Maria Cancian on serving the nation

The professor reflects on her time as deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Obama administration before returning to UW-Madison this fall.

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Maria Cancian, a professor in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and School of Social Work and former director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, was tapped by President Obama in 2014 to join the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Describe your role in Washington, D.C.

The Administration for Children and Families is responsible for a vast array of programs – everything from child welfare services to child care and HeadStart to refugee resettlement and much more. My primary responsibilities related to leading cross-program coordination efforts, and what we call “interoperability” — aligning policies to make it easier for families to get what they need. I also focused on coordinating ACF’s care for unaccompanied children — thousands of children arriving each month from Central America, without their parents.

What were some of the biggest challenges? What do you consider the highlights?

Public policymaking is a complex process in the best of circumstances. Most choices involve difficult trades-offs — providing too little support today can lead to bigger costs for families and society tomorrow, but current resources are limited. Making those difficult choices is even more challenging in a highly partisan environment. On the other hand, when you find a productive path forward, when a program or policy that affects hundreds of thousands, or millions, of children and families is improved, it is very satisfying.

What was it like working for the Obama Administration?

It was an honor to serve in the federal government, and especially to be part of the Obama administration. The focus on equity and improving opportunities for success, and on evidence-based policy-making and the use of data, made this a particularly exciting time to be in Washington.

How did your work at UW-Madison prepare you for this role?

The Wisconsin Idea is not just an empty slogan. For me, UW-Madison, the Institute for Research on Poverty, the La Follette School and the School of Social Work provided the resources and encouragement to apply rigorous academic analysis to critical social policy issues, with a focus on developing and evaluating real-world solutions.

What’s next for you?

I am looking forward to returning to my teaching and research. I thought my time in D.C. might make me cynical. To the contrary, I now understand more clearly the potential impact of the research and training we provide, and the importance of bringing the best efforts of a world-class research university to bear on the key challenges we face as a nation.