Businesspeople planning on a glass wall

How Action Learning Launched Change Across Federal Government

How Action Learning Launched Change Across Federal Government

By Anthony Rios, Director, Division of Federal Employees, Department of Labor, Key Alumni & Faculty 

When I was approached last month to contribute to American University’s Key Alumni Blog, I immediately said yes. The invitation asked me to blog from the perspective of an MPA graduate of the Key program rather than from my official capacity as a public servant. I was told I had free reign to write about anything pertaining to leadership as long as it was important to me and contemporaneous to the publication of the blog.

I knew immediately the topic of my blog.

But first, a little bit about AU’s Key Program.

One distinguishing aspect of AU’s Key Executive MPA program is the real-time application of what you’re learning in the classroom while solving actual problems in your workplace. In lieu of a master’s thesis, students are tasked with identifying a longstanding problem in his or her federal agency (the entity generally sponsoring the tuition) and engaging in an 18-month process of identifying possible solutions to the problem. To ensure that Action Learning is being applied to an actual issue at work, students are required to obtain leadership’s concurrence through the execution of a contract. The contract, once signed by the sponsoring agency officials and the student, is examined by AU faculty for academic rigor and to test its practical application of Action Learning.

My 2009 Action Learning contract centered on the development of a universally accessible web portal that could be used by the entire Federal workforce to claim workers’ compensation benefits. The system’s primary objective was to allow federal staff to select, initiate, complete, and route forms to multiple parties online, but there was a second purpose. The system, to be called the Employees’ Compensation Operations Management Portal (ECOMP), was also intended to eliminate unnecessary, redundant and disparate claims filing systems around the federal sector that had been independently built by many executive agencies and for which annual operations and maintenance costs were paid by U.S. taxpayers.

At the time I designed my Action Learning contract, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had already approved my agency’s budget request to develop ECOMP, but its development had not yet begun and its functionality requirements had not been drafted. I was in charge of overseeing all of this in my official capacity, but I saw the Action Learning project as a chance to ensure that the system exceeded all of its intended objectives.

My challenge was to develop a system that would prompt most federal agencies to voluntarily decommission their existing systems in favor of ECOMP. There are roughly 120 federal agencies if you combine cabinet level and independent agencies with the U.S. Postal Service. Altogether they comprise a workforce of approximately 2.6 million employees. Given the politics involved in mandating a unified platform for the entire federal government, I was certain that OMB would never mandate the use of ECOMP for 2.6 million users.

By applying AU’s Action Learning process, my team and I were able to align and capture most federal agency needs, while managing stakeholder conflict constructively. The system was built and deployed in 2011, and as of 2019 nearly all agencies had voluntarily decommissioned their own systems and migrated to ECOMP.

Three weeks ago, OMB advised all agencies that by the end of 2020, everyone must migrate to ECOMP. The leadership principles that AU taught me were instrumental in developing a system that agencies willingly chose to use, but the system’s credibility and design were so powerful that it acquired OMB’s support and led to what I once thought was impossible – a directive that made ECOMP the singular system for the entire federal government.

About the Author

Mr. Rios was appointed Director for the Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation (DFEC) in November 2016, and prior to that was the Director of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation division.

Mr. Rios has over 25 years of experience in the field of workers’ compensation, first joining the industry in Hawaii while working for a law firm that specialized in plaintiff representation. He later became a private insurance claims adjuster and eventually joined the U. S. Department of Labor in 1994 as a claims examiner for DFEC. He held multiple positions during his first 19 years in DFEC, to include Assistant Chief for Hearings and Review and Deputy Director. As Deputy, Mr. Rios conceptualized, designed, developed and deployed the first universally accessible, web-based e-filing system for federal workers’ compensation forms and documents. Under his direction, the program deployed a national interactive voice response telephone system and also consolidated case creation activities from 12 offices to one centralized processing center.

After being appointed Longshore Director in 2013, he led that organization through a transformational effort that included a major overhaul of its IT infrastructure, migrating from a paper-based filing system where benefit applications and correspondence were maintained in paper jackets around the country, to a paperless content management system where documents are now managed through the use of digital imaging storage. Mr. Rios also restructured mail and case-creation operations that were normally conducted in 10 offices and centralized them into two sites, Jacksonville and New York City. Finally, he oversaw the promulgation of new regulations in 2015 that allowed for electronic transactions not previously possible due to prescriptive statutory language.

Currently, as Director of Federal Employees’ Compensation, Mr. Rios oversees the administration of workers’ compensation coverage to 2.6 million Federal and Postal workers and the issuance of over $3 billion in compensation annually. Mr. Rios provides the program’s framework, guidance, and technical assistance to all agencies in the Federal government, the 14 DFEC offices and a workforce of over 900 claims staff. Mr. Rios also directs the development of all systems necessary to process billions of dollars in medical and wage replacement payments, and leads the operation and maintenance of several multi-million dollar IT systems designed to support claims management, electronic claims filing, and payment of program outlays.

