Good public policy can vastly improve people’s lives, while bad policy can lead to terrible suffering, HKS Dean Doug Elmendorf says. The difference lies in how it's made and implemented.

FEATURING Douglas Elmendorf

Public policy has great power, both to improve people’s lives if it is planned and executed well and to cause significant suffering if it is not, says Harvard Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf, who will step back from his post this summer to resume teaching full time. In this episode, Elmendorf talks to PolicyCast host Ralph Ranalli about the crucial role policy plays in everyday life, the often-imperfect ways it gets made, and the factors that shape it—including politics, values, education, and communication. He also addresses the issue of public distrust in policy advice and the vital role that values play in policymaking and educating public leaders, even when those values—including diversity, inclusion, and economic justice—are under attack by some in the political sphere. “Our job is to enunciate our values, and to explain how those values can help us serve the world,” he says. Elmendorf became dean of HKS in 2015 after a career steeped in policy research and formulation, especially involving his chosen field of economics. He has worked as the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury Department, an assistant director of research at the Federal Reserve Board, and a senior economist at the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. As dean, he’s seen the school through a campus expansion, the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing polarization and attacks on government and higher education in the public sphere, and the current domestic political fallout from the conflict between Gaza and Israel. And he’s done it all while diversifying the school’s community of students and scholars and affirming the important role of training public leaders and developing workable policy solutions to big public challenges. 

Doug Elmendorf’s Policy Recommendations: 

  • Experts should be humble, admit the limitations of their knowledge, and make sure that the policies they propose benefit all members of society. 
  • Policymakers should talk with experts in an appropriately constructive and critical manner, ask questions designed to get at the truth most effectively, and use that truth in what they do. 
  • Members of the public should be encouraged to interact with other people in society who are different from them and their communities.  
  • Given the difficulty of making good policy, citizens should have empathy for public leaders, but they should also be appropriately demanding and expect leaders to be straight with them and to work hard on policies that can help improve people's lives. 

Episode Notes

Douglas Elmendorf was named dean and the Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School in 2015 and will step down to join the faculty full time this summer. He had previously served as the director of the Congressional Budget Office, assistant director of the Division of Research and Statistics at the Federal Reserve Board, deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department, and a senior economist at the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. In those policy roles, he worked on budget policy, health care issues, the macroeconomic effects of fiscal policy, Social Security, income security programs, financial markets, macroeconomic analysis and forecasting, and a range of other topics. He has also worked as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and as an assistant professor of economics at Harvard. He earned his PhD and AM in economics from Harvard University and his AB summa cum laude from Princeton University. 

Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Communications and Public Affairs is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.

Editorial support for PolicyCast is provided by Nora Delaney, Robert O’Neill, and James Smith of the HKS Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows, and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.  

Preroll: PolicyCast explores research-based policy solutions to the big problems we’re facing in our society and our world. This podcast is a production of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  

Intro (Doug Elmendorf): I would like policymakers to be straight with the public. Of course, people will be boosters for their own preferred policies, but I'd love to have them occasionally say, I understand this policy is not going to solve every problem in the world. It'll have some downsides, but on balance it's good and here's why I support it. And I would like policymakers to talk with experts in an appropriately constructive, critical way, which is to say, not just to listen and take notes and follow, but to ask questions, to ask questions designed to get at the truth most effectively. And then to use that in what they do. And then I would encourage people to listen to public leaders with some empathy for the difficulty of making good policy. There are not easy solutions for any of the big problems in the world, but also I think the public should be appropriately demanding. They should expect their leaders to be straight with them, to work hard on policies that can help improve people's lives.

Intro (Ralph Ranalli): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. If you’re a regular listener, you already know that public policy is our reason for being here at PolicyCast. We take deep dives into evidence-based policy ideas, the data and the researchers behind them, the people they are trying to help, and the problems they’re trying to solve. What we don’t get to do very often is discuss policy itself—the crucial role it plays in our everyday lives, the often-imperfect ways it gets made, why more people don’t trust it, and the role that things like politics, values, education, and communication play in its formulation. That’s why I’m so glad that Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf has agreed to come on and talk about all those things. Doug, who is also the Donald K. Price Professor of Public Policy, became dean of HKS in 2015 after a career steeped in policy research and formulation, mostly involving his chosen field of economics. He has worked as the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a deputy assistant  secretary at the U.S. Treasury, an assistant director of research at the Federal Reserve Board, and a senior economist at the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. As dean, he’s seen the school through a campus expansion, the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing polarization and attacks on government and higher education in the public sphere, and the current domestic political fallout from the conflict between Gaza and Israel—all while diversifying the school’s community of students and scholars and affirming the important role of training public leaders and developing workable policy solutions to big public challenges. He's stepping down at the end of this semester to rejoin the Kennedy School faculty—   with a stop here at the PolicyCast studios along the way.

