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KonMari your campus desk and office: The benefits of decluttering your academic life

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I often post photographs of what I’m doing, reading, and (often times) eating. Yesterday, I posted photos of how I had cleaned up my campus office (I’m officially on holidays, although I had to come into the office for 3 days in a row to help one of my PhD students with some paperwork). Most people think I’m crazy for always doing this much cleaning and keeping my office so organised. But I have to do it in order to feel at peace before I head out for my actual, real holidays.

Everyone thinks I’m crazy, except those who understand why my brain can’t work in a cluttered environment.

I’ve been an organisation freak since I was a child. I was used to writing notes with different colour pens, always kept a daily log of my homework, tasks to do, achievements. For those who don’t know, I’m a Virgo. We tend to be obsessive about organisation and analytical at every point in our lives. I took that organisation-freak personality through graduate school and now as a professor. I ardently protect my writing and concentration work time, I am someone who loves keeping track of his students’ work and will do so almost obsessively, and I always look for ways to make my work and personal lives easier.

I’m far from the first person to write about decluttering in academia (in fact, I wrote the title of this post in homage to doctoral candidate Punita C. Rice, whose post “KonMari your writing” is excellent), but the benefits, to me, are many, so I felt I had to write about them.

As Punita indicates, the KonMari method (proposed by Marie Kondo, a Japanese decluttering consultant and writer of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever) focuses on keeping only whatever brings you joy. Again, I just found out this year about Marie Kondo from Dr. Aimeé Morrison (University of Waterloo), and have always been a “clean up your room every single day” kind of guy, but I find the KonMari method to make absolute sense for what I do as an academic. Like Marie Kondo preaches, I only keep whatever gives me joy. I’ve gotten rid of magazine holders who aren’t the brand I like, highlighters I tested and didn’t really work for me. Everything that stays in my office DOES bring me joy. For example, on a shelf, I keep physical miniatures of toilets and water wells and water fountains (since water and wastewater is what I study).

My campus office at CIDE

At my office, I have two huge whiteboards and a large corkboard. I write on one of my whiteboards all my collaborations and tasks that I need to work on. This keeps me accountable to my colleagues with whom I’m doing collaborative research projects.

My campus office, cleaned up

On the other whiteboard, I keep a daily log of my tasks (these come from my Everything Notebook). Every Friday I write down what I couldn’t accomplish in the week into my Everything Notebook and then I use that as a basis to create the list of To-Do tasks for the following week.

My campus office, cleaned up

On my corkboard, I keep copies of printed stuff that I need for quick access, including motivational material, and photographs of my nieces and nephews, as well as my Mom. My corkboard has basically everything that I need to see on an everyday basis: our fall schedule, writing motivation, my family and loved ones, motivational quotes on being organised and productive, tips for accomplishing tasks, calls for papers or conferences I need to think about, my own conceptual outlines for projects.

My campus office, cleaned up

On my left-hand side desk, right by my desktop computer (which is in Spanish, the language in which I have to operate 50% of the time) I keep a book rest to allow me to read materials, and a series of trays for “stuff I need to process“, “stuff I already processed and needs to be filed away“, and “articles I should read at some point“.

My campus office, cleaned up

And I have lots, and lots of coloured pens, fine-lined markers, highlighters, adhesive notes (Post-It). I keep all of the stuff that I need to read, write, type, at my fingertips. Knowing where everything goes allows me to waste basically zero time in finding it.


My books are organised on shelves by the topic (urban governance, regional development, public policy, environmental policy, climate change, water, non-state actors, international relations). My journal articles and book chapters are organised in magazine holders, with a plastic tab with the citation and year for ease of access. Each magazine holder has associated a specific research project I’m doing, or a topic I’m interested in.

My campus office, cleaned up

Every few days, and at least once before the semester starts, I do a thorough purge and clean up. I store files from old projects, and previous semesters, I clean my desk, plan whatever is coming up for the fall, clean my weekly/daily activity whiteboard and reorganise my office supplies. Obviously my desk gets messy the more stuff I start doing. Particularly when I engage in reading sprees, I often have piles, and piles of journal articles and book chapters all printed and ready to be highlighted and written on, and engaged on.

Writing a memorandum

But then, once I’m done, I again organise them into their own magazine holders. My digital files suffer the same destiny – once a week I declutter my Dropbox and check my Mendeley for references that have not been cleaned. Having a clean desk allows me to focus on finishing projects and zero in on the specific target or task at hand.

One thing that really resonated with me from the Marie Kondo Tidying Up method is that you get to only keep what brings you joy. One reason why I love coming into my campus office every single day is that it actually brings me joy. I LOVE my office on campus. I’ve decorated it and organised it the way I like it and thus it really gives me immense joy to come into work. I guess if I had a smaller space, or an open plan space that I couldn’t decorate the way I like, I wouldn’t be as happy. But even my home office (which is WAY smaller than my campus office) is organised the same way, and it also brings me enormous joy. I think it’s because it’s really well organised.

Clean slates work for me. I prefer to work in an organised, clean and comfortable environment, and I apply that to the way in which I live and work.

Posted in academia.

