Degrees of Efficiency?
George Mason University
Prepared for the NASPAA Annual Conference
October 15 – 17, 2009
Panel on Government Efficiency as a Public Value:
How Schools of Public Affairs and Public Administration
Prepare Students to Lead the Effort for Enhanced Efficiency
In a climate of what some have characterized as increasing incivility and distrust regarding the role of government in the lives of its citizens, the importance of having a demonstrably well run government has arguably never been greater. Efforts to improve government performance and enhance government efficiency have taken various forms in recent administrations, including the Clinton era Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), and the Bush administration‟s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), a component of the President‟s Management Agenda. Facing a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit, President Obama pledged in his inaugural address, “those … who manage the public‟s
dollars will be held to account to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day.” Asserting that the question is “not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” he promised that where government fails to meet its
objectives, “programs will end” [Obama]. Government that works can be said to be effective; government that spends wisely must also consider the question of efficiency. Though it is not yet certain what new configuration the Obama Administration‟s
performance assessment efforts will take, or by what acronym they might be known, public managers will soon be tasked with their implementation. Because schools of public affairs and public administration prepare students to assume professional positions in which they “manage the public‟s dollars” and do the daily business of government, it seems appropriate to consider the question of how graduate programs leading to Masters degrees in public administration and public policy prepare students to take on the challenge of making government work efficiently, both for the purpose of satisfying the bottom line, and to “restore the vital trust between a people and their government” [Obama].
The federal government employs some 2.7 million civilians, 344,000 of whom
1 According to the U.S. Office of Personnel live and work in the Washington, DC area.
Management, the Washington, D.C. Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA) includes the District of Columbia, six counties in Maryland, 15 jurisdictions in Virginia (counting nine counties and six cities), and one county in West Virginia. All together, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia are home to 18 graduate programs (see Table 1) mirroring NASPAA‟s twofold mission: “to ensure excellence in education
and training for public service, and to promote the ideal of public service” [http://www.naspaa.org/].
This paper considers the question of how leaders of graduate programs in public administration and affairs in the national capital area conceptualize the charge of
1Specifically, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the Washington, D.C. Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA) includes the District of Columbia; Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince Georges Counties in Maryland; Arlington, Clarke, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford, and Warren Counties, and Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Manassas Park Cities in Virginia; and Jefferson Counties in West Virginia.
preparing students to work in concert with government efficiency efforts. Faculty directors of Master‟s programs in public policy and administration in the 18 programs identified in the national capital area were targeted for interviews, and 14 interviews were conducted. (See Table 1.) As Kingdon notes, if you want to know what is on the minds of “important governmental and near-government people” there is “no substitute for
asking them directly” [Kingdon, 244]. Qualitative interviews, which are designed to be
open-ended [Patton, 289], were conducted here. Faculty interviewed for the purposes of this paper were asked for their response to the general question of “how Schools of
Public Affairs and Public Administration prepare students to lead the effort for enhanced efficiency," especially in light of President Obama‟s pledge to ensure that government managers spend the public‟s dollars wisely, in a climate of reform and transparency.
What is Efficiency?
The simple dictionary definition of efficiency is the ability to be “productive of desired effects, especially without waste” [Mirriam-Webster]. A government program
that works, “whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford” or
“a retirement that is dignified” [Obama] produces desired effects. Doing the business of government “in the light of day” – under the lens of performance assessment or program
evaluation – can provide evidence of whether the public‟s dollars have been spent wisely
and without waste, that is, efficiently. “As Stein (2001) suggested, “efficiency is about how we should allocate our resources to achieve our goals, not what our goals should be” (p. 68) [quoted in Ryan]. “Efficiency is really a process for making the best possible use
of available resources to achieve public ends” [Ryan, 535].
Some view the definition of efficiency as being a more strictly economic term. According to Donald Norris, Chair of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the definition of efficiency is brought to us in Public Affairs from Economics, and is all about reducing inputs and increasing outputs. Jocelyn Johnston, Director of the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) Program at American University‟s (AU‟s) School of Public Affairs agrees that the prevalence of the term “efficiency” – a key tenet of economic theory - is an example of the influence of the field of economics. Indeed, in their groundbreaking article defining social policy problems as “wicked,” Rittel and Webber traced “the pervasive idea of efficiency” since the industrial
th century physics, classical economics and the principle of least-means… in age to “18
which a specified task could be performed with low inputs of resources” [Rittel and
Is Efficiency an Appropriate Goal for Government Performance?
