Technology, our Humanity, and the Fate of Public Administration

Back in my graduate school days I designed a course focused on technology and its impacts on the urban environment and the general social fabric of society. Students read some pretty heavy material, including Lewis Mumford and Neil Postman. If you are a good urbanist you already know Lewis Mumford, but you may be less familiar with Postman’s work. I am simplifying his argument, but Postman worried that the balance of technology was shifting from a place where humans used technology to better serve human needs, to a place where humans lived to serve the needs of technology. He called this state technopoly, which he defined as such:

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs.

I pondered Postman’s work after I watched Jake Tapper’s Stephen Miller interview Sunday morning. My first instinct was to see how Twitter would react. My actual thought process was, “What will Twitter think of this?” Breaking this down, I pretty much realized Postman’s worst vision. One, I ceded my own thoughts for those of others. Rather than think about what I just watched and form an opinion based on my own humanity, I went looking for the instant reaction, which inevitably clouded my judgment. Two, I humanized a computer program. I did not think about a specific person on Twitter, but Twitter itself. Three, I used technology to find my satisfaction, I did not engage the humans around me, or my own brain, but rather an interface where ideas from total strangers dominate.

So my thought today is what heck is wrong with me?!! Or more to the point, is technology poisoning our social fabric and changing not only how we discourse, but who we are? Here are two more relevant paragraphs from Postman:

The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe: Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures

One way of defining Technopoly, then, is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information glut have broken down. It is what happens when institutional life becomes inadequate to cope with too much information. It is what happens when a culture, overcome by information generated by technology, tries to employ technology itself as a means of providing clear direction and humane purpose.

Reading that makes me shiver, as there is a whole lot of evidence that society has reached a point where “defenses against information glut have broken down.” I have a paper under review right now (fingers crossed) that argues one must understand the importance of perceptions if they are to truly understand the state of modern governance. There is strong evidence (in my informed opinion) to support my hypothesis, and accordingly I think it is essential that the field of public administration places renewed focus on the concept of public acceptance and Herbert Simon’s notion of decision-premises.

But what if our decision-premises are so clouded by inhumane technological forces that our zones of acceptance are determined not by ideas and experience, or really our very humanity, but rather platforms like Twitter and Facebook? How can public administrators and policymakers govern in an environment where public acceptance is increasingly divorced from humanity?

Per usual, I have no good answers to these questions, but it is making me think about new paradigms for understanding governance and public administration. It is also making me think about my own use of social media platforms and how it is impacting by critical thinking patterns. Of course the irony is that I am tweeting this out, but I do love vagueness and contradictions. But for now, I think it is time to reread Postman, and perhaps dig a littler deeper into the relationship between Postman’s thinking and public administration theory.

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Reflecting on my 2017 in academia

All in an all it was a busy year for me professionally, many highlights and a few lowlights. First the good.

In 2017 I was able to finish and publish my first book entitled The Consequences of Governance Fragmentation. It was a very fun project to work on, and I learned a heck of a lot that will help me with the next one. I was also happy to get a nice write-up in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; there really is nothing better than getting ideas that mean something dear to you into the public debate. I was also happy to keep up a nice academic publication pace in 2017, writing about education policy, nonprofit governance, group dynamics, and local government. All of these projects fall into my broader governance research agenda, and I am feeling good about its progression. I am also feeling good about my engagement in the community and the broader world of PA this past year. From serving on boards and commissions to writing for the PATimes, I feel like I am doing more than talking when it comes to bridging the academic-practitioner divide. I am also most pleased to have good colleagues and a growing body of diverse students that both challenge and enlighten me in the classroom. A lot of good stuff in 2017.

I of course also had my share of not-so-good stuff. The usual journal and grant rejections that come in this line of work, as well as job-market frustrations. Part of being in academia is keeping an open mind to opportunities, and I am genuinely humbled when friends and scholars I respect think I would be a good fit for something. That said, I think it is safe to say I am done testing the waters, my goal this year is to appreciate being where I am wanted and happy as opposed to seeking out an R1. I had a particularly frustrating experience at a conference where a well-known and accomplished governance scholar told me my work really did not matter; it was weird for someone to try to delegitimize me like that and brought on some soul-searching this past fall.

Did I really want to stay in academia? If my work was really seen as widely irrelevant because of who or where I was, or where I came from in the academic hierarchy, how could I ever make the positive impact I strive to make? I had a nice practitioner career prior to joining the academy and I really did consider returning to it in 2017. I would be lying if I said that was not still on my mind at times. That said, I love what I do. I love teaching, I love writing, and I love finding new ways to get my work out there. But the frustrations are real, and I cringe at what others must face given my position of relative privilege.

