The Decision Making of Public Administrators: Professional Responsibility or Personal Values

By Shirmel Hayden

Shirmel 9.9In light of the recent events that happened in Ferguson, Missouri and have happened all over the world, I thought about the role of public administrators. I thought about a public administrator’s decision-making, specifically how public administrators respond to professional responsibilities. Do personal values interfere with decision-making and responsibilities? More importantly, what is the standard of ethics that are used when decisions must be made?

For the past 10 years, I have noticed that rights have been a challenge and every year I see little change even with conversations about police brutality, school-to-prison pipeline discussions, conferences, workshops, countless research studies, statistics and ongoing advocacy. In 2006, while working on my master’s in public administration at the University of Baltimore, I learned more about civil and human rights. After reading and researching more, I wondered how well these rights implemented are in our society.

Just over the past five years, I have read about unfair sentencing based on race, police brutality in certain communities, mayors involved in public corruption, students pepper sprayed at peaceful demonstrations, minorities in schools being unfairly targeted to the prison pipeline and prisons acting as money making machines with state contracts. I wonder what’s happening. I wonder why the same topics are repeatedly in the news, newspapers and on the Internet. I asked myself, “Is the decision-making of public administrators based on professional responsibility or personal values?”

I have seen the demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, emails, voting drives and peaceful marches. I listen to the voices of people who speak out about inequity and injustices that continue to exist. I hear many of the same words now as I did my childhood: freedom, expression, education, speech, access, due process, equity, equality, discrimination, right to vote, justice, protection among many others. In a world that is ever changing, how do citizens change with times? Should laws change with time? Should rights be updated according to many of the issues that we face today?  How do we hold public administrators accountable for the decision-making that affects citizens? How are people supposed to get their voices out when they are caught in the whirlwind of decision-making that does not always seem to take the ‘professionally responsible’ approach? Is the idea that people just have to live with what maybe “unfair” decision-making? As citizens, how do we trust public administrators?

What I do see is the division between cultures, communities, gender, ideology and distribution of power, personal interest and education. It seems to be really taking a toll on the overall society. What happens when personal values supersede professional responsibility? How do you separate the two? What is the expectation? Am I expecting too much?



Filed under civil rights, General

The Big Secret

By Thomas I Miller

Meteorologists know that the 10-day weather forecast is so unreliable that being right on Day 10 falls into the category of a miracle. Public health officials can’t say with a straight face that today’s dietary recommendations have legs that will sustain into the next decade. It is said that economists have predicted five of the last two recessions – because the predictive accuracy of the dismal science is, well, dismal. Psychologists don’t really know who will or won’t turn violent. Educators are mindful that paying teachers for performance sounds a lot better than it is. And physicists appreciate that human understanding of the universe sits atop a wobbly foundation because there yet exists no theory of everything to fit the cosmos solidly together.

In fact, experts in every field are aware of the Achilles heels that diminish the certainty of the craft they ply. But experts aver, nevertheless, typically keeping their self-doubts private just as leaders lead even when they don’t know which way to go. So what about pollsters? Uncharacteristically, today, with dark curiosity, we can witness among professionals charged with telling us what we think an unusually public struggle over the secret behind how we know.

I have written recently that the evidence Americans rely on to understand society’s predilections has been based on one kind of public opinion survey method that is under assault. Though mostly unspoken, the primary model for collecting data over the last 40 years – random selection (“probability samples”) of Americans interviewed by telephone – is known by virtually every survey research professional to be unsustainable because phone surveys get ever lower response rates at accelerating costs while attracting people that don’t necessarily represent the general public.

As acclaimed pollster and analyst Nate Silver put it: “there are fewer high-quality polls than there used to be [because]…the cost to commission one can run well into five figures.” Another pollster put it more starkly: “The polling industry is clearly at a crossroads. In 2016, or 2020, telephone surveys may no longer be the prevailing way to measure what the public thinks or how it intends to vote.”

Miller Sept 2In the last week of July, the big secret went viral – at least for the pros in that virtual loop. A salvo by one of the most prestigious research and journalism teams – The New York Times/CBS News poll- vaunted for uncovering opinions the old-fashioned way – caused shock and awe among leaders of the survey research club – The American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR)[1]. The Times/CBS organization announced results from political polling that relied on the opinions of Americans who simply volunteered to be respondents in a Web panel curated by Yougov.

What seemed to some insiders like the abandonment of quality by respected journalists and researchers resulted, about one week later, in a censorious opinion piece by Michael Link, the president of AAPOR. He wrote:

This week, The New York Times and CBS News published a story using, in part, information from a non-probability, opt-in survey sparking concern among many in the polling community. In general, these methods have little grounding in theory and the results can vary widely based on the particular method used.” Link went on to say, “Using information from polls which are not conducted with scientific rigor in effect sets a new — lower — standard for the types of information that other news outlets may now seek to report.”

