Education

Want to Govern? Survey Says, Attend Policy School

Senior public officials in state and local government say graduate school prepared them for their current careers, according to a new survey.
by | July 24, 2014
Students listen to a lecture at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Paul Beaty/Associated Press

Eight months ago, The Washington Post published a provocative Sunday op-ed with the headline, “Want to Govern? Skip Policy School.” The authors argued that schools of government did not prepare students for a career in public service. New findings from a survey of senior state and local public officials contradicts that thesis.

Among those who attended graduate school in a government-related field, 88 percent agreed that their coursework prepared them for their current careers in government. On a separate question, 91 percent said they would prefer to hire someone with a graduate degree in a government-related field.

The results offer a stark contrast to a critical assessment of policy schools by James Piereson, president of the conservative William E. Simon Foundation, and Naomi Schaefer Riley, a conservative journalist, in a Dec. 6, 2013 edition of The Washington Post. Piereson and Riley wrote “the schools’ curricula and missions have become at once too broad and too academic, too focused on national and global issues at the expense of local and state-level ones. It’s not clear that the schools are preparing their graduates to fix all that needs fixing.”

Piereson and Riley measured policy schools largely by whether government is effectively addressing the big issues of the day, such as partisanship, terrorism, climate change and budget deficits. They also highlighted conflicting missions of academia and government, which often lead to faculty dedicating too much time on theoretical research and not enough time understanding and teaching practical, if more mundane, aspects of day-to-day governance.

With its survey, Governing pursued a different line of inquiry: Do people who attended policy school and now work in government think their education was worthwhile?

To shed light on this question, a research arm of the magazine’s parent company, e.Republic, surveyed a systematic random sample of 189 senior state, county and city officials -- representing a mix of elected, appointed and civil service positions. Everyone who participated came from the Governing Exchange research community, a pool of government officials who agree to take occasional online surveys by email invitation.

The survey took place between June 30 and July 17, with a margin of error of 7.13 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level. Survey participants are not representative of all government employees -- only senior-level officials working in state and local governments. While the survey went out to 818 public officials, only 388 decided to respond and only 56 percent said they had earned a graduate degree in a government-related field. The findings below pertain to those 189 individuals with a graduate degree.

While respondents were uniformly positive about their experiences with graduate school, what that education actually looked like in terms of courses taken and skills acquired varied dramatically. The wide range in what public officials say they learned in graduate school is largely explained by the diversity of master degrees people earned: public administration, public policy, public affairs, urban studies, urban planning, public health, political science, education, library science and others. The pie chart below shows the distribution of graduate degrees obtained by respondents. The most prevalent type of degree was a master in public administration.

The survey also listed common courses taught in policy programs and asked respondents to mark which ones they took. The course with the most overlap was statistics, with 83 percent. Most respondents also said they took courses in management, the policy process and public finance. Relatively few (17 percent) said they took econometrics, which combines statistical analysis techniques with economic theory.

In general, the courses that most people said they took were also the courses that they ranked as most helpful in their current career. One exception was statistics, which fewer than a quarter of respondents considered to be in their top-three most helpful courses. Some respondents added courses in the write-in box that they considered helpful in their career, but were not listed as multiple-choice options, such as organizational theory, planning law and human resources.

  Courses Taught Top Three Courses
Statistics 83% 24%
Policy process 77% 56%
Management 70% 47%
Public finance 69% 42%
Program evaluation 55% 37%
Economics 50% 19%
Leadership 49% 33%
Ethics 48% 16%
Other 23% 21%
Econometrics 17% 5%

As for skills acquired in graduate school, respondents mostly listed soft skills as useful in their career, such as working on a team, speaking in public and managing projects. Again, there was overlap between the skills most people said they learned and the skills that people ranked as most helpful. One exception was regression analysis, a statistical analysis technique used to demonstrate correlation between two plausibly related variables, which can inform practitioners’ understanding of how policy links with social outcomes. Though 46 percent said they learned regression analysis in school, only 7 percent considered it a top-three skill for their career.

  Skills Learned Top Three Skills
Team work 67% 57%
Budgeting 54% 40%
Project Management 54% 55%
Policy memo writing 53% 43%
Public speaking 51% 57%
Creating data visualizations 47% 25%
Regression analysis 46% 7%
Other 19% 16%

Respondents may have given lower priority to technical skills, such as budgeting, program evaluation and regression analysis, because they are managers, not subject-matter experts or recent hires. About 77 percent of respondents said they had been working in government for more than 10 years; another 13 percent had been government workers between five and 10 years.

“It’s the technical skills that help you get in the door for the first job,” said Maria Aristigueta, the director of a public policy and administration program at the University of Delaware, “but it’s the soft skills that become necessary to move up in the organization.”

Students who haven’t worked in government before “really need those hard skills,” said Justin Marlowe, a Governing contributor who teaches budgeting and financial management at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. “They want to be able to market themselves as someone who can jump in and do something without a lot of hand-holding," he said. Managers, on the other hand, can hire analysts for technical work, but want help developing a leadership style and finding ways to best oversee a team.

Aristigueta also noted that program evaluation -- especially at the state or local level -- is often carried out by contractors or consultants that conduct assessments of government programs. Thus, program evaluation might be a helpful skill for working on state or local policy, but less so if a student hopes to be a direct employee of the government.

Shelley Metzenbaum, president of a good-government nonprofit called The Volcker Alliance, said the survey should inform future research on the usefulness of government-related degrees. Metzenbaum told Governing last year that part of the Alliance's mission is to bridge a gap that currently exists between academia and the public sector. As in the Post op-ed, Metzenbaum called attention to the stilted language of academic journal articles, which often can't be digested quickly and lack actionable findings for practitioners.

While the Governing survey can't be generalized to the overall population of government workers, it's "a question provoker," she said, and might lead to future study of specific schools, professors and even textbooks that public officials say were most helpful in preparing them for their current work. 

Full Disclosure: the author of this story has a master's degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University.

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