Pandemic Policython Review

Policy for the People: Student-sourcing Civic Innovation

Lucas Chu and Policy for the People

December 2020


We organized the Pandemic Policython, the first Harvard undergraduate, high school student-run, and open-sourced online competitive policy writing conference. On a shoestring budget, the Policy for the People team recruited over 50 organizations, mentors, and volunteers to help over 1000 applicants, 200 teams internationally, and 150 submitted proposals over a 48 hour event. This paper discusses the policython method and our results.


2020 has thrusted unfair responsibilities upon all of us, and the student community stepped up to the plate. In April 2020, I saw the power of connection when I founded the Coronavirus Visualization Team, an organization that matches students to pandemic research projects. After receiving one thousand apps, we accelerated our intercollegiate partnered projects and hosted Panel to the People in July and Hack for the People in August. One Discord organization we encountered was the Young Americans Coalition for Unity, and we realized we could apply the hackathon model to students and policy writing. Motivated by the partnership and inspired by the COVID-19 Policy Hackathon, we founded the Policy for the People discord to run and support university policythons. 

I met with student leaders who founded more policy-oriented hackathons earlier this year, including the COVID-19 Policy Hackathon (organized by Stanford and MIT economics students on June 13-14th), where participants received guidance from leading academics and drafted potentially impactful policy memos proposing solutions to solve today's most pressing challenges in public health, trade and immigration, firms and workers, and financial policy over a 36-hour hackathon. I also connected with Stanford Policy Hackathon Founder Michael Swerdlow and Alyssa Sales and Becca Mak, the founders of the Rice-Columbia COVID-19 Health Policy Hackathon. Unlike the Stanford-MIT hackathon, the Stanford event, and the Rice-Columbia event focused on addressing health disparities in Houston and New York with hospital partners. Through these discussions, I settled upon a mission:

Policy for the People's provides valuable policy and project-based learning opportunities for students who have become hindered since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning. Through the Pandemic Policython, we empower students to care and work more for the unfair responsibilities thrusted upon them. Perhaps most importantly, we exclude nobody nor anything, so regardless of where, how, and who the participants are, they can feel connected and supported.

Inspired by Taiwan Digital Minister Audrey Tang, we decided the event would be open-sourced: submissions, feedback, content, and recordings would be published, and anybody would be welcome to apply. Policy for the People believes in open source, accurate, and wholesome discourse of said challenges for all students, and that students indeed have impact. Policython believes that every skill level must be welcomed so as to maintain a moral understanding during discussion and collaboration. As a result, our initiative is strongly encouraging those of beginner skill sets in writing and research as well as students from all backgrounds to join. The goal is one of tangibility, in which the program will conclude with actionable next steps in the form of solution-based, data-driven proposals. Sustaining impact must be available to those who are economically-disadvantaged, under-represented/marginalized, or otherwise hindered from making an impact, since they could benefit and know the most. That is why we are preparing to host resource-rich, supportive digital spaces for students to create solutions together. Policython participants also hear from community partners, federal agencies, and international organizations, as well as receive mentorship from leading academics during their proposal-creation period. 

Policy for the People would have six teams: operations, mentor, content, marketing, partnerships/sponsorships, design/website, led by the members most helpful after one month. Interestingly, this resulted with volunteers I had previously collaborated with for the Coronavirus Visualization Team: Akhil, Luke, Himani (high school students), Scotty, me, and Anson (college students). Given that students majoring in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) vote at the lowest rate compared to other fields, we were very lucky the majority of the volunteers and participants that applied were interested in STEM (Institute for Democracy & Higher Education 2012-2016). The team was entirely volunteer-organized and until the event, we had paid $0 (not even for the website). We met biweekly for 15 minutes of updates and 15 minutes of work sessions. In terms of program design, we decided to allow teams of up to four, not focus on sponsorships or speakers, rename policy hackathon to policython, have the event take place on a later weekend, consolidated to five general tracks with multiple problem statements, and only one round of paper judging. In terms of content, we made the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Our Common Purpose and required readings, in addition to putting together a rubric, participant guide, and policy brief template. For the event curriculum, we invited speakers based on our interests and COVID anxieties. 


II Event Program

The Speakers

Workshop events participants attended panels of experts discussing pressing concerns ranging from effective leadership to the intricacies of ending gender-based violence. Several dozen students attended each workshop and were actively listening and participating in discourse with speakers.


