Policy-in-action consultancy has mutual benefits

When planning a Policy-in-Action Consultancy at the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy, where she is associate director, Hilary McConnaughey MPP'13 mined her own experience for “lessons learned.” She describes the fellowship she completed as a master of public policy student as “a valuable part of my real-world exposure and an opportunity to apply everything I’d been learning,” she says. “It made me that much more prepared for the jobs I applied to. There’s really something to be said for taking your learning out of the classroom and putting it into practice.”

Instead of a “siloed” experience, where an intern is given research to do and a report to write, McConnaughey wanted to be sure to create an “integrated” consultancy, one that would offer broad engagement and benefit both the consultant — in this case Hannah Guevara MPA ’21 — and the Center.

“Hannah was a truly substantive contributor,” McConnaughey says. “She didn’t just sit in the back. She led generative discussions with working groups within our team, shared her insights with others on the team and got real-time feedback, and then turned those insights into methodology guides and other assets.”

“We had constant check-ins and our working group met almost every week, so I was connected to lots of people within the organization, which was really nice,” Guevara says. The measurement evaluation and learning system she created will help the Center evaluate its impact in the field of philanthropy. 

According to Guevara, the data analysis, program analysis, performance management, and statistics she had learned over the summer and fall were especially helpful in preparing her to “build something from the ground up.” The memo-writing classes, she adds, taught her to “unpack the larger questions about what is important to measure and how, creating criteria at the outset.” 

“The consultancy was very much a collaboration on a two-way street,” McConnaughey says. 

Soon there will be more of a good thing. Starting in academic year 2021-2022, the Policy-in-Action consultancy will expand from a six-week to a semester-long experience, from January to May. “This will enable students to take on even more-substantial projects than they already are,” according to Olivia Whalen, associate director of the MPA Program. And a yet-to-be-hired professor of the practice will manage the consultancy and is likely to expand the number of consultancy sites, she says. 

“Alumni engagement is vital to the continued success of the MPA program and the consultancy,” says Benjamin Chalot, associate director of the MPA Career Services and Alumni Affairs. “Each year, we are thrilled to include several MPP/MPA alumni as consultancy supervisors.  Our students benefit immensely from alumni expertise while delivering key value to the organizations where alumni work.”

Cindy Elder MPA’13 shares McConnaughey’s view of the consultancy as a win for both the MPA student and the organization she or he consults for. As chief of business development, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management/Parks and Recreation, Elder was responsible for launching a state park food truck program in the spring of 2020 — just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up. The job of Evan Davies MPA’21 was to assess that first season and figure out how to improve and expand the program for this year. 

“What made Evan such an excellent consultant was that he came to the table with an understanding of the governmental process,” Elder says. “He also brought key practical skills related to business research. All this – and his work ethic – enabled Evan to contribute to an important strategic planning goal for my department. The net effect is that he made me more effective in my job.” 

Davies, who chose the consultancy because he wanted to work in a government agency, says that if he was able to create surveys for food truck vendors and the public and turn the results into a strategic plan, it’s in part because “the MPA program helped me think about what kind of questions would be relevant from a policy perspective. Policy Analysis and Problem Solving and Politics of Policymaking in Comparative Perspective taught me a step-by-step approach to assessing problems and identifying possible solutions. And the elective Public Budgeting and Management taught me how state government works, from internal hierarchy to the budget process.” 

But it wasn’t just the academic preparation, Davies says, that made his consultancy a success. “I think that Cindy and I worked so well together in part because we both have gone through the MPA program. That gave us a common knowledge, language, and approach that made collaboration easy and natural.”