Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, November 22, 2013

Thompson makes anticipating effects of climate change a priority

Joe Thompson

La Follette in D.C.

Joe Thompson was one of 10 La Follette School alumni who work for the Government Accountability Office who met with students in November 2013. Read more

Ten years after graduating from the La Follette School, Joe Thompson finds himself in a high-risk position.

For the U.S. Government Accountability Office's Natural Resources and Environment Team, the senior analyst identifies how climate change threatens federal infrastructure and programs. "The GAO updates our high risk list every two years, in coordination with each new Congress," Thompson says. "We point out issues that are of particular importance to the federal government. Limiting the Federal Government's Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks was added to the list this year."

Thompson worked with GAO managers and specialists such as economists to craft the high risk designation, which identifies climate change adaptation as a priority for federal agencies. "Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government," he says. "The government owns extensive infrastructure, including defense installations. It insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program, and it provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. We need a government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks and position our country to better address the fiscal exposure that climate change presents."

The 2003 Master of Public Affairs alum serves as the coordinator of GAO's climate change community of practice, and he functions as GAO's climate change liaison to the Executive Office of the President and other federal agencies to ensure that GAO's work is coordinated within and outside the agency and helps GAO keep informed of current events. Coordinating the portfolio of work helps him nimbly respond to short turnaround requests for information. "When President Obama issued his November 2013 executive order on preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change, I briefed GAO managers and helped them understand how the order fit into the context of our high risk designation and how agencies could become more resilient," Thompson says.

Thompson says his La Follette School training and the project assistantship he held at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources enabled him to become GAO's subject matter expert on climate change. "I was able to create my own program at La Follette and at the DNR and do climate research and analysis," says Thompson, who earned a bachelor of science from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. "That flexibility is the main reason I chose La Follette. Other master's programs I looked seemed solely focused on technical and academic style program analysis. La Follette let me incorporate analysis, management of people and institutions, history, and anthropology. Policy analysis is more than data analysis. Context matters. La Follette gave me the flexibility to mold my education to account for that context, and I appreciate that. I also gained a good foundation in analysis tools that I employ at GAO."

GAO will have as many as 10 climate-related reports going at once, each taking a year or more to complete. Thompson's most recent explores how the federal government can better help local communities consider climate change when they build roads, bridges and wastewater treatment facilities and other types of infrastructure. "When the climate changes, infrastructure—typically designed to operate within past climate conditions—may not operate as well or for as long as planned, leading to economic, environmental and social impacts," Thompson says.

During his 10 years with GAO, Thompson's role has evolved from being a contributing member of a team focused primarily on data analysis to managing the day-to-day activities of a single research project and now to coordinating a body of work in addition to these other tasks. "My job now is a good marriage of project management and analysis," he says. "GAO emphasizes teamwork, and my La Follette training—where we were required to work on teams—has helped a lot. La Follette classes helped me understand how I operate in team environments and helped me understand that not everyone operates the same way I do. Knowing yourself and how you prefer to interact with others affects how well you can communicate and get your message out."

The La Follette School's small size also was a benefit, Thompson says. "The La Follette School's small size gave me the ability to interact with professors. The school was not a mill churning out analysts, it is more of a community that helps people make sense of the work they do and build relationships with others."

"I recommend the school because it provides students with a good baseline skill set and flexibility to pursue fellowships and internships at the same time," he adds. "My experience working at the DNR while in school at La Follette made me focus on applying my education and gave me a real head start when looking for a job."