What Arne Duncan should learn from Eric Shinseki’s mistakes

Eric Shinseki falls victim to the cult of setting “stretch” numerical targets. Ed reformers please take note.

One of the following propositions is true:

1. Requiring subordinates to report numerical results will lead them to produce better results.

2. Requiring subordinates to report numerical results will lead them to report better results.

Eric Shinseki is now the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs because he, like many of his colleagues in the Obama Administration – especially at the Office of Management and Budget – didn’t understand the difference between those two propositions. The scandal wasn’t really his fault, but he still had to take the fall.

Apparently the systematic fudging of the waiting-list numbers was known to the Bush the Lesser administration and had started even earlier, but Shinseki was a strong advocate of numerical goal-setting, and in particular the strategy of setting “stretch” (i.e., impossible-to-satisfy) goals as a way of motivating extra effort. (One VA health-service provider, a sound progressive, told me back in 2010 that she was so frustrated at having to deal with idiotic goals imposed from DVA headquarters that planned to vote for any Republican against Obama in 2012.)

In fact, what “stretch” goals motivate is mostly deception.  If there’s no honest way to “make your numbers,” cheating seems like the only sensible strategy.

Understanding that insight doesn’t entail abandoning goal-setting and measurement. It does mean setting goals that make sense, and doing so in consultation with the people who have to meet them. And, most of all, it means creating a parallel system of audit so the folks at the top can discover that they’re being bamboozled by their subordinates other than by reading about it in the newspapers. In a sane world, this – rather that stupid games of “gotcha” about the price of muffins – would be one major role of the inspectors-general.

But even that won’t help if the folks at the very top have gambled their own careers on being able to report the satisfaction of unsatisfiable goals. The first step in knowing the truth is wanting to know the truth. As Machiavelli said and every con-man understands, whoever wants to deceive needs to find a victim who wants to be deceived. *

The ultimate blame for long waiting times at VA hospials falls, first on the war-lovers who made the decisions that produced a wave of wounded warriors, and secondly on the appropriators who didn’t provide the VA health system with budgets to match its burdens. If Sec. Shinseki had said to his subordinates, “These are the goals. What resources do we need to meet those goals?” and reported the answers as part of the appropriations process, the second part of that would have been obvious.

*Footnote What’s astounding is that the “education reformers,” including Arne Duncan, don’t seem to have learned the lesson, after years of what turned out to be fraudulent “miracles” in educating children from deprived backgrounds.

Measurement is essential, and I refuse to accept the ed-school and teachers-union bushwa about the ineffability of teaching. But measuring the wrong thing, or creating a measurement system that induces systematic cheating, is worse than not measuring at all. Measurement needs to grow out of the productive process rather than being imposed on it, it needs to inspire emulation rather than relying on fear, and it needs to foster rather than destroying the morale of the workforce.

Bill Bratton made the New York and Los Angeles police departments high-morale, results-driven organizations, but he didn’t do so by breaking the police unions, by denigrating his troops, by threatning to close underperforming precincts or cut the pay of underperforming cops, or by promising bonuses for cops who made their numbers. He understood that policing is a team sport. So is education. What American public management needs is less Frederick Taylor and more Edwards Deming.

The New Report on Mass Incarceration Makes an Unimpeachable Case for: Public Policy Blogging

In the preface to the new National Research Council report on mass incarceration is an acknowledgement of legendary criminologist James Q. Wilson, who conceived the project in 2008. Who better, it must have seemed at the time, to call for change in U.S. incarceration policy than a group of star academics working under the auspices of a convener of enormous stature? The incarceration rate had been rising every year for over three decades, annual prison admissions were near an all-time high, politicians were trying to out-tough each other on sentencing, no mandatory minimum sentence had been repealed since Nixon’s presidency, marijuana possession enforcement was tough, and the addiction treatment which could have been an alternative to prison for many offenders was grossly underfunded.

What can we learn from the fact that every single one of these things changed before the NRC report Wilson envisioned finally appeared last week?

In asking this question, I am not trying to diminish the brilliant people who labored to produce such an impressive synthesis of research. A number of them I regard as friends, all of them I respect, indeed so much so that I am one of the few people who is actually in the midst of reading their 464-page volume end to end. But that does not ameliorate my doubt that mammoth reports painstakingly assembled by huge committees are the most effective way for socially-responsible academics to shape public policy formation and debate. Continue reading “The New Report on Mass Incarceration Makes an Unimpeachable Case for: Public Policy Blogging”

Five centuries of misrule

A three-week vacation in southern Spain and Portugal is a bittersweet experience. Both countries are clean, picturesque, and full of nice people who were helpful, and patient with my Spanish and Portuguese.  The roads are good and public transit a rebuke to every American city.  Lots of old city centers have been preserved and remain lively and populated, and the architecture, monuments, and museums, are well-presented and worth a lot of attention. Hotels are cheap, food reasonable, service is excellent, and it’s easy to find live fado in dozens of Lisbon restaurants…wait a minute, why is that? It’s because unemployment is 26% in Spain and 15% in Portugal; much worse for people under 25.

These countries are really hurting. The streets are not full of beggars and homeless people, but José and Rosita are living with their parents instead of getting married and having kids; the fertility rate in Spain is about 1.3. In Andalusia, hillsides almost too steep to stand on are being terraced for avocado trees and almonds. We drove through endless stretches of low-grade pasture dotted with cork oak trees.  This is not a high-grade, efficient agricultural sector (granted that a lot of both countries is sub-prime ag land, and dry).  I can’t think of anything I own other than a bottle of olive oil or wine that was made in either place.  Tourism is nice for the rest of us, but the jobs it generates are mostly making beds and serving food.

These are people whose ancestors used to command international empires, and Spain had a couple of centuries as a heavyweight European power.  How did they wind up so badly, when other European countries with past golden ages like the Netherlands and the UK are so much better off now? The history that all those churches, palaces, and museums lay out seems to me to have a lot to do with it.  Spain, particularly, is only a few decades out of a half a millenium of unrelenting, insistent, across-the-board failed governance, not only incompetent but aggressively wrong-headed.

Continue reading “Five centuries of misrule”