This is a work in progress, written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Minnowbrook conference on public administration held in upper state New York this August.
Governance and management of public institutions in the United States is at a crossroads. Years of under investment in public institutions, low salaries and high turnover in private nonprofit organizations, as well as high levels of citizen distrust in formal institutions create formidable challenges. The proliferation of government forms of investment (Salamon 2002), and concerns that the technical complexity of these mechanisms overshadows public managers abilities to manage (Kettl 2000; Hill and Lynn 2005), has created a crisis of capability.
These challenges are quite apparent in policy fields providing public services to our most disadvantage citizens. With income and asset inequality at an all-time high in the United States, the social safety-net is effectively dismantled (Lipsky 2013). In resource-starved fields, public and nonprofit service providers via for authority and resources, creating complex institutional environments (Sandfort 2010) that bear little resemblance to the carefully designed service networks often imagined by public administration scholars. Top down regulations mix with performance measurement and legacy organizational routines to create significant administrative burdens experienced by service recipients (Herd et al. 2013; Heinrich, 2018).
In response, I struggle to determine what is the most prudent way to pursue my scholarly agenda. While public management research has become more empirically rigorous, many note this research does not have much take-up among public managers (Meier 2015; O’Toole 2004; Isett, et al 2015). Rather than thinking about public service motivation, publicness, or representative bureaucracy, public managers are trying to implement policy mandates or find opportunities for innovation. They need scholars to bring our systematic approach and rigorous analytics to help with those pressing problems.
In 2013, Stephanie Moulton and I embarked upon a project to provide more conceptual clarity to the literature on policy implementation and consider its relevance to practice. We succeed in creating multi-media case studies, analytical tools, and a book (Sandfort and Moulton 2015) to support improved implementation practice grounded in multi-level governance and social theory. Our strategic action field theoretical framework (Moulton and Sandfort 2017) helped us to be more clear that, in addition to supporting more effective policy implementation, we also were poised to support more programmatic and administrative innovation.
In late 2015, I started to build an Institute to assist me in realizing these ambitions. The Future Services Institute works with leaders in Minnesota state and local governments to improve the performance of public service programs and systems that serve low-income families (see www.futureservicesinstitute.org). To do so, we engage in leadership development, program evaluation and applied research, and facilitate complex systems change through design labs, conferences, and extended projects that support innovation. Our work is grounded in both the strategic action field theoretical framework and a methodology of design-based research (Bason, 2017; Fishman, et al. 2013; Penuel et al. 2011).
Our design-based approach accounts for an interplay of research knowledge, practical implementation tools, and contextual knowledge of the setting. As Herbert Simon (1996) described, design science in management focuses upon trying to intervene in current conditions to change them into more preferred ones. Rather than focusing on linear causation in general cases, design-based research is focused on understanding causality in a specific setting (Romme, 2003; Lewin, 1946). Design takes seriously the existing administrative and social conditions in a particular context (Bason, 2010, 2017). Yet it also uses new information to create what should be, through engaging others and sharing what happens as a result (Ansell & Torfing, 2014; Patton et al, 2016; Romme, 2003). In this way, it involves intervening in public institutions to assist managers in improving public value outcomes (Bryson et al, 2014).
In addition to conventional social science methods– surveys, focus groups, interviews – design methodology involves facilitating collaborative forums where dialogue, learning and decision making can occur. Such settings may enable co-creation, where service users, staff, and managers can work together to identify problems, explore elements of them, or interpret data (Bovaird, 2007; Bryson, Quick, Slotterback, & Crosby, 2013; Sandfort & Quick, 2017). It also involves sharing research results with people responsible for making changes in the system (Nabatchi and Amsler 2014). Rather than seeing this intervention as contaminating research conditions, design-based scholars recognize the invaluable role that such information can play in supporting rapid-cycle learning in complex, adaptive systems in order to inform more appropriate actions (Hargreaves, 2014; Patton, et al 2016).
This approach to public administration scholarship is still in early stages of intellectual development (Barzelay and Thompson 2007; Barzelay 2012; Sandfort 2018; Bardach 1998; Moynihan 2018). Yet, Ansell and Torfing (2014) note three components of design thinking that suggest its possible role in supporting public sector innovation: design is problem- and future-oriented, it uses heuristic devices to make choices concrete, and it requires the creation of collaborative forums. Bason (2017) provides the most complete account of the application of design-based interventions and methods in public organizations to date.
This approach is consistent with the growing international scholarly chorus about the “new public governance” (Ansell & Torfing, 2014; Ansell, 2011; Bryson, 2014; Emerson & Nabatchi, 2015; Gray & Purdy, 2018). I look forward discussion with those attending Minnowbrook about the viability of this approach for our field.
Because I'm an academic geek, I feel the need to orient my work in relation to the corpus of social science research that exists, particularly that focused upon social groups, organizations, and institutional fields. I've never started there (instead preferring to learn through doing). But I do feel the need to circle back to that corpus. My book with Stephanie Moulton as one such attempt, as is many of my academic publications (check out the Library).
With the creation of the Future Services Institute, I have found myself engaging a wide array of projects with inspiring leaders who want to make Minnesota's health and human services system more human-centered. I've been able to launch a new graduate certificate to help others get good grounding in Design Thinking, and I'm engaged in learning partnership with leaders at the state and local level that allow me to witness up close and personal innovation in action.
But I also feel the need to talk about the "theory of change" that underlies the Future Service Institute work. I'm working against the grain of both positivist- or interpretivist-oriented social science because they are typically just focused on either predicting desired outcomes or describing what is. As I look around at the state of the world, I see that public research universities must be engaged in helping make conditions better, particularly conditions that involve public institutions. As a result, I find myself spending a lot of time learning about design and design science, trying to figure out what lessons it offers for improving public policy implementation and supporting innovation.
What I can now articulate is that, across the number of policy fields where Future Services Institute works, we create and apply a range of resources to support managers’ abilities to create innovative solutions within their particular context. We explicitly use processes that try to alter the 'strategic action field' dynamics of each setting to more directly increase public value (this theoretical framework Moulton and I talk about in our book and 2017 article). We do so in a number of methods:
I'm not sure that anyone else but me cares that my actions are aligned with and grounded with theory. But I have always found that theory helps me to filter all of the potential ideas that come into my brain and allows me to be more purposive in how I act.
In a few days, I'm headed to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join colleagues in the international Art of Hosting community to be in a learning session about how to improve the quality and impact of harvesting results of engagement, doing research about it, and conducting evaluations.
I'm eager to go and share what we've been learning at the Future Services Institute in the last year about systems' change and harvesting. I also was asked to share my own research about Art of Hosting. While documents can be found in my Library on this web page, I would draw particular attention to:
1) Descriptive report to the Art of Hosting community about what 3-day training workshop participants understand and do (2012);
2) A theory-building, scholarly peer reviewed article about how facilitators' learn based on Art of Hosting trainings (2014);
3) Another theory-building article forthcoming this month in the Journal of Public Deliberation. I'm particularly proud of this piece because it helps give some language to the way in which skillful facilitators piece together and adjust the elements of engagement. The manuscript version of that article is available here.
The peer-learning environment of the Art of Hosting community makes me eager to engage with others committed to working to improve innovation in the public arena.
One of my greatest honors is my work teaching the Humphrey School's mid-career degree program. I love introducing people to new concepts, encouraging them to step into leadership, and demystifying the public systems that affect our lives. Because each participant has at least ten years professional experience, the learning community is rich and people apply ideas in 'real time' back in their jobs. As an instructor, there are few things more satisfying.
My colleagues at Humphrey caputred a flavor of this in a short video. Check it out!
We are going to be launching a new series of courses in the Fall 2017 focused on Human Services Leadership. So stay tuned.
I am blessed to be working in higher education during a time of incredible transformation and innovation. As the Academic Director of the Hubert Project, I have been able to help lead public affairs to greater use of technology, and more appropriate engagement with the problems of public affairs in our classrooms.
This last year, I did a call for manuscripts for a special issue of the Journal of Public Affairs Education focused on "Leveraging the Power of Information to Bolster Interactive Learning."
Today it was published. See here for my symposium introduction. And make sure to check out the other great articles in the full issue! Volume 22 #3.
This last week, I participated in a three-day workshop about personal beliefs and how they limit our effectiveness in relationships, teams, and organizations. The session really hit home for me because so much of my own research in human services reveals the beliefs managers and staff develop - that get embedded in the culture of an organization - directly shape what program is actually implemented. It is the under-developed factor in policy implementation (and is foundational to the theoretical framework I developed with Stephanie Moulton). So it was great to be a room with others and supported by Caitlin Frost to identify and inquire into the beliefs that get in our way.
In one session, we talked explicitly about Failure, experiences that make us hesitant to step out, to challenge, to volunteer. And we worked with a tool that helped us to identity beliefs about failure and inquire into the unconscious ways it operates & influences us. I realized failure operates on multiple levels for me. There are the micro failures, for example, the almost daily reality that I'm not accomplishing everything on the 'to do' list, which seems to provide evidence in my mind that I'm not as effective as I should be. There are the middle-level failures, the grant proposal not funded, the group meeting that doesn't go well that I always find myself thinking about on the drive home or in the shower. And, then, there are the macro failures, the big projects and initiatives focused on large scale change that don't achieve the large, stated goal which create a pit in my stomach when someone brings them up.
