What academia could be doing for government.

Author:Risher, Howard

There is a growing discussion of how schools of public administration at colleges and universities 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 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For the most part, the conclusions of this kind of research are reported in books and articles that are not peer-reviewed and do not conclude with a long list of footnoted citations.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, which 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...

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