Olivia Piontek Gets Hands On Experience With TANF Policy at DC-based Urban Institute

Olivia Piontek at MU’s Ellis Library

By TSPA Student Daniel Woodhams

Translating ambiguity into workable information is a vexing problem for policy professionals. It is a skill that MPA student Olivia Piontek has honed at the Truman School and tested this summer at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. As a Research Intern at the Income and Benefits Policy Center, Olivia interpreted policy transmittals from each state of the union to facilitate data analysis. Olivia assisted the Urban Institute with understanding statewide changes to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Olivia functioned as a liaison to the states. She collected updates on policy changes and hunted for relevant data hidden behind layers of dense writing. Ultimately, she had to create analogues to original policy writing that fit within the parameters of the Urban Institute’s working database. “It was translation. I had to communicate information into something that the Urban Institute could work with and understand,” Olivia commented on her experience. “The TSPA taught me how to quickly and incisively cut to the heart of policy. The interdisciplinary approach gave me the skillset to take a concept and illustrate in any way.”

For Olivia, it was not enough to have the right answers in front of her. She had to render information in the structures of the Urban Institute’s system. When her source material eluded simple or binary categorization, Olivia had to think critically and make communication decisions that worked with her audience. Dr. Brian Kisida, who taught Olivia Research Methods and Program Evaluation skills offered his insight. “Cultivating an ability to articulate complex policy dilemmas into language that can be communicated to a broad audience of policymakers and the general public is a central goal of our program.”

Olivia looks forward to new opportunities, “The next step on my career path is taking the kinds of insights published by institutes like the Urban Institute and communicating them to policy-makers.” Olivia gained confidence from her summer internship and looks forward to applying her communication skills in public service.