Interview / Policy Innovation
Published: 19.07.2023

A talk with Naim Laeni, Lecturer of Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, who collaborated with TPLab to let students have hands-on experience in policy making

Public issues in the present have become increasingly complex, to the point where traditional policy-making study and approaches are unable to keep up. Challenges are requiring more specialised knowledge of experts in the field. Last year, Thailand Policy Lab (TPLab) collaborated with the Faculty of Political Science of Thammasat University to develop the curriculum for the “Integrated Policy Making and Practice” course. Starting last summer semester and continuing this year (2022-2023), the course allows students to learn about policy innovation tools and provide them with hands-on experience in creating and advocating policies to stakeholders.

How does the learning process work? What did the students get to experience on-site? And why should we start teaching policy innovation in the classroom? Let’s find the answers with Dr. Naim Lani, Lecturer of Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, the owner of this course.

3 Approaches for Policy Education

“There are three approaches to studying public policy. The first is to learn the politics of policy, such as learning about the power structure involved in the policy making. For example, policies can originate from political groups or influential entities. In democratic countries, policies may come from civil society, citizens, NGOs, or local communities. But in the context of countries like Thailand or other Asian countries, we often see authoritarian governments with significant decision-making power on policy. Additionally, we study the types of law or forms of governments that influence policy making. For instance, Singapore is a centralised state where the president has the authority to make policies. We must acknowledge that policy cannot be separated from politics.

 “The second approach is studying public administration or policy management. We delve into the process of policy-making, focusing on how to make policies more effective. This includes budget management, determining the required human resources, identifying which agencies will implement the policies, as well as the process of monitoring and evaluation. How to design evaluation tools and identify the responsible agencies for assessing the outcomes. The results of the evaluation will feed back into the policy cycle or the next policy management cycle.”

“The third approach is interdisciplinary learning. I believe this is the most challenging approach as the public policy study grows more complex. Problems that were once perceived as non-public problems can become public issues, such as mental health. Understanding such increasingly complex challenges require specialised knowledge and expertise. Therefore, this approach of learning cannot be undertaken only within our faculty. We need to bring in experts in other areas to design policies, as well as relying more on policy research and policy design approaches.”

Collaboration with Thailand Policy Lab to Transform Policy Education

When public issues change, teaching and learning must adapt accordingly. Naim was assigned by the head of the Public Administration department, Faculty of Political Science, to design a new course. He took the opportunity to develop classes where students get to try out policy innovations in the classroom. The course was taught during the summer break.

“I named the course “Integrated Policy Making and Practice” with the main goal of encouraging students to think more comprehensively about policy making. It’s not just about ideating policies but also considering the possibilities for policy experimentation and looking more closely at policy implementation. Normally, we teach theories from the first year to the third year, and students only begin to experience the world of hackathon or working environment in the fourth year. I think that is too late. Why don’t we incorporate activities or training related to innovation for them to learn right from university?

 “Then, I had to find platforms and partners who already had knowledge and expertise in this field. So, I went and explained my goals to TPLab, expressing my desire to train policymakers by introducing innovative tools right from the classroom. I discussed with TPLab about the possibility of collaborating together, where I wanted them to be a part of the class as co-organisers rather than just participants.”

 “We enlisted the help of TP Lab to guide us with tools such as Causal Loop Analysis or the Iceberg Model in conducting workshops. Prior to students having the opportunity to present policies at UNESCAP, TPLab and NESDC (National Economic and Social Development Council) also mentored the students about the various processes and steps involved in public policy. The challenge from NESDC and TPLab last year was regarding mental health.”

 “As for this year, we partnered with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) because I felt that urban issues are big problems, and BMA has case studies, spaces, and its own sandbox. Yesterday, my students and I spent a day in the BMA’s health sandbox area. In the afternoon, we had discussions with Deputy Governors Ajarn Tavida (Kamolvej) and Deputy Sanon (Wangsrangboon) about policy design. Our role was to teach the students about various policy design tools and methods.”

 “Many students want to immediately propose solutions, or sometimes they want to tackle the most challenging problems first, like changing people’s worldview. I have to constantly remind the students not to jump to solutions right away. We need to follow the steps of TPLab, starting with problem analysis, examining the ecosystem and stakeholders. However, the greatest strength of this learning process is that students don’t only learn about the tools, but they get to co-facilitate the classroom, with the tools serving as aids in organising the teaching process.”

“Students last year were very excited when they had the opportunity to meet with external organisations. Normally, seeing a professor in class wouldn’t bring much excitement, but when we met Tiffany Chen [Policy Expert from TPLab] or the team from NESDC, it felt like entering another world. It was also a challenge for the students to see how far they could go. Moreover, it was a chance for improvement as instructors and as a faculty. Without working with external organisations, we would only teach what we know at a certain level. However, working with TPLab has expanded our network.

“In addition to workshops or up-to-date courses, teaching theory remains important. For example, we need to teach them the theory behind why we discuss collaborative governance and what it entails. Every student may have heard of terms like urban lab or policy lab, but if we don’t teach them what they really mean, how they function, they might have an incorrect idea. Therefore, we must help prepare students to understand the extent they can work with these innovations, and how ready they are to present their work.”

Policy Innovation for Interdisciplinary Teaching

Policy innovation tools also contribute to expanding the thought process and can be applied to analysis in other subjects. “These tools can be applied in studies or international developments. For example, in subjects like Human Rights, these tools can help analyse the actors involved, as there are already accountable organisations in place. These tools enable more systematic analysis.

 “If asked why we study this interdisciplinary approach, it is because our country undergoes significant changes, meaning we require more in-depth knowledge. Ultimately, it is to respond to the first [politics of policy] and second [policy management] approaches. With more experts assisting policymakers, policy management will improve. The use of policy labs and policy innovation will enhance the efficiency of policy cycles. Simultaneously, it will have influences on policy politics since policies will be based on in-depth data, not just decisions made by governments or administrators,” concluded Naim.

We can see that policy innovation can begin in the classroom without having to wait for real-world work. This class also provides an opportunity for students and universities to expand their knowledge and network with external organisations to create a strong community of innovators, which will lead to Thai public policy that keeps pace with challenges and leaves no one behind.

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