Policy Analysis and Economic Advocacy

Posted August 5th, 2009 at 1:03 pm.

by David R. Ross and Richard Stahnke

An important element in most service-learning or civic engagement programs like Bryn Mawr College’s Praxis program is the application of academic skills in a manner useful to stakeholders outside the academy. Writing for “outsiders” raises the stakes for students and instructors alike.

In most cases, such public writing is very different from the published works that dominate academic disciplines, e.g., research articles or critical essays. Mastering the demands of disciplinary writing is crucial for the successful completion of a major and for pursuing graduate study in an academic field, but it ill prepares graduates for the sort of writing they are likely to encounter in jobs and civic engagement.

To address this need for the 2007-2008 academic year, we formed a team to design and implement a seminar for senior economics majors called “Policy Analysis and Economic Advocacy.” We shared lead instructor responsibilities. Alla Myrvoda ’09, as teaching fellow, supported the course design and worked with Susan Turkel, the outreach and information technology librarian, to facilitate data gathering. Liza Bernard, the director of the Bi-College Career Development Office, and Julie Zaebst, the training and programming coordinator of the Civic Engagement Office, assisted in lining up and working with partner organizations. Gail Hemmeter, director of writing support services, commented on details of the writing assignments and participated in reflection sessions halfway through.

The primary objective for the seminar was to bring students to the point where they could produce a publishable piece of advocacy (publishable meaning that it would be useful to a non-governmental organization (NGO), congressional office, or business or that it would be on a par with opinion articles in influential newspapers). The economics department offered the course both semesters (with six students in the fall and nine in the spring), creating an immediate opportunity to build on successes and to learn from mistakes. The department will offer the seminar again in spring 2009.

We began each semester with a three-week advocacy “boot camp” to draw distinctions between effective and ineffective advocacy, highlight common pitfalls, and help students escape the academic mindset. In doing so, we benefited enormously from the participation of a number of visitors: Congressman Joe Sestak; Chris Satullo and John Timpane, from the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Cynthia Eyakuze ’94 and Susan Wood, Hepburn fellows; Joanna Underwood ’62, president of Energy Vision; and Steven Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

The remainder of the semester was divided into two five-week paper-drafting modules, with an evaluation week in-between. Students used the period immediately following the end of classes to make final revisions before submitting their final module papers to the target organization, office, or publication. Additional visitors joined us for that week between the modules for a discussion of lessons learned. In all, 16 visitors joined us in the fall and spring, and we were able to leverage some of their visits into public presentations or discussions for the community. We had designed the course to draw students out into the larger community. The engagement of partners with the campus community was an unexpected benefit.

During each of the five-week paper modules we asked students to craft a piece of effective advocacy on a topic a) that mattered to them, b) that generated a call to change existing policies, and c) for which an understanding of economics would inform the argument likely to emerge. The first two weeks of each module were devoted to producing a 10-page background paper, with the goal of gathering all the information needed to execute the appropriate advocacy strategy. Students found it challenging to shift gears from summarizing the relevant information for the background paper to drafting the advocacy paper due at the end of week three. To address this difficulty, we added a “pre-draft” memo between the background paper and advocacy paper first draft. The memo could be a set of notes in outline form, a stream of consciousness, or a combination of draft excerpts and key points – anything that would help the student pull the first draft together. During week four, each student wrote peer reviews for two classmates and the seminar discussed each draft. The final piece was due at the end of week five.

Our goal was for students to learn to produce work that would be useful to outside stakeholders. In addition to expressing economic ideas in clear and understandable lay language, students needed to connect to the intended audience and focus on selling their analysis. One student, for example, in a letter to Governor Rendell against the immediate funding of “liquid coal” (a gasoline alternative), improved her communication with the governor by realizing he was a busy politician and would prefer to know immediately what the letter writer wanted. She revised her letter to express the main point in the opening paragraph, dropping compliments about the governor’s environmental record and other preliminaries.

Students varied greatly in their abilities to write for a lay audience during module one. Some common early problems included the use of economic jargon that ordinary people would not be able to understand, a lack of clarity as to what was desired from the audience, and an ineffective hook for an opinion-editorial piece or persuasive letter. Nonetheless, each student who struggled during this first part made great strides in completing the second module and is now better prepared to write in a work environment and advocate for specific policies.

Connecting the problem at hand to a relevant economic principle sometimes proved to be a challenge. For example, in order to make a strong case for government action, a student advocating for a federal response to tainted imported drugs had to begin by recognizing the failure of the market to yield adequate information for prospective buyers.

After justifying the need for action, identifying an optimal policy response usually requires weighing incremental costs against benefits. It is easy to miss an important cost or benefit in working through an economic accounting exercise, especially when the core argument behind a proposal is non-economic in nature. For example, by focusing on humanitarian arguments for encouraging restaurants to participate in a free UNICEF program to bring clean water to developing countries, one student initially failed to notice that participation could also have a marketing benefit for the restaurants. This ultimately became a central argument in her trade magazine opinion-editorial piece. We’ve encouraged the economics department to consider how it can better prepare students in foundational courses to apply the tools they’ve learned to the complex policy problems that engage them.

Virtually all the final papers in the fall and spring were received well by their targets. One set of talking points was used with only minor alteration in lobbying for revisions to teacher certification requirements in Missouri. The Philadelphia Inquirer accepted an opinion-editorial piece on the impact of ethanol-driven price increases on local bakeries (only to bump it at deadline for other content). Another advocacy piece, promoting Philadelphia as a great place to go to college, ran in the fall 2008 issue of Campus Visit Philadelphia. Useful, indeed!

All the student course evaluations were positive, some describing it as the best course they’d taken at Bryn Mawr. Strictly speaking, this seminar fit none of the course templates defined under Bryn Mawr’s Praxis program, in which fieldwork visits (ranging from one to three times per week) enrich or lie at the heart of disciplinary, interdepartmental, or independent learning. But by challenging students and faculty to produce work that is useful to an organization outside the College, the course focused on issues of audience and civic engagement which are at the heart of the Praxis program and what it means to be an educated citizen.

David R. Ross is an associate professor of economics. He became so interested in bridging the gap between academia and public policy that he convinced his neighbors to elect him a supervisor for West Nottingham Township.

Richard Stahnke is a visiting assistant professor of economics. He enjoys teaching public policy-related courses. In part inspired by his experience in this seminar, he added public finance to his teaching portfolio for the fall semester.

Filed under: Issue 3 by Julie Zaebst

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