Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute

Students are helping governments handle critical problems.


Partners in Policy Consulting

"Would you like some free consulting help? Do you have an important policy question that you lack the staff resources to analyze? I have a team of Duke graduate students who would love to tackle it."

That's the way the letter begins, and each year Robert Behn, director of the Sanford Institute's Governors Center, sends about 200 of the letters to officials in state and local governments. The letter is how the spring consulting project for first-year public policy graduate students begins; how it ends is with a lengthy report and a lot of hard-won experience under the students' belts.

"I think of myself as the senior partner in a management consulting firm with 30 new associates," says Behn, Professor of Public Policy. In the course of the spring semester, those associates will apply their skills in analyzing policy issues to serve the real, practical needs of their client. "This is not a make-believe student paper; this is a real, professional consulting report," Behn says.

For the workshop-style course, the students are divided into teams of three based on their interests in the policy problems of various clients. "We always have far more requests for assistance than we have students, so they can select things that really interest them," Behn explains.

The project is designed to foster the professional skills of policy analysis and public management. It's also one of the two extremely in-depth policy reports, along with the Master's Memo, that the students prepare.

These consulting reports are not meant to be tucked away in a file drawer as just a nice piece of information, Behn says. The students are helping government agencies handle critical problems. As a case in point, he cites a 1996 project for the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement Agency. On the line was $11 million in federal funding.

Another case involves the Youth Access to Tobacco Project. With 3,000 teenagers becoming regular smokers every day and an estimated 1.5 million youths under the age of 19 using smokeless tobacco products, the pressure has mounted to stop illegal sales of tobacco products to minors. However, North Carolina was failing to comply with legislation prohibiting this sale.

Public Policy students Valeria Balfour, Karen Guice and Tim Mitchell took an in-depth look at the situation to determine where current state laws were faulty and what could be done to make them more effective. Their recommendations ranged from administrative adjustments--designating the Alcohol Law Enforcement Agency as the lead law enforcement branch--to detailed concerns such as vending-machine placement.

"I believe that all our projects are taken seriously," Behn says. "But the Youth Access to Tobacco project is a good example of just how important they can be. The students delivered several briefings on their report, including one to the N.C. Secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety. And they got valuable experience that will certainly be of use in their careers."

--Michael Chitwood

Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute