Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: The "Science" of Delivery (Or Should It Be The "Tacit Knowledge" Created by Feedback Loops)

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 10:55 AM
Pearson I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Robert Behn, Harvard University
Drawing on the work of Sir Michael Barber, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of The World Bank, has advocated a “science of delivery”:  “development agencies can fulfill their public trust by creating a science of delivery that will compile global delivery knowledge and mobilize it for practice.”

Unfortunately, the phrase “science of delivery” is an oxymoron. These three words suggest that there exists a single, powerful delivery mechanism that produces excellent results in all circumstances—provided that all of the scientific formulae are followed precisely. Just as computer engineers in their laboratories follow the formulae of semi-conductor science, so delivery engineers in the public sector need to follow the formulae of delivery science.

Yet, how well could medicine’s science of delivery help or inform the delivery of public programs? After all, medicine has one big advantage: Scientists can run an experiment to determine whether (for example) a vaccine works. Once a vaccine has passed this test, the delivery can be very scientific:  Produce the vaccine according the scientific formula, and administer it to people according the scientific protocol.  Effective delivery requires getting manufacturers to follow the production formula and doctors to administer the vaccine according to the delivery protocol.

Yet, even for this example, there exist two challenges to successful delivery. (1) The street-level bureaucracy problem: Getting public employees and their collaborators who mobilize people to be vaccinated to do this diligently and creatively. (2) The public-participation problem: Convincing citizens to be vaccinated. For both challenges, there are multiple examples of government successes—though the exact causes of these successes may difficult to specify scientifically. Indeed, those who help produce a success may not draw the same cause-and-effect conclusions.  And even if they all possess the identical interpretation of the causes of their success, can they explain it so that others can implement it scientifically?

There may, however, exist macro strategies (if their cause-and-effect impact is appreciated and understood) that can be adapted in multiple situations. Indeed, if we move away from the deterministic, strictly-linear, logic-model view of science to an adaptive perspective, one obvious possibility is feedback.

Rather than employ a dead-reckoning strategy (never deviating from the original plan), public managers could take frequent check on progress.  They could consciously take frequent sitings of their position, evaluate progress, and determine what adjustments to make. If we accept that even the application of well-established scientific truths (about, say, silicon’s semi-conductor behavior) must adapted to achieve the organization’s purpose (design an innovative electronic gizmo), then creating feedback loops for learning is essential.

Indeed, one of the overlooked leadership behaviors of effective public managers is explicitly building into any effort to deliver public services the feedback necessary to identify what is working, what isn’t working, and what needs to be modified, fixed, or discarded.

Both scholars and managers ought to worry more about leadership behaviors that affect service delivery than about pursing an illusive science.