The Voinovich School's Megan Conkle, center, stands with her teammates after winning the 2018 regional NASPAA competition in Chicago
The Voinovich School's Megan Conkle, center, stands with her teammates after winning the 2018 regional NASPAA competition in Chicago

MPA student takes gold at regional public policy competition

Daniel Kington
March 27, 2018

Megan Conkle, a second-year student in the Ohio University Voinovich School’s Master of Public Administration program, recently participated in a regional public policy competition hosted at the University of Illinois in Chicago – and her team took home the gold.

The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, held 16 regional competitions worldwide on February 24 and March 3 in which students from 159 universities battled to protect 336 million (fictitious) people in four (fictitious) countries from a global pandemic.

Conkle said she appreciated the opportunity to jump into the deep end of public health management, particularly as health is of special concern for public administrators in her region.

“In Ohio today, the opioid crisis is a serious public health epidemic,” Conkle said. “I think having the skills to be able to combat any kind of public health crisis is extremely important for people in my field.”

Throughout the competition, participants worked with teams of other public administration and public policy master’s students to respond to the pandemic within the context of governing bodies. In each of four rounds, teams were assigned different countries with different resources available and varying population sizes.

Although participants could consider their countries’ previous responses to crises, Conkle said her team was highly improvisational.

“We were largely working without a net,” Conkle said. “We developed vaccines, quarantined infected people, shut down public transportation and closed borders, but we very much learned through trial-and-error.”

After both the second round and the fourth and final round, participating teams wrote policy papers explaining their responses to the pandemic and identifying what worked well and what did not. After the papers were evaluated, four teams were selected to present their work to a panel of judges. Following the presentations, Conkle’s team emerged victorious in Chicago’s competition; hers is now one of 20 teams awaiting judging on the global level.

Initially, Conkle said she was surprised by her team’s success.

“Our team made a lot of mistakes and it felt like we hadn’t done very well,” Conkle said. “However, the judges explained that my team won because of the quality of our rationales for decision-making and our ability to look back retrospectively and figure out what we could have done differently. That’s exactly how it works in the real world; you aren’t always going to make the right decisions, so articulating lessons learned was valued heavily in the competition.”

Conkle said her ability to evaluate her own performance and learn from it has been significantly shaped by her time at the Voinovich School.

“The Voinovich School focuses a lot on leadership and management skills,” Conkle said. “Consequently, the School has really taught me how to work through problems, articulate my rationale for decision making in a professional way and make recommendations for what would be better to do in the future. These skills were 100 percent applicable to the competition.”

After Conkle learned her team had won, she immediately contacted the Voinovich School’s MPA director, Jason Jolley, who had nominated her to participate in the competition.

“Dr. Jolley forwarded my email to other faculty members, and I immediately had a bunch of messages from different professors congratulating me,” Conkle said. “That support and that interest in student growth is something unique about the Voinovich School that I really value personally and have benefitted from a lot in my two years here. The Voinovich School community is so positive.”

Lesli Johnson, an associate professor at the Voinovich School who works closely with Conkle, said she was happy to see Conkle’s abilities and talents reconized.

“Megan always likes to see out new experiences and learn new things,” Johnson said. “Her inquisitive mind if a valuable asset.”

Conkle will graduate this spring, and although she is not sure what she intends to do next, she has enjoyed her work with the Voinovich School’s Planning, Evaluation, Education and Research team and wants to continue focusing on research, data analysis and program evaluation.

Conkle was one of three Voinovich School students Jolley nominated to participate in the NASPAA competition. Other School participants were Katelin Franklin and Marina Olson; the latter’s team was also among the top four in Chicago’s competition.