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Keeping yourself motivated: The Quick Wins method

One of the issues I struggle with the most is motivation. I am organized, I keep all my plans, schedules, notes, fieldwork scribbles in my Everything Notebook, but sometimes I feel like I have so much to do I just get overwhelmed. While I have learned to break down my workload by the month, week, day, schedule time with buffers, and to focus solely on one task when I’m trying to finish a paper, I still sometimes feel like it’s 2pm and I still have nothing to show for it.

I have been having really good conversations on Twitter and Facebook with several fellow academics (my good friend from graduate school, Professor Amanda Bittner being one of those key ones) where we discuss our planning, workflow processes, etc. Below is Amanda’s notebook (very similar to my Everything Notebook). Like Amanda, I divide my day in different task types (”Writing”, “Administrative”, “Students”, “Research”, “Data”).

For all my geekiness, I write my To Do list by hand /)But I have a very special section: The Quick Wins section. These are small tasks that if I just focus for 15, 30, or 45 minutes I can get them done, and THEN they will make me feel like I have accomplished SOMETHING. My Quick Wins method looks very similar to what Dr. Katherine Firth recommends in this blog post “To Do Lists That Actually Work“. My “Quick Wins” section is Dr. Firth’s “Done List”. When I plan my Quick Wins, I know for a fact that I will actually have the time to finish them. For example, if I have a meeting at 12 noon, and I’m at the office at 10:45am, I am 100% sure I won’t have the time to write for 2 hours straight. Usually my research assistants and administrative assistants meet with me as soon as I get into the office, so that means I am unable to do anything of significance.

If this happens too frequently, I get frustrated and then I get into a spiral of self-doubt. My brain starts to think: “I write about academic productivity, and it’s 1:30pm and I have NOTHING to show for it“. To keep myself motivated, I need to make sure that I can actually accomplish stuff. So, I create a list of “Quick Wins”.

I call them “quick wins” because they are usually things I can finish in a very short period of time, they are actually meaningful.

To-Do list handwritten

Some examples of Quick Wins:

  • Read a dissertation chapter of one of my PhD students.
  • Write feedback for my Masters’ students on their thesis.
  • Draft a memorandum from a journal article I’ve already read and highlighted.
  • Type my notes from a research meeting, or from a memorandum I wrote by hand.
  • Dump the memorandum in my Excel dump spreadsheet for that particular topic.
  • Insert 5 books or 10 journal articles into my Mendeley database, and clean the entries.
  • Draft the first version of an abstract for a conference paper).

The idea of a “Done List” isn’t new, but its application in academia still seems like quite recent still. It wasn’t until I read Katherine’s post that I realized her method was similar to mine. It’s a neat mental trick.


The Quick Wins method is especially suited to be tested using the 30 Minutes Miracle method that Dr. Aimee Morrison offered in Hook and Eye. I set my Quick Wins to blocks of 15, 30 or 45 minutes at the very most because if I have a full hour, then it will definitely go to writing (or any other deep-concentration stuff that I need to do like data analysis).

One fundamental element of the Quick Wins method is that your quick wins need to be

  • (a) actually accomplishable within the time frame you set (15, 30, 45 minutes).
  • (b) things you can quickly take up again if somebody interrupts you in the middle of finishing one.
  • (c) stuff that you don’t need deep concentration for. If you need more than 1 hour, it’s not a Quick Win.

I am currently in the process of testing how many different types of Quick Wins I can do in blocks of 30 minutes, following Dr. Morrison’s suggestion. I’ll let you know how that goes!

Posted in academia, productivity, writing.

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Policy analysis as a clinical profession

Thinking like a policy analystI just finished reading Dr. Iris Geva-May’s 2005 edited book “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst. Policy Analysis as a Clinical Profession“. I have always respected the work of Dr. Geva-May, as she is someone I know from my PhD days through Dr. Michael Howlett (perhaps the most prolific and influential scholar of public policy worldwide). Mike is a good friend of mine and has been my mentor since when I started my PhD program at UBC, and we remain close to this day. Dr. Geva-May and Dr. Howlett have been extraordinarily influential in the field of comparative policy analysis (they co-edited the Handbook of Comparative Policy Analysis, one of my favorite reads). Iris is the founding editor of the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis (JCPA, one of the top ranked journals in the field), and Mike is one of the managing editors.

Since comparative public policy is exactly what I do, I am a big fan of Mike and Iris’ work. Thusly, it’s no wonder I always refer to their scholarship in my teaching and research. I began reading “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst” because I am back again teaching public policy theory and practice courses and I wanted to see what was out there that I could use for readings and to improve my teaching. Last semester I taught Public Policy Analysis for the first time at CIDE (I had already taught this course and variants of the same at UBC) and I’m teaching it again this fall. Like I did when I was at UBC, I tried to make my course as pragmatic and practical as possible.

This is because I am interested in teaching my students how to do actual policy analysis instead of just making them write research papers. In my courses (all of them, from those I taught at UBC to those I teach now at CIDE) I have always asked my students to do practical stuff, and the writing output that comes out of these projects are also varied: a 24 hour policy analysis, a case study, policy memoranda, briefing cards, etc. I teach my students how to write policy content.

