Policy professor stresses teamwork to improve decision-making


Elisabeth Gerber has learned that applying teamwork is good for everything from fixing potholes to determining international, federal, health, environmental or economic policy.

In her classes at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Jack L. Walker Professor of Public Policy highlights the importance of teamwork. She is currently the faculty lead for the Applied Policy Seminar, where groups of three to six students are assigned to consulting projects with various organizations from the public, non-profit and private sectors.

“You live or die by your team,” she says of the projects.

Students can work on international, federal, health, environmental or economic policy, Gerber says. Previous clients have included the Government Accountability Office, non-profits like Amnesty International-USA and numerous cities and counties across Michigan.

Elisabeth Gerber is faculty lead for the Applied Policy Seminar, where groups of three to six students are assigned to consulting projects with various organizations from the public, non-profit and private sectors. (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

Teamwork, Gerber says, drives both how she instructs students and how she tries to conduct research.

“It’s hard to work on a team. But one, you’re going to have to do it over and over again, and two, you get different insights and come to other understandings of people. Innovative ways of getting better at that teamwork aspect is what I do,” she says.

A group of current students is working to model forecasted costs and benefits of different approaches to a regional recycling program for the Lansing area.

“No team has all the skills they need to succeed at the beginning, but they learn to adapt and to fill in the gaps,” says Gerber.

Gerber also helps run the Integrated Policy Exercise, a simulation where Ford students are given a policy situation and assigned to play the roles of various stakeholders and decision makers.

“You can’t really appreciate the complexity of the policy-making process by teaching in the classroom,” she says.

Two years ago, Gerber drew an example from real life for the simulation. At that time, the state Legislature was considering a set of bills to create a regional transit authority for southeast Michigan.

The law was passed, and as her students were theorizing about funding for the new organization, Gerber was appointed to the board of the real-life Regional Transit Authority.

She had spoken to dozens of experts and stakeholders in order to prepare the simulation, and her own research on infrastructure prepared her well to serve as the vice chair of the board.

In her role, she’s working to connect the four bus and transit services of southeast Michigan to coordinate on fares, routes and policies; to leverage extra state and federal dollars; and to begin planning for new bus or rail lines that would connect several major areas across the region, including Ann Arbor and Detroit.

“Right now we’re planning and seeking public engagement,” Gerber says of the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit initiative. “Hopefully in 2016, we’ll go the ballot and ask voters to support it.”

 Meanwhile, Gerber’s research has led her to the Great Lakes Adaptation Assessment for Cities, where she works with five other principal investigators, all in different disciplines, on strategies for cities to respond to climate adaptation, including how to maintain roads in times of floods.

“Everyone’s perspectives are really different,” Gerber says of the GLAA-C investigators, “and having this multidisciplinary team has been so important.”

Q & A

What moment in the classroom or lab stands out as the most memorable?

When a former student returns and tells me how she or he used an insight from class in their subsequent work.

What can’t you live without?

Chocolate. The darker, the better.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

If it’s a hot July afternoon, the northwest corner of the Diag. It’s a little off the beaten path, but there’s always interesting stuff going on.

What inspires you?

The passion of my students.

What are you currently reading?

Four dissertations!

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My family.


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