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Preparing Government Professionals for a New Context

Challenges for Teaching

Policy informatics provides an opportunity to teach students the importance of understanding data in the broader social, economic, and political context. Workshop discussions focused on four areas for consideration: (1) the importance of teaching for ‘the real world’, (2) providing students with a broad appreciation for data and information, (3) providing access to robust tools and technologies, and (4) finding ways to connect and balance policy informatics competencies with core curriculum requirements.

Finding real cases, using real data, and dealing with realistic levels of complexity

Effective use of data and computational tools for problem solving demands attention to situations, assumptions and dynamics that reveal the complexity of the problem and the suitability of different interventions. Speakers urged that analytical projects and assignments should use real world situations, not made up problems, and apply existing available data, not artificially constructed data sets. The open government data movement provides an opportunity to do this as large numbers of datasets are being cataloged and released for public use. Most of these data resources are rich in content, but they have also limitations and flaws that students must learn to address in their analyses. Cases can come from any level of government and any policy domain, as long as they are reasonably good representations of the interests and conflicts that are at play. These kinds of activities and resources prepare students for the likely issues they will face when they take positions in government and will give them a realistic dress rehearsal for the work they are training to do and the challenges it will inevitably hold. For faculty, the challenge is to teach the principles and tools of analysis without relying on simplified cases or sanitized data that give students a false comfort of a straightforward application that leads to a “best” answer.

Imparting a broad appreciation for the role of data in public policy and management

While some students will want to develop strong technical expertise, all should be able to discern what types of analysis and sources are appropriate in various contexts. Every public affairs graduate should be a discriminating consumer of data, a critical audience for data analysis, and a trusted steward of data resources. Graduates who go into government positions will inevitably be in some way responsible for the quality and management of data in their own agencies. Workshop participants noted that policy informatics has its own policy components, including ethics and legal frameworks, or as one workshop participant put it, “We need policies for data, not just data for policies.” Participants began a discussion of the importance of identifying the threshold knowledge and skills that all students should acquire in their degree programs, emphasizing the need to connect and integrate these newer demands with existing core competencies and traditional classes.

Acquiring robust tools and technologies

Students who want a specialization in policy informatics face another challenge in the cost and accessibility of robust tools. The challenge is three fold: first, tools (or licenses) that can handle large, realistic data sets with a good selection of features can be costly. Second, the tools and techniques for using them are constantly changing, thus requiring the ability to upgrade and branch out to different packages or features. Third, very few public affairs faculty have the knowledge or skills to teach about or with these tools, or room in the teaching schedule to devote whole courses to the topic. Open source programs for classroom use such as R or Quantum GIS (QGIS) can provide good teaching tools, but even these may be beyond the reach of individual students or departmental resources. Team teaching, cross-listing with statistics, math, or business courses, and cross-disciplinary courses are all possible ways to deal with this challenge. It is also helpful to remember that many government agencies also lack the resources for high-end tools, so affordable options in the classroom may well be the right choice for long term usefulness in practice.

Advocating for changes in curriculum

Demand for students with data-intensive skills is on the rise in many fields.17 Public affairs graduates are competing with students from other disciplines for these positions. Given the multi-faceted perspective that policy informatics imparts, graduates with policy informatics training can act as change agents or boundary spanners in their agencies. They are likely to be better communicators about and savvy consumers of data and evidence. Their higher levels of data and technology literacy, grounded in the public affairs context, can allow them to play leadership and facilitation roles that demonstrate the special value of hiring managers and analysts with a public affairs degree.

17Manyika, James, Michael Chui, Brad Brown, Jacques Bughin, Richard Dobbs, Charles Roxburgh, and Angela H. Byers. "Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity." (2011).