Most recently, Mr. Rios led the implementation of DFEC’s opioid control policy and fraud detection, and drafted reforms to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act that were included in President Trump’s FY 2020 budget. Those reforms are designed to modernize program administration, simplify benefit rates, and introduce controls to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

Mr. Rios received his MPA from American University in 2010 and his BBA from Strayer University in 2007. He was also nominated in 2012 by the Deputy Secretary of Labor to represent the Department at the Army War College, and was selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in its 18-month Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. Mr. Rios was appointed to Senior Executive Service by the Obama Administration in 2013.

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs


Three military cyber security professionals look at a monitor.

Current & Recent Research into Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy

By School of Public Affairs

American University’s Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy teaches content knowledge about terrorist groups and threats, as well as skills for evaluating these threats, all within a framework of policy creation and implementation.

Joseph Young, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology and his graduate students are researching issues that may impact the fight on terrorism and policy related to U.S. homeland security. Some of these projects include exploring the efficacy of peace initiatives in other countries, interviewing U.S. citizens who go overseas to fight against ISIS on their own, and analyzing ISIS data for predictors of whether someone would prefer joining the cause as a fighter or as a suicide bomber.

Efficacy of Strengthening Local Governments in Colombia

Professor Young is part of a team working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAid) to evaluate whether a project to strengthen local governments in Colombia is reducing a perception of corruption. The findings may influence future interventions around the world.

“We’re doing three waves of nationwide surveys about how people feel about the peace process and how much they do or don’t support armed actors,” explains Professor Young.

The five-year, $50 million program is trying to make local governments more transparent, opening up budget processes so people can understand them, and making the mayor’s office more accessible to average citizens. The goal is not only to reduce violence, but to help citizens feel that their governments are transparent, responsive, and representing their interests.

The baseline survey identified that people view their government as incredibly corrupt. The midline survey is currently underway.

“We’re hoping to see the perception of corruption going way down along with a drop in support for armed actors,” says Professor Young. “If the results are promising, these tools could be applied in other places in the world to reduce support of violent actors like terrorist groups.”

Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy Research: U.S. Citizens Joining the Fight Against ISIS

Another project that Professor Young is working on with a PhD candidate revolves around U.S. citizens who are going overseas independently to fight against ISIS. Fighting for ISIS or another designated terrorist organization is clearly illegal for American citizens. But what about those Americans who join forces with foreign organizations and fight against ISIS?

“There are a number of Americans going abroad to fight with Kurdish rebels against ISIS and that falls into a gray area,” says Professor Young. “There’s not a legal structure in place that says this behavior is wrong or illegal.”

The research team is currently interviewing some of these fighters to learn more about what they are doing and why. The researchers began with a core group via social media building a database of about 100 Americans and, so far, have interviewed about a dozen of them.

Their findings so far include:

  • Fighting independently is self-funded. Some fighters have actually held Go-Fund-Me campaigns, but generally they are limited financially and when the money runs out they tend to return home.
  • There is a women-only unit organized by a Canadian woman.
  • Many of these fighters are former military who were injured, dishonorably discharged, or simply at the end of their service. For them, the motivation is often that they had gone to the Middle East on active duty to secure safety in the region and ISIS has disrupted that, so they are now going back to try to finish what they had started.

“The bottom line is shouldn’t we have a policy on whether people should go fight against ISIS or not,” asks Professor Young. “Our research is always informed by how is this going to influence policy and what should policies look like.”

Analysis of ISIS Job Applications: Predictive Traits of Suicide Bombers

Professor Young is working with another PhD student to analyze data obtained by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) based at West Point. The researchers are evaluating more than 4,000 ISIS job applications looking at the factors that might lead someone to choose to be a fighter or a suicide bomber.

“What we’ve noticed is that country of origin explains much of the choice between applicants who want to become fighters versus suicide bombers,” says Professor Young. “People coming from the West, countries like Australia, America, Britain, etc., as well as those from civil war-torn countries are less interested in becoming suicide fighters.”

So far, the research supports the hypothesis that people who have some military experience tend to be more interested in becoming more experienced fighters rather than sacrificing themselves.

“The Americans and the Westerners don’t have a culture very supportive of the choice to become a suicide bomber,” says Professor Young. “The only folks making the choice to become suicide bombers at a higher rate are those coming from countries like Saudi Arabia or Tunisia where they might have more of a stronger cultural pull for doing an action like that.”

Understanding factors relating to the development of terrorist and anti-terrorist attitudes is critical to U.S. security. Professor Young’s research offers a glimpse into the rich and complex projects seeking to understand how we can protect national security, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Teacher with young students in a classroom

Public Policy Research: Impact of Race and K-12 Education

By The School of Public Affairs

Research has shown that when minority students have teachers of the same race, they tend to perform better on several metrics, such as test scores and graduation rates. Nathan Favero, Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy is exploring potential causes of this correlation and the implication for future teacher recruitment.

“While there are many ideas about the mechanisms causing this relationship, there’s not a whole lot of certainty,” says Professor Favero. “Our research is looking at the impact of Latino teachers in schools, since although they are less underrepresented than black teachers, there are still many Latino kids being taught by white teachers.”