Ending Gender-Based Violence

Annekathryn Goodman MD, MPH is a Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School and a Fellow of both the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Surgeons. At her “Ending Gender-Based Violence” workshop, she focused on gender-based violence worsening with COVID-19 lockdown orders. Dr. Goodman illustrated how medical decisions are typically made in countries across the globe. She mentioned how in the United States, most medical decisions are made by the individual deciding what the best course of action is best for them as an individual while in most other countries, such as Bangladesh, people make medical decisions prioritizing the health and well-being of their family. It is common for husbands to make medical decisions for their wives, for instance, which often leaves women powerless and reliant on their husband for their well-being. With gender-based violence and intimate partner violence being prominent in many counties, women are therefore denied healthcare for reproductive rights.


This workshop not only helped to bring awareness to a prominent and worsening issue, but also inspired both the runner up team and the winner of the Public Health track to write policies based on these issues.


Getting into Journalism Early On

NYT journalist Momina Naveed shared the processes journalists must go through to write an article. She discussed pitching, researching both sides, interviewing others, and bringing stories to life. Momina encourages journalists to “Zoom in on the facts” as well as capturing bias by quoting other people’s opinions. Naveed inspired students to explore the world of journalism for themselves and to not stop searching until they find a truth to tell.

Reflection on COVID-19 in Relationship to US-Canada Relations and the Roles of Policy and Diplomacy

David Alward was appointed as Canada’s Consul General to New England in May of 2015, and serves as Canada’s representative in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. He discussed the specific impacts COVID-19 has had on Canada and the relationship between Canada and the United States of America. He focused on what the future US/Canadain relationship may look like, specifically discussing what future trade agreements may look like as well as the affirmative action Canada is taking on LGBTQIA+ rights, systemic racism, healthcare rights, and indigenous rights.


Students learned about what US-Canada foreign policy looks like. The runner up for the Economic Equity track wrote about promoting indigenous employment, which mentioned similar topics to what Alward discussed.


Combating Mental Illness

Majid Jowhari MP is a Canadian Liberal politician who represents the riding of Richmond Hill in the House of Commons of Canada. Jowhari talked about his mental health struggles as well as the mental health caucus he focused on. This caucus emphasized the necessity for mental health to have the same standards as mainstream healthcare. Jowhari initially started creating this bill to prevent youth suiside and it expanded into a bill that focuses on supporting people in the Black and LGBTQIA+ communities.


Students were inspired to write bills to help people receive better mental health services.


Crime and COVID 

David Abrams discussed how COVID-19 impacted the different subcategories of crime. He created numerous graphs to depict the drop in drugs, residential burglary, theft, and most types of violent crime and the increase in non-residential burglary and some car thefts.


He also provided students with statistical insight on the crime rates in the United States of America. The winner for the criminal justice track emphasized the need for prison reform and discussed crime rates.


How I started a successful organization over the summer: LawyerUp

Umeesha D'Alwis talked about the creation of her organization, LawyerUp. D’Alwis went into detail on how she was able to expand her organization to 98 countries inspiring others to do the same.


Students had the opportunity to talk about their organizations and network with other students. We were introduced to student-founded organizations Afghan Sikh Voices, Land of the Pure, and “Pandora’s Boxes”. Students provided other students with advice on how to grow their organizations and spread awareness for their causes.


GenZ and Activism

In a very energetic and engaging session, Ziad Ahmed discussed his activism in the community as CEO of JUV Consulting, and how students can become activists. He mentioned the power of social media and the harm polarization does in society. Ahmed inspired students by stating, “There will always be roadblocks. There are people who don't have a voice in the conversation. I speak louder in the face of adversity. I believe my and other’s voices matter.”


Ahmed motivated students to use social media as a tool to spread information to help better society. He encouraged students to play an active role in shaping the future of our world through kindness and compassion.


Getting Into Activism Early On

Audra Hendrichs discussed her time as a national press advance staffer on Senator Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and led a discussion answering student’s inquiries about her career as well as advice to aspiring activists. She encouraged students to get involved in activism and to step aside and let others lead and see what support you can provide them if they were not personally a part of the group they were advocating for. Hendrichs talked about the downfalls and benefits of being a freelance journalist and encouraged students to “[not] hesitate, advocate for [themselves]… [they] deserve a shot [and should] keep asking for one.”


Hendrichs encouraged every student who came to her lesson to not just stop at proposing a policy and to advocate for the change they wanted to see happen.


III Event Outcomes

With over 1000 applicants, 400 participants, 150 submissions, and about 3k volunteer hours, the Pandemic Policython was a huge success!


Our applicants were primarily 14-23 years old, with a median age of 18. The event reached international status by reaching 6 continents and 17 countries.

