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Foreswearing Fashion in Public-Service Delivery

It's always tempting to seize on the latest fad. But slow, steady change is usually the right idea.

We Americans are a fad-prone people. These days, I'm told, cupcakes are all the rage among the au courant crowd, and cupcake purveyors are proliferating in upscale urban neighborhoods on both coasts. I wouldn't bet the tuition money on cupcake stocks, though; odds are the trendsetters will get sick of them before long. Hemlines rise and fall. Baby names swing in and out of vogue. This predilection toward the trendy is harmless for cuisine or couture, but a problem when it comes to governing. Public goals, and the cultural and economic contexts in which they are pursued, tend to evolve quite slowly. Age-old challenges rarely yield to hot new approaches.

Public education is notoriously plagued by faddishness. A dizzying parade of shiny new reform models passes through troubled classrooms in hopes we might find a solution easier and cheaper than what the record suggests is the only real tried-and-true model -- putting a highly qualified teacher in front of every kid for a good long time. But fashions ebb and flow in every area of governance. Most public managers with enough experience can probably recall embracing some next big thing -- Total Quality Management, Zero-Based Budgeting -- with the same sort of "what was I thinking?" cringe induced by old portraits featuring plunging sideburns or platform shoes.

Incremental change -- the equivalent of a millimeter more or less lapel on the old blue blazer -- is usually the right idea, though it's always tempting to seize on the latest fashion. In my very first Management Insights column, I warned against excessive enthusiasm for involving the private sector in public undertakings. Private roles in public goals can make sense, but public managers at every level were becoming dazzled by the private sector's aura of coolness, placing them at risk of overdoing delegation.

That piece was posted just over three years ago, in a whole different epoch of conventional wisdom. The deep economic swoon has decimated payrolls, ravaged retirement accounts and shattered trust in the private sector. Americans lost confidence in every single private industry -- some dramatically -- in the decade ending in 2008. Support for government programs, conversely, surged in the short interval between 2005 and late 2008. Public-service delivery models involving the private sector -- whether called alternative service delivery, outsourcing, collaboration, networked governance or some other label -- seem poised for a precipitous fall from fashion.

Undue paranoia about private involvement in public undertakings, however, would be as misguided as the irrational exuberance I warned against in 2006. The private sector features just about the same mix of solid citizens and sleazeballs today as it did a year ago, a decade ago or a century ago. So public managers must employ the same mix of careful analysis and consideration they always have to get the best and avoid the worst when they enlist private help. The difference is that, in the age of Madoff, perceptions are shaped by what cognitive theorists call "availability bias," where people generalize unduly based on vivid examples. These days crooks come to mind quicker than they used to, tarnishing the reputation of the private sector as a whole and scaring public managers away from entanglements with private partners.

Some readjustment is surely called for, and it isn't hard to identify examples of delegation that richly warrant that "What were we thinking?" lament. Allowing Moody's and other rating firms, for instance, to pass judgment on securities as they saw fit, or inviting for-profit firms to dominate the nursing-home industry, are policy trends that will likely be remembered with the same chagrin as lime-green leisure suits.

A cautious, gradual, selective shift toward hybrid public service delivery models is probably still the right answer. The right kind of delegation ought to be at least as appealing today as it was a few years ago. Indeed, the evaporation of national wealth and the near-certainty of tight public finances for years to come mean we can't afford to pass up any chance to create public value more efficiently. Let's all take a deep breath and get back to the slow, steady work of matching public tasks to delivery models as the evidence and analysis guide us.

John D. Donahue is a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Raymond Vernon Lecturer in Public Policy, faculty chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Case Program and the SLATE teaching initiative.
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