The Failure of Public-policy Schools

Howard Husock

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Whatever your view of the role of government, it should be obvious that our society requires talented, trained, capable men and women who choose to spend all or at least part of their careers in public-sector employment. It is also obvious that our society now struggles both to motivate and to educate such people to take on such jobs.

One need look no further than the list of employment opportunities posted for positions in the federal government's Senior Executive Service (SES). Established by the Carter administration, the SES includes the top non-political positions in agencies across the federal government. These are career positions of great responsibility that, per the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, are meant to "ensure impartiality, or the public's confidence in the impartiality, of the Government." They can pay up to around $200,000 annually.

Yet a glance at the postings on a single day finds SES openings abounding: "Assistant Director, Office of Health Security, Department of Homeland Security"; "Deputy Chief Security Officer, Federal Emergency Management Agency"; "Associate Director, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Department of the Treasury"; "Director, Medicare Contractor Management Group, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services." The list is a long one and includes key positions in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Social Security Administration, and more.

Such roles cannot be dismissed as blandly "bureaucratic"; they combine purpose with complexity, whether that of policy design or logistics. Officials who hold such positions (or who must cover for vacant ones) are exactly those whom Americans expect to respond quickly and capably when a wildfire sweeps Maui, when a train derails in Ohio, or when a new virus emerges and rapidly spreads across the country. All enterprises and agencies experience turnover, of course. But there is good reason to believe that attracting candidates to such positions — especially those that combine expertise with political sensitivity — is an ongoing problem.

This problem has long preoccupied Max Stier, founding president and CEO of the Washington-based non-profit Partnership for Public Service, which seeks to "address critical talent gaps," "increase employee engagement," and "recognize excellence" in the federal government's workforce. Stier has pushed for such common-sense expedients as jargon-free job descriptions for what are unarguably fascinating jobs. After more than 20 years in his role, however, he is less than positive about where we stand. The federal government, he says,

by and large doesn't look for entry talent. It is looking for prior experience, typically, more than capability....[Additionally], the processes for bringing that talent in are deeply broken. [And] even if [the talented] arrive, managers aren't trained in ways that actually retain, especially, younger talent.

Stier worries in particular about the fact that only 7% of the federal workforce is under 30 years old — and that number drops by half for crucial information-technology positions necessary to avoid embarrassments that undermine public confidence in government, like the initial rollout of the Affordable Care Act website.

"It's a deeply broken process," says Stier, who has made fixing this issue his professional lodestar. "It's not getting better. If anything, it's getting worse."

Yet it was not so long ago that an important solution to just such a problem appeared to have emerged. In the 1960s and '70s, major universities across the country — including Harvard, Princeton, and Berkeley — established new graduate schools whose students would be trained for high-level, influential government jobs. In announcing his vision for the Kennedy School of Government in 1974, Harvard president Derek Bok spoke to that ambition. "Universities have a major opportunity and responsibility to set about the task of training a corps of able people to occupy influential positions in public life," he observed. "What is needed is nothing less than the education of a new profession."

As political scientist Aaron Wildavsky — founding dean of the Berkeley School of Public Policy (now the Goldman School) — wrote in The Public Interest in 1985, "schools of policy were designed to be organizations that would do for the public sector what business schools had done for the private sector: produce students to colonize the bureaucracies, to criticize what those bureaucracies were doing, and, in a modest way, to set things right." There had long been minor schools of public administration at the university level, but Bok's and Wildavsky's visions went far beyond accounting and personnel training.

Princeton already had just such a graduate school, founded in 1961 with a special focus on international affairs. Other universities — Berkeley, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, Indiana University, the University of Chicago, and many others — established their own graduate schools of government around the same time as Harvard. But if Bok envisioned something akin to the French École Nationale d'Administration — established by Charles de Gaulle in 1945 both to staff the upper levels of France's powerful and centralized civil service and to democratize the civil service by making that pipeline more public — the task proved vexing from the start in an American context.

Whatever their other value, such schools are now falling short in their mission to prepare students for, and steer them toward, government roles. They are simply not serving as a pipeline into the upper echelons of government. This raises two important questions: What is the role of public-policy schools today? And can they, or anything else, serve as that important link between higher education and public service?


From the outset of his deanship at Berkeley, Aaron Wildavsky reported worrying about "whether newly-minted policy analysts could find work." As it has turned out, such graduates aren't going unemployed, but they aren't working where the visionaries of public-policy graduate education might have hoped, either.

