SPA’s Scholar in Residence Beryl Radin found herself early in her career mired in process as a staffer on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. That experience spurred her career as a scholar seeking to explain the often frustrating inner workings of government. Radin’s unique insights and scholarship grew to be of value to cabinet secretaries, students of public administration, and governments around the world,including New Zealand, Australia, and India (where she was involved in planning a global conference on federalism in 2007).
Following Beyond Machiavelli: Policy Analysis Comes of Age (Georgetown University Press, 2000) and The Accountable Juggler: The Art of Leadership in a Federal Agency (CQ Press, 2002) comes her latest effort: Challenging the Performance Movement: Accountability, Complexity, and Democratic Values (Georgetown University Press, 2006). Here, Radin examines the recent yen for numbers and metrics in the contemporary landscape. The scholar and author, so renowned that a prize bears her name, discusses her work.
What was most interesting and most surprising to you in writing this book?
I’ve always tried to write about issues that were topical, and clearly I’ve attempted to address issues that I feel are important. The interest in the performance movement started out because I worked on it when I was in HHS.
Researching this book confirmed to me that public administration reform efforts at the federal level often don’t work. What I saw was that many of the issues of program planning, budgets, and systems reappear in another guise. They don’t even go underground; they just take new forms.
You have to find new solutions.
Yes, and be more realistic. Typically thereform comes from the White House. It’s one-size-fits-all for the whole government. It doesn’t work everywhere. We don’t seem to be able to learn from our mistakes. We just keep repeating them—like the movie Groundhog Day!
If you were a government worker, you’d say, “I’ve seen this movie before.” It breeds cynicism.
What is the antidote?
Nobody wants to be against performance measures. My book includes vignettes about people who care about performance, but their work is demeaned by the criteria that are used by performance requirements.
This movement doesn’t take into account their reality—whether it’s dealing with Congress or state and local governments. There are too many times when public-sector workers are held accountable for programs over which they don’t have control. There are people who care about performance, and they can’t do what makes sense to them.
You’ve written about leadership in government. Are there certain characteristics that you need to have in order to lead effectively?
It really depends on the agency. HHS has over 300 programs. You have to deal with a lot of different cultures and issues. You can’t make change using command-and-control methods. Some programs have clarity in their goals. Others involve goals in which there is no agreement on the correct method to address them.
There is no one best way to do something. First of all, people need to know something substantive about the programs they are leading. The best thing to do is to talk to people about what they are trying to accomplish. There is a frequent disconnect between their efforts and what they think they are trying to do. If there is any sort of lesson, it is that people need to be modest about what they can accomplish; and they need first to understand the culture of the organization.
Looking ahead, do you see big changes for agencies?
The big problem is the demographic shifts that are predictable. There will be a huge number of people retiring. Given that SPA trains people for leadership in the federal government, this is a part of our market. The fact that AU is a leader with the Presidential Management Fellows is great. But top students are now considering state and local governments and nonprofits. The feds have competition.
Is there a really well run agency?
Ten years ago, you would have said FEMA. The Centers for Disease Control was a leading example for a while, but they seem to be under a lot of pressure now. It’s so volatile. A lot of it is the accident of history. There may be a particularly good time for an issue, an agency, or a very good manager. Most would say that a good agency is one that has heroic leadership. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s the quiet, mid-level, career people who are doing a good job. And they are under all kinds of pressure.
Including the performance movement.
Right. We have become obsessed with counting things. It’s not just management. A few examples: No Child Left Behind and health care.
Even foundations are putting these metrics in place—often inappropriately. It’s driving compliance and driving out other important work.
It’s often difficult to measure outcomes. Many agencies are “coping organizations” They find it difficult to measure either outcomes or outputs.
And there is a lot of gaming going on, such as teachers teaching to the test.
People in government agencies adopt a compliance attitude that doesn’t really touch the substance of their work.
Are there bright spots?
Career people try to keep programs going and do a good job. They need to be respected. Congress is getting more sensitive to this issue. Jim Thurber of CCPS and I are working on an upcoming conference on congressional oversight. There seems to be an indication that members of Congress are deciding they can stand up to the White House. There are questions being raised about NSA, Medicare Part D, FEMA, and generally questions about the war. Congress is being more assertive than a year ago. It’s an institutional stance rather than a political one.