CAPPA Case Competition: From the Ground to the Clouds, and Back Again


Every year, The Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) and Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration (CAPPA) jointly organize the National Annual Public Administration Case Competition—usually referred to as the “CAPPA Competition.” The goal is to bring future policymakers and analysts (who are currently studying public policy and administration at Canadian universities) to Ottawa to present solutions to a real-world public administration case over the course of 7 days. The competition is a great learning experience for students, because it requires them to apply skills like teamwork, research, critical thinking, legal and economic analysis, and communication. The School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at UBC regularly sends a delegation to the event. This year, the four of us—Citlali Cruz Cruz, Denby McDonell, Heather Park, and Guillerme Rosales—were chosen to represent UBC in Ottawa, with professor George Hoberg as our coach. We are all first-year students of the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs (MPPGA) program, and we were thrilled to have this unique opportunity over our reading week break. This blog will share how the competitIon unfolded, and what we learned along the way.


Preparing our Case

One week ahead of competition day, we received the details of the case we would be competing on. The policy challenge was to create a federal governmental plan in response to the Yemen humanitarian crisis. With the help of our coach, as well as many other faculty members who gave us their valuable advice on this issue, in just seven days we thoroughly analyzed Canada’s domestic hurdles to accepting Yemeni refugees. Such challenges were: waning political support from citizens, political tension emanating from provincial governments, and the strain on our current system from previous acceptance of Syrian refugees.  We had to determine, and justify, a number of refugees to accept, while also addressing the current backlog of refugees being processed in our system, with a plan covering national, provincial, and municipal strategies.

Over the course of the week, we did research, utilized our policy analysis tools, created scripts for our oral presentation, and fine-tuned the visuals for our PowerPoint presentation.  Finally, we rehearsed our parts, altered wording, posturing, and gestures, and prepared ourselves for any possible questions we thought the judging panel might throw at us. Feeling well prepared (and excited!), for our final presentation, we headed to the airport and flew across the country to Carleton University, where the 2019 CAPPA Competition would be held.

Arriving in Ottawa

The plane took off, lifting us into the clouds. Our landing in Ottawa six hours later was a little rocky. While we waited for an Uber outside the airport, we took note that it was a cloudy evening with a light, bone-dry breeze. We were struck by how different the air was—as always, comparing it to the coastal air of Vancouver. Before we knew it our Uber driver pulled up with time-sensitive efficiency.  He got out of his vehicle and placed our luggage in the trunk without speaking a word. He was the silent type until we inquired whether Ottawa had any good taco places, to which he responded with a firm ‘no’ and a small smirk on his face.

We arrived at the Lord Elgin Hotel, checked in and were notified that it was the oldest hotel in Ottawa. Besides the clearly older style of architecture, some other things that gave this away were old style rotary telephones located in the hallways and mail chutes built into the wall in a bronze and gold composite metal on all the floors. Clearly, this building had been around for a couple of centuries (albeit with some retrofits). So we settled into our rooms and then went out to have a lovely dinner with graduates of our program.

We went to a little ol’ Italian place called Johnny Farina, which has been around since 1997.  We shared stories with Joanna and Nate, ex-alumni of the MPPGA program, ate pasta and pizza, and had some lovely, wide-ranging conversations.  Then when it was time to leave we completely forgot to take the picture with them that had been requested by our case coach (who was their former professor). Murphy’s Law seemed to be inescapable!

Competition Day

The day before the competition there was a reception at Carleton University where we met some of the other teams.  Then we all pulled numbers from a toque to determine the order we would present in. We drew ninth, which meant we would be in front of the judges in the afternoon around 3 pm. This was slightly advantageous as it gave us more time to rehearse and prepare for any other question we thought could come our way - and meant we would not have to suffer through an early morning presentation, given that we were on West Coast time and already feeling three hours behind!

On competition day we were all nervous and anxious, but also confident since we had a complete policy strategy to address a new wave of incoming refugees from Yemen. There was a point in the week before where we had learned so much that we hit a point where we felt like we knew nothing.  Then we learned a bit more and we felt like we knew a lot. Then the cycle repeated until we felt like we at least knew something. The issue was multi-faceted and had many components to it and was anything but simple, even if on the surface it appeared so.

Carleton University prepared practice rooms for all the teams. We practiced for the last time about an hour before we were supposed to go on and then we had a break to relax and shake off the nerves. Then it came time to present. We walked into the room and began presenting.  Of course, as Murphy’s Law states, if it can go wrong it will—and sure enough the immutable law was right again. We began our presentation and the slide clicker was not working. We continued talking, pretending it did not matter. One of the technicians filming us clued in when we were supposed to be on our third slide, and handed us a new clicker with a fresh battery.  After this slightly shaky start, we found our stride and continued on.

It was over before we knew it and we all felt pretty good about it.  We answered the judge’s questions as directly as possible without hesitation, and managed to answer their last question without being cut off by the timer. Then it was time to wait.

Results and Lessons Learned

Simon Fraser University won first place, Glendon-York came second, and the University of Toronto was third. We didn’t take the podium, but winning isn’t everything. We learned a lot from the experience, and after the prize giving, we received valuable feedback from some of the judges that will allow us to better help next year’s team prepare for the next CAPPA competition. We now know what to do next time, and at the very least we will pass on what we learned and how we could improve to anyone else who does this competition next year. Overall we are proud of the presentation we gave, especially since our coach George was proud, and what more can you really ask for! Either way, it was a great bonding experience, where we learned how to work under huge pressure, compromise to accommodate team members’ different working styles, and capitalize on all of our different academic backgrounds.

Heading Home with New Perspective

Heather left us to go enjoy her Sunday at the Nordik spa in Chelsea with her mom, leaving the rest of us to enjoy and explore Ottawa in the slushy, icy rain before our flight.  Denby led us to the Parliament buildings, as is obligatory in Ottawa, and then we headed to the nearby market. Citlali was not too impressed with the weather (being from Mexico), but Guilherme assured her it was all part of the Canadian experience. She found this the opposite of reassuring. So, after suffering in the ice rain, and treacherously icy streets, and whipping cold wind, we made our way back to the hotel to regroup.

As they say in Ottawa, “when in Ottawa, do as the parliamentarians do.” They do not actually say that, but maybe it will catch on…? Just to be safe, we made sure to drink lots of coffee and got back to working on our long overdue homework and assignments for our classes.  It was at The Ministry of Coffee (a great little coffee shop on Elgin St.) that we worked for a portion of the afternoon before heading to the airport and boarding our flight home to Vancouver.

It was an evening flight. The lights on the ground from above appeared like little orderly stars twinkling across Canada.  We could see where towns and cities were and the shapes they made at night. Did it all go so wrong after all? No, clearly it did not.  Winning is one thing, but the process counts for a lot. Murphy’s Law might be right some of the time, but we also tend to focus more on when things go wrong rather when they go right.

Initially we did not notice the lights of towns and cities on the ground flying over Canada. It was all too easy to get caught up with the screen in front of our faces in our seats.  Yet when we came out of the clouds and gained a bird’s eye view it was almost impossible to ignore all the patterned lights on the ground, twinkling like clusters of stars as we began our our descent. We weren’t the same team that had taken off a few days before.  

Citlali Cruz Cruz, Denby McDonell, Heather Park, and Guillerme Rosales represented UBC as a team at the 2019 National Annual Public Administration Case Competition in Ottawa. They are all first-year Master's students at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

Above Photo: Parliament Hill in Ottawa (WikiMedia Commons)