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WHY THE PHRASE "BEST PRACTICE" MAKES US JITTERY

We have to admit it. More than once we’ve referred to a policy or management approach as a “best practice.” But mostly those words were originally uttered by a source we quoted. Frankly, those two overwhelmingly common words often make us uneasy.

There may be cases in which best practices can apply from city to city and state to state. Best budgeting practices, for example – such as those developed by the Government Finance Officers Association – can certainly be useful. It’s an accepted best practice in budgeting, for example, that entities should cover current year expenditures with current year revenues -- not revenues borrowed from the future.


Who can argue with that?


Outside of budgeting, there are some other areas in which best practices can certainly hold up. And many of them. which may not have held true in the past, are now thankfully self-evident. In human resources, for example, it's certainly a best practice to make every effort to avoid explicit or implicit racism in hiring or recruiting. Or consider the realm of information technology, where no one can deny that sufficient training can be fairly called a best practice.


Before we go on, it seems worthwhile for us to provide our own definition of "best practice." Others may disagree, but it's the way the words sound to us -- and we suspect to many others. We believe that the ubiquitous phrase should be used to describe management policies that can be applied pretty much universally. Best practices, we'd argue, should be something like plug and play models that others can pick up and use with a reasonable assurance of success.


But that's often not the way the words are used. For example, the latest glittery idea that seems appealing (but has only been proven as worthwhile in a smattering of places) can often be dubbed as best. We see this all over the place. People writing reports for any number of significant organizations will take the study of a handful of cities or states and list approaches they’ve uncovered as “best.” Not to seem cynical, but we've noticed that often the words "best practice" are used in consulting firms to sell their own approaches.


For years, it was considered a best practice that states set aside exactly 5% of revenues in their rainy day funds. No more. No less. When we researched the topic, we discovered that precise number emanated from an off-the-cuff comment in a speech given by a leader in one of the ratings agencies. As years have passed, thinking on the topic has grown more sophisticated. The Volcker Alliance, for example, has thrown that 5% figure out the window and encourages states to tie their reserve funding to the volatility of revenues.


Here are five reasons we are concerned when a best practice is ballyhooed by a government official.


1) Ideas that work in rural areas often don't apply well to densely populated cities

2) Approaches for homogeneous regions may leave out elements important in places with greater diversity

3) Things that work well in healthy economic times may need to be forgotten in the depths of a recession

4) Changing times generally require new solutions. For example, in the depths of the pandemic it was a best practice not to shake hands. Nowadays, people even hug hello.

5) The label is too often applied before a notion has been properly evaluated and proven to be generally workable.

Fortunately, there are a number of alternative phrases that can be somewhat more accurate. We prefer "promising," "leading," or "accepted" practice. None of these reflects a universally, unquestionably, absolutely superior way of doing government business.


Ultimately, this is all just a matter of semantics. The fundamental reason we feel as we do about practices being labeled the “best,” is that this phrasing may stand in the way of the evolution of thinking that’s necessary for progress in states and localities. If we know the best way to do something, then why look for a better way? And the search for better functioning government is the core of what we do for a living.


2 comentários


I agree with your assessment of best practices terminology. Two points. First, in my work for investors ranking companies on their use of best practices for fracking, I came to use the term “best current practices”, since technology evolved so quickly that “best practices” could quickly become dated. Second, we realized that in some settings, for geological or other reasons, such practices could not be applied. So we asked companies to explain why these were not being deployed. We labeled this a “comply or explain” approach.

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I greatly appreciated your post on “best practices.” I have friends leading global benchmarking initiatives, who tend to claim that a)the successful practices at one org must then work for all; and b)that a pattern of practices that worked under certain circumstances, will provide the resilience and robustness needed for response to significant disruption.

As the quote often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “it ain’t what ya don’t know that gets ya in trouble, it’s what ya know for certain that just ain’t so.”


If you are not familiar with the field of complex adaptive human systems, it is a critical and fundamental piece of knowledge and practice for today’s leaders.  Put simply, we humans encounter different kinds of…


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