Opinion: why I chose an MPP over an MBA

By Jackson Stiles

September 24, 2020


A personal milestone: amid the pandemic I’ve managed to graduate from the Master of Public Policy.

It’s been a fascinating (and winding) journey for me from studying law to a career in journalism to a transition into corporate affairs.

I had been considering a Masters as the best way to upskill and reach the next step in my career and was drawn to study public policy at Monash University.

Most of my fellow students were keen to pursue careers in non-profits, the public service and politics. But where they zigged I zagged, and I found myself in financial communications at ME Bank.

An MBA might have been the obvious choice for a career in the private sector, and I did consider it.

A contact of mine summed up the contrast well: “An MBA teaches you how to work in the world around you, whereas an MPP teaches you how to change it.”

Here’s why you might follow me into public policy studies – even if you want to end up in the corporate world like me.

1. It puts you in good company

Famous alumni of the MPP include Australia’s own Shadow Minister Clare O’Neil, who graduated with an MPP from Harvard. Clare worked at the New York Stock Exchange and as a McKinsey consultant before being elected to Parliament – so it’s certainly no bar to corporate opportunities. Other notable MPP (or MPA) holders are former CIA director David Petraeus, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, and former World Economic Forum President Klaus Schwab.

2. Governance spans the public and private spheres

A focus of my MPP was the overlap between good public governance and good corporate governance. Diligent, the global corporate governance company, puts it this way: “Government bodies have a particular responsibility to ensure they’re well-governed, as they are publicly accountable for their decisions. They should set an example to other organisations by upholding the highest standards of transparency, accountability, efficiency and equality.” Governance is highly relevant to my own sector of banking, where the recent Royal Commission exposed widespread governance failures. Rio Tinto’s destruction of a priceless Indigenous heritage site and AMP’s sexual harassment claims are even more recent examples of the importance of decision making at the very top, in the boardroom. The MPP will give you a strong grounding in governance.

3. Politics is the ‘ultimate form of communications’

I believe government communications is the most masterful form of external communications. You have to know your audience extremely well. A crucial part of policy analysis, as taught by the MPP, is how to carefully analyse stakeholders. The course teaches you to consider not just what will work on paper or in an ideal world – but what kind of policy will be tolerated in the real, dirty, gritty world that we actually live in. How will the public react to your decision? Can you explain to them simply what you are trying to achieve? Will they be able to trust you? You need to marry rigour with digestibility – evidence with persuasion. Replace the word ‘stakeholder’ with ‘target audience’ and you’ve got yourself a very solid grounding in marketing communications and public relations. The MPP also teaches you to hone your message ruthlessly. If you know how to sell Parliament, your political party colleagues, sceptical public servants or the voting public on your grand policy idea, then you can communicate to any audience, including customers and the general public.

4. ‘How to apply structure to radical uncertainty’

That’s how one of my policy lecturers defined the core skill that the MPP teaches. Policy professionals will frequently be handed wickedly difficult problem to solve in a very short space of time, with enormous risks if they get it wrong. A global pandemic, anyone? In these situations, policy analysis teaches you to define the problem very carefully with evidence, compare and contrast policy options, choose the right policy, and then track its implementation. That kind of rational thinking is extremely valuable in the private sector too.

5. An edge in government relations

The MPP teaches you how politicians and public servants think. That is pivotal to anyone in the private sector, but especially corporate affairs professionals. Inevitably, your company and your industry will be regulated – and probably heavily. And if you are exposed to a crisis, it’s likely some part of the public sector will come sniffing around your business. Knowing how the governmental process works, how public sector operators think, and how to speak their language will come in handy.

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