I’ve been pondering a lot about what skills do we need to teach since we started the Bachelor of Public Policy program at our campus of CIDE (Region Centro), but this reflection began when I was still a faculty member at The University of British Columbia, in their Department of Political Science. I’ve always been keen to teach my students skills that will get them hired. Job markets worry me not so much for me, but for my own students. Every semester that I see a new cohort of students graduate, my inner dialogue always starts with a bit of self-doubt: “Did I do enough to prepare these students to learn? Did I teach them enough skills that they can now go out into the world and sell them to local governments, activists, lobbyists and think tanks?“. I think it IS my duty to teach my students stuff that they will use in their careers or that they can use to advance their own work trajectories.

My good friend Dr. Debora VanNijnatten (Wilfrid Laurier University) recently visited CIDE to give a seminar and do a short research stay, and she also shared a few ideas on practical applications and exercises that we could do at CIDE with our Public Policy undergraduate students, many of which I had already implemented with my UBC students, but I am now keen to do with my CIDE cohorts. That’s where Dr. Geva-May’s book comes handy. This is an edited volume to which many of the brightest minds in policy analysis contributed. It’s an edited volume where the contributors share their ideas about specific teaching methods, writing outputs and analytical exercises. As such, this is not a book to assign to your students, but to your faculty who teach policy analysis.

The main thrust of the book is that you should teach policy analysis as a clinical profession, where you behave like those in the medical field would: you diagnose an illness (a policy problem, in this case), and you find solutions to said problem (policy options). Much like workers in the medical field (and this is one of the key ideas of the book and one I take to heart), policy analysts must make decisions under uncertainty. They have to design policy options under time pressure, faced with resource constraints and political attacks from multiple angles. Geva-May and her book contributors make a very strong case for teaching our students to treat policy analysis like a clinician would do.

I have to admit that I love teaching with case studies (remember, I have an MBA, so I am used to the Harvard-style case study), although in “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst”, Eugene Smolensky makes a convincing case for why he doesn’t teach with case studies (although I side with Leslie Pal who argues that the case study method is a very good technique to teach policy analysis. Weimer and Vining side with Pal in that they see the value of creating the P Case Study (i.e. the policy analysis case study). This is not exactly the same type of case study that you would see in Harvard-style, business school Masters of Business Administration training, but it would focus on specific clinical responses to policy problems. Again, the whole philosophy of seeing policy analysis as a clinical exercise shines through the Weimer and Vining and Pal chapters.

While the entire book is valuable, I found a lot of really interesting insights in several specific chapters. I ran simulations when I taught Environmental Politics and Policy, and I did the same when I taught Global Environmental Politics. So, I was very drawn to Luger’s chapter on supplementing case studies with policy simulations. This semester, I plan to run a simulation of a decision-making process for a municipality, since I have the most friends in local governments (though I also have friends in the Mexican federal cabinet).

Another key and insightful exercise that Debora recommended that I also believe is key for everyone doing policy analysis at the undergraduate, graduate and PhD level is the capstone project, as proposed by Peter DeLeon and Spiros Protopsalis. DeLeon and Protopsalis suggest that students (in their case, Masters’ level students) should tackle real policy problems and use their capstone project beyond a simple graduation requirement and more as an exercise in real-life policy analysis. Dennis Smith outlines the experience of one of the best schools in public affairs, public administration and policy analysis, the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, also known as the NYU/Wagner School.

While the book is mostly on pedagogy, Beryl Radin’s chapter on the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and how you can analyze policy goals through the policy process, and Peter May’s chapter on policy maps and political feasibility are good chapters to assign to your students if you want to simultaneously teach the techniques and have them see through the technique to understand the underlying pedagogy. I will give these chapters a second read, because I might actually assign them in my Public Policy Analysis course.

I already had a pretty solid syllabus for Public Policy Analysis, but reading Iris Geva-May and her collaborators has made me rethink what I want to teach in the class and the pedagogical techniques that I was planning to use. “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst” made me feel particularly drawn to experimentation with several techniques I had used before but I had left behind when I started teaching at CIDE. This happened because I wasn’t teaching public policy courses per se, but more area studies (e.g. Regional Development, and State & Local Government). But now that I am back teaching core public policy courses, I am also back to thinking more deeply about these issues, and I’m grateful to Dr. Iris Geva-May for assembling “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst”. It really will be very helpful not only for my own teaching but as we discuss the future of the Bachelor of Public Policy Program at CIDE, and even the Masters in Public Policy and Management and the Doctor of Philosophy in Public Policy programmes.

Posted in academia, policy analysis, policy instruments, public policy theories, teaching.

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In defense of the research manager and administrative assistant positions in academia

I just ran a workshop at CIDE on the governance of e-waste in Mexico and the US. This workshop is a component of a project that was funded by a Collaborative Grant of the University of California UCMEXUS/CONACYT programme. The intellectual input was provided by my co-principal investigator, Kate O’Neill from University of California Berkeley, and myself. But all the logistics were undertaken by my administrative assistant (Nora Salazar) and my research assistant (Luis Alberto Hernandez). EVERYTHING. I mean, ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. Nora and Luis kept a vigilant eye on the budget, made sure to submit invoice requests, communicated with our financial services offices, communicated with each one of the workshop participants, ensured we had a budget and menus for lunch, dinner and the closing toast. It’s the work of the administrative assistants and research manager what makes these events look so easy to run.

