Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, March 25, 2010

Students learn management tips from alumni

Students taking the public management course this spring are gaining two perspectives on tools and skills needed to administer people and other resources. Faculty are tapping alumni and friends of the La Follette School to share their experiences in two panel discussions, one featuring recent grads, the other senior managers.

"Management is as much about craft as it is about hard skills, so hearing about firsthand experience from reflective practitioners is invaluable," says associate director Don Moynihan, who is teaching one of the two public management sections. He and professor Susan Yackee organized the panels in response to feedback from students who expressed a strong preference to hear from public and non-profit managers about their triumphs and failures.
The first panel in early March featured alumni from 2006-2008. They talked about their backgrounds, current jobs, contributions at work, and, in some cases, the difference between public and private work experiences.

The speakers also touched on the skills alumni learned at La Follette, including concise writing. "Frequently, I have limited time to present and a maximum of a page or two to analyze the core issues," says Nick Bubb, a budget and policy analyst with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. "La Follette taught me how to focus on the important aspects of a public policy issue and ignore the extraneous information."

The strong analytical skills students gain coupled with the capacity to understand and present different arguments systematically and concisely also prove essential. "Working as an auditor requires me to learn a lot about unfamiliar programs and policies in a short period of time," says Joe Fontaine, who works for the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, "and my classes in policy analysis and public management gave me the conceptual tools I need to be effective."

The other alumni were Brad Campbell, a program manager with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development; Nina Carlson, a policy advisor in the Wisconsin governor's office; and Jeff Sartin, director of the Wisconsin Justice Information Sharing Program.

The public management course is structured around three main components: structure, culture and craft, notes Yackee, who teaches the other section. "Our guests put a human face on these concepts and shared specific examples of management skills they use and situations they encounter."

"One has to have a certain degree of social intelligence," Bubb says. "You have to know how to present the same information to audiences that vary in experience and age. As a young professional, you have to use the skills taught at La Follette to ground your analysis without irritating more experienced or knowledgeable staff."

The second panel in late April will comprise senior managers: 1985 alum Mark O'Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association; Deedra Atkinson, senior vice president of community impact at United Way of Dane County in Madison; Roberta Gassman, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development; and Karen Timberlake, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

"For the first discussion, we wanted the students to be able to learn from a group they could easily identify with," Moynihan says. "The students will themselves be in similar positions in just a couple of years. For the second group, the panelists can talk about management at a very senior level — where the manager is supervising hundreds or thousands of employees, dealing with senior political officials and stakeholders, and partnering with other organizations. The students could be in the same position 20 years down the line.

"The goal is that the students come to appreciate how the craft of management evolves as their careers evolve, but how some of the basic analytical skills they learn now will stand them in good stead."