 What country are you from?. Number of responses: 60 responses.

The majority of applicants were in high school or college, with a plurality of high school and college juniors. Around 1 in 10 applicants were Master’s students.


About 2 in 3 applicants self-identified as female, and about 7 in 10 applicants self-identified as BIPOC.

The majority of applicants were female.

Our applicants demonstrated the most interest in our public health and economic equity tracks.

Mentors held office hours for around 100 participants, for an average of 35 minutes on zoom. For the first part of office hours, we had 20 students attend an hour, and the second part, 10 students an hour. 


As for workshops, over 400 participants attended the opening ceremony, 100 attended office hours with Harvard Government Department Chair Jeff Frieden, 80 participated in a leadership workshop with metaLAB Director of Art & Education Sarah Newman, and 150 people attended Cornell Institute of Public Affairs Lecturer Rebecca Brenner’s workshop on policy brainstorming. In sum, the Pandemic Policython provided over 1500 hours of webinar learning about topics from domestic violence in Bangladesh to the powerful potential social media has.


A group of students came together after seeing the impacts COVID-19 had on society and wanted to create an event where students can brainstorm solutions. These students formed a core group of organizers and volunteers came together to organize this Policython. We contacted high school counselors to recruit interested students. Students attended the opening ceremony, mentor office hours, speaker workshops, and closing ceremony while working with teams on drafting a one-page draft proposal and a four-to-five page proposal.


Winning Policy Briefs:


Word Cloud of Team Names:

Word Cloud of Paper Names:


Compiled by Lucas Chu and Heramb Podar

IV Feedback


Internal Feedback:

For each night of the conference, we gathered the entire volunteering team to ask them for someone they’re thankful for, something positive, and something negative. You can find the original feedback here.

The biggest problem was my midnight announcement that feedback was required, which was repeated as an encouraged action the day after with Airtable. By the time we pulled down the sheet, which included everybody’s links, 95 had already clicked. This crisis occurred despite Scotty, Priscilla, and many others advising against it due to high stress because of a lack of volunteers to provide feedback on one-pagers because a key team lead got sick without notifying us. Also, this last-minute feedback meant we ultimately did not do ranking choice voting for the one-pagers nor a People’s Choice prize. Furthermore, this breakdown of day-of volunteer assignments meant that the core team had to stay on for most of the event, a lot of problems were proactively solved by me, and a lot of answers were not answered immediately. Some problems, however, were not anticipated. In Professor Abrams seminar, a student sang and made noises during it, so a moderator kicked him. However, the student came back and shouted out a competitor’s name, announcing “You can’t get rid of me”, before being banned. We then changed settings so participants couldn’t unmute without raising their hands, which ideally shouldn’t be the case. We followed up with the offending student’s school, and they apologized. Another problem occurred during the Honorable Alward webinar, when Luke shared his participant-specific webinar link, resulting in over 30 “Luke”s being in the event. Similarly, the post-event networking link was a last-minute idea and thus wasn’t activated when I sent it out (although Friday’s networking was apparently awkward for some people). In vein with this lack of planning, no consolidated script meant that for both the opening and closing ceremony, I had to wing speeches.


A Summarization of Positive Feedback of the Pandemic Policython

The positive feedback we received demonstrated that a vast majority of people were happy with the event at large and enjoyed the event. The workshops, office hours, and mentors, in particular, received a good degree of appreciation. Many respondents also pointed out how unique in standing this event was and that they were extremely content with the fact that they got down to actually writing down their own policy papers jotting down ideas that have been floating within the foggy realms of their minds for some time. Many of the respondents were particularly inspired by the competition in this regard and said that the Policython enabled them to think differently and more concretely. Many competitors even forged meaningful friendships with their teammates over the course of the Policython and said that they would certainly remain in touch, having gained a friend for the ages and enjoyed putting on a paper by collaborating. 

The elements which received the most appreciation by far were our mentors and the enlightening office hours they helped enable, which received a lot of acclaim for broadening our participant’s horizons and helping to establish a course of action.A critical thought process and researching ability were also fostered. Many competitors enjoyed the insightful feedback given to them on their policy proposals. Light-hearted moments which took place throughout the course of the competition were also recalled by participants. A competitor beautifully summarized the competition saying that “The most valuable thing that I have gained from the event was that there are still a lot of things that I do not know and have not learned and I haven't really seen the world in its entirety yet. But with that being said, it inspires me to continue seeking wisdom out in the open and should not stop learning, advocating, networking, and listening to people from vast cultures and backgrounds to be more inclusive and give importance and value to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility”. A number of participants pointed out how the event helped them break down their preconceived barriers and notions surrounding policy making and proposal. Given that areas with greater downplaying of the virus experienced a greater number of cases and deaths, events like these were important to engage academics in COVID response. Some competitors also mentioned that they found the work of the organizing team to be inspiring!