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Nora chased contractors, vendors, supervised that the workshop took place flawlessly, booked spaces, coordinated with Luis to print out all the workshop materials, ensured that everything worked properly. Luis and Nora were able to lift all the administrative weight off of my shoulders. I wouldn’t be able to run a workshop or even hire people to provide services if I didn’t have an administrative assistant and a research manager. Two years ago, the main administrative coordinator for the Public Administration Division at CIDE in our Santa Fe campus, Wendy Veana, did all the logistical work for a workshop I ran on Mexican water governance. Again, I didn’t even need to *think* about the logistics of the workshop, all I had to do was provide a list of guests, and as Wendy told me, “Professor, all you need to do is tell me who to invite and I’ll run the workshop. You do the intellectual work, I do the logistics and administrative work.“. For my INECC project on climate policy evaluation I relied on Fabiola Mora, our superb administrative assistant at CIDE (the Region Centro campus). I simply can’t execute a funded project without administrative assistants and research managers.

Lunch Seminario Gobernanza del Agua

The problem I’ve seen in many granting agencies is that they don’t fund the research manager position. They also don’t provide support for ongoing administrative work. I am not 100% sure what the assumption is. I wonder if they believe that universities and research centres will provide this support out of the goodness of their heart. Admittedly, some (MANY) universities will demand a cut from the grant amount for overhead costs. But for example, CONACYT (the Mexican research council) doesn’t pay overhead. Many granting agencies and foundations don’t, or if they do, it’s a minimal portion (10% of the total grant costs).

Given my own experience with grant funding (I’ve had 2 external grants, 2 internal grants and 2 consultancy contracts in the past four years), I know for a fact that undertaking a funded project requires of scholars to be able to comply with all the administrative burden of submitting invoices, reimbursements, booking spaces, travel arrangements, payments for conference registration, flights, accomodation.

I don’t want to have to deal with this. It’s not what I did a PhD for.

I do hope that in the future, all granting agencies and foundations will understand that when a researcher budgets money for a research manager and/or an administrative assistant, it’s because we NEED them. I’m not a fan of administrative bloat, as they call it, but research managers, research assistants and administrative assistants? We certainly need them. I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if I hadn’t had the support staff that I did for the projects I’ve undertaken. I hope I’ll be able to continue to find a way to fund these positions.

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Experts Workshop on E-Waste Governance in the United States and Mexico #UCMEXUSEWaste

This past week, Dr. Kate O’Neill (University of California, Berkeley) and I (Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Económicas, CIDE) co-organized an experts workshop on the governance of electronic waste in Mexico and the United States.

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This workshop is one of the components of the project Kate and I are undertaking to understand variations in patterns of governance of electronic waste, be it in the formal or the informal sector.

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UC MEXUS CONACYT E Waste Workshop July 2016 038We brought together a group of experts from all over the country to discuss the similarities, differences, opportunities and challenges that governing electronic waste brings forth. We were able to conduct the workshop thanks to generous funding from the University of California Institute for Mexico-US Studies, through a grant to Dr. O’Neill and myself from the UCMEXUS-CONACYT Collaborative Grants program. Our project (funded within the 2013 cohort) is entitled: “Exploring models of electronic wastes governance in the United States and Mexico: Recycling, risk and environmental justice” (in Spanish: Explorando modelos de gobernanza de residuos electrónicos en los Estados Unidos y México: Reciclaje, riesgo y justicia ambiental).

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We are extraordinarily grateful to UCMEXUS for the collaborative opportunities that this project afforded Dr. O’Neill and myself. Through the workshop, we were able not only to bring together several experts to share their knowledge and expertise with us, but we were also able to find major gaps in the literature that a series of future collaborative projects can address.

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Throughout the workshop, we found that it was important and fundamental to share our knowledge with as many people as possible. Therefore, Kate and I have decided to make access to the presentations, minutes and results from the project Open Access (with permission of the UCMEXUS CONACYT Grant program).

Here is the Flickr photo set of the photos I took during the workshop. Thanks again to UCMEXUS CONACYT Collaborative Grants program for facilitating this workshop. You can also read the tweets I sent during the workshop using the hashtag #UCMEXUSEWaste.

UC MEXUS CONACYT E Waste Governance Workshop

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My Everything Notebook – planning my research and writing output

My Everything NotebookI have very odd methods of doing things, I recognize this. I don’t follow anybody’s “time management system”. I adopted many of the tips that are now praised in the methodologies that “Getting Things Done“, “the Bullet Journal” and other productivity systems boast. To be honest, I had a homework notebook since I was a child. It was a little notebook with space for every day of the week, where the teacher asked us to write down every piece of homework we had to do.

Because I did my schooling with very strict teachers, they would review our “Homework Journal” every single day, and we had to have our parents sign it. Every. Single. Day. So, I got used to writing down what tasks I had to complete and by when. I don’t think I still have a copy of my “Homework Journal”, or I would totally post it. Trust me, it worked.

My Everything NotebookA lot of people have seen how I work since I started publishing my “My Own Workflow” posts. Many ask me how I plan my days, weeks and months. Since July 1st was just a few days ago, and I’m a big believer in tracking progress (because you can’t fix what you can’t measure as per the first principle of total quality control), I decided to take stock of what I had accomplished in the first semester of the year. I also wanted to plan for the fall. I was curious to see what other people were doing for their To-Do lists, and contrast their process with mine. In a brief exchange with my graduate school friend Dr. Amanda Bittner (Memorial University of Newfoundland) and Dr. Andrea Collins (University of Waterloo), Andrea mentioned the “Bullet Journal“, a planning system that is basically a series of itemized to-do lists (monthly, weekly, daily plans).

