Phil Herr (PhD ’88) on Applying Anthropology in a Federal Evaluation Agency (GAO)

Phil Herr has a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology from TC.  He has worked in program evaluation for 35 years, mainly through the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in Washington, where he retired in 2016 after a 28 year career.  He has subsequently done consulting related to foreign assistance programs through the GAO, private firms, and the United Nations. He speaks with us about his formation as an applied researcher, his move into Program Evaluation, and his continued engagement with the anthropological community.

I.D. photo of Phil during his Dissertation work in Honduras; Updated photo of Phil

Can you give a little bit of your background on how you got into anthropology at Teachers College?

I grew up in the Midwest, in several small towns in different states. When I was an undergrad, I did an exchange program and went down to Central America. When I came back, I transferred to Indiana University. I was interested in going back to Latin America, so I ended up doing an undergraduate degree through the Individualized Major Program at Indiana that allows people to do interdisciplinary studies. I was interested in studying across different subject areas and thought maybe I’d go into teaching or something like that, but my sponsor, Anya Peterson Royce, was an anthropologist and Latin Americanist who did a lot of her work in Mexico. She was a great mentor and sponsor. I ended up going back to Honduras and did a six-month research project that led to an undergraduate thesis. As I was thinking about what to do with that, the simple thing would have been to teach English abroad, but I was interested in getting more into anthropology, so I applied to TC. I had also met a friend in Central America who was a grad student at TC at the time and he said I should apply. I was fortunate – between my first and second year at TC, I had a grant to do field work in Central America from the Inter-American Foundation. In the mid-80’s in Central America, there was a lot going on. When I did my dissertation work, people were very interested in the region, and I was awarded grants from the NSF, Fulbright-Hays, and the OAS. The fact that TC’s anthropology program included fieldwork between the first and second year gave me a springboard to develop and refine ideas.

What years were you doing fieldwork in Central America?

I was there in 1981 between my first and second year and in 1984-1985 I was there for fifteen months.  While I was doing my dissertation research, there was a project funded by USAID looking at farming systems and they needed an anthropologist, so I began consulting work while I was doing my dissertation. When I went to Honduras for my  fieldwork in 1981, there was an anthropologist who graduated from TC, John Kelley, who was working with USAID. There was another anthropologist, also a graduate from the program, Gerald Murray, who is now retired from University of Florida, and he was going to do a short-term project for USAID. He is an excellent fieldworker and I spent several weeks in the highlands with him, helping with a household survey and seeing first hand how he engaged with the community.  I also helped with quantitative data analysis after we left the field.  I was fortunate to have had that opportunity at that time in my career as it was a great experience to work next to someone doing applied research.

Do you remember any particular classes or professors that stick out above the rest in terms of your formation as an anthropologist?

I’m not sure how they do it now, but there was the first and second year colloquium where you had to develop a proposal, read foundational books in the fall of the first year, develop a proposal for summer fieldwork, and then get funding. I think the discipline of writing a proposal and submitting it for funding was very good. And then we came back after that summer and spent the fall of the second year in classes discussing methodology and research more generally as well as starting to write up the results from the summer. During the spring semester, people in their second year presented their findings and first year students presented their summer proposals.  The core faculty–Lambros Comitas, George Bond, Chuck Harrington, and Bob Alvarez–offered suggestions and critiques.  I think it provided very good discipline because you learn from your mistakes early on.  And I think it just made you realize the importance of taking notes, the different ways of collecting and analyzing data and information, and doing it all in a sound way. While I was at TC, I also took classes in economics and social science research methods – I did that as part of my three years of coursework because I thought that that’s the kind of thing I would need to work successfully inside and outside academia. I wrote my dissertation on land tenure and agrarian reform as well as the impact of several economic development efforts.  In addition to many interviews, I conducted a survey with about 300 households in six communities and did all the statistical analysis when I got back to NYC. I think the first and second year colloquium and the requirement to do field work between the first and second year was very important.  To me, it was important to develop my personal approach to fieldwork, get feedback along the way.  