Several common mechanisms suggest why students may perform better when taught by teachers of the same race. The role model effect posits that students are inspired to perform better because they are more able to identify with their teachers. One model suggests differences in how minority teachers teach, from utilizing more culturally accessible examples in math problems to incorporating more relevant cultural references that make students feel included. Another possibility is that minority teachers are less susceptible to racial bias and therefore less likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of low performance.

Looking beyond the classroom

Much of the research to date has been at the classroom level, focusing on individual teachers and their students. Because of his work in organizational research, Professor Favero is exploring the relationship at the institutional level. One of the key questions is whether simply having minority teachers within the school building makes a difference.

“While we don’t really have strong evidence yet, it seems that there’s some indication that just having more Latino teachers in the building is predictive of students doing better,” says Professor Favero, “even if there aren’t more Latino teachers in their specific grade.”

His research is exploring possible reasons for this correlation. One answer is that diversity among the teaching staff may influence school policy or may lead to collaboration that positively impacts the student experience. Another, from a top-down approach, is that administrators who more actively recruit – or are more inclined to hire – Latino teachers are also more likely to create a school culture conducive to success among Latino students.

Considering policy implications

It’s clear that increasing diversity among teachers, especially in areas with high minority populations, is essential to improving outcomes for minority students. This may begin in the classroom with teachers encouraging students to enter the profession. Policy makers may want to explore implementing policies encouraging undergraduate education programs to actively enroll minority students.

Flags 1

Top Three Questions About the Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy

With the Answers Prospective Graduate Students Want to Know

By The School of Public Affairs

Offered through American University’s School of Public Affairs, the Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy prepares students for a career or advancement in the federal government, intelligence, or law enforcement. The top three questions we hear from prospective graduate students are:

  1. Do I need a master’s degree for a career in intelligence and security?
  2. Should I do an internship?
  3. Is American University a good choice for my graduate education?

The simplest answer, according to Joseph Young, Associate Professor and Department Chair in American University’s Department of Justice, Law & Criminology, is yes.

Read on for more in-depth answers.

Why Do I Need a Master’s Degree for a Career in Intelligence and Security?

American University’s Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy is useful for an intelligence career at a federal, state, or local level. Students learn important content knowledge about terrorist groups and gain essential skills for evaluating potential threats to U.S. security, both domestically and abroad. Coursework takes a policy perspective, considering what policies should be in place, as well as what impact they may have.

During their master’s education, students build a network of connections that can inform their interests, assist with research, and help navigate their career path. Internships are an opportunity to gain real work experience and may also lead to security clearance, both of which greatly improve standing as a candidate for prospective employers.

“We not only teach about threats to the U.S. homeland and skills to evaluate those threats, we connect students to a network of people within the federal government and intelligence agencies,” says Professor Young. “We also help students through processes like getting security clearance and deciding which agencies are most interesting to them.”

Does an Internship Matter?

Absolutely, according to Professor Young. “You should always do an internship,” he says, “especially if it’s going to get you security clearance or on a pathway toward the career you want.”

Internships expand your professional network within the intelligence communities and can help you narrow your focus. Not only does the real-world experience make you a stronger candidate, many internships lead to job opportunities.

Security clearances, essential to many positions, can be costly and time consuming. If an internship requires security clearance, that may be a perk of the position. And having a security clearance in place will make you a more attractive candidate for employment. Plus, agencies that have invested in their interns may be more interested in hiring them permanently.

Why should I get my master’s degree from American University?

If you’re interested in a career in intelligence, law enforcement, or the federal government, a Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy from American University’s School of Public Affairs provides the education and connections you need. Not only is DC the center of U.S. intelligence and federal government, American University is adjacent to the Department of Homeland Security, enabling convenient access to internship opportunities.

The curriculum features a foundation in criminology, law, and public policy, combined with essential background information and strategies for developing policy-based solutions. Courses are taught by international experts in terrorism and national security research, many with firsthand experience working within the organizations where students pursue internships and future employment.

American University’s professors and students have a strong existing network with connections to all of the major agencies, providing access to key figures for internships, research, and job opportunities. People outside the intelligence community may not be aware that there are actually 17 different federal intelligence agencies each with their own function and area of expertise. AU professors provide insightful advice regarding what career path or agencies best fit student interests.

“There’s no substitute for being in DC,” says Professor Young. “It’s good to be in a network of people that have connections in these places.”

If you are ready to advance your career in and combat terrorism, consider a Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy from American University. Learn in Washington, DC, join a network of connections in intelligence agencies and federal government, and gain the skills and background to position yourself for advancement.

Click here to learn more.

Flags 1

Are Americans as Anti-Immigrant as They Seem?

By School of Public Affairs

Given recent headlines and racial conflicts, it’s easy to conclude that attitudes about immigration in the U.S. are rooted in racism and prejudice. The Muslim travel ban, Charlottesville protests, and the rescission of DACA all appear to confirm a racist anti-immigrant bias.

While there may be public sentiment for reducing immigration, research by SPA Assistant Professor Matthew Wright and his colleagues indicates Americans may actually be less anti-immigrant than it would appear.

Reconsidering Traditional Thinking

Much of the academic scholarship tends to support the notion that individuals’ attitudes toward immigration policies are related to how they feel about specific groups.

“There’s a great deal of scholarship tying what we’re seeing to a broadly nativist reaction, meaning white native-born people attributing things they don’t like to immigration,” said Dr. Wright. “We’re trying to add a little balance to that perspective.”

Dr. Wright and his team delved into the role of group prejudice vs. alignment with what are often viewed as traditional American values. Their findings suggest that this anti-immigration stance is fueled more by values and misperceptions about groups than what’s traditionally considered racism.

“Our research indicates that people are not motivated by racial bias to the degree that the literature generally assumes,” said Wright. “We think that it’s more likely that people are driven by their values in the sense of broad principles such as following the law, learning basic English, or assimilating to some minimal degree.”

Countering Misperceptions

Wright and his team elicited opinions about immigration with a hypothetical situation involving individuals of different ethnicities. When asked if a person should be allowed to immigrate, participants were less likely to say yes when the individual was Latino than if he were German or Chinese. Further, the biases went away if the interviewer provided additional information, such as that the individual speaks English, is a hard worker, and came to the country legally.

“People can often appear like they’re thinking or acting ethnocentrically, but in reality, if it’s just based on misinformation or an incorrect stereotype that can be countered by information, then that’s very different from people lashing out against immigrants,” explains Wright. “Our interpretation is that there is not a real strong animus at the heart of these attitudes.”

Looking to the Dreamers

The rescission of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is a prime example of how values influence public opinion. It seems contradictory, but many people who strongly support ending DACA are also opposed to deporting the children in question. In this situation, the illegal immigrants were brought here by their parents through no choice of their own.

“People are very sensitive to how the question is asked,” said Wright. “You will get a more positive response if you ask about Dreamers than if you ask about illegal immigrants.”

Removing the Abstract

If Professor Wright’s premise is correct, attitudes about immigration rest more on whether the immigrants exhibit values aligned with public opinion. Value judgements, misperceptions, and commonly held stereotypes are much more easily addressed than deep-seated hatred and racism.

“The question for us is whether America, white people, are just fundamentally ethnocentric and prejudiced, and we’re saying no,” said Dr. Wright. “Some people are. A relatively small percentage of people are, and they’re not going away. In many ways, they are louder than ever, but that’s not most people. The American public is not as anti-immigrant as we are often tempted to believe.”

Are you interested in developing policy-based solutions to immigration and homeland security? American University’s School of Public Affairs Master’s programs help you build a career with a purpose. Visit to learn more about AU’s Master of Public Policy or Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy.


Flags 1

Avoiding the Gaps: Creating Healthcare Policy That Works

By The School of Public Affairs

The driving force behind most healthcare policy advocates is to maximize access and minimize cost. When evaluating and recommending policy, however, it’s essential to consider all of the implications and potential consequences. Even the most well-intentioned public policy can negatively affect some of those it is designed to help.

The Intent of the Medicaid Expansion

One goal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was to extend healthcare coverage to the portion of the population least likely to be able to afford health insurance. The ACA included a federal expansion of Medicaid funding to provide coverage to those living below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. For those with incomes above this line up to 400% of the poverty level, coverage was made affordable through premium tax credits. [1]

The Impact of Opting Out

The ACA did not account for states opting out of the Medicaid expansion. By assuming universal participation, the law’s wording unintentionally created a coverage gap for an already at-risk population. Individuals who would have been covered by the Medicaid expansion are not eligible for the premium subsidies, leaving them without coverage.

“Everyone gets subsidies if they qualify, but there’s a gap where people who are still low income don’t qualify for coverage because their states aren’t participating,” says Dr. Jocelyn Johnston, a professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. “The extent to which people have to pay for healthcare out of pocket varies from state to state, so you end up with this inequality based upon where you live.”

In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the ACA, but ruled that states could choose not to expand Medicaid, giving the governors the right to decide. States opting out forgo only the additional federal funds earmarked for expansion, rather than Medicaid funding they already receive.[2]

As of the Fall of 2017, 19 states have still chosen not to expand Medicaid coverage, leaving millions of adults not only not covered by Medicaid but also ineligible for the premium subsidies. [3]

“The individuals are caught in the middle,” says Dr. Jocelyn Johnston, a professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. “It’s the state’s right to opt out, but it’s a burden on those affected.”

Looking Ahead

Despite the challenges the ACA has faced and the disparity it unintentionally created, there has been an evolution in healthcare policy.

“In terms of public opinion, we are reaching some agreement that we should have some overarching federal program to reach everyone,” says Dr. Johnston. “We have to keep experimenting and it’s one of the strengths of our system: we try different things and that’s opportunity to learn and do things better.”

The coverage gap created by the ACA demonstrates the importance of carefully weighing assumptions and wording to ensure that the intent of policy matches with the effect once implemented. With politically charged topics like healthcare, there may not be a second chance to get it right.









Woman looks at the departure board at the airport

Countering Terrorism: Implications of the Laptop Ban

By School of Public Affairs

In a post-9/11 world, travelers typically comply with changing security measures without question or hesitation. The reasoning behind these security choices lies deep within policy practices implemented by Homeland Security. The recently ended U.S. laptop ban is an example of how the public experiences policy in action without necessarily having all of the answers.

The laptop ban on international flights with final destination in the U.S.

