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 software service is up and running and saving staff time. 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 including 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.”
In addition to writing the white paper, Spencer worked on building an online, public photo library to help automate and speed how the office responds to requests for photos. “I tried my hand at communications on a professional level by developing an internal and external marketing plan for this photo library, making sure that staff at all the sites and interested media understood its advantages and were excited to use it,” she says.
When the DOE internship ended, Spencer traveled, then signed on with Maryland’s General Assembly as legislative staff support in the bill drafting office. “I take requests over the phone and in person from senators or delegates and their representatives to have bills drafted,” Spencer says. “I help make sure the request is funneled to a bill drafter with the needed expertise, like natural resources or mental health. People have been really great about getting me in to talk with policy analysts and other staff about typical career paths here and when they hire next. I think it could turn out to be a good fit. Being here for the 90-day session is also trial by fire for getting used to the session workload and learning about the players involved.”
While an undergraduate in political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Spencer interned at the U.S. Census Bureau and the Maryland Department of the Environment. After graduating in 2009, she did a six-month AmeriCorps stint in northwestern Montana, repairing Forest Service trails and weatherizing homes on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Prior to enrolling at La Follette, she spent six months studying Danish at a small school in Denmark, where she studied as an undergraduate.
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. “I worked on policy issues where natural resources, land management and energy policy overlap,” Spencer says. “My boss identified my strengths and weaknesses and set me up to shine but also to learn. He has introduced me to many people in D.C. and pushed me to get out there, make the calls, and meet in person the people who might give me a new perspective or a good job lead. Because of his encouragement I’ve been able to talk to energy and agriculture committee staff and non-profit and trade group professionals.”
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. “I was able to immediately apply what I had learned about how to find, read, understand and evaluate the relevance of literature,” she says. “The experience pushed me and made me confident that I can work on the edge of my abilities and improve.”
As her temporary position with the Maryland General Assembly winds down, Spencer is looking to make more connections without planning her next step too rigidly. “I’ve found that the next opportunity tends to present itself when you’re doing good work and trying to learn what you can from others,” she says. “After interning with the DOE, traveling out West and staffing the Assembly, I am beating a path around Maryland and D.C. to find out what’s out there and speak with the experts.”
— posted January 14, 2013