Saturday, November 29, 2008

Settling Down

I have finished my first week at the Government Accountability Office. It was a great week and I am really enjoying the job. I am really excited that this is my career.  I am continually amazed at how much power the GAO has on the Hill and how much of their work ends up becoming law. The GAO has a reputation as being one of the more efficient and effective government offices. It focuses on providing research and legislative support to Congress on nearly all of the issues Congress examines. I am looking forward to getting past the administrative paperwork and getting deeper into my first engagement (their term for a group of 4-7 researchers that carry out a specific project for around nine months). I have had a chance to work a bit on my first engagement and it is really exciting. I am an analyst on the Health Care team, which has about 150-200 analysts and directors, from what I can tell. The whole GAO is about 3,000 workers -about 75% of which are in the main HQ in downtown Washington D.C. (a few blocks NW of the Capitol Building). The rest are spread out around 15 field offices. One of the Health Care field offices is in Seattle and overlooks the Puget Sound, so we may end up in the Pacific Northwest again at some point.

My first engagement is a little different than the usual Health Care assignment because it was originally assigned to another team but there was a fear of conflict of interests because the auditing department had connections to the office being audited. Normally, health care examines a specific issue and then carries out research using a variety of methods and finally provides a report that identifies the findings on a topic and makes recommendations, many of which become enacted by Congress. My first engagement will be examining the effectiveness and efficiency of the investigative arm of the Food and Drug Administration. This will involve interviewing and engaging with the FDA to find out their procedures and costs, and how well their funds are spent. From what I gather from other people on the team, it is a unique opportunity for the Health Care team and should be really interesting for my first engagement.

The process of getting the job was long and arduous and started July 22nd, the day before Heather’s defense and two days before my own. I didn’t hear back from them until early October asking for an interview. The interview was set up as a three hour process: two one-hour interviews and a one-hour informational meeting with one of their new hires. I felt I nailed the interview but I was told that it takes on average around two weeks for any decisions to be made. After about a week and a half I heard that I was offered the position contingent upon having positive references. The process of getting the references took another couple weeks. Finally, at the end of October I was offered the job and was given my start date as November 24th, nearly another month! However, I am thankful that it worked out so well. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A New Dawn, A New Day... And I'm Feeling Good

Since my previous post a lot has happened. We have gotten an amazing apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland (a suburb just North of D.C.), I have accepted a position at the Government Accountability Office as a Analyst for the Health Care Team, and our furniture and stuff has arrived earlier than expected. Heather has also had some good luck with the job search. After interviewing she was offered a position that she turned down because it wasn't a good fit with her interests. It is nice to be in a position where we don't have to settle for things. Looking over the piles of boxes in the dining room, it is nice to think that in a couple weeks we will have our apartment in a semi-permanent state. However, the chaos is also nice. Opening boxes and remembering things you haven't seen in over two years (we left a lot of stuff in Logan when we went up to Vancouver) is nice.

Our apartment is in a great area; walking distance to nearly everything we need. After living in Vancouver we have come to appreciate being in walking distance to things, and the improved quality of life that it provides. Being able to walk next door to the library, walk a couple blocks to amazing restaurants, groceries (including the best Thai market I have been to) and two movie theaters (one of which is an AFI theatre), and few blocks to the Metro makes it an ideal place for us. At first I thought the area was quite gentrified. However, now it seems to me that it is more of an urban renewal. The area is extremely diverse and many of the projects are focused on making the community more inclusive and accountable as opposed to more divisive and exclusionary which is found in many similar projects nationally. I look forward to seeing the plans unfold around us and possibly playing a part at some point. 

I start at the GAO in a couple weeks and I am really looking forward to it. The job seems like a perfect fit. The GAO provides oversight, advice, and recommendations to Congress for the creation and improvement of public policy in a variety of areas. In a 2006  audit it was found that every dollar spent on the GAO led to 105 dollars of savings for the U.S. government. With a budget of 500 million dollars, it means the GAO saved the U.S. government 50 billion dollars. However, saving money is far from the only charge that the GAO is given. In the area of health care it is responsible for synthesizing academic knowledge and suggesting appropriate public policy based upon it. This means interviewing experts in the field and identifying (and even carrying out) relevant studies to ascertain answers to the needs of Congress. From the three hour interview I had, a few things became clear about the GAO, all of which I am extremely excited for. The first is that the organization is very flat hierarchically. The research teams are organized in groups of 4-6 people with the four primary levels of workers: analysts, senior analysts, assistant directors, and directors. These team members have regular contact and meet frequently as the research process moves forward. There is not a significant chain of command in the team, it is fine and expected that the analyst can go straight to the director if they have a question or have found relevant information for them. This seems to create a real sense of collegiality among those who interviewed me. 