Word Cloud of Positive Feedback:

Selected testimonials

One mentor who was interviewed, Kendrick Backmon, felt energized by the event. He says the undergraduates truly made him feel special: “I didn’t realize how much value I had...You don’t realize how much good work you’re doing by following the much value is in the work that you’ve done in the past”. He praised the organizers’ intense focus on participants and “more than class”. Backmon even went so far to say The Pandemic Policython “was the best event and competition I’ve been a part of in my life” because “when you see people engaged like this, in a hurry to make a difference, that is truly inspiring”.

“The most valuable thing that I have gained from the event was that there are still a lot of things that I do not know and have not learned and I haven't really seen the world in its entirety yet. But with that being said, it inspires me to continue seeking for wisdom out in the open and should not stop learning, advocating, networking, and listening to people from vast cultures and backgrounds to be more inclusive and give importance and value to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.”

“Friendship!! My partner and I did not know each other beforehand, but we work SO WELL together! I am so excited to keep in touch with everyone I've networked with over the Policython!”

“Every individual has a vital role in fighting the pandemic. The most valuable thing I realized on this event is that we are all interconnected. Our individual contribution and the multi-sectoral system of our society must agree and meet its objectives to effectively and efficiently conquer challenging times like this.”


A Summarization of Negative Feedback of the Pandemic Policython 

The negative feedback we received pointed out several operational and miscellaneous flaws in the Pandemic Policython. Critical analysis of the same along with remedial measures may mitigate such potential flaws for any future events which Policy for the People organizes. Failure to understand the organization (as to where certain stuff was located) and the flow of the competition were often cited by participants. Time zone differences and the subsequent failure of participants being able to show up to webinars and workshops which they were interested in was also raised. A number of respondents pointed out how confusing the platform of Notion was to them, although partly due to their lack of initiation towards the platform. Many people also pointed out that the event was way too short and felt crammed for their liking and wanted the competition to be more spread out and involve potentially more speakers. Lack of communication and time lags for query clearance were also discerned. People also wished that more diverse tracks were available, particularly ones that could address the problems facing other regions of the world. Instructions were found to have been containing typos and were found to be vague regarding how the brief is expected to be written, while the entire concept of the 1 pager being notoriously confusing for many respondents alike. A greater amount of centralization when it came to organizing documents was found to be often called out. Some complaints regarding the network event were that it felt too awkward and that it needed to encompass a larger group of people. Communication between team members before the event and team matchmaking being in sync with people’s time zones were also limited and hence, received mentions on our feedback form. The HelpQ portal and the confusion surrounding it were also points which received criticism, although dropping the portal altogether was said by some to be a good call on part of the organizers. Overall, communication channels should have been double-checked to see if everybody was included and getting the right information.Unfortunate but inevitable gaps in communication due to time zone differences were also pointed out. Some contestants called out the seemingly paltry prizes. 


Word Cloud of Negative Feedback:


Many participants were perplexed about how tied and obligated their policy submissions had to be to the original problem statements and how country-specific the briefs were intended to be. The issue of there being attendance taken at Zoom events, or was there to be a proof of attendance to be submitted as the rule documents stated that participants must attend at least two workshops in order to be eligible for prizes, was a matter of concern for many. Questions about the one-pager, such as how long they should be, when were they due till, and regarding their compulsion, were standard features to be noted and taken due care of in the future. The Rubric and the Policython guides contradicted each other according to accounts from the competitors. (for example: - the rubric said that the proposed policy must be a 15-page document as opposed to the five suggested by the latter). The absence of a meet-and-greet before the event to know potential team-mates and interact with peers and organizers before the event was realized by many competitors, and they suggested the same in a future event. The submission procedure was found to be not talked about during the competition by the organizers and seemed to remain under an air of mystery about it.

