Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Allen relishes research to help governments conduct business


Vanessa Allen

The results surprised a few people: Milwaukee Public Schools' per-pupil expenditures are in keeping with the Wisconsin average and with comparable districts across the United States.

The findings were published in a report co-authored by 2007 La Follette School alum Vanessa Allen, a researcher with the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee.

"The report on MPS's fiscal condition was definitely one of the Public Policy Forum's most ambitious endeavors and a project of which I am particularly proud," says Allen, who earned a Master of Public Affairs degree. "After six months of intense research, we put MPS's comparatively high expenditure level in context, controlling for supports necessary for economically disadvantaged and special needs students. We found that MPS' per-pupil expenditures are not out of line with the state average or comparable districts nationally."

The study, released in December 2012, also looked at the effects of recent reductions in employee benefit costs. Despite millions of dollars saved and significant long-term reduction in liabilities, the district still faces a fiscal challenge, Allen says.

"Factors outside of MPS control make it difficult to manage year to year," Allen says. "Especially problematic are the district's dependence on the state in regard to financial appropriations and revenue limits as well as regulatory changes to choice and charter schools that have financial implications for MPS. It is within this uncertain and uncontrollable financial structure that MPS must operate, a structure within which anyone would find it difficult to manage."

The Public Policy Forum is in its 100th year of researching and analyzing public policy issues to enhance the effectiveness of government and public policy in southeastern Wisconsin, the state and the nation. The MPS study is Allen's fourth that has focused on local government finance. Her other three in-depth assessments looked at the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Area Technical College and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. One won an award from the Governmental Research Association, a national organization of local think tanks similar to the Public Policy Forum.

"Each project typically entails the same process, splitting my time between meeting with government officials and their staff, gathering financial data, analyzing trends and developing written reports that convey my findings," Allen says. "Though crunching numbers can take up a significant part of my time, I put them into context by reviewing federal, state and local policies; economic indicators; public service needs; finances of comparable entities; and perspectives obtained along the way from area leaders and other informed individuals. By compiling elements of all of these, we have been able to provide comprehensive assessments that lay out the most influential factors guiding the trajectory of government finances."

Allen says her La Follette School training has been beneficial, especially her courses in state and local government finance, benefit-cost analysis, quantitative methods, public program evaluation and the workshop in public affairs. "The combination of my courses gave me a concrete set of tools with which I can frame and analyze government challenges and progress," she says. "The practicality of these courses and the passion behind the professors who taught them are exactly why I would recommend La Follette to aspiring public policy students. In particular, professors Bob Haveman, David Weimer, Andrew Reschovsky, Carolyn Heinrich, Melanie Manion, Maria Cancian and Menzie Chinn challenged and encouraged me, and provided a dynamic set of perspectives and skills."

Allen came to La Follette after working as a public administration intern and labor relations liaison with the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services. She completed her bachelor's degree in political science and French in 2003 at the University of Notre Dame.

Prior to becoming a Forum researcher in 2008, Allen interned at the Wisconsin State Budget Office and worked for Milwaukee County's Department of Administrative Services, Division of Fiscal Affairs. "Those positions gave me a particularly well-constructed background for my local government finance work at the Forum," Allen says. "The work differs from my jobs in both budget offices in several respects, including pace, process and depth of assignments. My work with Milwaukee County, for example, was very process-driven, often requiring faster turnarounds in response to strict board cycles, budget timelines and pressing financial challenges. Tasks ranged from approving the creation of positions, developing fiscal notes for policy changes, monitoring departmental budgets and exploring more cost-effective ways to deliver services."

In contrast, the Forum is much more flexible in setting deadlines, Allen says. Projects last several months and typically encompass a broad and comprehensive exploration into the subject matter. "Researchers at the Forum sit outside of the strict cycles and highly reactionary atmosphere seen in government budget offices," Allen says. "That said, we ponder many of the same issues on the minds of government officials and realize that our publications must be timely and relevant to the issues facing public entities. Moreover, as a researcher, I am constantly talking to the very type of people with whom I once worked. We bounce ideas off each other that may or may not ever be written in a publication. The intention is to advance good government."

In addition to her professional work, Allen volunteers as a facilitator for the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, which brings diverse groups together to engage in productive conversation on issues that can be divisive. "By participating, people become more familiar with perspectives that differ from their own," Allen says. "I also tutor on a weekly basis at Our Next Generation, an after-school program that predominantly serves MPS students."

Allen's career and volunteer work have shown her how public policy guides many aspects of life and covers a sprawling array of issues. "Public policy impacts the maintenance of roads, purity of drinking water, provision of public safety, quality of public education, and the list goes on," Allen says. "I take pride in the Forum's role in informing local leaders and the public on how well government conducts its business and upholds critical services. As a Chicago transplant and a proud Milwaukee resident, I have experienced two wonderful cities that have a lot to offer the region. Public policy is a critical mechanism for continuing their successes, improving their weaknesses, and capitalizing on their assets."