Better Government

The Problem With Evidence-Based Government

The drive for evidence-based policymaking has moved from the world of wonks and analysts into the mainstream. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in government who opposes the idea, especially as it has now merged with an emphasis on big data and data analytics. There is even a federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

As a former government auditor, I certainly stand foursquare for the use of evidence in drawing conclusions about what works well and how to improve what doesn’t. But there is an important challenge that advocates of evidence-based policymaking need to recognize: the human factor. READ MORE

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Double-Loop Government

In 1967, when I finally learned to dunk a basketball, they made it illegal. It remained so until 1976, when my days as a competitive player were about over. The rule, of course, wasn’t about me. It was about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His name back then was Lew Alcindor, and the NCAA rule banning the dunk, adopted after his sophomore year at the University of California at Los Angeles, was called the Alcindor Rule. Traditionalists felt that the dunk was ruining the game.

The dunk was an innovation resulting from what the late organizational theorist Chris Argyris called “double-loop learning,” a concept that people interested in dramatically improving the way government works ought to become familiar with. Single-loop learning, Argyris wrote, is when an individual or organization attempts to align outcomes with expectations without questioning “underlying causal mechanisms.” In basketball, for example, the team simply practices and improves its execution of plays and its field goal percentages. Double-loop learning, on the other hand, “encourages the questioning of assumptions and the confronting of traditions.” What UCLA did was feed the ball to a highly athletic 7-foot-2 player who could score with far greater efficiency by simply dunking the ball. The result was a 30-0 season, an NCAA championship and a lot of very upset people heavily invested in the status quo. READ MORE

Managing the Evil That Institutions Do

“Don’t be evil.” That preface to Google’s code of conduct contains a powerful insight into the nature of organizations. Big organizations have the capacity to bring bad behavior to scale. History has lots of examples of this in both corporations and governments -- especially in governments.

This is the central theme of Unmasking Administrative Evil, a book by Guy Adams and Danny Balfour published a few years ago. While the Holocaust is arguably one of the most extreme cases of administrative evil, I can think of lots of other examples, from the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to Jim Crow laws and, more recently, the Flint water crisis. READ MORE

New Hope for College Towns

A strong collaborative relationship between a university and the city in which it is located is such an obviously good idea that it is remarkable that it has such a long history of not working very well. In my view, the classic analysis of this situation is contained in Not Well Advised, a 1981 book by the consultant and policy analyst Peter Szanton. While universities were seen as “potentially rich sources of useful advice to municipal governments,” little of that advice had any effect on cities, he wrote.

Not much has changed since then, and there are good reasons why it’s hard to create an effective and sustainable partnership between cities and universities. For one thing, both have relatively high turnover at the top; strong relationships take time to develop, but mayors, city managers and university presidents often have a relatively short tenure. And both cities and universities are dynamic, open systems that are hard to focus and direct. There are also misperceptions that get in the way: The idea that what universities offer is brainpower that cities lack is more than a little off-putting for some on the city side. In their view, the university’s best contribution is as an anchor institution -- employer, landowner and potential developer. READ MORE

The Complexity of Simplicity in Government

Complexity, says Brookings Institution social mobility expert Richard V. Reeves, “is the friend of the upper middle class.” To me, Reeves’ observation provides insight into the insidious way governments can, even without realizing it, work against the bulk of the people they seek to serve. It reminds me of my days as a social worker, when a lot of my clients would ask me to interpret government letters and forms for them. I worked for the state of Pennsylvania, but the forms they brought to me were from the city, the county, the state, the feds. It didn’t matter -- it was all “the government” to them, and the special skill I brought was that I could interpret bureaucratese.

If what Reeves says is true, then what Nick Macchione, director of health and human services for San Diego County, Calif., calls “potent simplicity” is the friend of everyone else. Macchione and his colleagues used the concept to create a clear, empowering message to underpin Live Well San Diego, the county’s strategic community health plan. They came up with notion of “3-4-50” to communicate the idea that three behaviors -- smoking, lack of exercise and poor nutrition -- contribute to four chronic diseases that cause more than half of the county’s deaths. READ MORE