Bridging Gaps is a collaborative student initiative by two public policy schools in Germany: the Hertie School of Governance and the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. Last year’s Conference took place at the Hertie School in Berlin on November 25th and 26th 2016. As with the initiation of the conference in Erfurt last year, the aim was to provide students with the theoretical and practical knowledge on current public policy issues. Having international student bodies at both institutions, the joint initiative grants the opportunity to bring the benefit of different perspectives to the yearly conference.
I chose to participate as one of the organizers for several reasons: I saw in Bridging Gaps the potential to gain experience in organizing events of a larger scale, I had witnessed the value of network cross-pollination between Hertie and ourselves, and, as the topic of Data Protection is one I am interested in and wanted to actively learn more about. I wanted to gain more practical experience, while helping out my classmates with a trip to Berlin where we all could do some networking, gain some policy insights and have some fun into the bargain.
The roles were clearly allocated in terms of the host’s (Hertie’s) responsibilities and the Willy Brandt School’s. Both would attempt to solicit funding from their respective foundations and other organizations, as well as attempt to contact speakers. The Hertie School, as host, dealt with the higher costs of catering, materials etc, while the Willy Brandt School was to cover transport costs for busing its students to Berlin and back. I coordinated with Casey McKenzie on our end, with Jovana Panic and Judy Perkins doing the same for Hertie.
We decided, for reasons of financial expediency as well considering how much time the respective stakeholders could devote, to have the conference over two days on the weekend. This worked out very well in terms of having enough time to space out the activities, while not overwhelming the participants with overly long days.
Data protection is, especially in Germany, always a hot topic – all the more in the run up to the conference, given the recent EU regulation. Also, as aspiring public policy makers, we felt that only by deconstructing the challenging issues that affect our rights can we achieve the understanding necessary to stand up for those rights and urge upon our institutions the kind of action that will guarantee privacy in a world where data has arguably become the most valuable currency. Bridging Gaps 2016 was an initiative to do exactly that. We, as Public Policy students based in Germany, were in a unique position to observe and act upon concerns surrounding data protection in the EU. By bringing together similarly inclined future policy makers, we aimed to not only create improved awareness of what our rights are as academics and consumers, but also of what our institutions are doing and can do.
The biggest challenge was, without doubt, getting in touch with quality speakers and workshop leaders, and convincing them to take part. As a rule, the higher a speaker’s profile, the most difficult it is to get them on board. Our biggest mistake as organizers was to aim too high; something that led to a time crunch in the weeks before the conference. There were also some issues with communication within the group. Inevitably you are going to have difference attitudes towards what the conference’s priorities are and what is an appropriate level of time dedication to the conference. As amateurs doing this for the first time, it was indeed a challenge to put a conference together, while juggling your studies at the same time. Admittedly we had it better than last year’s team, as they had no previous team to turn to for advice and no website already set up.
On the whole, feedback was very positive from the participants, with the only real criticism related to logistical issues inside the Hertie School. For our part, we were admittedly glad when it was over, given how much more time it had taken than anticipated. That said, it was worth it for the many kind words of appreciation we received afterwards. The networking opportunities were not quite as good as hoped as more Willy Brandt School than Hertie School students attended, however the workshops, panel discussion and opening speech by the US ambassador more than compensated for this. We felt like we kept this burgeoning tradition alive, and even grew it a little. Now all that remains is for the next batch of public policy makers of the future to take the baton for the third Bridging Gaps conference.
Please find more information about the Bridging Gaps Conference on bridgingaps.org.