Penn Child Research Center

2010 Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture

New Leaders for New Puzzles:
Meeting the Challenges of Accountability and Performance for Improved Health, Education, and Social Services

Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture, June 14, 2010

Donald F. Kettl

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Oil gushes into the Gulf of Mexico, and nobody knows how to stop it. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians remain homeless six months after a devastating earthquake. Children in Philadelphia’s foster care system suffer abuse or die because of inadequate monitoring. “Who’s in charge?” people ask. While the specifics of the headlines may vary, the question remains the same.

That question, a steady refrain throughout Donald F. Kettl’s presentation at the University of Pennsylvania in June, brought a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency to the second annual Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture, “New Leaders for New Puzzles: Meeting the Challenges of Accountability and Performance for Improved Health, Education and Social Services.” Kettl, Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and an expert in public policy and public management, was not so much interested in answering the question or assigning blame for crises ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the BP spill. Rather, he pointed to this ubiquitous question of accountability as a symptom of a larger dilemma, an ever-increasing gap between citizens’ expectations for what their government will do and the government’s performance in meeting those expectations.

“How do we deal with the avalanche of governmental problems…” Kettl asked his audience, “that present to us time after time a series of challenges in which nobody’s in charge, but which everyone expects the government—and especially the president—to try to solve?”
Before answering that question, Kettl took a more in-depth look at the reason we face this dilemma. Choosing from among a plethora of potential examples, he cited the ineffectiveness of Haitian earthquake relief efforts, despite an outpouring of donations and aid and the commitment of two former U.S. presidents. The problem wasn’t that nobody cared, but that so many different agencies and interests were involved in different aspects of the relief effort. With no coordination among these interests, chaos and stagnation was the only possible result. “Why is it so hard to get the kind of coordination that we need?” asked Kettl. “The fact that no one organization is in charge of anything,” he answered.

This bureaucratic entanglement, he suggested, is by no means unique to the situation in Haiti. Nearly every aspect of American life, from air travel to social security, involves a complex intertwining of multiple public agencies and private sector interests. When problems inevitably arise, the systems’ complexity makes coordination impossible. The  tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, said Kettl, citing another example, was not that FEMA director Michael Brown was “an evil or stupid person who screwed up, because that is a solvable problem.”  The tragedy, in New Orleans, as in Haiti and the Gulf of Mexico, is that government tries to apply a hierarchical model of management to situations too complex to be solved by traditional methods.

“Most of our theory is based upon a kind of vending machine model of government.  You put your tax dollars in the top, pull the lever, things go rattling around inside the bureaucracy, and magic comes out the bottom,” said Kettl.
That vending machine doesn’t work any more. “The gap between what we want government to do and what it is it actually does is getting bigger and bigger and bigger all the time.” What’s needed, Kettl argued, is a change of approach. Rather than a top-down approach that tends to “throw more personnel at the problem,” Kettl advocated a new bottom-up approach that relies on transparency to force government agencies and private entities to take action.

The Spillcam providing continuous coverage of the oil spewing from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico is a case in point. Demanded by a House committee chairman, that live, real-time video of the oil spill available to all on the Internet “produces irresistible pressure on BP to figure out what to do about it.”

New technology and the tools of social networking make this new model possible. Governments at all levels, he argued, need to use the tools available on the Internet to “create information that’s designed to drive action.” The City of Baltimore devised an innovative solution to its rat problem. Citizens called in rat sightings. The results were graphed onto a city map, which not only showed officials where to concentrate eradication efforts, but also formed “an inescapable visual image that demands action and forces coordination. ” In other words, faced with graphic evidence, the various government agencies, from housing to water to sanitation, could not pass responsibility back and forth. They had to devise a solution.

The information-driven, bottom-up approach is not limited to forcing action in a crisis. Kettl expressed his admiration for the Obama administration’s understanding the power of transparency to engage citizens and generate civic conversation. The administration has quietly but consistently been using new media to effect a “stealth performance revolution.”

As an example, he presented Recovery.gov, a user-friendly website that shows exactly where the 800 billion dollars in Recovery Act money is going, in specific cities and locations. What impresses Kettl most about the website is its focus on the results of the Recovery Act and not the inner and intricate workings of various government agencies involved. “It’s telling you what’s happening in your front yard,” said Kettl. “… it’s an effort to drive bottom-up, place-based, action-driven, bureaucracy-free civic conversations, about what government’s doing, which [the administration] hopes will lead to a question of how we can do it better.”

While the question of “who’s in charge” still looms in this new model, Kettl argued that transparency – revealing a problem and making it public, clear and evident – leads to the coordination missing in the top-down approach. “If you can create the right kinds of conversations you’re more likely to produce the kinds of coordination that we need rather than somebody at the top ordering somebody to do something.”

As American society shifts towards a culture of “unmediated media,” Kettl predicted that the public will play a more powerful and less passive role in producing and disseminating the information that drives social discourse. Although the results of this new social experiment are still unclear, Kettl expressed optimism. Experiment and innovation using new media are certainly preferable to the disastrous results of “more of the same.”
“What we’re doing now isn’t working,” he concluded. “As good as we can do is not good enough… and it’s getting less good enough with each passing day… “We’ve got to find a way to get much smarter in a big hurry.”

And new technology gives us – citizens and government alike -- just the tools we need, Kettl implied, to make us smarter – and fast. Quickly disseminated, with the power to expose, reveal and clarify, these tools have the potential to effect that desperately needed transformation.