The Local Government Accountability Statement

Donald Kettl describes accountability through two questions: “Who is accountable to whom?” and “what are they accountably for?” On the surface, the answers to these questions (when applied to local government) are simple. Government is accountable to citizens, and for performance. The reality, however, is more complicated given the vague and amorphous nature of accountability. What exactly does being accountable to citizens entail? What is meant by performance? Can accountability be an actionable concept in local government?

I have explored these questions in a couple peer-reviewed articles and blog posts. My goal is to understand how accountability can be made a tool for improving local government, as opposed to a contested idea that is demanded yet rarely defined. My admittedly simplistic idea is for local governments to articulate and publish an accountability statement. I tweeted about this and received a reply from Eric Zeemering that “Elections tend to be important accountability statements by the electorate.”  He is of course correct, and those familiar with Romzek and Dubnick (1987) know that politics and elections are prominent and important external accountability mechanisms.

But when I say accountability statement I mean exactly that, a paragraph or two that clearly answers Kettl’s questions. An accountability statement can serve as a parallel to a mission statement. A good mission statement both articulates an organization’s goals, audience, culture, and values, and lays out measurable objectives for meeting said goals. A good accountability statement serves a similar function of taking a broad concept and turning it into a management and communication tool.

So what does a good local government accountably statement include? First, a clear definition of the clientele to whom the governing body is accountable. In most cases this would be municipal residents, of course in the case of special purpose governments the clientele would be more specific. Second, a clear definition of how the governing body conceptualizes accountability. This could be citizen satisfaction, transparency, sound fiscal management, legal compliance, service quality/performance, economic growth, etc. The specifics of accountability is conceptualized in each individual case are less important than the fact that the governing body clearly articulates their accountability definition. Third, an articulation of what successful accountability look likes when implemented, i.e. increased citizen satisfaction, increased tax base, etc. The key is that the local government’s accountability conceptualization is measurable.

Below is an example for the fictional Wisconsin Heights:

The City of Wisconsin Heights is accountable to all city residents. Our government defines accountability as meeting the needs of citizens at an affordable price, and in a transparent fashion. Our government will comply with all open-meetings and transparency laws, will survey residents to ensure majority satisfaction with municipal services, and keep the property tax levy below the average for medium-sized Wisconsin cities.    

Producing and regularly updating an accountability statement serves multiple functions. First, it forces the local governing body to coalesce around a common definition of accountability. If a governing board cannot agree on what accountability means in practice, it is impossible for the organization to be accountable. Second, it sends a clear and consistent message to government employees and managers that will hopefully empower them to build an accountability culture throughout the organization. Third, it creates an accountability contract with the public that articulates overarching values, and specific measures by which the governing board can be judged.

I am still working on this idea, and hope to learn more as I work with and do research on different types of local governments in the United States. It is a simple and obvious idea, but one I think holds promise. If you have thoughts, please chime in.

Schools that Fail Before they Begin

Last year Fredrik Andersson and I published Determinants of Organizational Failure in the Milwaukee School Voucher Program. In that article we established the failure rate for Milwaukee voucher schools, demonstrating the particularly high liability of newness facing private (mostly nonprofit) entrepreneurial schools in Milwaukee. However, we only told part of the story. As anyone familiar with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) knows, many nascent schools never actually open. This is the subject of new paper just published in the Nonprofit Policy Forum.

How many? Between 1991 and 2015 443 new schools filed an intent to participate form with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which is the fairly simple first step in entering the MPCP. Of those 443 schools, only 132 actually opened their doors, meaning just under 30% of all intended schools actually opened.

As can be seen in the chart below, the number of attempts and opening varies substantially over time. The primary reason, we argue, is regulation. When the program was capped and limited to non-religious schools between 1991 and 1998, very few new schools attempted to open. The religious expansion in 1998 led to more school attempts, as did the 2005 raising of the enrollment cap. In addition, the increase in the number of new school attempts between 2005 and 2010 coincided with lower success rates. Why? Naturally, when more schools are attempting to access finite resources (and students) fewer will be successful.


Most striking was the impact of the New Schools Approval Board in 2010 (and the subsequent slightly more inclusive pre-accreditation requirements for new schools that is in place today).   That policy, along with the charging of a non-refundable auditor fee to schools at the time they submit their intent to participate form, dramatically slowed new school attempts and successful openings.

