Laura Willcocks, MPA Alumna
Laura Willcocks, MPA Alumna

Seeing policy development in action

Laura Willcocks has a distinct advantage in life—she’s not afraid of change. “We moved around a lot when I was growing up, so change isn’t scary for me. I’m not afraid to try something totally new.”

Out to Change the World

In 2011, “something totally new” meant enrolling in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School (JSGS).

“I knew I wanted to work in government because I’ve always wanted to serve citizens in some way. At university, I got interested in politics and policy development—but on a grand scale. I took international stu­dies, and I wanted to work for the federal government or for an international agency.”

Laura wanted to change the world by influencing how policy decisions were made. But after earning a Bachelor of Arts in 2010 from the University of Regina, she found herself facing a cold, hard reality: how do you get started?

That question led Laura to the JSGS. She had heard good things about the MPA program, but what really caught her interest was the internship. The school’s executive internship program pairs student interns with mentors at senior levels in provincial and federal governments as well as nongovernmental agencies. Interns get hands-on experience with a broad range of issues, from strategic planning to policy development and analysis.

“I thought, wow, what a great way to witness how policy decisions are made. As an undergrad, you study policy but you don’t really ‘feel’ it or ‘see’ it. This seemed like a chance to see policy development in action.”

The internship would also provide that all-important introduction into the world of government. And although she would have to wait until her second year for the internship, a real world awakening began on day one.

Shifting Focus

For Laura, two JSGS courses proved to be career game-changers. Local Governance & Government opened her eyes to the impact of municipal and provincial government. For the first time, she realized she could change the world at a local level. Advanced Policy Analysis gave her an opportunity to conduct and present new research, and not simply in front of classmates, but to the provincial government.

“Advanced Policy Analysis had such an impact,” Laura says. “The province wanted recommendations on how to engage citizens with social media, and Kathy [Kathleen McNutt, associate professor, director, JSGS Regina campus] assigned it to us as a class project. We did an environmental scan of social media use in the public sector. Then we presented our report and our recommendations to the deputy premier and Executive Council. After seven years of schooling, I felt like my research was actually going somewhere.”

Getting to Work

Laura’s eight-month internship as a policy analyst with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services was everything she hoped—when she graduated in the spring, the ministry immediately hired her as a policy analyst in the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Unit. Five months later, she moved to the Ministry of Environment as a performance improvement analyst and eight months after that, she returned to the Ministry of Social Services as a program and policy consultant.

Today, Laura is focussed on program design and operational policy for disability programs. “I’m involved in a lot of different things,” she says. “I support Community Living Service Delivery, which ensures people with intellectual disabilities are able to live as independently as possible in their communities. I support budget development for disability supports. At a high level, I support the province’s disability strategy, which is currently in development. I’m also involved in a sustainability project—how can we better support community living? What can we do, as a ministry, to help agencies develop better facilities, services and governance models?”

While Laura enjoys the variety of work, one project is especially rewarding: the Valley View Centre Transition. Opened in Moose Jaw in 1955, Valley View is a residential facility for individuals with disabilities. Across Canada, such facilities have slowly been phased out in favour of community-based housing. With Valley View scheduled to close by 2018, Laura is part of the ministry team working to ensure Valley View residents have the necessary supports for a successful transition into the community.

“Being so closely involved has been exciting,” Laura says. “When you work in policy, you often don’t see the impact you have on people’s lives. With the Valley View project, I’m working in an operational policy sphere, so I can see the impact.”

Keeping the Doors Open

In her undergraduate days, Laura pictured herself working on policy decisions at the federal or international level. During her two years at the JSGS, she discovered she could have greater influence working at the provincial level. Now, just two years out, she’s broadened her career focus to include both strategic policy and operational policy.

“All these experiences help my career, but I’m surprised at how much I enjoy working at the operational policy level. I didn’t think it would be that interesting. In fact, I’m doing what I set out to do back in university—I’m making people’s lives better.”

What’s on the horizon for Laura? “I definitely see myself growing into more of a policy development role. Whether that’s in Saskatchewan or somewhere else, or whether it’s at the provincial, federal or even municipal level—I don’t know. I’m open to whatever opportunities come up.”

And that’s the advantage of not being afraid to try something totally new.