This official AAPOR viewpoint has created aftershocks among members who think that opt-in Web surveys may be the right direction for learning what the people think and that the association’s scolding commentary was like the whining of buggy whip makers after the Model T rolled out.

Though there were supporters of the association’s position on the AAPOR-net listserve (e.g., “Based on my own experience as a pollster since 1976, none of our studies which allowed self-selection even remotely resembled the target population at large.”), some of the angry posts from members who support opt-in surveys were like these:

The American Association of Public Opinion Research is a justly well-respected organization … That is why the organization’s dismissive official reaction is so disturbing.

 Sadly, AAPOR seems to be turning itself into a lobbying group in support of a certain segment [telephone surveying] of the polling establishment. 

Isn’t it time to get out of the public censuring business? Surely this has gone too far. 

We need AAPOR to be the anchor that grounds our work, not drowns our profession.

The publicly discussed weaknesses of traditional survey research already are spawning innovations that refashion how we know. While the retooling is in progress, we get to witness this uncommon open battle to make one professional secret obsolete. In the coming years as data collection turns from only telephone to a combination of phone, opt-in Web surveys, paid panels, smartphone texting, listed emails, tweeting, U.S. Postal Service mail or drone interviewers (my idea), the secret of low response rates and the misalignment of people in survey samples with people in general will surely be replaced with new polling secrets, yet to be discovered.

[1] Full disclosure, this author is a member.

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Branding and Personal Interaction

By Robyn-Jay Bage

Last month, I blogged about recruitment. I noted that in today’s marketplace, recruitment is about branding and personal interaction. Candidates are more likely to respond to our efforts if we reach out to them in some personal, non-electronic way. Additionally, potential employees want to know they’ll be working for an organization that makes a difference and that their work will be meaningful.

Selection isn’t much different.

  • Bage 8.28It’s personal. One of the most common misconceptions about the selection process is that the person with the most credentials should be hired. Not true! Assuming we’ve done a sound job analysis, we know what minimum knowledge, skills, education and experience are needed to ensure our candidate has the best shot at being successful. Once a diverse pool of candidates has been developed, the first task of selection is culling the applicants who do not have these minimum qualifications. The remaining candidates are, by definition, qualified for the job–MORE credentials do not necessarily make a candidate MORE qualified.

Once we have a group of candidates who all meet the minimum qualifications, the goal of the selection process is assessing the fit between the person and the organization, as well as the person and the job. In other words, will the candidate be happy, effective, and productive in this job at this organization?

There are many factors to consider regarding fit and they all depend on the culture of the organization. For example, if the climate values teamwork and camaraderie, a person who values working independently might not be a good candidate. If the work environment is fast paced, where decisions must be made quickly and information shared and processed like lightening, someone who prefers a slower pace might not be the best choice. Assessing fit isn’t a value judgment. Preferring independent work over teamwork doesn’t make one a bad person. But it might make for a bad fit.

As we strive to improve the selection process at my nonprofit, we’ve realized that the management team subculture values humor, hard work and a “we’re all in this together” approach. Those who view the world differently may not enjoy this kooky culture and don’t do well in it.

  • Bage 2 8.28It’s about the brand. During recruitment, the objective is to attract a diverse pool of qualified candidates by selling the organization’s brand. Present the mission and the work. Proudly boast your strengths and successes. Put on your Sunday best in order to convince top choice applicants they want to work for you.

During the most effective selection processes, however, take off the Sunday garb and stand bare before your candidates. Give them an honest peak at the job–what’s tough about it, what’s stressful, as well as what’s extraordinarily empowering or rewarding. HR professionals refer to this as a realistic job preview.

Our realistic job previews for management personnel include numerous examples of stress, such as stressful decisions, stressful interactions and stressful deadlines. Successful candidates recognize stress must be managed and can be productive. An employee shouldn’t have to resign saying, “You didn’t tell me it was going to be like this.”

How does your organization use branding and a personal approach to your recruitment and selection processes?

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In Consideration of Gubernatorial Ethics

By Jason Bowns

The indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry raises many questions about whether he actually committed a crime. Yet there has been little talk of ethics.

Bowns august 26

Photo Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Social activist Jane Addams once declared, “Action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics.”

So, what does it mean when a governor makes threats to compel a resignation?

Travis County includes Austin, the capital city of Texas, within its jurisdiction.

The Public Integrity Unit (PIU) is a division of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office which prosecutes public corruption. Rosemary Lehmberg is the district attorney of Travis County. Last year, Lehmberg pleaded guilty to DUI, following an embarrassing incident.

Governor Perry demanded that Lehmberg resign, or else he would veto state PIU funding.

