Students in Michigan State University’s Master of Public Policy program got the inside scoop on how state policy gets made through an engaging discussion held last week with two Lansing insiders.
Sara Wycoff McCauley is a Senior Strategy Advisor in the Executive Office of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. She and a handful of colleagues have the exciting and formidable task of helping the heads of the state’s numerous agencies to work in coordination with each other and the governor to address Michiganders’ needs in coherent, innovative, and effective ways. While McCauley’s policy passions are families and children, juvenile justice, and talent and economic development, she’s worked on many different policy areas. “If you’re a person who likes to look at systems and how they interrelate, this is a great job,” she says. Prior to her current post McCauley, a self-described “policy nerd,” worked in Michigan’s Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs and the state’s Senate Fiscal Agency, as well as at the Kellogg Company as a government relations intern.
Mike Zimmer has worked in Michigan’s state government for over three decades. He’s currently the director of the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), a large umbrella agency that oversees units as varied as the office in charge of licensing cosmetologists, the state’s Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Administrative Hearing System, and more. Two of the LARA offices closest to Zimmer’s heart were created under the current governor: the Michigan Office for New Americans (MONA) and Office of Good Government. The former seeks to integrate refugees and other legal immigrants into the fabric of Michigan society and harness their skills to promote economic growth; the latter oversees a new system of dashboards and scorecards meant to improve government performance and accountability.
Getting things done and looking past the headlines
McCauley and Zimmer shared sage advice for MPP students who hope to launch careers similar to theirs after graduation.
Zimmer emphasized that “you need to know how to actually get things done.” That means understanding how bills are negotiated and where people stand politically as well as “the academic stuff.” Zimmer said getting an internship with a legislator or a state agency—something MSU students have unparalleled access to given their Lansing location—is a great way to start learning this process.
McCauley noted that “there are two kinds of policy. One is big and flashy, but there are all kinds of really important things that people don’t pay attention too.” As an example, she mentioned the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which was reauthorized this past July to virtually no fanfare or news coverage—even though it meant $400 million in grants to the State of Michigan would be renewed. McCauley encouraged MPP students to be on the lookout for such seemingly out-of-the-way policies that may actually affect more people than the headline-catching issues of the day.
Possible capstone topics?
Zimmer and McCauley also told MPP students about some of the most urgent questions they would like better answers to regarding Michigan policy—questions that just might grow into capstone projects for some of the students.
Zimmer noted that while it’s generally understood that immigrants tend to open their own businesses at a higher rate than native Michiganders, “there’s very little data on the economic impact of immigrants” in terms of how long they stay in Michigan, how many people they employ, and other such issues. MONA, one of the offices Zimmer supervises, would love to have better information about this.
Figuring out how to get welfare recipients back to work is another issue Zimmer said he’d like to see more research on.
For her part, McCauley noted that the state is always on the lookout for improving its capacity for “talent development”—figuring out how to match up opportunities for skilled training with the industries and geographic regions that can best harness them.