HKUST graduate course imparts vital policymaking skills

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Professionals who work in the public sector or for organisations that have regular dealings with government bodies must be ready to handle situations which can be complex, unexpected, and unpredictable.  

For this, they need a clear understanding of established rules and precedents, but also a wide frame of reference to help them devise effective solutions and address new challenges bound to arise in an ever-changing environment.

With that in mind, the master of public management (MPM) program offered by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is specifically designed to provide the necessary skills and insights.

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By drawing on case studies from around the world, it prepares students for senior roles, giving them the practical knowledge and breadth of perspectives to manage policy, operational and regulatory issues and find ways to achieve successful outcomes.

Nowadays, those issues can involve anything from the impact of climate change and rapid advances in technology to pandemics, sustainability, rising inequality, and the challenges posed by an ageing society.

The MPM therefore focuses on real-world problems, what organisations can or could do, where leaders have made great decisions or strategic errors, and why good communication about actions and intentions is so important.

“We look at how governments should evolve when things are constantly changing,” says Donald How Tian Low, professor of practice in the Division of Public Policy and founding director of the MPM. “There is a wide selection of material to draw from, but the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Hong Kong and China was a once in a lifetime opportunity to study a crisis as it unfolded. It provided a context and let us meet the mission we set for ourselves: showing students what it means for authorities to be flexible, adaptable and resilient.”

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In doing this, the program puts particular emphasis on developing analytical skills and managerial abilities which are transferable across sectors and policy domains.

The courses are designed for career-minded individuals with three or more years’ professional experience, which can be in government service, the private sector, or from working with non-profits or NGOs.

The basic goal is to upgrade or update each student’s understanding of public policymaking and, in parallel, to enhance their leadership, decision-making, and implementation skills.

Due attention, though, is also given to the need for new thinking and perhaps radical responses to deal with emerging challenges. These might relate to anything from middle-class anxiety or the rise of identity politics to the seemingly greater frequency of financial and public health scares. Or they could simply be a result of the increasing demand for greater transparency and accountability from governments and public officials.    

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“We teach hard skills like strategic planning, but the program also develops soft skills and habits of mind,” says Professor Kira Matus, MPM program director and associate dean. “To be more effective, we want students to reflect on their own experiences, overcome previous assumptions, and understand that knowledge can be explicit and implicit, formal and tacit. We show them that critical analysis is the key to problem solving.”

The MPM is available in one-year, full-time and two-year, part-time modes with students in the two streams given essentially the same requirements and choices.

The five core courses, for a total of 15 credits, include modules on economic reasoning, managing for sustainability, and technology innovation.

These make full use of a rich fund of contemporary case studies from Hong Kong and further afield – affordability of housing, managing snowstorms in China, crisis response to a black swan event like a bridge collapse – and are taught by faculty members with extensive experience of advising national governments, international bodies, and leading companies. 

Three required electives can be chosen from those offered by the Division of Public Policy or by other HKUST departments which specialise in business, humanities and social science, engineering, and environment and sustainability.

And the capstone project, which is done in small groups, can now include an overseas study trip to explore comparative policy, perhaps related to sustainable healthcare systems, retirement financing, or economic development.  

“We want students to understand what works, why policymakers took certain decisions, and what options and constraints they faced,” Low says. “The comparative aspect is very useful to see how other cities have grappled with similar challenges and to learn from their failures and successes.”    

In the classroom, students must be ready to contribute actively to full-on debates about critical issues and can expect constructive feedback on their own presentation and communication skills. Therefore, speakers are taught how to put forward cogent and compelling arguments based on logical thinking and a clear progression of ideas – and to avoid technical jargon.   

“I give a framework, but then break it out into discussion points, so students can draw on their experience,” says Matus. “I pull examples from great policy communicators, like Jacinda Arden, and fight against the culture of just creating a word salad.”  

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Typically, most MPM applicants are from the public sector, but there are also representatives from industry, real estate, education, finance, and mainland state-owned enterprises. About 50 places will be available for the September intake, and the admissions process is already under way.  

Recent alumnus Raly Tejada, who graduated last year, confirms that the program enhanced his decision-making skills and definitely helps in his current job as chief legal adviser to a ministry.

“The course was truly challenging, but also satisfying and rewarding,” says Tejada, a lawyer and diplomat who was consul general of the Philippines in Hong Kong from 2019 to 2023. “To anyone wanting to upgrade their skills as a policymaker, I say go for it.”

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