces Committee and other military contacts who helped me launch the survey — I managed to reach a diverse and relatively representative group of nearly 800 women veterans in just two weeks! I turned in my PAE, but I’m still trying to analyze all of the data.”
Advice to MPP1s: “While my lack of military experience meant I faced a steep learning curve, my PAE led me to confront some of my preconceived notions about military service members. I hope more civilian HKS students will engage with veteran policy issues in the future: Not only can this help bridge the military-civilian divide, but the HKS military community contains a wealth of resources and experiences to support such research. More research on these issues is crucial to maximizing the impact of the billions of dollars spent to support the nation’s veterans.”
5. Victoria Tan, Dawoun Jyung, Reaching the Most Vulnerable – An evaluation of the impact of the Essential Package and strategies to scale in Malawi and Mozambique
Hometown: Sydney, Australia (Victoria); Long Island, NY (Dawoun)
Occupation before HKS: Management consultant at BCG (Victoria), Teach For America, Middle School Math teacher in Bronx, NY (Dawoun)
Partnering Organization: Save the Children
“The PAE can be one of the most rewarding and invaluable experiences at HKS. It’s more than just a requirement to fulfill, but a privilege – a privilege to work with a real client, on a real policy issue of your passion, for a real impact. We are grateful for the opportunity to have applied what we have learned at HKS to help Save the Children with their strategies to better serve vulnerable children and their families in Africa.” – Dawoun
About the Project
Working for Save the Children, Victoria and Dawoun assessed the early implementation of the Essential Package program in Malawi and Zambia. The Essential Package (EP) is a holistic early childhood intervention program designed to address the needs of vulnerable children from 0-8 years of age and their primary caregivers.
The pair evaluated what impact EP is having on the vulnerable children and their families. They then made recommendations on how the EP implementation can be improved and suggested a scale-up strategy for Save the Children to successfully expand EP in Malawi and Zambia.
According to Victoria, the dream PAE is getting the right client, right policy area, right geography and right project work. She said, “Most of us aren’t lucky enough to find the dream PAE and we make tradeoffs, this came pretty close for me. I respect the work of this organization, I am interested in early childhood development and I came to the Kennedy school wanting to learn more about program evaluation and scaling social interventions.
“The PAE was the highlight of my Kennedy school experience,” she continued. “It was hard work, managing communications with the client and organizing logistics across time zones for our field work, but it was extremely rewarding. We drew heavily on lessons learnt in stats, politics and Professor Julie Wilson’s Children and Families elective.
“I think our PAE will be used by Save the Children to make improvements to the Essential Package itself as they work with key stakeholders (e.g. funders, other NGOs, governments) to scale it up nationally in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.”
The PAE was a continuation of Dawoun’s summer internship so she had already established relationship with her client before the school year started.
Dawoun said, “That is not to say you should look for an internship that can lead to a PAE, but starting early to think about what topics you want to pursue is very helpful and less stressful. I also found working with a partner helpful.
“Victoria and I come from two very different work experiences and have different working styles, but learning to work together and drawing from each other’s expertise and strengths was extremely valuable,” she continued. “Plus, visiting two countries in two weeks, staying at eight different hotels and conducting 30+ interviews and focus groups was more enjoyable because we had each other.”
Advice to MPP1s: “Find a PAE topic that gets you excited and passionate. Your PAE has to matter to you, especially when you are up late at night.” – Victoria