For this essay, I solicited statistics about post-graduation employment by sector from 13 leading schools of public policy, including those at the University of California, Berkeley; Carnegie Mellon University; the University of Chicago; Harvard University; Indiana University; the University of Michigan; New York University; Ohio State University; Princeton University; the University of Southern California; Syracuse University; Texas A&M University; and the University of Texas. Each school makes public its employment outcomes for graduates for at least one year, and combining those numbers allows us to track where graduates of these schools as a group choose to work. Only the Ford School at the University of Michigan declined to provide such data.

Averaged across all schools, the number of graduates choosing public-sector employment (in federal, state, or local government, or at an intergovernmental organization) in 2022 was just 34% — barely more than those choosing the private sector (30%) or the non-profit/non-government organization (NGO) sector (33%). Moreover, as the figure below shows, the public-sector employment percentage not only trends downward, its total has never approached the combined total of private and non-profit employment during the years since 2016 for which the statistics from most schools are readily available.


Even the public-sector totals, as low as they are, may overstate the extent to which the schools are fulfilling Derek Bok's vision of steering new recruits into American government. Both Harvard and Princeton, for instance, operate graduate programs (the Master in Public Policy at Princeton, the Master in Public Administration at Harvard) that enroll many students who have already worked in government. Post-graduation government-employment numbers also include some number of non-American students. These are not students who can qualify for American student loans; they either pay tuition in full or rely on their home governments for funding. The government of Singapore, for instance, provides scholarships for students studying abroad and planning to go into its foreign service; that program includes a "bond period" — a post-graduation requirement to return to government service for a given amount of time.

During my own time at the Harvard Kennedy School (in an era when there was justifiable hope for liberalization in the country), many students were from China. As of early 2024, "[r]oughly half [56%] of the Kennedy School's current student population comes from outside the United States," as the Kennedy School itself highlights online. Among the schools examined, publicly available data tell us that on average, 29% of the incoming class are international students. A program in international development at the Kennedy School reports that the biggest employers of its graduates are their home countries. This is not to say that these graduates' exposure to American education and norms will not have value, but educating international students for employment in their home countries is a distinct goal from that of educating graduates for positions in American government.

Closer examination raises further reason for concern. The post-graduation numbers for undergraduates enrolled at Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs (formerly the Woodrow Wilson School) are revealing. This is a demanding and selective major for which students must qualify, yet just 4% of its graduates went on to jobs in the public sector — compared to 44% in the private sector. Think here of consulting firms like Deloitte and McKinsey, both of which maintain large "public-sector practices," as well as Wall Street firms like those that rate government bonds.

It's worth noting that the field of public administration — which focuses more on routine budgeting and personnel management — has not disappeared. Incorporating employment data from schools of public administration into our study shows just short of a majority of graduates choosing government employment, including many roles at the state and local levels. The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) — a 501(c)(3) that includes hundreds of schools — surveys graduates three years after they receive their degree. For the class of 2019, across 123 programs, the NASPAA survey found that of those employed, 48% were employed in government, 18% in the private sector, and 22% in the non-profit sector. This suggests that the top public-administration schools may have a special deficiency when it comes to placing graduates in positions of public service — even though the field predated the generation of policy schools envisioned by Bok and others.


How did this state of affairs come to pass?

The easiest answer is one that blames government itself. As one Princeton School of Public and International Affairs administrator told me, "government is seen as opaque" and "not wholly functional." Both may be true, but the story of how elite schools of government have fallen short of their original goals — and how (or whether) they should be seen as vehicles for reinvigorating government service — demands a much broader answer: It requires us to examine what became of Bok's vision.

We should not be surprised that high-level public managerial roles have not proven attractive to policy-school graduates. Bok's rhetoric notwithstanding, these schools have historically emphasized not public management, but policy analysis — that combination of microeconomic and statistical tools applied to programs or proposals to assess their efficacy. There is a role for such work, of course, whether in the Congressional Budget Office or the Office of Management and Budget. But policy analysis has never emerged as a clearly identified "profession." Indeed, its degrees — the Master of Public Policy and the Master of Public Administration (universities' disagreement on the title has not helped the field) — have nowhere near the currency of the Master of Business Administration, not to mention a medical or law degree.

