Lawmakers in N.H., Vermont Turn to Students for Policy Research

When legislators need nonpartisan reports, Dartmouth students do the legwork.
by | March 1, 2011

It’s not unusual for politicians to turn to college students for help. More often than not, the work entails licking envelopes and answering phones -- not when you attend Dartmouth.

Students working at the school’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center have produced 61 reports for the New Hampshire and Vermont state legislatures over the last six years, and more than 100 students have testified at state hearings.

Legislators in those states have small staffs and tight budgets, so the idea was to offer them quality research on a pro-bono basis while giving students the opportunity to become involved in government. So far, the relationship has been a success.

Students in the center’s Policy Research Shop produce concise, non-partisan reports that answer specific questions, often about how other states are tackling issues facing New Hampshire or Vermont, says Ronald Shaiko, associate director of the Rockefeller Center. Each summer, the center puts out a call to lawmakers letting them know the shop is available to do research. So far, students have examined subjects such as public transportation, interoperability issues affecting first-responders, and ballot access laws, among many others. (A full list of reports is available here.)

The students perform dress rehearsals of their testimony before presenting at the statehouse. By the time they reach the capital, Shaiko says, “they walk into the room knowing they know more about the topic than anyone else.”

In large states like New York and California, as well as the federal government, there is public money to spend on research in addition to the many think tanks that are eager to produce and supply studies. But that are considerably fewer options for sources of public policy research in New Hampshire and Vermont. “In places like ours, there’s a value-added,” Shaiko told Governing. “It’s not just patting them on their head and saying ‘great job.’”

Rep. Laurie Harding, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, says students at the shop have compiled reports for her office that examine biomass fuels, mental health and substance abuse insurance parity, and financial literacy assessments, among other subjects. Currently, students are preparing for Harding a report on “shared decision making,” a medical approach in which patients and health workers deliberate together to find the best treatment options.

“I respect the kind of work the students are able to do,” Harding told Governing. “They’ve been a gift.”

The program is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation and the Department of Education. The Rockefeller Center helped establish similar programs at Loyola University in New Orleans and Millersville University in Millersville, Penn.

The program also works with the New Hampshire Local Government Center and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to provide research for local governments.

Shaiko says the research shop had had success turning students on to the idea of pursuing government service when they graduate -- a difficult task, considering Dartmouth’s reputation as recruiting ground for investment banks. “We're creating another pipeline saying ‘this is another option,’” Shaiko says. “Going into government service isn’t a bad thing.”

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