In 2018, 36 gubernatorial races resulted in the election of several new state chief executives. It was an opportunity Alison Dorsey MC/MPA 2019, Daniel Goetzel MC/MPA 2019, and Sam Birnbaum MPP 2020 pounced on—an opportunity to give Kennedy School students a hands-on look at state government.
Dorsey had previously worked in North Carolina with Governor Roy Cooper and Goetzel in Maryland with Governor Martin O’Malley. They knew from their own experiences that being present at the beginning of an administration, when governors pull together their teams and formulate new policies, is one of the best opportunities to make a difference in the public sector. “We had loved our time in state government and hoped that students experiencing the chaotic and exciting transition period would come back to school inspired by their service and act as champions for state government opportunities,” Dorsey said.
They also sensed a tremendous hunger among students to take on complex policy challenges at the local level. Goetzel recalls attending a packed event early in the fall with the head of public policy for Bird, an electric scooter company. The senior executive, who previously worked for ride-sharing company Lyft, repeatedly referred to the company’s extensive work with state and local governments. The federal government did not come up once, Goetzel remembered. “That was when I knew that there was a tremendous opportunity to pitch students on working in state and local government,” he said. “That is where the disruption is happening and that is where students can have a direct impact on the lives of citizens living in the community.”
However, Dorsey, Goetzel, and Birnbaum were still nervous when they put out the application in the early fall. They were competing with an established and incredibly popular selection of J-Term classes and knew that last year only 4 percent of graduating HKS students entered state government. They had hoped for 20-30 applications and were shocked to receive 113, over 10 percent of the HKS student population. They reached out to campaigns and feverishly worked the phones to lock in placements for student teams with incoming governors.
With funding from the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, the Center for Public Leadership, the Women and Public Policy Program, the Institute of Politics, the Office of Career Advancement, and the Dean’s Office, Dorsey, Goetzel, and Birnbaum were able to place 17 students across seven states (Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Wisconsin).
“When the students pitched me on the idea of a transition team initiative, I knew immediately that it was a winner,” said Jeffrey Liebman, Malcolm Wiener Professor of Public Policy and director of the Taubman Center. “Both because it provided the perfect mix of on-the-ground experience and public service and because it built on the Kennedy School’s long-standing role as a repository of expertise in executive branch transitions stretching back to Dick Neustadt’s memos to President Kennedy in 1960.”
The students organized trainings by faculty and fellows, including Liebman, who is also director of the Government Performance Lab; Steven Kadish, senior research fellow at the Taubman Center and most recently chief of staff to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker; Cornell Brooks, professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice, and a former criminal justice advisor to Republican and Democratic transition teams in New Jersey; David Eaves, lecturer in public policy, and an expert on the role of technology in governance; and Karen Mills, senior fellow at HBS, and former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and chair of Maine’s state Council on Competitiveness and the Economy. Senior Lecturer in Public Policy David King served as an advisor.
Students traveled to their assigned states for a brief orientation in December, before heading back for two-and-a-half weeks in January. They helped research policy, drafted executive orders, supported department heads, and were deeply involved in the heady, early days of gubernatorial administrations. Above all, they were given the opportunity to see governing at work and to contribute their skills, enthusiasm, and energy.
“Transition Term began as an idea for a small experiment to see whether HKS students could get some valuable experience contributing to state governments,” said Public Service Professor of Public Leadership David Gergen. “Thanks to the work of Alison, Daniel, and Sam, it turned into a remarkable success praised by not only the students but also by seven governors across the country.”
Below, three students, in their own words, talk about what drew them to public service, about the value of their experience, and the impact it will have on their careers.
Kat Hemsing MPA/MBA
“‘La educación es la única cosa que no te pueden robar,’ my mom lectured, recounting memories of Fidel Castro’s regime that seized everything our family had earned. She was right: education is the only thing that cannot be stolen from me. Access to quality public schooling fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life. It was my pathway to opportunity. I am inspired by state and city government because the scale and scope of local investments play such a key role in improving people’s lives. As the daughter of a nurse and a City of Miami firefighter, I always knew that my career would be spent serving others. As a former strategy consultant, I am committed to applying my experience in transforming organizations to revitalizing communities. But while I have advised clients that operate across sectors, I have never formally worked as a civil servant or campaign staffer.
Transition Term was my first hands-on public service “education.” I supported Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ transition team before joining the Department of Administration (DOA) as Secretary Joel Brennan’s shadow. It was fascinating to witness a new administration form and begin to execute its priorities against a backdrop of controversy from the previous administration’s lame-duck legislation. That is to say that beyond my newfound understanding of governmental functions and interdependencies, the greatest lessons I took away were about leadership.
I kept a daily bullet journal throughout my time in the state capital, Madison, documenting observations and reflecting upon them. I learned that rigorous policy analysis, clear strategic communications, and detailed execution plans are as critical to producing positive outcomes in state agencies as they are in Fortune 100 companies. But during that first week on the ground, the most important thing is to build your team, build relationships, and acknowledge what you don’t know. I accompanied Secretary Brennan as he toured the department. Each agency is made up of thousands of dedicated civil servants with the expertise to keep things running smoothly. We met such compassionate individuals and cannot underscore their impact enough.
The DOA, affectionately coined the “Department of All,” is the agency that essentially administers the government. In a single day we had debriefs on capital budgeting, tribal gaming, enterprise technology transformation, and rural access to broadband service. Secretary Brennan gave me full authority to actively participate. I contributed the only way I knew how: by listening and asking questions. The highlight of my Wisconsin experience was sitting in on Governor Evers’ executive budget meeting. I absorbed the facts, the probing, and the systematic decision making. Exceptional leaders not only ask great questions, but also request data that may disconfirm their planned course of action.
