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Joseph Boskovski ’14 MPA helps governments make effective policy

September 16, 2017

Alumnus Joseph Boskovski co-founded Maxwell X Lab with Professor Len Lopoo, director of the Center for Policy Research, to help governments and non-profits make better policies by applying scientific standards for testing their proposed interventions. Through randomized controlled trials (RCTs), policymakers can discern the outcome of various "nudges" on actual human behavior rather than assuming how people might respond.

Joseph Boskovski '14 (MPA)
Joseph Boskovski was teaching 6th grade literature at a charter school in New Haven, Connecticut, when he first became interested in testing the impact of different teaching interventions on educational outcomes. He chose New Haven for his Teach For America assignment specifically because Connecticut had the largest achievement gap.

"Often, schools across the country try several different interventions at one time — from computer aided learning, to afterschool tutoring, to small group work," says Boskovski. "After three years of teaching, I realized in education reform we often have no idea which of these, if any, is actually effective, so for all the well-intentioned efforts, it is a bit like throwing everything at the wall and hoping that something sticks."

Having studied public policy and sociology at SUNY Albany, Boskovski concluded that he could make a bigger difference in the community by helping policymakers put different interventions to the test, through randomized controlled trials. (RCTs, as they are known, randomly break people up into groups to implement an intervention on all but the control group so that we can confidently attribute any differences in outcomes to that intervention, alone.) He applied to the Maxwell School to pursue graduate studies focusing on urban policy and public finance, where his academic achievements earned him the 2014 L. Alan Beals Graduate Award for Excellence in Local Government Studies.

It was the launching point for a career that would see Boskovski implementing RCTs across the country, from New York to Kentucky to California — across sectors and policy issues — aimed at helping governments and nonprofits develop more effective strategies based on data and research rather than assumptions.

After graduating from the MPA program in 2014, Boskovski found a job at New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation through the Governor's Excelsior Fellowship. He worked on projects around environmental reviews and capital infrastructure. For Boskovski, though, his most important achievement was starting a data analytics project to evaluate attendance and revenue to get a sense for how things could be improved. "It was about consolidating all the data, cleaning it, and making it digestible and actionable for the commissioner and deputy commissioners," he said.

Boskovski's team presented a new process for reviewing and improving infrastructure projects. "Whenever you're putting in a new playground, street, or trail, you have to take into consideration the impact on the ecosystem," he said. "My role was to lead the project team and come up with a new statewide plan."

During this time, Boskovski was also paying close attention to related developments happening across the Atlantic in the U.K. at then-Prime Minister David Cameron's office. The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) was the first team dedicated to behavioral science and randomized control trials in government.

When Boskovski heard that the insights team was opening a new satellite office in New York City, he found an opportunity not to be missed. He applied to join the U.S. team and, shortly after, he got the job.

In August 2015, he moved from Albany to Brooklyn to join BIT, where the team partnered with the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities initiative and launched 10 randomized control trials incorporating behavioral science in six cities over six months in 2015 and early 2016.

In January, Boskovski was promoted to advisor. He helped implement several field experiments in housing, criminal justice, healthcare, and government services.

But the bigger goal was to get governments to insist that they incorporate RCTs into everything they do. "The really big success to me," Boskovski said, "was that organizations became convinced that they need to run randomized control trials because you can't make assumptions about human behavior and how people are going to respond."

A total of 20 randomized control trials were implemented and analyzed by Boskovski over the course of his time with BIT from January to October 2016, ranging from rebuilding public health space and solving structural inequality post-Hurricane Katrina to increasing diversity in the police force in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Amid all the success, Boskovski believed something was still missing. "We did really good and important work, but nobody could really afford it, if it weren't for Bloomberg, so I thought there has got to be a more sustainable way," he said.

Boskovski thought the best way to further his goal was to start something that had both the flexibility of a consulting firm and the seriousness of a research institution, at a low cost.

"I thought that these two problems could be solved by doing something at Maxwell," he said, "where there is a ton of human intelligence, raw talent, and researchers that, when we do those meaningful big projects, are able to bring to bear."

Boskovski reached out to Professor Leonard Lopoo, director of the Center for Policy Research at Maxwell, in November 2016 with the idea to start Maxwell X Lab. His idea became a reality two months later.

Today, several projects are lined up at the Maxwell X Lab, working with the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, the City of Syracuse, the Early Childhood Alliance, and others. "The areas we cover now are mainly healthcare and education," Boskovski, who's currently the lab's managing director, said.

At only 29 years old, Boskovski's professional success reflects his belief that everything should be tested using randomized control trials and that low-cost interventions can substantially improve the effectiveness of both government and nonprofit programs.

Throughout, Boskovski has remained passionate about making an impact at the local level. "Working at the state or local level gives you just enough freedom from the craziness of national-level policy but still has resources to be able to effect change," he said. "There's something incredibly rewarding about it."

"And locally, people are getting increasingly on board."

-- Edy Semaan, MA International Relations/MS Public Relations, anticipated '19

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