Some are uncomfortable using the term “efficiency” in relation to government performance and feel that it is more appropriately applied in the private sector where profit provides a single outcome measure of agreed upon importance. In the public sector, says Lori Brainard, Director of the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) Program at The George Washington University (GWU), “we don‟t have single outcomes.” What we want to teach students, says Brainard, is how to deal with unanticipated challenges and unexpected crises. Of course we teach standard tools of fiscal efficiency, such as budgeting and program evaluation, but “how are you efficient at something you‟ve never done before?” [Brainard] Because we want students to be able to negotiate what
Brainard calls the “rubik‟s cube” of public sector management, we teach courses complementary to those in the “tool kit” of basic analytical and quantitative skills, which
stress skills such as team building and how to be reflective. Reflective practitioners, points out Laura Jensen, Chair of the Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP) at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), are conscious of the potential losses as well as gains associated with a focus on efficiency, and consider what sacrifices we are willing to make towards that end.
A number of instances cited by those interviewed highlight cases where a focus on efficiency would have been wildly off the mark. “When Eisenhower was planning D-
Day,” says Norris, “he was not worried about the efficient response.” And by some standards, notes Jensen, slavery, while a heinous practice, might have been considered efficient. Clearly there are areas in the public realm where it does not make sense to evaluate efficiency. Lately some have bridled at OMB‟s attempt to evaluate the efficiency of scientific research. According to Shelley Metzenbaum‟s 2009 report,
Performance Management Recommendations for the New Administration, a “particularly
irritating battle for several agencies… was OMB‟s insistence on efficiency measures for every program” which “did not make sense for all of their programs and sometimes forced them to shift resources to measuring minor matters” instead of considering lofty goals like the advancement of scientific research to justify expenditures supporting research and development.
Democracy itself is perhaps the loftiest of goals that a focus on efficiency is sometimes felt to impinge upon. It was mentioned on several occasions during the course of these interviews that “efficiency and politics are totally antithetical” [Johnston]. If you
don‟t have an inefficient democratic process, says Johnston, you hardly have a
democracy at all. Much in our democratic system, agrees Jensen, is inefficient by design. Equity is inefficient. Due process is inefficient, as are the administration of justice and courts of appeals. Federalism is inefficient. The existence of over 88,000 local government entities in the United States is inefficient [Jensen]. A lot of such inefficiencies come down to some sense of concern with the preservation of liberty and rights, says Jensen, who asserts, “I will have succeeded if I get them (my students) to
reflect on how measures (of efficiency) privilege some values at the expense of others.”
The privileging of some values at the expense of others speaks to the issue of equity, posited by H. George Frederickson in 1968 as “the third pillar for public
administration, holding the same status as economy and efficiency as values or principles to which public administration should adhere…. To say that a service may be well managed and that a service may be efficient and economical still begs these questions: Well-managed for whom? Efficient for whom?” [Frederickson]. Gary Kirk, MPA
Director at James Madison University (JMU), relates that faculty there specifically chose not to use the word “efficiency” with regard to their MPA program, favoring, instead, a
2. focus on effectiveness and an appreciation for issues of equity
2 Echoing Rittel and Webber who noted “The tests for efficiency, that were once so
useful as measures of accomplishment, are being challenged by a renewed preoccupation with consequences for equity” and “The professionalized cognitive and occupational
styles … based in Newtonian mechanistic physics, are not readily adapted to contemporary conceptions of interacting open systems and to contemporary concerns with equity” [Rittel and Webber, 156].
The program‟s mission statement says that it “strives to enhance the effectiveness of public employees” and that the curriculum is designed to enable “students to function effectively in the public and non-profit sectors.” Among its stated goals is to “heighten
students' sensitivity to issues of ethics in the public sector.” [JMU] “Efficiency,” said Kirk, “is associated more with the bottom line, and I‟m uncomfortable using a bottom line kind of measure.” Additionally, says Kirk, performance measures associated with
efficiency efforts are easy to manipulate and use in a political way.
It is effectiveness, says AU‟s Jocelyn Johnston, that those clamoring for
government efficiency really have in mind. “They really mean effective programs, effective government operations...” [Johnston]. A recent report co-authored by
Accenture, Georgetown Public Policy Institute (GPPI) and OMB Watch, advised that the Obama administration “emphasize effectiveness over efficiency and eliminate all
requirements for efficiency measures” when revamping the Bush Administration‟s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). Of some 1,000 PART assessments conducted by OMB, the Accenture report concluded that most have been attentive solely to efficiency measures (ignoring effectiveness and equity program goals)” [Accenture et al,
43]. Metzenbaum agrees that “the requirement for efficiency measures should be
reassessed… and probably eliminated to avoid the dysfunctional distortions caused by requiring every program to adopt efficiency measures,” but asserts that measures of
effectiveness, particularly cost effectiveness, “should be kept,” [Metzenbaum, 54].
