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SPPC: Strategic Public Policy Consulting (PUB POL 578)

The Challenge

Students in the Ford School’s Master of Public Policy (M.P.P.) program require opportunities to apply the knowledge and skills they acquire in the classroom to real-world problems, as well as to gain soft skills and experiences that employers value. This is increasingly true for doctoral students who seek non-academic careers.

Our Approach

To provide these opportunities, the Strategic Public Policy Consulting (SPPC) course was created as part of the Ford School’s engaged learning portfolio. The goal of SPPC is to create mutually beneficial opportunities:

  • for students to apply, expand, and demonstrate their classroom experiences;
  • for real-world partner organizations to obtain valuable knowledge, perspectives, and insights;
  • for the Ford School to build a rich network of real-world partners.

Before the start of each fall and winter semester, the course instructor collaborates with public, non-profit, private, and philanthropic sector organizations to identify and scope semester-long projects that address pressing public policy issues for the organizations.

  • Partner organizations are drawn from a combination of instructor networks, alumni contacts, and referrals.
  • Organizations submit an online proposal that is reviewed for fit by the instructor. The selected projects reflect a wide range of methodologies, substantive issues, and organization types.
  • There is no monetary cost to the partner organization, though they are expected to commit at least two to three hours per week of their contact person’s time to help support the students’ work.

At the beginning of the semester, students enrolled in SPPC, which is a three-credit elective (P/F) course, form teams of three to six students and select their projects. Student teams work throughout the semester on the projects, and typically:

  • develop a detailed project plan with timeline, team member responsibilities, milestones, and deliverables;
  • undertake background research;
  • collect data (including administrative/ big data, surveys, interviews, case studies, focus groups, etc.);
  • conduct analyses;
  • develop recommendations.

Throughout the semester, the teams obtain guidance from the partner organization, the professor, and a team of distinguished mentors. While the partner organization and professor help with study design and day-to-day implementation, the mentors provide “big picture” insights as well as connections to their vast networks.

At the end of the semester, students produce a written deliverable that is tailored to the needs of the partner organization and the nature of the project. Students present their results and recommendations to the client. Survey-based evaluations, as well as one-on-one follow-up, are used to collect feedback from the clients and the students.

What We’ve Learned

Our experience suggests that there are tremendous opportunities for U-M graduate students to work on meaningful projects with external partner organizations.

Students are eager to help make a difference in the world by bringing their energy, skills, and passions into partnership with organizations working on the ground on the challenges that motivate them.

Partner organizations are thirsty for access to university resources and expertise. They value the professional quality work that is done on behalf of their organizations, as well as the students’ fresh perspectives.

Our most successful projects tend to be those in which the partner organizations place a high priority on the students’ project, commit the necessary time and personnel to be responsive to student questions and needs, and place the students’ learning experience first. Other factors that correlate with success are setting clear expectations with the partner organizations about project scope and student commitments.

Perhaps the biggest challenges are finding faculty who are willing to experiment with a new teaching pedagogy, and maintaining effective follow-up after the project/semester is completed.

Next Steps

Strategic Public Policy Consulting (and its predecessor Applied Policy Seminar) has become a signature component of the Ford School’s Master of Public Policy program. And while public policy is itself inherently an interdisciplinary field, our M.P.P. students recognize the need to gain experience interacting directly with students in other professional programs who work on many of the same social challenges from different disciplinary and professional perspectives. We have therefore recently opened and begun marketing SPPC to graduate students in other U-M graduate/professional programs. SPPC is also a core partner program within the multi-disciplinary Michigan Engaging Communities Through the Classroom (MECC) initiative.


Ford School of Public Policy


Elisabeth Gerber, Professor and Associate Dean, Ford School of Public Policy


To learn more visit the SPPC: Strategic Public Policy Consulting (PUB POL 578) page.