By: Burt Barnow
Who or what inspired you to work in public service?
While I was in graduate school, I was very interested in anti-poverty programs, and I knew I wanted to focus my career on developing good social programs and figuring out ways to evaluate them to see if they do what they are supposed to. So, I decided to attend the University of Wisconsin largely because of its Institute for Research on Poverty and excellent faculty who worked on poverty issues.
What is something you are excited about right now?
I am excited about some promising approaches for improving government-sponsored training programs. Employer-based training programs, including sectoral programs that serve many employers in the same industry, do a good job of focusing training on the needs of employers, but it is not simple to get the employers involved in a productive way. Recent work on career pathways (programs featuring training that can be taken in relatively short modules where workers can gain credentials over time are also promising, and many programs focusing on teaching basic academic skills in context along with occupational skills are promising. Although the consensus in the literature is that the benefits of training programs for adults exceed the costs, we have a long way to go in getting the programs to make participants self-sufficient.
What is your favorite class that you ever taught or took, and why?
When I was in graduate school, long ago, I took a course in applied econometrics from a professor named Arthur Goldberger. He was fantastic at getting the class to learn how to use statistical analyses to estimate the effectiveness of social programs. When I got to teach a course on program evaluation many years later, I modeled the course on the principles I learned in that course.
What advice can you give to folks beginning careers in public service?
People should realize that there is not just one way to be involved in public service, and you can move into different roles over your career. After teaching for 2 years, I went to work for the Assistant Secretary for Policy at the US Department of Labor. Eventually, I was promoted to a position where I managed the Department of Labor's research and evaluation in the workforce area. Then I moved to a research firm where I conducted research and evaluations dealing with labor market programs and policies, and then after 8 years at the research firm, I went back to academia where I have been for the past 29 years. Much of my research has been sponsored by funds from the federal government. Although my specific duties and job titles varied in all these jobs, I was always involved in trying to help improve the country's labor market programs and policies.
Was there a transformational experience in your life that relates to public service?
I don't think this is what you are looking for, but I had a supervisor that was so special that I married her 35 years ago.
What is your favorite midnight snack?
Ice cream, but I try not to eat it too often
Do you have any pets at home?
Yes, we have an African Grey parrot, Icarus, who will be 35 years old soon. It is wonderful to have a pet that says "hello" when you walk into the room and says "bye" when you leave. People don't realize how smart, affectionate, and entertaining a parrot can be, although he can be a nuisance when he decides to ring like a telephone for extended periods.
If you could witness any historical event, what would you want to see?
I would love to have seen the debates about the U.S. constitution.
Do you have a favorite podcast, journal, newspaper, or other kind of media?
My two favorite journals are the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management and the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Both do a great job of presenting interesting policy research in a clear manner.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
When I started my job running the Office of Research and Evaluation in the Employment and Training Administration, we received many unsolicited proposals, and I would tell people what I thought; as we could only fund about 10 percent of the proposals, I made a lot of people unhappy. A program officer at the Ford Foundation told me that I should not do that; instead, he said I should write a review and include it with other anonymous reviews and send my views along with the other reviews to the proposer. That made a lot of sense, and I followed that strategy ever since, and I think fewer people hate me because of that advice.