Designing an MPP/MPA Course on Implementation with Live Cases and a Real Client

… a resource page for Toronto PPG1007

A potential paper comparing features in PPG1007-I with those in leading North American MPP/MPA programs that teach the theory and practice of strategic planning and operational implementation




Designing an MPP/MPA course on implementation
with live cases and a real client

Co-authors: Ian D. Clark and Andrew Graham

Draft Abstract

This paper describes an experimental section of a first-year MPP course at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance which uses cases that are current implementation challenges faced by a government organization and where the student assignments are briefing notes and presentations intended to be immediately useful to mangers in that organization. See the material pertaining to Section I on Toronto PPG1007 Putting Policy into Action – Strategic Implementation of Public Objectives.

Although many MPP and MPA programs offer case-based courses on strategic implementation and some programs offer courses with the opportunity to work with real government clients, it is rare for a full-semester, strategic implementation course to use live cases with a real client. The paper describes some of the understandings needed between the client and the School to facilitate live cases with a government client and provides a preliminary assessment of the effectiveness and suggestions for improvement regarding all five of the highlighted design elements.


The first section of the paper situates the phenomena of “cased-based learning” and “client-based assignments” used in this course within the broader fields of Experiential Learning and “problem-based learning” and the variety of approaches for bringing practice and practitioners into the active learning of students. The first section reviews the way MPP and MPA programs address the theory and practice of strategic planning and operational implementation in public management. It identifies the relevant courses and exercises in six leading American programs and the extent to which actual cases and real clients are utilized. It notes that a website review of Canadian programs suggests that courses with real clients are very rare.

The second section describes the cases used in the University of Toronto course and the client, the Ontario Regional Office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). It explores some of the arrangements made to address issues such as confidentiality and independence.

The third section describes how the course was conducted.

The fourth section provides observations on the products of the student assignments, including comments from the clients.

The final section summarizes the formal and informal feedback from students, and reflects on how to modify each of the elements could be modified to improve their pedagogical effectiveness.

1 – How leading MPP and MPA programs use cases and clients in teaching the theory and practice of strategic implementation in public management

Most MPP and MPA programs include case-based courses on the theory and practice of strategic implementation in public management and many offer students opportunities to work with real government clients. In this section we look at six leading American programs and then turn to Canadian programs.

The six American programs reviewed are the four selected as Reference Programs on the Atlas of Public Management (Wisconsin’s Follette School; Harvard’s Kennedy School; Michigan’s Ford School; and NYU’s Wagner School) plus two others (Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs; and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School) that, along with the Kennedy School and the Ford School, are exemplars of institutions that deliver both MPP/MPA degrees and international/global affairs degrees.

At the University of Wisconsin’s Follette School of Public Affairs, the first-year required course PA878 – Introduction to Public Management is highly case-based and includes a Public Management Project with a real client (see 2016 syllabus). The second year capstone, PA869 – Workshop in Public Affairs, is described as a “[w]orkshop in program and policy analysis taught through student teams working on real problems for public agencies and organizations” (see 2017 syllabus).

At the Harvard Kennedy School, two of the most durable required components of the MPP curriculum are the Spring Policy Exercise and the one-semester-equivalent Policy Analysis Exercise which look today much like they did when one of us took his MPP degree in 1970-72. The Spring Policy Exercise, worth a half-semester-course-equivalent, uses real cases with a simulated client and is taken in the second semester of the first year. The Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) involves a real case for a real client and takes place in the second semester of the second year. Although the PAE does not include course-style readings and lectures, it is accompanied by a year-long seminar in the student’s policy area of concentration which serves to “familiarize you with key issues and policy debates in your particular area and guide you through the PAE writing process.”

“Once you declare your PAE topic, you will be assigned a faculty advisor whose expertise aligns with that topic. In completing your PAE, you essentially serve as an unpaid consultant to a client organization. You and your client work together to define specific issues, design research strategies, gather data, formulate and evaluate options and, finally, make actionable recommendations. It is not unusual for client organizations to implement the PAE recommendations made by students.”

The design of the Kennedy School’s required courses that teach the theory and practice of strategy and implementation continue to evolve. For many years the most relevant required course was called MLD101 – Strategy, Structure and Leadership in Public Service Organizations. In 2013-14 the name was changed to MLD101 – Management, Leadership and Decision Making. These courses relied heavily on case studies – see the syllabi for these courses at In 2017-18, the MPP Degree Requirements do not include such a required course. The most relevant elective course at the Kennedy School continues to be Peter Zimmerman’s MLD110 – Strategic Management for Public Purposes and the Fall 2017 syllabus can be found at This course relies heavily on cases and, like PPG1007, draws heavily on the concepts in Mark Moore’s two books.

