MPA capstones showcase innovative design of public-sector solutions
By Matthew Kredell
Bridging theory and practice, Master of Public Administration students at the USC Price School of Public Policy completed their degrees this past spring with capstone projects exploring such topics as augmented reality technology in emergency management, electricity provisions in Maui and short-term rental regulations.
Required for completion of the MPA degree at USC Price, capstones integrate the core knowledge, skills and values students acquired through their coursework with semester-long group projects working with clients from nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
Advancing service delivery through technology
Winning the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation Recognition Award, which recognizes the Price School’s most outstanding MPA capstone project, was an examination of how augmented reality – or the overlay of digital information in a real-time environment – could impact the areas of emergency management, police, fire, EMS and disaster recovery. The team consisted of students Wai Shong Chan, Justin Padua, Ryan Ray and Jonathan Westendorf.
Bolstered by Westendorf’s connections in the field as Chief of Fire and EMS for the small City of Franklin, Ohio, the group interviewed more than 20 high-level emergency management personnel – including the Fire Chief of Cincinnati and Police Chief of Detroit – in detail about how technology can move forward emergency management services.
Recommendations included developing a hands-free display for emergency operations, engaging in augmented reality enabled geo-location to improve search-and-rescue efforts, and merging data collection with existing technology to expand augmented reality in the emergency management sector.
“We put together a project we think is going to make a real difference,” Westendorf said. “What I loved most about this program and this project was meeting people from different public service backgrounds who are dedicated to making a positive difference in this world, and aren’t just in it because they’re looking to graduate.”
The team also won a Price Annual Student Exhibition Award for best PowerPoint presentation for their work, which included a three-minute video.
“They had everything else finished and could have turned in their work and been done, but they asked me if they could do this movie,” said Professor Dora Kingsley Vertenten, the group’s faculty advisor. “It was not required or even suggested. They came up with it on their own, and it really made their presentation stand out.”
Analyzing municipal utility in Maui
The honorable mention for the Haynes Award went to a team that looked at the advantages and disadvantages for Maui, Hawaii, to change the way utilities are provided to the island. Both the winning group and the honorable mention for the Haynes Award came from Price’s online MPA program; it was the second time in three years that the online program swept the Haynes recognition.
Maui currently ships in all energy but is considering entering a cooperative model or creating its own municipal utility. The team of Natalia Aguirre, Heidi Aten, Sarah Bartlett and Steven Hernandez analyzed other cases of municipalities changing the means by which they provided energy, and how it affected energy costs.
The students urged caution, finding that even though having a municipal utility provides more political control, it doesn’t necessarily translate to lower prices and that the conversion process can be politically charged, expensive and involve legal issues.
“I thought what they gave the client that was really useful was a road map to taking that step,” said Associate Professor Juliet Musso, who advised the group. “They put together an information campaign, helping them get through the different considerations they would need to work through from a policy management perspective.”
Recommendations included acquiring part of a private utility rather than an entire utility, and hiring a consultant to get through the political process.
“While some members of our team worked in municipal government, none had experience with power utilities,” Bartlett said. “We were undaunted by the complexity, though, because two years of prior coursework had taught us to expertly review the literature on virtually any subject and quickly synthesize seminal research.”
Approaches to regulating short-term rentals
Another capstone focusing on the timely topic of regulation of short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, earned rave reviews from Assistant City Manager Mike Webb of Davis, Calif. — a 2004 alumnus of Price’s Sacramento MPA program.
“Without question the final product will be a document that we utilize to help shape local policy moving forward,” Webb said. “Our community and City Council will be thoroughly impressed with this report. The depth of policy analysis and research is on par with what we would expect from a professional paid consultant.”
The team of Olivia Cao, Brian Christison, Melissa Kalbarczyk and Donald Neuss created a well-formatted briefer that won one of the Price School’s exhibit awards. They tackled the issue of short-term rental proliferation, and the contentiousness it causes with hotel owners, by mapping out where actual rentals were in the city. They found that most rentals were hosted, with owners renting out a room in their houses, and that they were spread throughout the city.
Still, the students recommended that the city collect transient occupancy taxes from short-term rental renters to put them on an even playing field with the hotel industry and limit the number of days they can have non-hosted rentals.
“There’s a tendency for everyone to make these sky-is-falling claims, but the students were able to get and show data that, at least at present, it’s not really a problem,” Musso said. “It’s an interesting topic, and very timely because you’re hearing these same complaints across the country from many different towns.”