Management Matters!

Malfeasance finds its way to the press, and the salutary daily acts simply don't.
February 1, 2006 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

Let me start with a short survey: Please select which of the following series of headlines you are more likely to see in your local newspaper. 1) "WASTE! FRAUD! Government contractor overcharges city," "Officials fail to follow procurement rules," and "City employee caught doing private work on public time" or 2) "Local public employee finds more efficient way to take care of city park," "Child Welfare worker successfully finds permanent homes in 90 days for her entire caseload of foster children," and "City Tax Collector's Office establishes new processes and cuts wait times by 30%."

Malfeasance finds its way to the press, obviously, and the salutary daily acts simply don't. Yet, with service demands continuing to exceed revenues, managing government well has never been either harder or more necessary. The tension between revenue and service provision will only be exacerbated as the U.S. population ages; taxes will fall far short of what's required to discharge services in the expected fashion. Although policy debates capture the imagination of the public and press far more then the arcane details of management, even important policy initiatives accomplish little if ineptly implemented. The confidence of the public in its democratic government depends on those of us who serve the public to get it right.

The process of governing is transforming itself in truly fundamental ways: public workers are retiring in record numbers at every level, employees are facing increasingly complex problems that require collaboration and creative problem solving skills, and bureaucratic rules necessary for accountability and fairness inhibit the very discretion so critical for public servants to do their jobs well. Additionally, the amount of government done through contractors and by officials initiating and managing networks, rather than directing bureaucrats, cannot be overlooked or the effects thereof overestimated.

New approaches, new skills, and indeed new thinking are necessary. In response, Harvard and Governing have asked the country's leading practical academics, those who have either been or worked with public officials, to write regular columns featuring insights and lessons learned from real-world cases or experiences. We've asked our experts to be available for your questions and commentary via e-mail, in hopes that we can create a forum for those who care deeply about serving the public with distinction.

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government conducts the Innovations in American Government (IAG) Program, an annual awards competition and significant force in recognizing and promoting excellence and creativity in the public sector. The IAG program distributes over $700,000 in prize money each year and sponsors case studies about truly impressive results originating from public sector ingenuity. More than 1,000 government units apply for these awards every year, demonstrating a real market for best practices that can make a difference.

With the launch of this column, we are building upon the IAG Program's 20 years of experience with government sector innovation. The insights of our contributors in areas including performance management, accountability, the use of IT tools, recruiting and training a skilled workforce, and indirect management of others, are meant to encourage meaningful dialogue and aid in the recognition and implementation of truly good ideas.

Today, we introduce you to our columnists with short biographies of each of them and invite you to contact with your questions or suggestions about subjects. I have been in a public office, elected or appointed, for 25 years, and all of the reforms I tried, some of which even worked, were copies or adaptations of someone else's program or idea. I hope the results of these columns will inspire incorporation of the insights and replication of the ideas.