An unexpected opportunity while at TC came through my advisor, Lambros Comitas.  The government of the Co-Principality of Andorra had made research funding available and another student in the program and I spent a summer there.  My research focused on the role of guest workers in the regional economy as Andorra transitioned to a retail and tourist destination.  A highlight was getting to spend some time with Lambros in the field that summer. 

You said that you went into your PhD program wanting to be an applied researcher, and that led you to the GAO (Government Accountability Office). Can you tell us about how you made that transition?

I was looking for a part-time job while taking classes and someone recommended that I contact the NYC Department of Education’s evaluation office (where Ron Miller, another program alum was working). I stayed with that while writing my dissertation. They needed people to go out to the schools and interview teachers, students, staff, and administrators. I would have a survey instrument, some guiding questions and sometimes I’d also observe classrooms, then I’d write reports summing up the results. That work gave me a foot into what people call program evaluation

When I applied to GAO, they saw my PhD, that I had actually worked in evaluation and written reports, and that I spoke Spanish. I got hired about a year after I turned in my dissertation. And I have to say, when I started grad school, in all fairness, I did not realize that program evaluation was even a field. In the 30 years since I started working at GAO, it’s really become much more of a career path as people funding programs want to know how well the programs work and how they can be improved. But, I also think what helped me at GAO was the fact that aspects of the work are qualitative. There’s a lot of interviewing to understand how things work across the states or multiple countries. You have to think holistically. You also have to be able to put together different pieces of disparate information, triangulate data. You often don’t often have a lot of time to do it. Writing many papers in grad school helped make me be a better writer – writing was very important in my career. And I think also just being able to work on a lot of different topics was crucial. Frankly, anthropology was a perfect background to do that kind of work because you have to be interested in people and listen to them while being comfortable in all sorts of settings.  

One thing I should say about my time at GAO is that I ended up in the senior executive service at GAO. I went into this role for the last 10 years of my full-time career.  That was an interesting phase, with a lot of different experiences. As I transitioned to the role, I attended Harvard’s Senior Executive Fellows program. And then I ended up being the Managing Director of the team that analyzes all aspects of federal transportation support, telecommunications, postal operations, and related issues.  That work required that I testify about GAO reports and investigations before Congressional committees 20-odd times. One area that is getting a lot of attention now is the work I did on the Postal Service, which may sound really bizarre but was interesting given the many challenges that institution faces. 

One thing I did along the way while I was at GAO was teach a program evaluation workshop at the AAA (American Anthropological Association) meetings for two or three years. I did it because I thought if you’re a young anthropologist, a middle career anthropologist and you’re looking for a way to apply your skills – here’s an area that you can do it.

It’s fascinating that you took your degree, you went into Program Evaluation, and then you’re putting that perspective back into the field through the AAA workshops.

Absolutely. I would go to the AAA meetings as often as I could (every few years they would be held in DC so that helped).  I also worked with NAPA (The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology) to set up booths in addition to the workshops, and that even led to more anthropologists getting hired by the GAO. It was a great way to help anthropologists see what possibility and potential there is for them, maybe at GAO, maybe elsewhere.

It shows a breadth of possibilities beyond academia.

I’ll tell you, one day Lambros, my dissertation advisor and mentor, said to me, and he wasn’t being mean, “Look – there’s no jobs out there. There are no teaching jobs.” And then as I was finishing up, one of the things that I saw was it seemed like there was a sort of a reluctance to finish because the job search was difficult. And I told him, “I like you guys, but I’m not going to hang around. I have to get on with my life, and if my life is not going to be in academia, I’m going to have to go do other things.” And he said, “Good, I’m glad to hear that.” So I looked at various opportunities where I could apply my skills, and it worked out.

You finished your dissertation while you were working with the DOE?

Yes, I did and between that job and starting with GAO I worked for about a year at a small consulting firm in NYC.  I also taught part-time for several years while working on my dissertation, mainly introduction to anthropology and anthropology of Latin America courses at a CUNY branch.  I did it because it was fun to teach, I liked the students, and there’s not that many avenues to make part-time income either.

