Policymaking in a time of crisis: Richard Bowman on lessons from COVID-19

Evaluation Lab News

Posted: Dec 02, 2020 - 12:00am

Richard Bowman’s career trajectory has taken him on a varied path, from high school science teacher to earning his Ph.D. in Policy Analysis from Pardee RAND Graduate School, to the Chief Information and Strategy Officer for Albuquerque Public Schools (APS). As APS’s CIO, his role is essentially a cross between tech, data analysis, and research. These functions are connected to the strategy of the organization, which is basically policy, because policy is the strategy of how an organization functions.

Coronavirus forced APS to completely rethink nearly every single aspect of how they do business. Dr. Bowman explained how COVID has also been a case study of how policy can be affected and influenced by emotion, as serious health risks and possible death were never a consideration in making policy for schools before. To make things even more difficult, APS did not really have much information and the information they did was constantly being updated and changed on a weekly basis. The district did their best with what they had, and over the summer they had to make some very big decisions: they shut down all schools, tried to get communication practices in place, needed to feed lots of kids and their families, and prepare for what would happen in the fall if COVID did not go away and it was not safe for schools to reopen. Making an organization-wide decision on reopening was very difficult because there was a lot of emotion around the issue. Even after they developed a policy for reopening, it was still difficult to implement because so many people kept hoping things would change.

The other big issue that emerged with keeping schools closed is the issue of equity in technology. APS did not have a district wide policy for technology, so some schools had a lot of computers for their students and others did not have any. The difficult decision was made that all the computers would need to be collected and redistributed equally to all of the students in the district. The decision was controversial, but it was the right thing to do so all of APS’ students could have a chance at successful remote learning. Dr. Bowman told the MPP students, “Yes, the policy might be straightforward but sometimes there has to be someone to push for the implementation of that policy even when it’s hard.”

Yet another issue that APS faced was getting the data about what the parents in their district wanted. It was a commonly held belief that everyone, especially those parents working essential jobs, wanted the kids back at school because they still needed to go to work; and because kids in lower-socio-economic brackets could have a harder time with online learning because of lack of resources and support.  Issues such as this can easily become one-sided with well-meaning people who do not have the lived experience of a group they are attempting to speak for. As Dr. Bowman explained to the MPP students, “When those at the table all share the same background, you can get it really wrong.” In order to get as many opinions from as many parents as possible, Dr. Bowman and his team conducted a district-wide survey. The survey showed that the majority of APS families would rather do remote school for the sake of the health and safety.

Dr. Bowman’s advice for making policy in general, and especially when the emotional temperature is way up, is to listen very carefully to all sides of the argument and do your best to consider and to understand where all people are coming from. Do not make assumptions about what people want, instead ask people what they want and then listen very closely to what those people tell you.