The Bullet Journal sounds good in theory, but as Jennifer Kerner Parkin wrote on her blog, it’s not really very good for academics who usually don’t think in linear models.

I work with a very different but somehow similar version of what the “Bullet Journal” seems to teach (a system which I developed completely separately from the bullet journal model throughout the years, and modeled very much after my Homeworks’ Notebook). My model is simple: I plan for the year, then semester, then month, then week. I also have just ONE notebook: It’s My Everything Notebook.

My Everything Notebook

I divide my plans in four sets of items: Student Mentorships (be it undergraduate or graduate), Research (which can be notes about journal articles, ideas I have about new papers, project tracking, research meetings notes, etc), Personal and Administrative (project management and daily stuff that doesn’t really add much value but is stuff you NEED to do anyways) and Teaching (which is usually notes about my syllabus, how I develop lesson plans, etc.).

Monthly plannerFor my writing output, the main overarching framework that organizes my papers is my Publications Planner. I draw from the general “What Remains to be Done” cell and send it to my weekly plan. I plan for journal article and book chapter submission from the same Publications Planner and put it in my 6 Months-Monthly Plan (which is a series of printed monthly calendars that I then glue together to give me a general overview of the semester. I put together a weekly plan that is drawn from the Publications Planner, the semester calendar (I teach two courses in the fall), and some meetings that I already know I will have in the fall. Now that I have a newly funded project, I am going to have to schedule time for meetings and fieldwork for that one.

On my campus office whiteboard I write the five days of the week and type under each the day of the week what I’m supposed to be doing that day. That information comes from my weekly plan, and it’s integrated with my daily plan.

My weekly plan

Because I used to List All The Things and I wanted to Achieve All The Goals, and I suddenly realized I can’t really do that, I changed my system to simply listing the stuff that MUST BE DONE, AND IS ACTUALLY FEASIBLE OF BEING COMPLETED BY THE DATE WHEN I PLANNED IT. This is important because I am always shooting for achieving more and then realizing my body (or life) happens.

The question that I get asked All The Time: DON’T YOU SPEND MORE TIME PLANNING THAN ACTUALLY DOING THE WORK? My response to that question is always the one shown in this magnet (which is also in my campus office): I am just too lazy to look for things. So I make it super easy for me to find everything I do. Notes from a meeting. Research findings. My plan for a certain week. Because EVERYTHING is in my Everything Notebook, I really don’t have to look for anything. I just need to organize it once (and this July it took me about 45 minutes of one lazy Saturday).

My process is actually quite simple, and I am happy to share it because if it can help someone else organize their thoughts or life, all the better. It does help me. And reflecting on my own processes helps me think about how to improve.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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My experience at the 2016 Public Management Research Conference (Aarhus, Denmark) #PMRC2016

I am a political scientist and a human geographer who studies comparative public policy and has an academic home in a department of public administration. This degree of interdisciplinarity makes me feel, to be perfectly honest, a bit like the illegitimate child in my division. I do know the literature in public administration and public management. I took comprehensive exams in public policy, PA and PM. I am quite comfortable teaching public administration. I just don’t precisely WRITE about public administration and public management, and have eschewed (so far) publishing in PA/PM journals.

But that bit of self-loathing and fear of being branded “you’re not a public administration scholar” ended this month, with two participations in what turned out to be one of my favourite academic conferences: the 2016 Public Management Research Conference PRMC2016 (the conference of the Public Management Research Association), superbly hosted by the Department of Political Science at Aarhus Universitaet in Aarhus, Denmark. You can read tweetage from the conference below (the hashtag was #PMRC2016)

For me, PMRC 2016 became many things:

  • An opportunity to meet with some of the world’s top public management and public administration scholars to share ideas and see where the field was going.
  • A chance to present some of my work on field experiments in social norm activation and reduction in bottled water consumption.
  • A space to discuss openly the challenges and opportunities to publish in the PA/PM field, and to share my experiences not only in writing scholarly output but also as an associate editor of a journal.
  • The perfect venue to meet many great scholars whom I’d talk to before on Twitter.
  • A possibility to spend time with fellow academics in a more social environment (like travelling to Sweden with Dr. Staci Zavattaro and Dr. Kelly Leroux), and to see my friend, Dr. Derek Beach (yes, Derek Beach of process tracing and causal case studies’ fame), as he is a faculty member at Aarhus Universitaet.
  • A triggering event for a shift in the way I approach public management and public administration scholarship. My work DOES fit these journals and I am looking forward to reshaping some of my scholarship to fit this audience.
  • The opportunity to commit to be a more active member of the Public Management Research Association (led by Dr. Don Moynihan) and to contribute to the journals we publish in (IPMJ, JPART, PAR, Governance, etc.)
  • A space for reflection for my future research agenda as I move now towards tenure.