So now the professional goals for 2018:

  • Get all my tenure documents in successfully;
  • Further and fully embrace where I am;
  • Finish book number two, (two and three are in progress!);
  • Keep the publication train moving at a steady clip;
  • Work with my PhD bound students to get their publication trains moving;
  • Keep up the public engagement;
  • Bring a planned research center into reality; and
  • Keep making new academic friends and connections.

Will I accomplish all of these? Probably not, but a little bit of reflection and planning is unavoidable this time of year. With that, I have four courses I need to plan! Cheers.

Using Charter School Boards as an Accountability Bridge Between Schools and the Public

When we talk about charter schools and governance and we tend to think of charter policy itself as a governance innovation. Anyone following education policy is aware of the debate over the portfolio model of schools, the issue of charter management organizations, and the diversity of charter school laws and authorizers. And yes, charter policy is itself a governance innovation. However, a charter school policy is only as good as the quality of schools enabled by it, and can only be successful if the public accepts charter schools as a legitimate provider of public education. Thus, if charter policies are to be effective at scale we must:

  1. Understand what makes individual charter schools successful; and
  2. Develop ways to ensure public acceptance of charter schools and policies.

In a new paper in Education and Urban Society, Doug Ihrke and I take up the second point by explaining how charter school board members approach the issue of accountability, and then by using their answers to inform suggestions on how charter boards can serve as an accountability bridge between their schools and the public at-large. First, some background. My interest in public sector accountability stems, in part, from frustrations with some of the accountability work in the public administration and education policy literatures. There is so much theorizing, but surprisingly little actionable information regarding accountability. I see value in public administration theory, I enjoy reading it, but I also want to know how it matters. With that in mind Doug and I created a radical new methodology that involves asking those charged with holding public organizations accountable how they define accountability. Simple? Yes…but also very fruitful.

In this specific study we asked 215 charter school board members in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin how they defined accountability in their charter school. We then coded their open-ended answers using the categories below:

  1. Test scores. Responses coded “test scores” reference standardized test scores or high-stakes testing. An example answer in our data is “Standardized testing.”
  2. Responses coded “staff” reference teachers or the school principal. An example answer in our data is “Teachers need to meet instructional targets. Failing to do so may result in dismissal.”
  3. Responses coded “board” explicitly reference the board itself. An example answer in our data is “Our success and failures are directly related to the board being within our roles as governing members.”
  4. Responses coded “authorizer” reference either the charter contract or the authorizer. An example answer in our data is “Our expectations are stated clearly in the Charter Contract.

As you can see in the figure below, respondents gave diverse answers, with test scores and staff being the most prominent.

chart

However, as we state in the paper, “[n]ot one survey respondent mentioned the taxpayer, citizens, or any external constituency; indeed, board members either looked downward at student and staff performance (test scores and staff accountability), inward at the board itself, or upward at their authorizer.” This poses a legitimacy challenge and speaks, we argue, to the heart of criticism questioning the very publicness of charter schools. Simply, charter schools are a step removed from the direct public accountability traditionally associated with public education. Now, certainly the wisdom of the traditional school board governance model and the effectiveness of democratic accountability in education can be debated, but that does not change the reality of public expectations for accountability. As we conclude: “[T]he absence of outward looking accountability definitions on charter boards is further evidence of the legitimacy challenge facing the charter model of school governance.”

So what can be done? We offer five basic suggestions that can empower charter school board to serve as the accountability bridge between their schools and the public.

  1. Elected Charter School Board Members: Opening up a set number of seats on charter school boards for direct election can bring increased balance to, and representation on, charter school boards. While elections could lead to board members hostile to charter school policy, the potential for any citizen in a school’s catchment area to serve on charter boards brings a level of direct electoral accountability that is currently lacking.
  2. Board Member Term Limits: Though hardly an innovative idea, staggered term limits can ensure an evolving group dynamic.
  3. Board Member Listening Sessions: Charter boards have nothing akin to a standard agenda item for public input. Allowing open comment and questioning at one or more points throughout the year would allow the public to voice their concerns directly to a school’s governing body.
  4. Mandated Board Member Training: Another obvious suggestion, but one that would aid members nonetheless.
  5. The Creation and Dissemination of a Board Accountability Plan: What does accountability mean to board members and how do they plan to actualize the concept? Creating a plan forces board members to be aligned with one another, and also creates a written contract between the board and the public.

