What Simulators Could Do for Public Management

We have the technology to build systems for immersive, realistic training. It could go a long way toward improving outcomes.
September 26, 2016
By Kevin C. Desouza  |  Contributor
A Foundation Professor in Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs
By Elisa Jayne Bienenstock  |  Contributor
A college research professor at Arizona State University

Simulation is a routine and expected component of training for many professions and occupations. We no longer feel comfortable deploying pilots, surgeons or soldiers whose intensive classroom education has not been enhanced with a simulation component.

But there is no similar expectation when it comes to preparing our public managers, even though the environments they so often find themselves in are highly volatile, uncertain and complex. Like pilots and surgeons, public managers must often rely on their instincts while making quick decisions in ambiguous settings based on limited information. Yet few have access to cutting-edge, technology-enabled simulation platforms to develop their leadership and decision-making capabilities.

We need more active modes of learning -- and continuous learning -- that immerse managers into virtual operating environments so they can experience complexity, apply expertise and knowledge, propose interventions, receive feedback on their decisions, and learn about the consequences, both intended and unintended, of their choices. While a case study provides a manager-in-training with an opportunity to Monday-morning-quarterback decisions someone else has made, technology-enabled simulations provide a venue to role-play a situation as it unfolds.

Envisioning situations where public managers could benefit from simulators is easy. Imagine, for example, an interactive dashboard where a manager could react to information on a simulated natural disaster or other emergency situation, receiving real-time feedback about the consequences of each choice and an evaluation of the overall performance. Or consider an immersive virtual environment to train social workers: A three dimensional virtual tour simulating a home visit could include subtle cues of health or safety risks.

Public safety is a field particularly ripe for the simulation approach. Different approaches for handling the fallout from police actions that result in death or injury produce different outcomes, as we've seen so graphically in our communities in recent years. In some cases, police responses exacerbated tensions, while in others management choices succeeded in retaining community trust. Simulations calibrated with data drawn from law-enforcement reports and news coverage would allow managers to pre-test their strategies in advance of an incident.

There are no significant barriers to bringing simulators to public management. We have the necessary computational and simulation tools to build interactive and immersive simulators covering a broad range of scenarios that managers confront. Much of the investment in this technology has taken place in the military, motivated by the need to train large numbers of troops in appropriate ways to interact with members of local populations when they deploy to new areas of operations. Soldiers use simulators to practice everything from mundane tasks like driving, shopping and getting directions in unfamiliar locales to stopping people at checkpoints or gaining control of a volatile scene after an explosion.

With their game-playing appeal, simulations offer an added benefit of being more engaging than traditional forms of training. Simulations developed with different functions in mind are tailored to engage their intended audience. Some, like flight simulators, provide repeated, low-cost, no-risk practice to develop instincts and heuristics while refining skills. A second type models a situation or scenario, distilling just the key elements of real-world scenarios so that a participant can focus on the most important factors and decision points. And there are hybrids of the two approaches.

At the high end of the technology spectrum, simulations use state-of-the-art gaming technology, immersing participants in realistic settings in which they encounter lifelike avatars and high-end visual effects. Lower-level simulation technology uses icon- or text-based interfaces requiring participants to read vignettes, take action and witness the outcomes.

Whatever level or type of simulation works for a given scenario or training need, public managers would benefit from engaging this new approach for preparing for a broad range of social and policy challenges. All too often, today's public managers are left to learn on the job in a crisis, with predictably costly consequences. Simulations could provide an effective way to turn potential failures into successes.