It is a common misconception that public policy is only suitable for students who wish to work in the public sector. In fact, public policy is increasingly seen as an attractive option to professionals in the private sector and social institutions, a change that can be credited to its interdisciplinary nature and wide range of applications.  

The blurred line between public and private 

When someone asks Assoc. Prof. Pham Duy Nghia, MPP Program Director whether public policy is a suitable major for people from the private sector, he usually answers with the story of a special coffee shop founded by Nguyen Van Duong, chairman of Dong Thap Province People’s Committee, inside the provincial government’s headquarters.

Dong Thap businessmen frequenting the location named it the Chairman Coffee Shop. There, they can meet with provincial leaders every morning for one hour before office hours. 

The place is small, sparsely furnished with a white stone table, and coffee is served free of charge. There, businesspeople have the opportunity to share directly with provincial leaders the difficulties and issues their companies are facing, and even provide critical input or suggestions on current public policies. As a result, many policies were identified as unsuitable or ineffective, and fixed or amended in the process.

As Assoc. Prof. Nghia explained, the spheres of what is considered “public” and “private” are slowly blending. By recognizing that governments cannot encompass all sectors, a vibrant public-private partnership becomes an asset. The public sector has much to gain by cooperating closely with the private sector, and even much to learn in areas where the private sector excels, such as in human resources management and public relations. Mutual understanding and the sharing of successful strategies are key to accomplish administrative goals more effectively. 

Prof. Pham Duy Nghia

Furthermore, the government has to think the way businesspeople think, continues Prof. Nghia. Local public servants should put themselves in the shoes of small business owners and managers. They should treat local people and businesses as their customers, using their contentment as a key indicator to assess the quality of public service and performance of public servants.

A closer relationship also means local residents and businesses can both better understand the intent and implications of the policies affecting them, as well as feel empowered to provide feedback that will further refine how they impact their daily lives and operations. Whether from the standpoint of policymakers or those affected by said policies, it is crucial that all parties understand the scientific foundations as well as the practical implications when considering policy implementation. 

“If you run a small company, you have less frequent interactions with local authority. But if your company grows bigger, so do your company’s social responsibilities. As it scales up, your company should learn to explore public policies and interact more with local authority. Then, maintaining close relations with the general public and local authority becomes a necessary component of your company’s public relations activities, of sound risk management, and to ensure an enhanced social value as well as the sustainable growth of your company,” Assoc. Prof. Nghia explained. 

Diversity 

The study of public policy is very practical and interdisciplinary. It is rooted in economics, political science, law, administration, social sciences, and more. Students of public policy and management come from very different backgrounds, hold different majors, and have varied professional occupations. 

Dr. Scott Fritzen, Associate Professor at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington, said public policy students can come from any sector as long as they are determined to apply what they know and learn on solving problems related in one way or another to the public sector, effecting positive change along the way.

Public policy as a major is rapidly growing, attracting large numbers of applicants in universities across North America, Europe, and other developed countries in the world. Private companies and non-public institutions are showing their preference to public policy degree holders. 

At FSPPM, applicants that have a bachelor’s degree in any major can apply for the Master in Public Policy program, regardless of whether they come from the public, private or civil society sector. 

For Ho Quang De, deputy director of Phu Yen Province Department of Finance and a former student of MPP2 class, the diversity within the student body was what made FSPPM different.

Dr. Scott Fritzen

“There is a balanced ratio of students coming in from different regions, sectors and occupation, making our class a diverse pool of talents. Each member of our class has his or her own understanding and experience of a specific field. This opens vast possibilities to exchange ideas and learn from one another. It also makes the theories we learn become easier to digest, as everyone has a different way to approach them,” he explained. 

According to statistics, 41.2 percent of students studying Policy Analysis at FSPPM are from the public sector, 26.5 percent of them are from the private sector and the remaining are from social institutions, universities, and research centers. 

Meanwhile, 51.4 percent of students studying Leadership & Management at FSPPM come from the private sector, 28.6 percent of them come from the public sector and the remaining come from social and educational institutions. 

Chau Ngo Anh Nhan, a former student of MPP2 class, was a public official when he joined the Master in Public Policy program at FSPPM. He recalled how the teaching program offered an approachable theorical framework that students could lean on to in order to analyze practical issues, as well as provided students with analytical skills so that policymakers could make decisions that bring about positive results for society at every level. 

