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Paul Decker Discusses the Future of APPAM

August 30, 2012 10:19 AM

Paul_DeckerAt the 2012 Fall Research Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, Paul T. Decker will be installed as the next President of APPAM. Mr. Decker, President and CEO of Mathmatica Policy Research since 2007, is a nationally recognized expert in the design, implementation, and execution of evaluations of education and workforce development programs. Driven by the belief that good policy is based on rigorous research and objective data, Decker combines his research expertise and business understanding in pursuit of Mathematica’s mission to improve public well-being.

Mr. Decker spent a few minutes discussing the association, his thoughts on the future, and his vision for APPAM going forward.

When did you start participating in APPAM?

While my early area of expertise was employment and training research, I had a natural leaning towards policy influence. APPAM has a strong reputation as the top association for policy research, as opposed to the more discipline-oriented associations where policy was more tangential. Mathematica was one of the founding institutional members of APPAM, and many of my colleagues were already quite active. I still vividly remember how excited I was to attend my first APPAM conference in San Francisco in 1990 at the Fairmont hotel, and how much I have enjoyed the fall conference and the organization ever since.

How has APPAM enhanced your work and career?

Over the past twenty-plus years, APPAM has been tremendously valuable to me. Through APPAM I’ve been exposed to many policy areas I’m not active in, and I’ve come to know countless colleagues across disciplines and across the country. Of course, I’ve also published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (JPAM), attended dozens of conferences, and expanded my thinking and sharpened my skills as a researcher and presenter by networking with other members.

How did you become APPAM President-elect?

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been involved in APPAM for more than 20 years as a key venue for getting feedback on my research. In recent years I have gradually become more involved in a leadership role in the organization. My first role was serving as Mathematica’s institutional representative to APPAM. Then I served on the Policy Council for several years. Most recently, I served as co-chair of the strategic planning committee with Maria Cancian, where I saw first-hand the exciting challenges and opportunities the association faced in the coming years. The chance to work with the association’s other leaders to help make that plan a reality was too interesting an opportunity to pass up. So I gladly accepted the nomination and was delighted to be chosen as president-elect. This is also my chance to help repay APPAM for all that it has given me over the course of my career and ensure that it is there for the next generation.

What do you see as APPAM’s greatest strength?

APPAM has so many strengths. Certainly the association’s specific connection to and focus on improving public policy and management sets APPAM apart from the solely field-oriented associations, as does its emphasis on working with public policy students. This focus is why APPAM came into being, and it drives the tenor of the organization more than three decades later. It helps keep the work that’s shared at APPAM relevant to what’s happening in the policy sphere right now. We have a great annual conference that gets bigger and stronger with each passing year, and we have a well-respected journal with access that’s included as part of membership. There’s also tremendous strength in numbers with approximately 2,000 individual and 105 institutional members. These members have directly expressed their appreciation for the multidisciplinary environment and policy focus they encounter at APPAM. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the dynamic professional staff supporting all of these activities and the caliber of the Policy Council.

How can these strengths be leveraged in the coming year?

One of my leadership goals is to build on these strengths and leverage APPAM’s reach beyond the Fall Research Conference. For example, in July we inaugurated the APPAM Institutional Member Forum Series at Mathematica’s Washington, DC, office. The goal of this series is to take our efforts to the next level in engaging institutional members, connecting the worlds of research and policy, and providing our members with high quality programming that’s relevant to their interests and work. The RFP for hosting the next forums in the series is currently open, and I encourage all of our institutional members to apply.

Another example of APPAM’s reach is its move into the digital era. The association is already active on Facebook and Twitter. The launch of its new website is just the beginning of a broader effort to better connect, and communicate more regularly, with our members and other audiences. We are also working to boost APPAM’s external visibility and enhance the association’s reputation and influence. This year we hired our first full-time communications professional.

What priorities do you have for the association in the coming year?

My top priority is improving the value the association provides its members. This value manifests itself in many ways: the quality of the fall conference, the caliber of the journal, the benefit of networking in person and online, and so forth. As I look out over the next few years, I’m guided by the plan the strategic planning committee developed, which the Policy Council and members adopted last fall. So, the short answer is that in the coming year, I’ll focus on implementing the strategic plan and translating it into action.

The plan focuses on three strategic objectives:

  1. Promoting greater integration across disciplinary, methodological, and topical silos
  2. Increasing the policy relevance of our work
  3. Expanding active membership, with a focus on increasing diversity

I encourage every member to read the plan, which is available on the website.

What are the two biggest issues facing the association today?

The biggest issues APPAM faces are longstanding ones that the association has addressed from its inception. The first is maintaining policy relevance in a rapidly changing policy and research environment, and doing so in a way that doesn’t compromise the quality and caliber of research—and this issue is tied to APPAM’s second strategic objective: increasing the policy relevance of its work. JPAM and the Fall Research Conference must remain premier venues for academic research, while also presenting that research in a manner that attracts policy interest.

The second issue APPAM faces is increasing the association’s reach. I already mentioned expanding our programming beyond the conference and journal, as well as APPAM’s move into the digital era. These are good examples of how we are enlarging the association’s reach and active membership. Another priority is increasing the diversity of our membership. By diversity, I mean diversity of research discipline, gender, and race/ethnicity. Our work in this area is guided by new Diversity Committee that grew out of the strategic plan. Finally, I would add that we want greater engagement with policy thinkers in other countries, so we are learning about best-practices and new ideas from around the globe. 

Do you have ideas on how to tackle the issues facing the association?

The strategic plan addresses how to approach the three strategic objectives. For example, in the area of promoting greater integration across silos, we have organized cross-cutting fall conference sessions focused on topics, but highlighting diversity of methods, discipline, and academic/practice perspective. Another example is our effort to more fully engage students in attending the conference and participating in sessions. Ensuring a vibrant pipeline of future members is important to APPAM’s long-term sustainability.

I think it’s important to highlight that the best ideas can and will fail if you don’t have an effective system in place to properly implement them.  We have a new committee structure that has come out of the strategic planning process, which is designed to support the deliberations of the Policy Council.  The new committees can address key issues facing APPAM with greater focus, keep generating new ideas, and, along with the staff, focus on the successful implementation.

What excites you about the coming year?

There are so many things. Certainly, seeing the growth in membership and active participation in the fall conference in Baltimore is at the top of the list. I’m probably most energized about the opportunities to interact with members and our outstanding Policy Council, and to help achieve some of the goals in the strategic plan.

What are you looking forward to the most at the upcoming Fall Research Conference?

I’ve always loved the Fall Conference and would be looking forward to it even if there wasn’t anything new. That being said, I think the symposia this year are outstanding and speak directly to the topics of the day. In particular, I’m looking forward to the Thursday symposium on "Strengthening the Relationship between Policy Research and Practice: Models and Lessons Learned.”  It ties directly to the strategic plan and our effort to make the work we do more relevant. 

I’m also looking forward to the cross-cutting themes that are being introduced to help expand integration across perspectives, disciplines, and policy areas. Sessions attached to these cross-cutting themes offer dynamic and multidisciplinary perspectives in: informing strategies for managing budget cuts, preventing teenage pregnancy, and boosting the quality of teaching.

Finally, I’m excited that we were able to move the awards presentations from breakfast to lunch and include a keynote speaker so that more attendees will be able to participate.

How do you think members can best leverage their APPAM membership?

Taking advantage of all APPAM has to offer – the conference, journal, listserv, online resources, and so forth – is the best way to start. Most importantly, engage with other members. Don’t be shy. Strike up a conversation, particularly with someone from a different discipline. You never know what will come out of that interaction.


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