Public Policy Associates’ new CEO Rob Fowler guided the Small Business Association of Michigan through two decades of growth and successful advocacy. He’s put his Ball State University political science degree to good use as a leader of state organizations and coalitions, and on the Haslett Board of Education, where he served for 10 years. Now, he’s starting a new chapter at PPA.
What made you decide to run a public policy shop?
I spent virtually my entire career in the public policy area, first working for the lieutenant governor of Indiana in economic development, then for a statewide chamber of commerce, a regional chamber of commerce, and then a statewide small business organization. I got to know PPA probably 21 years ago as a client, and I got to know Jeff Padden, the founder of PPA. I have admired this organization from a distance for a long time. Now, I’m excited about being part of its leadership.
What areas of public policy interest you most?
The areas I’ve been most engaged in also happen to be areas of great interest to me: economic development broadly, including business development and health care. I served as the first chair of the board of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the conversion fund from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. The implications of health policy are enormous. I really enjoy education policy, most recently as one of five co-chairs of Launch Michigan, an education reform effort. I’m a student of public policy enough that I enjoy all of the policy areas PPA is engaged in, and some others.
Any new CEO is likely to make changes. What do you anticipate?
PPA is a well-run organization doing good work, and I would first and foremost not upset the apple cart. But I am also growth minded. We have such a great staff, such competent research capacity, that I believe there are opportunities we haven’t yet tapped into. I think what I can bring is a network of relationships and contacts and an understanding of how public policy works that should be good for growth.
Are there new policy areas you plan to develop?
For Michigan and a lot of other states, federal money is coming in and setting up a scenario in which a lot of cliffs are being created. Somewhere in the distance not too far, the money is going to run out, and programs that are being developed can’t be sustained. If we can spend it better now, so that we don’t build those cliffs, then we do our fellow citizens a favor. That is a rich public policy area. Our staff and our consultants have the experience to really help the appropriators and the spenders understand ways to do that so that they don’t create that crisis in a couple of years.
Most of PPA’s clients are from the public or nonprofit sectors. Given your experience with the business community, do you see opportunities there for PPA?
I don’t see us doing market research for a private company, or having a big clientele of private business. But I do think there are some policy areas in economic development and small business development that present opportunities.
PPA serves clients across the country. Do you expect that to continue?
I do. Just this last couple of weeks, we got a new client in California and one in Iowa. As a matter of strategy, we hope to grow that business. We have a good reputation in some areas that is replicable in other states. Our justice portfolio, our health care work absolutely can be done with people in other states. Part of it is just continuing to keep building our reputation in those areas, and building the right relationships.
The polarized world we live in presents new challenges for policymakers and their consultants. How can companies like PPA overcome that to produce sound public policy?
In a really pure sense, our work is nonpartisan. It must have integrity. We don’t do research and promise an outcome. But I’m well aware the arena in which policy is practiced is deeply polarized. Most of my career I have been able to practice in a bipartisan way. One can attempt to be bipartisan and have relationships on either side of the aisle. What’s difficult is to be bipartisan and effective in working with people on both sides. I would say both PPA has been that way historically, and I’ve been able to do that historically.
It’s probably never been more important for us to rise above the politics of the day and do convincing, excellent public policy work. I have always tried to see beyond the current fight and the current discussion, and understanding that public policy is a long game. The ability to not burn bridges and not burn relationships has just been engrained in me. It certainly is good strategy for us at PPA.
Businesses like PPA are still adjusting their business models to the COVID environment. What will PPA’s look like?
Certainly, the world has changed. For companies like PPA, we’re not retail, or a manufacturer where people have to go to the work. We are the kind of company that has survived and thrived essentially as a remote company. That is going to make us sit back and think about whether we can continue to be a virtual or mostly virtual company. I’m going to watch what other businesses like us do. I’m going to study trends and try to understand the upside and the downside.
Culture is important for any business. Our tagline is “better public policy for a better world.” We’re in this together doing something important. We have to rally around that as a staff, and that means we have to be together, at least in some way. Navigating what is essentially a virtual world and yet keeping the culture and the organizational reputation is going to be really important. I don’t know the answer but I know the question and how it applies to us.