Aristotle had it right when he wrote, “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.”
We’ve come across this idea repeatedly over the years in covering state and local governments. Those that are doing the best jobs – whether in HR, budgeting, procurement, infrastructure or any other field of public sector endeavor -- tend to be the ones who are most eager to do better. That’s because, in large part, they know how much can be accomplished in the future.
Places that fall into the category we’ve long labeled as laggards, frequently believe that they’ve already accomplished what they need to, and don’t understand that there’s more that can be done.
We first became aware of this phenomenon in the early 1990s when we were working on the predecessor of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Government Performance Project, for a now defunct and pretty much forgotten magazine called Financial World. We were evaluating and grading a few dozen cities’ management capacity in a variety of areas including one that we then called “Managing for Results,” (which we now think of, more broadly, as performance management).
We did something like 150 interviews to do our evaluations in this category to supplement a survey instrument, we had designed for them to fill out. (Some of the relationships we formed then are still active, though most of our sources back then have since retired or left this earthly plane.)
At some point in these conversations, we would ask the people with whom we were speaking to self-evaluate their entity. One of the first cities, in which we talked to management leaders, was Seattle. When we asked them to self-evaluate, they told us how much work still had to be done there. We assumed, based on their self-flagellation, that they’d probably come out with a grade of C.
Then we talked to more cities, and as time went on it became increasingly clear to us that Seattle was doing a better job than most. What’s more, we began to see that many of the places that gave themselves glowing self-evaluations were doing everything they thought should be done – but that turned out to be very little at all. We won’t name names.
This phenomenon – which we dubbed “The Seattle Syndrome” – has repeated itself over the following decades and up until this day. We ran into one example several years ago when we were chatting with people in Washington State’s King County – the twelfth largest county in the country – for a column in Route Fifty about the utility of data in efforts to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in states and localities.
We’ve often covered these issues and knew that King County was a national leader in these efforts. In fact. the place actually decided in 2005 to change the meaning of the word “King” in its name from a remembrance of a slaveholder (Rufus King) to one that stands for Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though we were talking to people in King County to get ideas that other communities could emulate – and we accomplished that -- we were also told that program managers there saw their efforts as a work in progress, saw problems, and had great plans to improve the county’s efforts to measure and evaluate performance across the enterprise. The fact that leaders in King County recognized ample room for improvement – even though they were already doing a great job – was a mindset we deeply admire.