November 29, 2007

Political science students analyze local projects

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Charles Leonard, a visiting assistant professor in political science, is makin' it real in his public policy analysis seminar at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

A little pressure from the media and interested parties would help.

Leonard assigned his students team policy analysis projects, requiring them to create the type of report generally known as a "white paper" – an authoritative evaluation used to outline policies or policy options. They must also prepare a formal presentation explaining the recommendations and analysis in the white paper.

Here's where it gets a little intense. First, Leonard invited several members of the campus community, including Matt Baughman, assistant director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, John Jackson, visiting professor at the Institute and professor emeritus from the political science department, Steve Shulman, interim chair of the political science department, John Hamman, director of the master's of public administration program, and University Communications Director Mike Ruiz, to sit in on the presentations.

Then he invited the media.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews may cover the public policy analyses presented by advanced political science undergraduate students and graduate students in the Master of Public Administration program. This is a learning experience for the students – media are welcome to ask questions and conduct interviews. The presentations, each scheduled for about 10 minutes, begin at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 6 in Faner Hall 2408, the College of Liberal Arts Dean's Conference Room.

"I'm trying to give them hands-on policy analysis experience," Leonard explained. "They are analyzing issues that are real in Illinois. They have been advised to write as if real policymakers in the community are the audience for the white papers they produce for our class – because they are."

Leonard said emphasizing practical applications of what is learned in class is important for students. "For me, the bottom line for a class like this is to show the students this is a way to make a living with a background in political science. 'Policy analyst' is a relatively new job description, but you can find people with jobs like that at the state department, state agencies in Springfield, lobbying groups, law firms, and not-for-profit organizations. Students often wonder how to apply what they are learning in their classes. Doing the presentation in this way – this is about as real as it gets."

Leonard assigned the students at random to policy analysis groups. Graduate students from the Master of Public Administration program enrolled in the seminar are the group leaders.

These are the topics.

Expansion of Illinois 127 to four lanes of traffic from Murphysboro to Pinckneyville

A buzz-generating topic in Southern Illinois is the proposed Illinois 13/127 bypass and lane expansion. One of Leonard's groups is tackling that issue under the leadership of graduate student Gary Shafer – who is the airport manager for the Southern Illinois Airport Authority. "It's really fortuitous to have someone like Gary in our class," Leonard said. "He has had practical experience with policy analysis and with the Illinois Department of Transportation."

Leonard said the Illinois 13/127 group is taking a "narrow view," meaning members are to examine the options currently under consideration for the expressway, not to start from scratch.

"They have attended some of the community meetings and public comment forums on this issue," Leonard said. "This is a concrete study. Though their policy analysis presentation is theoretical, it is about real people whose lives would be changed by the implementation."

Creating "local currency" to promote small business in Carbondale

This policy analysis team examined the creation of a "local currency" usable at member-businesses in Carbondale. "Money is just a concept," Leonard said. "If we agree that a Carbondale coin is really currency at select locations, it is." He noted the system is in place, perhaps most famously, in Ithaca, N.Y., where "Ithaca Hours" are used as a local currency. The Ithaca Hours program allows purchases of services or products. The Hours name for the currency emphasizes the flexibility of the currency program, where individuals can decide how many "Hours" their hours are worth in a services-related transaction.

Leonard said this policy analysis presentation might be of interest to local businesses or representatives of the City of Carbondale, Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, Carbondale Main Street or organizations from other cities considering ways to boost local commerce.

Proposal to put a wind turbine on the SIUC campus

Students in this group examined the economic feasibility of constructing a wind turbine on the west side of campus. SIUC has, in fact, won a grant enabling data collection for just such a project.

Leonard said that while of course a main component of this policy analysis is a cost-benefit analysis, there is more to the proposal than dollars alone. There is also the educational aspect – is it worthwhile to have a demonstration unit on a Southern Illinois campus even if the energy generated does not meet expectations? The policy analysis will answer such abstract questions as well as the economic ones.

Establishing a congestion pricing-toll system in Chicago

This group studied a model in use in London and considered by New York City to reduce vehicle traffic in particularly congested areas at peak traffic times. The London model charges drivers increasingly higher tolls the further into the city they drive. There are several goals in such a policy – reducing rush hour traffic, encouraging use of public transportation, reducing inner-city pollution and minimizing wasted time in traffic jams. The group is to find an acceptable way to implement a similar plan in Chicago. Leonard noted that while the topic is not immediately applicable to Carbondale, since many SIUC students are from the Chicago area, the policy analysis may interest the student community.