“The interactions with local and international professors and with other students coming from different sectors will help you analyze the issues mentioned in the class better. After studying at Fulbright, you have the chance to connect with people from different areas, with different experiences, and build a network of alumni that will open the way for future collaboration,” he emphasized. 

The public policy training program at Fulbright has strong foundations in economics. But its most valuable aspect is that it builds in students the capacity to think. It provides them a framework and habits for future self-learning, even for those who do not major in economics. 

Chau Ngo Anh Nhan, a former student of MPP2 class

Applicants are not required to graduate from an Economics majors; they only have to complete foundational courses as required by the Ministry of Education and Training before starting the Master in Public Policy program officially.

“What a professional graduate education in public policy and management provides to students is the ability to integrate across different domains of knowledge: management, economics, politics, sociology, all in the service of solving problems. This is what makes it so unique. Instead of being an expert in any one discipline, any one set of methods, what the Fulbright school is trying to produce are graduates who can flexibly draw from different domains of knowledge and employ them to tackle very real problems societies face, and to communicate that effectively in the real world. That is the single most important skill that will carry the graduates far and wide in the Vietnamese landscape,” Dr. Fritzen concluded.

  • Xuan Linh

In early 2008, an atmosphere of satisfaction and optimism prevailed in Vietnam. After over 20 years of Doi Moi reforms resulting in significant economic growth, many people emerged from poverty and entered the middle class. Massive flows of foreign investment flooded into Vietnam, triggering an unprecedented stock market boom. As a sovereign nation, Vietnam gained respect and increasing influence in the international community.

In this context, a group of authors comprising Harvard scholars and Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) lecturers published a policy analysis titled “The Choice of Success”, causing a stir in the Vietnamese public. The monograph earnestly warned about the increasingly pressing risks of crony capitalism in Vietnam. In other words, the emergence of privileged groups benefitting from maintaining the status quo was hindering policymaking and blunting motivations to continue reforms. By presenting persuasive analysis and data, the authors demonstrated that unless Vietnam could build a “firewall” to isolate economic power from political power, the country would fall in the middle-income trap. The authors hence proposed a socio-economic development policy framework for Vietnam in the period of 2011-2020.

The group of scholars’ assessments and warnings, unsurprisingly, shocked the entire system when published, especially when Vietnam was constantly receiving accolades from aid providers, such as the World Bank and international investment banks, as well as the global press. Many were concerned FETP and the authors involved might be in a difficult situation for their outspoken criticism on a rather sensitive subject. But for insiders Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh and specialist Nguyen Xuan Thanh, well-aware of the responsibilities of their school from the very beginning, were not at all afraid or worried. “Fulbright’s mission is to deeply engage in the policy discussion process, to promote beneficial and feasible draft policies. In order to do this, the school must conduct independent and objective policy research, looking directly at Vietnam’s weaknesses and talking face to face with the state, from senior leaders to local officials,” professed specialist Nguyen Xuan Thanh.

“Our credibility arises from criticism. Although criticism itself does not create value, it is truly valuable when done in a constructive manner for the common good. Sincere and science-based criticism gives you power in debate. And we have conscientiously pursued that from the start,” added Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh.

Indeed, FETP’s straightforward policy criticism, while it risks offending someone in the system, is acknowledged by leaders who have come to appreciate Fulbright’s direct yet positive and constructive critique.

Mr. Thomas Vallely, Director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard University and founder of FETP defines the distinct formula Fulbright’s policy analysis success: high quality research and practical policy reviews.

“Fulbright’s policy studies are not written to be published in economics journals. If you write for an economics journal, no one in Vietnam would understand what you are talking about because it would be just like a math problem. You must write about the problem and analyze it in a way that makes it approachable to the public. You must understand the problem and write something that is feasible for a government or party official so that they can understand the problem and implement the solution,” Mr. Vallely explained.

Fulbright’s brand of constructive criticism has impacted policymaking positively over the years, such as with the government decision, starting in the mid-1990s, to loosen regulations on telecommunications.

“Today, young people can easily pick up the phone, go to Facebook, and they take it for granted. Actually, they can now access the Internet easily because Vietnam decided to follow our carefully researched recommendation. The proposal consisted of a telecommunications system that remained state-owned, but with judicious space for competition. I remember that research was conceived at a time when FETP was one of the few institutions with internet access, and the government considered whether to universalize Internet in Vietnam.”