Ralph Ranalli: Doug, welcome to PolicyCast.

Doug Elmendorf: Thank you, Ralph. It's great to be with you.

Ralph Ranalli: Congratulations on completing your tenure—almost—as dean. I was reading that you said the job has been, quote, even more enlightening, challenging, and rewarding than you had imagined. As I read it, I imagined an emphasis on the word challenging, because you saw us through COVID and now you're seeing us through the domestic political fallout from the Israel-Gaza conflict. Do they give graduate school deans hazard pay? How are you doing?

Doug Elmendorf: I'm doing fine, thank you. And I'd emphasize each word in that expression. I've loved doing this job. It's been terrific. It has also been hard. And among the deans, there was joking that COVID years should count at least twice. I've done more than almost nine years. But what makes these jobs challenging is also what makes them exciting, which is being part of such a vibrant intellectual community of people who are deeply committed to our mission. And that is both what makes it hard because all these forces in the world affect us and we have to deal with them and respond to them. It's also what makes the job incredibly rewarding and I feel very lucky to have it.

Ralph Ranalli: Well, today I feel lucky that we get to just talk about policy itself. Usually we're talking about a specific policy recommendation or policy research, but I've always thought that the whole notion of good policy is more important than most people realize it is. For you, what is the most important thing about well-crafted, evidence-based public policy? What would you want the average person to know about public policy that perhaps they don't appreciate?

Doug Elmendorf: Well, the first thing to understand is how important policy is. Good policy makes people's lives better and bad policy can lead to terrible suffering. And so it's very important to get policy right. And we see that in thinking about international relations—think about the war in Ukraine, think about the fighting in Israel and Gaza. We see that in economic terms: the decisions of the Federal Reserve Board, the decisions of the Chinese government about how to pursue economic growth. We see that in democracy and human rights, election procedures, protections for people under the law can change lives in dramatic ways. We see that in sustainability, how we think about the transition to reduced carbon emissions. All these aspects of policy affect people very directly for good or for ill.  

The second thing to understand is that you can't make good policy without understanding what works and what doesn't. And that means looking at the evidence. Evidence is not enough, and we'll talk, I think, about other aspects of policymaking that matter, but you have to start by understanding if you do A, does B happen or does C happen? Unless you can draw on the statistical evidence, the historical evidence analysis, you're not going to know. And then you're not going to know whether you want to push the button for A or not push the button for A. And those are the things that I hope people would understand.

Ralph Ranalli: Yeah. I've been privileged to be a part of this operation here at HKS because you get to see the research as it’s being created and the amount of work that goes into creating those evidence-based policy recommendations. And yet there's sort of this disconnect between what I see—where of course this is a good idea because it's based on the research and the research shows that it has a good shot at working—but yet there seems to be a lot of generalized distrust in policy advice, in policy recommendations. You've spent a lot of time in the policy world. You were the director of the Congressional Budget Office, you worked at the Treasury Department, the Fed, you worked at Brookings. In your experience, what are the biggest drivers of that policy distrust?

Doug Elmendorf: I think the biggest factor is that people are legitimately frustrated that a lot of what's been happening in the world over the last few decades, and in this country over the last few decades, doesn't seem very good to them. And they think that experts are responsible for the failings. And I think that charge has some truth and in some ways is false. What is true in this country, for example, is that the economic pie has increased at a strong rate. It's also true that some people's pieces of pie are getting much larger and other people's pieces of pie are not getting much larger at all. And those who don't see as much hope for their future or their children's future as they want to see blame policymakers, blame public leaders for not making different policy choices that might be more advantageous to them.  

