The La Follette School resides in the heart of Madison – the offices are close to the center of campus atop Bascom Hill.  Beyond the walls of the university, however, lie the city of Madison, Dane county, and the south-central region of Wisconsin.  Rolling hills such as Bascom continue beyond the city limits and into area dairy farms and neighboring cities, towns, and villages.  Often our classes and internships look at municipal, county, or state issues (development, environment, economic sustainability), but regional issues blur our imposed boundaries.

A new, local non-profit, Thrive, has chosen to address regional issues by building collaboration among businesses, entrepreneurs,

Stewardship lives here - images from Thrive

Stewardship lives here - image from Thrive

organizations, and governments across the eight-county Madison Region (Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Green, Iowa, Jefferson, Rock and Sauk counties).  Their mission is to “protect, leverage and accelerate the growth of our region’s strongest economic opportunities and to facilitate and support collaborative regional efforts that preserve and enhance our quality of life.”  A key aspect of that mission is developing a regional identity that strengthens each county and community.  Thrive focuses on three economic sectors – agriculture, biotechnology, and healthcare – that already exist locally and can expand to improve the economy of the area.

A La Follette intern helped Thrive during its early days as the organization prepared to open in 2007.  Recently, Thrive’s Director of Communications Jennifer Smith took some time to answer La Flog’s questions —

LaFlog:  Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing about your organization.  During the first year at La Follette we take a course on ‘The Policy-Making Process,’ where we learn how a policy is made from the initial concern to the final implementation.  Outside of the classroom, how does Thrive interact with public policy decision makers?  Could you give an example of how Thrive contributes and coordinates regional policies?  How do you have to tailor your message to meet rural, urban, and state-level policy-makers?

Jennifer: Something Thrive works to address is the fact that policy-making tends not to occur at a regional level. Decisions and policy on issues that cross municipal boundaries – issues like land use, water, transportation, education, economic development, workforce development, energy, etc. – are often made at a local level. Because of our eight-county focus and our emphasis on both economic development and quality of life, Thrive is in a unique position to bring a regional perspective to this kind of decision-making and policy. The global imperative now is for planning and policy that addresses interconnected issues holistically at a regional level, resulting in sustainable, long-term benefits. So what Thrive works to do, when we take a position, is to provide a broader, regional context and to address the linked nature of an issue. Our hope is that this begins to reframe the conversation, by providing a broader context. (For information on the regional perspective and some policy stances we’ve taken, see

In terms of tailoring our message to a diverse audience: before we take a position on an issue, we do a lot of research. This includes talking to a variety of stakeholders across the board so that we can see all sides of an issue – this helps us figure out what kind of a role we play (convener, educator, consensus-builder, etc.) as well as where we stand. But since our positions take the regional perspective, by nature they must be relevant to a broad audience. That’s part of the benefit.

For more on policy issues, you can contact Julia Popolizio, Project Specialist-Thrive,

LaFlog: It might also be interesting to hear about some current local issues.  From Thrive’s perspective, why is Dane County’s unemployment rate so much lower than the US average? Will the budget cuts to state government affect the unemployment in the near future because of the number of government workers here?

Jennifer: Getting a credible measure for the economic impact of the public sector is extremely difficult to do.  The UW and the state technical college system have commissioned studies on this over the past few years in order to quantify their value and the state’s return on investment.  I think those have been well done and very useful but they take time.

Thrive has been looking at the economic impact or value-add of our target sectors  (see for example sector snapshots for bio:, agriculture: and healthcare: and working in fact with the Department of Workforce Development and their research tools  such as Implan, a well known economic modeling tool.  Experts in this field offer caveats that using these tools for the public sector is somewhat problematic since the formulas do not factor in the government costs in the first place.

Public sector also is a big category that includes a wide range of federal, state, county, and municipal employees, and also includes public education, K-12, technical colleges, and the University of Wisconsin.

Having said all that, public sectors jobs often pay well, offer excellent benefits and in the non-metro parts of our state and region, often are some of the best paying jobs.  That is where the hits might be felt the hardest, where there are already fewer people shopping, investing, and paying taxes.

For more on economic and metrics issues, you can contact Sue Gleason, Dir. Of Assets and Metrics-Thrive,

LaFlog: Regionally, how might the area adjusting to the closing of the GM plant in Janesville?

Jennifer: This is obviously a difficult time for Janesville and the entire region, but the positive elements that this is engendering include an increased focus on regionalism in Rock County planning and development initiatives; an increasing trend toward diversification of the economy in the Rock County area, and a greater understanding both inside and outside of Rock County of the connectedness of the region—how for example regional strengths can affect a bad situation positively. See for example this article interviewing Rock Co. economic development professionals and urban planners:

LaFlog: What opportunities are there for the Madison region to grow economically in the face of the massive legislative initiatives in Congress?  Will the healthcare/Health IT proposals change that opportunity?

Jennifer: Health IT – this can be a boon to Epic in sustaining demand for their products. The smaller healthcare organizations may benefit somewhat, but probably not significantly. The larger organizations (including the SSM system, which covers smaller organizations) will probably be positioned well to capture the Medicare payment incentives related to Health IT when they are implemented a few years down the road.

On Healthcare reform, there’s a lot of discussion regarding changing the structure of Medicare payments. One line of discussion focuses on “accountable care organizations” which many of our integrated delivery systems already fit. They are much better positioned than disaggregated providers. One other point – Medicaid managed care membership. This tends to be driven more by state policy than federal, but it is an area of policy that impacts healthcare. Kathryn Otto (Healthcare-Thrive) understands that healthcare providers who are also owners of managed care plans are somewhat insulated from the negative impact of Medicaid membership if it’s within their plans.

There’s also discussion of wellness in most of the reform proposals. This might benefit the strong initiative underway in the region currently, led by Thrive: the Healthcare Leadership Collaborative and its Workforce Wellness initiative, which ultimately benefits the healthcare organizations along with the individuals and businesses in our communities. Workforce wellness can be a huge competitive advantage for the region (creating healthier employees = healthier business = healthier region).

A public insurance option could have an impact on the healthcare providers based on the reimbursement rates. It could also have a negative impact on the health plans in the region. (We are one of the strongest in the region with five locally-owned insurer-providers—currently a strong economic advantage for the region and our healthcare industry.)

For more information on healthcare topics, contact Kathryn Otto, Dir. Of Healthcare Initiatives-Thrive,

LaFlog: Are there public events at Thrive that students could attend?

Jennifer: There is a twice annual Collaboration Council meeting that Thrive hosts.  The next meeting is in December and is open to the public. The CC is not a formal group—it’s a platform for dialog—approximately 60 regional leaders and others coming together to discuss the state of the region, best practices, issues in their counties or industries, and where the region is headed.

LaFlog: Self-interest, now: how might La Follette folks get involved with Thrive?  Does Thrive ever have interns (or volunteers)?

Jennifer: We would love involvement by La Follette students on research, with internships—but we’re not ready for that step yet. If you’re interested in getting involved, sign up for our newsletter on our website (, follow us on Twitter (@thrivehere), fan us on Facebook for updates… What we really need to do now is keep the momentum building about what we’re doing and how we’re working as a region. The more involved you get—by knowing what we’re doing—the more you can support both Thrive and the region.

Thanks for the opportunity to be in the best named blog in the region!

Scott Williams and Nate Inglis Steinfeld contributed to this interview.


About Nate

Graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am studying public policy, administration, and law. More importantly, I am getting the La Follette School Student Association out and onto the blogosphere. Here we come!
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