Learning Public Management Experientially (MGSC03)

Recently I was walking along Bayview near Eglinton with my teenage son. Two joggers passed by, then a few seconds later they stopped and I heard one of them call out “Professor Borins.” I turned around, he came up to me and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I took your public management course years ago. I played the role of prime minister in your budget simulation, and it was one of the best learning experiences I ever had in university.”

Having my teenage son with me was crucial. Given normal teenage skepticism about the parental unit, it was rewarding to have him hear a stranger saying I did something right. And I also have a witness for my story.

The course the former student – now a lawyer who jogs on weekends, he told me – was referring to is MGSC03 (Public Management).

The Strategic Management area at UTSC includes courses dealing with management of the public and private sectors. MGSC03 is entirely about the public sector: it is an introduction to public management. It’s aimed first at students who think they might work in the public sector, second at students who anticipate that their work in the private sector might put them in contact with government, and third at students who simply want to know how government works. Unlike many other Management courses, it is also open to students in Public Policy and Political Science. Because the public sector accounts for approximately one-third of the Canadian economy, quite a few of our students will spend at least part of their careers in the public sector or dealing with it.

As my former student attested, there is a large experiential component to the course. In the middle of the course, we have a budget exercise. Students form teams that represent the spending departments (Health, Industry, Natural Resources, Human Resources) and the central agencies (Prime Minister, Minister of Finance). The spending departments must allocate either a collective budget increase or a collective budget cut. The Prime Minister and Minister of Finance lead the process. The simulation involves web-based research about the departments, advocacy, and then negotiation. Over the years, I’ve had feedback from many students that it was a great experiential learning exercise.

A second experiential learning component is the crisis management exercise. I’ll walk into class one day with a “black swan” scenario, ask one student to be the prime minister or minister in charge, and other students to come up with a plan. Last year’s crisis: China has increased pressure on the federal government to release Ms Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive being held in Canada for extradition to the US, by executing one Canadian citizen and starting trials of two others accused of espionage. How should the federal government respond to these provocations?

My presentations in the course involve explaining the basics of how the public sector operates, in particular the linkage between political leadership and public sector implementation, and then applying that knowledge to a number of contexts, such as financial management (the budget exercise), crisis management, management of information and information technology, and human resource management. To explain how the public sectors, I will be looking at the efforts of the federal government that will be elected this fall to implement its priorities and the efforts of the Ford Government to respond to widespread opposition to its budget cuts.

I’m proud to say that MGSC03 has had superb student reviews. The numerical questions were generally high 4s, considerably above departmental and UTSC means. Student comments were excellent, for example: “I don’t often complete course evaluations unless the professor is exceptional and knowledgeable, and in this case, Professor Borins is the perfect instructor for this course. With an extensive background in public management, he’s able to explain concepts clearly and relate class materials to current events – a key element that seems to be missing in many other courses. On top of that, he integrates his past experiences within the lectures, and I always enjoy listening to what professors have done outside of classroom settings.”

I will be giving MGSC03 winter semester on Tuesdays from 11 to 1. I look forward to working together with you, experientially, to understand the public sector and the skills you need to be an effective manager in it.

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