Transition Term validated that public service is my present and my future. While I’m unsure whether I will run for office or serve as an advisor, I envision a seat at the table listening to diverse voices, asking questions that challenge assumptions, and offering a perspective on how to make better decisions to improve the lives of those most in need.”
Rosa Baum MPP/JD 2020
“In 2012, I took a job as a field organizer for President Obama. In the largely Hispanic precincts of Longmont, Colorado, I encountered people whose hopes for citizenship crashed when they failed an oral test, who needed me to spell out the letters of their names so they could copy them, or who were confused and discouraged by a targeted letter from Secretary of State Scott Gessler—a letter my team identified as voter suppression. We eventually won every precinct, but that campaign gave me a close-up view of how many barriers to participation exist, even in a liberal democracy—and of how the poorest and least educated, and certainly newcomers, can be manipulated or cheated.
On my first day at a summer 2013 internship at the Migrant Division of Colorado Legal Services, I interviewed a Peruvian sheep shearer on an H-2A visa—a program that the Southern Poverty Law Center and Congressman Charles Rangel have called ‘slavery.’ Though documented, the sheep shearer had endured unpaid wages, inadequate food, housing with no heat or plumbing, and being zapped with a cattle prod. I managed to add him to a lawsuit, and the excitement of that first moment of using the law to help someone otherwise defenseless is still with me. But if seasonal immigrant farm labor is ever to be legalized humanely, Congress, the U.S. Labor Department, regional agencies, the states, and nonprofits all need to mobilize for better laws and regulations.
As a high-school senior, I had my sights set on a political career in Washington, D.C. So, when the Boettcher Committee, which awards scholarships to 40 Coloradans to complete their undergraduate degrees in-state, asked me about my interest in Colorado, I struggled to find the words. Some things have helped me to find them. One was being able to stay in my home state as an undergraduate and attending Colorado College. Another, while a joint-degree student at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School, was Transition Term. After this latest experience, working on fiscal policy for Governor Jared Polis’s transition team, I am feeling a strong tug back toward my home state. I want to contribute to the community that nurtured me, strengthen institutions of law and politics, and help restore Coloradans’ faith in public-private partnerships.
Transition Term served as an incredible learning experience for me, as someone who wants to return to Colorado. I was given the opportunity to dive into the intricacies of our state constitution as it relates to fiscal policy and receive guidance from those who know the policies the best. This was a window for me into the development of Colorado policies and politics over various generations as well as how our current framework incorporates recent developments. In addition to the substantive exposure we got, we were privy to the establishment of internal frameworks in order to implement decisions and communicate effectively.”
Jeremiah Hay MPP 2020
“I first got involved in politics because of a story a college professor of mine used to tell, about a man who kept coming back to the same card game every night and losing every time. Eventually, a friend let him in on a secret: the game was crooked. ‘I know,’ said the man, ‘but it’s the only game in town!’ Politics is a lot like that game, I remember thinking, except that it is difficult, not crooked, and the stakes are the quality of our nation’s schools, or our personal freedoms, or our retirement plans. It’s true that politics can be slow and disjointed and antiquated—but that’s exactly why it’s important that the best and the brightest sit at the table.
Several years and two political campaigns after that first insight, I found myself wearing my warmest coat and clutching a clipboard through thick gloves, scurrying around under an elevated subway stop in the south Bronx trying to convince commuters to take thirty precious seconds to sign a petition. This was the beginning of my involvement in helping to bring free, full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten to every 4-year-old in New York City. Over the next four years, those volunteer shifts turned into an audacious pre-kindergarten initiative of unprecedented scale in American cities—and a career in public service.
If you believe (as many do) that unless you are president, or a Supreme Court justice, or speaker of the House of Representatives, your work in government won’t have much impact on people’s lives, then you’re not paying enough attention to the people who need help the most. I was fortunate enough not only to work with stunningly dedicated, hardworking, bright, and kind people, but to see firsthand the impact that our work was having. Now, every time I see a child on the subway with a little backpack and their feet dangling above the floor, I know I had something to do with it. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
That feeling is what brought me to the Kennedy School, and what sparked my interest in Transition Term. It was a marriage of the campaign work I’d done (in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey) and the work I’d done inside government. The workings of government can seem opaque and even sinister from the outside, but I know that it’s just real people who have deeply held beliefs about how to serve the public, scrambling to get as much done in as little time as possible—and I know that during transitions there’s often a frank and genuine appraisal of the administration’s policy goals and priorities. I applied to Transition Term because I wanted to be a part of those formative days.
That wish was realized: I was placed on Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s transition team along with two wonderful other Kennedy School fellows. We were welcomed as much-needed free hands and thrown into a gratifyingly wide range of projects. We got to be a part of Transition Committee meetings in which the administration brought together leaders in industry, labor, academia, and politics to brainstorm creative solutions. We were asked to prepare highly detailed policy memos on everything from the budget to the census. The level of access that we had was incredible; we had our hands on urgent, sensitive work and we were treated as trusted staff by the entire governor's office. We had the opportunity to be both flies on the wall and in the thick of things.
Transition Term was exactly what I wanted it to be: an opportunity to dive headfirst into a bevy of policy areas during a significant and fast-paced transition of power. It affirmed my desire to build good government better.”