In the work Caitlin facilitated, I realized that there is a file cabinet in my head with 'failure' written on the front. And without thinking about it, I've been filing all kinds of experiences into it for year. The problem is that most things are filed based on ideas I learned as a child and I know are not true - that an individual directs large-scale change, that failure is rejection of me, that 'good people' are those who are busy in every minute. As an adult, I've looked at the evidence and my rational brain knows that large-scale change is unpredictable & emergent, that seeds of hope and new practices are planted and people within systems do things differently. I know that failure is necessary, particularly when doing work that is on the edge of acceptability to the status quo. And I know that my success in life comes more from my ability to reflect and pause then merely stay on the treadmill of daily tasks. Working smarter is better than merely working harder.
Beliefs and fear about failure are carried in people, in teams, in organizations. They stop problems from being addressed and enable dysfunctional operations to continue. Yet there are ways to have a shift in mind, a shift in the beliefs. As I have experience it, that shift opens up new ways of acting and being. It is the first step toward the possibility of positive change.
This week, we hosted a group of leaders from the public and nonprofit sector who focus their attention on workforce development services. Minnesota's economy is booming and trained workers are in short supply.
Yet, like many publicly-funded systems that depend upon nonprofit service provision, this field is plagued by siloed funding, inconsistent accountability systems, and policy compleixty. It is easy to feel like you have working against 'the system' even when you are working in it.
Yet this group of leaders from various parts of the system -- community colleges, community organizations, adult basic education, department of human services, private funders -- gathered and overcame the cynicism that is so easy to carry when doing this work. They began to consider what we might do to inspire systems change. While there are no guarantees that this will be anything more than 'just a conversation,' I am hopeful. People make the system and people need to change it. In the end, it is that simple.
For more information on how this project and others are developing, check out the Future Services Institute.
This week, I was reminded about how counter-cultural my notion of leadership is which we teach here at the Humphrey School. We see leadership as rooted in calling, in responding to society's need for your skills and talents.
Instead, we continue to encounter a story of white knight. But there is not much evidence that - given the complexity and constraints of modern society - there will ever be someone who can ride in on a white horse and solve the important problems. Instead, there is a shift of mind that is necessary. It requires we learn more about ourselves, our core beliefs and multiple intelligences. It requires we engage in practices that cultivate our ability to use own own hearts, minds, and souls to lead when the opportunity presents itself.
Around me, I see so many amazing leaders. And a few years ago, I was invited to reflect upon their work as "integrative leaders." Here is my recount of their story.
I've been thinking a lot about the incredible era we are living in, such a time of transition. While technology enables us to share and create in ways that previously were unimaginable, the human ability to integrate the information or engage in a different way of thinking is not really keeping up.
While technologists in higher education have developed and use blogs, pod-casts, videocasts, webinars....you name it. But among professors in higher education, many of my colleagues barely have LinkedIn pages and most have never participated in a webinar, let alone Tweet (although we are going to do a tweeting workshop at the summer-time Public Management Research Conference that we are hosting at the Humphrey School in June).
Among nonprofits, many organizations engage social media to set the agenda and share resources (one of my favorite is the Nonprofits Assistance Fund that is the best place for relevant tools on savy financial management). Yet the colleagues I'm working with in the state's Department of Human Services struggle to release critical policy information on any type of platform; here, the command and control paradigm reigns supreme.
There is a cosmic battle going on between open and control, dispersed intelligences and reified expertise, network and hierarchy. My colleague Nicole Garst once framed it, in a training we were doing, as the tensions between the bazaar and the cathedral. Leadership in this era involves stepping into that battle and figuring out which side you are on.
Tonight I stumbled upon a podcast created by the OkCast highlighting the work of the Hubert project's efforts to create Open Educational resources. It was bittersweet to listen to, as I thought about how much progress we've made over the last four years of the project. And to realize that the audience who should be listening - instructors in public affairs institutions - aren't the ones paying attention in the virtual space. But the initiative is leading others, in a way that is true to my values - open education in public affairs. We are working with international partners who care, highlighting insights of practice so that new professionals can benefits from the hard-won lessons learned by others along the way. It is this way the power of the bazaar will ultimately change what happens in the cathedrals.
Dr. Jodi Sandfort
Professor & Chair at the University of Minnesota