The debate raged fiercely within the halls of government before FETP shared its recommendations for consideration. In 1995, Viettel became the second official telecom service provider in Vietnam, competing directly with VNPT. Although both companies were state-owned, their competition forever changed the landscape of the telecommunications market, making the Internet cheaper, more accessible and widely connected across the country. Vietnam is now one of the countries with the highest Internet coverage in Southeast Asia with 58 million users, consistently ranking among the fastest growing telecom markets in the world over the past 10 years.

“We know that our input is not always well received, but at least we have played our role in the policy debate. And the great thing about Vietnam is that they like us doing it,” said Mr. Thomas Vallely.

Strong advocacy for reform

Constructive criticism of policymakers in Vietnam of this caliber was few and far between at the time, contributing to FETP’s unique advantage. Consistently pursuing this style from the beginning set Fulbright’s policy research apart as a well-received staple of policy conversations in the country.

But what followed demonstrated that realizing Vietnam’s potential is never easy. After nearly twenty years of economic renovation, Vietnam and the world has changed drastically. So has FETP – now the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), in the way that its faculty is increasingly engaged in addressing major challenges facing Vietnam.

These challenges arose from numerous problems of the political and economic system. As Professor Dwight Perkins once wrote, the measures taken in 1989, including opening borders, forcing state-owned enterprises to compete and curbing subsidies to this sector, seemed to indicate “a total willingness towards rapid and powerful reforms”; however, that was not the case.

Perkin in a meeting with General Secretary Do Muoi

Revenue from oil, gas and agricultural products, the rapid growth of textile and footwear exports processed in foreign-invested factories, as well as the sudden abundance of development aid following the normalization of Vietnam-US relations made for a delicate equilibrium which policymakers were hesitant to upset, hampering further renovation. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 caused a major deceleration in economic growth, according to Dr. David Dapice, prompting the state to increase control over the economy. Even so, private enterprises emancipated under the 1999 Enterprise Law thrived, registering an 8% increase in gross domestic product from 2005 to 2007.

In the middle of 2007, with GDP growth peaking, then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung “ordered” Harvard University’s Vietnam Program to critique Vietnam’s development strategy for the next decade, from 2011 to 2020. In other words, to continue the work of “In Search of the Dragon’s Trail” in an era of trade globalization and international supply chains, of China’s phenomenal growth, an era with new requirements for more complex domestic economy management. The Harvard group of scholars and Fulbright lecturers took this opportunity to conduct their most objective assessments of the situation in Vietnam before presenting their findings in the famous policy analysis titled “The Choice of Success”.

Professor Perkin and Professor Dapice discussing with senior executive Vietnamese officials

The researchers realized that “Vietnam [was] losing a significant part of its resources due to waste and corruption” in public investment, with several notable infrastructure projects behind schedule, exceeding budget and of poor quality. In many cases, the project was chosen without appropriate economic criteria, typically deep-water ports along the central coast. Meanwhile, infrastructures in population hubs such as Ho-Chi-Minh City, Binh Duong, Dong Nai, and Ba Ria-Vung Tau, accounting together for nearly 60% of the country’s population and labor growth, were already severely overloaded. The national economy was severely disrupted by “politically powerful individuals and groups […] converting national assets to private ownership through shady real estate transactions and internal stakes.” Meanwhile, the financial system suffered from a “failure to separate economic power from political power. While the non-state sector creates more than 90% of employment in the industrial sector and nearly 70% of industrial output, the majority of state credit and investments goes to the state sector.”

The study identified specific policymakers, agents and interest groups influencing national financial institutions to support underperforming state-owned enterprises– a strategy that was essentially compared to “a football coach who recruits the worst players to compete in the final match.” To achieve development goals, Vietnamese leaders needed to improve the quality of education, reform public finances, enhance corporate transparency, empower the State Bank, and “let go of unrealistic and illusionary policies.” Comparing Vietnam with other Asian economies, the analysis suggested strongly that the desired results were achievable by making the right choices; but those choices lied not in ideology, and instead revolved around the proper governance of a modern state.

