The Applied Policy Project: Bridging Classroom and Experiential Learning

May 29, 2017

Graduating MPA students (Class of 2015-17) shared experiences and lessons learned from their nine-month Applied Policy Projects (APP) during a day-long Expo on May 26. The Applied Policy Project is a nine-month engagement between student teams and an external client that enables students to bridge classroom and experiential learning in a consultancy style format that is supported by the Applied Policy Project director, a faculty advisor, and the client organization. It is an integral part of the two-year MPA program.

During their project for The Budapest Institute, Mark Bui, Armine Hakhinyan, and Corrado Minardi learned a lot about how to work with data – and how to work as a team. They had some useful advice for their classmates: if you’re going to work with data, don’t design the project until you’ve had a chance to look at the data. They described some of the challenges they encountered securing access to the data they needed, loading it up, “making sense of it,” and then figuring out how to deliver a useful product for their client. “In the end, we’re proud of what we accomplished,” they said.

Antonia Asimakopoulou, Mahitab Mahgoub, and Meagan Patterson encountered different challenges in their project for International Crisis Group West Africa. Their assignment was to monitor jihadi propaganda and related activities in West Africa. They focused on five groups that were active not just in West Africa but in other countries as well. They benefited enormously from “great feedback from our client,” especially ICG West Africa Project Director Rinaldo Depagne. They also found their field experience (a trip to Senegal) “very very useful” both for the opportunity to work with the client and to conduct interviews with experts (journalists, diplomats, etc.) on jihadi groups operating in West Africa.

The focus of Mara Tissera Luna, Elisa Totino, and Anna Zsoldos’ project for Latin American Foster Care Network (RELAF) was initially the policy reform process. It evolved to be an organizational assessment instead. “We negotiated with our client and ended up doing what was most beneficial for them,” they explained. They too benefited enormously from the opportunity to travel to the field (Panama) and meet with people “on the ground.” At a certain point though, “we realized that we needed to go ahead with the information we had,” they said. The team is “very satisfied” with their final report. The client is too and plans to show it to current and prospective donors. The team agreed that the Skills For Impact (SFI) module on fundraising that SPP offered during the Spring term had been especially valuable.

Yahya Al-Abdullah, Fatlum Gashi, and Tamara Stupalova also had extensive negotiations with their client (International Crisis Group Turkey) as they worked to define their project. They also encountered obstacles that caused them to rethink task allocations when one of the team members was not able to secure a visa to travel to Turkey. Another challenge: learning how to work together as a team. “We have different styles and different personalities,” they explained. The team is pleased with the work they did, especially on the issue of citizenship. “ICG became interested in this topic during the course of our project,” they explained, and is now considering doing a report focused on the issue of citizenship. “The APP experience was quite transformative for all of us,” they said.

“This project [for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)] became a part of our lives,” explained Michele Maassacesi and Faryal Sajjad. They and teammate Hanh Nguyen studied the role of civil society in promoting transition resilience in 11 countries. Like the Budapest Institute team, they too had “data problems” that delayed the start of their project. They were also involved in “a lot of back and forth” with the client to define a project that was mutually beneficial. They commented that the size of the client “has an impact on how projects develop,” noting that smaller clients may have more flexibility. They commented that they wished they had been able to take the SFI module on Managing and Mobilizing Teams before they started their APP. “A lot of what was covered in that module was stuff we learned during our project such as the importance of setting clear goals and expectations from the start,” they said.

The World Wildlife Fund team (Aila Hauru, Archimedes Muzenda, and Gaspar Garcia Huidobro Rodriguez) faced – and overcame – many challenges during their project. “We began with no ground rules and very different work styles and personalities. We were also working with two offices (in Sweden and Switzerland) that had different ideas about what they wanted,” they said. They also struggled to secure the interviews they needed and to collect the data that their client wanted about the tools that companies use to assess supply chains. Another challenge was that there was no one at SPP with expertise on their topic (global food supply chains). Their advice to future teams: expect the unexpected and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Almir Huseini, Andrea Ignacz, and Zoltan Ranschburg conducted a feasibility study for the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI) on ethnic issues in Macedonia. They faced different “data issues” from other APP teams. In their case, the problem was not too much data, but the absence of “reliable data.” They explained that because the last census was done 15 years ago, there is no data (and no agreement) on the size of non-Macedonian ethnic groups in the country. The team visited four cities in Macedonia where, they said, “you could feel and see the ethnic tensions.” One of the challenges they encountered was figuring how to speak to people about a “delicate topic” during a “fragile time.”

Mastona Adamova, Liliana Fernandez, and Nicholas Sertich did case studies of South Africa and Guatemala for the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) to explore the relationship between anti-corruption and transitional justice. They were surprised to discover during their research and field trips that the transitional justice (TJ) process was very different in the two countries. There were many reasons for this including the fact that in South Africa, it was a political transition while in Guatemala, it was “a transition from conflict.” The team explained that corruption was a much bigger issue in South Africa today than it was during the TJ process.

The US-based NGO, Liberty’s Promise, organizes programs in the United States to help immigrants settle and integrate. They are interested in doing something similar in Europe. Marcela Adamova, Mario Cifuentes, and Zora Molnar conducted a feasibility study of three European cities: Glasgow, Scotland; Montpellier, France; and Stuttgart, Germany. They assessed each city in terms of the government’s attitude towards integration, the country’s national integration strategy, the city’s integration strategy, the availability of funding, and the opportunities for partnership work and determined that Stuttgart was the best prospect. Their APP ended up being less of a team project than they expected in part because of the structure of the project: each team member visited one city and then reported to the other two on what they found.

One of the highlights of Sebastian Soto and Aron Suba’s APP for Health Poverty Action (HPA) to explore the way in which drug policies limit access to controlled, but essential, medicines, was a 17-day trip to India. It also presented the team with some of its biggest challenges. They had to figure out, for example, where to go, how to get there, how much they could reasonably do in 17 days, and contact people at the locations they wanted to visit to be sure they would be welcomed when they arrived. They were also confronted with ethical challenges related to interviewing terminal patients and their families – an experience they found to be emotionally exhausting as well. “We learned a lot. The whole project was a great opportunity,” they agreed.

PAX asked the APP team of Ravshan Abdullaev, Sikhathele Nkala, and Raman Tkachou to help them develop effective and inclusive policy interventions and mechanisms to deal with the Non-Government Controlled Areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine. The team relied on a variety of data collection methods (literature review, interviews, and media analysis) to come up with their policy recommendations. Like the ECMI team, they too found it challenging to do research on a sensitive topic. They also wrestled with the scope of their project and advised future APP teams, “Don’t be too ambitious!”