Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, September 10, 2012

Gates manages risks

Presentation Thursday

Alum Robin Gates will kick off "Policy and a Pint," the La Follette School of Public Affairs after-work speaker and networking series, with a discussion of his ideas for transforming government agency leadership. The gathering is Thursday, September 13, at Brocach, 7 West Main Street in Madison, from 5 to 7 p.m. Read more

Robin Gates

Graduate program provides good foundation

Alum Robin Gates' best learning experience was graduate internship through the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, a precursor of the La Follette School.

"I spent a semester working in the state Budget Office," Gates says. "I was assigned a complex sewage treatment finance issue. I wrote an extensive policy paper and got to present my findings and recommendations to governor (Patrick) Lucey and Tony Earl, who was DNR secretary at the time. I learned much about how government really works and the relationship between theory and practice."

When a public policy professor took a blue pencil to a major paper Gates had authored, that was also a learning experience, he says, because he previously had only received good grades on papers. "It was the first time someone really took the time to critique my writing style," he says. "I learned an important lesson. Good ideas must be communicated clearly to be effective."

"I would recommend the La Follette School to prospective students interested in getting a solid understanding of public policy development and research," Gates says. "That understanding is an important part of the foundation needed for anyone wanting a successful public sector career."

La Follette School alum Robin Gates sees his career as a management consultant—and life in general—as a series of calculated risks, leading to the reward of making a difference through public service. Taking risks and continuing to improve are vital, Gates says.

Government agencies and businesses must also take some risks, Gates says. One of Gates' most recent projects—a special report for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute—calls on government agencies in Wisconsin to innovate and to risk upgrading their managers' skills in order to make government work. The report, "An Essential Turnaround Project: Reform of State Government Operations," says that government agencies must constantly innovate and improve their operations, just to keep up.

Gates, a 1976 alum of the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration and founder of a Madison-based management consultant firm, says he would give the same advice to individuals just embarking on a career: keep learning, keep improving job skills and take risks.

"Never stop learning and improving your job skills," Gates advises. "The world changes so fast that anyone who thinks they can get by with what they know now is in for a surprise. Second, keep an open mind and take some calculated risks with your career. I have seen too many people get comfortable in a job and then spend half of their careers bored and disengaged."

Gates has followed that advice in his own life. After 23 years in leadership positions with Wisconsin state agencies, he spent six years in leadership positions for Alliant Energy Corp. Then in January 2006, he opened Robin Gates Consulting. For him, Gates says, the rewards of taking risks have made his work worthwhile.

"The most rewarding times of my career came about when I was willing to take a risk and do something I hadn't considered before," he says.

For Gates, that risk-taking meant moving from ever-greater responsibility in state government to private industry, before opening his own business. He served as a budget analyst and then team leader in the state Budget Office, state purchasing director with the Department of Administration, division administrator for a 360-person division with the Department of Workforce Development and then its deputy secretary, the chief operating officer for the 2,600-employee agency. He ended his Wisconsin government career as administrator of the Administrative Services Division of the 1,300-employee Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

Gates joined Alliant Energy in Madison as managing director of budget, planning, supply chain and facilities, and then became vice president for performance improvement. He implemented a Lean Six Sigma business management strategy that saved more than $47 million a year for the company and improved performance.

The next step for Gates was making his management- and process-improvement skills the foundation of his own business, which means he can choose his projects and clients. "A key criterion for my taking an assignment is whether it has the potential for making the world a better place."

Such public service is now more important than ever, Gates says, "because government is now a greater part of our lives. We need government at all levels to function well and effectively fulfill its mission. That won't happen unless talented and dedicated people pursue a public service career."

Part of attracting such talent to public service is to make sure that government management as a profession is more highly valued, with talented leaders being systematically identified and developed, Gates' WPRI report argues.

He says that WPRI paper is important because it calls attention to a "fundamental government problem – the declining capacity of agency leaders and managers to get results.  Government agencies more than ever need experienced and highly skilled executives and managers to deliver the quality and cost-effective services the public expects.  Poor management and mediocre results are eroding public confidence in government.  Yet far too little effort is put into educating, attracting, hiring, developing and retaining people who can get things done."

Gates' career is based on helping public agencies and private businesses succeed through better management and through systematically improving their processes. He points with pride to a multiyear Lean Six Sigma deployment he helped design and lead for a major hospital and clinic, which significantly reduced costs while improving patient experiences at the same time. "There is tremendous improvement opportunity in health care for both administrative and clinical processes," he says.

In his consultancy, he also has developed and led several state agency projects, including strategic planning for health care, procurement process streamlining, improving inmate food service delivery and reducing the cycle time for processing claims for unclaimed property. In addition, he has worked on several policy and operations projects related to Medicaid-funded long-term care.

The Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, a precursor to the La Follette School, was an important start for Gates for his life in public service. "One of the driving forces for me in my career is the desire to add value to organizations and society," he says "I chose the center because I believed working in government would give me the greatest opportunity to add value and make a positive difference through my work."