Now, some of that I think is a mistaken impression. Policymakers can't solve all problems. Policymakers can't make everything right, they can't make gold run in the streets. But I think some of the concern is legitimate. Policymakers have made mistakes. And then the question is, as a school that's training policymakers, training public leaders, what sensibilities should we be instilling in our students to help them build trust in the future? I think part of this is that experts need to be humble. They need to admit the limitations of their knowledge. Often, a close look at the evidence does not really prove that if you did A today B will happen. It says usually something like well B will probably happen, but it could be C or it could be D, or it could be something we haven't imagined at all yet, because the world's constantly changing, the collection of evidence is not going to be perfect. And so I think experts need to say, we think that B will happen, but we don't know for sure. And I think if experts were willing to admit that, that would help people then understand what the limitations of expert knowledge is.  

I think a second thing is that experts, public leaders, our students when they graduate need to be sure that they are serving all people in their societies. They need to ensure that what they're doing is not just good for people who already have big pieces of the pie but will be good for people who don't have much pie at all. And I think all of us who are in this line of work have a responsibility to look out for others and especially for others who are less fortunate than most of us are ourselves.

Ralph Ranalli: How much do you think distrust can be addressed by expert humility versus how much is just kind of out there in the political sphere and the public discourse? Because there's not a wide agreement on the role of government in people's lives, to say the least, right? I mean on one side of the spectrum you have Ronald Reagan saying the nine scariest words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government, I'm here to help.’ And then on the other side you have former Congressman Barney Frank saying: ‘Government is just the word we use for the things we do together.’ Can you talk a little bit about how that political gap that makes it more difficult?

Doug Elmendorf: Yeah. I think politics are intrinsic in policymaking, right? In democracies, the people who will make the policy choices have been chosen through a political process, and that's as it should be. And even in countries that aren't democracies, leaders often feel some pressure from their constituents, and that's political pressure. Politics can't and shouldn't be divorced from policymaking. At the Kennedy School, we have taught for many years that good policies satisfy three criteria. One is that they're technically appropriate and actually if you're trying to get B to happen, that you push on A and that will tend to cause B to happen.  

But secondly, we say policies need to be administratively feasible. They need to work not just on a blackboard in a classroom where you can show that A causes B, but actually be implementable by real governments in the real world where there are a lot of constraints. And the third thing we say is that good policies have to be politically sustainable. They have to meet a felt need of people, non-experts, in ways that they can make some sense of. And I think those criteria can be satisfied through policies. I think sometimes experts need to learn not to explain things only in very technical ways for other experts, but to find ways to say things to people who are not going to spend their lives studying some topic but are smart and concerned and can understand an English language version, not an expert language version of what a policy is about.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. Because you're always going to have populists on the other side talking in a message that people can understand. And if you're talking in a message that people can't understand, you are always going to be at that disadvantage. You have to meet them on that same ground of accessibility.

Doug Elmendorf: Yes, I think that's exactly right. I do also think that we are dependent on public leaders not distorting evidence that they understand. It's very possible to have different views about a policy, even having read the same evidence—and we'll talk, I think, more about that—but sometimes people trying to win an argument will say things they know aren't true or will deliberately misrepresent some piece of evidence. Then it's very hard for the average citizen who's going about their own lives to make sense of the debate. And I do think that we suffer some in this country, and other countries suffer as well, from some public leaders who are not playing it straight with their constituents who are saying things that are not true and that they know or could easily know are not true. And then it's very hard to have the informed debate that our system of government depends on.

Ralph Ranalli: That may be your mastery of understatement talking given our current political situation. I mean, you were CBO director when the speakers were Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner. Did you ever think during that time that you would eventually look back on that as the good old days given the level of dysfunction in Washington and the level of polarization out in the electorate?

Doug Elmendorf: Well, that's a good question. When I was CBO director about a decade ago, my predecessors said they felt sorry for me and my colleagues at the time because things had been more civilized in some ways in their day. And now I look at my successors and I feel sorry for them thinking back about how civilized things were in my day. I will say though, that when I spoke with members of Congress in private, outside of the glare of the TV lights and away from the sound clips, I found them to be almost always very interested in understanding more about public policy. In public, I think sometimes they felt they had to play a certain role, get a certain clip they could use of themselves or of me saying something they wanted me to say. That was less constructive in my view. But in private, they often wanted to really understand how CBO was analyzing certain prospective policies. They wanted to see why our views sometimes differed from their views. And so we need more of that private, constructive sort of exchange and less, I think, of the public posturing.

Ralph Ranalli: Let's go down that politics road for a minute. Obviously, like you said, politics is inextricably linked with policy. I mean, to me, at its best, politics is a way to determine the best policies for the country and for its people. And at worst, it's probably just about determining who wields power, right? To you, what is the most appropriate, or perhaps productive, relationship between politics and policy?

