Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Saturday, September 10, 2016

Alexis MacDonald (MPA ’08)

Alexis MacDonald (MPA ’08)

Undergraduate education
Bachelor’s degree in political science from Loyola University Chicago; minors in history, women’s studies

Senior Analyst

Government Accountability Office, Washington, DC

What are your primary job responsibilities?
I have been working at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) since June 2008. The GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that evaluates federal programs at the request or mandate of Congress. At GAO, I have mainly focused on evaluating the delivery of health care services by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including topics such as:
veterans’ access to community care (hospital care and medical services from non-VA providers),
the timeliness of VA’s payments to community providers,
VA services for women veterans,
emergency care benefits for veterans, and
the quality of life and care in VA-operated long term care facilities.
In 2015, the GAO designated VA health care as one of 32 federal programs or functions at highest risk for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. I led the development of segments of GAO’s 2015 high-risk report and related products that have highlighted concerns related to VA health care, and I am now part of the team responsible for tracking VA’s progress in addressing its high-risk designation.

How do you use what you learned at La Follette on the job?
My job is essentially one capstone project after another! As the analyst-in-charge on numerous GAO projects, I have worked with small teams and managed all aspects of audit and evaluation design, data collection and analysis, message and recommendation development, and report writing. La Follette’s public policy analysis and program evaluation courses also helped me develop skills I use every day in my work at GAO.

Why an MPA?
Between college and graduate school, I worked for a U.S. Senator in DC for about three years. That’s where I first developed an interest in health policy and learned about the degree to which members of Congress and their staff rely on the expertise of nonpartisan legislative service agencies like GAO as they develop policy.

Gradually, I became interested in a career that would allow me to focus more intently on health care issues while contributing to the creation of sound, evidence-based, independent policymaking. I knew that my efforts to achieve these professional goals would be bolstered by a greater understanding of several disciplines, including economics, statistics, management, and analysis. An MPA perfectly prepared me for the work I now do at GAO. I often like to say that an MPA is as indispensable to the public sector as an MBA has become to the private sector.

Why the La Follette School?
When I decided to take a two-year hiatus from life inside the DC Beltway, I chose the La Follette School because its commitment to practicing the Wisconsin Idea really resonated with me. I was drawn to UW-Madison’s longstanding commitment to extending its expertise beyond campus borders to solve problems and make positive changes throughout the state, the nation, and the world.

I knew I would have many opportunities to apply lessons I learned inside the classroom to state-level challenges, given La Follette’s prime location near the state capital. From a more practical standpoint, I also knew that—even as an out-of-state resident—I would be getting a top-notch education at a fraction of the cost I would have paid if I’d selected a similarly ranked institution in DC. That’s an important consideration for someone planning a career in public service.

Post-graduation La Follette connections
Even though it has been more than eight years since I graduated, I remain very connected to my La Follette classmates and fellow alumni. I’ve gotten together with a big group of fellow alumni from the Class of 2008 at least annually for reunions and weddings since we graduated.

There’s also a sizeable contingent of La Follette alumni working at GAO—about 25 of us in all. We’ve hosted sessions for two groups of students who have visited GAO as part of the La Follette in DC career development trips. These are great opportunities to introduce students to an agency (GAO) and a job that is practically tailor-made for someone with a La Follette degree. It’s also an opportunity to help my agency recruit highly qualified people to fill our ranks of entry-level analysts. La Follette alumni have a great reputation at GAO, and I’d love to see more Bobs among us. For me, the La Follette in DC program allows me to reflect on what I love about my job and why I’ve built my career at GAO.

Finally, I keep in touch with other La Follette alumni who have settled in DC through regular happy hours and other events. I don’t know what I’d do without my Bobs!

Are you involved in any volunteer activities?
I volunteer with Honor Flight, which is a national network of nonprofit organizations that fly World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, DC, to visit the memorials that were built in their honor. Four times a year, when the Madison-area hub—Badger Honor Flight—flies to DC, I co-organize a group of Wisconsin transplants who live in the DC area, and we support the veterans from Madison while they’re in DC for the day.

Sometimes I get to serve as the tour guide on the day-long bus tour, and sometimes I’m the one-on-one “guardian” (a.k.a. “chief wheelchair-and-water-pusher”) for a veteran who did not bring a family member along. It’s by far the most rewarding volunteer work I’ve ever done. I’ve learned a lot—about history, sacrifice, and overcoming adversity—from the veterans I’ve met along the way.

Awards or honors since graduating from the La Follette School
I was recognized with a GAO Meritorious Service Award in 2015 for outstanding and sustained performance in the veterans’ health care body of work.

Why does public service matter to you, and how does that apply in your current position?
I am extremely passionate about my career in public service. Every day, I get to go to work and identify areas where our government could be operating more efficiently or effectively to serve the American people, and then I get to help formulate recommendations that are usually implemented. VA’s rate of implementation of GAO recommendations has increased considerably since we designated VA health care as a high-risk area.

I’ve also had some opportunities to make a direct difference in the lives of people I’ve never met. For example, for a GAO report I worked on a few years ago, I reviewed a sample of veterans’ claims for emergency care and found 25 veterans whose claims were inappropriately denied. Before publishing the report, we got VA to pay these veterans’ emergency care bills.

Back when I worked on the Hill, I was able to help a number of constituents obtain emergency refills of prescription drugs during the rocky initial implementation of Part D, Medicare’s prescription drug benefit. Having the opportunity to make real differences like these is part of why I still find public service incredibly rewarding after more than 10 years as a federal employee.

What excites you most about your work at GAO?
I will probably sound like a total dork, but I’m really excited by GAO’s mission—to “help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.”

I love what I do every day—whether it’s interviewing top-level officials at federal agencies, rolling up my sleeves and digging through piles of contracting documents or medical records, briefing our congressional requesters on the findings of our review, putting the finishing touches on a report, or preparing my boss to testify at a congressional hearing. I feel like the work we do helps improve the efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs. It’s really rewarding to help make differences that affect real people.

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