Pearl Eliadis (right) is the coach for a team of students from the Max Bell School of Public Policy taking part in its Policy Lab (Photo: Christinne Muschi)

On Campus

The assignment? Solving a real-world problem

When the students at the Max Bell School of Public Policy take part in its Policy Lab, they know they’ll be tackling a challenge with real-life stakes.

Story by Patrick McDonagh

April 2023

In many developing nations, education opportunities for girls are limited at best – a problem that the Montreal-based NGO 60 million girls has set out to address. But a new obstacle had them stymied: climate change.

“It has really devastating effects, as girls are often the ones who are first taken out of school when catastrophes happen in the community,” says Wanda Bedard, BCom’82, the founder and CEO of 60 mlllion girls. “But we weren’t sure how to approach this problem.”

So Bedard took her problem to McGill: specifically, a team of students in the Max Bell School of Public Policy’s Policy Lab, a component of the school’s one-year Master in Public Policy (MPP) program.

“They looked at that intersection between climate change and girls’ education and did an absolutely amazing job – they really knocked it out of the ballpark!,” says Bedard. “They provided us with a timeline for how we could integrate climate action into our products and saved us about two years of work.” The NGO is now focusing its efforts on implementing the approaches identified in the Policy Lab report.

“There’s nothing hypothetical in it”

The Max Bell School welcomed the first cohort of students for its MPP program in fall 2019. While there are other public policy programs across Canada, most take 20 months and incorporate an internship into the summer break.

“But internships are hit and miss, and seemed an inefficient use of time for our intensive program,” says Christopher Ragan, the School’s director and an associate professor of economics. “We had to have something with a much more practical feel than internships typically offer.”

The Policy Lab – worth nine of the program’s 45 credits – fills the bill.

“An organization presents a policy challenge to be tackled by a team of four or five students over a period of six months, during which time the team develops a solution to that challenge,” explains Ragan. “There’s nothing hypothetical in it: students are involved in solving a real problem that a real organization really wants to solve.”

Wanda Bedard, president of 60 million girls, poses at her home in Montreal, March 7, 2023. (Photo: Christinne Muschi)

This approach is, so far as he knows, unique in Canada and provides an experience that the students can build careers on. Its practicality attracts a diverse range of students: the current cohort features a large international contingent and includes those with backgrounds in economics, history, law, and music, among other fields.

Ricardo Chejfec, BA&Sc’18, MPP’22, who came to McGill from Mexico and graduated in the school’s second cohort, was part of a team addressing housing discrimination, a policy challenge sponsored by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

“There were certainly lots of challenges our team faced,” says Chejfec. “The first was time management. We’re doing this on top of our regular academic curriculum, which is already intense. The second is working with a sponsor. We had a great sponsor that was always available to talk, but it is challenging to square your interests, ideas and goals with the sponsor’s needs. Ultimately, we were not working for the sponsor, so the focus of the report was ours to decide. But we want to be as helpful as possible. In our case, discrimination is not only of interest to CMHC but also to governments, to civil society organizations.”

The team narrowed their scope to anti-Black discrimination as it exists for renters in major urban centers. In exploring the issue, the team carried out 21 interviews, with representatives from governments and civil society organizations as well as academics, law experts, and people in housing development.

“We had a lot of information that we had to put together without getting off topic or beyond our scope,” says Chejfec.

A coach’s perspective

Fortunately, teams have coaches to help guide the way: Chejfec’s team had Lucyna Lach, an associate professor in the School of Social Work whose research focuses on the social determinants of health for children with neurodisabilities.

Typically, the Policy Lab seeks out coaches who can speak to the issues the students are wrestling with, but who are not experts in that specific field – a strategy that aims to reduce the likelihood of coaching being too directive.

Pearl Eliadis, BSc’81, BCL’85, LLB’85, a human rights lawyer who has been involved with the Policy Lab since its start, has coached a few student teams.

“The idea is that, as coach, you’re really at arm’s length,” says Eliadis, an associate professor (professional) at the Max Bell School. “You’re there to support, but not to be an extra team member. You give the students the space to guide how they want the relationship with the coach to work.”

Eliadis has discerned a clear pattern to team trajectories. “The intensity is high at the Policy Lab kickoff in January, and with the initial meeting with the sponsor. Then the students go away and figure out what they’re doing, and that can take time. They have to set their internal processes – basically, how are they going to work together?”

So, they draft a team charter to define values and processes, including conflict management. They also define the scope of their topic, determining what is manageable given their skill sets, timelines, and access to information. And sometime around March, says Eliadis, “they realize that they’ve got four months until they graduate but they’re still figuring out what the problem is! That is entirely typical and leads to a lot of gnashing of teeth.”

Throughout, the coach is there – someone to bounce ideas off of, to suggest possible avenues to explore, and to offer wise counsel to assuage that inevitable teeth-gnashing.

Keeping things on track

If the Policy Lab is challenging for students, it also demands some administrative heavy lifting. And doing the bulk of this lifting is Nathalie Duchesnay, MBA’99, a faculty lecturer and the program’s coordinator. Her work involves organizing and managing sponsors and students, and making sure that everyone gets what they need from the program.

Duchesnay structures the Policy Lab to incorporate a range of themes, including housing, the economy, education, trade, energy, and climate change.

“We want to have diversity of topics and of types of organizations: some at the federal level, some at the provincial and municipal levels, some that are NGOs or non-profit organizations,” she says. While initially she solicited organizations, with its fourth cohort the program has seen an increase in potential sponsors making that first move.

“Our reputation is getting out there! Organizations are coming to us saying, ‘We like what you’re doing, and we’d like to participate.’”

Duchesnay also assigns students to teams. They receive a list of challenge topics early in the program, rank their choices, and then meet with her so she can assess their skill sets, experience, and objectives in order to build teams with members from a mix of personal and professional backgrounds.

She is also there to manage any crisis beyond the realm of the coaches. And at the other end of the process, in July, she organizes the grand finale, where teams present their reports, including recommendations, to their sponsors.

The presentation marks the culmination of a demanding six-month process, but Chefjec stresses that the experience was rewarding, in many ways.

“I worked with an all-star team of wonderful people,” he says.” We are staying in touch and I hope to be able to collaborate with them again one day. It was an extremely positive experience, and I’m grateful for it.”

“The goal isn’t to set students up with a potential employer,” says Ragan, but the Policy Lab experience certainly doesn’t hurt students’ job prospects. About 80 per cent of Max Bell’s students are hired before they graduate and the remaining 20 per cent find jobs within a couple of months after graduation.

Max Bell alums are currently working for a wide array of governments, government organizations, institutions and NGOs, including the World Bank, Natural Resources Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Health, the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations and His Majesty’s Treasury in the U.K.

Chejfec is now a research associate with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, a Montreal-based think tank. “The work that I do every day is very similar to the type of work that we did in our Policy Lab,” he says. “The Policy Lab managed to capture all the individual elements that have come to be part of my everyday career.”

Visit here to learn more about the Max Bell School’s Policy Lab, and to view presentations and reports.

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