In retrospect, the choice of skills to be imparted to students of Bok's new profession reflected the perspective of a moment in time that proved transient rather than a watershed. As Wildavsky put it:

The immediate impetus of graduate schools of public policy was undoubtedly the Great Society. Suddenly, new major social programs were there and, almost as quickly, many of them were widely judged to have performed poorly....Analyzing public policies to see what went wrong, to learn how to do better, and to teach this understanding was the major motivation for establishing graduate schools devoted to the analysis of public policies.

The profession would be rooted, he continued, in the "applications of economic analysis," which include "the intersection between economics, statistics, computing." In the process, "microeconomics [would replace] sociology as the great scavenger of the social sciences."

The idea was that those armed with this set of skills, per Bok, would go on to populate public agencies — "to colonize the bureaucracies," in Wildavsky's words — and that this could lead to more effective government. To say that Bok's was a technocratic view that overlooked both politics and the complexities of human nature is to state the obvious.

The conviction that technocrats would transform government faded fairly quickly — not least with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was dedicated to shrinking the reach of government, and with Bill Clinton's declaration that the "era of big government" was over. But neither dramatic changes in the country's mood nor the ongoing need to fill key government-management roles has greatly altered the curriculum of the policy schools — even in the present day. The Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University, for example, offers choices among 12 courses in economics, statistics, and research methodology, but just two in management. The Harvard Kennedy School requires core courses focused on politics and leadership, but again they are outnumbered by more technical requirements: economics, policy design, financial management, and quantitative analysis.

As Paul Light of New York University's Wagner School of Public Policy observed, such schools "spend too much time on econometrics and statistical models and not enough on implementation and operations." Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs doesn't even mention government service in its mission statement, which reads: "Our faculty, staff, and students develop and lead creative approaches to the challenges of public and international affairs, with particular emphasis on diverse scholarly perspectives and evidence-based analysis."

To gauge whether Light's characterization is accurate, I analyzed the core course requirements — the classes each student is required to take before picking electives or concentrations — for the standard public-service degree at each school for which I also tracked employment statistics (excluding Harvard, which makes limited curriculum information publically available). I looked in particular at whether these core classes covered the fundamentals of public management or focused on subjects like economics, management science, or quantitative analysis. These core subjects are not all one learns at these schools, of course, but they often cover the first year of a two-year degree and represent these schools' statements regarding what the core skills of a public-policy professional should be.

As shown in the figure below, quantitative courses combined make up half the curriculum on average. Specific schools place even more emphasis on these skills. At the University of Chicago's Harris school, to take one example, the core curriculum of six courses includes two courses on microeconomics and two on statistics. Courses on the fundamentals of governance are not included.


In part, this reflects the fact that resistance to change has not turned out to limit interest in hiring such denizens of the new class. Program and policy analysis has not gone away — instead, it has migrated to private-sector firms operating under government contracts. Jody Freeman and Martha Minow have best captured this trend in their book Government by Contract, in which they track what they describe as "a simple but striking development":

[W]e live in an era of pervasive government outsourcing — what we call government by contract. Over the last few decades, the United States government has outsourced to private actors a significant portion of its work, including both a broad range of service provision and important aspects of regulation and policymaking. Moreover, these contracts increasingly encompass what many consider to be core government functions.

The fact that private-sector employment outstrips that of the public sector for graduates of policy schools is clearly related to this trend. Indeed, private firms with "public-sector" practices seek to appeal to such graduates. A notable example is the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which offers recruiting material titled "Making an Impact: My Consulting Career in the Public Sector." Vincent Chin, global leader of BCG's public-sector practice, offers the following testimony: "I wake up every morning happy because I know that I am supporting governments in developing policies that will change the world for the better. Working in the public sector at BCG offers unique opportunities that you might not get in a traditional public service job."

This is not to argue against privatizing public services — especially in such routine activities as garbage collection or emergency medical services. But contracting for policy analysis is quite different.

Consulting firms can do many things well, but they are not established to offer subtle political insights about which policy choice is best on dimensions that transcend the technical. One thinks here of mask mandates or school closures, or the best route for a highway extension, or the looming choices about how to set tolls for Manhattan's upcoming congestion-pricing program. A technical analysis may identify the approach that will raise the most revenue, but a daunting range of interests affected — delivery drivers, Uber drivers, New Jersey commuters, and others — will make the choice a political one. We need public managers who can lead major agencies, make choices that take politics into account, and direct and explain their implementation.