Another exciting thing was the intellectual rigor with which the reports are written. In the interviews and on their website they emphasize the importance of using quality sources and having significant oversight to make sure the points based on those sources are appropriate. The senior analyst that interviewed me focused on this point and said that there are rounds of revisions that focus on tying the document back to the sources in order to have the report be as strong as possible. This is because parts of each report are likely to become public policy or will be used to reform current policy. This is a level of influence I was not expecting to have in my first career position. It is particularly exciting because as an analyst you are given a part of the report which you are largely responsible for. This autonomy with accountability sounds exciting and I look forward to seeing it in practice. It seems like a great place to start my career. A career, what a scary and exciting proposition.

Dangerously Heightened Expectations

With the election of Barack Obama, a international outpouring of support has increased the already immense pressure on the 44th President-Elect. Congratulations have come from the most unexpected places, including the President of Iran (who now feels spurned by the Obama camp's tepid response). Different groups around the world are placing expectations and ideas at the feet of Obama hoping that he will become involved and help solve problems. On one hand, this invitation to multilateralism is breathtaking. It is amazing to see that even the international community believes that America can and will be better under the leadership of Obama. However, together with the expectations domestically, it is hard to imagine how Obama can make all groups happy within the grace period of his early campaign. Obama stands on the cusp of being the most important president in America's history. The possibility of making the U.S. more accountable and multilateral is a dream that many have hoped for for decades, particularly during some of the recent dark years America has faced. People around the world have placed their hopes and dreams on his administration and it is difficult to imagine how it can meet expectations. 

A recent article by one of my favorite journalists, Ahmed Rashid, author of the recent book Descent into Chaos (which focuses on the war on terror in South Asia, primarily Afghanistan and Pakistan), sheds light on some of the massive expectations Obama faces. Reading through the article I was struck by just how much different factions in different conflicts are focusing on every word Obama says, in hopes of identifying what his presidential and international priorities will be. Particularly interesting was the quote by an unnamed European foreign minister that European countries will be unable to refuse anything Obama asks for in the first six months of his administration. There is such a massive amount of power in that statement. I cannot imagine any president in recent times being charged with such a great and also dangerous burden.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An America I Can Believe In

In what has to be the most historic election in a generation, Barack Obama has become the president-elect of the United States. It is hard to imagine how such an unlikely candidate had such a meteoric rise to success. I will be the first to admit I questioned Obama in the primaries. Initially I was a Kucinich supporter (a long shot, but one of the only beacons of true progressivism in a party bogged down by greed and avarice). After his withdrawal I changed my loyalties to Clinton. Having met her personally and believing that she had the strength, experience, and political capital needed, I felt she would also be the best to face whatever Republican was chosen. Now, unlike many Clinton supporters, I never fell into the rancorous denouncements of Obama and genuinely felt that either would do a reasonable, centrist job as president. I felt safe with either of them but not particularly inspired. Sure they were both historic candidates in a year the Democrats stood a good chance of actually winning, but it is always hard for me to vote for centrism. This country has been governed by the fifty-one doctrine for too long (playing to the middle in an attempt to eek out the election with just enough votes). This doctrine has often meant proving who was the most centrist, the most moderate. As a leftist progressive, this placation often struck me as dumbing down the election, and also hindering a genuine vision of a better future. I began to see that Barack Obama was trying to transcend the old language of elections. He spoke to the youth in a way that didn't seem placating or insulting. He gave people the opportunity to inform themselves on complex issues and expected that they would respond. He called for national service, in a country that is facing hard times and an uncertain future. He made me believe.

It is hard to sum up how amazed I am looking at the electoral map in today's Washington Post. Seeing how many states ended up blue and how many of the red states are closer than anyone could have imagined even two years ago. I was amazed to see Obama do so well in my home state, Montana, a rural homogeneous state. It makes me question my own and many other cynics' interpretations of the possibilities for a sustained grassroots movement in America. Many first time voters must feel empowered by the success of their campaign of choice. It will be important to keep these citizens involved in the process as it moves forward and to get them to understand that democracy is not just voting. Only through a sustained national movement can real change be accomplished. I feel optimistic about politics for the first time in a long time, and I am really excited that I will be in the middle of it.  Heather and I are already making plans to be at the inauguration. It will be exciting to play an important role in the health care debate and to have the real likelihood of actual reform. It is a historic time, and a great time to be in Washington D.C.  As one person who always had a hard time believing in hope, I say this with complete conviction: Yes, We Can!