What Academia Could Be Doing for Government

Public administration schools' research doesn't have to be irrelevant. Business schools provide a model.
November 21, 2016 AT 6:15 AM
By Howard Risher  |  Contributor
A consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

There is a growing discussion of how colleges' and universities' schools of public administration are failing to provide the kind of research that public-sector practitioners need to help them deliver services efficiently. Turning policy into effective practice presents many difficult challenges for public leaders, so it's a dialogue that has long been needed. But for those looking for solutions, there is a worthy model elsewhere in academia: schools of business.

Over the past decade or more, for example, a prominent thread in business research has been on identifying practices that encourage employees to perform at their best. That brings together what we know about effective supervision, individual motivation, knowledge and skill development, creating a supportive culture, and the role of technology in decision-making.

For the most part, the conclusions of this kind of research are reported in books and articles that are not peer-reviewed and that do not conclude with a long list of footnoted citations. But the findings have influenced a revolution in the way private-sector work is organized and managed -- a revolution accelerated by consulting firms, such as Gallup and McKinsey, that augment the research with practical studies.

The private sector has the advantage that new companies with new organizational strategies are always emerging. When those companies are successful, their policies and practices are discussed at conferences and in articles. The research follows the headlines and confirms or debunks the value of new ideas.

But for government, this is a chicken-and-egg situation. Research is needed to assess the value of new practices, but there is a more immediate need to adopt and "live with" new practices for a time to develop an understanding of their impact.

Scrapping and replacing long-established policies takes leadership. A classic example is the way the head of a federal research lab committed to the concept of pay for performance shortly after it was permitted by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. He brought all of those who reported to him into a room and told them, "If you have any questions, this is the time to ask. But when you leave this room you will be supportive of the change in policy."

That change was the first of the demonstration projects permitted by the new law. The experience with the change was assessed by federal psychologists each year, and when it proved to be a success it was made permanent. Now the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is authorized under the statute to approve proposals to test practices that would not previously have been permitted under federal civil-service regulations. This idea of permitting such "demo projects" could be helpful at the state and local level.

Another model for assessing new ideas is the approach of the Nonprofit Organization Research Panel (NORP) created by the University of Missouri's Truman School of Public Affairs. The panel includes more than 1,500 nonprofits that are surveyed occasionally, asked for feedback on specific issues such as measuring performance.

While the NORP model does not encourage the adoption of new practices, it suggests a way to conduct the kind of low-cost research that could be initiated by government agencies -- or by academia. Online survey platforms such as SurveyMonkey, for example, make it easy to gather response data, providing a channel to seek broad feedback on experience with alternative policies.

That kind of research could explore the long list of management policies and practices that have been proven in business but are still largely untested in government. One prominent and almost universal practice in business, for example, is the use of organizational and individual goals. The acronym SMART (for specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and timebound) is used regularly in private-sector discussions of goal-setting but does not appear to be widely used in government.

The list of practices could include the potential value, for example, of monthly meetings to review progress in achieving goals, new practices for selecting supervisors and managers, the best use of performance scorecards, the impact of group or team incentives, or preferred supervisory competencies for managing millennials.

None of this is to downplay the importance of public-policy research. My purpose, rather, is to argue for research that genuinely helps public employers assess effective ways to raise performance levels. Academic research to date has failed to focus on the possibilities, but it's very likely that governments and their agencies would welcome the support and assistance.