A HALLMARK FOR HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL’S first-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) students is a two-week study of a real-life experience called Spring Exercise (SPREX). Small teams work together to create policy recommendations for a public challenge. Ten months ago, Eric Rosenbach, as course head for “Policy Design and Delivery,” and his student researchers began building SPREX around preparation for a fictional pandemic along the lines of the Ebola outbreak.

And then, incredibly, COVID-19 hit. “As we watched the world deal with the spread of the novel coronavirus, we realized we had a unique opportunity for the Spring Exercise,” said Rosenbach. “The exercise could use the world as it is, rather than a simulated world, as source material. But we had some big issues to address.” One was Harvard’s shift to remote learning. Teams had to work together in new ways, using Zoom rather than physical classrooms.

Another was the subject. Eleni Cortis, director of the MPP program, recognized that the topic was difficult. “This topic is very personal for everyone—we’re in this together, but also the situation is having a different impact on each person depending on their circumstances,” she explained. The team adapted to these concerns. Wendy Sherman, director of the Center for Public Leadership and a professor of the practice of public leadership, knew the assignments had to be forward-thinking. “We shifted the focus so students could think about a path out of the crisis,” Sherman said. Students were also able to choose a different topic if they felt this one was too traumatic, although no-one took that option.

A broad approach with a personal touch

Students developed policy recommendations for one of four topics: reopening public schools in Cambridge; assisting migrant workers in New Delhi; opening travel to the United States; and identifying options for developing countries. The SPREX faculty team hosted presentations and facilitated the process. John D. Donahue, faculty chair of the MPP program and a co-founder of Spring Exercise back in 1997, emphasized that, while students were operating in a new learning environment, one element remained the same. “Our most important function is receiving and reacting to the three deliverables that the student teams prepare: A memo laying out and analyzing policy options; an implementation plan; and a communications strategy,” Donahue said. Even though the Spring Exercise would take place entirely online, the central learning objectives would still be met.

The SPREX faculty pulled together an impressive pool of government, private sector, and NGO leaders to offer guidance. Ron Klain, Obama’s Ebola czar, emphasized the need to build relationships within communities: “No solution is successful without a global solution. America will only be as safe as the weakest point in the pandemic.” Merck VP and therapeutic head for vaccines clinical research Paula Annunziato encouraged students think broadly and thoughtfully: "Performing scientific research and clinical trials for relatively rare, outbreak-prone diseases requires novel approaches and managing unique types of complexity."  And in a particularly meaningful moment, the health minister of Delhi, India, Satyendar Jain, encouraged students to work for the public good and help those in need.

David Eaves, a lecturer in public policy and part of the SPREX team, was energized by the new format. “I am amazed by the intimacy of a Zoom meeting. There were some really magical classes; they were different and there were real strengths in having them virtually," said Eaves.

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SPREX faculty member David Eaves found the chat capability opened up conversations that might not otherwise happen in a classroom.

“These students just want to help”

That virtual magic was evident during Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui’s briefing on schools. One student, Julien Joy, asked the mayor, “Who has the authority for closing and opening schools, and do towns work with their neighbors?” As she answered, the governor was in the process of breaking the news that schools throughout Massachusetts would be closed for the remainder of the school year.

“I’ve deeply appreciated the effort and thought the teaching team put into this, especially managing to bring us such wonderful speakers, from the mayor of Cambridge to a member of Congress,” said Dana Karout. Rees Sweeney-Taylor agreed. “The briefings have been quite edifying, and I appreciate the breadth of scope. I've learned a lot from the talk the first day with Ron Klain, and Rep. Bera—so uplifting.” And Gerben Scherpbier was able to discuss his volunteer work with Mayor Siddiqui. “Some of the COVID testing I have been doing in Cambridge came about because the Cambridge City Council decided to test every patient and staffer of long-term care facilities. And then during spring exercise I actually got to ask her a question about this work.”

The student experience, however, did not come without challenges, as Holly Ransom found out. “Being in Australia certainly meant my group was a 24-hour team!” Ransom said. “We would have team meetings late in my evening when Boston was getting underway for the day and then often chat again in my early morning so we could continue to brief each other on progress.” While challenging, Ransom found the exercise true to life. “Being across time zones was a good simulation of real-world collaboration too.” Hillary Anderson added that while the exercise was good, a cloud hangs over her experience. “The only reason we are remote is because there is a pandemic that is threatening ourselves and everyone we know and love,” Anderson said. “It is hard for me to shake that grim reality every time I log in to Zoom. I don't want to understate the mental toll that it takes on myself, my classmates, and professors.”

As faculty think ahead to the next school year, the lessons from the relaunched spring exercise will prove invaluable. Working across time zones and through technical glitches mirrors a real-world experience. Students had to challenge “normal” thinking and, in the end, stepped up to the challenge. “Students felt like they learned real, practical, professional skills, grounded in theory,” Sherman said. “We are a professional school, so this is what we do.”


In the students’ own words

The very best products from the students will be sent to leaders of the organizations that worked with the teams, many at their request.  So, for example, the strategy memos they created as part of their exercise will be sent to the mayor of Cambridge, the World Health Organization (WHO) and to the health minister of Delhi.

Zoom screenshot of students Chrissy and Oscar.

“Our plan focuses on two things: increasing learning by the end of this year by providing increased resources and training for teachers and lengthening the next school year.”
—Chrissy Raymond

Watch the video

Zoom screenshot of students Dwight and Pallavi.

“When the lock down in New Delhi was announced, many migrant workers became homeless, jobless or both. To address this critical problem right now we are launching a brand new cash transfer program targeting vulnerable migrant workers.”
—Dwight Knell

Watch the video


Zoom screenshot of Dana.

“We were simulating a team of senior advisors to the secretary of Homeland Security, who asked us to provide recommendations and a plan for reopening travel to the United States from Europe for non-U.S. citizens. After crafting the plan, we then were responsible for a five-minute TV appearance to explain and defend our recommendation to the public! …”
—Dana Karout

Zoom screenshot of Gerben.

“Our team was on the World Health Organization project. We had one person who has done a lot of work internationally on AIDS. We had someone who spoke on international development, so he understands some of the aid organizations that’ll be involved. I’m in law enforcement and medicine. So, my first and biggest question was where is the leadership and where is the centralized command? And so that was our very first recommendation in our initial briefing: we need to bring together various nations, various funders and various NGOs…”
—Gerben Scherpbier

Faculty photo by Martha Stewart

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