The Siren Song of 'The Other Thing'

The gravitation toward a third way is mostly sound. Yet a cautionary note is in order.
February 22, 2006
By John D. Donahue  |  Contributor
John D. Donahue is a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Raymond Vernon Lecturer in Public Policy, faculty chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Case Program and the SLATE teaching initiative.

Recent decades have been a mixed bag for actual governing, but heady days for theory. Innovative practitioners and intellectuals have been asking hard questions and framing new answers about first-order features of public service. The classic Wilsonian model -- neutrally competent bureaucracy, guided only by legislation, working only through public employees -- is losing ground to an array of alternatives.

These approaches are hugely diverse, but they tend to feature a few common themes: exploiting great leaps in information technology; shaking up procedures and breaking down barriers within government; and (especially) enlarging the role of private players, both for-profit and non-profit, in the definition and pursuit of public value.

The term governance has become a sort of generic label for this broad rethinking of public work. Governance is cast as a middle ground between the excesses of conventional government and those of the untrammeled market. Governance is not myopic and plodding, like boring old bureaucracy. But neither is it reckless and wild and heedless of human cost, like the market can be on a bad day.

Let's be clear: This gravitation toward a third way is mostly sound. The folly of extremes and the wisdom of the middle course are themes echoing through human history (think Aristotle, Buddha, and Benjamin Franklin, not to mention Goldilocks.) The smartest policy-school students instinctively look for a hybrid that splits the difference between alternatives that, at first blush, exhaust the options. Similarly (but far more consequentially) ace public managers constantly find ways to blend the best, and dodge the worst, of seemingly disparate approaches. All of the contributors to this new Management Insights series (myself included) work, in various ways, to advance this agenda of rethinking government, and many of us fly the "governance" flag.

Yet a cautionary note is in order. Our instinctive inclination toward healthy hybrids can have a dark side. The diligent search for a superior middle way can degenerate into delusional certainty that there simply must be one. Knowing the rockiness of the high road and the mud of the low road, we are tempted toward faith that somewhere between the two is a path without risk or rigor. The Other Thing, not Option 1 and not Option 2, free of the flaws marring the all-too-real choices that bracket it.

The most grandiloquently silly manifestation of this yearning for The Other Thing may be Hegel's evidence-free grand theory of everything, an account of history hinging on the iterative pas de trois of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The most tragic, surely, was Marx persuading too many people for two many decades that communism was The Other Thing superseding, and superior to, both feudalism and capitalism. The funniest is the story of Isadora Duncan propositioning George Bernard Shaw, insisting that the era's most glamorous performer and most brilliant writer owed the world a child with her looks and his brains. Shaw, noting the risk that the mix could go the other way, politely declined.

Practitioners and scholars weary from the hard slog of improving real-world government sometimes succumb to irrational exuberance about new-style governance. We're all too familiar with the confusion and deception and sheer tedium that often accompany face-to-face interaction, and hope or assume that far-flung virtual networks will be purer. We know that agencies can be sleepy and that corporations can be heartless, but give non-profit organizations the benefit of the doubt on both counts. We're painfully aware of the effort it takes to keep a bureaucracy moving in the right direction, and can't imagine -- yet -- the Herculean task of managing collaboration with private partners. And why not give "civil society" a turn at defining and creating public value, since we've seen how badly legislatures and executives can botch the job?

My goal isn't to deny progress or to discourage experiments. Just the opposite, in fact. Only if we treat innovations as experiments -- only if we subject promising ideas to tough empirical tests that may or may not confirm their worth -- can we hope to advance the state of our art. Undue affection for The Other Thing gets in the way.

The middle path may indeed turn out to be the best way forward. But it is no more likely to be straight or smooth than any other path. Distinguishing legitimate from bogus definitions of the common good can never be anything but a high-stakes challenge. Any organizational apparatus entrusted with a public mission, whether conventional public service or collaborative network, still must be managed.

By all means, let's keep developing new and better ideas for how to do this work. But let's not kid ourselves. The new kinds of work will be as hard as the old kind, just hard in different ways.