The Train Has Left the Station
Despite numerous critiques made of efforts to both demonstrate and enhance government efficiency, it seems clear that the movement is not a fad and that, for better or worse, it is here to stay [Posner]. Of existing programs like GPRA and PART, Carolyn Hill of Georgetown‟s Public Policy Institute (GPPI) remarks, “those trains have left the station.” Though we don‟t know what the new label will be, we can be sure that the focus on performance measures will continue [Kettl].
The continued momentum of GPRA and PART, to which the new
administration‟s efforts will likely be hitched, was signaled by President Obama‟s early appointment to the newly created position of Chief Performance Officer (CPO). The CPO position, now held by Jeffrey Zients, heads “a focused team within the White House
that will work with agency leaders and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to improve results and outcomes for federal government programs while eliminating waste and inefficiency” [Metzenbaum, 10]. In a weekly address on
“efficiency and innovation” President Obama credited Zients‟ “twenty years of business
experience as a CEO, management consultant and entrepreneur” for his “deep understanding of business strategy, process reengineering and financial management”
[White House]. As “CEO and Chairman of the Advisory Board Company and Chairman
of the Corporate Executive Board” Zients has been in charge of “leading providers of performance benchmarks and best practices across a wide range of industries” – the very
types of efficiency measures that the administration would like to see implemented and improved upon government-wide.
While the debate persists about the extent to which business means are
3, government efficiency efforts are ongoing. appropriate to meeting government ends
Maja Holmes of West Virginia University (WVU) points to Missouri‟s Accountability Portal (MAP) as an example of one such effort. MAP, available online and updated daily, is designed for taxpayers as “a single point of reference to review how their money is
being spent and other pertinent information related to the enforcement of government programs” [Missouri]. Carl Ameringer, Coordinator of the Graduate Program in Public Administration at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) cites Maryland‟s
“StateStat” as another. An expanded version of Governor Martin O‟Malley‟s “acclaimed statistics-based government management program” Citistat -StateStat, has been lauded as
“a shining example of government efficiency” by policy experts and reviled by state workers who “have compared it to facing the Spanish Inquisition” [Fenton]. Ameringer recalls encountering the program while consulting on a health policy project in Maryland, and says that preparing students to contend with initiatives of such scope and complexity should be “an important piece of the curriculum” of MPA programs.
How are We Doing?
Bill Leighty, who as Chief of Staff to Virginia Governor‟s Warner and Kaine twice led Virginia‟s successful efforts to be named best managed state by the Pew Center
on the States, feels that schools of public affairs and administration aren‟t doing a very good job of integrating practical assignments into the curriculum. As an adjunct professor at VCU‟s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs,
Leighty is teaching a class on transition in state government in which graduate students
3 This brings to mind “Wallace Sayre‟s oft quoted „law‟” that public and private management are fundamentally alike in all unimportant respects [Allison, 383].
will craft an actual governor‟s transition plan, with a requirement to build performance measures into the plan from the beginning. Such exercises, says Leighty, offer students the opportunity to apply skill sets learned in the MPA program to pertinent scenarios, rather than just hearing antiquated examples. Because VCU is in Richmond, the state capital, the school attracts “lots of state government people” who may well have the
opportunity to directly apply what they have learned in the classroom.
Jonathan Breul, Executive Director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government, has expressed frustration that the curricula of MPA and MPP programs are not as consistent as those of MBA programs, which he says have standards that are more articulate and result in a clearer set of competencies among graduates [conversation with the author, March 4, 2009]. Such competencies, according to Breul, would better and more uniformly prepare students to contribute to government efficiency efforts such as performance measurement. Breul points to an article in Governing Magazine, “Novices
with the Numbers,” that asserts, “performance measurement has caught on almost
everywhere – except for schools teaching the next generation of government managers” [Walters]. The article notes that while only a smattering of schools are offering, and even fewer requiring, courses in performance measurement or “results-focused government,”
the topic “has begun to infuse into other course offerings, including those budgeting and
4 [Walters]. fiscal analysis”
4 GMU‟s Department of Public and International Affairs, though, does offer a class for MPA students specifically in Performance Measurement that is taught by David Frederickson, co-author with H. George Frederickson, of Measuring the Performance of
the Hollow State.