The Master of Public Policy at BSG: Interview with coordinator Adam Ritchie – part 1

Admissions to BSG are now open so we’ve decided to talk about the Master of Public Policy (MPP) with Dr Adam Ritchie, MPP course coordinator and departmental lecturer in science and public policy.

In this first part of the interview we explore the MPP programme, looking at who it is for and how it’s different from other courses. Make sure to also read the second part of the interview, in which Adam will get down to details on the application process.

Adam Ritchie, MPP coordinator
Dr Adam Ritchie speaks to the new MPP students on their first day

Adam, could you tell us more about the MPP: what is it and what is different about it compared to other courses?
The MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government is a practice-oriented postgraduate degree. If I was making a comparison I’d say it’s quite like an MBA in some ways, because it has a professional and practical focus.
If you are wondering if the MPP right for you, you have to think about what you are looking for and compare it with what we offer.
The MPP is not a deep dive into one core area, like for example an MPhil, but it gives you a chance to interact with a lot of disciplines that are relevant to public policy, look at how they relate to each other and prepare you to be able to interact with the world leading experts on a variety of topics.

Why is the cross-disciplinary side of the MPP so important?
As an individual, you might be an advocate for one specific topic or have an academic background in a single area. But in public policy, different areas interact with each other – law, economics, philosophy, science. Any good MPP will be interdisciplinary. What’s different at BSG is that we focus on a number of disciplines with core modules – for example science – that might be optional elsewhere. These are compulsory areas that everyone should study and be able to work with – being a graduate of our MPP means you have been trained to work across disciplines in a one-year intensive programme.

From what you are saying, it is possible to tailor the MPP content to your needs and interest?
Yes and no. There is much less opportunity to tailor than, for example, some modular MBAs where you reach a number of credits by picking and mixing from a range of modules. Our MPP has six core compulsory modules, which every student has to complete successfully; we also have a collection of applied policy modules where the students must complete and then we have two optional modules – you can select from about 30 different topics – and then the summer project, where you can choose your focus.
So the bulk of the programme is compulsory. This is because we want students to spend time together in the classroom and benefit from each other’s experiences and backgrounds. We want people who are thinking about economics of development to interact with those with a philosophy background, or an expertise in management, education, women’s rights, and so on, because they all have different perspectives and will learn from each other.

As well as the compulsory component, what are the other distinguishing elements of the MPP?
I think there are two other main components – the diversity of the programme and its duration. Let’s start with the latter – different institutions around the world offer the MPP as a two-year degree or as a one-year degree. Our one-year MPP is not half of what a two-year programme would be. It’s very intense and has a high class workload – I like to describe it as an 18-months programme condensed into 12 months.
Our professional and practical focus means that we’ve taken out some of the research-based activities: for example we don’t give a huge list of readings and tell you to go off and read them, we instead provide a smaller group of readings, that everyone has to read and that we discuss in the classroom. And the classroom isn’t just a place where a lecturer like me stands in front of you and talks at you for 90 minutes. It’s a place where you are working with students from all over the world, from all different disciplines, who challenge each other to advance each other’s knowledge and to become better policy makers.

This brings us on to the other characteristic of the MPP you mentioned – diversity. Could you expand on how it’s represented at BSG?
Diversity is important for us – lots of effort goes into making sure we get many good applicants from all over the world; we also focus on getting good quality applications from underrepresented regions. This way we have a really diverse classroom where students from all over the world, with different values and perspectives, challenge each other. Whether students come from a Western liberal democracy, an authoritarian state or somewhere in between, their approaches and values will be different and this facilitates a rich exchange. At BSG we look at building better government everywhere, regardless of the system, and we don’t think there is one single right answer to good government.
There’s also the diversity in terms of amount of professional experience – we have students who come here with two decades of experience, looking to achieve something in the field they’ve been working in, advance their careers, improve their countries, region or organisation. Some students want to transition from one form of public service to another – maybe having been an investigative journalist and looking into actually influencing policy as a policy maker rather than a reporter. Finally we have some young, less experienced students who can bring excellent academic skills to the table and a strong passion.

So at BSG you can expect a very diverse student body. Is diversity also reflected in what we teach?
Absolutely right. Although BSG is part of a British institution in the University of Oxford, the MPP isn’t focused on the British civil service or UK government. We look at global issues from economics of development in sub-Saharan Africa, to how big data can influence healthcare delivery in China, to universal healthcare in India, energy policy in Brazil and much more. We do this because we think that there is no one country that has got everything right, but every country is doing something that others can learn from.
We also have a broad approach to what represents public service – of course civil service is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are lots of ways through which you can serve serve the public: government, private sector and business, management consultancy, NGOs and third sector, international organisations, city governments, journalism. Our diversity comes from all of these areas – I encourage those who are interested in the programme to ask themselves: “Is what I do public service? Am I somehow serving the public?” If the answer is yes, the MPP might be the right course for you.

Let’s dig more into that – how do I know if I am the right applicant for the MPP?
Firstly, the right applicant is someone who cares – someone who wants to change the world and make it a better place. I’m not talking about revolution. Your idea of change can be different from mine – change can take different forms, from improving the government in your country, to fighting corruption in the police force in your city and so on.
Secondly, the MPP is very good for students who want to practice, improve their influence and do what they are doing better. This is because the lessons of the MPP work best if you go on to apply them, rather than if you spend further years studying.
I’ve personally seen that the students who benefit the most from the MPP are those who know what they want to do next, rather than those who are unsure or want to stay in academia or research.
It’s also a good degree for someone who wants to broaden their expertise with a view to do something soon after, especially if you have some professional experience and want to have more impact. It’s less suitable for someone who’s just recently been in study and is still working out what they want to do; if you don’t know if you want to be a lawyer, a journalist or a doctor, it might be too early for you to do the MPP. It might be much better if you either know what you want to do or have the professional backing behind you.

Because of the nature of the course, the MPP is also good for someone who wants intense studying. If you are looking for a year off while studying, this is probably not right for you. If you’d like time to sit down and think, breathe and explore, you might want to consider an MPhil.

Our MPP is excellent for the right student, but the reality is it’s not right for everyone. People who benefit the most from the programme are those who are here mindfully and deliberately, who have looked at all the options and have chosen us. That’s something for potential applicants to think about: think about what you want to achieve and what you want to do next.

The MPP at Blavatnik School of Government is open for admissions for 2016 entry until January – visit our website for more details.

You can also watch a video of Adam giving an overview of MPP.