For many years, people who study public management, administration, and policy implementation have discussed how to make our research more relevant to the problems of practice. How can we be both relevant and rigorous? For me, this commitment has taken me deep into writings about social theory, including theories that make sense of strategic action and practice decisions. It has taken me deep into perfecting field studies in which I deploy multiple research methods. It has increasingly made me interested in the processes of design. Last year, I have the benefit of attending the fourth Minnowbrook conference to consider the future of this scholarly field. Working with a group of attendees, we wrote out some of our thoughts under the title, "Start with the Problem," and the essay is now published in Perspectives in Public Management and Governance. I've attached it here.
This week I was hosted at Price School of Public Policy's Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy. I talked about....
Happy to share that we've released a new FSI report about our emerging understanding of human centered design in the public area! Click on the image to down load a copy. Enjoy. And we'd love to hear any feedback you might have.
I'm so happy to announce that I've received a Fulbright Fellowship to go to Denmark in 2020 to enhance my exploration of public sector innovation. The Fulbright Award is a prestigious program run by the U.S. Government that enables international exchange for scholars and public officials. I will be affiliated with the University of Copenhagen, work with scholars and alumni there, and do a bit of teaching for their master's students interested in public policy implementation. I will be there for six month (and it looks like I will also be taking my 16 year old son, Ethan....I'm really excited for this adventure!).
This week, I was at the Kresge Foundation to talk with other field leaders about the current state of human services and think about how institutions create barriers to social and economic mobility. This work is personal and political. It is grounded in experience and data. It requires courage and humility. We had honest conversations about doing the work towards equity at home and at work.....and at both.
I particularly appreciated the model of ProInspire that names the stages:
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 methods involve 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 and practice 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.
This last week, the Humphrey School shared an article about me in their newsletter. I am humbled by the story and by the response it has garnered from alumni and students. Its particularly fulfilling because the work we are doing in local government so often gets underappreciated. I have been spending hours and hours listening to supervisors and frontline staff, watching how they interact with citizens, listening to their hopes and dreams for reform. Using Design Methodology takes me back to the ethnographic work that I did twenty years ago for my doctoral dissertation. But this time, I feel like I am poised to not only accurately record frontline experiences but use this knowledge to support organizational change. I am grateful to be able to roll up my sleeves and help in this way.
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.
Dr. Jodi Sandfort
Professor & Chair at the University of Minnesota