Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Higgins drives local policy innovation at The Governance Project

Colin Higgins Colin Higgins

Colin Higgins (MPA ’16) has played a key role at The Governance Project since 2018. As program director, Higgins has contributed to projects that help municipalities stimulate private investment in low-income communities, effectively finance community-focused development projects, and support small business through the COVID-19 crisis.

The nonprofit organization provides policy assistance to state and local governments and helps empower communities to take practical steps for combating economic disparity across the United States. In 2019, Higgins and Bruce Katz, an advisor to The Governance Project and one of Higgins’ mentors, published the report Opportunity Zones and Urban Revitalization: A Place-Based Approach to the Emerging Market, along with a series of reports informing proposed bipartisan federal small business relief legislation.

Originally from Middleton, Wisconsin, Higgins participated in the La Follette School’s Accelerated Program, beginning his master’s degree coursework while a senior at UW–Madison. He triple-majored in geography, environmental studies, and history and led several environmental initiatives as an undergraduate student. 

After graduating from the La Follette School, Higgins attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he received a Master of Philosophy degree (MPhil) in geography. His dissertation investigated the impact of deindustrialization on the political economy of Detroit, Michigan. Higgins, who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said his time in England gave him a more international perspective and helped refine his “theory of change.”

While completing his dissertation, Higgins served as environment and economic policy director for Abdul El-Sayed’s gubernatorial campaign in Michigan. After focusing primarily on theory in his academic programs, he said, working on the campaign trail helped him learn about the specifics of policy implementation.

He continued to build his experience with policy implementation following the campaign.

“Fresh off the losing end of a primary campaign, I started relentlessly calling everyone in my network who would give me the time of day,” Higgins recalled. “Someone told me about this organization that had recently started up, had only senior staff, and needed someone junior to help execute the vision. A week later, I was working for The Governance Project.”

Now, Higgins sees tight linkages between economic and environmental issues, noting that environmental policy still pertains to the nature of the economy and how, and where, resources are distributed. In addition, he said, local government is critical to spurring policy innovation, acting as “laboratories for democracy” where successes can radiate outward in what Katz terms “the new localism.”

Looking back at graduate school, Higgins said the La Follette School helped him build a great professional foundation, highlighting skills he gained from public finance, public management, and cost-benefit analysis coursework. He also emphasized that his Workshop project for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources demonstrated how environmental issues are intertwined with local development policies and how government agencies can achieve outcomes with limited resources.

As an undergraduate student at UW–Madison, Higgins was member of Phi Beta Kappa, received the Morris K. Udall scholarship, and wrote an award-winning senior thesis on the local politics of implementing a national biodiversity offsetting program in the United Kingdom. He also graduated with a Comprehensive Honors degree from the College of Letters & Science (see profile on page 8 of the Fall 2016 issue of The Honors Challenge). 

- written by Peter Mosher