I gave two talks. First, I presented on a research design for field experiments targeted at reducing bottled water consumption (at a workshop on Experiments in Public Management, led by Oliver James, Sebastian Jilke and Gregg Van Ryzin). Then, I presented at a panel on getting your scholarship in PA/PM read and cited (you can find my slide deck here). I have to say, the PA/PM community I met at PMRC 2016 was incredibly welcoming and I look forward to continuing my participation in future PMRC conferences.

There were a number of positive things I saw at PMRC 2016: a lot more gender balance in panels, a very solid combination of young scholars and established ones, the work presented was rigorous and innovative, everyone was provided very kind feedback (in fact, I remember hearing something to the extent of “remember that this is preliminary work, so please be kind in your comments and feedback“). I believe that if you set the tone of the conference as privileging comments that are nicer, you will get that (Paul Pierson and path dependence and institutional stability and all, right?).

Some photos of the conference can be found below, and on my Flickr photo set.

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

My colleague Dr. Mauricio Dussauge participated in a round table on whether PA/PM scholarship was neglecting The State (as per Theda Skocpol et al).

Public Management Research Conference 2016 (Aarhus, Denmark)

Overall, an amazing experience. I am still missing a few photos that I downloaded on to my other laptop and need to be uploaded, so stay tuned for an update on the Flickr photo set.

Posted in academia, conferences.

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Policy transfer across cities and countries: Sustainable transportation policy in Copenhagen (Denmark) and Aguascalientes (Mexico) through a comparative lens

As I write this blog post, I’m on the plane from Paris (France) to Mexico City (Mexico). I just spent a week in Denmark and Sweden, and had a chance to visit four cities in two countries (Malmö and Lund in Sweden, and Aarhus and Copenhagen in Denmark). What impressed me the most of all four cities (but especially Copenhagen and Aarhus) was the strong biking culture and the amazing network of bike lanes.

Reflecting while on the flight back on the different approaches to building cities, it struck me that Copenhagen and Aarhus are built for exactly the kind of sustainable, less-fossil-fuel dependent transportation that is required in a world where we need to put a stop to our carbon emissions if we are to reach the Holy Grail of reducing global warming to a mere 1.5 degrees Centigrade per year. The way Copenhagen and Aarhus are built, there are very ample, separated biking lanes with clearly marked areas for pedestrians and automobiles.

Aarhus (Denmark)

Contrary to the cases of the two Mexican cities where I spend the most time (Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes and Leon, Guanajuato), Copenhagen and Aarhus prioritize biking as a primary mode of transportation. Not even pedestrians, bicycles are the primary focus of investment in urban infrastructure. Metro, buses, trains are the next priorities in transportation policy. Cars? Not at all the main priority. The main goal is to move people through biking, walking and mass transportation systems (trains and metro)

Aarhus (Denmark)

I contrasted these two cases with Mexico City, Leon and Aguascalientes. I am particularly struck by these cities because most of the investment I’ve witnessed in transportation infrastructure has been in road improvement and expansion, bridges and interurban highways. Are there any policy instruments implemented that can act as deterrents to car acquisition? NONE. Are there policies being implemented that can have a positive effect in increasing the number of bikes on the road and decreasing the number of cars (especially single-occupancy-vehicles) that are used for transportation? No, there aren’t. Leon, Aguascalientes and Mexico City are all cities built for the car. Cars are the priority, pedestrians and bikers are not even in the brain map of policy makers.

This sad situation is particularly acute when you consider the amount of money spent on travel for bureaucrats and politicians who allegedly travel to different (usually European) countries to “observe best practices that they can bring back to their home cities”. My view is usually that these people are giving themselves paid holidays in pretty cities in places in the world that they wouldn’t have been able to afford were it not for the fact that these trips are funded by taxpayers’ money.

Cynicism aside (although I could almost prove that just about every instance of “observational trips for policy makers” is a paid holiday for them since there is no evidence that any policy transfer occurs), what these policy makers seem to forget is that attempting to transfer or replicate a specific policy (or set of policy instruments) will unavoidably fail if there the conditions for appropriate transfer in the target country aren’t right. You can’t go to Copenhagen to “observe the amazing sustainable transportation and biking network the city has, so that you can then bring lessons for the Mexico City (or Aguascalientes or Leon) case”. This statement is both astoundingly stupid and extraordinarily naïve. You can’t replicate Copenhagen’s biking infrastructure in Mexico City because the cities aren’t identical. They aren’t even remotely similar. The city that is being used as a model to draw lessons for policy transfer and the target city aren’t in any way, shape or form identical. They’re not even similar. These cities have extraordinarily different populations, surface areas, road infrastructures, and cultural norms. Biking culture is ingrained in Copenhagen, the infrastructure was built decades ago and the policy incentives to deter automobile acquisition were implemented many, many years ago.

Copenhagen 2016

This willful ignorance of politicians and policy makers (at best, and malicious intent at worst) frustrates me to no end. I don’t expect bureaucrats and politicians to know even the slightest basic notion of policy transfer, but I would at least hope they would have a bare modicum of common sense. When I saw how Leon transferred the articulated bus network from the Medellin (Colombia) case, my brain exploded. I saw roads shrink, entire neighbourhoods destroyed and the number of cars in Leon grow almost exponentially. All things considered, I figured at least there was some effort on the part of local governments to push for some degree of sustainability in their transportation policies. I considered this case relatively successful and suggested to one of my undergraduate students in the Public Policy program at CIDE to study the Colombian case for potential policy transfer into the case of Aguascalientes.

