Briefcases are parked nose-to-nose at the foot of the walls and out of the way. Laptops are open, network connections are confirmed and everyone is wearing a name tag with someone else’s name.
In this, the sixth weekend of Michigan Political Leadership Program training, MPLP Fellows of the Class of 2016 were putting a new piece of software – called “Policymaker” – to the test. They were also testing their ability to collaborate and negotiate from a position that, uncomfortable or not, might not have been their own.
As part of an intense two-day simulation, MPLP Fellows were playing the roles of key legislators, Gov. Rick Snyder and executives from Michigan’s most powerful advocates – for and against – the state’s public and charter schools.
To stay in character, MPLP Fellow Stephen Wooden, of Grand Rapids, took off his tie and replaced it with a natty bow tie – what he has learned is daily neckwear for the charter advocate he played.
“For now, you are no longer who you were,” explained exercise leader Elisabeth Gerber, the Jack L. Walker, Jr collegiate professor of public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. “Please do your best to be that person.”
She’d sent fellows a packet of materials the week prior outlining their new identity and the topic of the Kalamazoo weekend’s debate– a single change to Michigan’s law specifying who has the authority to approve new charter schools. Fellows were to do their homework: research their new role model, understand competing policy positions and prepare to guide the legislation they supported from committee to governor’s desk.
“Amendments are allowed. Of course, they not required,” Gerber told fellows. “Don’t be limited by the bill. Be creative. Don’t be too constrained. Think about how to move your position ahead.”
Throughout the simulation, MPLP Fellows used the Policymaker software for a variety of real-time, legislating tasks, from creating a profile, sending in-network emails and posting news feed updates to keeping notes and tracking votes.
From Friday night through Saturday morning, they relied upon the software and their wits to break into groups for strategy sessions and coalition building, produce strategy statements, keep a calendar of events, conduct a hearing on the legislation and any amendments raised, and ultimately, bring the proposed legislation to an up or down vote.
As Gerber walked the fellows through the “beta” or trial software and activity, to be followed by a debrief and evaluation, soft keyboard clicks sound behind her voice.
As she finished, fellows were on the move. Hands were shaken. Introductions were made and groups began to coalesce. Then suddenly bursts forth from among the groups– “I need a co-sponsor!”
As the evening passed, the small groups grew larger and word filtered in from the field. Stakeholders had formed a new group and given it a name: The Coalition to Defend School Choice. They’ve also built a website to influence the legislation.
Only one person seemed outside the initial debate – at least in early stages of the exercise. “It’s lonely being the governor,” observed MPLP Fellow Cathy White, of Livonia, who wore a Gov. Rick Snyder nametag.
Fellows were back in character at Saturday’s breakfast and Gerber and her team of development and design specialists from U of M’s Digital Innovation Greenhouse monitored emails to watch the legislation progress and helped the group move from simulated lobbying to a mock committee hearing.
“They were quick to find their strategies,” Gerber said. “Boom, they were right at it. They researched their districts ahead of time and the debate reflected that. They’ve done a really good job. It was great.”
Gerber is experienced in such simulations. She’s been a faculty leader of an integrated policy exercise, a three-day immersion experience designed for student groups even larger than MPLP’s 24 fellows.
It was the lobbying and negotiations that excited MPLP Fellow Michael Fisher, of Mt. Pleasant. “I learned how much I enjoy playing the ‘game,’” he said.
In the MPLP simulation, it fell to Khumbo Siwela, of Rockford, to chair the committee hearing. Without a gavel, she raised her voice to call for decorum and instructed lawmakers to use “plain language” before the proposed legislative change fell to defeat in a rollcall vote.
“It was so fun,” she said. “I did a lot of research. It was a great learning experience for me.”
“We won,” declared Wooden. Charter school advocates had organized quickly, making the status quo their preferred outcome, he explained. “This is the first time I even got to drive an agenda. It was fun,” he said.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, watched the fellows’ quick-step work and later joined with Sunil Joy, senior data and policy analyst with The Education Trust-Midwest, to outline the pros and cons of charter schools. “Some of the conversations seemed real,” he said.
The roleplaying seemed very real, said Nicole Brown, of Lathrup Village. It also taught her valuable lessons. “Be more succinct,” she said. “Be able to show who you are in a very short period of time.” The exercise and MPLP helps fellows learn about understanding other people’s viewpoints. “This program teaches us to see everyone’s side – whether they’re a Republican or a Democrat.”