Clear seeing

L_ Superior SunriseHow  can we contribute to a renewal of political discourse? A large hazard for 2016 is that we end up countering  anger, false certainty and hatred with their mirror image, and in so doing fuel a downward spiral. Clear seeing as to the way things actually are offers an antidote to these Gramscian ‘morbid symptoms.

Late last year, spurred on by the truly appalling tone of discourse in the Republican Party’s nomination contest, I wrote three United States-centric blog posts on the ways in which we talk about government. Each of the posts explored one aspect of the theme:

The first post explored the Great-Gatsby-like carelessness of the discourse: “….careless people….. who smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

The second post used the example of the Washington DC Metro to show how carelessness can undermine the performance of public agencies. It described the ways in which  a combination of hubris and inattention resulted in a downward spiral of dysfunction – and offered some thoughts as to how this might be turned around.

The third post used the example of Obamacare to expose the “good governance high standards shuffle” – in which superficially appealing benchmarks of perfection are used cynically to undermine any sense that government can contribute to the public good, even when real gains have been achieved.

(In case you’re interested in a parallel exploration in a different context, in a set of posts earlier in 2015 I detailed how South Africa’s sour, conflict-prone discourse seemingly is destroying Nelson Mandela’s remarkable example of reconciliation and leadership.)

Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote from his Prison Notebooks, written in the 1930s when he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime, captures perfectly what seems to be happening in so many parts of our contemporary world:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this inter-regnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

In 2016, may the wisdom that comes from the effort to see clearly help us to turn away from anger and polarization, and thereby renew the possibility of looking to the future with hope, rather than recrimination and despair.

Washington’s Metro — The Costs of Carelessness (WWG implementation series #4)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

For those who are so disposed, finding instances of government dysfunction can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But the resulting back-and-forth cycle of blame, defensiveness and recrimination can be a dangerous distraction from the crucial task of  getting public agencies that play a central role in our daily lives to work better. Take the example of Washington’s Metro.

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenge of public management. This year, Washington’s Metro seemed to be a good case to choose — barely a week has gone by without one or another crisis of Metro management making it into the headlines.

The Metro case demonstrates vividly the costs of carelessness in our discourse about government. (In a complementary blog post, I drill more deeply into how this ‘Great Gatsby’ government discourse works. ) But it also points to a possible way forward — how  a combination of public entrepreneurship and  active citizenship potentially can be leveraged to foster a sustainable turnaround of performance. (For additional detail on the recent Metro experience, here is a link to an article published in the Washingtonian, a few days after I taught the case at SAIS.)

In the beginning, Metro looked like a success story. It opened its doors to passengers in 1976; its 117 miles of track, over 215 million trips per year (and up-front $9.3 billion capital investment) made it the second largest system in the United States. Washingtonians came to expect a streamlined, comfortable, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing commute. In 1987 and again in 1997, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority won ‘Outstanding Achievement’ awards from the American Public Transportation Association.

But beneath this success something else was incubating.  By 2001, the key management tasks had become routine operational ones – but Metro’s long-time (1996-2006) general manager, Richard White, was not one to sweat the details. “He was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill…He drove to work….He was part of the regional dialogue about highways and land use and everything else….[he] didn’t spend much time mingling with the rank and file”. The system began to decay. In 2006, the Metro board terminated his contract, three years early.

Then followed an accelerating downward spiral of deteriorating performance in the management of both financial and safety systems:

  • A 2008 internal audit report raised the red flag on poor controls. Richard Sarles (general manager from 2010 to end-2014) reported that “Metro had poor financial controls when he arrived in 2010 and that he had been working to improve them”. (WP 6/7/15).
  • In 2009, two trains collided, killing nine people, and injuring 80. “What you’re finding, when you look behind the curtain, is that there’s been a lot of neglect to safety priorities coming out of accidents,” said Kitty Higgins, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board to a Washington Post team investigating the accident. “It really is disheartening.”
  • A 2014 audit by the Federal Transit Administration reported extensive safety concerns, including: understaffing in the central Metro train control center (only 34 of 54 authorized positions were filled; those in position enjoyed massive overtime payments); shortages in keeping maintenance materials in stock (so, for three months, replacement brake pads were cannibalized from out-of-service trains); and the non-repair of tunnel ventilation systems (two fans in Metros deepest tunnel location were out of operation for more than six months awaiting repair). It also found “extensive grant-related mismanagement that had gone on for several years”.
  • In January 2015, passengers were left stranded for a half-hour as their train and tunnel filled with smoke, and Metro officials were paralyzed with indecision as to what to do, resulting in one death.
  • The track defect that caused an August 2015 derailment (no one was injured this time) had been identified as an urgent problem in a safety inspection a month earlier, but with no follow-up. Metro’s chief safety officer resigned a month later.

