Public management conference offers insights you should care about

Steve Kelman reports on the insights gleaned at a recent public management conference.

The Public Management Research Association has emerged over the last few years as the premier professional association for academics doing research on public-sector management, mostly based in public administration programs at universities around the country (and, increasingly, the world).

The organization recently held a conference at Syracuse University's Maxwell School, the most venerable public administration program in the country. The conference happens once every two years and this year attracted several hundred attendees. Compared to previous years, there was a sharp increase in participation from scholars outside the U.S. -- with large contingents from Korea, China and the Netherlands. (Why those countries? A lot of this is chance, that public management research happens to get established in a country).

Of all of these conferences I've been to over the years, I would say the average quality of papers at this one was clearly the highest. This is a tribute to the good work of Dave VanSlyke of Syracuse, who chaired the program committee for the conference and introduced a standard academic double-blind review process for choosing papers to be presented at the conference. It is also good news for practitioners, because the findings of academic research in public management can often have implications for improving public management practice. (However, virtually no practitioners were actually present at the conference. One exception was Chris Mihm, a senior official at the Government Accountability Office, and another person who is a recent public administration Ph.D. working for the Corps of Engineers.)
Among the interesting papers I heard presented at the conference:

  1. An examination of the relationship between IT spending and the overall efficiency of government spending. The paper looked at variation in state spending on IT, and related differences in spending to the efficiency of public spending in general, that is how big the outputs a government gets for a given level of spending. The conclusion was that states that spent a larger proportion of their state's budget on IT were more efficient in their general spending.
  2.  An analysis of the determinants of the efficiency of government spending in the Netherlands. Using the same technique as the above paper, the paper concluded that local governments with a higher-paid workforce (mostly through greater use of professionals or other higher-paid labor categories) were less efficient in their spending than governments with a lower-paid workforce. The higher-wage local governments spent more per unit of output, and the evidence seemed to be that there was no difference in service quality.
  3. A study of changes over time, again in local governments, in contracting out government services versus insourcing services that previously had been contracted. Looking at the periods 1992-97, 1997-2001, and 2002-7, the paper found that in all three periods, most services were either contracted out or done in-house in all three periods. However, looking at changes, in the 1992-97 period, with a "reinventing government" enthusiasm for "steering, not rowing," 18 percent of activities were newly outsourced and 11 percent insourced. Between 1997-2001 it was the opposite, as governments thought some of the previous efforts had gone too far and some contracting wasn't working  -- 12 percent newly outsourced and 18 percent newly insourced. Most recently, there has been a balance -- 12 percent newly outsourced, 11 percent insourced. It looks as if there has been experimenting with changing who does various activities -- some of the changes work, while others don't, and over time people tend to learn and get to the right place.
  4. A look at the relationship between an agency's use of pay for performance and the extent to which employees had a high "performance orientation" toward their jobs. The paper used GAO and Office of Personnel Management reports to judge the extent to which an agency used a pay-for-performance system, and the OPM Human Capital Survey of federal employees to look at how oriented employees were to high performance in their organizations. Interestingly, the paper found that the more an agency used pay for performance, the higher the employees' performance orientation.

Here is a link to the conference website, if you want to read these or other papers from the conference.