UC program offers expertise to capitol staff

It’s become conventional wisdom around the Capitol that in the era of term limits, staffers know more than the members. But even staffers aren’t always equipped for every situation they face at work.

That’s where the new University of California at Davis Extension Public Policy Program hopes to make a difference. The program’s first eight-week course starts on October 2. It is designed to give students a crash course in practical public policy—from understanding how policy decisions will affect local governments to getting the most out of research.

“It’s not designed to be a nuts and bolts program,” said Susan Catron, Director of the Public Policy & Health Sciences Programs at UC Davis Extensions. “It’s really about helping people with conceptual tools for thinking about policy.”

Catron said they expect many of the students to be younger, newer staffers. But the program should also be of interest to agency personnel, mid-level staffers who want to get more involved in working on legislation, new department managers, and anyone who lacks an academic background in public policy. Classes will be taught at the Sutter Square Galleria, about a mile from the Capitol.
“The UC Davis Public Policy Program was created to fill a void in policy education locally,” Catron said. “We hope to serve those who participate in the policy process, but who lack a formal academic background in public policy and cannot take time out to pursue full-time graduate study.”

Much of the curriculum is built around a long list of guest speakers who will offer insight on various policy and procedural areas. For instance, economist Robert Manwaring, former K-12 section director for the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), will lead a session on public economics. Another economist, Rob Wassmer, will give a similar perspective on state and local finance. The very first session will feature former Sacramento Bee editorial page director Peter Schrag talking about how California’s changing demographics will affect future policy discussions.

Which is not to say students won’t get some very practical advice and hands-on experience. Peter Detwiler, staff director for the Senate Local Government Committee, will lead the week seven session on public policy advising. He said he plans to have students work though a pair of test cases—one of the budget, another on legislation.

Detwiler said he also hopes to help impart some lessons he learned early on when he started at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research in the late 1970s. Then, as now, many hearings got held up due to a lack of preparation. Detwiler said his boss, Bill Press, drummed into his staff that they needed to have two answers ready for every question they were likely to face: a short one and a long one.

“Bill’s advice was like the admonition to simply say ‘11 o’clock’ when someone asks you what time it is, and to refrain from telling them the whole history of Swiss watch-making,” Detwiler said. “But you’d better have the longer, more nuanced, and better documented answer if the questioner wants the full explanation. Dilettantes can give you a facile one-line response, but they rarely have the research to back up their clever reply.”

To follow his own advice, Detwiler said he’d probably leave the students with the short version—imparted to him by Casey Kaneko, now the executive director of the Urban Counties Caucus.

“Casey Kaneko used to tell new staffers to follow the ‘ABC’ method of public speaking: be Accurate, be Brief, be Seated,” Detwiler said.

People have been talking about the need for a program like this for years, said Dr. Tom Timar, a professor of education at UC Davis who will teach a section on using research and analysis tools. Timar spent three years in the Assembly Office of Research in the 1980s, followed by three years as government affairs director at the Community College League.

Some of the experienced policy staff in the Capitol have been around since his time in the Capitol and before, Timar said. Programs like this will help ensure there are people ready to replace them when the time comes, he said.

“These people are getting to where they’re probably going to retire very soon,” Timar said. “Who is going to replace them? What kind of experience will they have?”

One session many staffers might find particularly useful, Catron said, will be taught by Steve Boilard, director of the Higher Education section at the LAO. Boilard will teach students about how to give an effective committee presentation. Catron said her own experience working as a policy analyst at the LAO was part of what convinced her of the need for the program.

“I testified at more than 30 hearings in a single budget season, which afforded a unique vantage point from which to observe the process,” Catron said. “I saw some good proposals that were effectively presented, and also some bad ones. I felt there was an opportunity to raise the level of policy discourse by enhancing the capacities of participants in the policy process, especially the more peripheral players for whom public policy is not their primary function.”

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