Doug Elmendorf: Politics at its best, as you say, is the way that we make collective choices. In any society people will disagree about things and we have political systems to try to manage those disagreements and find a way to move forward collectively. And that's great. That's what we want to have happen. That's how policies should be set. And values are central to this. At the Congressional Budget Office, when it was established almost 50 years ago, one of the guiding principles has been that CBO does not make policy recommendations.  

And the reason is because policy choices depend on values and experts don't have values that are any better than anybody else's values, right? And so what CBO's job was to say, well, if you legislate A, B will happen, if you legislate C, then D will happen. But the choice between B and D is not a choice that CBO should make or a choice that CBO's analysts or director have any special authority for. But what the experts can tell you is if you do A, you might get B. If you do C, you make get D. But the choice has to be made with values. And in our country, we elect leaders to use our values, essentially to represent our values, as they make policy choices. And so that's what politics should be about. It should be about choosing leaders who will take on board our collective values and will then listen to experts about what the effects would be of different policies and to choose the policies whose outcomes seem most consistent with the values that we hold collectively as members of this society.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. How much of this do you think is a media problem? And I guess by media, I mean public discourse in its current state writ large, but my background is journalism. I was in the media for 25 years, and I always had a thing for policy. Yet I often found it hard in my own job, even when I was covering government, to get traction on stories that dove into policy. There was always this push towards the political, which was sexier. It's more controversy, it drives page views and clicks. And now we're heading into an election cycle and we're going to see more horse race stories about candidate controversies and less about what policies that the people who are behind the personalities are going to push. And then along comes social media, which is basically a turbocharged and more personalized version of that whole dynamic. And sometimes I think it feels almost like shouting against a hurricane.

Is there a way to work around that, to get any traction? Because things just seem to be going the wrong direction in terms of our ability to put these good ideas out there in a way that's actually going to get to the people they're intended to get to.

Doug Elmendorf: Well, it's a hard problem and if I had a great solution, you would've heard it from me by now. Let me offer a few thoughts. I think one is that I understand why a political story is a human-interest story in a way that a policy article might not be. And I think that requires experts and journalists who write about experts to try to develop narrative approaches wherever possible. I mean, I was trained—I'm an economist—I was trained to use tables and charts, not so much to tell stories. And as I came to the Kennedy School and became the dean here and became a different kind of leader, I was advised to use fewer bullet points, fewer big tables and charts, and to talk more about stories, to create narratives that people can understand and to follow. And that does not come naturally to me, in fact. And I've strived to do that and I'm a little better than I was, but I'm not great.  

And I think that's part of what we need, which is we need to take the experts’ analysis and process them through individual stories. That's not a matter of denying the complexity. It's not trying to just make up a story, it's trying to tell a real story, but in a way that people can understand. And I think people should try—we all need to try—to do more of that. I also say that the word media is the center of the longer word intermediary. And one thing that our political science colleagues have taught me is that there are a number of intermediaries in the political world who are in some ways weaker than they were. And so for example, with unions being less important in this country, with organized religion drawing fewer regular worshippers than in the past, and in other ways, some of the intermediating institutions, places where people would go to somebody they trusted to help them understand what was going on, that some of those have weakened. And so we've lost some of the good channels and have built some unfortunate channels for conveying information and we need to try to rebuild the good ones and corral the more dangerous ones.

Ralph Ranalli: It's interesting that you mention taking information that might be hard to digest in the way that experts consume it because we did a great episode not long ago with Todd Rogers and with Lauren Brodsky about doing that exact same thing. It featured Todd Rogers talking about making information more digestible to people who read, or, more accurately, people who skim, because we’re actually skimmers more than readers these days. And then Lauren Brodsky is all about presenting data in a way that involves narrative and that people can understand, because people are wired for story.

Doug Elmendorf: Can I say about Todd, I once had Todd come and talk with me and some of the leaders of the school about how we should communicate, and I do write in a different way now because of Todd.

Ralph Ranalli: And so do I.

Doug Elmendorf: And people will say now, “Well, channeling Todd Rogers, you should cut out that paragraph and just use the single sentence.” He's having some positive effect even right here.

