Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation Meets with Brown MPA Students

February 23, 2016

Speaking to a packed house at the Watson Institute, Jim Morone, director of the Brown Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program, introduced David Wilkinson, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation by saying, “Change the World may be our motto, but here’s a man who’s actually doing it. A man using data to change policy and improve our nation.”

If one motto can encapsulate the inaugural year of Brown’s one-year MPA program, it is “Change the World,” and this event highlighted the opportunities Brown MPA’s have to live out this motto in their studies and careers.

Wilkinson applauded the students for their commitment to public policy and to finding new ways to address our country’s challenges. “We’re policy wonks,” he said enthusiastically, before framing the often challenging environment facing these future policy makers. “In a battle between politics and policy, politics too often wins. So how do we make policy win?”.

Wilkinson was frank in discussing the uphill battle it can be to change policies and programs in our nation’s Capitol, but he also highlighted what is working. He called out many of President Obama’s economic accomplishments: reducing the deficit, lowering unemployment and adding jobs, and, of course, praised the President for creating the Office of Social Innovation.

Wilkinson plays a significant role in White House efforts to identify and scale better, more effective social solutions, advancing Presidential priorities that strengthen communities and enable upward economic mobility. At the Office of Social Innovation, this involves identifying programs that work better through analyzing data and evidence as well as scaling what works through smarter use of federal resources and public-private partnerships.

His words on that process rang especially true for the MPA students in the evidence-driven, policy specialization led by economist Justine Hastings. Focusing on economics and data science, these students are gaining the ideas and skills necessary to impact and improve policy in an increasingly data-and-research driven world. Prior to his public talk at the Watson Institute, nearly a dozen students pursuing that specialization, and working at the Rhode Island Innovation Policy Lab (RIIPL) during their 12-week MPA consultancy, had the opportunity to sit down with Wilkinson. They shared with Wilkinson their current work using evidence-based policy analysis.  

The students impressed upon Wilkinson the significant and innovative work being done in Rhode Island, an initiative supported by Governor Gina Raimondo. From efforts to improve early childhood education to supporting new moms, the students are helping to pave a new way to conduct policy analysis and program development in the state. Throughout their work, evidence-based, research-driven policy approaches are emphasized so that what is learned in Rhode Island can be brought to scale, influencing policy decisions nationally.

Wilkinson’s message to the students is a reminder to anyone looking to create change. Moving the needle on policy priorities from education and job growth to economic development and healthy communities, requires spending smarter rather than spending more. Here at Brown, future policy makers are gaining the knowledge and skills they’ll need to use evidence-based policy analysis to put effective solutions in place – and change the world.