Barely a few months later, the authors’ alarmed predictions were realized. State-owned enterprises, as predicted by Fulbright researchers, exploited their “close relationship” with state banks and party leaders. They took out excessive loans and branched out beyond their core business, plunging into real estate and other speculative activities, contributing to the shocking inflation rate of 23% in 2008. The global financial crisis erupted in the second half of 2008, followed by a recession that dragged Vietnam ‘s growth rate to much lower than the level Asian “dragons” had maintained over the past three decades. The powerhouses once considered the “steel punch” of the economy, including Vinashin and Vinalines, fell into a downward spiral and were on the verge of bankruptcy. Private companies were discouraged because of the unfair competition with state-owned enterprises. Vietnam’s per capita income was only one-third that of China and only equaled to a small fraction of the average income in South Korea or Taiwan. It could not even match less successful East Asian countries like Thailand or Indonesia – places that Vietnamese leaders had visited over twenty years ago with the eagerness and desire to emulate their success.

New standards for public policy discussion in Vietnam

In the past, criticizing public policies was a taboo. Remarks were only made via unofficial channels or without the presence and participation of the press. With Fulbright policy studies, the public, whom the school believes “has a right to know what is happening in their country”, to quote Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, is allowed to access and participate in discussing important issues of the country.

“The Choice of Success”, “Unblocking institutional bottlenecks to restore growth”, “Institutional reform: From vision to practice”, all annual policy studies of FETP, have ignited discussions in many newspapers when published, bringing together intellectuals, experts, and citizens concerned with the prospects of their country’s development. Audacious voices became louder, proclaiming the truth and dissecting weak points of the economy. To quote an economist, the Fulbright School effectively “created a new standard, a new framework for policy discussion in Vietnam.”

After “The Choice of Success,” the Government of Vietnam decided to authorize a more frequent and candid channel for dialogue on thorny reform issues facing the country. As a result, the Vietnam Executive Leadership Program (VELP) was launched in late 2008, with funding from the United Nations Development Program. Since then, VELP has welcomed senior Vietnamese leaders and policymakers, often led by a deputy prime minister or a Politburo Commissioner, to Harvard Kennedy School for a week of discussions with leading experts, addressing globalization and the competitiveness and socio-economic development of Vietnam.

The discussion agenda for each VELP program was jointly developed by FETP faculty and Harvard scholars through consultations with Vietnamese government leaders. VELP, according to specialist Nguyen Xuan Thanh, “has contributed significantly to the policy debate, so that the government can come up with better policies.” With an in-depth understanding of Vietnam’s socio-economic issues and the ever-increasing familiarity of faculty with Vietnam’s challenges and possibilities, such discussions have become highly sought after among Vietnamese policymakers.

While the theme of the early VELPs focused on unblocking “institutional bottlenecks” to stimulate economic growth, in recent years, VELP has shifted its focus to the global technological revolution trends affecting Vietnam. In December 2019, a group of senior Vietnamese leaders, led by Mr. Nguyen Van Binh, Politburo Commissioner and Chairman of the Central Economic Committee, spent a week at Harvard to discuss and learn with top scholars such as Professor Jason Furman, former Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council under President Obama, as well as leaders of major technology corporations including Google and Facebook on ways to attract foreign direct investments in the tech industry, whether through cloud technology, network security, or computerized public service innovation.

“VELP has provided us with new perspectives and a deep understanding of world economic issues, particularly major economies like the United States, China, and the EU, which are extremely important for Vietnam. Direct and open discussions with the world’s leading experts in related fields make us reevaluate our assumptions about Vietnam’s economy, especially relating to prospects for sustained high economic growth”, commented VELP participants.

“Seldom does any public policy school in the world have a deep connection with practical issues and important influences on the national policy-making process like the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management,” said Professor Terry Buss, US National Academy of Public Administration.

In 2019, the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management’s Master of Public Policy degree (MPP) became fully-accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) in Washington, DC (NASPAA) (https://www.naspaa.org/).

NASPAA accreditation is the most prestigious award a public policy and management school can receive. The School became one of only 11 non-US schools to be accredited worldwide: only 187 schools in total have to meet NASPAA’s rigorous standards. There are nearly 400 public policy graduate programs in the US seeking this accreditation. No other Vietnamese or ASEAN school has achieved a western accreditation at this level.

Whereas nearly every school usually fails to achieve accreditation in its first year, and most candidate schools have not yet attained NASPAA standards, the School did so on its first try. Not only that, but NASPAA found no major deficiencies, but cited many best practices that might be employed by others.

Earlier in 2008, the School became the first graduate school in Vietnam to offer an MPP degree. In 2016, the School was authorized to award the MPP under its own imperator. Prior to this, the School awarded the MPP under the National University of Economics in Saigon, with which it had partnered for two decades.