That’s quite a diverse set of projects. You’re retired now, though, but you picked up consulting work. What’s that like?

While I was wrapping up my career, I got a call from someone who worked at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a federal agency that provides foreign assistance. I met him in the early 2000s when we were doing a review of their program in Honduras. I understood their program because of this project, and I had written an important report on their operations there. And he said, “Hey, would you like to do some part-time work with us? We’re starting a project.”  My job as Managing Director the last five years at GAO was all consuming – I had one hundred and sixty people that worked for me in five locations across the country, and we did a lot of matrix work with other teams. I just didn’t have time to pick up something. But then I retired, and they came back to me and asked me if I would work with them. So I ended up working as a consultant through GAO – they started an office to do consulting called the Center for Audit Excellence. GAO is considered to be the best accountability/audit organization in the world because it has a very interdisciplinary workforce; they could use more anthropologists, but they have economists, sociologists, statisticians, and the typical hire has an MPA. GAO gets a lot of requests for help from sister agencies in other countries, and the CAE is set up for that. But they wanted me specifically because of my experience working in Honduras over the years. And that’s how I got into consulting. Since then, I’ve done projects like teaching program evaluation classes in the UAE and in different U.S. government agencies, like the Inspector General’s offices in the   Department of Labor, NASA, similar offices.  Last year, I did a diagnostic report on the Dominican Republic’s office similar to GAO.

I have done some other cool evaluations with the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime. They have a program that supports security operations at ports. You don’t know a whole lot beforehand and go to a country, meet with the managers running the program for a day, and then interview people implementing the program, donors, and government reps. The last one I did was in March right before the shut down so I was able to write my report in the early weeks of being home. I consistently get these contracts because, one, I speak Spanish so it helps with data collection, and two, I’ve had a lot of experience doing this by now.  They also find the reports useful.  Essentially, I look at their guidelines and figure out what they are trying to do, and then I go out and I ask people working on the project things along the lines of:  “What do you do? How do you do it? How could it be improved? Do you need other support?” It’s because I’m out talking to people in the field and am independent from the program that I get insights that can lead to recommendations and new ideas.

This sector seems initially pretty peripheral to Anthro, but it is all actually incredibly related.

I think the anthropological methodology and approach is essential. At one point, I did a GAO project looking at freight operations at the southwest border which involves moving lots of goods between the US/Mexico/Canada.  There was a lot of time in the field interviewing and doing observations.  At one very busy Texas border crossing, I was watching as the trucks backed up for miles and I said to the head of the port, “Your problem is under that bridge.” And he goes, “Well, yeah, we can’t do what we need to do – the sun is just too hot here.” Well, there are ways to fix this kind of thing. A lot of times when people are doing this kind of work, they don’t stop and listen and watch. They get the necessary quantity of interviews and they leave, without ever trying to understand what’s going on in more depth. And that’s at the heart of anthropological fieldwork.

Do you have any advice for prospective/current masters or PhD students who read this interview and are interested in Program Eval as a potential way to leverage their skill sets in applied research?

Look at position descriptions at consulting firms, different levels of government, and foundations and ask yourself, “how does what I do fit with that?” Analysis, writing, interviewing, research, putting those kinds of information together is often essential. Doing it quickly and writing up your findings in a clear, concise manner is also crucial.  Working on so many different projects in over 30 countries and throughout the U.S. made me realize that if I had just stayed in academia, I likely would have just researched Central American issues my whole career. I don’t know that that would have kept me happy, just writing articles and books about my dissertation. I’m not saying it would have been a bad thing, but I took another path.  So, think about what skills can transfer to an area like evaluation and think about how you can sell and package those. Academia and research is great, but there’s a whole host of other ways to apply that training.

Phil Herr has produced many reports for GAO, and consulted on countless others. If you’re interested in reading some of the reports he’s written, here’s one about the US Postal Service (mentioned above) and and here’s one about federal-state infrastructure partnership dilemmas.

Interview conducted by: Lizz Melville


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