Yann Algan, Dean of the School of Public Affairs

Yann Algan: "More than ever, our students want to have a positive social impact"

Educational aims, innovation, career prospects, the civil service: Dean of Sciences Po’s School of Public Affairs, Yann Algan, takes us on a tour of the newest elements of a historic curriculum. Hear his view on the future of public action and the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What do students learn at the School of Public Affairs?

The School of Public Affairs takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of all aspects of public affairs. Rooted in the humanities and social science disciplines, the School’s approach encompasses a broad range of other fields of study, including digital technology, ethical and deontological issues and sustainable development, for example. Our students are trained to make informed decisions and act decisively in a complex and uncertain world, as exemplified by the current health crisis. To this end, we introduce our students to a wealth of different skills and knowledge, drawing in equal measure on research, case study analysis and fieldwork.

All students enrolled in our two Master’s degrees, European Affairs and Public Policy, study the same core curriculum. This covers central issues in governance and democracy, public policy evaluation, crisis management and steering change, with these core courses forming the backbone of the programme. Students then choose one of 11 specialised policy streams. This allows them to deepen their knowledge of a particular field of public affairs, feeding into their own career plans.

After graduating, our students are equally well equipped to enter the public or the private sector (58% take the latter route), NGOs or international organisations, both in France and abroad. Many budding start-uppers have also passed through our doors!

How does the school train students to find concrete solutions to real-world problems?

It was with precisely this in mind that we developed our Policy Lab, which uses three main methods of applied teaching: case studies, simulations and our Public Policy Incubator. Courses at the Lab are designed to train students in creative and collaborative public policy problem-solving by fusing research findings with project management, experimentation and design thinking. To feed into this, the School has engaged a large ecosystem of national and international actors from the private and public sectors or civil society.

The case study module invites students to put theory into practice, while developing their negotiation and conflict management skills. Every year we design around 40 case studies, in concert with various external partners. These immerse students in a complex public policy scenario, enabling them to understand and evaluate both the decision-making process and resulting policy implementation. The case studies relate to a wide range of topics and encompass themes addressed within each policy stream: the management of the 2015 Paris attacks, the Notre-Dame-des-Landes ZAD, the “right to error” in France, the French Tech initiative, museum development, the list goes on.

Students at the School of Public Affairs also participate in simulations. Playing the role of stakeholders, they are placed in negotiation and problem-solving situations such as the Make it Work climate simulation, designed to replicate the COP21 in Paris. This role-play framework teaches students to orchestrate coordination and cooperation between different actors so as to co-design future public policies. 

Our Public Policy Incubator programme gives students one semester to respond to a challenge set by one of our external partners. Responding to the needs of a genuine group of users, students must propose tangible solutions to efficiently, rapidly  and demonstrably improve citizens’ lives. To do so, they use methods rooted in design thinking and are supervised by a team of teaching staff and mentors with a background in design and public innovation. The mentors assist students to come up with a fully functioning solution, digital or otherwise. In 2020, one incubator group was tasked with developing France’s Maisons de services (integrated public service centres), so as to facilitate access to services for citizens across regions. The students designed a digital platform providing a summary of responses from the relevant services to users, while also allowing for the training of new public officials. Students this year are working on no less than 30 different challenges, covering topics as varied as the design of open retirement homes, discussions around experimental prisons, the renovation of the Chantilly heritage site or the organisation of citizen consultations.

What makes the School’s approach so diverse and open to considering public affairs from every angle?

First of all, the School of Public Affairs hosts students with very varied academic backgrounds: graduates from the Sciences Po Undergraduate College but also from engineering schools, business schools, liberal arts colleges, social science and hard science universities and more. The geographical backgrounds of our students are also highly diverse: 33% are international students of over 60 different nationalities. All have the option of studying entirely in English. This blend of profiles forms an essential part of their studies, as a way of cultivating diverse pathways, approaches and points of view.

The School’s teaching staff, meanwhile, is an even mix of academics and practitioners. At Sciences Po, we are lucky enough to have a faculty of leading academics in law, economics, history, sociology and political science. Sciences Po ranked second worldwide for Politics and International Studies in the 2020 QS World Ranking by Subject. As for the practitioners, our courses are taught by former ministers, CEOs, start-up founders, NGO directors and civil society representatives.

What distinguishes the School of Public Affairs from other schools and programmes internationally?

The School of Public Affairs shares several elements with other leading schools internationally, including its academic rigour and focus on professional skills. In recognition of this, we are a member of the Global Public Policy Network, which brings together the top schools of public affairs around the world: Columbia, the London School of Economics, the Hertie School of Government, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Graspp in Tokyo and EAESP-FGV in Brazil. We offer more than 15 dual degrees and several international certificates, such as the Sustainable Development Goals Certificate. But the School of Public Affairs also has its own specificities. 

First and foremost, we teach public affairs in its very broadest sense. At Master’s level, students specialise in one of a huge range of streams, including public administration, security and defence, sustainable development, public health, culture, digital technology, politics, European affairs, economic and social policy, public management etc. Students have a choice of more than 100 elective courses each semester, which offer further opportunities to personalise their studies. Schools elsewhere are smaller in size and centre primarily on overarching disciplinary courses in economics and governance. That means there is less scope for students to specialise in a particular domain. 

Secondly, the School of Public Affairs gives students an insight into public affairs at every level: local, national and international, with the addition of a genuinely European perspective on public policy.

Finally, at Sciences Po, we are engaged in a permanent and in-depth reflection on public innovation. While all schools are asking themselves similar questions about the training of future experts and leaders in a context of mistrust towards decision-makers, we have brought a distinctive response to the matter through the unique teaching methods of our Policy Lab.

What role is the Covid-19 pandemic playing in the shifting nature of public action?

This crisis has demonstrated just how essential the School of Public Affairs’ educational aims are for training the next generation of decision-makers. When analysing any situation involving such a degree of complexity, it is essential for public actors to have a firm grounding in academic research. Decision-makers need interdisciplinary and wide-reaching knowledge to understand not only the health consequences of the crisis, but its social, political and economic impact. It is clearly crucial that our leaders are trained in informed decision-making, crisis management and how to strategically and consensually deploy public policies incorporating a plethora of different stakeholders and organisations.

These kinds of skills and knowledge are instrumental for understanding not only the current health crisis, but all major shifts taking place in the contemporary world, from climate change to the digital revolution. All our students are trained with this approach in mind, both through the core curriculum and in their numerous electives. It comes as no surprise, for example, that our students in the Global Health policy stream are highly sought after at the moment by the Ministry of Health.

We also complemented our courses by organising a lecture series with actors involved in the crisis in spring 2020. The speakers gave our students an insight into the decisions and challenges raised. This masterclass-style approach is offered in all our Masters programmes and policy streams as a means of honing students’ professional skills. Students on the cultural policy stream are invited to participate in masterclasses with artists and professionals in the creative industry to get a better understanding of the creative process and the challenges surrounding production today.

The educational vision of the School of Public Affairs is constantly evolving. Our administrative team is engaged in a continuous dialogue with academic directors of each policy stream and discipline, faculty members, graduates and recruiters, as to the most crucial skills needed to respond to future challenges in public affairs. We take this dialogue well beyond the walls of Sciences Po during our discussions with partner schools in the Global Public Policy Network.

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