Ralph Ranalli: I’d like to turn now to the role of values, which you mentioned earlier. And this one to me is one of the more intriguing issues involving policy and policy education. And so take, for example, HKS's mission statement. It's to improve public policy and leadership so people can live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous. That's a fairly short sentence, but there's a lot to unpack in there. And there are a lot of values inferences there— that justice is important, that freedom is important, that safety is important. We are ideally nonpartisan, but I think sometimes defending those values can make us seem partisan. What is the best way to walk that line between defending our values yet remaining nonpartisan?

Doug Elmendorf: We are definitely nonpartisan, and we need to be nonpartisan. That's not the same thing as having no values about the world. I think our job is to enunciate our values and explain how those values can help us serve the world, and then if people align for or against some of what we do in a partisan way, that's on them, not on us. I think in general as dean, I try to enunciate what the school is trying to do. I don't try to critique what others are doing.

Ralph Ranalli: Going a little further with that values discussion, some observers of higher ed have been criticizing DEI initiatives at universities—diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and even criticizing the qualifications of some Black faculty members. What do you make of those critiques?

Doug Elmendorf: Let me comment first on criticisms of diversity initiatives and then turn to criticisms of faculty members. Some people view the words diversity, equity, and inclusion as a cover for identity politics or deliberate divisiveness. That is not how we use those words at the Kennedy School. It's not how we think about diversity. Our work on what we call diversity, inclusion, and belonging is about broadening our intellectual community and ensuring that everyone can participate fully. We pursue those goals because they're integral to our pursuit of excellence. When we bring to the Kennedy School outstanding students with a wider range of perspectives and experiences than before, and help them interact with greater curiosity and tolerance, they learn more while they're here and they'll be more effective public leaders and policymakers when they graduate. And when we can bring to the Kennedy School outstanding faculty and staff with a wider range of perspectives and help them interact with greater understanding, they learn more and accomplish more too.

That's why we cast a wide net in recruiting people to come to the Kennedy School on our student body, our faculty, and among our staff. That's why we talk about the benefits and responsibilities that come with pluralism along many dimensions of national origin, gender, race, religion, ideology, and more. That's why we encourage candid and constructive conversations between people so that we learn from our pluralism. Our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging is a crucial part of our pursuit of excellence. Now, regarding criticisms of faculty members, I am deeply distressed by what I see as a campaign targeting Black scholars and especially Black female scholars at a number of universities. Of course, Harvard and other universities take seriously any legitimate complaints about faculty members, but when allegations are focused systematically on people of a particular race or gender, we should all be offended. There should be no place for such targeting. At the Kennedy School, we are a community of faculty, staff, and students who were chosen carefully by each other. We all belong here and we will stand together.

The School will continue as best it can to safeguard our faculty's ability to do outstanding research and teaching on the issues of our time and regardless of the popularity of someone's topic or findings among some constituencies.

Ralph Ranalli: Yeah, I think that's a good example of standing up for your values.

Doug Elmendorf: Yes.

Ralph Ranalli: You've pretty much nailed all my segues so far, and you did it again with candid and constructive conversations, because not only has my writing been changed by Todd Rogers, but how I approach political conversations has been changed by a seminar I took with professors Erica Chenoweth and Julia Minson, and also the PolicyCast episode that we did with them about what we’re calling candid and constructive conversations. Can you talk a little bit about the thinking behind creating that effort and ultimately what is the hope for what it can achieve?

Doug Elmendorf: Yes, I love this topic. As I started saying before, in every society there will be disagreements, in every community, every organization, there'll be disagreements about what to do. And in order to have a society function or an organization function, those disagreements need to be managed, dealt with, recognized, resolved where possible. In many societies today, and in many organizations, there's a wider range of views than in the past because new voices have been given a chance to speak. And sometimes that happens through immigration into a country, but also has happened because in some societies women have a larger role than they were allowed to have before. Members of racial ethnic minorities can have a larger role than they had before. The voices around the table, as they become more diverse, which can be a great strength for society, also make it even more important and maybe more challenging to have a constructive conversation.

And so we've worried at the Kennedy School for several years that we were not having the right kind of disagreement, by which I mean a candid disagreement where we’re not just ducking an issue, but constructive and that we're trying to learn from each other, maybe find common ground, maybe not, but at least hear each other, understand where we're coming from. And so we've tried to build our ability to have those kinds of conversations in various ways. And this has started with when you apply to the Kennedy School as a student, you have to answer a question that is essentially, tell us about a time that you changed your mind. And if you can't think of any time in your life when you learn something that changed what you thought, then why come here because what would the point be?  