Underlying these performance shortfalls were weaknesses in governance. Four jurisdictions (the District of Columbia; the states of Maryland and Virginia; and the Federal government) plus multiple sub-jurisdictions all have oversight responsibility for Metro, and are allocated seats on the Metro board of directors. Governance by multiple principals is messy; but it mirrors the spatial geography of Washington’s capital city. However, the consequence has been that none of the jurisdictions has taken a broad strategic view of the organization’s challenge.

Board members focused disproportionately on narrower concerns that are of interest to their constituents: where bus stops would be located; operating and closing times; caps on fee increases in the face of revenue shortfalls. Financial oversight also has been shortsighted. In response to the 2014 audit findings of shortfalls in Metro’s financial management, the FTA imposed new layers of restrictions on Metro’s access to federal funds. Punishing a system in the midst of a downward spiral for its continuing shortfalls might offer some satisfaction for ideologically-inclined politicians – but it also is an almost certain recipe for accelerating the decline.

What, then, is to be done? In the short-to-medium-term there is room for optimism that things will turn around. The attention of the Board (and the areas’ politicians) is there. A new CEO has been appointed. The immediate task, though formidable, seems clear: rebuild confidence in the operation – and renew its mandate and finances.

But how to ensure that the cycle described above – rising confidence, de facto autonomy, and then a slide into dysfunction — doesn’t repeat itself? Key, I would argue, is to look again at how we think about the boundary between the spheres of bureaucracy, of politics, and of civil society. Our standard narrative is Weberian, and extols the virtues of an ‘insulated’ bureaucracy. However, as the experience of the latter 1990s onwards underscores, a lack of insulation from pressure for performance has hardly been Metro’s problem.

The past two years have seen a rise in public focus on Metro.  Coverage by Washington’s media has been forthright, detailed. Metro’s riders, too, have increasingly been on the case. A variety of activist groups of Metro riders have been formed. In October 2015 these came together to form the Washington Metro Riders Union. Viewed through the lens of bureaucratic insulation, journalism, social media and civic activism might seem to be noise in the system. But, as Daniel Carpenter has highlighted, high-performing American public sector organizations took root

“…. not at the expense of democratic participation but in a symbiotic relationship with it….….grounded in multiple networks through which agency entrepreneurs can build program coalitions around the policies they favor….. At their strongest, these ties cut across the established lines of class, partisanship and ideology…and enable officials to ground their agency’s reputation in a broader embedment in society.…. The [contemporary] challenge of American statebuilding may be to reengage state bureaucracies with the very civic organizations and social networks in which they once flourished.”

Robert Putnam makes a similar point in his classic 2000 book, Bowling Alone. “American democracy”, he argued:

 “….evolved historically in an environment unusually rich in social capital….. A politics without face-to-face socializing and organizing….would be heard as a muddle of disembodied voices….. Just as one cannot restart a heart with one’s remote control, one cannot jump-start citizenship without direct, face-to-face participation. Citizenship is not a spectator sport.”

Encouragingly, in his first day on the job, Metro’s newly appointed General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, went on a listening tour among stakeholders – including a commitment to meet with the Riders Union. Is it really too much to hope that in America’s capital city, a city where more words are spoken in praise of democracy than almost anywhere else on earth, public discourse need not be a toxic battleground – but that instead an activated media and citizenry could become an integral part of the fabric of active, effective governance?


Public sector governance — what we (choose to) see shapes what we get….

storm-rainbowDiscourses on public sector governance, in South Africa and elsewhere, illustrate powerfully the insight of behavioral psychologists that ‘framing’ matters. If our framing is inconsistent with the way things actually are, we are doomed to disappointment and unhappiness. But frame in a way that responds to reality, and opportunities abound for active, worthwhile engagement.

South Africa’s daily headlines and frustrations dispirit – from electricity blackouts, to corruption in the procurement of railway engines (including allegations that the engines purchased did not match the specifications of South Africa’s railway system); to reports that neglect of maintenance could lead to the collapse of water utilities in over half the country’s utilities; and that teaching jobs can be bought (including via threats of violence to ensure that a desired position becomes vacant).

As of 2014, only 34 percent of the country’s citizens reported that they had confidence in their government, down from 66 percent in 2007. While the country is hardly alone in its lurch into pessimism (on average, as of 2014, only 40 percent of citizens in countries the club of high-income democracies, the OECD, had trust in their governments), South Africa’s decline in confidence is among the most rapid anywhere. In a complementary blog post I explore how the country’s current extraordinarily sour, conflict-prone public discourse has its roots in economic and psychological deformations inherited from the apartheid era. This post focuses narrowly on public sector governance.

Notwithstanding the evident challenges, might pessimism about the performance of South Africa’s public sector be overdone? Without wishing away the challenges, might there be alternative ways of framing that point towards creative entry points for strengthening public sector performance?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to disentangle two arguments that often are conflated:

  • that a predatory political leadership can provoke a downward spiral into disaster; and
  • that good governance is necessary for development.

The first argument is straightforward — and, as recent dark prophecies emphasize, all too plausible for South Africa. (I will return to it at the end of this post.) But the broader ‘good governance’ argument does not withstand scrutiny — either empirically or conceptually.

