Making Government Work in Hard Places

What does it take to build a better government? Are there ways to overcome some of the difficult obstacles reform leaders often face?

These are questions Princeton University professor Jennifer Widner receives often. In fact, these questions come with such regularity that, in 2008, Widner decided to launch a program dedicated to answering them.

Widner directs Innovations for Successful Societies (ISS) at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, which is home to a collection of nearly 140 case studies focusing on how specific policies are implemented in different countries.

From Jordan's streamlining of the passport renewal process to Chile's transfer of power in a crisis, the ISS website houses an archive of real-world policy implementation examples. Available to the public, these case studies are written by ISS researchers who have worked one-on-one with the key individuals involved in implementing the reforms.

Now, Widner is bringing these case studies into the classroom.

Opening up on Jan. 25, Widner will teach an online course titled "Making Government Work in Hard Places." This will complement a class that Widner has offered for the past two years to Wilson School graduate students at the Wilson School. The online course will be available to the general public, free of charge, through the online Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform NovoEd, which is specifically designed for team building and group interactions.

"Through this online course, reformers, policy makers and scholars will be able to learn from each other as well as from our research about how to create new practices, build new institutions, implement new policies and transform incentives to sustain improvement in their governments," said Widner, a professor of politics and international affairs. "This MOOC will introduce a way to think about solutions to common – yet difficult – delivery challenges." 

The first assignment will help participants get to know each other. Widner invites students to describe a project or program that has improved people’s lives in their own communities. They can upload a paragraph and an image to share with others.

Widner offers her own example of an effort to help communities nestled within the Appalachian Mountains. Historically, the neighborhoods in this region had some of the highest unemployment levels, lowest incomes and poorest health outcomes in the country.

In the mid-1960s, however, policy makers decided to change this trend. They created the Appalachian Regional Commission, which built roads for easier commutes, introduced new vocational education and took steps toward improving health in the region.

Each week, students will read an ISS case study like this one together and examine a particular problem in detail, create a "solutions toolkit" and highlight any potential obstacles. Each case begins with the problems a reform leader faces and traces the steps taken to address such challenges. Throughout the eight-week course, students will have a chance to hear from experts and learn from public servants from South East Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caucuses.

In the longer Wilson School course, students will have a chance to wrestle with the questions and observations that online participants have offered as well as dig into some additional subjects. Widner will “invert the classroom” for part of the course, enabling Wilson School students to listen to specialized lectures, participate in online skill-focused workshops and view conversations with reform leaders. Time in the classroom is then spent in discussion and working sessions.

"We're hoping that our very interactive platform will allow reformers and policy makers from around the world to form teams and collaborate," Widner said. “It will be interesting to see who participates, what they decide to share and whether they form a network of leaders who want to make governments work better.”

Please see below for course details.

Making Government Work in Hard Places

Dates: Jan. 25 - April 7, 2015

Registration Deadline: Feb. 2, 2015

Instructor: Jennifer Widner

Institution: Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School

Certificate: Yes

For more information, and to read the course summary, click here.

Watch the course trailer here.