This year’s International Education Day, 24 January, occurs in the wake of a global pandemic that closed schools and universities worldwide, affecting 1.6 billion students in almost 200 countries — including some 120 Master’s students at UNU-MERIT in the Netherlands.
Against this difficult backdrop, we raised our game to another level by hosting an online conference with real-life policymakers. The overall aim was to make our Master’s programme more engaging, more real and more concrete, during a time of chronic isolation. Below we hear from course tutor Victor Osei Kwadwo, among others, on the value of training in public policy communication, especially in the context of an extended lockdown.
Master’s courses usually end with a final assignment, such as a written essay — except, that is, at UNU-MERIT. Each year, after submitting their academic essays, students apply theory to practice during a public policy ‘simulation’ game and a public policy conference. This year, our course instructors not only arranged that, but went one step further and organised an open discussion with policymakers on a real-world policy challenge, namely the city of Maastricht’s policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Out of the 120 final essays that we received for the public policy conference, we carefully considered the structure, the quality of the analysis, the arguments, the referencing, the language, and the style. After a careful selection process, we invited just three students to present their papers at the online conference. We also invited three other students to be discussants and matched them in a way that discussants and presenters came from the same geographical region in the world. Having some contextual knowledge allowed the discussants to ask more relevant clarification questions after the presentation and to better lead the discussion. Here’s what our tutors and students had to say about the event.
STAFF & STUDENTS
Course tutor Maria Tomai: It was gratifying to see how students applied the knowledge gained in the course, and how they used it to analyse and present a policy problem from their home country. I could see that the Problem-Based Learning approach that we adopted in the course tutorials helped them to develop their critical thinking skills. The quality of the presentations and the level of the discussions that followed were very high, with students bringing strong arguments to the table.
Presenter Lisa Färber: It was an honour for me to present my paper on a topic that I care about a lot. The fact that the presentation wasn’t graded took some pressure away and I was less nervous. I appreciated that so many people joined the conference to listen to our presentations. Speaking via zoom was both an advantage and a challenge: I liked having the total freedom to design my slides and decide what to focus on, but I would have preferred to speak in front of an audience and to interact with the participants.
Presenter Adriaan van Nieuwenhuizen: I took two main lessons from this experience. The first concerns my time management of the preparation for the presentation, but also during the presentation itself. I advise future presenters to time themselves at least once, and to start working on their presentation from the day they receive the invitation to present. The second lesson was learning how to keep an audience engaged through live video. When preparing the presentation, I tried to create as many visual diagrams as I could (timeline infographics, flowcharts, maps) to keep the presentation light and engaging. My advice to future students is to grasp the opportunity to participate with both hands!
Presenter Emily Olson (pictured above): The challenge is time. We were given only 10 minutes to describe a very intricate policy problem and present our recommendations. However, I know that we often have less time than that to convince people in the real world, so it was a great first step towards practice. I would advise next year’s students to prepare multiple questions regardless of the time allocated and then choose the most relevant ones to ask during the conference itself.
Discussant Ashley Bicker Caarten: I enjoyed the opportunity to critically engage with my peers and to discuss about policy challenges that exist in other parts of the world which I have not been exposed to before. I found it very stimulating that my lecturers wanted to hear my perspective on the policy issue that I had chosen. This gave me confidence in my abilities to analyse and discuss policy.
Discussant Niclas Becker: As a discussant, the biggest learning experience came from diving into a topic that I had not done much research on. I tried to take into account different fields of expertise and interests and come up with insightful questions that added value for everyone in the conference. Since I had never had the chance to be a discussant or moderator for a comparable event, this was a new and valuable experience. Public speaking is not a skill that we get the chance to practise very often in front of larger crowds. This event was a great opportunity to work on this skill and gain confidence in it.
Discussant André Costa Santos: I understand better how I function in this kind of situation and feel I can prepare myself better for it. It was also a great opportunity to improve my public speaking skills in an online setting. I find it challenging to give presentations in another language than my mother tongue because the moment I make a mistake, my confidence level drops very low. I realised however that people are not actually paying attention to tiny grammar details. Now I am more confident in my ability to communicate on complex issues in other languages.
Pandemic talks: From policy simulation to policy reality
The idea of an encounter with Maastricht policymakers emerged after playing the NASPAA pandemic simulation game in the classroom. This year we adapted the simulation game to COVID-19, and we found the students’ recommendations so pertinent that we approached policymakers in Maastricht to ask them if they were interested in hearing our students’ ideas. We also enquired if they would accept to assess the value and feasibility of the proposals from an implementation point of view.
To our surprise, not only did two policymakers agree to our request but also offered to share the city’s policy response to the COVID-19 emergency.