There are a few lessons to be taken from our research. First, the barriers to entry implemented in 2010 had a dramatic impact on the level of entrepreneurship in the MPCP. Given the quality concerns that spurred the pre-accreditation process, this is not a bad thing. Second, historically it has been difficult to successfully open a new MPCP school. Sure, the first step of filing the intent to participate form with the state was easy, but most of those potential schools would never enroll a student nor receive a public dollar. Third, and less specific to the Milwaukee case, is the lesson that organizational lifecycle studies only capture part of what is happening in a population of organizations. Many potential entrepreneurs fail before their organization ever exists in any material way.

We conclude our article by stating “it is impossible to totally eliminate the possibility of a poor-performing entrepreneurial school. Policy makers (as well as other stakeholder groups) can thus never ensure high performance, yet we believe there are policy steps to be taken to help reduce the chance for failure.” Those steps include demonstrating diverse revenue streams as a condition of receiving public money, obtaining an existing school sponsor as a condition of opening, and the creation of failure plan that helps facilitate a smooth transition of students and resources in the case of failure.

Thoughts on Methodological Isomorphism from ASPA

I am sitting here enjoying my last day at the American Society of Public Administration’s (ASPA) annual research conference and reflecting a bit on the various research presentations I attended.   What sticks out to me most is the diversity of our field. We are diverse in subject area; local government, state government, budgeting, theory, non-profit management, networking, and human resources were all well represented. We are diverse in scope, studying broad national questions as well as small organizational ones. We are continuing to become more diverse in gender, race, and nationality.

So why is it that the field of public administration (PA) is experiencing methodological isomorphism? I am referring to the elevation of experimental methodology above all others. We are not there yet, and certainly there are many interesting research approaches represented at ASPA, but I also know some scholars avoid ASPA because of a perceived lack of rigor. I also witnessed a disturbing trend of scholars apologizing that their studies are not experiments. As I stress to my methods students, the right methodology is one that enables you to answer your research question or solve your problem. Sometimes it is an experiment, sometimes it is a case study, sometimes it is qualitative, and sometimes it is the poor old whipping boy that is OLS regression. And sometimes a non-experimental design that cannot show causal inference nonetheless moves the study of a field forward.

I try to be methodologically agnostic as both a researcher and a reviewer. My own articles are methodologically diverse (ranging from simplistic to complex) as a result of the specific questions I ask, the data available, and the state of the literature to which I am contributing. I know some journals/job committees/conferences favor methodological consistency, but yeah, that is not me. Now, there is nothing wrong with experimental design. It is moving PA in interesting directions in areas like behavioral PA. That is great. It becomes a problem when it becomes the only acceptable or most-favored approach. Why? Some of the most important PA questions cannot be answered via an experiment. Some of the realities of governance cannot be simulated in a lab. Some of the narrow questions answered in an experimental setting do not translate into actionable knowledge for practitioners.

An example from the school choice research world, where I also keep a firm foot planted, is illustrative. A body of school choice researchers argue that randomized control trials are the gold-standard method of measuring the performance of school choice programs. The phrase gold-standard study has even worked its way into mainstream policy debates. The problem is dozens of gold-standard research studies have failed to answer the larger and more complex problem of whether school choice programs are a good idea. They have shown, with some exceptions, that voucher programs lead to small test score gains for voucher users. The studies answered a narrow question conducive to a randomized control trial, but missed the larger more complex question that is as, or even more important, to policymakers and the public. The gold-standard studies have value, but I wonder how much quality research that could have answered the larger and more complex questions did not occur because of the elevation of randomized control trials?

So I hope those working on important PA questions via experimental designs continue to do so. But I hope those applying other appropriate methodologies to pressing PA questions do not get shut out of opportunities, or feel pressure to unnecessarily change their approaches. Ok. So I am now off to moderate a panel and perhaps listen to Louie Louie, Hang on Sloopy, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and maybe a couple of the other classic songs out there built on just three or four of the easiest guitar chords that exist.

The Future of the Administrative State: Why PA Scholars Must Engage in the Debate

Two recent pieces (and one comment) has me thinking a lot about the future of the administrative state in America. The first piece, authored by Steven Hayward, appeared in the Claremont Review of Books. He writes:

Today the crisis of American government is expressed in an ungainly phrase that rarely appeared in conservative vocabulary in the 1950s and 1960s—the “administrative state,” by which is meant the independent “fourth branch of government” that fits nowhere within the scheme of the Constitution as understood by its authors…. The administrative state represents a new and pervasive form of rule, and a perversion of constitutional self-government.