Beginning in March of 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security required enhanced security at several foreign airports for flights into the United States. The new regulations prohibited electronic devices larger than cell phones in the aircraft cabin, restricting laptops, tablets, game units, and other large electronic devices to checked baggage. Because this measure impacted ability to travel with laptops, it has been referred to as a “laptop ban.”

When first enacted, the ban affected flights from nine specific airlines to the U.S. from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. Tricia Bacon, PhD, Assistant Professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, researches U.S. counterterrorism policy as well as terrorist and insurgent groups’ alliance behavior. She clarifies that while this ban may appear random, it actually represents a calculated move based on current intelligence about terrorists and potential plots.

“A lot of this comes from threats from the Islamic State,” Bacon says. “There was clearly concern specifically about airlines traveling from the Middle East and North Africa to the United States.”

The ban was a hassle for travelers. In addition to concerns about the risk of damage to checked laptops, this ban created a significant productivity loss for business travelers intending to work during a flight that easily could take more than ten hours. These negative repercussions were likely anticipated by policy makers within Homeland Security. According to Bacon, “The duration of the ban suggests that there was a counter calculation; that policymakers also had to consider the effect the ban had on the airline industry and for businesses in the U.S.”

The ban was lifted on flights to the U.S. in July 2017, despite being originally announced to run through October. “The ban would not have been lifted if Homeland Security didn’t think there were security measures in place to counteract the risk,” Bacon clarifies.

Why was the laptop ban implemented?

Intelligence and counter-terrorism experts assess threats, evaluate the impact of policy decisions, and implement policies to counteract terrorism. While it is not clear what information Homeland Security had before implementing the laptop ban, intelligence and security experts know that terrorist organizations have been perfecting their ability to place sophisticated bombs in laptops.

In February 2016, a passenger on a Somali jet detonated a device approximately 15 minutes after takeoff, blowing a hole in the side of the aircraft. Because the flight had not reached cruising altitude, the explosion fell short of destroying the plane. Instead, only one fatality resulted as the suspect was ejected from the plane in the blast. Investigators are confident that a bomb was hidden in a laptop.

Initial reports following the explosion suggested that the bomb had been undetected by x-ray machines, but surveillance footage points to insider involvement. Security tapes appear to show a laptop being handed off to the passenger in question after he had cleared security. Regardless of how the bomb was brought onto the plane, this incident highlighted the need for heightened security measures, especially at airports where the Islamic state has access.

Adjusting to terrorist threats

The laptop ban was just the latest move in the complex interactions between governments and terrorist organizations. In December 2001, Richard Reid, also known as the Shoe Bomber, attempted to detonate a device in his footwear during an American Airlines flight. Security measures were then introduced requiring travelers to remove their shoes for x-ray screening.

British police uncovered a terrorist plot in 2006 to create bombs in flight by combining liquids they had brought on board. Security agencies acted quickly, banning all liquids in passenger carry-on baggage, with the exception of baby formula or prescriptions. The ban was relaxed within two months, although restrictions remain in place more than a decade later.

Policies like these have been largely accepted as part of airline travel in the United States. Bacon explains that such blanket security measures aren’t simply reactions, but also carefully crafted responses. “When there is a non-specific threat, raising security is often intended to deter or delay the terrorists in their plot,” she says.

Was the laptop ban successful?

Measuring the success of the ban is more complicated than estimating how many plots were foiled. Bacon explains that the goal of security measures like the laptop ban isn’t always to prevent identical attacks, but rather to send a message. “Sometimes governments take this kind of action to alert terrorists that they know something, thereby causing the terrorists to delay plots or change their tactics, which costs them time and resources, and can raise terrorist groups’ concern about infiltration. It helps keep them off balance.” she describes. Counterterrorism is thus an ongoing process, requiring intelligence and policy experts to anticipate risks and respond appropriately.

Are you interested in developing policy-based solutions to combat terrorism and protect homeland security? The Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy, offered through American University’s School of Public Affairs, prepares students for a career in intelligence or homeland security. Visit to learn more.



Flags 1

How to Build a Compelling Application File for Graduate School

By School of Public Affairs

Building a compelling graduate school application begins long before you actually apply. As you consider graduate school, it is critical that you understand the importance of managing the application process. Learn as much as you can about components required, school-specific preferences, priority deadlines, and decision-making, including who will review your file and in what time frame. Here are 10 steps to building a compelling graduate school application file.

1.      Do your homework.

Learn as much as you can about the program before you apply, from the faculty and administration to student body to available support services.

  • Faculty and Administration
    Start with the faculty directory. Identify key faculty members in your field of interest and review their Curriculum Vitae (CVs) to learn more about their scholarship, teaching, and service. Look for experts and practitioners who are doing work in your prospective field so you can be sure your interests will be supported. Administrators (i.e., admissions officers) also can prove valuable in learning more about an institution’s graduate degree offerings including curricula and the application/admissions process(es).
  • Current Students
    Take advantage of opportunities to meet current students and learn about their experience within the program. While each cohort will be different, you will still get an impression of how well you will fit within the program. Ask why they chose this program, what they like most, and what suggestions they have to ensure your success.
  • Student Service Support
    Student services, such as Academic Advisors and Career Services, can play an important role in academic success, internship opportunities, and future employment. Find out what services are offered, level of support provided, and hours of availability.