There is of course a lot more detail in the paper so please feel free to contact me at fordm@uwosh.edu if you would like a full copy. My hope is that this project, which is ongoing, will continue to yield actionable insights into how governance impacts both the performance and legitimacy of public and nonprofit organizations.

So is my kid’s school good or not?

The new round of Wisconsin school report cards are out and, if you are like me, you may be a bit confused. There are some mixed messages out there. So are our schools more or less meeting expectations? Are private schools accepting vouchers outperforming public schools? Are gains this year a statistical outlier? Is this whole thing silly? As I wrote last year, people tend to weaponize these report cards to support their views on education policy, but they are nonetheless important. A couple points worth making.

First, never forget these are human-designed accountability systems. Groups of humans are making decisions about what is measured, how it is measured, and how important each area is to the entire accountability system. Perhaps you have heard the cliché that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Well the report cards are a camel. Any attempt to take everything that occurs in a school and boil it down to a single number will be a flawed exercise. I urge parents and policymakers alike to review schools by looking at the detailed report card, not the simple overall score.

Second, DPI should be commended for their work on this. It is awesome to see how much data is available on Wisconsin schools compared to when I began working in this area a dozen years ago. This is a difficult bureaucratic exercise (especially when we constantly change the report card), yet DPI pulled it off.

Third, this is the second year of the new accountability formula. Two years does not make a trend, so if your child’s school made improvements or scored lower, do not rush to judgment.

Fourth, it is great to see more demographic data available for private schools in choice programs. We are getting closer to the day where data systems are aligned between public and voucher schools, which is a huge development that will help us better understand the choice sector. That said, keep in mind that private schools have two sets of report cards; one optional for all students, and one required only of voucher students. Also keep in mind that the Milwaukee, Racine, and statewide voucher programs are different animals with different regulations and characteristics. Finally, keep in mind that Milwaukee’s education challenges will not be solved by simply concluding one sector is better than another. That is a flawed premise in my opinion (hey, buy my book to learn more!).

Now the nitty gritty, what is going on with Emmeline Cook, my sons’ school? Last year the school met few expectations with a total score of 54.3. This year the school meets expectations with a 66.9. What gives? Perhaps my parenting skills simply vaulted the school now that my oldest is in a tested grade. I joke of course. A closer look reveals what changed:

  • In 2015-2016 the school had very low growth scores in math, and extremely low gap-closing scores in English and math. These low scores were driven by low scores in the sub-categories of low-income, and ELL students.
  • This year the school’s math growth scores, and English and math gap closing scores increased considerably. If you look a bit closer you see the value-added growth for low-income pupils improved considerably, as did the math achievement scores for low-income pupils.
  • I also note the percentage of ELL students in the school decreased by about 4 percentage points. This cohort was struggling according to last year’s report card, so this demographic change had the likely impact of increasing growth scores, particularly in math.

To put it all together, the increased accountability score is a function of 1) Improved math growth scores for low-income pupils, 2) Improved gap-closing in math and English for low-income pupils, and 3) A reduction in the total number of ELL pupils.

So back to my original question, is my kid’s school good or not? Well, I do not think the accountability score in this report card can tell me that. But it does contain good information that helps parents, policymakers, and school leaders better understand what is working and what needs improvement, and for whom. Data like theses should be a tool, and a valuable opportunity to better understand what is going on in your child’s school.

Thoughts on UWO’s New Budget Model

I always tell by budgeting students that the first steps they should take when beginning a public sector job is reading the budget, and learning all they can about the budget model being used. Why? Knowing where your organization’s revenues come from, knowing where those revenues go, and knowing how the decisions to allocate funds are made puts you in position to understand the bureaucracy of which you are a part of, enables you to answer questions regarding your organization, and generally sets you up to understand your organization’s priorities and direction. Simply, knowing the budget and budget processes will make you the smartest person in many rooms.

But what happens when a budget model becomes so indecipherable that it is impossible to understand? What happens when nobody can determine where the money is coming from and going, and much less why? Well, that means it is time to start over. A budget model that is indecipherable makes accountability, transparency, and outcomes-based resource allocation and decision making impossible. Unfortunately that is the situation my university found itself in.

If you work at UW-Oshkosh, or just care about budgeting, I recommend you read this recommendation report from the University Budget Development Committee (On a personal note, this is one point where being a lowly unwashed and untenured assistant professor is devastating to me, this committee would have been so much fun). The committee’s review of the university’s current budgeting model is justly harsh. The model lacks transparency, and nobody seems to understand how or why it looks the way it does. Another thing I frequently tell my students is that ambiguity creates opportunity. Though this can be good in a leadership context, in a budgeting context such ambiguity enables mayhem and corruption. After reading this report it is easy to see the link between some of the recent issues at UW-Oshkosh and the presence of a broken budgeting model.

