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Survey Says…

Graduate students gain hands-on experience building a poll on state issues

Seamus McNamee of GreatBlue Research speaks to MPA students about the data collected from a recent Institute for Public Policy poll.

When the Institute for Public Policy commissioned its Public Policy Poll this spring, its master of public administration candidates were tasked with researching and contributing some of the questions. The answers—and that experience—may be as helpful in Hartford as in Fairfield.

By Timothy Deenihan

Carolyn Trabuco is a successful entrepreneur and equity research analyst with 25 years’ experience under her belt. Before any of that, she was a graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Now she’s adding Sacred Heart University to her list of alma maters as one of the inaugural cohort in SHU’s master of public administration (MPA) program, the educational arm of the University’s Institute for Public Policy (IPP). She also has a reputation for speaking plainly.

The IPP’s mission statement outlines its commitment to “inform public policy debate and foster constructive discourse on pressing issues facing Connecticut through research, education and community outreach.” Trabuco, true to form, breaks that down for the real world: “No legislator wants to put forward unpopular policy—however well-meaning—and then get clobbered back home.”

This dilemma is a key challenge when drafting policy in a democracy such as ours. In theory, legislators can bring forward any issue they like. In reality, “the public has to be at a 50/50 split before you can really begin debate on a topic,” Trabuco explains.

It may seem the legislative process is almost purposefully designed to achieve gridlock, but as Lesley DeNardis, MPA program director and IPP executive director, explains: “The deliberative process is designed to allow time to achieve consensus on policies.” That consensus in the legislature should, in theory, follow a consensus in the public. So, for legislators to move a law or policy forward, they must maintain—and often build—public support over an extended period of time. The best way to do that is to know exactly what the public wants.

The challenge, of course, is that the public often seems fickle and contradictory. Vegetables will never be as popular as sweets, even though we know vegetables are better for us. So how does a policy-maker get constituents to eat their vegetables? Or, for that matter, how does the public convince a policy-maker that now is the time to push a risky agenda?

Understanding this is precisely why the MPA students took such an active role in the development of the IPP’s recent Public Policy Poll, conducted by GreatBlue Research of Glastonbury.

From the outset, DeNardis knew her students’ practical involvement in the institute’s polling would be essential to the program’s success. Early on, the group took a look at the Connecticut State Assembly’s legislative agenda for the coming year with the intent of identifying topics most salient to the public, ultimately choosing four for further research: highway tolls, vaping tax, affordable housing and school security. The cohort divided into areas of interest or expertise, delving deeper into the history of each topic, finding comparable examples of similar legislation, their successes or pitfalls, arguments for or against, etc. Each group then prepared a number of questions to put to the surveyed public.

The questions were submitted to and vetted by GreatBlue before inclusion (“We had to fight for shelf space in the survey,” Trabuco says) and then randomized to protect against any unintentional biases. The survey was conducted by telephone between Feb. 13 and March 4, with the results shared publicly a week later.

For the students, the experience was transformative.

“At the start, we were all dismissive of surveys,” Trabuco says of her classmates. However, the hands-on experience of researching and preparing the poll gave them all a new appreciation of both the scientific control and rigor of a proper survey, as well as its potential for impact on public policy.

Carolyn Trabuco, right, speaks in a recent MPA class
at the Martire Center. Susan Agamy is at left.

Trabuco and her team focused on highway tolls. “One thing is for sure,” she says. “There are no ‘Friends of Tolling’ organizations out there. If you just flat-out ask people if they want tolls on highways, it’ll be almost 100 percent ‘No.’ But when you ask how they feel if the money raised from the tolls goes to a particular purpose—say, for example, it all goes into a lockbox and can only be used to improve roads and bridges—then their attitudes start to shift.”

Specificity beats ambiguity every time. It also helps identify pain points. What is acceptable? What is not?

“We’re really very happy with the outcomes,” says Seamus McNamee, senior director of research at GreatBlue. “These are results that will definitely help policymakers understand what matters to their constituents and, more importantly, why.”

And that, of course, is central the IPP’s mission to “foster constructive discourse.” It’s a mission born out of program director DeNardis’ own experience in public life. A veteran of local and state government, serving in both elected and appointed capacities, DeNardis turns her intellectual curiosity to unraveling the policymaking conundrums that confound both the public and their elected representatives.

“That makes this program relevant,” Trabuco says, reflecting on the year gone by. “There’s the same academic rigor you get at [some other colleges and universities (she is an analyst, after all)], the same intellectual curiosity. But here, everyone—the students and faculty—they’re interacting with real life.”

For Trabuco, that diversity is a key component to the program’s success. About a third of the cohort is directly out of undergrad. Another third or so is in the thick of active careers in public service or at nonprofits. The remainder (like Trabuco herself) brings a wealth of experience from long and successful careers elsewhere and find themselves at a crossroads pondering “What next?” In every case, the candidates came to the course with an earthy, real-life humility that set it apart from the other programs Trabuco had considered.

“I’m impressed,” she says. “The whole thing really came together with the right balance of academic rigor, street smarts and professional polish.

“But then again,” she says, “I think that’s kind of indicative of Sacred Heart as a whole.”

Poll results; Professor Lesley DeNardis