Alumni Spotlight: Andrea Chinchilla

Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Andrea Chinchilla, MPP ’08

Andrea Chinchilla Andrea Chinchilla, a graduate of SPPD’s master of public policy program, currently serves as a management analyst in the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. For the past year-and-a-half, she has been working on a major report – “Audit of Veteran-Owned and Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Programs” – which was released in late July. The report found at least 1,400 small businesses are ineligibly receiving Veteran-Owned and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned contracts valued at $500 million annually.

Chinchilla played an important role in the research, findings, analysis and development. Click here to read the full report.

In addition, the Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations at the VA Department, Belinda Finn, presented the report’s results in Washington — testifying before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations this past summer.

Below is a Q&A with Chinchilla about her experiences involving this report.

Can you please provide an overview about the report, “Audit of Veteran-Owned and Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Programs,” and its findings? What is the goal of the report?

AC: We audited the Veterans Affairs (VA) Veteran-Owned Small Business and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business programs to determine if businesses met program and contract eligibility requirements and whether VA provided effective management oversight. A business was considered ineligible when it did not meet ownership and control requirements or if it passed-through the work on the contract to nonveteran-owned small businesses.

We found that VA awards ineligible businesses at least 1,400 Veteran-Owned and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned contracts valued at $500 million, annually. The VA will award $2.5 billion to ineligible businesses over the next 5 years if it does not strengthen contracting officer oversight and business verification procedures. Seventy-six percent of the reviewed businesses were ineligible to participate in the programs or to receive the contracts.

What role did you play in the report’s development?

AC: This project is very near and dear to my heart. For roughly a year, I was heavily involved in all aspects of the audit, from the creation of our audit approach to the development of our findings and ultimately to the published audit report. In particular, I worked on determining whether businesses met program eligibility requirements. This required becoming a subject matter expert and reviewing all of the veteran owned small businesses in our sample and the contracts awarded to those businesses. The findings in this area became a central and integral part of our report.

In conducting research for the report, where did you have to travel? With whom did you speak/interview?

AC: I had the pleasure to visit a lot of different parts of the country as a part of this audit. I interviewed dozens of veteran owners and business managers out on the field and spoke with influential program officials and VA contracting officers in Washington D.C.

We selected eight geographical locations and five businesses per location to review. I visited and examined businesses in rural and urban areas of Alabama, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina and Colorado.

I feel truly blessed to do what I love and see areas of the country I never thought I would experience.

How does it feel to see your efforts come to fruition in this report’s publishing? What impact do you hope it will have?

AC: It was a lot of hard work and I am humbled and excited by all of the recognition and interest in this project. Our audit recently was awarded the Inspector General’s Outstanding Initiative of the Year Award and I personally received a Special Contribution Award for my efforts. Our report has ignited some interest on Capitol Hill and in the media. It was recently covered in the Los Angeles Times and in the Washington Post.

One of the greatest things about working with the OIG for the Veterans Affairs Department is that VA officials listen to our recommendations and are required to implement them. It provides you with a great sense of purpose to work hard at every project and to make recommendations that you know will affect the Department in positive ways and ultimately make an impact in the services we provide our veterans.

When the report presented to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, how was it received? What part did you play in the testimony?

AC: The overall message of the report was briefed as a courtesy to the various Veterans Sub-Committees prior to publication. The report’s message, while initially shocking to most committee members and staffers, was taken as a much-needed wake up call to the department and reinforced the need for a public hearing on the matter. Our report and findings were presented at a Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on July 28, 2011.

This was a very exciting time in our office. I personally assisted in the development of the prepared statement presented at the hearing and prepped answers to potential questions that could arise during the testimony.

In what ways has your SPPD education prepared you to contribute to an important project like this?

AC: In today’s society, leaders have to work across disciplines and build knowledge and expertise in many different areas. The real world issues that we tackled and the approaches that we learned at SPPD prepared me for such an environment. There was a large focus in creating an ability to address a complex problem with a set of skills that would translate to many different fields. At the OIG, I may complete an audit that addresses problems with contracting and the next audit could be about the Recovery Act funded projects. The ability to be innovative in my approach and make recommendations to very different issues has proved instrumental to my success. It is a skill that I will always take with me.

What lessons from SPPD – specifically, from your MPP program – have you been able to apply professionally?

AC: The MPP program prepared me for a career in designing solutions to complex issues. I developed the ability to think quickly and address problems in a rapidly changing environment like federal politics. Every single day I am able to use the research, analytical, evaluation and writing skills I developed during the program. Constantly working in a team was not difficult for me; I was used to working with many people at USC with very different backgrounds and viewpoints. It makes for a more interesting and cohesive approach at the problem.

How do you feel SPPD has been able to help you reach your professional goals?

AC: A Master of Public Policy prepared me with the skills that fit perfectly with the work of a management analyst. This allows me to be able to contribute to the projects in highly effective ways and as a result I have been able to obtain promotions and work successfully towards my professional goals. The education at USC is unlike any other; maybe that’s why we have five Trojans on staff, including three SPPD alumni!