To be fair, the sorry state of the budgeting model is itself not evidence of anything nefarious. Inertia, muddling through, and objective-drift are all pathologies of large bureaucratic organizations, like universities. The specifics of the current budget model all were likely created to serve some logical function at some point, but spiraled into obsolescence. It would be very easy to simply throw up our collective arms and say the budget model is too complex, but it is reality so we must accept it. So kudos to those who identified the existing model for what it is.

The new model (you can read the draft operating manual here) holds a lot of promise and it premised on the following six goals (quoted from page 3 of the report):

  • Establish incentives for innovative activity leading to revenue generation
  • Establish incentives to manage scarce resources
  • Include mechanisms to encourage inter-unit collaborations
  • Improve the operating budget allocation process by presenting financial data in clear, consistent, and transparent formats so the campus community can understand the financial condition of the university
  • Improve budgetary understanding to improve budget forecasting and financial planning
  • Ensure that colleges/units and central administration each maintain savings and strategic funds to support the college/unit and university mission.

All of these goals are important, but I am drawn to a few themes I see throughout the report. First, is equity. Resource allocation procedures are closely tied to enrollments. Finally normal people (I include myself in that category) should be able to understand why each college and unit gets the resources it does. Second is objectivity. Under the old model decision-making appeared to be mostly relationship- or deal-driven. The transparent allocation of resources should prevent this. Third is transparency and accountability. It will be easy to see where the money is coming from, where it is going, and why. Fourth is incentive alignment. When allocation decisions are arbitrary or indecipherable, it is impossible to ensure incentives at the college and unit level align with the organization’s goals. In fact they often run counter, which helps exactly nobody.

So I am excited to see how this new budget model in action. I am excited for the transparency that will allow my little department to make data-driven decisions. And I am excited to teach my students how the whole thing works. I’ll end by saying that no budget model alone will make an organization successful, create a culture that improves outcomes, or address very real financial challenges. It does however create the conditions that allow for improved fiscal management, a healthier culture, and ultimately improved outcomes. This new model is a necessary and appreciate step.

What to do about Lakeshore?

Last night I had the privilege of participating in a meeting and hearing on the potential sale and redevelopment of the Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course site. Public land is a finite resource that belongs to the citizens, and transferring any part of that to a private organization is a serious decision worthy of the passions that were on display last night. If you did not attend last night I encourage you to attend the open house tonight at the Oshkosh Convention Center from 6-8pm. Or, go here and leave your input online. You can also check out the renderings of the potential changes to the Lakeshore site, concept 1 is here, concept 2 is here. As I said at the meeting, I was impressed with concept 1.

A couple things came up at the meeting that I think are worthy of mention.

Why can’t a different site be chosen for Oshkosh Corp.? According to the city, this is the only available site that Oshkosh Corp. found suitable to their needs, and the only one for which Oshkosh Corp. invited a proposal.

Why is the timeline so compact? According to the city, Oshkosh Corp. is making a decision in November, so if Oshkosh chooses to submit a proposal it needs to do so by the end of the month.

Is the golf course losing money? According to the city’s certified annual financial report for the golf course, yes, the course had an average annual loss of about $35,000 over the last 8 years.

Did anyone consider keeping a golf course on the site with the potential new Oshkosh Corp headquarters? No, this was not something discussed.

Has a decision already been made? No, you can see the timeline online here. Importantly, the process now is just to determine if the city submits a proposal, it does not mean it will agreeable to Oshkosh Corp., or guarantee that Oshkosh keeps the headquarters.

For what it is worth, this is where I stand. As uncomfortable as it is to have a private corporation force our hand, the consequences of losing Oshkosh Corp. are too dire to not submit a proposal. It would be irresponsible, in my opinion, to not try to keep Oshkosh Corp. in Oshkosh. In addition, the concepts displayed last night, especially concept 1, represent an improvement to the Lakeshore site. I like golfing at Lakeshore, but the proposal, in my opinion, creates a truly mixed-use park that is open to larger diversity of uses and citizens.

As was pointed out, Lakeshore is technically a park, but it is a specific use park with limited clientele who must pay for access. The plans I saw last night really opened up a beautiful part of Oshkosh to more people and uses. It was well connected to neighborhoods, and flowed well into commercial areas. I will also say that the fiscal argument, i.e. that the course is losing money, did not move me. The losses are small and could be remedied fairly easily

So those are my opinions, take ‘em or leave ‘em. But please, participate in the process!