Today’s Public Administrators: Dr. Lori Brainard

Q&A compiled and edited by Thomas J. Rachko, Jr., MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives. Today’s Public Administrators asks administrators working in the public sphere about their experience implementing and shaping policy on the ground. 

In Fall 2018, the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University reinvigorated its commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion with the introduction of the course, “Perspectives on Public Values.” An atypical course for a Master’s of Public Administration (MPA) program, “Perspectives on Public Values” explores interpersonal relationships and experiences of privilege, diversity, and inclusion through literary fiction. Moving forward, the course will be a requirement for all MPA students.

Photo courtesy Dr. Lori Brainard

The Trachtenberg School called upon none other than Dr. Lori Brainard to teach the course. Dr. Brainard is one of today’s leading experts on public administration, a faculty member of more than 19 years, and former director of the MPA program. In addition to designing and teaching the course, Dr. Brainard is conducting a study to assess how it might be improved and implemented in other MPA programs across the country. In order to understand more about “Perspectives on Public Values” and today’s public administrator behind it, Policy Perspectives interviewed Dr. Brainard.

Q: How would you define public values? What do public values mean to you?

A: I believe that we all have different public values. That is, we each have different perspectives on public values. For me, I think of the values that are in the Bill of Rights – freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of search and seizure – but recognizing that we all hold different things important. I hold the Bill of Rights to be paramount, but you may hold something else in the Constitution paramount or something else outside of the Constitution to be paramount.

So, for me it’s really the Bill of Rights and of them all, I hold sacred freedom of speech. You cannot have a democracy unless you have a democracy in ideas, and you cannot have a democracy in ideas if you can’t have a democracy in speaking them. The reason why I think it is important to teach reflection and conversation is because you can’t have free speech without those. What I hold dear in terms of public values is sort of embedded in the purpose of the course.

Q: Can you tell us more about why literary fiction should be taught in Masters of Public Administration programs?

A: Scientific studies teach us  about the plasticity of the brain and how the brain can be changed, and different regions of the brain work on different kinds of problems. All the studies are showing that of all kinds of pop culture, literary fiction most stretches the part of a person’s brain that deals with empathy.

The other reason I assign fiction is because it allows you to walk in the footsteps of someone with problems or issues or concerns that you would never in a million years even be able to imagine. We may not all be refugees, or we may not all be trying to figure out how to express our religion, but we all are trying somehow to make sense of what’s going on around us and fit into that in a way that contributes. That involves trying to walk in other people’s footsteps.

Q: How did you decide upon the three books – What is the What by Dave Eggers, Home Fire: A Novel by Kamila Shamise, and the Intuitionist: A Novel by Colson Whiteheadthat you used to teach the course?

A: I chose What is the What because it gave us the story of a single person’s experience, that of a refugee trying to navigate American society, but it was his story, his individual story. The next book we read was Home Fire, and that was about a group of people, three siblings, and their relationship to the state and how they impacted the state and how the state impacted them. The final book was The Intuitionist and that was much more about a societal issue. The author really tried to get everything in that book – race, gender, and ways of knowing things.

 Q: You designed the course to be “intensively participatory” and stressed an emphasis on “empathy and the ability to have civil discourse.” What were your hopes for the course in teaching students how to be effective public administrators?

A: My hope is that our students will go out and model for the rest of the Washington bureaucracy how to have these conversations about difficult topics because we are not making progress on policy. One of the reasons we are not making progress on policy is because we are all too busy trying to either advocate our point of view or persuade people without listening first. We think that is a skill that public administrators need practice in. So, this was an opportunity to practice it the art of difficult conversations, rather than to teach it to you, and to give students a pause in the hope that when you all are in the workplace, you will pause and try to listen before persuading or advocating.

Q: As part of the course, students maintained a structured “Reflective Journal” that required retrospective and prospective reflection. Why is it important that public administrators reflect on their work?

A: Professional programs are about preparing you for your career and your career is the rest of your life. The technical skills will help you get the job and succeed on the job, but it’s the other skills– the ability to stop and think and the ability to do group work—that are going to make your career.

Q: What can public administrators learn from being reflective?

A: We are human beings and we can’t be asked to leave our human self at the door when we show up for work in the morning. Our human self and our biases are going to accompany us on the job. There’s value in knowing what our human biases are and understanding their implications for us and what we bring to any job.

Q: You have taught at TSPPPA for over 19 years and previously directed the MPA program at Trachtenberg. What was it like designing a new course?

A: I was program director for ten years until about two years ago, when I decided that I wanted to go back to really focusing a lot on my research, but there were also new classes that I wanted to focus on and teach. And, something like this was one of them.

It was hard designing this course as this course had a lot of expectations placed upon it. Some people wanted a course on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some people wanted a course on empathy. Some people wanted a course on difficult conversations. Some people wanted a course on reflection. I just thought, so I have to have a course on all those things. The other purpose of the course, people wanted to be sure that it created a sense of community among entering students. The course had a lot of objectives placed on it. It was also hard because I knew that it would be a very unconventional course. Our students come with expectations for statistics and budgeting but not for reading novels. Also, designing a course with the intention of producing uncomfortable conversations was difficult (and a bit scary).

Q: Before you came to the Trachtenberg School, you managed a staff of over 30 individuals serving 1.6 million visitors annually at the Boston Museum of Science. What are some of your values or experiences that you bring from management and administration of a large museum to teaching?

A: A lot, actually. First is the issue of accessibility. Part of a museum’s mission is to be accessible. Even the most expensive museums spend a lot their time figuring out how to make complex ideas, whether it is science or art or history, accessible in terms of entry fees, operating hours, and the way they’re pitched. One of the things I try to do is bring in problems throughout my classes, some of which I know students have experience with, and then I intentionally bring in other examples and problems that I know students don’t have experience with. Another thing I bring is recognition that each person is motivated differently so it’s important to have enough going on in a course that there might be a “hook” for everyone. Finally, everyone has different learning styles so it’s important to try different teaching approaches.

Q: How do you hope “Perspectives on Public Values” will shape future discourse on privilege and inclusion for Trachtenberg students?

A: I hope that it will make people curious about privilege and inclusion, but also about lots of other things differences too. We come to school because we are curious, and we want to make a change. Then, somehow, we lose our curiosity because we are so busy just trying to get through. My hope for “Perspectives on Public Values” is that it will encourage students to be curious and to be able to articulate that curiosity. We hope our students will be able to pause and use reflection to support them in doing that.

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