During the event, three groups of students presented their respective policy brief with policy recommendations deriving from the pandemic simulation game. The two policymakers from the city of Maastricht were Pascal Wauben, Urban Planner, and Renan Schulze, Project Leader for the Maastricht Citizens Budget.
On many aspects, the Maastricht policymakers recognised the interest and praised the relevance of the students’ recommendations. They added, however, that the reality in Maastricht and in the Netherlands would make some of the proposed measures difficult to achieve. In particular, the sometimes flexible Dutch attitude towards law enforcement known as “gedogen” was a cultural aspect that needed to be taken into consideration and that made the Netherlands different from its neighbouring countries of Germany or Belgium, for example.
That is what we expected to happen. We wanted students to realise that it’s easier to come up with policy recommendations than to implement them. Before wondering ‘Why isn’t everybody locking down?’, we need to understand that there are a lot of policies involved in configuring a lockdown situation and a lot of factors and constraints to be considered. The conversation with the policymakers in Maastricht taught our students that in public policy, one needs to be prepared for complexities and complication. Here’s what our programme director and policymakers had to say about the event.
Maastricht city policymakers Renan Schulze (pictured above) and Pascal Wauben: We were impressed by the commitment of your students and the level of analysis that the students did on COVID-19. In particular their thoughts on cultural differences, cross-border regional policy and the embedding of existing social networks in the approach to COVID-19. We agree that there are many other topics that would be worth discussing with your students, such as the way we work on developing the city’s COVID-19 policy, the roles that we play as policymakers, how we develop our communication strategy or the influence of politics. Let’s keep in touch. It was an honour to participate in this interesting and enriching event. Would you be so kind to convey our compliments to the students?
Programme director Julieta Marotta: The whole point of gaining academic knowledge in public policy is to share this knowledge and inform actual policies. Giving our students a practical experience beyond the university was a way to show them the practical application of what they had learned in the classroom. For UNU-MERIT, the event was a way to strengthen our link with the Maastricht municipality and to fulfil our social compromise to find solutions to societal challenges through our educational programmes.
Presentation skills: Go for a concise story, catchy images, and simple language
We gave our students some general guidelines as to how to present, but we did not make these guidelines comprehensive. Instead, we encouraged them to be creative. We just told them: ‘This is a freestyle kind of exercise. Reduce your story and design slides in a way that will communicate your message in the most effective way in the allotted timeslot of 10 minutes.’
This year, the students surprised us because they came up with very strong slides from a visual point of view. Usually, students tend to produce PowerPoints loaded with long lists, but this year, we saw many infographics and less text. The online setting may have played an incentive role because students put in more work in making attractive slides. Moreover, they were all able to present within the 10-minute slot.
With regard to their verbal communication skills, the students were articulate and eloquent, but as usual, especially in the public policy conference, their presentations were filled with academic terms that a layperson might have found difficult to understand. Words like “stakeholder influence”, “responsibility structures” or “agenda-setting ” belong to the type of academic jargon that not all audiences are familiar with.
To become the best: Learn when to drop the academic language
When students enter the academic environment, we teach them the scientific and academic terminology relevant to their field of study, because it helps them to improve the quality of their scientific analysis. Mastering the scientific language is part of the toolbox that we give them and not learning it might even hamper their academic growth.
Consciously or unconsciously, students quickly pick up the academic vocabulary of public policy. Soon enough, the academic language becomes their most trusted language. All their readings are written in it and they get used to the fact that everybody around them is an academic and understands this vocabulary. By the time they graduate, they may even have forgotten that in society, people use different words to talk about the same issues. Things can even get to a point that they might not be able to communicate their knowledge outside of academia. I think it’s something that we as tutors have to consciously draw our students’ attention to. We need to prepare them for future situations where they will also be expected to communicate effectively in a non-jargon kind of way. In policy, you have to find a way to communicate your analysis and your recommendations outside of academia, to the wider public. Public policy communication is a competency that we have to train or nudge them to develop.
The best scholars, especially in economics, are the ones who can present their ideas in very simple language, without using equations. They are able to find a story that the wider public can relate to. Everybody likes a nice story, that’s why we all go to the movies. Later, if needed, they can switch to the language of economics and go into the details, the complexities, the equations.
So when it comes to public presentations, we advise our students to find ways to adapt their message easily digestible and to adapt it to the audience in front of them, whether academic or lay: ‘Make sure you present your story in a way that will be appreciated by the lot. If people want more details, they can go and read the technical language. If they don’t, they will still be satisfied, because they will still understand what you want to communicate. Your goal is to make sure that you get your message through. Don’t miss that chance.’
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.