When a Garden City community leader saw a mobile home housing crisis looming on the horizon last year – the small city is riding a redevelopment boom along with its bigcity neighbor, Boise – the Idaho Policy Institute (IPI) stepped in to assess the mobile park housing situation and outline the community’s options for addressing impacted jurisdictions and their residents.
From left: Dr. Greg Hill, Director, Idaho Policy Institute; Vanessa Fry, Assistant Director, Idaho Policy Institute; Lantz McGinnis-Brown, Graduate Student

Established in August 2016, Boise State’s School of Public Service launched the institute with a goal of bringing together faculty experts, well-trained student researchers and community partners to conduct objective research and analysis to help address problems of public concern.

“IPI is designed to be a resource for decision makers,” stressed Idaho Policy Institute Director Dr. Greg Hill. “Whether you’re a small town or a state agency, we want to be there, to be a resource, a research arm to help inform policy decisions.”

Supported by research professor and IPI Assistant Director Vanessa Fry, a team of Boise State graduate students in the School of Public Service’s Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program spent four months conducting an analysis of the current state of mobile home parks and proposed redevelopment projects in Ada County. From there, the team identified which jurisdictions would be most severely impacted by mobile park displacement and developed a set of considerations for policymakers. It was exactly the kind of practical job training that MPA graduate students desired, just as it was precisely the type of comprehensive research Garden City officials needed.

“It was incredibly helpful to experience first-hand the exhaustive research that goes into making an informed policy decision,” said MPA graduate Jake Losinski, who participated in the mobile home study and now works as an assistant to the city manager in Vermillion, South Dakota.

“It’s important to note that we don’t provide recommendations, per se – we’re not telling our clients what they should be doing and we can’t control how they are going to look at the alternatives we’ve given them,” Hill added. “Instead, our intent is to design research projects and outline alternative outcomes to help clients make a well-informed decision.”

This formula has proven incredibly successful. In little more than a year, IPI has engaged in 29 projects for clients with diverse needs and interests. While some clients have found IPI on their own, Boise State Director of Economic Development Cece Gassner routinely refers local policymakers to the institute.

“I see a pretty wide variety of needs in communities throughout Idaho,” Gassner said. “Most of these communities don’t have the funds to hire traditional consultants to do research they need done – research on amenities, infrastructure, or voiced community needs or wants. They don’t have a lens to filter any of that information through, or access to the information that would really make them feel like they’re making an informed decision from a policy level. IPI plays that role of a completely unbiased consultant and gives them the pros and cons, unfiltered, about options that may affect their decisions.”

“The Idaho Policy Institute and its MPA students were very professional in their approach to spotlighting the issues facing our visitor center,” said Dennis Weed, director of the Boundary County Economic Development Council in North Idaho, where a group of MPA capstone students provided an analysis of highest and best uses for a brick and mortar visitor center. “We held weekly meetings to discuss issues the city is facing with their visitor center. The students did a great job of researching all of the issues and developing a list of solutions that the city could use to develop a sustainable visitor center.”

Weed said the city is now implementing the students’ suggested solutions and “we are starting to see the benefits of the MPA project and the professional insights that they gave us for sustaining our visitor center.”

The institute’s first project assessed Idaho’s transportation infrastructure and funding for Idaho 2020. The resulting report has been referred to by leaders across the state and was shared with attendees at a Boise Chamber event held in McCall.

“Top-notch research and analysis combined with easy to work with professionals. They over delivered on all of our expectations and we’d highly recommend them to anyone,” said Todd Cranney from Idaho 2020.

Other projects have included examining how drug courts impact the rates of recidivism in counties throughout Idaho and creating a statewide lead poisoning index for children for the Department of Health and Welfare, along with spatially mapping the results to produce a graphical representation of lead risk to children under the age of five.

These are just a few of the projects IPI has partnered on with nonprofits, industry leaders, municipalities and state agencies (for a more complete list, see the illustrated map on pages 18-19). Together, they stand as a testament to how indispensable the institute’s services are – both to the public and to Boise State graduate students.

Fry, left, talks about donor motivations with Zoo Boise Director of Development Rachel Winer

“We were thrilled for the opportunity to work with the Idaho Policy Institute on a recent survey of our donors,” said Rachel Winer, director of development for Zoo Boise. “We wanted to learn more about why our donors give to Zoo Boise, and we wanted our survey to be conducted by respected experts in creating and analyzing data. The team at the Idaho Policy Institute was just what we were looking for – and they were amazing to work with.”

“Even if an organization is small or has limited funding for research, we have the resources to work with them,” said graduate student Lantz McGinnis-Brown. “That’s why I think that the work we do is important, because we can provide support and research services for all kinds of organizations, which helps them to make informed decisions and reach their goals.”

Each project is unique and starts with a research question that the IPI project lead helps the client develop.

From there, projects can be completed in as quick as six weeks from start to finish or take as long as a year to complete, depending on the level of complication and access to data, among other variables. In addition, the institute’s projects are reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is an impartial administrative body that ensures research involving human subjects is conducted ethically, subjects’ anonymity is preserved and the researching body follows all appropriate federal guidelines.

“Anonymity is important – subjects speak more frankly when they know they won’t face repercussions,” Hill said. Having their research vetted by the IRB also is a unique strength for IPI that non-university research firms may not access.

For instance, researchers Fry, Sally Sargeant-Hu and McGinnis-Brown just wrapped up a year-long, multi-phase project for the Idaho Public Defense Commission. The intent of the project was to provide Idaho-specific data to Idaho lawmakers in their quest to set standards for public defense attorneys across the state. The last phase of the project included convening a panel of expert defense attorneys – working in both the public and private sectors – to discuss how much attorney time is necessary for different types of defense cases.

“The project with the Idaho Public Defense Commission has been incredible,” said Fry. “We have been able to gather hundreds of thousands of data points generated by attorneys across Idaho. The analysis of this data will help Idaho lawmakers set standards that further ensure Idaho public defenders are providing the best defense for their clients.”

IPI researchers are completing the report for the commission to use during the upcoming legislative session.

“We take great care to provide unbiased, useful and thorough data to our clients, so that they can make important decisions with confidence that they understand the consequences,” McGinnis-Brown added. “Working at the IPI has helped me understand the specific topics that I am most interested in – helping organizations operate effectively within their communities – and given me the incredible opportunity to do exactly the kind of community-based research and support work that I have wanted to do since I first got the chance to work with local nonprofit organizations as an undergraduate work-study employee with the Boise State Service-Learning Program.