What role did your childhood play in your public policy interest?
I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1960s. Like many members of the Baby Boom generation, I became interested, even fascinated, in the social, economic, and political developments at the time. In addition, my family and extended family were very engaged with these issues. From around the time I was finishing elementary school, I was involved in many political conversations, including those on the civil rights movement and our nation’s involvement in Vietnam. At a local level, Arthur Naftalin became Mayor of Minneapolis. He initiated programs to confront economic decline and facilitate economic development for downtown Minneapolis. Seeing this evolve in the local news and conversations with family members contributed to a great interest in the appropriate role of government in addressing the economic and social needs of the Nation. I also benefited from having parents that stressed the importance of caring about people who were not as fortunate economically and associating with people of integrity.
How do you think your childhood affected your later decision to major in economics in college?
My favorite school subject was history, but I excelled in math. Throughout high school, I did not understand where math could take me, except it contributed to academic achievement. When I began college, I could see that many students who were particularly good at math and had a great interest in the social sciences and history ended up studying economics. I found economics to be interesting and ended up choosing it as a major. I became most interested in urban and regional economics because I was especially intrigued with how market failures could occur in a geographic context. To put this in textbook terms, I am talking about externalities (using more basic English--spillover benefits and costs).
Once you entered graduate school in economics, who inspired you?
When I started graduate school in economics at the University of Chicago, I knew that I wanted to study urban economics under George Tolley. I made it a point to meet him early in my first year. I loved the way he greeted me with open arms. He quickly became my mentor. Over time, he also became one of my best friends. From the start, I saw him as a great professor, especially when I worked with him one-on-one. More importantly, I could see that he was a wonderful and caring human being. I was especially attracted to his application of economics to matters of public policy. I came to see economics as a powerful tool to apply to policy issues.
In graduate school, I benefited in other ways by virtue of my relationship with George. He believed in reaching out to urban scholars from other fields. Beyond running the urban economics program in the economics department, he was the Director of the University’s Center for Urban Studies. It facilitated great collaboration across disciplines. I want to mention historic events on the south side of Chicago in the 1970s. In 1973, South Shore Bank attempted to relocate from the South Shore neighborhood to the downtown “loop.” Several community activists successfully petitioned the Comptroller of the Currency to block the move. One of those activists was a banker named Ron Grzywinski. He became CEO of South Shore Bank, the first community development bank in the nation. He interacted with the urban community at the University of Chicago. I attended one of his presentations to the university community that I will never forget. To give some perspective, Ron Grzywinski was the only banker who testified in Washington in favor of the Community Reinvestment Act. Through George, I also developed a close relationship with Richard Taub, a faculty member in the University’s Sociology Department. Richard conducted many case studies of neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago. He also was known among many as the historian for South Shore Bank. To clarify, I had an excellent education leading to my Ph.D. in economics, but I want to emphasize that, along with that, it was a valuable orientation to a much broader approach to urban policy research.
How do you think your graduate school experience attracted you to public service and the GAO?
I will start with a corny expression that rings very true; there is virtue in public service. The federal government has a great ability to improve living conditions. Let me relate this to my profession as an economist. I think back to FDR and the New Deal. FDR was the first president to bring prominent academic economists into government. And I think of the economists who contributed to the Agricultural Adjustment Act, developed a system of National Income Accounting, and later played prominent roles in the War Production Board during World War II. During my professional life, several government agencies have done a good job of integrating economists into the formation and execution of policy.
I will attempt to put together some of the pieces leading to GAO. I am fortunate to work with and for people of great integrity. By design, we are non-partisan and fact-based. We have a performance model that utilizes multidisciplinary approaches in addressing the challenges of governing. Among GAO’s members, including senior executives and staff members, the agency’s ability to recruit and integrate professionals from different disciplines has improved over time. I am very happy that I have been able to be part of this journey.
What do you view as one of the biggest challenges for public administration?
I focus on the word complexity. For example, technology (including developments in artificial intelligence) stands out. From a statutory standpoint, I think legal analysis has become more complicated. I could point to complexities faced by economists and other social scientists. Effective public administration requires the active involvement of professionals that can effectively address these complexities across several disciplines. The challenges include recruiting specialized talent and integrating the various talents in government agencies.
Are there activities you wish you had more time for?
During high school and college, I enjoyed reading literature in the humanities. I firmly believe in the importance to individuals and society of a broad liberal arts education. When I began graduate school, there were several books (including those by Tolstoy and Kafka) that I still wanted to get to but knew had to wait. As expected, the wait was a long time. The book at the top of this list was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I finally read much of it during the October 2013 government shutdown. It is one of the books I want to get back to.
I am very glad that my wife and I and our two adult children live close to each other in Baltimore. I also am very glad that we love our dog. The pandemic created stress across the nation and a big part of the stress I associate with social isolation. I will continue to value my time with my family, but I look forward to spending more time with a broader group of friends.
William B. Shear is a Director in GAO’s Financial Markets and Community Investment team. He leads GAO work on community and economic development, small business, and Native American housing issues. As part of his portfolio, he oversees evaluations of the Small Business Administration’s contracting, disaster assistance, credit, and counseling programs. Bill joined GAO more than 20 years ago. In addition to his work on community and economic development issues, Bill has led evaluations of the U.S. housing finance system. Bill has a Master's degree in Public Policy and a Ph.D. in economics, both from the University of Chicago. He also served as an adjunct faculty member in the City and Regional Planning graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania.