Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, August 10, 2015

Dernbach uses La Follette School training to advise lawmakers

BJ Dernbach BJ Dernbach

When BJ Dernbach’s boss joined the Wisconsin Assembly’s Labor Committee, the La Follette School alum was thankful for the training he’d received in the building blocks he needs to quickly synthesize and summarize a lot of information about a policy topic in which he has no background.

“La Follette taught me how to research and analyze an issue, any issue,” says Dernbach, who completed his Master of Public Affairs degree after attending part time for about five years while working full time as a policy advisor and clerk to the Assembly Labor Committee. “La Follette prepared me to be extremely flexible about which policies I am working on.”

Dernbach came to La Follette thinking maybe he would focus on energy policy, but once he arrived he found himself immersed in education policy, taking several courses through the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

“I was excited to have professors provide the tools to dive deep into how the state develops school aids, how they worked and the trade-offs education finance provides,” Dernbach says. “I still use those same analytic tools I learned at my current job in workforce development. The only difference is who the customer is.”

A major project Dernbach worked on in the Legislature for his representative was updating Wisconsin’s Unemployment Insurance laws. “The state’s UI trust fund was in debt and there was a major concern about how outdated the UI statutes were,” Dernbach says. “This reform presented a challenge of fixing fiscal policy and regulatory policy at the same time.”

Dernbach spent two years researching Unemployment Insurance and meeting with stakeholders, using what he had learned at La Follette about policymaking and research. “This reform was a priority for my boss, and I was given the chance to dig extremely deep into the inter-workings of this area,” he says.

After the bill passed, from the Department of Workforce Development tapped as its legislative liaison to work on implementing the new unemployment insurance law. “It is not often one is presented with a chance to help craft a law, then help it be implemented—the experience was eye opening,” says Dernbach, who joined DWD in January 2014, five months before he graduated from La Follette. “When I got to DWD, I learned quickly that making policy and implementing it are completely different.”

At DWD, Dernbach is the primary contact for the Legislature and its service agencies. He works on Employment and Training, Equal Rights, Unemployment Insurance, Vocational Rehabilitation, and Workers Compensation). “The work includes the development of policies and legislation for consideration in addition to providing technical and policy advice to the secretary about legislation affecting the department,” Dernbach says. “As DWD’s liaison to the Legislature, I am still working with my colleagues there, which means I can better advise the department and legislators about the real-world limitations to change and continually find creative ways to push past those limits.”

He draws on his data analysis skills when he looks at labor statistics, occasionally surprising DWD’s economic advisers when he mentions standard deviations. “When I look at job numbers and 20-year jobs projections, I can really understand how those come together, thanks to my La Follette School training,” he says. “Policymakers emphasize using data and metrics to evaluate the success of a program and designing it from the beginning to be able to track its results. This is especially true in workforce development. Being able to now micro-target resources to affect a regional employer’s skills gaps and to be able to quantify the results back to policymakers is really powerful stuff.”

Dernbach appreciated the professional policy practitioners who taught elective courses, including Paul Soglin before his 2011 election as Madison’s mayor. “Having those nontraditional professors was amazing, to get that different perspective,” Dernbach says. “Access to that kind of knowledge base is important. Learning from those on the front line was the most rewarding part of school.”

Another bonus is that the analysis skills he gained apply across policy areas. “It’s not much of a leap from one issue area to another issue area—the skills are the same,” says Dernbach, who earlier clerk for the Assembly’s Aging and Long-Term Care Committee and as a campaign manager for statewide and Assembly campaigns.

“I couldn’t have done this without the tremendous encouragement of my wife, family and friends,” Dernbach says. “Also the friendships and professional colleagues whom I met while in school will last for a long time to come. But I’ve been especially lucky to have great bosses over the years who continue to foster and help me expand my knowledge.”

“I’ve always wanted to be in a role where I could not only help frame a policy debate but also be the boots on the ground, in the policy trenches providing policy advice and applying creative solutions to help those with positive visions achieve a better outcome than the status quo,” Dernbach says. “Policy choices are always about allocating resources, but I want to be able to use what I’ve learned and my talents to be able to maximize those resources to achieve the desired outcome.”