2.      Learn about essential application file components.

Most application files for graduate school have comparable requirements. These commonly include:

  • Unofficial transcripts from all previously attended postsecondary institutions
  • Personal statement
  • Resume/CV
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Official test scores (i.e., GRE, GMAT)

Be sure to check with the institution directly for any additional requirements. For example, international applicants may be asked for additional test scores related to English proficiency.

3.      Pay attention to the deadlines.

While programs may accept applications on a rolling basis, priority deadlines are often promoted for applicants seeking merit aid consideration. Be aware that submissions received after the deadline may be subject to space and resource availability.

Deadlines for The School of Public Affairs (SPA) at American University include both Fall and Spring admission terms:

  • Priority-February 15: Master’s first round consideration for Fall merit awards
  • Priority-May 1: Fall deadline for international master’s applicant submissions
  • Priority-September 15: Spring deadline for international master’s applicant submissions
  • Priority-November 1: Master’s first round consideration for Spring merit awards

4.      Know your audience.

Find out who makes admission decisions. Admissions professionals may have different priorities than a committee of faculty members. At The School of Public Affairs (SPA) at American University, faculty-led admissions committees give each applicant’s file a thorough, holistic review. Successful applicants will demonstrate what they can add to the academic community, as well as their professional promise.

5.      Choose your references wisely.

Professors and employers are usually good resources for letters of recommendations. Recommendation letters are important, so take the time to visit with each of your references to discuss your graduate school and career aspirations. You may also consider sharing a draft of your personal statement to seek input and/or to better inform their letter. Finally, most recommenders appreciate your direction on what skill sets and attributes you hope they will speak to in their recommendation. Investing in selecting, informing, and coaching your references may considerably strengthen your application file and set it apart from others.

6.      Write a strong personal statement.

Your personal statement should reflect how you will fit within the program. Address what you want to study and why, how your experience has prepared you, and what you plan to do after completing your graduate degree. Be sure the statement is tailored to the specific school/department, it is succinct (1-1.5 pages, double-spaced), and, most importantly, is, indeed, a personal essay.

7.      Be sincere.

Write your application specifically for the school you want to attend. If the field you write about doesn’t truly interest you, that will come across in your application. Your references also should speak to how you will fit with the program.

8.      Give yourself prep time.

Most programs require admissions tests, and international applicants may also need to provide scores from English proficiency tests. Your scores may be important for both admissions decisions and merit aid consideration. Be sure to check with your schools/departments of interest to confirm what test(s) you need to take, the priority given to the test score(s) within an application file, and recommended test score thresholds.

9.      Position yourself for merit aid.

Start with all of the steps listed above, then make sure your application file is complete before the priority merit-aid deadlines. Proactively seek information from your graduate programs of interest about their merit aid allocation strategy so you can understand what they prioritize in determining merit, the types and levels of merit aid offered, and the timing for these important decisions to be rendered.

Graduate students are also eligible to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for consideration for Federal Loan options.

10. Get the answers you need.

Admissions professionals are available to help. The Office of Graduate Admissions (OGA) at The School of Public Affairs welcomes your questions.

  • Phone: 202.885.6230
  • Email:




The White House

“This is Not Normal”: The Impact of Presidential Social Media Use

By School of Public Affairs

On July 1, 2017, President Trump tweeted “My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” While this is undeniable, Chris Edelson, JD, Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Government says it also raises a host of questions about the dignity of the office and the impact of social media on policy.

“What’s different now is the president is posting things on social media that are embarrassing, dangerous, and potentially incriminating,” said Chris Edelson, JD, assistant professor in American University’s Department of Government. “It’s informal and has lowered the standards for what’s acceptable.”

Sending a loud message

With the continued increase in social media use, it isn’t surprising that presidential communications are leveraging new channels. What is becoming less and less surprising is how President Trump is using Twitter.

Rather than carefully worded, scripted posts, the president frequently shoots out off-the-cuff messages that reflect his personal opinions. Not only are these posts often filled with typos, misspellings, and misinformation, they appear to represent policy.

“I think Donald Trump’s argument would be that it allows him to speak directly to people, that every tweet he sends out gets attention,” said Edelson. While that’s true, Edelson questions, “is it necessarily a good thing?”

Eroding the prestige of the Oval Office

That Mr. Trump chooses not to censor his personal opinions when speaking as the president raises concerns for many.

He repeatedly sends messages that veer from what has been expected from a president – for example, retweeting white supremacists1 or sharing a gif that shows him hitting a golf ball that appears to knock down Hillary Clinton.2

He has retweeted crime statistics that were patently false, lending credibility to misinformation and unreliable sources. He called on NFL franchise owners to fire players for exercising their free speech, and threw in an insulting expletive for good measure.

Even before he took office, his bullying tweets led to death threats on a Carrier plant union representative and his family3.

Beyond the vitriol, his posts may have legal implications.

“I’d be worried if I were a lawyer representing Donald Trump,” said Professor Edelson. “He’s using it so freely to comment on the Russia investigation. His tweets about James Comey could be seen as intimidating a witness.”

