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Public Management and the Challenge of the Last Mile of Service Delivery

Sometimes even the best program design and execution fail to get a government service to a recipient who needs it. There are ways to overcome those final hurdles.

Long-distance runners are painfully familiar with the phrase "the last mile," but technology has contributed a new meaning. In the broadband-connectivity world, the last mile refers to the final link from a telecommunications network to a customer. It is seen as the ultimate challenge in connecting households to Internet service, and often the most difficult and expensive.

The challenge of completing the last mile is a common one in public management, although we don't necessarily think about it in those terms. In delivering government services, much attention is focused on a top-down administrative structure of program policy and design, broad program execution, and some mechanism to measure results. But often overlooked are subtle circumstances that block completion of the last mile for some portion of the services' intended recipients.

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Let me offer a handful of examples.

• A public-health researcher wondered why a significant number of children identified as eligible for early-intervention services to address developmental delays were not receiving services. By establishing control groups and collecting information on household members as well as the eligible children, the researcher discovered that a child whose mother had cognitive impairment had zero chance of receiving early-intervention services.

• The Philadelphia school district has for many years operated a free breakfast program for all students that requires no family application or income-qualification process. Yet the proportion of children in low-income schools taking advantage of free breakfasts in 2012 ranged among the schools from 91 percent down to as little as 12 percent. The most significant variable in that stunning disparity was the degree to which the principal provided leadership in accommodating the logistical issues of breakfast service.

• The American public-television system has for decades produced award-winning children's programming that has been proven to increase the readiness to learn of preschoolers from the most disadvantaged families. Children in low-income households, particularly African-American ones, watch substantially more television than those in higher-income households. Yet despite the availability of these high-quality, attractive offerings, the readiness to learn of incoming kindergarten classes has not improved substantially.

These examples share a common thread. The last mile is where the breakdown occurs. To solve this problem, the breakdown point needs to be isolated sufficiently to devise a solution. This requires a careful reconstruction of the program pathway with metrics that expose drop-offs in participation. The broken link may be hiding in plain sight, or it may be a broad systemic gap.

In the examples cited here, administrators are attacking the last-mile problem in different ways. Specialized intervention services are directed toward mothers unable to get their high-risk children screened and into services. The school district's leadership has prioritized nutrition services and is encouraging partnerships with child-advocacy organizations. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supporting local television stations in community engagement with family-serving organizations to encourage more low-income households to take advantage of high-quality children's programming.

In public management, as in long-distance running, the last mile indeed can be the hardest. But success is rewarded with the exhilaration of accomplishment. Perhaps that is why it is often said that government reform is no sport for the short-winded.

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