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Inside the Beltway

Goldman School alumni reflect on careers in DC, the role of policy analysis, and the importance of networks.

The story of how Farhat Popal (MPP '09) got to DC is a lesson in persistence and the importance of networks. In 2010, she was working in the auditor’s office for the City of San Diego. She knew she wanted to do Afghanistan-related work, but had no active leads in DC. She reached out to friends and GSPP alumni working in international affairs who connected her to people in relevant fields. She introduced herself via email and followed up with the contacts these connections provided.

“I took two networking trips to DC and set up multiple informational interviews,” she remembers.

On the second of these trips, Farhat met with someone at the State Department who told her about the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). She hadn’t even known such an office existed. She mentioned the office during an informational interview with someone on the Hill the next day, who said he would forward her resume to someone he knew. The next morning, SIGAR asked her to come in.

“I had informational interviews scheduled all day up until my flight at 6 pm, but managed to make it,” she says. “I walked out with a job offer 30 minutes later!”

Farhat is among the hundreds of Goldman School alumni who live and work in Washington DC and the greater metropolitan DC area. She, along with Stephen Agostini (MPP ’86) and Holly Harvey (MPP ’86) are part of an impressive network of Goldman School-trained, policy-smart leaders shaping public policy in the nation’s capital.

Farhat is currently a program officer for Afghanistan and Central Asia for the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor/Office of Global Programs. As the bureau’s action officer for human rights programming in the region, she helps develop, implement, and manage programs that advance the US government’s human rights and democracy objectives.

“I knew I wanted to work in DC because not many places offered the opportunity to work on Afghanistan.” she says. “From the vast number of NGOs that implement development assistance, to the foreign policy establishment, to understanding defense policy, it all happens in DC.”

 

Unlike Farhat, who came to DC relatively early in her career, Stephen Agostini spent twenty years in state and local government before beginning his work for the federal government. He is currently the Chief Financial Officer for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) but began his work in DC as the CFO and Director of Administration of the Economics and Statistics Administration, which oversees the Bureau of the Census and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“Having always been a big consumer of data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, I was able to bring that important perspective into my role at the BEA,” says Steve. “Those data products are used for everything from revenue forecasting and constructing budgets to figuring out populations that may impact policy making at a local level. It was eye opening to see how those data products were constructed and to weigh in on how they might be improved.”

Steve notes that policy work at the federal level differs from the local and state level in both pace and scale.

“At the local level, an issue might have a very short time to gestate and turn into a problem,” he says. “As budget director, I put together budgets for cities and counties that impacted local programs right away. At the federal level, issues take a while to gestate. There are many stakeholders to engage and a lot of thought and discussion goes into moving something from an idea to a policy in the field.”

As the CFO of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Steve oversees the CFPB’s budget, financial reporting, internal reviews and audits, as well as a victim’s fund for those harmed by actors in the consumer product realm.

“If you had told me in policy school that I would be a CFO, I would have asked, ‘Why would I ever want to do that?’” says Steve. “But as CFO, I help manage the organization and work in policy areas that affect the bureau writ large. Now I would strongly encourage any GSPP grad to consider it.”

 

Holly Harvey (MPP ’86) fell in love with Washington DC during her summer internship with the Congressional Budget Office.

“I developed a strong interest in analysis related to the Medicare program during that summer,” she says. “Since that program is federally run, locating in DC made the most sense.”

Holly is currently the Deputy Assistant Director of CBO’s Budget Analysis Division. She oversees the division’s work to ensure high-quality analysis and works closely with Congressional committees and House and Senate leadership staff so that estimates and other products are available when needed for Congressional deliberations, especially on federal health and health care programs (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, FDA, and NIH).

In her time at the CBO, Holly has seen both the amount of data available and the technology and speed to analyze and deliver the data change a great deal.

“I think it is absolutely critical that policy leaders be sophisticated consumers as well as producers of policy analysis,” she says. “As part of that, future policy leaders will need to have good communication skills to convey the analytic basis of their policy proposals.”

For those aspiring to work in DC, especially for the long haul, Holly advises taking advantage of different opportunities to build expertise and knowledge of policy areas as well as the political process.

“It worked well for me to have a series of jobs in both the Executive and Congressional branches of government to gain a better understanding of the different roles the two branches play,” she says. “It helped me to be viewed as someone who was capable of quantitative analysis in general and not just an expert in a particular policy area.”

Steve notes that working in DC is also often about keeping the long view in mind.

“It is really difficult to change things overnight. You are not going to work in DC for just a couple of years and be able to point to something and say it’s done,” he says. “People have a romanticized view that all we have to do pass the law or come up with the great policy idea and the rest will take care of itself. Not so. Implementation matters, not only because the program or policy will touch an order of magnitude more individuals than at the local level, but also because if you need to do it over, the window for doing something positive could close on you.”

Farhat credits the Goldman School with preparing her to work in DC.

“GSPP prepared me for DC through annual networking trips, access to the alumni network, tailored career advice and an amazing Career Services staff,” she says. “The 48-hour project was also a good lesson in working under pressure, which has been a valuable skill in the DC work world.

“The most important quality for a career in DC is persistence,” she continues. “It is very much a town that relies on face-to-face interaction, and where the ‘who you know’ mantra rings true. Don’t be disheartened if things don’t work out, or if you have to take a not-so-great job in order to get to DC first — be persistent and opportunities will open themselves up to you.”

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This article was originally posted on the Spring 2015 issue of Policy Notes, a bi-annual publication released by the Goldman School of Public Policy.