Mark Hadley, deputy director of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO), challenged the La Follette School’s Class of 2018 to be reformers, to look for the good that exists, to build upon it, and to preserve it.
A 1997 alumnus of the La Follette School, Hadley was one of three speakers for the Class of 2018 graduation ceremony at the State Capitol on May 13. The Class of 2018 also selected former associate director Hilary Shager (MPA ’05, PhD ’12) as the faculty speaker and Razan Aldagher as the student speaker.
Hadley shared personal stories from his career at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), CBO, and a private law firm – offering several takeaways.
For example, SBA was embroiled in controversy from his first day as a presidential management intern. Two months into his job, he was the most senior member of the team that produced cost estimates for the agency’s budget request. “But we did it,” said Hadley. “Here’s the takeaway – institutions have ups and downs. When they are a complete basketcase, you have an opportunity to make outsized contributions. Run to the problem, and shine.”
A few years later, as a CBO analyst, Hadley learned another valuable lesson after his boss completely rewrote his first report. “Look for places to work that will give you the opportunity to learn and develop new skills,” he said. “And seek work in pinnacle agencies where you will have smart and dedicated colleagues to learn from.”
CBO has given Hadley those opportunities for almost 20 years. Working for Congress – “a deeply unpopular institution” – can be challenging, Hadley acknowledged. “So why do I do it,” he asked. “Do I just enjoy contempt and controversy? No, I believe in the value of our constitutional system even though democracy is inherently messy.”
Created in 1974, CBO provides Congress with objective, well thought-out economic and budgetary information. By providing that information, CBO helps the branch of government that is closest to the people make informed decisions about public policy issues, he said.
“We get paid to tell the truth,” he said. “We are asked to apply objective, professional expertise to analyze some of the most pressing policy issues of today. It’s a form of the Wisconsin Idea every day.”
CBO and its sister agencies not only provide information to Congress, they inform the public, Hadley said. That, he said, helps support American democracy.
“Unfortunately, in recent times, public discourse has moved from spinning facts to ignoring them or pushing falsehoods in their place,” he said. “It is now more important than ever to doggedly pursue the facts and conduct rigorous analysis.”
Hadley also recalled September 11, 2001, when he watched the Pentagon burning from his CBO office. At the time, he was CBO’s analyst for air transportation and was going to law school in the evening. “But here’s the thing,” he said. “Although I was working insane hours, I wasn’t exhausted. I had purpose.”
After law school, though, he left CBO to work for a private law firm. “I learned a lot, I worked really hard, and I found professional success,” he recalled. “But I was dissatisfied. Without purpose, I could not justify working long unpredictable hours, especially after my son was born.”
Hadley returned to CBO, which has taken significant criticism in recent years. The public and their elected representatives are distrustful of expertise. “You cannot simply ask people to trust you because of your expertise. Nor can you ask them to trust the science; you must show them the science is correct. You must communicate clearly, intuitively, and persuasively,” he said. “This is why you spent so much time learning data visualization and to write short clear pieces for policymakers.
“But perhaps the most important communication skill is to listen. Listen to what other people are telling you, understand what they think of the problems we face,” he continued. “And if you completely disagree with what they are telling you, do not stop listening, listen more deeply. Try to understand how they came to that belief. And even if they employ what you consider to be false facts, listen for the deeper message that they are trying to convey.”