From LA to DC to Mexico City, student projects help solve policy challenges

June 18, 2015

By Cristy Lytal

By engaging in year-long Policy Analysis Practicum projects, Master of Public Policy students are trained to conduct sound and thorough analysis for high-profile clients from government agencies, educational organizations, nonprofits and the private sector — “and in doing so, they discover that their work makes a difference,” explains USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Dan Mazmanian.

This year, in particular, the students were able to make a difference that resonated locally, nationally and globally.

For each practicum project, students worked in small teams and served as consultants addressing key policy challenges. Students worked with national and global clients including the U.S Congressional Research Service in Washington D.C., the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the United Nations Division of Public Administration and Development Management, Mexico-based think tank Fundar and ProCDMX, a Mexico City urban development advocacy group.

Students also worked with clients from L.A. and across the state that included the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, the California School Finance Authority, the California Senate Advisory Commission on Cost Control in State Government, The City Project, Civic Resource Group, the Council for Watershed Health, Innovate Public Schools, the Presidio Trust Group, Price Philanthropies and the Copley-Price Family YMCA, and the Youth Policy Institute.

“What sets apart USC Price’s practicum program from any other in the country is not only the exceptional quality of student work but also the diverse range of projects for very high-level clients,” said Professor Gary Painter, director of graduate programs in public policy, who co-teaches the course with Mazmanian.

Delivering professional-quality policy analysis to these clients enabled the students to see the real-world impact of their work.

Conducting Congressional research

Students Arthur Bray-Simons III, Lingchao Chen, Timothy Copeland, Alexander Visotzky and Yingying (Yolanda) Zhu prepared a report titled, “Homeownership’s role in retirement income security: An analysis of the Survey of Consumer Finances 2004–2013,” for their client, the Congressional Research Service. (Photo by Robert Stevens)

One group of students made a difference at the national level, providing solid research about the role of homeownership and home equity in securing retirement income, for their client the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

By analyzing data from 2004 to 2014, the students found that many people possess very little wealth in their retirement accounts, but maintain home equity as a potential source of retirement income. Therefore, the students recommended policies that promote the ability to extract home equity — such as allowing greater flexibility in loan modifications and offering targeted assistance with closing costs.

“I very much enjoyed working with the Price School students,” said John J. Topoleski, analyst in income security in the Income Security Section of the Domestic Social Policy Division of CRS. “They became engaged with a challenging but important research topic and provided interesting and useful analysis. Their work will help inform Congressional staff and policymakers at the highest levels to understand how to best ensure that Americans have adequate resources with which to enjoy their retirements.”

As a result of this experience, student Arthur Bray-Simons III felt inspired to explore consulting opportunities in Washington, D.C.

“Working on the CRS project motivated me to explore consulting for the federal government, and it turns out that I will start working in this capacity in the fall for Deloitte’s federal practice,” Bray-Simons said.

“During our presentation in D.C., I was able to meet several USC alums who I will be in touch with when I move to D.C.,” he added

Improving health at public schools

Students Gabrielle Green, Jordan Henry and Jenny Power prepared a report titled, “Physical fitness disparities in California school districts,” for their client, The City Project. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Another student group contributed at the state level by analyzing physical education and physical fitness in almost 900 California public school districts for their client The City Project.

The students found a lower passing rate on the standardized fitness test in districts with a higher percentage of minorities, more free or reduced price meals, and lower academic performance index scores. However, non-compliance with California Department of Education physical education law did not seem to correlate strongly with lower passing rates.

“It was a great opportunity to apply the quantitative skillset that we learned in the MPP program,” said student Jenny Power. “Working for a client… helped ensure that our output was grounded in real-world applicability. And it was gratifying to have a client who was so keenly interested in using our final product to further inform their work.”

Informing Mexico City’s development

Other student groups went beyond U.S. borders to provide valuable analysis to policymakers in Mexico City. One student group did a study of so-called “innovation districts” to inform Mexico City’s emerging Parque de Innovación CDMX Project.

