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Government Needs More Help from the Academic Community

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher
September 20, 2016

Recently, Maryland public policy professor Philip Joyce argued in a column posted on Governing.com, “How Academia is Failing Government,” that most academic research is not helpful to government. His point is that the “best” journals and the “impact factor” of the research are not relevant to leaders in government. He referred to the “echo chamber of academics writing for other academics.”

I strongly agree. My academic training was in business at Wharton. The research in business schools focuses on how to improve elements of business operations. The marketing faculty focus on improving marketing practices. Finance professors focus on financial practices. Many business school professors are active as consultants to business. Their books are written for people working in business.

A year ago, I worked with the head of a school of public affairs to develop a strategy to improve its standing. One task took me to the websites of the schools rated highest by U S News. My purpose was to learn what they promoted to the world. In line with Joyce’s argument, I found little that highlighted projects or meetings where the focus was the management of government operations. The typical curriculum had an array of courses focused on public policy issues.

Harvard’s Kennedy School is typical. Its highly regarded Master of Public Administration program requires students to take two electives in a Policy Area of Concentration, and one credit in each of three areas: Economics and Quantitative Analysis, Management and Leadership, and Political Thought and Institutions. Its list of 100 or more courses includes only one that focuses on “Human Capital and Organizational Performance.”

In many MPA programs the subject of workforce management – government’s single highest controllable expense – is limited to a single, often boring course on human resource management.

Joyce also makes the point that there is “a tendency to do research that is based on large data sets, analyzed using increasingly sophisticated quantitative methods, with results not intended [for] . . the practitioner community.” That understates the problem. As someone who has taught the basic stat course, I have seen “eyes glaze over” when the discussion shifts for even a few minutes to multivariate methods. Those statistical analyses are understood by few people.

The problem is compounded by the nature of research in the social sciences. Research tends to focus on understanding and explaining issues, not defining and solving problems. Problems are sometimes so complex the analyses are overly simplistic.

In the government arena, the people management issues are often “soft” and involve constructs that do not have accepted definitions. That’s very different from the field of finance, to illustrate the point, where terms have standardized definitions. The research definition of “employee engagement,” for example, is uniquely defined by the questions in survey questionnaires.

Organizational culture is another construct. One of the most prominent experts on culture, Edgar Schein, has referred to it as an “abstraction.”  Abstractions are best explored in interviews and focus groups.

But despite the questions, surveys of business and HR leaders, like Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends, show understanding and addressing culture and engagement concerns are the most important people management issue, edging out leadership. A highly successful business leader, Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, was quoted as saying, “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.”

There is no reason to think these abstractions are less important in government. However, the two issues have received dramatically less attention from consultants and academics who study the public sector. In contrast to the number of books on employee engagement and culture generally – a search on Amazon found 500+ on each subject – there is only one book specifically on culture in government, Anne Khademian’s, Working with Culture: the Way the Job Gets Done In Public Programs and one on employee engagement, Bob Lavigna’s, Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance. The numbers confirm the inadequacy of attention in the public sector to leading edge workforce management thinking.

There is also the burgeoning interest in healthy organizations as demonstrated by the attention to the website of the American Psychological Association, the Center for Organizational Excellence. The research evidence is solid – organizations that are psychologically healthy are more productive.

Leading companies have initiated revolutionary changes in the way work is organized and managed for a simple reason: it makes good business sense. When employees are managed as assets rather than costs, their employers are more successful.

To date, government has ignored the strategies proven in the private sector to create high performance organizations. Increased productivity in business means increased profits. In government it means savings and better public service – and enhanced job satisfaction.

But it’s unlikely to happen without the leadership of the academic community. Realistically, people working in government are rarely in a position to initiate what would be radical change. Research could identify and highlight best practices. The importance of change should be covered in the training of executives and managers. Perhaps most important, elected officials need to understand why this is important.


Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Government Needs More Help from the Academic Community

  1. Julie Ann Racino Reply

    September 23, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Delighted with the business gurus requested to assist the governmental sector which resulted in the loss of over 7 million federal jobs (good paying, unionized) to that sector during the last “business improvement of government” endeavour.

    In relationship to workforces, in Central New York, we have two regional offices neither of which do other than to support “my own 1970s” Executive Offices which ferets academic research out-of-state or to its own office. And then I have minimally two large regional, disability offices or more.

    More information on the US Direct Support Professional Workforce can be found at Public Administration and Disability at https://www.crcpress.com/9781466579811

    These federal, private and non-profit workforces in the US have been requested to account for the current “workforces” which are starting to become “public health” or “corrections”.

    New funds on supported housing were graciously offerred (out for bids) from the New York State government and the outcomes and results in terms of personnel are also warranted.

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