But during this trip, something that was on the back of my mind really hit me hard: we don’t have the same culture of biking or accessing sustainable, mass transportation in Aguascalientes or Leon that we do in other countries’ cities. For example, in Aarhus and Copenhagen, I walked, biked, took the metro and the bus system. It didn’t even occur to me that I could rent a car. Same thing in Malmo and Lund (in Sweden) when I visited with two other colleagues. It wasn’t even in the cards to rent a car. We all were used to using mass transportation systems. Both of my travel companions while in Sweden (Dr. Kelly LeRoux from University of Illinois at Chicago and Dr. Staci Zavattaro from University of Central Florida) were used to walking, biking and using the metro system.

Copenhagen 2016

Of all the cities that I have visited this year (for conferences and fieldwork, all of them had robust transportation networks. Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Paris (France), Chicago, New York City, San Diego, Washington DC (USA), the one where I didn’t feel it had a robust network was Atlanta (Georgia, in the US), and that was probably because I stayed in a weird neighbourhood (Historic Fourth Ward). Milwaukee didn’t strike me as having a robust bus and metro system, but I didn’t even need a car in Milwaukee as my friend Oriol drove me around, but at least we commuted by car but we were large groups rather than single-occupancy-vehicles. But every other city? I could access them directly from the airport through a quick, rapid link (by train or metro). If you land in Leon or Aguascalientes, you need to pay the equivalent of $25 USD (which may sound very cheap, but bear in mind that the Mexican peso has fallen almost 90% and lost a lot of purchasing power, so $450 Mexican pesos are A LOT of money for a taxi ride into the city). This ridiculously high jacking of taxi prices is also one reason why Uber is becoming more popular in Mexico (in general, and these cities in particular).

Transportation policy isn’t my area of research, but I do maintain a very strong interest in it because having speedy, accessible modes of transportation does affect me as my own research is very much fieldwork-dependent. Therefore, I need to be able to move around neighbourhoods and field sites swiftly without having to depend on having a car. I can’t do fieldwork (or at least, it is extraordinarily harder for me) if I don’t have access to a robust transportation network.

I have had weird experiences of staying in suburbs of main cities (as I did in Washington DC this year) or badly connected neighbourhoods (in Atlanta, GA this year and New Haven CT last year). When this happens to me, I usually cab into the city and then connect to the main bus, train or metro network. And do the same on the way back. But this method is extraordinarily time- and money-consuming. What would be easier for me, and more useful would be working within a walkable city, or at least, a city where the bus, train, metro systems are strong and the infrastructure is robust. Bear in mind that moving from Vancouver (in British Columbia, Canada) to Aguascalientes (Aguascalientes, Mexico) was a huge shock, because there is basically only one place where you don’t need a car in Aguascalientes: downtown. You can walk in downtown Aguascalientes, but from there onwards, the bus system is pretty run down and thus everyone depends on automobiles for transportation (be it taxis or their own vehicles).

Separated bikelanes

In Vancouver, I walked, bussed, Skytrained just about everywhere. Of course, there are huge gaps in the Greater Vancouver transportation network. I can’t say there aren’t. If you live in Maple Ridge and want to use mass transportation to get into Vancouver it will probably take you anywhere from one hour to hour and a half. Many of the suburbs of Vancouver are reachable primarily by car. There are huge gridlocks. I’m not saying that Vancouver (or Copenhagen or Aarhus for that matter) are perfect. I am saying that their infrastructure is way more robust. And in Vancouver, you have separated bike lanes (I remember how angry I got when Nelson Street got separated bike lanes, thus making commutes much longer, but then I realized that people do use them).

Copenhagen 2016

Which brings me to the last point of this essay. I have travelled in Europe (twice this year), South America (once this year) and in many cities in the United States during the first 7 months of the year. I have seen the positive effect of spending taxpayer money in urban infrastructure. That’s the part that breaks my heart every time I come back to Mexico. I see decrepit buses, horrible airports, terrible bus stations. The Mexican government (at all levels, federal, state and municipal) doesn’t invest in infrastructure (much as it is heavily publicized by the Federal government) because Mexican politicians are (for the most part) extraordinarily corrupt. This country is a country of rich politicians and poor people.

The policy priorities of this government (at the federal and subnational levels) are clear: bringing as much money to their own pockets and bulging their bank accounts. Building strong transportation infrastructure? Not a policy priority. Creating a culture of compliance with rules and norms? Not a policy priority? Investing in renewing the bus stock and implementing interurban trains? Not a policy priority. Buying a new plane for the Mexican President? Of course, THAT is a policy priority. Spending thousands of millions of dollars in public relations and marketing? THAT is a policy priority. Cutting budgets of the Mexican science, health, environment and education secretariats? Of course, those are policy priorities. The Mexican government didn’t cut into their own budgets; they sank their teeth into high priority policy areas. Education, health, environment and science clearly aren’t a priority for this federal government. Their own image is. There were basically no cuts into the federal government’s public relations budget. This government has spent a record maximum in the history of federal governments on PR activities. What good does it do for perception of the government when citizens and taxpayers realize that their money is going into a PR campaign rather than actual investment in solving policy problems?