We now do this in orientation. We have workshops. I've done some myself, and every time I do one, I think I get a little better at being able myself to have that kind of conversation. People sometimes say the goal is to be tough on the issues and easy on the people. Our disagreement is not a personal one. We respect each other, we want to listen to each other. We may disagree very, very vigorously, very deeply, strongly about the issue at hand. And so we're trying to help people do that here. And then we felt a couple of years ago that we were not making enough progress. We'd done pieces of things at the School, the application uestion, the orientation sessions and so on, and we liked those, but there wasn't enough to make our efforts worthy of our view that it is a core competency of a learner, a colleague, a public leader, a public citizen, a core competency to be able to disagree in constructive ways.

And so we're trying to build that in now throughout the work of the school. I convened a group in the fall of 2022 to dig into this issue. Professor Erica Chenoweth chaired this group. They did a deep dive into the research literature about how to disagree, how to help people disagree better. As one of our guests said, they also did a deep dive into what attitudes were on campus and found many people who want to have those kinds of vigorous but respectful disagreements, but felt it was hard for them to do in one way or another.

Ralph Ranalli: Right.

Doug Elmendorf: We found a lot of interest in getting better, and they developed some recommendations, a long list of recommendations for tools to get better, and now we're going at it full blast. And so this year's admitted class got a welcome letter that said congratulations and various things including, I'm paraphrasing, come to this place because you'll get a chance to disagree with other people with different experiences and backgrounds and perspectives in a way that will help you learn.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. What I found really striking about that whole effort and how Erica and Julia were approaching it was the emphasis on listening. Because we've adopted as the show's motto a quote from former Harvard President Drew Faust, which is to “speak bravely and listen generously.” And I think listening is the counterintuitive part. It's not necessarily changing how you're speaking, although it is, but it really is changing how you're listening and your receptiveness to what the other person's saying and making them feel heard. I know that's changed for me, how I listen.

Doug Elmendorf: Yes.

Ralph Ranalli: Has it changed for you?

Doug Elmendorf: It has, but it's changing slowly. I mean, part of why I feel the importance of this so deeply is that I don't always find this easy myself. And so the idea is not to tell people, oh, this is easy. Some people may find it easier than others. Our point is to tell people that if you don't find it easy, you can still learn and get better at it. This is a skill you can build. Sometimes people say it's a muscle that you can build.

Ralph Ranalli: That you have to exercise for it to not only become strong, but stay strong. I think that's a great analogy.

Doug Elmendorf: I think that's exactly right. And so part of what we need to do is to talk openly about the skill building and why we do it and practice building it. But part of what we need to do is to actually just do a lot of it. And that means having spirited debates here at the school. And sometimes we'll have outside guests who will spur those debates. Sometimes it'll be a faculty member or a student speaking in the class. Oftentimes there'll be a faculty member, a student, a staff member sitting in the dining area starting a conversation over lunch on a serious topic. And so we can all get better at it. We're trying to make it not a thing that you think either you have or you don't, but something that we can all be better at.  

I think you're right about the listening. I would emphasize that. Sometimes people think that when we encourage this kind of discourse that we're saying, you should just talk to somebody else and split the difference between you. And people sometimes view that as abandonment of their values. And I don't think that's the right way to think about it. What we say is that you want to be open to hearing, you want to understand where they're coming from, and that is both, I think a matter of personal respect, if you are a fellow student or a colleague, that you should respect them enough to want to hear what they think, even if you don't agree. And it's a matter of, but also practical value. If you're a lawyer, do you ever go into a courtroom without thinking through first what the other side will argue? No. If you're going to do a negotiation, would you ever go into that without thinking through what the other side will want and why? No, that would be terrible. And so it is a great practical value, even if in the end you still want to pursue exactly your view, to do better at that, you need to understand what the other views are going to be. It's both a moral and practical value.

Ralph Ranalli: It even touches on intellectual rigor too because it’s part of the process of rigorously looking at a problem and potential solutions.

Doug Elmendorf: Yes.

Ralph Ranalli: I'd like to circle back to policy to where the rubber sort of hits the road, which is implementation.

Doug Elmendorf: Okay.

Ralph Ranalli: Bad policy implementation. I think you said this at the beginning, bad policy implementation can be really bad and it can even make a bad thing out of a good policy.

Doug Elmendorf: Yes.

