The Face of the Fed: An Interview with Michael Alpern

By Tierney Bishop and Lili Ramirez.

On March 17th, the Duke in D.C. Program hosted Michael Alpern, head of the Press/Public Diplomacy team of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and Bureau spokesperson. In addition to Alpern’s current position at the State Department, he has several years of experience working for the federal government at the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and at the Department of Homeland Security, where he completed a Presidential Management Fellowship. Outside of his federal government experience, he has experience working for a public advocacy organization. Alpern holds a Masters Degree in International Affairs from George Washington University’s Elliott School and a BA in Political Science from Duke University.

When faced with several questions regarding increasing political partisanship of the government and the American public, Alpern maintained that compromise across political party ideologies can and still does occur. While the widening partisan gap is not conducive to compromise, it should not deter Americans from believing in the power and capabilities of the government to enact positive change. Social media encourages the idea that government fails more often than it succeeds, when in fact there are frequent and effective decisions made by federal agencies to allow the government to fully function. Alpern highlighted the fact that decisions affecting the well-being of Americans are not solely made by Congress, but also by federal agencies that are less affected by the widening gap in political partisanship.

Alpern provides hope in an era of cynicism where social media and current events bias how Americans view their government. According to Alpern, young people should not be discouraged from serving in government based solely on what they see and hear on social media. Controversy and scandal make prime time coverage over the decisions that actually get made on a daily basis. Alpern encourages us to focus on the seemingly small decisions and the processes of government in order to inspire young people to want to serve in government.

Americans have a tendency to focus on what is broken in government, but fail to look at its achievements. Alpern serves as a reminder that Americans should not take for granted what government has done and continues to do to improve their lives. An incomplete list of successful government programs that have made substantial progress include regulation of the business cycle, public health programs, the interstate highway system, the GI Bill, consumer protection, clean water and clean air programs, the military, and food and drug safety programs.  Alpern encourages young people to focus on the ways in which government can be effective and inspire public service.

DPR: What can we do to inspire more young people to serve in government?

Alpern: I think one thing that could be done is remembering and seeing and paying attention to the processes and the way that things work beyond the headlines. And I think that you see that there are parts of public life and policy-making that are free from the ugly partisan rancor, where you do see people—regardless of partisan or ideological affiliation—taking public service seriously.

DPR: Given your extensive background working for government agencies, do you believe you have become more or less critical about the effectiveness of government reforms?

Alpern: That’s a good question. I would say my level of cynicism has decreased a bit.  When I was working at Homeland Security and working on immigration policy, I was there for a very true bipartisan debate that eventually did end in partisan rancor—this was near the end of the Bush Administration—but it was exciting to see that there are still times and issues when the Hill and the executive branch do come together to work on areas of public interest.  I see that on a range of foreign policy issues at the State department. And in the executive branch, in the legislative branch, in the non-profit sector, there are a lot of impressive individuals who—to be frank—could be making more money elsewhere, and who are here.  That may sound idealistic, but [those people] exist, and I just hope that this generation—and maybe some people in this classroom—will join the tradition. We are a democracy, and there are responsibilities as well as rights that we enjoy. I know that may sound corny, but people taking part in how their democracy runs is a noble and attractive endeavor.

DPR: Given your delicate and crucial role within the State Department, how do you find the balance between being adequately transparent and appropriately discreet—between the public, the department itself and the government, and organizations internationally such as the U.N.?

Alpern: That is a good question. I would say that the State Department pays a lot of attention to creating processes on the very nitty gritty level.  For example, when you hit “send” on an email you have to designate whether it is sensitive or unclassified or whatnot. I think there are a lot of processes built in, to make sure that we’re keeping—not necessarily classified, but sensitive things—sensitive. Because I work in a press/public outreach role, I do try to remember that transparency—both to international and domestic audiences, who pay taxes to fund us—does have to be taken into account.  It’s not always easy; there’s other parts of the State Department bureaucracy that have different incentives, who don’t want anything to get screwed up, and so are like, “let’s keep everything close hold.”  But you have to hash that out. I think that with what we’ve seen with WikiLeaks and Snowden—and broadly with the era of social media—it is harder to be as fully transparent as it was before, but I think that State does have fairly good processes, despite a few notable exceptions of leakage, as we call it. I think we can keep sensitive what we need to keep sensitive.

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