Q & A with Helen Ladd, APPAM president-elect

On January 1 Helen Ladd, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy and professor of economics, began a one-year term as president of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM). Divine Munyengeterwa spoke with Ladd about the organization and her plans as its leader.

Divine: First of all, congratulations on your election.

Ladd: Thank you.

Divine: Could you tell me a bit about APPAM?

Ladd: APPAM is a national organization dedicating to improving public policy and management by fostering excellence in research, analysis and education.   Its members are academics and practitioners as well as many institutions, both in the U.S and abroad.  These include the major schools of public policy, including Duke’s Sanford School, the Kennedy School at Harvard and many others, others as well as research institutions such as the Urban Institute and Mathematica. Like parallel academic organizations in other fields, APPAM holds conferences where scholars can present their research to colleagues, and it publishes a major journal, the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

Divine: I understand that Duke’s connection with APPAM is longstanding.

Ladd:  That’s right. APPAM was founded in 1979 by representatives of 15 public policy schools and research institutes. Its first president was Joel L. Fleishman, our longtime colleague who is a professor of public policy at Sanford and a professor in the law school.

Divine: How long have you been a member of APPAM?

Ladd: Pretty much since the beginning. I first became involved during its early years when I was teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard. I came to Duke in 1986.  

Divine: You have been President-elect of APPAM for the last year. What did this involve?

Ladd: The president-elect organizes and runs the annual fall conference. This year the conference took place in Boston in early November, and I chose the overall theme: “Making fair and effective policy in difficult times.”  We had over 1,200 people attending. Papers were presented and discussed. There were round-table discussions on various policy issues as well as half a dozen symposia to deal with big issues.

Divine: Why did you pick that particular theme?

Ladd: It was an appropriate theme given that times are difficult. The poor economy puts pressure on  public spending and tax revenues at all levels – national, state and local. Times are also difficult in a political sense, with increasing partisanship and the starker differences between Republicans and Democrats than has been the case in some earlier years. So the notion is, we are living in difficult times, and as a research organization we want to bring research to bear that could help promote fair and effective policy making.

Divine: As incoming president, what goals do you have for the APPAM?

Ladd: Last summer the current president and I set up a strategic planning committee for the organization.  Next year, I will continue that strategic planning process with the goal of developing a plan by the 2010 fall conference.  This is all very timely because a new executive director for the organization is bringing new energy and a new perspective to the organization as well. With her help staffing this strategic planning and management, we hope to move the organization forward.

Divine: Has the organization grown over the years?

Helen Ladd: Yes, it has gotten bigger.  It used to be that I knew a very high percentage of the people at the conferences. Now I know a smaller proportion because we reach out much more broadly.

Divine: Do you see the APPAM as evolving in any significant ways? For example, should it become larger, and should it become more forceful in policy debates by taking positions on national policy issues?

Ladd: Let me start with the last one. As an organization do not take positions on national policies, and that will not change. We are nonpartisan, and we are not an advocacy group. So APPAM itself promotes good research, and tries to promote evidence-based policy making.

As for whether APPAM should grow, my guess is that different members of the association would answer that question in different ways. That’s why we need this strategic planning process. My own view is that it would be appropriate for us to grow. But we need to grow carefully, so that we don’t lose a lot of the collegial benefits that come from having a relatively small organization.

Divine: Any other ways in which you see APPAM evolving?

Ladd: We’ve done a terrific job over the years. Members generally like the conference and have benefited from being part of the association. But, the world is changing in lots of ways. Within public policy schools, a broader set of disciplines are now represented among the faculty. Earlier on we had political scientists, economists and statistically oriented people, but now we also have more sociologists and psychologists, and at Duke we have more historians. So, the field of public policy within the universities is changing, and it’s not clear that the association has changed in the same direction.

For example, within schools of public policy now there is a lot of interest and activity in international policy making. APPAM keeps trying to increase the internationally-oriented activities at the conference and elsewhere, but it’s been hard to do that. So we include a lot of sessions and papers on comparative analysis between the USA and other developed countries, or developing countries versus developed. But we do less with policymaking in the international community, by which I mean inter-relationships among governments.

Divine: Does APPAM have much of a role in how rankings of its member schools are conducted, such as by U.S News & World Report?

Ladd:  We have a lot of interest in that issue because our schools care about how they have ranked, and periodically we try to make sure the ratings groups understand exactly what it is that they are rating.

Divine: What did they not understand?

Ladd: Historically they did not understand the difference between schools of public policy and schools of public administration, and that was a problem for schools of public policy. It’s a complicated question, because schools of public policy in the early 1970s were very different from schools of public administration. Now they are much more similar, if only because the schools of public administration have become more like us – by hiring economists and statistically oriented people – while the schools of public policy have moved in the direction of public administration.

So it’s hard to sort out what this whole field is. We often send delegations to U.S News & World Report to try to help them understand who we are, and how to think about us.

Divine: How has the role of APPAM in the profession changed?

Ladd: In the early days we were starting a new profession, and we all knew each other. We were talking about the profession and trying to develop it, using APPAM to do that. But now the profession is much better developed, and so the question is, “Where does the association go from here?” given the broader changes both in public policy settings and in the schools of public policy themselves. That’s what our strategic planning is all about. So come back in a year and I’ll tell you more.

Divine: Thank you very much.