Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Shager devises plans for program evaluations

Hilary Shager


Hilary Shager became the La Follette School's associate director in March 2014.

Every day Hilary Shager uses the skills she learned at the La Follette School. "I am living program evaluation," the 2005 alum says.

Shager is a research analyst with the Wisconsin Department of Families and Children, which she joined in 2010 while completing her Ph.D. in public policy at the University of Madison–Wisconsin. As a staff member of the Bureau of Performance Management, she provides research support for all of DCF's programs: early childhood care and education, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, child support and child welfare.

Grant writing and grant management make up a large component of Shager's responsibilities. "I do a lot of evaluation planning, figuring out how to evaluate different programs," she says. "I act as a liaison for department staff working with third-party evaluators, and I advise management on what they can and cannot do during an evaluation."

One such project was a large grant she helped DCF win through the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. "That grant is infusing over $33 million into Wisconsin's early childhood system," Shager says. "We are using the funds to build infrastructure that will help us better serve children and families across the state."

As one of the project managers for that grant, Shager is helping to build the Early Childhood Longitudinal Data System that will link siloed data systems within and across departments. By linking DCF data with information held by the Wisconsin departments of Public Instruction and Health Services, "we can get better answers to questions and better target our resources," Shager says.

A smaller project is managing the research and evaluation team for the Wisconsin Educational Collaboration for Youth in Foster Care Grant. "We know from general research that children in foster care tend to have poor education outcomes compared to their peers not in the child welfare system," Shager says. "As a state, we are just beginning to make these connections with data. We wrote a grant with DPI to develop ways to share information and pilot a computer system that will create a portal for child welfare workers to have better access to education data and to collaborate with teachers to improve outcomes for children."

"In the two-and-a-half years I have been with DCF, I have seen an increase in collaboration between departments that serve the same children and families," says Shager, who won a merit award from DCF in 2013 "We are thinking about these children in a more holistic way."

Shager brings her practical experience in the field into the La Follette School classroom this fall, teaching for the second time the school's program evaluation course. "Of the skills that government is seeking of its employees, program evaluation is huge," Shager says. "New employees need to be able to work with data. Being able to share with students how I use the skills every day in the field is exciting. Policymakers are focused on data-driven decision-making."

Shager came to La Follette in search of a career change after teaching school for eight years. While exploring public policy, she became interested in applied research and, after she finished her Master of Public Affairs degree in 2005, she continued her academic career and earned her Ph.D. in public policy in 2012 through a special committee degree process. She attributes part of her success to her academic mentors, including professor emeritus Dennis Dresang and professor Carolyn Heinrich, who is now on the University of Texas at Austin faculty.

Shager also appreciates that she works every day with many La Follette School alumni, including her supervisor, and a 2013 summer intern. "The La Follette School serves the state of Wisconsin very well by producing highly skilled alumni who are committed to public service," Shager says.

In addition to the quantitative skills she learned at La Follette, Shager says she uses the management and human resources skills on the job as she coordinates projects and teams. The course in nonprofit leadership taught her how to run a meeting, craft a good agenda, handle conflict and manage a budget. "The opportunity La Follette affords for students to work on real-world projects is invaluable," says Shager, who had a project assistantship with Dresang and worked on the Wisconsin Women = Prosperity, a non-partisan, statewide initiative directed by then lieutenant governor Barbara Lawton to improve the status of women and to drive economic growth for Wisconsin. "You spend the two years practicing what you will actually do once you get out."

All of the classroom exercises and projects have been invaluable, Shager says, especially the courses in program evaluation and cost-benefit analysis.

Even the project David Weimer assigned in his policy analysis course proved useful. "We drew our projects out of a hat," Shager says. "I had the question 'Should the U.S. government provide terrorism insurance?' I had my second child that semester. I was two weeks postpartum and I drew a topic that I couldn't possibly know or care less about. All I could think of at that moment was, 'What have I done?' But the exercise was invaluable and the skills to be ready to research and analyze any topic come in handy every day. I did the best I could on the assignment, and when I found out I did well on it, I thought 'I could do this kind of work as a job.'"

— updated April 1, 2014