Hayward’s piece reflects a longstanding minority viewpoint in conservative thought that the administrative state (and public administration itself) is a tyrannical illegitimate actor without direct lines of accountability to voters. Someone might remind Hayward that local government is not mentioned in the Federal Constitution either, but that is another point. The larger point is that Hayward’s viewpoint went mainstream when Steve Bannon stated that a main objective of the Trump administration is the “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” The second recent piece, authored by David French, appeared in the National Review in reaction to Bannon’s comments.   French writes:

Let’s not forget, the administrative state exists in large part because Congress has intentionally abdicated authority. It passes extraordinarily broad bills that empower executive-branch agencies to write even more law and impose even more restrictions. Congress goes home and says, “We voted for clean air,” while the EPA does all the heavy lifting to define what that really means. Or Congress says, “We voted for banking reform and better markets,” while an array of agencies promulgate rule after rule affecting companies from coast to coast.

My, former employer, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) expressed support for French’s position, posting it on Facebook next to the phrase, “One can hope.” I bring up WPRI because it is hardly a radical organization, it is staffed and led by thoughtful serious people. To put it another way, the view that the administrative state is by definition illegitimate is out of the fever swamps and into the sphere of mainstream political debate.

This scares the hell out of me.

America is built on a foundation of contradictions, the most important being the balancing of majority rule with individual liberties. What French sees as Congress abdicating authority I see as Congress delegating authority in the areas in which it has no expertise or legitimacy. Getting one more vote than your opponent does not make one capable of implementing a law or running a program efficiently, effectively, or equitably. It does make one a legitimate representative of the nation’s (or district’s, or state’s) values. The cliché that politics decides and administration does exists for a reason. Running our constitution, and ensuring that individual liberties are not sacrificed at that altar of populism, requires a competent independent administrative state. It requires the field of public administration.

I make these points fully aware that they are insufficient rebuttals to Hayward, French, and Bannon. Why? When I became a state employee and a professor of public administration, I became part of the problem in the eyes of those who seek to deconstruct the administrative state. So what can I do, and more importantly what can the field of public administration do, to address what really is an existential threat to the relevance of our field?

We must engage in these debates. I go on Twitter or to conferences and I too often see groupthink. The attacks on the administrative state are dismissed as the political class failing to understand what government does. Or we dismiss the messengers as members of fringe groups not to be taken seriously. Or we talk to one another and shake our heads about how little people understand about how government actually works. Or we spend our time in the world of esoteric ideas that spawn articles that help our careers and provide intellectual stimulation, but fail to address the realities of governance. I myself am guilty of all of this. Though I struggle to fully articulate what engagement actually looks like, I know the first step is recognizing the threat is real.  How do we as a field, or as individuals who care about the administrative state, react?

We must find more ways to be proactive in broadcasting what the administrative sector actually does. French clearly sees it is as nothing but crippling regulation. President Trump’s comment last night that no new regulation will be passed without two being dropped reflects French’s point of view. It is a ridiculous notion that divorces decision making from reality, but one that must be recognized and debated nonetheless.

We must work to end the dichotomous debate over the administrative state. A former (and conservative) colleague of mine put it well: Debating the size of government is pointless, instead we should debate its effectiveness. Somehow, mainstream conservative thought has degraded into blanket condemnation of the administrative state. America does not work if one party is pro-government and one party is anti-government. When we see calls for smaller government, less regulation, or rebalancing of federalism, we must engage with those making those calls. We must ask the why question.

We cannot take for granted that the current state of the public sector is ideal. It is not because it never is. Values, needs, methods, and resources all change. What does not change is the need for an effective administrative state. Let’s have the effectiveness debate. Let’s debate the appropriate size and scope of administrative power. And let’s meet the mainstream ideas present in both political parties as they exist, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.  Failure is not just the irrelevance of our field, but the loss of an administrative infrastructure with immense capacity to protect individual liberties, and improve the quality of life across our nation.

Speaking Budgeting: A Look at the Proposed Wisconsin Education Budget

Every I Fall I teach budgeting and I an unashamed to say it is by favorite course (well methods is pretty great too). Budgets are the way in which a public executive communicates his or her policy goals, asserts control over the bureaucracy, and communicates with citizens. Budgets are also intimidating, but learning to navigate them is an essential skill for any public employee. Why? If you can speak budget you know where the money is coming from, and you know where the money is going. You also know the executive’s priorities and expectations. And you know all of this firsthand, no translation required. In fact, you will probably be the one translating for others, which is a powerful position to be in. Ok, enough about the virtues of budgeting, onto the real thing.

Last week Governor Scott Walker released his executive budget (you can read all 644 pages of it on the Department of Administration website) and there is quite a lot to discuss. But given my research interests I will focus on the Public Instruction (DPI) budget. I find in Wisconsin the DPI budget is the most interesting due its size, and the frequent ideological differences between its head and the Governor. Here are the specific things worth mentioning:

Increasing per-pupil aid.  To paraphrase Joe Biden, this is a big deal. School districts across Wisconsin are experiencing fiscal stress, and additional aid districts can actually spend is a welcome change.

