I Have to Ask: Creating a Policy Lab

I Have to Ask: Creating a Policy Lab

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Ben Clark, Associate Professor of Public Administration at the University of Oregon, writes about the potential of a Lane County-PPPM Policy Lab. For more info, read the policy lab report by Katie Fields, Keith Frazee, Darian Lightfoot, and Grace Park.


In recent years I’ve see a number of cities and universities experimenting with Policy Labs. These labs were created to foster innovation through the application of experimental approaches more commonly associated with scientific methodologies in order to test and measure the efficacy of various public and social policies. They are introducing experimental design, pilot projects, and the quick testing and evaluating of programs and policies. Often the Policy Labs are seen as a great way to align the goals of both organizations—helping governments to innovate and improve service delivery and creating opportunities for students and faculty to be engaged in their communities.

At my institution, the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon, the masters programs are engaged in applied client-based work and have been doing this for years. We have even created something the New York Times called, in our Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP), “perhaps the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. university to infuse sustainability into its curricula and community outreach.” SCYP throws all the talents and expertise of the university at a community for a year. (A comprehensive look at what this has turned into globally can be found at: http://www.epicn.org/.) As I learned about the success of the university engaging fully for a year with a local government, I wanted to find a way to do this on a smaller scale, but for a longer period of time. The Lane County-PPPM Policy Lab is the result of that hope of mine.

Since starting our lab in the Fall of 2018, these are some of the lessons for a successful Policy Lab I’ve learned so far:

  • Be ambitious but realistic. I say ambitious because we can do amazing work and create new approaches that are evidence based. But also, we need to be realistic that in all of these projects we are likely just on the leading edge of what these projects will become. That means it is important to design projects that are able to be completed in the time you have allotted for them (a semester or quarter, for example). We are starting small, taking thoughtful steps in the partnership. Our first year of partnership was kept intentionally narrow. All projects were connected to two classes (both happen to be classes I teach). Year two is likely to have at least twice as many projects and expand in to classes that I don’t teach.
  • Plan ahead. The projects that are more prepped had more success in meeting our partner’s need and resulted in a more positive learning experience for the students. In planning for year two of the Lab we are now in the process of designating all the projects we’d like to get done in the next fiscal year, before that fiscal year starts on July 1. That means we can get data collected, we can get projects scoped, we can get staff briefed ahead of the launch of each project.
  • Buy-in. When duties are assigned to people that haven’t bought into the idea, success is hard. This is also important when working on Policy Lab projects. Labs can be given politically thorny tasks that staff may be leery of from the get go. A Lab may be a great place to provide objectivity to work that if done internally would be challenged, but it may also put students and faculty in sticky positions within a bureaucracy they don’t fully understand as outsiders. Getting staff buy-in and input early will lead to a more successful outcome.
  • Everyone’s got to have skin in the game. I know my Lane County partners are fully invested in this Lab because managers at the highest level are devoting resources to the lab. Some of these resources are financial, as we have a three-year agreement between the university and Lane County in place. This financial “skin” gives the lab a constant source of funding and provides stability to what we are working on. It takes a lot of effort on both sides to be innovative at times, so consequently knowing that my partners are in this for the long-term makes the investments the university is putting behind the lab well worth the effort. The skin in the game also needs to include staff time. A Policy Lab requires attention on both sides because it won’t work if we just ‘set it and forget it’ (we’re not roasting chicken here).
  • Proximity matters. I have office space in the Lane County headquarters building for my students to use and for me (I work from there one day a week). Embedding us physically helps to create the rapport and trust that I have seen as critical in getting things off the ground. My campus office and my local government office are a little more than a mile away from each other, but the gulf between the two might as well be 100 if I’m not on-site regularly.      
  • Cross-cultural communication. Academics, particularly those of us at research universities, speak in an academic language that is hard to understand. I can talk endlessly about my research methodology that immediately puts a distance between me and many in local governments. I can speak dispassionately about how a statistical test we just rant shows a statistically significant difference between policy A and policy B but that the practical difference is effectively zero, for example. The academic in me gets it, but the former local government employee in me (and my government partners) knows that the local paper or fringe group will latch onto something that, while technically accurate, completely misrepresents what is happening. That doesn’t build trust and faith in the outcomes.  
  • We are developing human capital galore. Providing opportunities to work in the Policy Lab doesn’t just help the government partner solve a problem, it helps to build the next generation of leaders. This means that the government and the students are both stakeholders in the lab. They are learning what both sides (university and partner government) do and how to navigate this. I know part of our motivation in developing the Policy Lab was to try and get more people to see local government as more than a viable career option, but as one that they actually want to pursue.
  • The outcomes can be phenomenal. The work on these projects are primary done by students. Which might make some discount the quality because they are just “students.” However, the students are not only recently trained in the state-of-the-art in quantitative and qualitative methods (meaning they still remember how to do this stuff), they are also guided over the bumps in the road by faculty throughout the projects. Some comments I’ve received from clients on our student work over the last year include: “That was the best presentation on the topic I’ve seen. Ever.”; “That was amazing work, can you come back and testify to the legislature?”; or “your work is going to shape policy.” Clearly, I’m cherry picking the best comments, but they are here to illustrate a point that students in a Policy Lab-like setting can outperform your high-priced consultants.

Leveraging the intellectual and human capital power of the University of Oregon shouldn’t have to stop with one agreement between two organizations. Consequently, Policy Lab concept is not being envisioned as a one-off experiment, but rather we hope to be able to leverage our capacity to solve problems many communities are experiencing across the region. So, feel free to reach out if you think you might want to partner with us. Or if you just want to share your experiences with your lab or community, our students are going to continue next year to explore what makes Policy Labs successful.


Supplemental Reading