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THE GRAVEYARD OF GOOD IDEAS

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote a B&G report titled “Is Speedy Government Good Government?” in which we made the case that the pressure for states and localities to solve problems overnight can often lead to failed efforts. “Jumping into new initiatives. without the time for adequate preparation, may be great for elected officials anxious to make quick headlines,” we wrote “But glitter often tarnishes as time passes and efforts go through a rational progression of brainstorming, bringing in stakeholders, finding revenue streams, building a talent base, and forging through a political process that can sometimes favor inertia over momentum.”

 

That column seemed to strike a responsive chord among many of our readers, one of whom, Barry Van Lare, a very active fellow with the National Academy of Public Administration, commented on a related issue that we think is worthy of note.  "While inadequately staffed and hasty implementation can, and often does, lead to failure,” he wrote, “there is also a problem with the frequency of change. All too often potentially successful initiatives are abandoned well before they can reasonably be expected to produce results."

 

In our experience that’s absolutely true and it’s a pity. Over the years, we’ve seen many efforts that seem to have great promise fall by the wayside before they have the opportunity to prove their value. We’ve seen this happen repeatedly in the realm of education where new programs are put into effect, which in the real world will take four or five years to show progress, but then a new superintendent comes in is confronted by a school board impatient for results and tries something new (but not necessarily better, or maybe not as good).

 

Even the best programs often take time to have any impact, even when they’ve been carefully thought out beforehand. New staff sometimes must be hired, and existing personnel have to be trained (and sometimes there’s no money to do so, but that’s a different story). Progress rarely can accrue on the back of a good idea until the people charged with implementation are up to speed.

 

What’s more, sometimes terrific new programs have a whole host of little flaws that must be detected and dealt with before they begin to show their worth. Getting to visible solutions often requires an iterative process, with tweaks and changes necessary before results show improvement.

 

Delay in gathering, analyzing and disseminating data can also lead people to believe that state or local governments aren’t making things better for them. When an evaluation or performance measurement data comes out a year after a new program has been inaugurated, it’s generally based on the most recent data available, which frequently comes from before the effort was even begun. Administrators are likely to understand that this is just a timing issue, but when the local press picks up on the report, it’s all too easy to ignore the existence of the initiative and that, in turn, can make residents clamor for yet more change.

Lurching from one initiative to another, without sufficient evidence of whether the first one worked or didn’t, isn’t a productive approach. Yet an impatient populace, who are increasingly losing trust in government, can push their leaders to forfeit the advances that might have been made, if they’d only had the time.

 

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