Tasked with analyzing a service to monitor media and to manage and track contacts for the U.S. Department of Energy, Shane Spencer drew on the public management skills she learned at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.
"To research my white paper, I needed to quickly understand the functional needs and current practices of the Office of Environmental Management communications office," says Spencer, who graduated in 2012 with a Master of Public Affairs degree and a certificate in energy analysis and policy.
"I contacted about 10 software company representatives to identify pricing and product characteristics, and then I prepared a rough cost-benefit analysis," Spencer says. "If I hadn't taken cost-benefit analysis at La Follette, I think I would have produced a briefing of very little value, but because I did take cost-benefit analysis, I was able to think through the information I was going to need in advance rather than be surprised at the last minute. I was also comfortable providing relatively broad estimates for values because there was nevertheless a clear 'winner' in my analysis."
Spencer's experience in David Weimer's cost-benefit analysis course paid off again when she presented her findings to executive leadership at the DOE, as did her capstone workshop. "I had to boil my 10-page analysis into a five-minute presentation," she says. "I was much better off for having presented to clients such as the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in cost-benefit analysis and capstone. Because of my analysis, a contract was quickly awarded. Leadership approval was in place. In addition, DOE's contracts staff could see the business case for the contract — I had taken acquisition regulations into account throughout my analysis and had consulted with information-technology staff. The project showed me how much of what I learned at La Follette is transferable from 'typical' policy analysis to other projects."
After graduating from La Follette, Spencer joined the DOE through its Energy Scholars program. The Office of Environmental Management is charged with resolving environmental issues related to U.S. nuclear energy research and nuclear weapons development at sites all over the country. "Local legislators and residents want funding for fast and safe cleanup, but they're also excited to see sites used again to create jobs in the area and want to see action on that," Spencer says. "A policy background definitely helps to understand folks' perspectives. I was able to see how a communications office operates, but in an organization that is fundamentally communicating about policy priorities."
Her day-to-day tasks included writing statements for the news media. "I sometimes represented my communications office at weekly DOE-wide public affairs meetings," Spencer says. "It was exciting for me as an intern to report directly to the secretary's public affairs staff. I sat in on meetings between leadership and delegates from the sites (e.g., local politicians in D.C. to represent their communities) and briefed the communications team on what was discussed or resolved."
When the DOE internship ended, Spencer traveled and then signed on with Maryland's General Assembly as legislative staff support in the bill drafting office. "I took requests over the phone and in person from senators or delegates and their representatives to have bills drafted," says Spencer, who graduated in 2009 with a degree in political science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I helped make sure the request was funneled to a bill drafter with the needed expertise, like natural resources or mental health."
Spencer's experience at La Follette prepared her well for her work with the DOE and the General Assembly. "At the DOE, they were happy to see my certificate in energy analysis and policy and experience with fast turnaround on briefings," she says. "At the General Assembly they value that I understand what is going on as things are rushed around bill drafting, fiscal notes, committees, etc. I get things done fast because I understand why they matter."
"The La Follette School combines the advantages of being a small program where you can develop close friendships with your fellow students — and be remembered or even work with your professors — with the resources of a very large, world-class university," she adds. "When you're in Madison, the university has all the academic resources I could imagine wanting."
The quantitative techniques Spencer practiced at La Follette have been invaluable, she says. "The statistics and economics material, in addition to quantitative skills practiced in cost-benefit analysis and energy analysis and energy economics courses, really help me to read and understand analyses with a critical eye and to work much better with people with particularly strong quantitative skills," she says. "I also gained the confidence that I can and will learn as my career grows. If someone needs me to pick up additional statistical software skills or more economics knowledge, I'm not nervous, I'm looking forward to it."
In the summer between her two years at La Follette, Spencer returned to Washington, D.C., to intern with the U.S. Forest Service's policy analysis team. In Madison, Spencer held a project assistantship with the Center for Financial Security. She drafted literature reviews for studies that evaluated the effectiveness of financial education programs, and she helped handle project logistics.
While working for Maryland's General Assembly, Spencer tapped the connections she made as she pursued more permanent work. In July 2013 she joins the Maryland Department of Budget and Management. "I'll be responsible for agencies I care a lot about and will be learning a lot about Maryland government very quickly," she says. "During interviews, being able to discuss La Follette projects I did for real clients was extremely helpful. The degree has traveled very well and people really appreciate the very practical projects. Overall I'm thrilled that I was able to bounce around a bit the last year and still have luck on the job market."
— updated June 24, 2013