Public Policies for Humans by Professor Matthew G. Nagler

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This past summer I served as an Academic Affiliate of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST). A cross-agency group of applied behavioral scientists authorized to advise Federal agencies by an Executive Order of President Obama, SBST applies findings from the social and behavioral sciences to improve Federal policies and programs. For me – an economist whose research incorporates psychological research findings into models of economic behavior – this gig offered an opportunity to see directly how my research interests could be put to real-world use. SBST’s job is an important one. Many Federal programs face serious challenges when it comes to the way in which real-live people interact with them. Websites often present constituents with information about Federal programs that is daunting to read and sort through. Intended beneficiaries often fail to find out about key Federal programs, causing the money allocated to help them to go unutilized or to go to people whose need is not as great. Perhaps you can recall a time when someone told you about a Federal program you should consider taking advantage of, but you didn’t because you feared having to navigate the various web pages, publications, and forms. SBST’s task is to provide Federal agencies the help they need to make government work better for real humans, so that we humans can benefit more – and more easily – from what government does.

The key to SBST’s strategy is to leverage what we know about human behavior. People are not perfect, rational information-processing machines. Our attention is limited. We respond differently when the same information content is displayed or framed in different ways. The accumulated understanding of social and behavioral scientists provides pathways for making policy tools and government communications more effective. SBST’s standard approach is to propose behaviorally-informed interventions, test them, and then implement the most successful interventions. (These interventions are what have sometimes been popularly referred to as “nudges.”)

One prominent example of an SBST intervention arose from the recognition that only 44% of military service members were enrolled in the Federal retirement plan, TSP, as compared to 87% of civilian Federal employees. The trouble was service members changed bases frequently and so never had the wherewithal to focus on TSP enrollment. To boost participation, the Department of Defense and SBST tested having service members make an active “yes” or “no” choice to enroll upon their arrival at a new base. The behavioral research suggests that “forcing an issue” can make it salient, inducing individuals to take actions they intended to but did not focus on. The test led to an increase in TSP enrollments of 8.3 percentage points. DOD has not yet implemented this intervention everywhere, but SBST estimates that when they do the benefits to service members could be quite substantial.

During the summer I worked on designing exploratory interventions relating to healthcare, secondary education programs for homeless students, and transportation safety. These projects paired me with agency partners at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Transportation. I found I needed to take account of not only the limitations of the real humans who were trying to navigate Federal programs, but also those imposed by the realities of the Federal bureaucracy. The work was not easy. Sometimes Federal agencies were resistant to doing things in new ways. Often the data I needed in order to figure out the best way forward was simply not available. And the summer was short: there was not enough time for me to champion an intervention from start to finish. But I did get the chance to get the ball rolling on several initiatives, and I contributed directly on many more.

Two proud moments for me were SBST’s planning retreat in mid-August and the release of our 2016 Annual Report in mid-September. At the first event, I got to work with my team colleagues on SBST’s plans for the future – what we thought we could best accomplish and how we might go about it. At the second event, I got to reflect on my team’s significant achievements during the past year. Both gave me a chance to get the “big picture” with respect to what I was doing and to appreciate that I was a part of something meaningful. When I talk to my students about my experience in Washington this summer, what I will try to convey to them is what I saw firsthand: that by working earnestly and applying one’s capabilities toward a worthy goal, a person can truly make a difference.

[1] The opinions expressed in this article are my own, offered in my personal academic capacity, and are not the views of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

Colin Powell School to Revitalize NGO Initiative

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Photo caption: Fnu Duojizhand, Anasimon Takla, Juan Pablo Celis and Anne Joost In 2013 the City College of New York (CCNY) became one of a handful of colleges in New York to be associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI) as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). This year, the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and its interdisciplinary International Studies Program are revitalizing the NGO initiative.

Since 2013, CCNY NGO has worked on becoming an active member of international civil society and on promoting the participation of its academic community in United Nations activities. CCNY NGO complements other campus initiatives such as Diplomat-in-Residence, CCNY membership in the UN Academic Impact, and the Model United Nations (MUN), all of which are dedicated to educating future leaders in global affairs.

CCNY NGO status opens multiple opportunities for students: from attending regularly scheduled DPI-NGO briefings to participating in the UN Youth Representatives program. Selected CCNY students take part in youth panels, attend NGO conferences, speak at special events, and cooperate with UN volunteers. The school’s Dean, Dr. Vincent Boudreau, acts as the organization’s Faculty Advisor and Johanna Ureña, acts as the Designated Representative.

