Susan Yackee is shining light into the back room of the White House where policymakers often make key decisions.
The La Follette School political scientist is applying her expertise in administrative rulemaking to the president's Office of Management and Budget.
"I am exploring how the president uses the OMB to oversee the regulatory process at the national level," says the La Follette School director. "Nobody knows much about the process through which the OMB reviews and changes regulations — even though it receives a lot of criticism, rightly or wrongly."
The modern OMB review process largely began under President Reagan in the 1980s, Yackee says. "President Clinton tried to open up the process, but we really have little idea of who wins and who loses during the regulatory review process, including the role of interest group lobbyists."
Yackee has been studying the effects of lobbying by interest groups on regulation and administrative rulemaking for most of her academic career. Her award-winning research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the University of Wisconsin–Madison through its Romnes and Vilas awards.
"People complain about regulations," Yackee says, "and they worry about lobbyists influencing public policy. Whether that is true has important implications for the nation and for the state of Wisconsin, where our governor has recently increased the regulation review powers of his office. The benefits can be better management and more efficiency, but we need to fully understand the implications."
The trick, Yackee says, is to understand that all administrative processes that welcome feedback are opportunities for lobbying and politics. "Those opportunities to influence policy are why processes need to be transparent," she says.
Her OMB research project was inspired in part by students. She sometimes uses plagiarism software to check her students' work, and it occurred to her that she could use it to measure how regulations change as they go through the OMB review process. "I can compare a document from when an agency submits it to the OMB for review to when the OMB issues its revision," Yackee says. "Those data, combined with finding out who lobbies and why, begin to indicate whether lobbying matters at the OMB."
In another project, Yackee is examining how science is discussed and shared with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Under her direction, project assistant Christa Pugh is gathering FDA regulations and identifying the people who participate in the regulatory policy-making process.
"Christa is applying the skills she learned in the policy-making class I teach and in the school's two quantitative methods courses," Yackee says. "The information she is gathering and the processes she is studying at the national level are very similar to what goes on in state governments, which will help her as she pursues her career goals"
Helping students learn about the policy-making process is crucial for Yackee. "My policy-making course combines people who have no interest in politics with people who have lots of experience," Yackee says. "Throughout the semester we have a broad conversation about policy analysis in a venue where people's diverse opinions are respected."
One component of the class involves an election simulation run by former Wisconsin Assembly member Rosemary Potter. "The students are all running for re-election in various Wisconsin legislative districts, which they had to research," Yackee says. "They learn how decisions they make now have effects seen later. The whole exercise is reflective of the Wisconsin Idea."
One of the La Follette School's many strengths is its practice of the Wisconsin Idea, Yackee says, the principle that the university should improve people's lives beyond the classroom and serve the entire state and beyond.
"As director of the school, I was excited to collaborate with the Wisconsin Assembly and Speaker Robin Vos to provide training to legislative staff members in January," Yackee says. "The La Follette School provided such programming 10 years ago and I am thrilled to be able to renew that program."
She emphasizes how that program reflected the diverse expertise of the La Follette School's faculty, who discussed energy, health, education, trade, finance, cost-benefit, policy analysis, and performance management. "They discussed the top policy issues confronting Wisconsin today," Yackee says.
"Our faculty also share their research through their teaching," she adds, "which informs public debate when our alumni enter the workforce. Our faculty's research translates directly into our teaching, adding significant value for our students and community, in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea."