Management Insights

When a Public Agency Is Badly Broken

A single silver lining in the Department of Veterans Affairs' health-care scandal may be the teaching moment the disclosure of the agency's failures has provided. Thoughtful public managers at all levels of government are pausing to reflect and consider how -- or if -- such a pattern of poor performance, cover-up and mistreatment of whistleblowers could happen in their agencies. My experience suggests that under the wrong conditions, any public agency can slide into habits that treat those it serves with indifference and find ways to falsely claim competence and success.

The appointment of a new veterans' affairs secretary from a corporation with a textbook reputation for inculcating a culture of high performance, competence and customer service is a good first step. Yet Proctor & Gamble's disciplined corporate culture was built over decades and is sustained by selecting, mentoring and promoting leaders at all levels who have internalized that culture. READ MORE

Performance Management in Government: The Old Is New Again

For all of the interest and excitement surrounding current efforts to expand performance management in government, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the concept was born in the past decade or two. Yet today's innovative approaches to finding ways to deliver public services more efficiently -- from proliferating "stat" programs to powerful data-analytics tools -- have their roots in research going back to the early part of the last century.

The early work of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, in measuring the efficiency of municipal services, for example, was so well received that it served as one of many catalysts to the development of public-sector performance-management approaches. We published the first in a series of 14 articles focused on "economies," or ways to improve performance in a variety of local-government areas, in Public Management magazine back in July 1932. Five years later, graduate student (and eventual Nobel laureate) Herbert A. Simon, along with then-ICMA executive director Clarence Ridley, authored an article titled "Technique of Appraising Standards," the first in a series on management standards in city administration. READ MORE

Technology’s Crucial Role in the Fight Against Hunger

National Geographic recently sent three photographers to explore hunger in the United States. It was an effort to give a face to a very troubling statistic: Even today, one-sixth of Americans do not have enough food to eat. Fifty million people in this country are "food insecure" -- having to make daily trade-offs among paying for food, housing or medical care -- and 17 million of them skip at least one meal a day to get by. When choosing what to eat, many of these individuals must make choices between lesser quantities of higher-quality food and larger quantities of less-nutritious processed foods, the consumption of which often leads to expensive health problems down the road.

This is an extremely serious, but not easily visible, social problem. Nor does the challenge it poses become any easier when poorly designed public-assistance programs continue to count the sauce on a pizza as a vegetable. The deficiencies caused by hunger increase the likelihood that a child will drop out of school, lowering her lifetime earning potential. In 2010 alone, food insecurity cost America $167.5 billion, a figure that includes lost economic productivity, avoidable health-care expenses and social-services programs. READ MORE

The Debate We’re Not Having over Fiscal Disparities

It is an article of faith in public finance that the best formula for providing efficient public services is to decentralize to the lowest level of government possible. State and local governments have greater incentives to economize and improve productivity because they are, in effect, in competition with one another for taxpayers and businesses.

While the theory is alluring, competition does not play out on a neutral field. Significant disparities exist in the tax bases and needs across states and localities. A 2007 study by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution using the latest data on comparative fiscal capacities across states and localities showed fiscal capacity varying by nearly 120 percent between Connecticut's state and local governments and those of Mississippi. Typically, jurisdictions with low tax bases also are those with high spending needs, which together add up to a low fiscal-capacity score. READ MORE

Government Problems and the Power of Prizes

Philadelphia has long had a crime problem. This year the city of Brotherly Love was ranked the 5th most dangerous big city in the country. Unfortunately, that wasn't an aberration -- Philadelphia has hovered between 4th and 7th most dangerous throughout the last decade.

This year Mayor Michael Nutter decided to try a different approach to cutting crime: launching a competition. The city crafted a $100,000 challenge called FastFWD and invited entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions to crime. "We wanted to open up the solution space," explains Story Bellows, who led the initiative for the city. "We were looking for solutions we didn't expect and didn't even know existed." READ MORE