Ralph Ranalli: What comes to mind when I think about that is the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Withdrawing from Afghanistan was something a lot of people supported, a lot of people thought was overdue, but the way it was carried out—we had pictures in the media of these poor Afghan people clinging to the landing gear of U.S. cargo planes as they took off. The implementation of it was just horrible. Talk a little bit about the underappreciated role of policy implementation for us.

Doug Elmendorf: Yeah, so thank you. The Kennedy School started 90 or so years ago as the Littauer School of Public Administration. We might now use the term public management. And it was, I think, meant to be about how to execute the functions of government. This school and other schools like ours became more schools of public policy, the formulation of the technically correct policy. And that's, of course, very important. As an economist, that's the part of governance that I would work on most myself. But there was a danger in that that we, I think, came to give too little emphasis to the importance of execution to the public management. How does the government actually put a policy into place? How are the goods and services delivered to people? And one thing we've done in the last several years at the Kennedy School is to put more emphasis again on public management. In our core MPP curriculum, we have a course on getting things done in the public sector. We've recruited new faculty members, both practitioners and scholars focused on public management. Our work with state and local governments is partly about policy, but very heavily about public management—that many of the government services are actually delivered at the local or state levels.  

And so I've been pleased to see the school give somewhat more emphasis to that aspect of the three-legged stool I described earlier. And I think this is important for at least two reasons. I mean, one is that if you deliver services well, if you execute foreign affairs decisions well and so on, people will be safer and freer and more prosperous. But I think secondly, it's important because good execution can help to build people's confidence in governance and in democracy in democratic states. And some of the objections to democracy, some of the skepticism you see about democracy in polls, I think come from political philosophy views. But I think much of it comes from thinking, well, the government's not doing that great a job at the things that I want the government to do.

Ralph Ranalli: How great can democracy be if it's working this poorly for me?

Doug Elmendorf: Yes, exactly. I think an important part of restoring faith in governance in this country and in some others, is better execution. And so the execution matters both for its own sake, just in terms of the direct benefits, but also helping to restore confidence in the public sector, which is crucial over time. People need to believe that their government is serving them, their government is to serve them, and they need to believe that civil society organizations are serving. And they need to believe that private sector organizations are serving them, not just serving themselves. And so the effective delivery is an important part of that.

Ralph Ranalli: Doug, to wrap up, what would you like to most see policy makers do and see the public do in their approaches to making good policy that accomplishes its mission of really helping the people it's designed to help?

Doug Elmendorf: I would like policymakers to be straight with the public. Of course, people will be boosters for their own preferred policies, but I'd love to have them occasionally say, I understand this policy is not going to solve every problem in the world. It'll have some downsides, but on balance  it's good and here's why I support it. And I would like policymakers to talk with experts in an appropriately constructive, critical way, which is to say, not just to listen and take notes and follow, to ask questions, to ask questions designed to get at the truth most effectively. And then to use that in what they do. And for the public, I would hope that they would first focus on interacting with other people in their societies, in their communities, who are different from them in a lot of ways. That may seem very exciting, as they often do to me, may also seem scary or unsettling, as they seem to other people. But still, we all need to try. And I know from my own very lucky experience at the Kennedy School, the more people I meet who come from places I don't know who have views about issues I don't share, the more I learn and the more I enjoy what I'm doing. And I would encourage all of us to do that. And then I would encourage people to listen to public leaders with some empathy for the difficulty of making good policy. There are not easy solutions for any of the big problems in the world, but also I think the public should be appropriately demanding. They should expect their leaders to be straight with them, to work hard on policies that can help improve people's lives.

Ralph Ranalli: That's great. Well, I want to thank you, Doug, for being here and talking about this and for your service to the school. I hope people take this to heart because it's always mattered to me, and I know it's always mattered to you, and I really hope it resonates with the folks out there.

Doug Elmendorf: Thank you, Ralph. This has been fun. It's been great to talk with you.

Outro (Ralph Ranalli): Thanks for listening. Please join us for our next episode and, if you haven’t already, subscribe to PolicyCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review while you’re there. Editorial assistance for PolicyCast is provided by Nora Delaney, Robert O’Neill, and Jim Smith of the Harvard Kennedy School Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Design support is provided by Laura King and Delane Meadows. Our social media management is provided by Natalie Montaner. If you’d like to learn more about PolicyCast or explore previous episodes, please visit our home page at And until next time, remember to speak bravely, and listen generously.