NASPAA accreditation is daunting.

Dr. Terry Buss, Fulbright School’s Senior Advisor on international accreditation

The NASPAA Process

NASPAA requires approximately two years of intensive work to complete the accreditation process. The first step is for schools to submit detailed information and statistics, demonstrating that they are eligible to undergo the process.

Next, schools prepare a report demonstrating that they have met NASPAA’s rigorous standards that reflect state-of-the-art best practices, innovations, and performance characteristics of the world’s most prestigious universities.

NASPAA is evidence-based, looking at a school’s mission, goals, and objectives; faculty qualifications and performance; student achievement academically and in the job market; infrastructure and financial resources; classroom facilities; strategic plans, and curriculum.

Some, but not all, of the evidence developed by the Fulbright School included…

  • Surveys of alumni; employers; and government and business leaders.
  • Surveys of current students upon enrollment and graduation; student class evaluations; and student opinions on student services.
  • Outside expert evaluations of course curricula; student exams; student homework; and graduate thesis evaluation.
  • Verification that students had mastered the policy and management curriculum.
  • Studies of alumni jobs (types and salaries) obtained after graduation; program satisfaction; use of knowledge on the job.
  • Analyses of admission practices, enrollments, grading, marketing, and counseling/advising.
  • Assessment of the School’s website, brochures, and marketing materials.
  • Comprehensive program evaluations.

The School chose several exemplar universities in the region to see how closely it mirrored their best practices.

A report documenting evidence is then prepared and submitted to a panel of 20 or so NASPAA members who are experts in all aspects of administering policy and management schools. The panel reviews the report and requests additional information or documentation as necessary. The School also employed outside experts to review the report before submission to NASPAA.

School leadership and faculty met with NASPAA leadership in Beijing to here presentations on state-or-the-art practices. For example, how to succeed in employing video conferencing and online classes.

Next, a site-visit team is sent to the school to verify the claims in the report to NASPAA in a four-day visit. The team consists of two senior faculty persons from NASPAA accredited schools and a public administration practitioner. All three must have expertise in theory and practice. Site visitors may review any data, reports, student exams, and theses, or documentation they like. This usually includes confidential interviews with faculty and students.

The site visit team then reports back to the panel who thoroughly review their findings against claims and achievements in the report.

NASPAA insists on in-depth faculty and student participation in preparing the report.

The faculty gathered data, prepared sections of the report, and voted on any changes in School policy, procedures, or data gathering. Students and alumni participated in focus groups to offer their opinions about the School.

In addition, the School enlisted internationally-recognized experts in policy and management to help the faculty think about best practices, options, and strategies necessary to become a world-class program. Part of this effort included “in-service” capacity-building opportunities for faculty to stay abreast of the latest learning in public policy and management. For example: developing and writing up case study materials geared to the Vietnamese experience, but based on the Harvard University case study model.

Dr. Terry Buss at a seminar in the Fulbright School.

Why Pursue Accreditation 

NASPAA accreditation has numerous advantages.

Students graduating from the School can rightly claim that they received a world-class education, recognized everywhere. This helps in applying for jobs, seeking a doctoral degree, or transferring course credits to US and western universities.

Faculty can burnish their credentials when changing jobs, seeking grants and contracts, or competing for academic rewards.

The School can attract visiting professors and guest speakers to embellish the program. Accreditation helps attract outside funding.

The School has numerous partnerships made possible through accreditation. For example, the School recently partnered with the National Academy of Public Administration (www.napawash.org) in Washington to pursue joint projects, exchange faculty and fellows, and offer courses and seminars. NAPA is an organization, chartered by the US Congress, whose members are elected for their lifetime contributions to public policy and management. It is considered the highest honor for practitioners and academics.

So, with this foundation, the School now has the potential to become a leading institution in the Asia-Pacific region. It is already well on its way to doing so.

Evidence of Success

Receiving accreditation is the ultimate indication of a successful program. The most important indicator in my view is the 1,300 alumni. Whenever the School offers a program, the alumni show up. Whenever the School needs help or support, the alumni respond “whatever you need.”

Other indicators are that 90% graduated from the program, and 95% are employed in public policy and management positions.

When the school held an information session for this year’s class, several hundred potential students showed up, and another 10,000 viewed the event online.

Dr. Terry Buss (NAPA Fellow, Fulbright School’s Senior Advisor on international accreditation)