It's important to keep in mind as well that consultants must view government agencies as clients whom they do not want to alienate. One worries about public officials who seek external validation for paths already chosen, as opposed to Bok's vision of weighing a range of costs and benefits, broadly defined, or of imaginative young talent stirring the pot. As Freeman and Minow write in the introduction to Government by Contract: "Outsourcing government work raises questions of accountability. What role should costs, quality, and democratic oversight play on contracting out government work?"

One does not have to take a generally negative view of "government by contract" to observe that high-level vacancies in key agencies pose problems — and that the private sector's siphoning of the talent that could fill such roles is cause for concern. It will not do for there to be a vacuum of experienced public-health and medical officials, whether at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, or the Food and Drug Administration, who view their role as balancing what they believe is ideal with what is practical and what is politically acceptable — and who use their own offices, with their government seal, to explain those choices to the public. No consultant could have such a portfolio. That is what makes it both curious and disappointing that the leading schools of government and public service are staffing the private and non-profit sectors more so than they are the public.

Public-employment rates in the data above also pale in comparison to the percentage of graduates employed in the non-profit sector. The distinction can sometimes be muddy: Is the World Bank a government agency or an NGO funded by government? Is the Red Cross, with its federal charter, an extension of government or a distinct non-profit? But the fashion for NGOs is more than a definitional trend; it reflects the allure of such entities — from Doctors without Borders to Habitat for Humanity to Teach for America — to those drawn to schools of public service by a zeal for social change rather than a desire to fill roles in government. This is illustrated by the promotional materials of the schools themselves.

Paul Light has pointed to this tendency. "Public service as a term has very clear meanings to these college seniors," he noted in the early 2000s when summarizing his findings from research done through the Brookings Institution. "It's very much about making a difference, one on one. When young Americans hear the words 'public service,' they think about the kind of jobs that non-profits do first, government being a distant second."

This leads to too great an emphasis on change and innovation — as connoted by such trendy terms as "social entrepreneurship" — and not enough on assuming roles in agencies that Americans of both parties have agreed are central to government's duties, from defense to transportation safety to public health and so much more.

The emphasis on social change is also reflected by policy schools' increasing tendency to include not just graduate education, but research centers — many associated with current causes. At the Lyndon B. Johnson School at the University of Texas, Austin, such centers include those on "Race and Democracy" and the "Prison and Jail Innovation Lab." The relevant school at Indiana University is itself named the "Paul O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs" and includes a center for "Research on Inclusion and Social Policy." The Kennedy School has centers focused on "Women and Public Policy" and "Human Rights." Both the latter and a center on the press are named for donors — demonstrating the fact that a focus on causes can be a surefire fundraising tool (or that donors can persuade these schools to emphasize such concerns).

To be sure, several research centers at these and other schools focus on core government activities, whether they be transportation (Indiana) or intelligence gathering (UT-Austin). But it's fair to say that schools once envisioned as pipelines into government service have evolved in many ways into think tanks emphasizing issues associated with left-liberal concerns. As a one-time member of an admissions committee at the Kennedy School, I can say with some certainty that right-of-center applicants were a distinct minority.

This strategy works as a business model — it's just not what Bok made an urgent case for. As a think-tank employee, I'd be hypocritical not to defend the value of such enterprises. But they are a complement, not a substitute, for government leadership in the roles for which there is consensus on necessity.


Dissenters have raised concerns in leading schools of government — and many of them point toward a path that would help revivify the idea of government service. One notable approach would augment a focus on public policy, with its use of economic and statistical tools, with that of public management, focusing on what it's like to lead government agencies. Mark Moore of the Kennedy School has been a leading, if Cassandra-like, voice calling for such an approach.

In his underappreciated 1995 book, Creating Public Value, Moore envisioned

public managers [who] become strategists rather than technicians....They engage the politics surrounding their organization to help define public value as well as engineer how their organizations operate. They anticipate a world of political conflict and changing technologies that requires them to reengineer their organizations often instead of expecting a stable harmony that allows them to perfect their current operations.

Politics and public opinion are not annoyances for such officials; they are key factors that, if poorly appreciated, lead to unfortunate choices — like school closures.

The notion that public management is distinct from management in the private sector, moreover, suggests a way in which schools of government might actually help fill those vacant senior-government positions and prepare those who will find themselves thrust into the spotlight in such roles.

I write as one who largely wasted his undergraduate education by concentrating in journalism. In retrospect, the skills associated with that craft should only be a complement to a concentration in a field of greater substance — whether that be history, political science, or even medicine. So, too, can one envision such an approach for those pursuing degrees in public health, law, or economics with aspirations to serve in government roles.