Setting an alarming precedent

Not only are President Trump’s tweets often inflammatory and threatening, his use of Twitter to conduct foreign policy also raises concerns.

“There are national security issues here caused by the specific way in which he is using Twitter and the fact that people look to it now to see policy statements,” said Professor Edelson. “Because he is using his account to conduct foreign policy, somebody hacking it and taking control of the account could be very dangerous.”

The president’s comments about foreign leaders, adversarial nations, and terrorist attacks in other countries have stirred anti-American sentiment, even leading to speculation by North Korea whether his tweets equaled a declaration of war on that country.4

Moving forward

Professor Edelson contends that what is happening is not normal, but he concedes that this will be the new normal if people don’t do anything.

“Doing nothing means we’re okay with it,” said Edelson. “The concern is that this lowers the standards for what is acceptable.”

While Mr. Trump has declared his tweets presidential, some politicians, like Republican Congressman Justin Amash, have spoken up. Back on January 14 when President-elect Trump went on a twitter rant against Congressman John Lewis, Amash tweeted “Dude, just stop.”5

“A couple of years ago, no one would have talked to the president that way,” says Professor Edelson. “I think he was right, but the informality of his response isn’t good either.”

The responsibility may fall to Congress, the press, and the public to raise their voices – online and off – to decide the future impact of presidential social media use. The most effective answers are likely to come from the voting booth.


White House in Fall

3 TV Shows with Misconceptions About Bureaucracy

By School of Public Affairs

There are few genres America loves more than a good political drama. From the Manchurian Candidate to Frost/Nixon, society revels in the backroom dealings and power struggles inherent in political office. For years, TV shows pedaling these intriguing stories have kept viewers on edge and made the political profession appear thrilling. But how do the shows stack up to the realities of D.C.? We’ve taken a look at a few shows to see where they fall short.

House of Cards

Frank Underwood’s charming Machiavellianism is so irresistible it almost masks his absurdity. Perhaps in Rome his vicious ambition would have fit in, but in 21st century America, committing two murders in two years would be enough to move him from the Oval Office into a square cell. While House of Cards injects its plots with real political struggles like appeasing labor union concerns over a new education bill, they are more often than not resolved in some form of brazen criminality that simply does not occur in real politics. Even the labor dispute is resolved when Frank Underwood goads the head of the union into punching him in the face. Although politicians have their fair share of heated debate, the days of political fisticuffs are over.


Let’s ignore the impossible beauty of everyone on this show and head straight for the name: Scandal. Washington is fraught with political scandals: Hillary’s email server, The 2013 IRS debacle, the resignation of the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, these are only in the last few years. However, Scandal operates in a heightened universe where if Monica Lewinsky, Watergate, and the Bleeding Kansas election occurred in the same year, no one would blink an eye. The writers of Scandal take an issue of real concern and add in a heavy dose of conspiracy, romance and once again…murder. Many Americans believe political operators will do anything to get their guy or gal into office, even if it means breaking the law; Scandal plays on those beliefs. Like when Fitz is on the verge of losing the presidency but is saved by a surge of sympathy popularity stemming from his son’s death. Sympathy is sometimes used to bolster a candidate, but in this case, it was the result of a character named Rowan deciding that poisoning the president’s son was the only way to win the election. Washington may be rife with scandal at times, but it looks far different than this Hollywood adaptation.

The West Wing

Often viewed as the most accurate political program, The West Wing gave viewers a walking tour of the inner workings of the White House. True, compared to the other shows we touched on, this one is certainly more restrained. No crazy murder plots, not an egregious amount of affairs, but some faults remain. There’s not enough staff turnover, from 2000 to 2009 there were six press secretaries whereas C.J. held the position for seven years, and there are a ton more staffers in real life than the core group we see on the show. However, the biggest difference between The West Wing and reality is the idea that one good speech is all it takes to change opinion. President Josiah Bartlett solved the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with some military aid and a nice chat with Israel’s prime minister; if only things were so easy. Divisive issues like homophobia or gun control, are resolved in minutes. It works on TV because the audience likes the character and willingly laps up the Aaron Sorkin quips. In reality, politicians can be stubborn, ending up with gridlock and few legislative changes.

So maybe things happen slower in real life and tough problems aren’t solved through brief exchanges, but at least our politicians aren’t all unrepentant criminals.


Master Politics in the Classroom. Check out American University’s School of Public Affairs today!

Cropped shot of two businesspeople shaking hands during a meeting in the boardroom

Five Types of SPA Grads You Meet in DC

Written by SPA Staff

The diverse SPA graduates of our six Master’s programs enter the D.C. job market with in-depth policy and administrative knowledge along with their degree from a top 20 school. With that in mind, it’s no surprise our alumni achieve success at a wide range of jobs in the city. Here are just a few of the types of grads you’ll spot during your time in the District:

Private Sector Powerhouse

These SPA grads climb the corporate ladder in the private industry through hard work and determination. Why? Their addiction to fast-paced strategy and large-scale problem solving is a perfect fit for a corporate world that rewards quick thinkers who can let loose after a long day.

