By Winston Szeto
The week of 6-10 July was the period when my MPP colleagues in Erfurt either crammed intensively for the final exams or were busy wrapping up their dissertations. When I noticed last year that the International Pub
lic Policy Association (IPPA) would hold a sizable conference in Italy during a period that immediately preceded the final exam week, I struggled to decide whether I should attend this while studying for the exams. But finally I decided to fly to Milan with all my course materials, so I could study during the conference breaks and evenings in my hotel room. In the end I was glad I decided to come, as the ICPP turned out to be a well-organized academic “feast” (in terms of the great presentations and discussions in the multiple panels, as well as the delicious Italian lunches and hors-d’oeuvres served). This reinforced my belief that the conference was worth studying amid the intense Milanese heat.
The ICPP was designed as a biennial event, with its first event held in Grenoble, France in June 2013. The word “international” in “ICPP” is no exaggeration; according to the event organizers, a total of 1,300 participants from 63 countries came to Milan. The venue of ICPP this year was the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart), the largest private university in Europe and the largest Catholic university in the world founded in 1921. Its main building is the Cistercian monastery established in the 8th century, situated in the historic heart of Milan. To highlight the University’s relevance to public policy, among its prominent alumni is Romano Prodi, the former Italian Prime Minister and former European Commission President who graduated with a law degree there in 1961.
There were as many as 260 two-hour sessions of 166 panels that covered almost every bit of public policy studies, and six plenary sessions held during the four-day conference. There were two multi-sessions on 1 July, three respectively on 2 and 3 July, and one on 4 July, with 26 sessions launched simultaneously in a two-hour multi-session period. All this meant that the sessions had to be distributed across the four campus buildings and the Teatro Dal Verme, where two of the plenary sessions took place. While it was an enjoyable experience to watch the old Lombardian architectures when walking between sessions, the relatively long distances between campus buildings could easily make one lose directions. Nevertheless, every cloud has a silver lining. On the first day of conference, when I was dripping amid the scorching morning heat (35 degrees) and looking at the conference brochure for directions to the Teatro, where the first plenary session was held, a gentleman in a nice suit passed by me, stopped his bike and asked me in a beautiful English accent where I was heading to, before showing me how to get there. Indeed, this gentleman was not a normal passer-by; he is Alessandro Colombo, general director of the think tank Éupolis Lombardia and local coordinator of the ICPP.
I decided to focus on attending sessions of the four panels of “Internet and Policy,” which – according to Helen Margetts, director of Oxford Internet Institute and the chair of two of these panels – was a topic not covered by the Grenoble ICPP. The panel titles were “Digital Government and Public Policy;” “Big Data, Data Science and Public Policy;” “Public Policy Management and New Technologies;” and “Policy Making in Governing the Internet: Comparing Novel Approaches and Rising Challenges.” I was particularly interested in three presentations.
The first presentation was “Explaining Usage Patterns in Open Government Data: the Case of Data.gov.uk” presented by Jonathan Bright of Oxford Internet Institute, which key findings included: (1) about 80 percent of the datasets available on the British Government’s open data website had never been downloaded by the public; (2) the more the datasets were curated (with meta-information such as tags and descriptions), the more frequently they were downloaded; and (3) the more frequently the datasets were updated, the more frequently they were downloaded. The implication is that governments should shift to publishing a small number
of datasets that are well curated and maintained.
The second presentation that interested me – and related to me as a Hong Kong native the most – was “Networked Collective Action in the 2014 Hong Kong Occupy Movement: Analyzing a Facebook Sharing Network” by King-Wa Fu of the University of Hong Kong, which key findings were that independent online media and popular bloggers played a more significant role than political parties and leaders in forming an online network (i.e. sharing of posts between different Facebook pages) that acted as a countervailing power during the Umbrella Movement from September to December 2014. The implication of this study is that non-institutional players’ domination of public policy debates may counteract the process of an institutionalized policy formation that involves all political forces in Hong Kong and Beijing, the prime target of non-institutional actors’ protests during the Movement.
The third presentation that caught my attention was “Policy-Making Using Online Social Data: the Political Representativeness of Brazilian Twitter Users” by Rafael Martins de Souza of the Department of Public Policy Analysis at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a Brazilian think tank and higher education institution. This session presented a video clip in which Twitter users’ discussions of different public policy issues and interactions with each other ahead of the Brazilian presidential election in 2014 were visualized. As a matter of fact, I did something similar to this in the institution that I worked in before coming to Erfurt.
The ICPP ended with the plenary session titled “Feeding the World, a Multi-Dim
ensional Public-Policy Challenge,” which corresponded to the main theme of the Milan Expo “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Having missed the chance to visit Shanghai Expo in 2010, I was excited to be in an Expo host city. Thanks to the suggestions from some very helpful student assistants of the conference, I was able to buy a half-priced Expo entrance ticket offered by an on-campus travel agency. After the conference ended in early afternoon of 4 July, I took the metro to Rho Fiera where the Expo was held, and was amused by the street musicians’ performance in the train car. While the ICPP was an academic feast, the Milan Expo was literally a place for feast: great food and drinks offered at vari
ous national pavilions, not to mention the fantastic music and dance performances in, particularly, pavilions of Latin American countries.
The host city of ICPP 2017 has yet to be decided. For those MPP colleagues who want to participate or even present a paper at an IPPA-organized conference next year, the Association has confirmed to hold its first ever Regional Conference on Public Policy at the University of Hong Kong on 10-11 June 2016. While I did not present any paper in the Milan ICPP, I will seriously consider submitting a paper proposal to a panel of the regional conference.