Consider first South Africa’s empirical track record. Aggregate indicators indeed show that government effectiveness in South Africa rates well below high-income countries, with substantial decline between 1996 and 2014. Even so, as shown in the accompanying table of  South Africa’s comparative governance relative to other middle-income countries, as of 2014 South Africa’s government effectiveness rated at the high-end for relevant comparators — on a par with Mexico and Turkey, and well above Brazil and Thailand. In a recent paper for the DFID-funded and University of Manchester led Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) research programme, Alan Hirsch, Ingrid Woolard and I documented major gains between 1994 and 2010 in the provision of public services to the poorest 40 percent of the country’s population. And, to further confound the drumbeat of daily headlines, here are some recent examples of public sector effectiveness:

  • The successful procurement from independent power providers of well over 5,000MW of renewable (wind and solar) electricity generation capacity between 2011 and 2013, an investment of over US$15 billion, with very large declines in unit prices over four rounds of competitive bidding (e.g. for solar, from from $0.35c/kilowatt hour in the first round to under 8c/kwh in round four)   – transforming South Africa from a laggard to a leader globally.
  • The leveraging of the Expanded Public Works Programme  to create over one million work opportunities in 2014 (the equivalent of about 400,000 low-income jobs) and to integrate these into ongoing programmes of support for the social sectors (in Limpopo), for rehabilitation and maintenance of rural roads (in the Eastern Cape) and for environmental rehabilitation (via, for example, the internationally renowned Working for Water, Working on Fire, and Working for Wetlands programmes).
  • Ongoing gains in the outcomes of basic education in some provinces (e.g. the Free State), and persistent examples of high-performing public schools even in provinces (such as the Eastern Cape) where the broader environment for educational performance remains weak.
  • High-quality, proactive regional economic development strategies in both of South Africa’s two leading regional economic hubs – the Western Cape and Gauteng. And
  • A four-fold increase between 2009 and 2012 in the number of people receiving anti-retroviral therapy – with over 2 million people receiving life-saving anti-retroviral medications in 2012, delivered through a supply chain that reaches effectively into the most remote parts of the country, and alongside interventions that successfully have lowered rates of HIV-prevalence.

Why, given these results, is the tone of the discourse so unrelievedly negative? Part of the reason is that most South Africans (whether of the political left or right) implicitly conceive of the public sector in top-down, hierarchical terms. Good leaders get the policies right, and then direct the bureaucracy to deliver. Viewed through this lens, all is either won or lost at the top of the hierarchy – ‘a fish rots from the head down’ in the reigning metaphor.

More broadly, the ‘good governance’ paradigm implicitly frames public performance as ‘all’ or ‘nothing’, with little scope for shades of gray. However, as recent landmark contributions by Francis Fukuyama and Douglass North underscore, this pre-occupation with good governance is inconsistent both with the evidence of how results are achieved in many developing countries, and with the historical record of all contemporary high-income countries. (Note, though, that as I explore in an accompanying blog post it can, for some, have a paradoxical ideological function — a seeming embrace of ‘good governance’ can, for those on the political right, offer a marvelous opportunity for ‘crocodile tears’, for seeming to wish that government can do better, but then sorrowfully concluding that it cannot.)

Letting go of a narrowly, top-down framing of how the public sector works opens up space for identifying potential entry points for positive action that can help build a thriving, inclusive society. Developing democracies can indeed thrive – but, as a review of the track record over the past fifteen years underscores,  almost everywhere the process looks very different from a ‘best practice’ vision of how hierarchy is supposed to work .  Rather, in these messy settings results often come via ‘islands of effectiveness’.

Islands of effectiveness emerge when stakeholders take the initiative: from public entrepreneurs within government going to the limits of their formal mandates, and sometimes beyond, in their efforts to make a difference in peoples’ lives; from multistakeholder partnerships capable of trumping predatory pressures . (Working with the Grain explores these processes in depth.) As a landmark study shows, this combination of public entrepreneurship and multistakeholder partnership was key to the gradual, cumulative transformation of the patronage-driven American bureaucracy of the 1880s into (by the early 1920s) a more performance-driven organization. It also has underpinned many of the positive outcomes along the lines of the South African examples listed above.

There is, however, a crucial caveat. Predatory politics and islands of effectiveness can coexist for a while, but not over the long term. Robust coalitions can resist everyday predators, but they cannot indefinitely withstand all-pervasive predation emanating from the top of the political order. Combatting that kind of predation is, ultimately, the task of politics – of the choices political parties make as to their leaders, and of how citizens respond to those choices. It is a task for activists – but it is not the only task. Even in the midst of a messy politics, there is scope for supporting the emergence of initiatives that can make a difference in peoples lives, and for celebrating gains where they are made. Approaches that throw out the baby with the bathwater may or may not be sufficient to get rid of the bathwater – but they will almost surely kill the baby.