Cropping up everywhere from Boston to Barcelona and from Seattle to Seoul, innovation districts are high-density urban areas designed to encourage business development by attracting a concentration of companies, universities, startups, incubators, public sector entities, researchers and community groups.

To promote the success of Mexico City’s innovation district, the students recommended the creation of a community business incubator, urban labs, micro housing, a bicycle share program and the designation of public spaces for murals and street art.

“Working with a client outside the United States was a very good experience for me, and I could say the same for the rest of my group,” said student Jason Patrick Douglas. “We really learned a lot about international business development and how to make people more aware of community development issues.”

Simón Levy Dabbah, director general of ProCDMX, said that he, in turn, learned a great deal from the students.

“Their interest in our Parque de Innovación CDMX project was very motivating, and gave us the opportunity to receive very important feedback from a group of unbiased people with quite a good deal of expertise on the subject matter,” said Levy Dabbah. “They are now part of our Parque de Innovación CDMX project and of a better Mexico City.”

Promoting civic participation

Students Adam Lane, Bryan Maekawa, Manuel Ruíz and Ricardo Vázquez prepared a report titled, “Best practices for civilian advisory boards in Mexico,” for their client, Fundar. (Photo by Linda Peacore)

A second student group worked with the Mexico City-based client Fundar. The group made recommendations about increasing the effectiveness of the civilian advisory board that serves as a public space for civil society to engage with the National Migration Institute on important issues.

“After several months of virtual meetings, writing and reviewing of documents and one intensive week of interviewing stakeholders, the students, two of the four bilingual, were able to deliver a report that includes a set of practical recommendations,” said José Knippen, Fundar’s migration project manager. “The findings and recommendations of the report give Fundar strong arguments to push for certain changes in the board that will allow for more effective citizen participation and more transparent migration policy.”

In tackling this complex issue, student Ricardo Vázquez and his colleagues drew from lessons learned from USC Price’s Public Policy Formulation and Implementation class, taught by Professor Juliet Musso.

“That class was all about understanding different stakeholders, understanding the policy and political context that goes behind making a change,” Vázquez said.

“We had a really effective group, and we all became close friends, especially during our trip to Mexico,” he added. “We worked very collaboratively.”

Spurring economic development

Other student groups emphasized the extreme professionalism of their teams.

“I enjoyed working with my teammates and was grateful to be working with people who were driven and competent to produce a solid deliverable for our client,” said student Francine Tran, whose group produced a study for the California Foundation for Commerce and Education.

The group explored cities’ options for spurring economic development following the 2012 dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies. The students offered concrete policy recommendations to help cities improve infrastructure, attract private investment and build affordable housing.

For example, the students suggested establishing a state consulting organization to help underserved and small cities acquire grants and other financing, and enacting a real estate transaction fee to fund affordable housing.

“The MPP practicum provided original and compelling research and insight on a highly relevant policy issue: financing local economic development in a post-redevelopment era,” said Foundation president Loren Kaye. “The report has helped advance the debate and deepen understanding on this issue.”

Discovering professional opportunities

Students Emily Ghan, Brett Shears, Breanna Vergess and Mu Yao prepared a report titled, “Defining digital cities: How technology is changing the future of civic environment,” for their client, Civic Resource Group. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

For one group, the practicum made a big difference not only in the broader policy conversation, but also in the students’ personal post-graduation plans. Students Emily Ghan, Brett Shears, Breanna Vergess and Mu Yao delivered an impressive final presentation to their client Civic Resource Group (CRG), which provides digital support to public sector organizations, helping them stay better connected to the constituencies they serve.

“The skills we learned in class – professional writing, research design and quantitative analysis – all helped us create our final product,” Ghan said.

The final product included both an analysis of how technology can improve government and civic engagement, and a suite of usable tools. The students developed a web and mobile mapping application that displays which California cities have embraced digital advances such as open data, mobile technology, cloud-based and shared services, or public Wi-Fi. They also created an online quiz allowing cities to evaluate their own levels of digital advancement and learn how CRG can take them to the next level.