Does equity matter? The additional per-pupil aid does not go through the equalization aid formula. Funding increases this way is a developing trend, and though it sounds boring (and an argument can be made that funding increases this way is simpler) I worry about equity. The goal of school finance in Wisconsin has long been to equalize taxing capacity. Increasing funding outside the aid formula prioritizes equal increases over equitable increases.

Tying aid to increased health care contributions. Requiring districts be in “compliance” with Act 10 as a condition of increasing aid is just strange. What the Governor is actually proposing is that districts not previously required to raise employee healthcare contributions to 12 percent do so. It is not like these districts are currently violating the law. As I told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “[P]lacing new mandates limiting the ability for school districts to make compensation decisions runs counter to the management goals of Act 10.”

Performance funding for absenteeism. This is not getting much attention, but there is a potential $50,000 of funding for schools that reduce absenteeism. This reads like something that will not make the final cut, but it is an interesting idea that shows growing concern for the negative impact of absenteeism.

Lifetime teaching licenses. Another interesting one. I certainly know teachers who complain about the usefulness of the renewal process, but this is just anecdote. The proposal puts a lot of faith in the state’s educator effectiveness system. Doubt this makes it through.

“Milwaukee Education Performance Funding.” A potential $100 per-pupil in schools that do well on the state report card. I like that all publicly funded Milwaukee schools are eligible, it reflects the reality that public education in Milwaukee is actually a fragmented network of service providers (that is a shameless plug for my book project, stay tuned). I like the idea of something positive for Milwaukee schools rather than sanctions.

Per-pupil funding increases for Choice. It seems logical to me that publicly funded students across the spectrum get the same increase. It is a necessary step towards normalizing the Milwaukee school network.

“Private School Fiscal Agent.” Seems the folks complaining about MPS being the fiscal agent for federal funding for private schools are being heard. This is contingent on a federal waiver and I do not see it happening (and really do not think it is a good idea).

“School Report Card Reforms.” More reporting for schools is not a bad thing. But I hope tinkering with the report card is not a regular occurrence, there is value to stable indicators.

“School District Flexibilities.” This is a fascinating section (page 445). Districts would longer have to meet minimal hours of instruction requirements, hold monthly school board meetings, and post the time and date of their annual school board meetings. Clearly this is an effort to reduce regulations perceived as onerous, but I bet the minimal hours of instruction proposal will get people fired up. I also feel school boards provide a valuable function and reflexively do not like the idea of not requiring them to meet….but perhaps there is a rationale here of which I am not aware.

There is more in the DPI budget of course, but these are the items that caught my eye. As Alan Borsuk wrote on Sunday, it is a fairly tame budget request. But I do think it reflects subtle changes in education values in our state. There is less focus on equity, more normalization of school choice, more erosion of local control (at least when it comes to employee compensation), and increased emphasis on outputs over inputs.

My Brief Take on the DeVos Hearing

Confession, I did not watch the Betsy DeVos hearing. I spent the time scraping ice off of my driveway and playing Raffi songs on the guitar with my son. Political theatre just does not do it for me. I am of the opinion that anything substantial about DeVos was known prior to the hearing. That said, I do stay active on twitter and did track the various reactions from DeVos fans and skeptics. I think deep breaths are required here.

I do have concerns about DeVos. She does not have public education experience, which makes me wonder how she will go about managing the Department of Education. She is a non-traditional pick for sure. But my biggest concern about DeVos is the same concern I have with all of Trump’s nominees: There willingness to serve a Trump administration. Maybe this is not fair, but the reality of the Trump presidency is causing me considerable anxiety. But back to DeVos.

I worked for many years in the school choice movement, and not once did I come across advocates who did not legitimately care about students. Not once did I see advocates who put profit or power ahead of the interests of children. Yes, I saw a few school leaders who were crooks (the justice system usually confirmed my take). Yes, I saw and was involved in policy decisions that were well intentioned, but misguided. But DeVos, and other leaders of the school choice movement are not anti-accountability, are not religious zealots, and are not out to profit off the backs of low-income children. Such rhetoric is counterproductive. We can disagree about DeVos’s qualifications and abilities, but dismissing the legitimacy of the motives of our political opponents makes substantive debate impossible. It is toxic in a functioning democracy, and becoming all too common.

There are plenty of folks having a substantive debate over DeVos. To them I say kudos.