The experiential learning of Policy Labs offers ways for students to make a difference during the pandemic while honing instincts they will use in the long term.

Classroom problem sets, a critical part of the University of Chicago Harris Public Policy core curriculum, tend to be tidy: The data perfect, the facts clear, and the methodology just right for the policy quandary on the table.

On the ground, of course, policy work is messier and more complex.

Harris Policy Labs is the bridge between theory and practice, taking students from the classroom to provide actual consulting work for real clients based in Chicago or around the world.

Carol Brown, headshot
Policy Labs Executive Director Carol Brown

“There is no such thing as ‘perfect’ in the real world and we want our students prepared for that,’’ says Carol Brown, Executive Director of Harris Policy Labs, which launched five years ago to fill that real-world gap in the Harris curriculum.

In Policy Labs, teams of Harris students take on specific policy challenges for government and nonprofit clients – researching, analyzing, and presenting solution-oriented recommendations. Beyond putting into play skills learned in first-year Harris classes, students must navigate team dynamics, client communication, and other complexities.

“They face ambiguity of all kinds, including perhaps seeing imperfect data for the first time, or a client who may not be certain what they need,’’ said Brown, who joined Harris after a career as a public policy professional, including serving as Policy Chief in the administration of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“There is no such thing as ‘perfect’ in the real world and we want our students prepared for that." - Carol Brown

Brown oversees the program together with Academic Director and Senior Lecturer Paula Worthington, who has taught at Harris for more than a decade and previously led practicum courses, a precursor to Policy Labs.

The pandemic era brings even greater relevance to a program that has grown each year in scope and popularity, Brown said.

Learning to collaborate and communicate remotely is newly important in the job market.

“Communication, teamwork, client engagement, presenting policy recommendations to a CEO or mayor or commissioner – these are experiences and skills that employers value, and now they are playing out in new formats,’’ Brown said.

Students found that even in a remote learning environment, Policy Labs provide valuable experience that is enjoyably different from other Harris courses.

Borui Sun, headshot
Borui Sun, MPP’20

Team meetings, interviews with experts, and client check-ins were a bit of a break from typical Zoom classes, said Borui Sun, MPP’20, who was on a team of six when COVID-19 forced a quick pivot to remote learning in Spring Quarter.

Projects are ambitious and complex, often ending up as the most challenging and memorable part of students’ time at Harris.

That certainly was the case for Sun, whose client was Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian aid organization. 

Confident in her data programming skills, Sun was nonetheless daunted by oceans of data from many sources and in many formats.

Mercy Corps wanted to understand why certain kinds of interventions and investments in governance have potential to reduce the impact of climate change on conflict and instability.

Sun and her teammates spent many hours wrangling and cleaning data, judging what was valuable or not, changing parameters, and consulting among themselves and with faculty advisor Rebecca Wolfe. Sun even created an app to help her clients visualize the results.

“It really pushed me to apply all of the skills I’ve learned, to look back over my whole academic life for clues on how to approach this,’’ said Sun, who now works for The World Bank and intends one day to pursue a Ph.D.

Javier Patiño García, MPP’20, found his Policy Lab work for +Peace no less complicated or challenging, and in the end successful for teammates and the organization.

+Peace (pronounced “plus-peace”) is an international coalition of 20 peace-building organizations. The Policy Labs project set out to evaluate success of national-level peace infrastructures and policies, potentially to help +Peace advocate for national peace policies in countries that don’t have them.

Working remotely, his team ultimately applied a modified difference-in-differences model to a data set that included 12 control countries and seven treatment countries. They evaluated the effectiveness of the policies based on five outcomes, such as rate of battle deaths and the Fragile States Index.

Beyond putting into play skills learned in first-year Harris classes, students in Policy Labs must navigate team dynamics, client communication, and other complexities.

“It was new for us to create this model. In the classroom, they give you a data set and you apply the model. But here we needed to clean the data set, apply the data set, merge the data set,” Patiño García said.

“The hardest part for me was to identify outcomes that would be interesting to the client. Our team was determined to make this useful for the client,’’ he said.

At first the model did not provide useful results. “We had to figure out why. Professor Wolfe advised us, and we did more digging in detail with data and explored more specific actions of the model and why it wasn’t not working.’’

“That is what you face in reality,’’ he said.

An experienced policy professional, Patiño García worked in a national security position for the President of Mexico.

“It didn’t matter that I had a lot of experience already: Policy Lab was really useful,’’ he said.

Allison Flanagan, headshot
Allison Flanagan, MPP'19

For Allison Flanagan, MPP’19, the benefits of Policy Labs became even more apparent after graduating. It provided her first real-world experience in policy – and also led directly to her first job in the field.

Flanagan worked for six years as a teacher before deciding to change to a career in public policy. She knew she would leave Harris with an impressive credential, robust quantitative skills, and fluency in policy analysis – but no job experience in policy.

She leveraged the Policy Labs experience to fill that gap.

Flanagan’s Policy Labs client was Advance Illinois, an education policy and advocacy organization. Working to unpack Illinois’ funding formula for community colleges, Flanagan reached out to experts as part of her research.

One person was Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a think tank that designs evidence-based and fiscally responsible policy reform initiatives to promote social and economic justice. Now on staff at CTBA, Flanagan works on a range of issues, including those she and the Policy Lab team tackled for Advance Illinois.

Flanagan believes she landed the job because Martire especially appreciated the full range of Policy Labs experience she was able to offer – scoping and sequencing a project, research, writing, and presenting to the client organization.

“Policy Labs was the highlight of every job interview – people just wanted to hear about our Advance Illinois work,’’ she said.

Harris Policy Labs is the bridge between theory and practice, taking students from the classroom to provide actual consulting work for real clients based in Chicago or around the world.

Now more than one year out of Harris, Flanagan is looking for an opportunity to engage Harris Policy Labs students to assist with a CTBA project.

Brown sees that circle completed more all the time.

“Many Harris alumni end up working for leading institutions in Chicago and around the world. Often alums who participated in Policy Labs while students come back and ask to be Policy Labs clients,’’ Brown said.  “They understand the value of the Harris skill set and they understand what quantitative analysis brings to solving policy problems.’’