Course spotlight: the politics of policymaking in comparative perspective

Although the novel COVID-19 virus has wreaked havoc worldwide, with enormous losses of life and widespread economic instability, it has led to more creative problem-solving than ever before. 

 Early on, Watson Institute Research Professor J. Nicholas Ziegler realized that, “despite its threats, the pandemic represented a perfect example of comparative research design for public policy, as the same challenges were affecting countries around the world.” He therefore sought to engage students at several levels in his effort to develop a new and highly relevant teaching case for his required MPA Fall course, “The Politics of Policymaking in Comparative Perspective.” 

During this past summer, Ziegler developed the teaching case, “Controlling a Novel Pandemic,” with Benjamin Bradlow, then a Ph.D. student in sociology, and with several other students’ research contributions. Students’ research was funded by the Watson Institute and Brown’s SPRINT Awards (Short-term Projects for Research Internships and Teaching), created when the pandemic forced the cancellations of traditional summer research opportunities for undergraduates. 

To prepare the MPA students’ teaching case, four undergraduates and one graduate student conducted in-depth research last summer on the virus itself and on how several “outlier” countries managed the pandemic. This research gave Cynthia Bo Huen Ng ’21 International Relations, the opportunity “to look behind the headlines to understand how [countries] are responding to COVID-19… and to apply the expertise of public affairs.” Having read that public trust in government was a good indicator of a nation’s response to the pandemic, Ng – who studied South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong – said, “It was interesting to see that the pro-democracy protests that began in 2019 reflected friction between the public and Hong Kong’s government institutions, but there was trust in scientific knowledge, and the government had enlisted support from scientists and doctors.” 

With very little political science coursework, applying his economic knowledge to the pandemic appealed to Berke Türkay ’21 Applied Mathematics and Economics. “Brazil’s response was not so successful… early on, their testing policies were way behind World Health Organization guidelines,” he said. “It’s important to study the countries that were successful, but also to see what to avoid and [assess] how things could go wrong.” 

Having experienced past pandemics – MERS and SARS, respectively – South Korea and Hong Kong had developed robust government institutions and policies to address such crises, said Ng. “The research I’ve done has revealed the importance of government institutions and well-thought-out strategies [to respond to the pandemic].” 

In addition to Ng and Türkay, Sophie Xu ’21 International Relations and Applied Mathematics, Osayuwamen Ede-Osifo ’22 International and Public Affairs, and James Morden, studying for a joint degree from Brown University’s Master of Public Administration-School of Public Health program, contributed research for this teaching case. Now, Ng, Türkay, and Xu are continuing their research through a Group Independent Study Project (GISP) in Watson’s IR program, with Ziegler. 

Late in the fall semester, small groups of MPA students evaluated the teaching case as well as additional resource materials in order to develop independent analyses and policy recommendations for managing future waves of this pandemic or other future pandemics. After researching a designated country’s actual responses to the pandemic, each group summarized – in a simulated exercise – their recommendations to their designated country’s most senior health officials, through a 15-minute video and 200-word executive summary.

The teaching case evaluated – across several diverse countries – preparation, lockdown decisions, economic actions, and public health measures. It also summarized the virus’ origins and early responses, China’s hard lockdown, South Korea’s highly successful testing and contract tracing, Rwanda’s social connectedness and cooperation, and South Africa’s public leadership challenge. 

“We were very fact-based in our comparisons among countries,” said Ziegler. “What those facts mean for policy was what we want to figure out.” MPA student groups were required to assess the pros and cons of prioritizing linked goals – economic vitality and public health, for example – and to then recommend a specific course of action. “None of these policy choices were easy and none came without real costs or disadvantages,” he said. 

“This teaching case was designed to bring the principles of good policy-making to focus on the most pressing worldwide policy problem we now have,” Ziegler added. “It combined the issue of a country’s unique characteristics with all the problems of a challenge that can’t be contained within a single country’s boundaries.” 

View one MPA group’s policy analysis on the Vietnamese response on YouTube.