CCNY NGO nominates two youth representatives and one regular delegate to the UN. They are issued UN Grounds Passes allowing them access to meetings and conferences including General Assembly and Security Council sessions. Students involved with CCNY NGO represent the highest standard of intellectual inquiry and embody CCNY values of hard work, perseverance, and competence. Currently, Anasimon Takla, Anne Joost and Fnu Duojizhandou serve as CCNY NGO Youth Representatives. Juan Pablo Celis serves as advisor to the CCNY NGO.

The CCNY NGO is recruiting for all three positions. Combined with an independent study or an internship, they can turn into college credits and valuable experience in multilateral diplomacy. For more information, application process, and job description, please visit CCNY&theUN.

According to Professor Rafal Szczurowski, at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership who leads the CCNY NGO, the program offers an excellent opportunity for all students, regardless of their major. CCNY NGO is uniquely positioned to promote global citizenship, which is one of the top priorities of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Initiative on Education as well as a key theme of the Colin Powell School, said Mr. Szczurowski.

For more information and media inquiries, please contact: Dee Dee Mozeleski at dmozeleski@ccny.cuny.edu

Meet Associate Director, Michael Busch

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Meet Michael Busch, Associate Director in the Office of Student Success at the Colin Powell School.

At the heart of our vision for the office of student success lies a vast expansion in the idea of what advisement should be. Narrowly conceived, advisors guide students through the classes they need to graduate. Properly expanded, student success connects young people to the requirements, opportunities and capacities they need to succeed on campus, and after they leave.

Michael Bush, Associate Director of the Office of Student Success, immediately grasped the possibilities inherent in this expanded definition of student success. As a teacher on this campus he’d spent years working with students on research papers, nurtured countless rough ideas into fully formed research papers. But in the world outside the classroom, student papers needed to speak to a broader audience.They needed to refine and struggle with first and second drafts, and to determine more precisely the need to which their work spoke. To prepare students to better shepherd their ideas, Michael devised the concept of the Annual Colin Powell School Undergraduate Student Research Symposium.

As participants in the symposium, now in its third year, students strengthen their intellectual connections with one another, and with their faculty mentors. Drawn from across the different disciplines, but arranged in thematically coherent panels, student research builds a problem centric approach to some of the more pressing problems we face. And that’s consistent with the entire evolution of the Colin Powell School. Michael notes that a key consequence of our transition from a loose grouping of departments to a school has been profoundly stronger connections among the different academic disciplines. The research symposium, with its focus on specific issue areas, provides that same kind of intellectual cross pollination to our students.

And it’s been a hit. Over the past three years, the number and quality of student panels has grown, as have the numbers of students who come to hear their classmates present.  What started as an effort to provide a venue for students to polish their research has hence evolved into a pivotal moment in the construction of a student based intellectual community.

And that’s the kind of work Michael has been doing at the Colin Powell School—and at the Colin Powell Center before it—for years now.  As he describes it, his core motivation, in the classroom and beyond, has been to provoke students toward a more active engagement with their work—initially through a more critical reading of books and articles and more precise writing, but more critically, by undertaking a search to fully develop the ideas that they think are important, and that will guide their work. This semester, while teaching a course on social change, he’s asked his classes to ‘think about why they are thinking the things they do’ and to take their natural passion, their good ideas and their talents into the real world of public policy, social networks and global issues.

A native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Michael left New York to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he received joint degrees in philosophy and the history of math and science. He returned to the city to teach elementary school and middle school in the South Bronx.  In the midst of his graduate education at CUNY, Michael met Andy Rich, then Associate Director of the Colin Powell Center, and agreed to teach one of the seminars for Colin Powell Students.

As he learned more about the programs housed at the Center—programs that emphasized critical thinking, leadership development and service—he saw a way to build a bridge between academic theory and students’ personal expertise and commitments.  That connection lies at the heart of his approach to working with our students.  A dedicated professor who still teaches classes in political science and international studies, Michael marries classroom work with constant prods to students: that they travel widely as he traveled, that they write about issues that matter to them, and direct that writing to audiences that care.  That they think about education as equipping themselves to move through the world in a meaningful way.

When asked what he’s most passionate about, Michael doesn’t hesitate. “Colleges,” he says, “need to think long and hard about what they need to do in order to produce successful and sustainable futures for our students.”  Finding ways to make an impact at earlier and earlier stages of a student’s life drives his work, and because that’s the case, he’s become one of the central figures in the office of student success—an architect and steward of its animating vision.