At the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, the MPP/MPA degrees emphasize an Applied approach, which includes the 3-day Integrated Policy Exercise in the first year and the Applied Policy Seminar in the second year.

The Integrated Policy Exercise, which “must be completed twice” for the MPP is described as follows:

“Each year, all first-year master’s students participate in a three-day simulation known as the Integrated Policy Exercise (IPE), which tests their ability to make sound, responsible decisions under “real-world” time constraints and pressures. The annual IPE alternates between issues of domestic and international significance, and recent topics have included freshwater resource allocation, regional transportation, immigration policy, an Iranian nuclear crisis, and more.

“The faculty leader of the Integrated Policy Exercise divides students into teams representing different constituencies with an interest in the problem at hand. Working in small groups, each student team is tasked with representing a particular viewpoint, such as a lobbying organization, an elected politician, a professional organization, or an advocacy group. In consultation with real-world experts on the topic, groups spend the week developing policy positions and political strategies to achieve their clients’ objectives. The week culminates in a simulated negotiation process involving all groups, with feedback from outside experts.”

The Applied Policy Seminar, which is “encouraged while not required” is described as follows:

“The Ford School’s Applied Policy Seminar is a semester-long Master’s level course that engages students in a supervised consulting project with a real-world client. Teams of 4-6 students work with a faculty coordinator and client representative to: develop a project work plan; collect relevant materials and information; conduct research and analysis; prepare a written report; and present findings and recommendations to the client. Students are expected to produce professional-quality work at minimal cost to the client. In return, clients are asked to help provide students with a valuable, engaging educational and professional experience.”

There are no required courses (see Master of Public Policy) that focus specifically on strategy and implementation. The most relevant, PubPol587 – Public Management, has seven quite distinct specializations (see Course catalog). Indeed, a cursory review of the catalog suggests that there is no elective course that focuses on strategy and implementation.

At New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, the Capstone Program is “a year-long consulting or research project that’s required for all MPA students, puts you out in the world, resolving a problem or conducting an analysis for a client organization.” The closest core course to PPG1007 is GP1020 – Managing Public Service Organizations which uses case studies and, while it does not involve a real client, uses the innovative technique (see Course Format in GP1020 syllabus) of groups of students creating their own “virtual public service organization”:

“The core of the semester will be articulating where your passions lie in some area of the public service sphere – social justice, a healthier society, international development, efficient and inviting cities, improving government, cross-sector social entrepreneurism, advocacy and political action – and then locating five or six other students who share your passion. Together you will create a virtual public service organization with its own unique mission, structure, culture, programs and projects as well as measurements of performance to evaluate all you imagine doing. To help you in this creative effort, each session will focus on leadership skills and management perspectives, offering a range of tools and resources that could enhance your effectiveness. In most sessions, you will then be asked to apply what you have learned to the virtual organization you are creating. Our goal will be to distinguish between effective and ineffective strategies for each step of organization building and for you to locate yourself as a leader in the process. We will accomplish this by discussing key concepts, analyzing related cases and engaging in role-play exercises. As much as possible, we will bring in case studies from the very specializations reflected in the course, including health policy, international organizations, management and public policy and urban planning.”

At Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, both the MPA and the MAI (Master of International Affairs) programs “combine training in analytical methods and practical management skills to ensure that graduates are prepared to understand problems and implement solutions” and students “typically engage in a practice-oriented capstone or workshop experience toward the end of their studies.”

As described in the Core Curriculum, students must take the SIPA-U9013 – Internship and, in the final semester, the SIPA-U9000 – Capstone Workshop where:

“Students are organized into small consulting teams (typically 6 students per team) and assigned a substantive, policy-oriented project with an external client. Student teams, working under the supervision of a faculty expert, answer a carefully defined problem posed by the client. Each team produces an actionable report and an oral briefing of their findings at the close of the workshop that is designed to translate into real change on the ground.”