What I saw this week in Denmark and Sweden is what I doubt I will ever see in my lifetime in Mexico: two countries where the interests of taxpayers are the priority for the government. Where cities are built for people instead of cars. Where entire neighbourhoods are developed around concepts of sustainable, mass transportation, walkability and accessibility. When I went for dinner to Nyhavn (the Copenhagen version of the Navigli in Milan, and a similar concept to Trocadero in Paris), I saw a main metro station being built. Basically, the message being transmitted is that investment in Copenhagen is targeted towards more sustainable modes of transportation, not on more roads nor cars. I wish we could reach this point in Mexico.

Sadly, I’m sure we won’t.

Posted in academia, climate policy, governance.

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My #PMRC2016 talk on how to #GetYourManuscriptOut

This post contains my slide deck for today’s talk at the Public Management Research Conference 2016 special session on “How To Get Your Work Published and Read”, chaired by Dr. Staci Zavattaro (University of Central Florida), with Dr. Don Moynihan (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Dr. Stephanie Moulton (Ohio State University), Dr. Richard Walker (City University of Hong Kong), Dr. Arjen Boin (Leiden University) and yours truly (Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, CIDE).

As always if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to respond to reviewer comments: The Drafts Review Matrix

As I have been sharing my academic workflow with my blog readers, I realized that much of what I have been writing may be of help not only to PhD and Masters’ students, or early career scholars (postdoctoral fellows and assistant professors) but also to my own undergraduate students. I have decided that I will be creating a series of webinars to showcase many of the techniques I use, and I will also be writing an integrative blog post that goes all the way from having a research question and deciding what to search for in Google Scholar to integrating the literature review to drafting the research paper.

In the mean time, and given that I’m also doing revisions to a book chapter as I’m travelling in Copenhagen and Aarhus (in Denmark) for the Public Management Research Conference 2016, I decided that I would write a post on how to respond to reviewer comments. This chapter I’m revising is in Spanish, so you will have to forgive that the tables and commentary are in the Spanish language. I couldn’t find one of my revisions’ tables for my papers in English (my Dropbox crashed a few months ago so I moved a lot of files to other media), but these should do.

My Draft Revisions Matrix

Basically, I follow a similar model to that espoused by Tanya Golash-Boza (University of California, Merced) and Theresa MacPhail (Stevens Institute of Technology). I also got the idea from the emails I have received through time asking me to respond to specific queries from the university press or the specific journal where I submitted my paper. The table below is an example from my 2015 article published in the Review of Policy Research on transnational environmental activism in North America.

queries from article

I adapted this table and the models proposed by Tanya and Theresa so that I could make it work for my own workflow. For me, it is important to give myself the intellectual and physical space to make the changes and respond to criticisms and comments. Thus, the last column is empty until I fill it up with notes. I usually write the specific response to feedback by hand, and link it to the physical section of the paper (I often do this either with a highlighter or a Post-It adhesive note).

Here is how I revise my manuscripts, be it responding to comments and criticisms from readers or reviewers, or my own commentary after giving it a first read. I create a matrix of responses (what I call the Drafts Review Matrix) using the comments from my reviewers and writing my responses in the box with “Response/Action”. Please note that I also include text from the paragraphs where the specific comment was provided so that I can quickly find where exactly is the comment from the reviewer that needs to be addressed.

Draft review matrix

My Drafts Review Matrix has four columns:

  • Comment location: Where the reviewer inserted a comment asking for a clarification or a response. I usually make sure that my first column clarifies exactly where the coment is exactly located e.g. “first paragraph, line 3, page 44.”
  • Original text: I always make sure to include text that the reviewer highlighted when inserting their commentary or feedback, so that I can look it up and quickly understand what they meant with their comment.
  • Observations: This is the exact wording of the reviewer’s comments. It usually also appears on the margins of the Word document, so I physically connect the content of the cell with the comment on the margins with highlighter of the same color.
  • Actions: These are the actions I took to address the reviewers’ comments. Often times, I include the exact wording of what I am going to insert as text into the section that was highlighted. Note that I cross it off with red ink once I have addressed it, both in the physical copy of the paper, and on the Draft Revisions Matrix cell corresponding to the actions that were required. I also delete the comment box from the Word document once I’ve addressed the issues.

Revisions matrix

As you can see, I actually physically write the actions I take, or the text I am going to insert in the post, and then use a marker to cross the text across within the Actions cell so that I know I have addressed that specific commentary. If I were a bit more organized, I probably would include a column with the Date or Deadline for Actions (e.g. when will I deal with a specific comment), but to be perfectly honest, I prefer to finish editing the manuscript ONCE AND FOR ALL. So, if you do enjoy using your #AcWri writing time (which I do in the mornings) to edit then you may want to just specify the dates (and budget time for when you will work on, and by which date you will finish each specific editing task)

The beauty of integrating the Literature Review Excel Dump with the Drafts Review Matrix is that you can use the Excel dump cells’ content to write the specific changes you will make for a specific section. I also often write them in Post-It notes and stick them to the physical page with the number of revision or reviewer comment that I need to address. I almost always revise a manuscript in one sitting, but you do not need to do so if you prefer to do parts of the editing as single, discrete, achievable units of work (as I have often recommended before)

Posted in academia, writing.

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