Some team-mates even got different tracks listed in their emails. A centralized resource panel was requested as everything was scattered over Notion, discord, and mails. Many participants found the Notion confusing and overwhelming. Templates for the five pagers were often asked (despite there being rough sketches of the same on the Notion page). General confusion was observed regarding connecting to mentors even after the HelpQ portal was dropped. A decent amount of confusion surfaced regarding the change in plans not to give out feedback. The possibility of another Policython being conducted in the future was also touched upon by some, which is a very positive indication for the future of the competition. Confusion about whether the policy paper was to be restricted strictly to a 5-page document was also seen. Concerning delay in the dispersal of policy feedback to the contestants and the addressal of queries raised over discord were noted. Technical issues over zoom like not getting a working invite link or not being able to hear audio of the workshops were also introduced. A few competitors were concerned about many graphs were required, whether references counting towards the word-count and the respective weightage of each in the final grade.


Areas for Improvement

In terms of logistics, we did not plan and test out the judging system, resulting in recalled criminal justice winners, feedback on gsheets and airtable, mentor invites, the HelpQ ticket system, permission to see submissions, and additional prizes. In terms of scheduling, we had four pages with discrepancies, an invalid networking invite, and many schedules. We also forgot to have a supplementary material question and ask everyone for their email to help with certificate distribution. After the event, the core organizing team was a bit burnt out, which meant that the email for thank yous, submission templates, prizes, and certificates was sent very late. Due to the lateness, the press release was not sent out. In general, communications, updates, goals, schedule, and issue management could have been done more efficiently and effectively with more reliable manpower and review. Essentially, we need to plan earlier and focus on consistency.

Some problems we haven’t yet resolved are how to run a dry run, implementing quadratic voting, regulating the flow of mentors and mentees, adding an adaptability clause, settling on a rubric, and how and to whom I can better pass off responsibilities.


V Next steps

For the Spring Pandemic Policython, we plan to add continent managers, content interns, operations shifts for check-ins and Q&A, a design wiki for answered questions, and the advisory board for leadership. Furthermore, we’ll centralize information. This means having only one website and calendar, including a five-page template, content guidelines, and examples as part of a policy guide, following up on all emails, sending out a press release ahead of time, improving matching and community events, reviewing webinar slides and doing separate information sessions for organizers, mentors, and participants before the event to go over norms and logistics. For mentoring, we can stick with updated Zoom for volunteers to be assigned timed breakout rooms to coordinate mentor talks. 

Internally, we need to start taking meeting minutes and emailing them out. In addition to taking more metrics, like screenshots and measuring student time on Zoom, some advisors should be asked to drop in monthly to help coach team leaders and provide feedback on the nonprofit growth plan. On-boarding cohort and 1-on-1 calls for the internship. In addition to opening up the design conversation to allow organizers to collaborate on a vision of instructional excellence and joy. As an organization, we can advocate for best practices like radical candor and request funding to provide stipends for racial and socioeconomic equity, personal mentoring, carbon neutrality, ethnic studies, and open-source materials.

Externally, a lot of initiatives are promising. I hope to publish urging for more student agency with the Harvard Social Impact Review, a postmortem with RadicalxChange, public policy ramifications with the Cornell Public Policy Review, and a “Policython in a box” tutorial on our own webpage. Incorporating as a student organization with a formalized mission, vision, and value statements will help us raise an annual fund for expanded programming, like a Webinar series. An advisory board for review on programs, sourcing more speakers from my contacts in the Department of State, FAS Standing Committee on Public Service, Harvard Economics department, etc. Based on who we recruit, we plan to organize a six-month Policy Sprint, Civic Tech Reverse Hackathon (3/20), Education Policython (2/20-21), Spring Policython (5/30-31), Think Tank Fellows (Summer), and Fall Product Sprint, with a focus on engaging policymakers, community, and the media.


VI Conclusion

In 490 BC, Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of victory. In 1999, ten OpenBSD developers organized the first hackathon to work on IP security. The witnesses of both events would never have imagined that their tasks would be commemorated by tens of thousands and continued remotely even weekly around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. While these are great expectations from an organization with only one policython so far, the path looks clear and bright. From a single partnership bloomed a competition with over 2000 hours spent listening and at least as much spent writing, all for the cost of $200 per winning team. Amazing students, ideas, and execution came together for a collaborative competition for all. In the words of mentor and Panama Minister of Environment Emilio Sempris, “I’ve seen everything, but this is the first time I’ve seen students putting together policies to improve life on earth”.

    Relevant Links
  1. Notion:

  2. Mentors Notion (or Slides)

  3. The Education Policython:

  4. Policy Sprint:

  5. Internship:

  6. Newsletter:

  7. Umbrella organization: Erevna

  8. To publish:

    1. Tutorial on Policy for the People Website:

    2. Review in SIR:

    3. Theory of change in CPR:

    4. Call to action in SSIR: or CPPR:

    5. Full paper in NULJ:

  9. Word Cloud generator: