Policy Simulation Competition in Cairo: Interview with Participants

Aarushi Gupta, Ishita Jain, and Yogaraj Mudalgi, first year students of the Master of Public Policy Programme at NLSIU, participated in the 2018 edition regional rounds of the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition held in Cairo, Egypt. Ishita’s team was declared winner in the regional round. They share their experiences in an interview with Lokiniti. Edited excerpts:

Yogaraj, Ishita and Aarushi with Vice Chancellor R. Venkata Rao

What were the requirements of the competition? What were you expected to do?

Ishita: NASPAA-Batten is an annual policy simulation competition organized by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, a Washington DC based international association of public affairs schools. This year, the theme of the competition was Pandemic Crisis Management and Global Health Security. It was held at sixteen sites across the world (eleven in the United States and five in other countries).The first round was the regional round, conducted at the sixteen sites. It involved a live simulation. Think of it like an online multiplayer game, where each participant has to play a specific role for a specific country and try to mitigate the disaster. This round also required us to prepare two policy briefs and a presentation apart from the simulation.The final round is the global round, in which our scores for the regional round will be compared to those of participants from other sites.

Aarushi: The competition was designed in a way that every team was allotted a certain hypothetical country in each round. The competition had a total of four different countries – each characterized by unique geographical, economic, and social factors. The idea was to ensure that each team experiences the simulation from the perspective of all the four countries, one by one. To this end, each team was allotted a new country every round. Each one of these rounds was about battling the looming epidemic, given your allotted country’s budget figures. Other factors relating to the country’s economy and trade relations formed a crucial part of this equation. The simulation interface required the participating team to respond to each development in the crisis by choosing one of the many policy alternatives available.

Yogaraj: Each team executed policy decisions in a real-time environment to minimize casualties, maintain the economy, keep up public approval ratings, and so on. In each round, each team member would take up different roles such as Prime Minister, Health Minister, Finance Minister, and so on. The Prime Minister was the final authority on executing a decision and each team member advised the Prime Minister based on information they were given specific to their function.

At the end of each round, we were scored on our performance. Judges evaluated us on criteria such as teamwork and policy memo. Finalists were required to make a presentation based on the fourth round. Each of the parameters had different weightage based on which the regional winners were declared. The entries of all regional winners would be judged by a separate group of  ‘super judges’ who then declare the final winner and runner-up.

How did the Public Policy course help you tackle the problems that were presented to you during the competition? Did you employ any of the skills that you picked up during the first two trimesters?

Aarushi: The domain of public policy is marked by an intricate union of politics, economics, finance, and a myriad factors relating to a country’s socio-economic milieu. The simulation interface and its design were an embodiment of all these factors combined – to create an experience that should be as close to the real world as possible. Having said that, the readings that we were assigned as part of the coursework for ‘Introduction to Public Policy’ (IPP) did play an instrumental role in making us aware of the aforesaid intricacies in the public policy space.

For instance, one of the metrics for measuring a team’s performance in the simulation was the impact its policy decisions had on the popularity of the (hypothetical) incumbent political leadership. Therefore, there were instances where the Health Minister would advocate for a seemingly unpopular (yet predictably effective) measure to combat the epidemic, whereas the PM would be hesitant to take that hit on the popularity of his/her government. I think IPP effectively familiarized us with such dynamics of “political will” and “policy windows”.

Also, the course on Economic Analysis for Development has proven to be indispensable, considering that we were required to be preemptive about the potentially devastating effects our policy decisions might have on the economic condition of the country we were representing in the competition.

Ishita: Apart from specific skills, like drafting policy briefs, which we picked up during the course of MPP, the political economy approach learnt during the course was very helpful. We had to manage the crisis while taking care of the economic position of the countries and ensuring popular support as well. Reflecting upon the health system and suggesting measures to prevent future crises formed a part of the competition, and different frameworks learnt during the course helped us in problematizing and analyzing the situation. Moreover, the number of presentations we have for our course has attuned us to prepare one in a short time!

Yogaraj: The biggest learning in the competition was the critical thinking that we had developed over the two trimesters in identifying and approaching problems. In addition to that, the sensitization towards ‘wicked problems’ was of great help. For example, any policy decision we took had ‘unintended consequences’ and we had to accordingly modify our policies in real-time to deal with the fallouts. And all this had to be in a short time so you had to think on your feet to respond to problems. Another useful skill picked up during the course was that of writing policy memos and presenting your arguments in a structured manner.

The competition had participants representing various institutions from across the globe. How was your experience interacting with these students? What kind of skills did they bring into the competition given their diverse backgrounds?

Aarushi: The competition site allocated to us by NASPAA was Egypt – which was the site location for participants from countries in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) region. Accordingly, my three teammates belonged to UAE, Lebanon, and Egypt. This diversity enriched the entire experience, considering that each brought something unique to the table. While two of my teammates were pursuing Political Science and Public Administration respectively, the other was a former consultant in the UAE Health Ministry. The academic quotient did prove to be beneficial in rounds which required policy-memo writing, and professional experience came in handy while responding to tricky situations in the crisis. All in all, we did benefit as a team from our collective professional and academic backgrounds.

Yogaraj: My experience interacting with students from different backgrounds was very illuminating and more challenging than I had imagined it would be. The composition of the teams were multicultural, multilingual, and multi-disciplinary. Some of them were students of public administration, public health, and so on. There were often disagreements because students of different disciplines had a particular outlook towards how problems should be dealt with. The language barrier also posed a challenge in how well you can communicate with each other. Probably the most important challenge was to build a consensus regarding the actions that needed to be taken. And this must be done continuously as the situation within the game evolves continuously.

Ishita: The most striking thing about the Public Policy and Public Administration students whom we met was the diversity! It made us realize how intellectually rich the fraternity is, with each person having very different areas of expertise and interest, but all keen to experiment with new domains.What really helped our team during the competition was in fact the diversity of academic backgrounds and experiences. While someone was proficient with numbers and could set the finances straight, others were great with communications and diplomacy.   

Given your experience in the competition and the opportunity that was presented to you to solve a policy problem, how would you assess our classroom learning? Would you recommend some addition/change in the current course which could help in tackling the kind of problem you were posed at the competition?

Aarushi: Our classroom learning is currently skewed more towards the theoretical aspects of public policy. While I do realize the merits of this kind of pedagogy, we can nonetheless strive for a more balanced approach between theory and practice. Although we do have Sectoral Workshops as part of the coursework on Regulatory Governance and Policy Analysis & Clinic, the case-study approach needs to be followed in all other areas as well, especially in all the Economics courses.

Ishita: I think the frameworks and methods that we are taught are very useful for analysing policies. We can benefit from including a greater application component to the frameworks. One way of doing this could be in the form of case studies. Moreover, we can ourselves try to relate what we are taught to real life problems and try to analyse situations with existing frameworks, or may be even develop new ones! Peer learning can be very useful for this.

Yogaraj: I feel that our curriculum creates a fertile ground for us to become successful policy professionals. When we study in the classroom we might feel disconnected from the real world and might often feel that the theories are of limited value. However, more than the application of theories directly, it is the critical thinking developed through an understanding of these theories that is most useful. Direct transfer of classroom learning on to a professional setting rarely occurs in any field, anyway. I honestly feel that more than tweaking the curriculum, we will benefit more from changing our approach towards the existing curriculum. The knowledge and skills we need are all nearly there, we need to figure out better as to how we can piece them all together to derive the best value as policy professionals.

I can give you an example from the competition itself, a pandemic outbreak can be dealt with using different policy actions such as distribution of masks and vaccines, restricting movements of the population within and outside the countries, setting up quarantine zones, raising taxes too meet increased expenditures. Performing each of these actions does not ensure a successful result because one of them might lead to a consequence you had not imagined of. For example, if you restrict movement of people, it might reduce the infection rates but it will have a negative impact on the economy and will further impact the government’s ability to take up other measures that involve public expenditure. Or, some times raising taxes on eating out can not only bring in more revenue but also restrict unnecessary movement of people in public places. One of the best learning I gained from the simulation was that there is no singular ‘best possible outcome’ in any situation, rather there are ‘multiple outcomes’ that can occur based on different scenarios and different inputs. This is exactly what the ‘wicked problem’ I referred to earlier is all about. And, this is something that came up in nearly every interaction I had with people during the competition.

One thing that we could probably include in our curriculum is increased exposure to simulations as a supplemental means of learning. This is already happening around the world as more policy schools are adopting this hands-on, gamified approach. Although, I would caution against using this extensively as the success of a simulation is directly determinant on the model based on which it is created and subsequently, the research it is based on. The more solid the research, the more successfully can a simulation mirror the real world.

(Aarushi, Ishita, and Yogaraj can be reached at aarushigupta@nls.ac.in, ishitaj@nls.ac.in, and yogarajsmudalgi@nls.ac.in respectively)

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