Public service and good government
Three professors from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs address issues related to governance and public service. They call on the president to: revamp administrative law to facilitate more effective public participation; focus on the quality, not the size, of the Americorps public service program; and learn from the past in creating a high-performance federal government.
Lisa Blomgren Bingham
Redefine public participation in government. Congratulations on your election, and congratulations on the Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. As your administration already realizes, the laws on how government engages the public predate the Internet. They date back to a time when agencies viewed letting the public into the policy process as a necessary evil, a check on their abuse of power imposed by Congress. Some laws, like the Federal Advisory Committee Act, were adopted to limit agencies' ability to collaborate with stakeholders from the private and nonprofit sector.
The time has come to revamp administrative law. We need to redefine public participation throughout federal law so that we encourage agencies to use every form of face-to-face dialogue and online communication to get the best ideas on the table. This means not just the knowledge of experts, but also the wisdom and values of citizens and stakeholders who deliberate on our challenges and potential solutions. We need to build collaboration into the U.S. Code. Right now, the word appears nowhere in the Administrative Procedure Act, even though there has been a tremendous growth in networks, contracts, public-private partnerships, and other structures through which agencies collaborate with others to get the public's work done. Laws always lag behind practice. When they do, they can get in the way of innovation and become barriers to the best thinking. We need every idea we can get, given the mess we are in. Let's make it easier. Let's design a legal framework for agencies and the public as partners in governance in the 21st Century."
Lisa Blomgren Bingham is the Keller-Runden Professor of Public Service at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She recently served on the Civic Engagement Subcommittee of the Urban Policy Committee for the Obama Campaign. Top
Make AmeriCorps better, not bigger. During your campaign, you called for increasing AmeriCorps, the nation's principal national service program, from its current level of 75,000 positions to 250,000 over five years. Engaging more Americans in community service is a worthy goal (and John McCain supported it too), but expanding AmeriCorps is not the only -- and may not be the best -- way to do it.
When it began in 1993, AmeriCorps had two principal aims. One was to address urgent social problems, such as homelessness and failing schools, by enlisting young people to serve for a year or two as tutors, mentors, health care aides and in other roles with charities throughout the United States. The other was to foster a lifetime commitment to civic activity among those who participated in the program.
After 15 years, the evidence that AmeriCorps is achieving either objective is slim.
Some organizations that use AmeriCorps members, most notably Teach for America, can demonstrate real results, such as improvements in reading or math by children in classes taught by participants in the program. But these organizations tend to be highly selective, recruiting volunteers at the best colleges and universities, and invest heavily in training them. That is not the case for most groups that employ AmeriCorps members, nor have they much proof of what they are accomplishing.
A long-term study of AmeriCorps members has shown that they are more likely to stay active in community life than their peers. But since joining AmeriCorps is voluntary, those who did so were more civic-minded to start with. As a result, how much difference their service in AmeriCorps made is hard to tell.
This record (or lack thereof) suggests that at the very least, the Obama administration should concern itself with the quality of the AmeriCorps program, not just the quantity of AmeriCorps positions. It should also recognize that over 60 million Americans volunteer each year, including more than three million who give over 10 hours per week, the minimum amount required of AmeriCorps members. Helping the nation's charities make better use of the volunteers they already have should be as high a priority for the Obama administration as expanding AmeriCorps.
Not least important, your administration should encourage the nation's schools -- colleges and universities, as well as elementary and secondary -- to do a better job educating young people for citizenship. If students do not understand the events and principles on which the United States was built (and there is plenty of evidence they do not), they are apt to be less willing to make the sacrifices -- including volunteering and serving in AmeriCorps -- necessary to extend and preserve them.
Leslie Lenkowsky is Director of Graduate Programs for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis as well as a professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies. He served as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent organization of AmeriCorps, from 2001 to 2003. Top
James L. Perry
Improving performance: Get it right. During the campaign you promised to create a high-performance government. You followed your campaign promise with quick action by designating a Chief Performance Officer (CPO)*, whose responsibilities are to help improve government efficiency and enhance programs' accountability for performance. The idea of making government performance a high priority is laudable. But we have been here before. In 1961 -- the year you were born -- Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara brought a group of whiz kids to Washington who introduced an array of efficiency and effectiveness-enhancing techniques. Every president since Lyndon Johnson promised to create a high-performance government, took actions based on their promises, and, judging by your assessments, achieved the same disappointing results.
Here's my advice as you embark on the path to high-performance government.
- Consult a diverse group of scholars, current and former feds, and representatives from other governments, the nonprofit community and the private sector for insights about why government performance falls short of expectations. Careful reflection about sources of past failures (including lofty expectations raised by presidential rhetoric) is essential to avoid repeating them.
- Be prepared to invest in government, including its information and Web-based systems, recruitment of professional talent and senior executives, and staff training and development. The old adage that "you get what you pay for" is confirmed repeatedly in post-mortems of the deaths of federal change initiatives.
- Although bureaucrats are often blamed for government's poor performance, the buck stops with you, Mr. President, and with Congress. You and Congress need to work together to assure that government programs are well designed, appropriately resourced, and effectively led.
*On January 7, President Obama designated Nancy Killefer, an executive at McKinsey & Co, as his choice to become the first CPO. Ms. Killefer, citing tax problems, withdrew from consideration on February 3, less than four weeks after being designated.
James L. Perry is a distinguished professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. He has been studying government performance since the 1970s, when he led a major assessment of the effectiveness of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Top