We the Partnership

Burt Barnow on walking the path from professor to policy advisor

By Madeleine McCullough, Alex Hakes
October 20, 2021

To solve our nation’s biggest challenges both today and in the future, our government needs to recruit and retain vital young talent. Our new blog series, “Academic Profiles in Public Service,” will reinforce these efforts by featuring professionals working in academia who previously served in the federal government. These profiles aim to inspire students and recent graduates to consider a career in public service and highlight the positive impact federal employees can make on our country. Burt Barnow, former director of the Office of Research and Evaluation at the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration and a current professor of policy and economics at George Washington University, spoke with us about his time working in public service and the benefits a career in government can offer recent graduates.

What made you interested in a career in public service?

Barnow: I have always had an interest in the federal government, but it wasn’t until I was receiving my Ph.D. that I knew I wanted to learn more about a career in public service. My professors were using quantitative approaches to their evaluations of government demonstrations and programs, utilizing various methods to test out different training programs and welfare programs. I found this all very exciting and I wanted to be a part of it. As an economics professor, I realized that I strived to do more than research and wanted to be more involved in actual programs.

What did you accomplish as a public servant that you couldn’t as a professor?

Barnow: During my time as the director of the Office of Research and Evaluation within the Employment and Training Administration, I spearheaded multiple initiatives to make government research and evaluations work better. We were responsible for the federal training programs and we utilized statisticians to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs. I thought that it would be better to have statisticians, economists and other social scientists involved in this process, so I did something a little bit unusual. I took the data that the statisticians had collected, and I put out a request for proposals from other social scientists to look at this data and tell us how effective the programs were.

By reaching out to other researchers, we were able to lay the groundwork for how government programs should be evaluated. The studies that resulted from this effort, which included a variety of inconsistent findings, convinced the Department of Labor to use randomized controlled trials to evaluate future demonstrations and programs even though it was challenging to implement the random assignment.

What advice or knowledge would you offer young professionals as they look for careers in public service?

Barnow: A lot of people think that working in the federal government or public service is boring and that you won’t gain much experience from it. But I feel like I was involved in something important when I was working for the Department of Labor. I wasn’t just sitting behind a computer analyzing research and writing articles all day—I was designing programs and evaluation techniques that really had an impact on the federal government.

Students and recent graduates should also know that when you are working in public service, you’re not only benefiting the country, but you are benefiting yourself as well. There are great jobs out there and you can move up in some of them—from an entry-level job all the way to the Senior Executive Service.

What one word best describes your experience working in public service and why?

Barnow: Satisfying. Through my work in public service, I felt like I was able to come up with ways to make our federal programs better. I was able to learn more about the federal government and its training initiatives. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to create a lasting impact on the federal government.

Read more profiles and posts in our “Academic Profiles in Public Service” series here. To learn more about how recent graduates can pursue a career in the federal government, visit gogovernment.org. Contact us at [email protected] if you or someone you know would like to be profiled in the future.  

Alex Hakes is an intern on the Partnership’s Federal Workforce team.


Madeleine McCullough

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