Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, August 10, 2016

GAO interns gain from training, alumni, funding

La Follette students and alumni in Washington, DC, collected more than 120 pounds of trash as part of a clean-up project on the Anacostia River. La Follette students and alumni in Washington, DC, collected more than 120 pounds of trash as part of a clean-up project on the Anacostia River. Boating in DC

Seven La Follette School students learned the intricacies of federal program evaluation and auditing at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) this summer. They also experienced the tight group of La Follette School alumni in and around the nation’s capital – known as the DC Bobs.

“In true Midwestern spirit, we were welcomed to the GAO right away with our network of Bobs to help us,” said Anna Brunner, a master of public affairs (MPA) student.

Among the many comments about their GAO internships, the La Follette students expressed appreciation for the top-notch training and substantive assignments.

“I have been included as one of the team, with roles and responsibilities to fit and with support that allowed me to excel,” said Kirsten Jacobson, a master of international affairs (MIPA) student. “Nearly every week, my team interviewed a federal agency official, and I led a number of them. These experiences have made me much more confident in information-gathering and general analysis.”

Jacobson and other La Follette interns noted that their first-year Performance Management and Statistical Methods courses (PA 818 and 819) were especially helpful in their day-to-day work at the GAO. 

“PA 818 and 819 allowed me to design our team’s data-collection instrument (DCI) in a way that will help analysts easily import and analyze data using statistical software,” said Chris Stassel, a second-year MIPA student.

Jacobson and Stassel were drawn to the GAO opportunity after participating in La Follette in DC – a career-development program for students in November 2015. Alexis MacDonald (MPA ’08) and six other UW-Madison and La Follette alumni working for the GAO in DC shared their experiences along with four fellow alumni in GAO offices in Chicago and Denver who participated via video conferencing. 

“I was immediately impressed with the La Follette alumni we met and their wide variety of experiences and topics they had worked on,” Jacobson said.

Amanda Wilmarth, another DC Bob who participated in La Follette in DC, also organized monthly social events and offered other assistance to the DC interns. Wilmarth (MIPA ’14) is an analyst with the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

As Stassel said: “It’s reassuring to know that such a large quantity of La Follette graduates have migrated to the DC area and are eager to share their knowledge and networks with current students.”

Looking ahead, the GAO interns feel more confident about their second-year at the La Follette School. “Having seen a program evaluation project at the GAO will help me better understand the concepts we discuss in class,” said Beth Miller, a MPA student. “Conducting information-gathering interviews with state and federal agencies also has helped me prepare for the client projects I’ll work on this year.”

Fellow MPA student Moira Lenox collaborated with another analyst to conduct comparative analysis of emergency response information for trains transporting hazardous materials. She also participated in message development, reviewing her team’s evidence and deciding how to structure the final report.

Six of the La Follette School students at the GAO received funding from the Summer Learning Experience Award Program, which helps defray some of the higher costs of investing in internships in Washington, DC, and other major cities in the United States and other countries.

“The financial assistance allowed me to have a more well-rounded experience,” said MPA student Andrew Fisher, who was able to participate in historical and cultural events and visit Mount Vernon and the International Spy Museum.

Several La Follette students, including fellow GAO intern Scott Coleman, also participated in a clean-up project on the Anacostia River. Their community service activity became a friendly competition with GAO interns from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. In 90 minutes, the La Follette group collected approximately 120 pounds of garbage – far exceeding the Indiana students’ 40 pounds.

“While we smelled like dead fish at the end of it, we were able to visibly see the difference we made in that corner of the river and were happy to have experienced it,” Brunner said.