Governments Aren't Vending Machines
Yesterday in our B&G Report, we complained about “the ignorance of many people about the importance of state and local government management.”
Soon after he read that item, we heard from Donald F. Kettl, a close friend and colleague and professor emeritus and former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He had some astute thoughts about the topic and offered to share them with you. They follow:
I think I know why ignorance about management abounds.
As Bill Eggers and I discuss in our new book, Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems, most people—including many policymakers—look at government as a vending machine. Put the money in the top. Push the button for the program they want. Wait for the programs to come out the bottom. And when problems develop, as inevitably they do, then they kick the machine, try to pry their money out, or reach inside to adjust the levers.
But that’s a model that simply doesn’t work. It wasn’t ever a good fit for government, but it’s now light years away from what actually happens—and how we can fix problems.
The government isn’t a vending machine. There’s not a top-down linear connection between inputs (like money and public servants) and outputs (especially program results). Rather, it’s much more like a symphony orchestra, where superb violinists gather with great cellists, and they’re joined by musicians who play the harp and the cymbals. It’s a model that’s far more horizontal than the vending machine. And getting results depends on having a great conductor who can bring all the instruments into harmony to play beautiful music.
Moreover, some of the musicians are government organizations. Some are nonprofits. Others are for-profit contractors. The makeup of the orchestra changes with the kind of music that society wants to play. So, there’s no way to create a top-down vending machine to spit out programs, because the connections between the music and the players change all the time.
Take the case of the “Way Home,” Houston’s program to combat homelessness. In the last year, they’ve reduced homelessness by 17 percent. Since 2014, they’ve cut the number of people experiencing homelessness by 60 percent.
The secret: bringing together an orchestra of more than 100 organizations with the skills to deal with the vast range of people experiencing homelessness—and having a conductor in the Houston Coalition for the Homeless to coordinate the effort.
That’s pretty remarkable. It happened because Houston’s social service community pushed aside the traditional vending machine model. And its members demonstrated the importance of paying attention to management.
Different model, better results.