The elective course closest to PPG1007 is SIPA-U6007 – Strategic Management for Public Service Organizations, which is typically taken in the first year and has the following description:

“How can a nonprofit or public sector organization “be successful?” What does it take to achieve your mission? How should your organization be structured to be most effective? How do you deal with the loss of a major grant, the entrance of a new competitor, or a radical change in the political or funding landscape? How should you motivate your staff and sustain and grow your organization’s leadership? In order to deal effectively with these challenges, managers need to acquire knowledge and skills in strategic management. These include conceptual and leadership skills such as the ability to accurately read change in the external environment, define and redefine organizational purpose, handle the complex trade-offs between demand for services and resource constraints, manage ongoing relationships and partnerships with other groups, maintain the commitment and productivity of employees, and guide the organization toward continuous improvement of service production and delivery systems to meet client needs. In other words, managers need deep knowledge of how to think, decide, and act strategically, both in organizational affairs and in matters affecting their capacity for leadership. Strategic Management aims to prepare current and future managers of public service organizations for leadership roles by focusing on the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes needed to manage public service organizations strategically.”

According to a fuller description of SIPA-U6007 on “Lectures, case studies, and group presentations provide students with a platform for exploring key issues raised during the course.”

At Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, there are no listed courses focused specifically on strategy and implementation but there is an Integrated Policy Exercise at the end of the first semester in the first year where students “are given briefing materials to review in advance and are then required to submit a comprehensive memo in response to a set of specific policy questions” and there are required Policy Workshops in the second year. The description of Policy Workshops is:

“Policy workshops provide students with an opportunity to use the analytical skills they have acquired in the first year in the program to analyze complex and challenging policy issues, usually for real clients. The workshops emphasize policy implementation, and it is this emphasis that distinguishes them from regular courses. The goal of the workshops is to understand a policy issue in great depth and to make policy recommendations that are both creative and realistic, given the relevant institutional and political constraints. Each workshop consists of eight to 10 students who work in teams to evaluate a policy challenge. Most students engage in field-based research during the eight- or nine-day fall break period. Typically the formal presentation for the client or expert group is organized sometime between mid-December and late January.”

To summarize, for these six leading American programs:

  • All six programs offer a course (required at five, recommended at one) which has as a major component a project where students work with a live case for a real client
  • Four of the six programs offer a course (required at two) focused specifically on strategy and implementation and all of these rely on cases, with one of them using a real client

The situation is quite different in Canadian programs. From a quick review of the current curricula of all the MPP/MPA programs listed for CAPPA member schools there appear to be few that offers a course (as distinct from a co-op or internship assignment) where students are required to analyze a live case for a real client. The three examples found to date are:

  • At the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration, the MPA On Campus overview describes two required courses taken in the first semester, PADR501 – Collaboration and Engagement and PADR502A – Analysis for the Public & Non-Profit Sectors, which together:

“include a team-based integrative case that spans the semester and addresses a real-time significant policy challenge. The case will include the interests of all major stakeholders in industry, First Nations, communities, and different levels of governments. Your team will interact with other teams representing these stakeholders as well as with actual representatives from key stakeholders in British Columbia. At the end of the semester, you will present your recommendations to these and other interested parties at the end of the semester.”

“PLCY 800 (Fall) and PLCY 807 (Spring) are a two-semester sequence with two objectives: (1) to introduce the basic principles and techniques of policy analysis and (2) to examine a series of current public policy issues through readings, lectures and guest speakers. Using a ‘learning by doing’ process, we focus on practical aspects of policy analysis and build on the theoretical foundations provided by MPP core courses in economics, political science and research methods.”

and includes group projects that produce analytical reports for real clients, including provincial ministries, municipal agencies, and non-profit organizations.

  • At Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies, the elective course MPA814 – Intergovernmental Policy (Federalism) has for the past six years included, as a key element of the syllabus, group projects for government departments (private communication from the instructor).

There appear to be relatively few courses offered within Canadian MPP/MPA programs that focus specifically on strategy and implementation. The closest are:

“This is a foundational course in professional policy practice. It is interdisciplinary, drawing on key concepts from science, social science, business and public administration as well as the world of the policy practitioner. This course introduces students to thinking in a critical, integrated way about how to deliver on public policy objectives in the context of a dynamic political and stakeholder environment. Specifically, it examines key considerations in developing an implementation strategy for a policy initiative.”

2 – Indigenous services cases and collaboration with the Ontario Regional Office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada


3 – How the course was conducted


4 – Feedback from students and from the client


5 – Suggestions for improvement and next steps



Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 26 March 2018.