Capstone: Making Real-Life Policy Advice While Having a Blast!

In London School of Economics's Master of Public Administration course, it's not only about books and test scores. Doing a real-life consultancy project called Capstone is also part of the journey. Our contributor, Amirah Kaca, shares her experience, from working with Bank of England for two terms to meeting then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

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With my Capstone team in front of Bank of England. (Photo by Amirah Kaca)

In London School of Economics’s Master of Public Administration course, it’s not only about books and test scores. Doing a real-life consultancy project called Capstone is also part of the journey. Our contributor, Amirah Kaca, shares her experience, from working with Bank of England for two terms to meeting then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron. She also gives out some tips to make the best of your Capstone and how to be a great consultant while you’re at it!

Some degrees are academic-oriented but there are also degrees that are practical. Practical degrees do not only get you to study and debate theories in classroom, but also help you to gain some hands-on experience in the field. These programs program provide those opportunities by getting the students working on real issues with real organizations, while still completing the study. The project is usually called a Capstone (sometimes they have other names such as consulting project). Schools conduct capstone projects by working together with organisations in needs of problem-solving. The students want some experience, skills, and network, while the organizations need extra hands. Hence, it is a win-win situation.

My Capstone Story

I decided to do Master of Public Administration (MPA) because it is an interdisciplinary study that prepares students to become professional in public policy field. One of the things that draw me to the study is also the Capstone project because, other than needing work experience to further equip my career shift, I am really excited with the opportunity to work on real problems. I was right: The Capstone project has given me one of the most valuable experiences in my life!

Most MPA degrees that I know of consist of Capstone degree as a completion requirement, but they have significant variations in the conduct. In LSE MPA, our Capstone project accounts for one unit, which means it goes for two whole terms. Early in the term, we were given the opportunity to choose the client and project, then we were grouped into four or five people.

My client for the Capstone project was Bank of England (BoE) and the topic was “FinTech in Payment and Financial Stability.” BoE as regulator have to balance out two interests, their mandate is to ensure financial stability as well as to encourage innovations in payment. Payment in some ways is very concentrated and is very ripe for disruption and it is for bank of England to have the best approach. So we were set to find answers to a very interesting question, how does all this different innovation in payment affect financial stability.

Basically our topic is very explorative, how are we going to answer all those questions when everything is so new and very limited academic source was available. The traditional literature review approach would not suit our project. So we (together with the client) decided that we just had to go out there and find out. We needed to find out what’s really happening from people who are doing. We realized we need to meet the regulators, we need to meet the industry players, we need to meet experts. In total we interviewed 38 individuals ranging from former Monetary Board of Bank of England, former VP of the New York Feds, unicorn co-founder, and a long list of top academicians. For the whole year we really dedicate ourselves exploring the topic and at the end, it was all worth it because we ended up receiving distinction for our Capstone report.

Meeting David Cameron in a FinTech event during Capstone project. (Photo by Amirah Kaca)
Meeting David Cameron in a FinTech event during Capstone project. (Photo by Amirah Kaca)

I believe Capstone has taken me places. It has given me endless networking opportunity. The most exciting one is the fact that the project has taken me to an exclusive FinTech event.  meet and talk with Hon. David Cameron in a FinTech event (who is now pursuing career in payment as by the way).  I was also blessed with the best team mates. They are all intelligent, hard-working, and very fun to be around with.

To know more about Capstone in MPA LSE, you can check the following video as well: https://youtu.be/eZR2ao3-NYg

Although I really enjoyed my Capstone experience, not everyone did. It is worth to really put effort in thinking and deciding the Capstone that fits you well. How can we make Capstone the best experience?

Choosing a Capstone Project

During the beginning of the term, your program will present to you a list of projects from their partner organizations. Different school has different method to assign you to specific projects. In the MPA Programme at the LSE, all students must list at least three projects that they are interested in. Then, their algorithm will optimize the allocation so that everyone can be in one of their three top choices. So, in this case, everyone can apply to any project and will just be allocated based on their preference. Everyone has the same opportunity to apply to any project that is of interest to them. On the other hand, some schools will encourage you to apply to project that relate most to your credentials or past experience, so you will be selected and a professor will determine whether you are a good fit or not.

In general, I think there are three main considerations to choose a capstone project.

  1. The Topic

Usually just hearing the title of the topic, you can tell whether you feel the. Think about what excites you the most. Does project about health intervention excites you? Do you want to read all day about governance and corruption-prevention? Or do you have a deep passion for renewable energy? Does the title of the project contain words that usually will attract you to read an article or a book?

