Management Insights

The Dark Side of Government in the Sunshine

Like motherhood, ice cream and the all-expenses-paid vacation, seemingly everybody should like transparency in government. The specter of elected or unelected officials making decisions behind closed doors conjures up visions of corruption and would seem to signify government on behalf of private interests. For this reason, most democratic governments, to varying degrees, now operate under various laws and rules intended to promote openness.

As a card-carrying good-government type, I am supposed to like transparency, and I generally do think it's a good thing. Certainly there are real downsides to secrecy and backroom deals. There are many positive effects that can come from subjecting public processes to greater scrutiny and from requiring the disclosure of processes and data. Transparency itself, however, is not without its pitfalls. So what's wrong with government in the sunshine? Here are a few of my concerns: READ MORE

Corrections Lessons From the States

The federal prison population has grown nearly 800 percent since 1980 as lawmakers created new criminal penalties, mandated longer sentences and abolished parole. During this period, federal inmates' average time served increased from 15.9 months to 40.1. Taxpayers now spend $6.7 billion each year on federal prisons, with corrections costs growing twice as fast as all other Justice Department spending. Yet a third of the inmates who leave federal prison under community supervision return to custody for violating the terms of their release. These sobering statistics have led policy-makers in both political parties to seek less costly and better public-safety outcomes.

While many in Washington are debating how to improve the federal correctional system, states -- in their traditional role as laboratories for innovation -- have moved from talk to action. Since 2007, more than half the states have made research-based policy changes to control prison growth, hold offenders accountable and protect public safety. Through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative -- a partnership of the Justice Department, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and other organizations -- states are focusing prison space on serious and violent offenders while expanding alternatives to incarceration for those who can be supervised more effectively and efficiently in the community. READ MORE

Public Projects and the Optimism Trap

On Dec. 31, 2007, the "Big Dig" in Boston was officially completed. The largest single highway project in the country's history, it was nine years late and had cost more than $14.6 billion, a stunning $12 billion over budget. And if that wasn't bad enough, the project was plagued by corruption, scheduling overruns, leaks, design flaws and the death of one motorist.

It's not that the project itself was unnecessary. On the contrary, for decades traffic to and from Boston's Logan Airport was terrible, and it was difficult for the most experienced Boston drivers to negotiate the tangled streets and constant congestion downtown. The project greatly reduced congestion, air pollution and confusion. But because of its well publicized problems, the Big Dig has become a symbol of big government at its worst -- unethical politicians, contractors who cheat, costly projects, shoddy quality. Whether it's highway projects, weapons systems for the Pentagon, or NASA's two shuttle disasters, the stories of botched government projects seem unending. Why is that? READ MORE

An Intriguing New Approach to Funding Social Programs

I've always been fascinated by the challenge of finding funding for front-end investment for programs that promise downstream, long-term savings. Early childhood education, geriatric fall prevention, prisoner recidivism, permanent supportive housing -- are examples of programs that appear to pay for themselves.

One set of challenges is programmatic: selection of an evidence-based intervention; identification of a sufficiently narrow group of high-risk individuals to avoid prohibitively high costs; execution of the intervention with sufficient fidelity to achieve expected outcomes; and rigorous evaluation to determine whether cost avoidance has been achieved. READ MORE

Participatory Democracy’s Emerging Tools

As we explore the role of new technologies in changing how government makes policies and delivers services, one form of technology is emerging that has the potential to foster decision-making that's not only more effective but also more legitimate: platforms for organizing communication by groups across a distance.

Long known as groupware in the business world, such tools now are either being adapted or purpose-built to facilitate conversation and collaboration between government and citizens with the goal of enabling democracy that is more participatory and inclusive of diverse voices. READ MORE