Exposure to the theory and practice of public management through even a limited number of courses at schools of government may both reinforce the appeal of such an aspiration and help prepare those with expertise for the demands of such roles. Max Stier sees a role for the faculty of such schools to advertise the virtues of government service, especially if they have filled one themselves. Stier, moreover, hopes more faculty members will take positions in government and, upon returning to academia, serve as role models for future government servants.

A public-management curriculum would not emphasize the quantitative tools of public policy. Rather, it would employ methods to expose prospective officials to the public sector. Teaching cases, history, memoirs, and such reports as that of the 9/11 Commission would best make up such a curriculum.

For full disclosure, I directed the Harvard Kennedy Case Program from 1987 to 2006, where I oversaw and wrote many cases, typically focused on key questions — and decision points — officials face. Should Hong Kong slaughter all its chickens to prevent the spread of bird flu? Should the mayor of a small Idaho city permit neo-Nazis to stage a march? At the time of the school's founding, the use of such narratives was championed by faculty such as Richard Neustadt who, with Ernest May, wrote illustrative accounts of historic events in their book Thinking in Time and included them on their syllabi. But I watched the use of such case-based teaching decline over time as schools of public policy developed a different sense of purpose.

Moore urges a way of thinking — a Venn diagram-like strategic triangle — based on identifying approaches in which a government's capacity and the political acceptability of policy overlaps with a beneficial, even if non-ideal, outcome.


Of course, one cannot rule out the possibility that the whole idea of looking to schools that, once upon a time, represented that they could educate a corps of government leaders may be misplaced. They have arguably demonstrated limited interest in serving that role and have since evolved in different directions.

Another Kennedy School faculty member (and former academic dean), the "realist" foreign-policy scholar Stephen Walt, has written recently of his own lack of confidence in the value of what such schools are imparting. In an essay for Foreign Policy, he expressed concern that such mega-trends as climate change and artificial intelligence may swamp the capacities of the analytical tools that his and other schools emphasize:

Put all these trends (and others) together, and you have the potential for non-linear changes whose ultimate impact is impossible to predict with confidence. And these momentous developments are all happening rapidly and at the same time: It's beginning to look like a real-world version of Everything Everywhere All at Once. If that's the case, today's public-policy students may be equipped with a toolkit that is ill-suited for the issues they are going to face in a few years.

But even in a fast-changing world, there will be difficult policy choices to be made by officials buffeted by political forces. In other words, if there is still a case to be made for a graduate education that prepares students for a government role, it would seem to be one for management rather than skills that artificial intelligence may replace.

Attracting able people to pursue and build these skills is no simple matter; public policy may have to play a role in making the study of public policy more appealing. One thinks here, for instance, of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which releases eligible participants from repaying their federal loans after 120 months of payment. As it stands, the program applies both to those employed by government (at any level in the United States) and to anyone employed by a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The latter have a great many virtues, but their inclusion in the program dilutes the incentive to serve in government. Should ProPublica writers get to write off their student loans? Or, for that matter, young AEI researchers?

It is far from clear if any such expedients, or a change in emphasis at schools of government, could restore the appeal of government work. Like so many challenges we face — from the decline of marriage to drug use — it would require a shift in norms to somehow take place. Consider a survey conducted by the National Treasury Employees Union, which found that, although 74% of parents believe that government employment provides financial stability and good benefits, only four in 10 had suggested such employment to their children. This was not just about senior-level jobs; the survey asked about any public employment at all. The same survey found that only 2% of college students were considering a job with the federal government. And this was during the optimism-fueled Obama era in 2014 — not the tumultuous Trump era that followed.

Ultimately, the case for government service can sound trite, but it is nonetheless strong. It is made well by the Volcker Alliance, a non-profit established by late Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, to encourage public service with an emphasis on government. The alliance, in a mission statement notably different from those of contemporary schools of government, asserts:

Public service is a higher calling, and it is critical to engage our most thoughtful and accomplished citizens in service to the public good....The performance of our government institutions depends critically on the training and education of talented public servants, and this responsibility is shared by our government, by our institutions of higher education, and by leading institutions in every sector of society.

That is the kind of purpose that ought to guide the policy schools of America's elite universities. Even in a society broadly skeptical of government, able public servants are not a luxury, but a necessity. If we turn our back on government service, we should expect mediocrity at best, and dysfunction and incompetence at worst.

Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was a 1981- 82 mid-career fellow at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (then the Woodrow Wilson School).


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