Oregon State Capital (Public Domain)

A Realistic View on Effecting Change

September 26, 2017

For three years I taught 5th grade in New Orleans, where I met a child I will always remember—we can call him Edward. One evening, Edward raced through his detention reflection assignment so that he could get home to dinner before his brothers took his portion for themselves. His mom was at work, so returning home late meant he would go hungry. That night, my short term solution was some chicken nuggets for him from McDonald’s; my long-term solution was entering public service. Of course, I naively figured that all I needed to improve Edward’s situation was a Master’s Degree, some statistics, and some policy-writing skills. These tools, undoubtedly, are a valuable start, but I’ve since realized they are only half the battle.

I came to this realization during my time at the Oregon Department of Education this past summer. I had previously stated that I “want to work in a state department of education … because the federal DOE is too high up that it does not have the direct impact that I like … and a local school district does not have enough of an impact.” The state level seemed like the natural choice to me; plus, what better way to effect change in schools than with the actual entity that dictates policies for them?

Thus, I began my time in Oregon, equipped with an understanding of hard skills like statistics and an ideal that drove me to public service. Three months of attending meetings, interviewing stakeholders across the state, conducting research, and writing reports, I have come to learn three things:

  1. Widespread change does not happen overnight, with one bill, or one policy. At the Oregon DOE, we spent the summer holding meetings for policies and bills that would not be introduced to the state legislature until the 2019 session—TWO YEARS from now. Policy moves slow; it requires significant planning beforehand, and this does not even include the implementation afterward, which could take even more time.

  2. Even when widespread change does happen, those initiatives are often replaced shortly after by something new. In many of my stakeholder interviews this summer, there was a recurring theme of fatigue. Superintendents and principals were wary to express excitement over a recently passed bill that appeared very promising—because they had been through the motions before. Idea is proposed, bill is passed, bill becomes law, law is implemented...but then scrapped and replaced by something new when the intended results are not produced immediately, if at all.

  3. Policies are not and cannot be designed solely by high-level government officials and department heads. Instead, they require buy-in from many other public and private entities. This point may seem particularly obvious to seasoned policymakers, but I previously assumed that a state DOE would have significant autonomy to create and implement bills as necessary. Instead, work-groups always consisted of members representing different departments, schools, districts, universities, teachers unions, and even foundations. While governments theoretically could create and pass policies in a more independent fashion, these would most likely fail without the necessary buy-in or consensus from those outside entities.

Because of the above—in addition to the more tangible hard skills—public servants must also have some important soft traits. First, they not only must be strong planners but also be comfortable with delayed gratification, because policy takes time to create and carry out. Second, they must be adaptive and ready to take on new initiatives, because laws and policies are fluid and change according to the times. Finally, they must be strong at building relationships and consensus with public and private entities alike, because no one person or organization can affect significant change on their own.

I am not more cynical now about public service, but more realistic. These lessons do not mean that my skills are futile, or that change is impossible for Edward and his family. It just means I will have to be a bit more diligent—and a bit more patient—than I originally realized.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu