Just 28 percent of the American public has a favorable opinion of the federal government, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center. Rarely has a figure embodied an organization’s mission so vividly. Last week, Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, announced the creation of a new outfit, The Volcker Alliance, aimed at changing that type of statistic by restoring public trust in government.
The person charged with overseeing the new good-government group is Shelley Metzenbaum, formerly the director of performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget. Metzenbaum has worked in federal, state and local government and hopes to use those experiences to improve government performance at all levels.
Some of her previous posts include associate administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for Regional Operations and State-Local Relations, undersecretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and director of capital budgeting for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the interest of full disclosure, she’s also written columns for Governing about performance management and efficiency, which you can find here.
Governing spoke with Metzenbaum about The Volcker Alliance, its mission and what it may mean for state and local government. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When does The Volcker Alliance officially launch? Have you already begun working on projects?
We’ve officially launched in that we’ve announced our presence. We’re now trying to figure out the shape of the projects and the shape of the enterprise and the nature of the needs that exist. We don’t intend to be heavily staffed. We’ll have people who specialize in certain areas, and we’ll partner with governments, think tanks, academia, and other non-profits.
In The New York Times write-up, Paul Volcker says the Alliance won’t be another think tank. How will you be different from a Brookings Institution or American Enterprise Institute, which already research best practices and make policy recommendations?
We see ourselves as a catalyst for action, facilitating between think tanks, academic institutions and government, filling that gap between thinking and practice. There’s great work that goes on in these think tanks, but we’re really interested not just in understanding how government works, but in helping it work better. We are interested in understanding how people in government get their information about effective practices from researchers and other practitioners, and facilitating the translation and dissemination of research and other relevant information to practitioners. For example, the best academic journals are not written in a language that practitioners can easily understand, nor is it easy for them to get to access to the journals. The incentives for both systems are different. In academia, it’s publish or perish. In government, you’re so busy working on your task list, you don’t have time to read the journals and if you do, it’s not easy to find and it’s almost like reading another language.
The Alliance mission statement discusses the erosion of public confidence in government. What’s behind that erosion and how do you fix it?
It’s an important question that you’re raising. We want to understand better why public trust is so low. Much of the time government does work well, but that doesn’t receive a lot of attention. And when government does receive attention, it's often negative. We want to figure out how we help people appreciate the value of government and its role in their lives, while also helping government agencies improve their delivery of service.
In other interviews, you have said the Alliance will work on the delivery phase of policy. Could you explain how that’s different from other stages of the policy process?
Sure. One example right now, there’s always an ongoing debate in the U.S. Forest Service, and possibly among state and local parks folks, about what they want to accomplish when they manage these public lands. Is the government’s goal to increase recreational opportunities and enjoyment? Is it to provide for ecosystems health? Or is it to generate revenue for government? You have three different purposes. The political process needs to think that through. We want to focus on improving the implementation once those policy questions are decided. Of course, as most strong managers know, often times, as part of strong management, they may need to encourage decision-making on the policy trade-offs.
The Alliance mission statement mentions a need to restore trust in “statehouses, cities and towns across our country.” What kind of work would the Alliance do at the state and local level, and how does your prior experience factor in?
I have a great love and affection for state and local government. You get things done and if it’s not working, you find out fast. At the federal level, it’s a larger enterprise and it’s harder to turn that ship. Over my career, I’ve been interested in the federal-state-local delivery system and why there are places where it works better than others. One key question is, what’s the federal role in facilitating learning? Louis Brandeis used to talk about states as the laboratories of democracy, but that laboratory doesn’t function very well if there’s no scientist operating in it.
Since a central part of the Alliance's agenda is restoring public confidence in government, I was wondering how you’ll measure progress. How will you know if you’re successful?
I think success will mean progress on getting information out on specific projects, sharing what the best lessons and best opportunities are. In six months, I think we’ll be able to say we’ve offered some deliverables that were really helpful. Our goal here is to help government delivering services of great and growing value to its citizens.