“On the spot, my COO said, ‘I’d like to see all four of your resumes. This is excellent, one of the best presentations. I’d like you all to consider working for us,’ ” said Gregory G. Curtin, the company’s CEO and founder.

Ghan, Vergess and Yao pursued the opportunity.

“Three of us will begin to work with them this summer, each in a slightly different capacity, unique to our professional experience and skillset,” said Ghan. “This experience greatly assisted our career goals.”

The 2015 MPP practicum projects were:

“Moving past redevelopment: A study of economic and community development tools for California’s cities”
Client: California Foundation for Commerce and Education
Students: Nathan Damodaran, Francine Tran, Eric Warren and Xiyao Yang

“Evaluation of the charter school facility grant program (SB740)”
Client: California School Finance Authority
Students: Megan Baaske, Matthew González, Thai Viet Phan, and Ziqing Wen

“Use of telecommunication systems in state government as an efficiency tool”
Client: California Senate Advisory Commission on Cost Control in State Government
Students: Lily Zhu, Previn Witana, Ricky Wen and Xiaoyu Zhu

“Physical fitness disparities in California school districts”
Client: The City Project
Students: Gabrielle Green, Jordan Henry and Jenny Power

“Defining digital cities: How technology is changing the future of civic environment”
Client: Civic Resource Group
Students: Emily Ghan, Brett Shears, Breanna Vergess and Mu Yao

“Homeownership’s role in retirement income security: An analysis of the Survey of Consumer Finances 2004–2013”
Client: Congressional Research Service
Students: Arthur Bray-Simons III, Lingchao Chen, Timothy Copeland, Alexander Visotzky and Yingying (Yolanda) Zhu

“Assessing the value of the Elmer Avenue neighborhood retrofit project”
Client: Council for Watershed Health
Students: Lindsey Estes, Leah Myhre, Alan Wang and Yinan Wang

“Best practices for civilian advisory boards in Mexico”
Client: Fundar
Students: Adam Lane, Bryan Maekawa, Manuel Ruíz and Ricardo Vázquez

“Investing in low-income and English learner student achievement: Analysis of local control funding allocations in Silicon Valley”
Client: Innovate Public Schools
Students: Ifeanyi Ihenacho, Heddy Nam, Anthony Santana and Rebecca Velasco

“Democratizing the Presidio: Recommendations for Increasing Visitor Diversity at the Presidio of San Francisco”
Client: Presidio Trust Group
Students: Angie Jean-Marie, Chelsea Mottern, Kailyn FitzGerald and Tracey Awad

“A baseline assessment of community representation and health indicators with focus on the communities of City Heights, Kensington and Talmadge”
Client: Price Philanthropies/Copley-Price Family YMCA
Students: Erica Bangerter, Daniel Hanaya, Stephanie Hedt and Jianhui Xu

“Innovation’s crucible: Exploring lessons, strategies and ideas from innovation districts for Mexico City’s CDMX project”
Client: ProCDMX
Students: Brandon De Bruhl, Jason Patrick Douglas, Kenia Garcia and Jeremy Loudenback

“Collective impact: An adapted framework for public administration and governance to promote sustainable development in least developed countries”
Client: United Nations: Division for Public Administration and Development Management
Students: Apple Xuefei Ji, Tania Fatima Reza, Christopher Robinson and Frances Teves

“MIA/POW recovery: Public-private partnerships as a tool for missing persons and recovery capacity”
Client: United States Government Accountability Office
Students: Peter Haderlein, Ziyue Yan and Paula Bramlett

“U.S. Mexico border trade facilitation”
Client: United States Government Accountability Office
Students: Christina Kang, Pedro Ruiz, June Liu and Tian Li

“Supporting and growing a neighborhood’s local economy: A study of small business for the Los Angeles choice neighborhood”
Client: Youth Policy Institute
Students: Bonnie Ho, Tianmin Li, Marjan Goudarzi and Yixue Chen