The Politician’s Apprentice

Some grads look to emulate the success of Muriel Bowser, an MPP grad who is the seventh mayor of the District of Columbia. You’ll find them gathering around Capitol Hill, tirelessly working for politicians they secretly wish to replace.

The Lifelong Learner

While some students can’t wait to break free from the burdens of school, others haven’t quite scratched their educational itch. These soon-to-be professors first earned their Master’s degree from SPA, one of the highest ranked programs in the country. They will be highly competitive applicants of Ph.D. programs across the country. If it seems like their ego is getting too big, just remind them that they will soon be grading papers by the hundreds.

Data-Mining Wonk

The technical experience offered at SPA is put to work daily by these data analysis mavens. They don’t stop at extracting evidentially backed conclusions, they help shape the numbers into functional policy recommendations. You’ll find these guys hanging out on online gaming forums and dominating D.C.’s raging X-box Live community.

The Noble Do-gooder

The SPA’s focus on leadership reaches all levels of the public and private sectors, and some graduates choose to use their know-how to make the world a better place. These guys loaded up on the applicable non-profit courses offered, and with their conscience as their guide work for and create organizations that help those in need. Don’t let the tie-dye and hemp fool you, even though these guys work for nonprofits, they still mean business.


Want to join the ranks or pave your own path? Check out American University’s School of Public Affairs today!

Hassan Aden

10 Jobs You Can Do with an MPA

By SPA Staff

1. Policy Analyst

Determine what effects policy decisions will have on the population they govern.

2. Research Associate

Use your research skills at a university or research institute.

3. CEO, COO, or CFO

Apply your management and development skills for high-level management positions. AU MPA grad Gwen Sykes is currently the CFO of the United States Secret Service.

4. City Manager

Help a city’s bureaucracy run smoothly and advise other government officials.

5. Budget Analyst

Ensure that budgetary plans are legal, accurate and will fulfill their designated purpose.

6. Program Coordinator

Oversee the daily operations of a program within a nonprofit or corporation.

7. Human Resources Management

Help create a positive workplace by enforcing fair standards and assisting fellow employees.

8. Nonprofit Fundraiser

Drum up financial support for a nonprofit with your networking abilities and charm.

9. Urban Planner

Improve a community by figuring out how best to utilize public land.

10. Law Enforcement

Be a leader in the criminal justice system. Just ask AU MPA grad Hassan Aden (pictured above) whose MPA propelled him to Chief of Police in Greenville, N.C.


Interested in one of these careers? Check out American University’s Master of Public Administration today!

Ivone Guillen, SPA/MPA ’17

Profile of AU MPA Student Ivone Guillen

By Ivone Guillen

As a soon-to-be second-year student in the School of Public Affairs’ MPA program, I’d like to share my story in the hopes of answering any questions you may have about the program. Everyone has a unique journey, and I hope that through mine you gain some knowledge that will help inform you in your graduate degree decision process.

First, a little background about me. I have been working with nonprofits for over seven years and my experiences have greatly contributed to my interest in organization management. I currently work at Sojourners, striving to mobilize people of faith around the issue of immigration and encouraging them to urge their members of Congress to enact inclusive, humane and just immigration policy solutions. At Sojourners, I’ve had the opportunity to develop my skills in campaigns, advocacy, communications and coalition building.

I chose to pursue an MPA degree because I wanted to gain new insight that would complement my experience and further strengthen my ability to create strong and effective management systems that are designed to fuel an organization’s efforts. I chose AU because of its renowned MPA program, faculty and extensive network. The MPA department has been welcoming, approachable and genuinely dedicated to its students’ success.

Attaining a master’s is especially important to me because I am a first-generation immigrant and am paving the way for my family to follow in my footsteps of pursuing higher education. As a DREAMer, the issue of immigration has always been part of my lived reality. Resolving it has always been a goal of mine. That’s why I chose policy analysis as my concentration. Through the concentration, I’ve learned that culture plays an instrumental role in shaping organizational dynamics and management styles. Thus, culture must be extensively analyzed before engaging in change. I also learned that all I’d read about the outstanding faculty was true and then some. They are very accessible and always willing to help clarify questions regarding coursework. Outside of the classroom, they’ve extended their support by helping to facilitate personal connections within their network—not a common occurrence at many universities.

But the faculty isn’t the only thing that contributes to AU’s highly esteemed MPA. Another major feature is the wide-ranging set of opportunities they offer for students to enhance their careers. AU’s career center has exposed me to a diverse set of organizations, which in turn have allowed me to expand my understanding of the kinds of opportunities that exist, complimenting my background in the process.

With the robust course and career offerings, as well as the committed staff in mind, I truly believe the program is preparing me for success in the future. It offers practical and pragmatic solutions to some of the most challenging management questions organizations face today and, in turn, gives me skills that I’m applying to my current work—always with the end goal of being an effective manager.

I am truly grateful to AU’s faculty and SPA for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to pursue an MPA degree. Thanks to the flexibility of the program and its committed staff, I have been able to successfully finish my first year of graduate school. I look forward to completing the remainder of the program.


Want to learn more? Check out American University’s Masters of Public Administration today!