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Perspectives on the MPhil in Public Policy: interpreting the data

Muhammad Farouq Osman shares his experience of the Cambridge MPhil in Public Policy and what he learned on the need to interpret data judiciously to make effective policy decisions.

MPP class 2017

The time I spent in Cambridge University’s MPhil in Public Policy (MPP) programme was one of the most intellectually challenging experiences I ever had. I benefitted from the collective knowledge of 21 other students from countries spanning the Americas to Asia-Pacific, selected for their commitment to pursuing the higher public interest. Reaffirming the need for policy entrepreneurs to develop interdisciplinary skills, the course drew upon the world-class expertise of the entire university, with module leaders coming from Cambridge departments as varied as economics, politics and philosophy, through to science and technology.

As someone with an academic background in sociology, the Cambridge MPP has expanded my professional horizons and equipped me with the broader, problem-solving skills I need to succeed in the policy environment. If my prior undergraduate studies in sociology made me aware of the excesses of the global capitalist system and the need to address declining social mobility in my home country of Singapore, the MPP course then provided me potential insights to the ‘how’ of doing just that. I learnt, for example, how we can have policies that reduce inefficiency in taxation regimes while safeguarding equity principles, by ensuring that revenues are redistributed in the form of transfers (among others) for disadvantaged and at-risk groups. In addition, MPP students were given the opportunity to apply those interdisciplinary skills in a real-world setting through work placements. I did mine at Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC), where I conducted research on improving the quality of low-wage jobs in the UK, with a view to improve British workers’ productivity and pay in the long run. In the same vein, as Singapore deals with technological disruption and its effects on skills, employment and inequality in the coming years, the lessons and policy tools I learnt from the MPP programme will remain as relevant as ever.

The Cambridge MPP not only taught me the policy analysis skills needed – such as using statistical and multi-criteria decision tools – but drove home the underlying philosophy of why having the means to evaluate data ‘out there’ is so important. Today, in an era of ‘fake news’ and unproven claims, it is imperative for policy leaders to set the tone for a rational and evidence-based public discourse to discover which policy decision will achieve the greatest common good. Through the course I realised that no data is completely value-free, and that how the data is presented can in fact be used to influence decisions at the receiving end. The Cambridge MPP alerted me to these pitfalls, and made us more conscious of the need to interpret data judiciously. Ultimately, we learnt that these transferrable data skills serve an overriding purpose: they are meant to help us, as much as humanly possible, get closer to the Truth. I remember being surprised at the less-than-straightforward results of a rapid evidence assessment I conducted relating to the impact of green open spaces on the surrounding population’s wellbeing. This revelation reminded me that far from assuming things, future senior policymakers like us must put evidence at the centre of our discussions.

Beyond the practical skills, the Cambridge MPP has given me a renewed spirit of experimentation and the courage to go beyond your own policy scope, which I believe are indispensable qualities a policymaker needs to have in order to gain a helicopter vision of the whole policy environment. Studying on the MPP programme challenged me out of my comfort zone as many of the policy issues covered were beyond my usual areas of focus in interethnic disparities in education, skills and social mobility. For example, we were exposed to case study topics, in areas ranging from antimicrobial resistance and childhood obesity to homelessness and the gender pay gap. As I explored the different case studies, it dawned on me that often times, potential solutions to a policy issue could be found in a seemingly unrelated policy area. This experience has pointed me to new insights in my current role as a research and policy officer in a Singapore government-linked non-profit, aimed at uplifting the socioeconomic and educational status of minority Malay/Muslims – a ‘wicked’ policy issue with no easy solutions.

A well-structured curriculum is not just what makes the Cambridge MPP ideal for future policy leaders; its purposefully small class size and emphasis on learning from fellow peers convinced me that I made the right choice. Among my course-mates were professionals from different policy areas and different stages of their careers – including a journalist, a diplomat, an executive director of an NGO, management consultants, policy advisers to Cabinet members and even a White House speech writer! As I progress through my career in the Singapore Public Service, I know I can count on them – and the wider Cambridge MPP alumni community – to confer and seek advice on professional matters, or otherwise.