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What If the System is Broken?

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

By Nathan Favero
October 11, 2020

We probably all know by now that effective public administration requires a good understanding of people. But equally important is an understanding of systems.

The importance of taking a systems view is best demonstrated through examples. So let’s briefly look at five examples of how a systems view can help to inform our perspective on key issues in public administration and policy.

Charter schools. What happens when you allow charter schools to operate within a state? One might begin trying to answer this question by using one or more performance metrics to see whether traditional or charter schools tend to perform better. And while that is not a bad place to start, the introduction of charter schools into a state may have effects that go far beyond what this sort of simple comparison will detect. Does having to compete with charter schools cause traditional schools to work harder to improve their own performance? Does the availability of opt-in charter schools exacerbate self-segregation of families along racial or social class lines? Does the existence of charter schools alter how people are recruited into the teaching profession or the paths that teachers will follow throughout their career? Do charter schools become beds of innovation that ultimately change how schooling is approached throughout the state? These are just some of the questions that arise when one takes a broader systems view of how the introduction of charter schools into a state might alter the landscape of k-12 education.

Support for low-income families. In part, a systems view is important because it can help to shed light on potential second- and-third-order effects of a particular approach. Consider changes in recent decades to how cities have approached providing support to low-income families. Over recent decades, concerns about concentrated poverty led to a push to facilitate opportunities for low-income individuals to live in more suburban neighborhoods. While this approach can create more socioeconomic integration, it has also posed new challenges, as low-income individuals now sometimes find it harder to access various services and social networks that they previously relied upon. Smart policy interventions must account for the full systems of support that many low-income families draw upon, which may include opportunities provided by proximity to friends and family, nonprofit organizations and public transportation.

Private prisons. Should governments contract with private companies to run some of their prisons? To answer this question, policymakers should certainly consider whether they are able to create adequate rules and monitoring systems to ensure that private companies are meeting basic requirements for the humane treatment of prisoners. But another consideration is how the political environment might be altered when incarceration is so directly tied to private business enterprises. If certain companies now face large-scale profit opportunities from the prospect of growing the prison population, such companies will have an incentive to engage in political activities that increase the likelihood of the state adopting stricter penal codes that will lead to higher levels of incarceration.

Inspectors general. The existence of inspectors general promotes accountability by altering the system of power within an organization. Federal inspector general statutes try to isolate inspectors general from some of the political control most executive branch employees face by making them answerable in part to the congressional branch of government. The investigative powers that inspectors general hold can serve not only to reveal wrongdoing within an agency after the fact but also as a deterrent to improper behavior that might otherwise occur. Furthermore, inspectors general can alter the calculus for potential whistleblowers, providing them a clear path for reporting wrongdoing and a potential defender if they face recriminations for blowing the whistle on potential impropriety.

Higher education funding. One final example comes from some research I recently published with Amanda Rutherford on the use of performance based funding formulas in United States higher education. Most states now allocate funding to public colleges and universities in part using a system that rewards schools for good performance by giving them more funds. Despite the intuitive appeal of such a system to align incentives with desired outcomes, several potential problems exist. First, it is not always clear how these institutional-level incentives translate down to the level of individual employees and whether they actually experience greater motivation to achieve policy goals. Second, schools can engage in gaming behaviors that artificially inflate their scores on performance metrics, perhaps at the cost of other policy objectives such as extending educational opportunities to historically underserved groups. Third, performance based funding can serve to perpetuate disparities among institutions by propping up already-high performing schools with extra resources while denying these extra funds to schools that historically struggle on performance metrics because they lack a strong reputation or other ingredients for success that lie beyond their control.

Studying systems can be difficult because of their inherent complexity and because system-level research questions are not always well-suited to quantitative empirical analyses. Nonetheless, it is essential to understand systems if we want to create well-functioning government programs. And we can find ways to rigorously study systems through careful persistence and creativity.


Author: Nathan Favero (nathanfavero.com) is an assistant professor at American University, although he is currently on leave from that position to serve as a visiting assistant professor at Aarhus University. His research focuses on public management, education policy, social equity, and research methods.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @favero_nate

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