For those who work in government and have an interest in public administration, public policy, and related academic areas. Let’s discuss the latest research and how it can be practically applied to make government more effective and efficient.
Evidence Based Public Administration
May 10, 2010 at 8:13 pm #100265
The IBM Center for the Business of Government released Framing a Public Management Research Agenda earlier this year. The report lists four topic areas for future public administration research:
Topic 1: A New Performance Improvement and Analysis Framework
Topic 2: The Recovery Act: An Accountability Test for Our Federal System
Topic 3: Federal Contracting and Acquisition
Topic 4: Transparency, Technology, and Participatory Democracy
Under Topic 1, the authors suggest that there should be evidence-based public management. I’m especially intrigued by this because I believe that the academic fields of public adminstration and political science can benefit the practical management of government. Even so, there are several issues that stand in the way:
1) What academic research is relevant to public management?
2) How do we translate research into actionable practices?
3) Is evidence-based public management actually more effective and effecient than current public management practices?
I’m certain there are other questions but these seem to be good starting points for discussion.
May 10, 2010 at 11:06 pm #100273
I’ll take a quick swipe at 3) – No. Evidence-based public management was the subject of a series of debates hosted by the American Evaluation Association; and the use of randomized control trials was presented by some as the gold standard for evidence. (Keeping in mind, we’re not ON the gold standard anymore.) Actually, the debaters agreed this method was not great, but some felt it was the best we had. Some promising work my Michael Quinn Patton takes this on, presenting us with “utilization-based evaluation,” posing the radical idea that ‘evidence’ should arise from the utility enjoyed by the end consumer. Randomized control trials (from how I’ve seen them employed in Education) tend to control OUT the human. You know, rid the data of those messy humans so we can get at hard results.
Patton’s work is summarized here – http://www.evaluationwiki.org/index.php/Michael_Quinn_Patton
It’s striking to me that social science (as applied in public management) continues to suffer from “physics envy” and wants to be treated as a hard science. The novel idea of “behavioral economics” appears to be little more than an economist saying: Hey, humans ARE messy. Perhaps we should recognize this, instead of controlling for it or otherwise assuming it away! Something believed for over 60 years in social science academe.
The most recent revival of this debate came from the recent innovation grants from the Department of Education. Language was inserted that referred to ‘evidence-based’ innovation proposals. Curious, in that the evidence, by definition, would be backwards looking into an education system that doesn’t collect or assess the data that matters to children. Go ahead: Try to invent something, but first demonstrate evidence that it works. For failed or troubled systems (health care, financial regulation, education, national security); we need to find measures that move us from a demand for ‘evidence’ – demands that limit innovation and reinforce existing measures.
May 12, 2010 at 2:53 pm #100271
@John – Thanks for the insightful reply. You bring up some points that I have never considered before and I appreciate the link.
My issue with evidence-based public management is that it sounds great on its face. Who wouldn’t want public administration practices based on sound academic research? The problems are how we define “evidence” and the messiness of the research process.
A good example of this is nutrition. I’m a person who can stand to lose a few pounds and have tried various diets over the years. Being of a scientific bent, I want to practice evidence-based dieting so I keep up with the latest nutrition research. I’ve been on the low-fat diet, the Zone diet, the Atkins diet, and the Tomato-Juice and Banana diet. I drink coffee when the research says so and then switched to green tea when the research told me to go in that direction. I used to think all fat was bad but now realize that some fat is good and I should start walking in freezing tempatures so I can activate my fat-burning brown fat.
I have lost weight and kept the weight off but that was when I finally figured out that what the research was really saying was eat less, don’t eat heavily-processed foods, and exercise more. Lost 70 pounds and kept the weight off.
So yes, research is valuable but one has to take in effect that the research process is managed by messy humans and that dealing with people isn’t like dealing with electrons. We are still a long way from fully understanding how people, teams, and societies actually work. Research should be seen as a useful resource in guiding our decisions but it shouldn’t be driving our decisions.
May 18, 2010 at 3:59 pm #100269
Great to hear about your weight loss! And yes, you had to tailor the various “evidence” to your situation. A larger discussion I’m having on another forum involves treating human systems with mechanistic methods. The notion of evidence-based public management strikes me as just this: a mechanistic, predictive, idealistic notion applied inappropriately to human systems which feature the single element never addressed by “evidence:” Surprise.
June 17, 2010 at 8:55 pm #100267
New article on evidence-based policy in the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration. Reflects some of John’s arguments in that EBP is an example of physics envy (from which economics has started to move away from).
The authors argue that EBP is based on an “idealised [sic] and naive linear model” that bears little resemblance to actual policy issues. The linear/rational model is widely accepted but it suffers from three main faults:
1) People’s rationality is limited by the constraints of our mental processes.
2) What is considered rational is heavily influence by “values, interests, knowledge, and power.”
3) Rationality is often not as persuasive as emotions.
Now, they don’t argue that emotion should fully replace reason. Rather, the authors want the emotions behind an issue to be considered along with the evidence. As an example, they cite various aspects of the criminal justice system where emotion is balanced with reason such as victim impact statements and the three-strikes law. Emotion alerts us to what values are most important in making a decision and provide the motivation to act. The authors argue for an exploration model of EBP where all stakeholders are invited to contribute in an open dialogue and both evidence and emotions are considered. They assert that this will lead to better policy making and a better likelihood that the policy decisions will be accepted.
Freiberg, A., & Carson, W.G. (2010). The limits to evidence-based policy: Evidence, emotion, and criminal justice. The Australian Journal of Public Administration, 69:2. 152-164,
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