Why I'm Going To The Harvard Kennedy School

At the end of August, I'll enroll at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to study Public Policy. As a campaigner, I'm often asked why I'm submitting myself to two years of statistics analysis, neoliberal economics and conservative politics - and it is a fair question! It is true that my work on transformative social change and a new economic paradigm will probably sit somewhat outside the comfort zone of my fellow students (and professors!), most of who come from traditional careers in the private and public sector. Even those working for NGOs will, I suspect, come from the world of programme delivery rather than campaigning.

So - why go at all?

1. Learn about the policy process

A good change-maker understands the context s/he works in. I have only had glimpses inside government, and much of the sausage-factory remains a mystery to me. I want to learn the language, the metrics and the culture so that I can engage with civil servants/politicians and not face the extra barrier of being an 'outsider who doesn't understand'. I'm also keen to confirm/improve my sense of what works and what doesn't work in the policy process at the moment.

2. Learn how to implement solutions at scale

As a campaigner, I've become practiced at pointing out problems and sounding the alarm. Putting together solutions and then working them into reality is a different ball game, especially when working at scale. My studies will also allow me to broaden my policy understanding and look at questions such as: what do we do in the face of rising pensions and health costs? How could we move to a 21-hour work week?

3. The network

From my limited experience, I've learned that stuff gets done well when strong relationships of mutual trust and respect exist. As our 'wicked' problems will ask for unusual and widespread collaboration, some people will need to comfortably bridge across sectors, nations and networks. As a keen convener, I see my role increasingly as one of making useful connections to allow sustainability and justice work to accelerate. Being able to open doors will be enhanced unspeakably through the network of students, faculty and alumni at HKS.

4. The legitimacy

When working on shifting paradigms and re-creating systems, it can be easy to be branded as an irrelevant fringe-troublemaker. The Harvard label acts a little bit like an entry card saying, 'He can't be that crazy - he went to Harvard'. This safety cover will hopefully allow me to push boundaries and enter rooms which otherwise would have been closed to me. I am already experiencing the power of the so-called H-Bomb when sharing plans to go to the US. No doubt about it, it is a powerful brand.

5. To test my assumptions

Finally, as much as I love my worldview, I accept that I know but a little about how this complex ecology of politics and power works in practice. There will be many fellow students of mine from the military, the financial sector and management consulting - and I expect our opinions will differ widely. (I have already been in touch with one who would like to see marriage equality banned in every US state...) However, I am endeavouring to enter into these new relationships with a spirit of inquiry; to always look out for what I can learn. What do they see that I have missed or see differently?

There are also, of course, some incredible faculty at the school - Ronald A. Heifetz on leadership, Marshall Ganz on organising and Pippa Norris on democracy. Their tuition will be invaluable. (I'm also looking forward to 48-hour simulated negotiation sessions!) I'll further benefit by working alongside students from all over the world, those doing dual-degrees with the Divinity School, Business School and Law Schools, and older students with years of experience doing the mid-career programme.

To be sure, there are some serious questions about the lack of depth when thinking about values and ethics in public policy at the Kennedy School, so it will be especially important for me to hold strong links with friends and allies in the outside world - to remind me of what is happening and of our shared values. However, if I don't emerge with some changed views and assumptions, I will be disappointed. The whole idea is to learn something new!

Here's hoping this is the right decision.

Thanks for reading,

Casper