Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, August 27, 2012

Bell uses management, analysis training in elections, Army work

Brian Bell Brian Bell

For situations involving Wisconsin elections and numbers, La Follette School alum Brian Bell is the man to turn to.

As the elections data manager for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, Bell works to ensure that the data are as accurate and meaningful as possible. "In coordination with information technology and program staff, I determine the election data business requirements, manage the technological coordination and recommend business automation solutions for election results and voter participation statistics maintained by the GAB's data mining systems," says Bell, who graduated from the La Follette School in 2010 with a Master of Public Affairs degree.

Bell joined the GAB at a pivotal time — in March 2012, just eight days before the presidential preference and spring election, and only six weeks before the primaries for recall elections for four state senators and the governor and lieutenant governor. "One of the things that drew me toward the GAB was that this is perhaps the most exciting time in Wisconsin elections history," says Bell, who grew up in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. "Working on data collection and analysis of these elections is a fascinating way to participate in helping explain and share this part of our state history."

Soldier Brian Bell hands out crayons and other school supplies to a group of children.

Brian Bell, left, hands out crayons to children in Afghanistan. "We stopped in a neighborhood where the Taliban had sent a suicide bomber and blew up a local school," Bells says. "We were handing out supplies and toys to local children with the help of the village elders to build trust and collect information about terrorist activity."

Army service

Brian Bell joined the U.S. Army Reserve at age 17. He earned bachelor's degree in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he majored in political science. For the 2002-03 school year he was the legislative affairs director for Whitewater Student Government, then served one tour at Fort Hood, Texas, conducting deployment and redeployment operations. He held a government affairs internship with American Family Insurance in 2005. He voluntarily deployed to Iraq as a route clearance squad leader in 2006-2007. Now a first lieutenant, he serves as the Battalion Intelligence Officer for the 389th Engineer Battalion, based in Dubuque, Iowa.

Bell's military awards include the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, two Army Commendation Medals, the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, three Army Reserve Component Achievement Medals, the National Defense Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Ribbon with one bronze campaign star, the Iraq Campaign Medal with two bronze campaign stars, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with mobilization "M" device and bronze hour glass device and roman numeral "3", the Non-Commissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon with roman numeral "2", the North Atlantic Treaty Organization International Security Force ribbon; the Combat Action Badge; the Wheeled Vehicle Operator Badge with special equipment bar, and the Expert Marksmanship badge.

Bell also works with data on election results and voter participation in response to outside requests for information. "Examples of requests include voter participation statistics, such as the number of absentee ballots cast or polling place locations," Bell says. "The Government Accountability Board is statutorily required to charge for lists of registered voters. Candidates, political parties, non-profit organizations and many others often request lists of voters with election participation history in a particular jurisdiction – from statewide lists all the way down to municipal aldermanic districts or school board districts."

When Bell enrolled at La Follette, he thought he would combine his graduate education with his military experience and pursue a career in national security policy. "However, when this opportunity at the GAB arose that would allow me to experience this exciting time in Wisconsin history firsthand and stay close to family, friends and La Follette – the choice was easy," says Bell, who is a first lieutenant with the Army Reserve, which he joined in 2000.

He accepted a commission as an Army engineer officer halfway through his master's program. After graduating, he completed the Engineer Basic Officer Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and then volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan as a route clearance patrol leader.

"I managed a platoon of 30 personnel plus an Afghan interpreter to find and neutralize improvised explosive devices to allow freedom of movement for international security assistance forces and the Afghan people," Bell says. "My platoon conducted nearly 200 missions and cleared more than 16,500 kilometers of main supply routes and alternate supply routes used by Afghans and international security forces and dozens of IEDs."

He says his education at La Follette has influenced his military experience in several ways. "Applying the principles of public management that Professor Soglin instilled has helped me lead a unit that had a cohesive, team-oriented organizational culture, clear and efficient structure, and strong leadership throughout," Bell says. "Professor Moynihan's course on performance management helped me develop performance measures and training goals that produced the greatest possible outcomes. That focus on performance management improved unit morale and job satisfaction. It also allowed us to achieve one of the highest, if not the highest, efficiency ratings of all route clearance units since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began."

One major project in Afghanistan was to clear routes that had not been used in months. "We had to travel through difficult terrain close to the Afghanistan/ Pakistan border to clear areas to build new border patrol checkpoints in order to prevent guerilla fighters, weapons and other contraband from entering the country," Bell says. "We had considerable support from special units such as special operations units to attack helicopters and special planes."

A second mission involved clearing a route for a unit that had been attacked with multiple IEDs. "A squadron commander and brigade commander personally asked for my unit to help get their soldiers back to base safely," Bell says. "We were able to get all soldiers and equipment safely back to the forward operating base."

"However, the memories and experiences that I will always cherish are my interactions with the Afghan people, and the children in particular," he adds. "We would try to hand out clothing, food, water, school supplies and toys whenever we could."

At the GAB, Bell finds his statistical training to be essential. "The quantitative skills that I learned at La Follette, particularly using statistical software to organize and analyze data, have been invaluable in my work at the Government Accountability Board," he says. "The application of data is only as good as the confidence in its validity and the ability to apply that data to meaningful analysis and policy development."

A current project involves collecting and reviewing information on the cost of statewide elections, beginning with the April 3, 2012, presidential preference and spring election. "Once all municipalities and counties report this information, particularly for the recall and recall primary, I expect this will get considerable attention from the general public, the media and the legislature," Bell says.

Another project is improving how we track inquiries around elections, especially on Election Day. Improvements already allow us to more quickly identify issues and share that information with local election officials for expedient resolution."

Also, Bell adds, the GAB is an organization with a strong culture of collaboration – whether working with colleagues in the Elections Division, or with municipal and county clerks, the legislature or voters. "Everything at the GAB is accomplished through teamwork," Bell says. "Group assignments and projects that required working with people and organizations outside of La Follette helped to further develop those skills."

"My education at La Follette provided an outstanding foundation in quantitative skills, public management and policy analysis," Bell says. "The program also gave me the flexibility to customize my education, based on my interests and goals. I enjoyed the small class sizes, the high level of interaction with faculty and staff, and sharing the educational experience with a diverse group of fellow students."

"I strongly believe that what you do in life should benefit society, and not just yourself," Bell says. "I have always viewed public service as the best way to accomplish this. I see military service as the easiest way to have the greatest positive impact on the largest number of people. Similarly, I think much of public policy depends on those elected to enact those policies. In my current position with the GAB, I enjoy helping improve the information that is available about elections in Wisconsin, and the policy analysis we can facilitate."