For his summer internship, Phil Sletten worked for Ballotpedia, a website run by the Madison-based Lucy Burns Institute to provide information about every state legislative race, state executive race, U.S. House race and ballot initiative in the country.
"Ballotpedia is a growing operation with a growing audience," Sletten says. "One innovative feature is that it is a wiki, meaning anyone with an account can edit it. There are controls on these edits to prevent disruptions, but the vast number of honest edits makes for a rich source of information.
"I worked primarily on the state legislative projects, which included making and adding information to pages about candidates and covering elections. I also did a few projects on the congressional side and worked on a few special projects, including an analysis of the factors affecting competitiveness in state legislative elections. After my internship was completed, Ballotpedia hired me on to work part time through the school year."
Phil Sletten sees himself at the intersection of politics and public policy, in a position to help policymakers see and understand policy ideas that might otherwise go unexamined.
“Many great policy ideas are already in existence,” the first-year student says, “but policymakers are often too caught up in the politics of the day to spend time examining detailed policy options. As a journalist, a policy analyst at a think tank or as a legislative staffer, I will be able to help decision-makers understand the pros and cons of a proposal. Many policies, especially at the state and local levels, go completely unanalyzed, and yet they have a profound influence on people’s lives.”
The effect of policy on people’s lives prompted Sletten to pursue a master of public affairs degree with a focus on economic policy and tax policy, especially for low- and moderate-income households. “I want to make sure those policies are sound,” he says, adding that he appreciates the flexibility of the La Follette curriculum. “A master of public affairs degree will give me the tools to understand public policy and inform others about key expenditures and regulations.”
Understanding how policies are analyzed is critical for determining which studies should be recognized as authoritative, Sletten says. “Even if I am not a number-crunching analyst in a think tank, I will need to evaluate competing studies based on their merits. Determining their merits requires a strong base of quantitative knowledge.”
Sletten devoted much of his undergraduate education at Grinnell College in Iowa to studying the effects of public policy. “Throughout most of my coursework, I clearly saw the importance of public policy on the economy, the environment, and the society of the regions being governed,” he says. “I studied and interned for an environmental policy advocacy firm in Washington, D.C., for a semester, and during the summers I worked at New Hampshire Public Radio, where I helped to cover public policy. Throughout all of these experiences, I continued to find public policy interesting and important.”
In his last year at Grinnell, Sletten served on the Political Science Student Educational Policy Committee. “Setting up activities to directly assist my fellow students and working with the Political Science Department was personally quite satisfying, but it also provided key experience working with a committee,” he says.
He applies that experience as president of the La Follette School Student Association after representing first-year students on it last year. In some ways, Sletten notes, his work with LSSA is more challenging and more critical than working within an undergraduate political science department. “LSSA provides a common thread for students who have a very diverse set of experiences and living situations,” he says. “A two-year master’s program does not allow for the same set of common experiences and relatively simple organizing logistics that undergraduate school did, so LSSA has a duty to promote these common experiences and foster more student-to-student interactions.”
The small size of the La Follette program facilitates these interactions, Sletten says. “Knowing everyone in your program and being able to develop a community is really helpful. The small size means that the working relationships you foster in earlier classes carry over into later classes, and potentially beyond graduation.”
— posted January 25, 2012; updated September 17, 2012