• 12.20.13

This MBA In Public Policy Comes From An Unlikely Source: A Design School

As we start to acknowledge how important design is in how we make policy, it’s high time to start training designers to think like policy makers.

This MBA In Public Policy Comes From An Unlikely Source: A Design School
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

At a time when the federal government can’t even roll out a functioning health care website, it’s tempting to think that bureaucracies are incapable of true innovation. California College of Arts, which is launching what may be the first public policy MBA program within a design school, has hope.


“We are going to graduate practitioners of the craft of public policy design,” says Will Semmes, the associate program chair. “Having a public policy school in an environment that’s pushing people to have artistic courage and creativity–I think is exactly what is needed today to tackle some of these fundamental partisan problems in government.”

The MBA in Public Policy Design sprang from an existing program at the school: an MBA in Design Strategy. The new program has similar roots, but with a public policy twist. “During the teaching of the design strategy MBA, people had epiphanies on how to bring design and systems thinking into organizations,” explains Semmes, who was hired after the school decided to create the program.

At the end of four semesters of work, students earning the new degree are expected to have a background in how businesses work, how to leverage design, sustainability, and integrative thinking in government work, as well as how finance, economics, leadership and management are fundamental to any organization.

One class, Managerial Economics, will focus on explaining both traditional and new economics models, such as carbon trading, that are tied to transparency, open data, and analytics. Another course will explicitly teach students how to navigate government bureaucracy to achieve their goals. Guest lecturers in that class will include union leaders and government HR managers.

One of the most intriguing courses is called Power in Politics, which will feature legislators, politicians, and government officials discussing how power relates to political campaigning. Semmes is also toying with the idea of requiring one student in each class to run for office. “The students would have to select that person and get behind them. What happens if that person gets elected? How exciting would that be?” Still, he admits: “I don’t know if we can require a student to run for office while in the program.”

Semmes points to California’s new Government Operations Agency as an example of design thinking in action. “They’re starting to have very serious conversations with Code for America and other data analytics professionals to explore what open data means for state government,” he says.

The MBA program, which will accept just 15 students in its first year, is accepting applications until January 5th.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.