Thinking whether the topic excites you it is not enough. Also try to break down the type of task you will need to do. Capstone projects consist of great variations in the tasks. There are quantitative analysis, qualitative research, and literature study. From something as specific as building a dataset to something as broad as an explorative study (like in my case where the client just told us that they are just interested about X, and we even have more room to steer the direction of the project). The study can be very quantitative or qualitative or both. You probably will gravitate to tasks you love or are strong at, also remember think about the skill sets you would like to build and expand.  It is very rare to get the opportunity to work on something you have no prior experience in. Perhaps you are not strong in quantitative analysis while most of job vacancies you are looking for require it, this is your chance. Have you always been an introvert? Perhaps Capstone that require you to reach out to people and do interviews can help you get out of your comfort zone.

  1. The Client

Of course you want to have a cool client that you can write in your CV, post in your Linkedin and talk about in your future job interviews.  Even better, Capstone opens up opportunity for jobs after graduation. So if your dream place is in the client list, then increase your chance of knowing your potential future manager. Many of my classmates ended up working at their Capstone’s organizations.

In most school, clients range from financial institutions (eg. Bank of England, European Investment Bank), International Organizations (eg. OECD, UNICEF), Non Profit Organizations (eg. Gates Foundation, Nesta), to Consulting Firms (eg. Oliver Wymann, EY). Consider your aspiration for career. Although your dream place is not in there, getting an experience in similar organization will enable you to do just fine.

Another thing that people usually consider is where the client is located. Usually, the school will support you to visit the client for final presentation. I got Bank of England which only took me a few tube stations away from the campus but other groups went as far as Colombia and Somalia. So feel free to take this traveling opportunity.

Dinner with the team. (Photo by Amirah Kaca)
Dinner with the team. (Photo by Amirah Kaca)
  1. The Group

The people you work with: this is something that everyone will say is most important in ensuring that your Capstone goes well. I remember during the week of Capstone preference submission, everyone tried to plan schemes to stick together with certain people. At the end, everyone will gravitate to their interest and not everyone that you think will work best with you professional can align to the same preference structure. But it is worth surveying around your classmates to see who might be interested. However, I do know a group which takes this arrangement very serious so they perhaps set aside their real topic interest.

Advices on How to Be a Great Consultant

ToR and/or SoW are keys

You will be marked based on how your deliverable (the report) matches your Terms of Reference (ToR) and/or Scope of Work (SoW). In the first week, ensure that your team goes through the ToR and/or SoW. First, check whether the ToR expects the team to do what is possible and achievable. But also think critically on what value you think you can add in addition what is requested there. Throughout the Capstone, always have the ToR in mind. In many cases, when things get too dynamic, you can also request for adjustment of the final ToR to the client.

Be professional

Be very professional, switch your student mode back to workplace mode. Respond to emails from supervisor and clients like you would if you were working professionally in a corporation. Wear professional attire: even if the clients are casual, it is better be to safe by not letting your standards down. It’s better to be too formal then to casual. I also always apply this rule not only to clients but also when meeting with important interviewees.

Have one person as one point of contact in order not to confuse your client and supervisor. Only one channel of communication to your team prevents confusion.Consistent in providing progress update, send materials 24 hours before meeting, keep Minutes of Meeting (MoM) and send them on time (our group always try to stick within 24 hours but sometimes 2 x 24 hours is okay).

Be a solid team

Stick together in front the supervisor and clients. It doesn’t mean that you cannot have disagreements within your group and everyone has to nod in unison all the time otherwise you are a bad team. The key is to manage conflict to a healthy level and for substantive matters. If the case is that your team constantly disagrees, your team mates want to strangle each other all the time, then let the war rages in the campus, but put a solid interface in front of the client. Never ever bring your group problems to client meetings! Remember the clients want advice from you, something that will help them with their jobs. They are not there to play referee for you, do not confuse and burden them with your internal conflicts.

Sometimes team work is a part of your assessment so it is worth trying to actually stay solid. There are exceptional cases in which that a member of your team is constantly running away from responsibility and no one in the team knows what to do anymore. Still, do not get the client into this. Engage your supervisor to solve this issue. The common rule is that everyone gets the same mark, but for this case, the person will receive different mark from you. Don’t bad mouth the person in front of the client though. Only talk about the project.

So are you excited for this? these are some of my tips and tricks for a successful capstoning. Go get out there, learn a lot, impress the clients, and last not least, have a blast!

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Amirah Kaca Sumarto
Amirah Kaca Sumarto graduated with Distinction from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She studied Master of Public Administration in Economic Policy. She is a former technology professional at IBM, pivoting into public sector reform works. She continued to work as Public Sector Consultant for Governance Global Practice in the World Bank, working on projects related to e-government, civil service reform, and public financial management. She is now running for office (DPR-RI in Kalimantan Utara electoral district) with Partai Golkar in the coming 2019 Indonesia General Election. In her spare time, she loves sketching, adventure in nature (diving and hiking), reading books, and sharing her thoughts with her book-club, Baca-Rasa-Dengar.