Lehmberg refused and Governor Perry vetoed PIU funding stating, “Despite the otherwise good work the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”

The American Society for Public Administration Code of Ethics reminds us, “Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.”

Bowns 2 august 26

Photo Credit: Penn State University

Because the PIU prosecutes public corruption, this funding cut hindered anticorruption efforts. Rather than harming District Attorney Lehmberg, this act harmed the ability of the PIU to defend the public trust.

This situation with Governor Perry parallels another governor who had presidential aspirations. Even before his inauguration, Massachusetts Governor-elect Mitt Romney entered the dramatic stage surrounding University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger in 2002.

When a U.S. House Committee on Government Reform subpoenaed Bulger to testify December 6, 2002, in a highly publicized media event, grand jury minutes from two years earlier were illegally leaked to The Boston Globe days before he was scheduled to testify.

Subsequently, Bulger was denied access to his own grand jury minutes in preparation for the December hearing and invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. This was construed as a failure to cooperate with the Committee. Ultimately, he did testify June 19, 2003 and answered all questions posed by the congressional panel.

While it was never a secret that his older brother had chosen a life very different from his own, Bulger enjoyed popular support in the state Legislature for 35 years, never losing an election between 1960 and 1994. He was the longest-serving state senate president in Massachusetts history. Bulger retired in 1996 to assume the University of Massachusetts presidency.

Governor Romney urged the University of Massachusetts (UMass) board of trustees to fire President Bulger.

Following consultation with an attorney and a vote, Board Chair Grace Fey announced that the Trustees wouldn’t seek Bulger’s removal adding, “In fact, the evidence is that the quality of our students, our fund-raising and research funding have all increased dramatically in recent years.”

Bowns 3 august 26

Photo Credit: Alpha Tau Gamma

Around this time, the Massachusetts Republican Party also filed ethics complaints against members of the UMass board of trustees, which were eventually dismissed.

Whether or not President Bulger should have resigned is a separate issue from whether Governor Romney should have threatened to appoint known Bulger enemies to serve on the UMass Board.

These include controversial figures like George Daher, who once publicly derided Bulger as a “corrupt midget” and radio talk show host Howie Carr. Among these is Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, who believes in torture and that because “countries all over the world violate the Geneva Accords,” then it’s OK for America to do it, too.

Is placing these individuals at the helm of the University of Massachusetts in the public interest?

Unlike Lehmberg, Bulger ultimately chose to resign, citing a “calculated political assault” against UMass which included “character attacks on distinguished members of our board of trustees, and by the creation of a stated ‘litmus test’ stipulating that future members of the UMass Board must be willing to sign away their independent judgment before taking their seats.”

President Bulger continued by hopefully opining, “Our work will continue. Despite the many challenges, this University will persevere – and it will prosper. The University is larger than any of us who have the privilege to serve it, and in serving it, we have a solemn obligation to act in the University’s best interest – as I believe I am today.”

Whatever is said about Governor Romney or Governor Perry, UMass President Bulger put the public interest first.

No one forced him to resign. It wouldn’t have been until 2006 that Governor Romney would have made enough appointments to the Board to hold a majority in support of his termination.

By definition, President Bulger’s voluntary sacrifice exemplifies the meaning of public service.

Like Bulger, Horace Mann served as Massachusetts State Senate President and later as an education reformer. In his final commencement speech to students at Antioch College, Mann issued a bold call for action: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

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Has Innovation From Technology Improved Customer Service?

By Geoff McClennan

How long ago was it that customers could only complain or express gratitude for customer service in person or by mail? Mailing customer surveys was time consuming and expensive due to postal costs.

mclennan 8.21Today, we can tweet, email, post on Facebook and comment on other social media sites about our customer service. Getting recognized for good service is a great feeling and provides the opportunity to share and go viral with great customer service. When the results are not so good, sometimes we don’t hear at all. Or maybe a call is made to someone at a higher level or a hash tag makes the online rounds and then, wow, the project team has to scramble to repair.

Customer surveys are one means to record and evaluate customer feedback. Another means is to ask your client frequently for performance feedback as you provide services, supplies and advice. I even see survey cards in medical offices that offer nominating someone for outstanding service. Sometimes you get praise, at other times none or faint praise. I have seen many email signatures that include a link or Instagram so customer feedback can be instant, ongoing or periodically performed.

Now that we have partially moved out of the office with mobile devices, handhelds and tablets, do we get more frequent client requests and feedback?

It is not unusual to get a call back from an employee who accessed the client request away from the office within the hour. I am of the opinion that current, versus periodic (biannual or annual) feedback from a client is priceless. The “How are we doing” question is encouraged in my organization. Why wait for feedback on a multiple phase project when you can stay informed daily or as often as necessary? Corrective action or change is better applied sooner than later. Does your organization culture encourage service for the universal good via teamwork, accountability and excellence?

Do the mobile devices help with customer service? Do you rely on staff and associates to follow the policy on customer relations? 

Tell us about the best customer care program or policy that you have experienced and what made it unique, effective and outstanding such as the technology and software. Tell us how to fix mistakes or omissions on projects because the public service should and can be superlative.

We can prevent mistakes with a culture of care.

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Filed under General, Technology

War on Poverty or War on the Poor?

By Winnie Eke

One can argue that the “war on poverty” has not worked. However, Representative Paul Ryan’s “conversation” plan simply ignores some facts.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 1966 to 2012 the poverty rate has been consistent from 11 percent to 15 percent. This rate is in spite of the increasing income among the rich. In addition the near poverty rate has not decreased for many as those on the threshold tend to fall into poverty.

Ryan agrees that education is fundamental to reducing poverty yet he is not willing to support a budget that can fund education programs. It was nice for Mr. Ryan to visit the inner cities. Unfortunately, Mr. Ryan did not learn a lot about the poor. His suggestion that those training for a skill or getting treatment should be punished is counter intuitive. In essence he wants to punish children and other family members because the mother or father is not able to complete a program.

As Mr. Shipley noted, America’s economy is stratified. Mr. Ryan needs to account for how to help those unemployed and those marginalized in our society.

Your thought.

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Filed under Education, Employment

How MPA’s Can Cure the VA

By Craig Donovan

In spite of what we see in the movies, winning the Second World War was no sure thing. As the Axis powers continued the buildup of their military forces in the Atlantic and the Pacific, we remained in an isolated, peacetime mentality that left us unprepared for an all-out war on two fronts. For a decade, we clung to a status-quo mode of thinking. Eventually we were forced to scramble to prepare our nation’s machinery and manpower to cope with the desperate situation we found ourselves in.

In part, we were able to deal with the global crisis by ramping up our existing manufacturing capabilities. But when faced with a challenge and threat that we could not meet by simply throwing more resources at it, we had to develop a new, alternative approach. Out of this came the Manhattan Project, a vast and novel organizational game-changer in the race to be the first to successfully design and build an atomic bomb.

Our country faces many challenges again, perhaps more than at any time in the last 30 years. Some of these are external. But many are internal, and frequently as before, they are of our own making. They are a result once again of a status-qua mentality, where we try to meet new problems with old answers. Once again, the results are little short of catastrophic.

donovan augustThe best example of this is the situation with the Veterans Affairs Administration (VA). While we spent over a decade ramping up our military might and sending our soldiers to fight tour after tour, we ignored the need to consider the long-term consequences of these actions. We did not prepare for the tens of thousands of former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who would be returning home. Men and women who would come to the VA to seeking both physical and mental aid. New veterans who would join and swell the existing population of older veterans also turning to the VA for help.

The result of our inattention and inactivity is a VA that is overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded. Slowly but surely the stories began to emerge of veterans who were unable to get their paperwork processed for months, even years. We learned about former service members, and their families, who could not schedule an appointment or be seen by a doctor– sometimes with fatal results. As a nation, we finally started to focus our collective attention on these horrendous situations. Yet it seemed as if as much more effort was expended on explaining or even covering up the problems, as opposed to trying to meet them head on.

Our traditional response has been to slowly begin ramping up and spending more money. I believe that as history has shown us, it is not just more resources that are needed but new approaches. After the failure by the extremely experienced and hardworking General Eric Shinseki, a former Army Chief of Staff, a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs was recently put in place. He is Robert A McDonald, a West Point graduate with an MBA who also has a long record of success in the private sector. More though than just a new leader is required to understand the problems and issues, to fix what is wrong and to build a new VA able to meet the needs of the 21st century. We need a new team of people operating in a new paradigm. We need our own version of the Manhattan Project.

Call it the Heracles Project. Then as now, we again assemble a small army of management experts– MPAs from all over the country– with expertise in government and health administration. Some of these will be senior people from all levels of government and academia. Some will be experienced managers with a solid record of practitioner success. Others will be drawn from our latest graduating classes, our best and brightest newcomers who can make up the bulk of the assembled work force. Many of them should and will themselves be veterans.

Even as we escalate our efforts and plug the holes in the dike by hiring more doctors and staff and allow veterans to be seen at non-VA facilities, our Heracles project team can look at the myriad existing processes and operational procedures that should be changed and modernized, as well as devising entirely new 21st century practices. Whether working facility by facility, or across multiple sites at once, a new flexible army of MPAs tasked with diagnosing and curing what ails the VA, given the tools and authority to implement their changes, can do what more money alone cannot do: win the battle to save the veterans who need help now and win the war to save the VA so that it can adapt, change and thrive in the years to come. A VA that works for us and our nation’s veterans, no matter how much money we through at it, is no sure thing.

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Filed under General, Government, Public management