Recently, a relatively high-level manager in a large southern city told us about the progress her city was making in energizing a brand-new performance management system there. She told us that this was the first time her city had ever done something like this.
But wait. When we were first covering performance management several decades ago, this same city was known for being a leader in exactly that kind of work. We pointed this out to our source who was interested to hear the news.
This kind of thing happens all-too-frequently to us, and to others who have been around the world of state and local government for a while.
We’re not suggesting that new employees in a city or a state need to take a course in the history of management where they’re working. But it’s really a pity when they lose the opportunity to build on old efforts – figuring out why they succeeded or failed – and then work from there, instead of starting from scratch.
We were talking about this with Marc Holzer the well-known public administration scholar who got is PhD from the University of Michigan in 1971. His take: “These people aren’t building new things. They’re re-inventing things all the time. And they make mistakes they made before that could have been prevented.”
One of our favorite quotes about this topic comes not from the world of the public sector but from Vatican City, where Pope Francis has said, "The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society. A mentality that can only say, 'Then was then, now is now', is ultimately immature. Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth."
The risks of losing track of the past can be serious. For example, consider the way many states and cities are currently dealing with their surpluses (many of which were created by extra dollars from the federal government in recent years). Contrary to the Government Finance Officers’ Association admonitions to spend one-time revenues on one-time expenditures, we see state after state cutting their taxes and increasing their expenditures, which is likely going to leave them up against a fiscal wall.
We’ve written in the past about the over-use of the word innovations in part because many new programs are described that way simply because the current administration doesn’t have any notion that they’ve been tried or suggested in the past. “But,” as we wrote in early 2022, “when governments overemphasize the notion that their future lies in innovating, they can miss out on another equally important concept: that there are lots of good ideas for successful government that aren’t brand new – but simply need to be implemented.”
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