Doing "The Work of Angels"

Seventy-five years ago an effort was launched to make academics and government professionals the protectors and guardians of governmental research. Seventy-five years later what’s left of independent, citizen- supported research on government is needed more than ever.

My summer reading file usually consists of rather dry articles on various fiscal policy topics. So imagine my surprise coming across a short article on the history of government research that could double as a summer beach thriller – a masterminded conspiracy to destroy an organization through hidden agendas, professional treachery, sabotage, and personal backstabbing.

Dr. Mordecai Lee, Professor of Urban Planning and Government Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, delivers such a tale in “Colluding to Create the American Society for Public Administration and the Consequent Collateral Damage.” It’s a fascinating, behind the scenes look at how the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) – the largest and most prominent professional association dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public administration – rose to prominence 75 years ago by essentially demolishing the Governmental Research Association (GRA).

Once upon a time, the GRA was the only government research game in town. The GRA was formed in 1914, comprised of bureaus of municipal research rooted in the turn of the century Progressive Era movement, taxpayer associations, and similar organizations emphasizing citizen education about, oversight of, and participation in government. At its peak, GRA membership numbered over 400 and included non-profits, university based research centers, and governmental units. (Our two “parent” organizations, the Minnesota Taxpayers Association and the Minnesota Institute for Government Research – which merged together in 1956 – were both members, and MCFE continues its membership today.)

But frustration had been brewing within and outside the organization over time. Concerns about the quality of research (which ranged from awful to respectable), and the efficiency-focused orientation of many GRA member organizations created unease. Above all, there was a growing desire to advance the professionalization of public administration and “science” of government research, unfettered by the premises of participatory governance, citizen education, and public oversight that tended to dominate GRA perspectives and interests. The interest in reform grew, but to advance this agenda, the GRA needed to be neutered.

How could such a coup be orchestrated? Why using research, of course. As Professor Lee’s narrative describes, the turning point was a research project launched in 1937 purportedly designed to objectively appraise the current state of governmental research. In practice, the project was craftily designed to cause considerable consternation, anxiety, and fractures among the GRA membership, only to be unceremoniously dropped at precisely the right moment in a brilliant strategy of obfuscation and misdirection that would make K Street lobbyists envious. Outmaneuvered and broke, with a whiff of “anti-government” now hanging over the organization, the GRA quickly began to shrink in size and role yielding its historic influence to the newly-minted American Society of Public Administration. The ascendance of the professionalization of government research and the “science” of public administration was now at hand.

The situation today is a culmination of the reality created 75 years ago. ASPA now boasts nearly 8,000 practitioner and academic members, 21 “interest sections” covering the full gamut of government operations, a large and impressive array of scholarly journals, and a large range of professional development, education and training programs. Many members operate out of university-based centers of government and schools of public affairs and administration – the “go to” place for any grant-makers and foundations interested in supporting public policy research.

In sharp contrast, the GRA has shrunk to 26 organizational members. While a couple remain relative research and education powerhouses in their respective states; many others scrape along as best they with limited staff and even more limited budgets. As Dr. Lee himself said to attendees at the GRA Annual Conference in 2013, “You guys are in a really tough situation…You are doing the work of angels but nobody wants to fund you.”

This severely diminished state of citizen-based government research wouldn’t matter if government professionals and academics could deliver on all the informational and educational objectives government research needs to fulfill. But there are several reasons why – now more than ever – independent citizen-supported research remains an essential complement in support of good government.

For starters, government at all levels has grown exponentially over the decades in both size and complexity. With that growth, the need for investigations regarding the efficiency, effectiveness, and performance of government and government policy has grown as well. We now live in an era that requires an “all hands on deck” mentality with respect to government research.

More fundamentally, an “outsiders” analysis of government data, operations, and research findings is often necessary to generate a more complete, and therefore more accurate, perspective and representation of government activity. Our expanded analysis of the Price of Government, our practical assessment of the feasibility of value capture theory in transportation finance, our commentary on misleading impressions about Minnesota tax and fiscal policy derived by simply equating tax incidence findings with tax fairness, and our exposure of the systemic, mathematically-grounded flaws in pension design are examples from just this past year of how outside analysis on government data and research findings offers necessary perspective to public policy debates.

Historically, however, the greatest contribution from citizen-supported research is filling research needs and gaps on tax prices and government cost structures. It’s worth noting that ASPA’s four core values are accountability and performance, professionalism, ethics, and social equity. Efficiency, the raison d'être of much of the historical GRA, is notable for its absence.

But the most important reason is that the role of the citizen in governance – and therefore the importance of citizen education – cannot and will not go away. Many committed individuals have dedicated their professional careers to the study, practice, and administration of government. As tempting as it is may be to “leave government to the professionals,” our society doesn’t and can’t work that way. Indeed, the ASPA, founded largely as a professional antidote to the perceived GRA populism of the early 1900s, fully recognizes and embraces the continuing importance of citizen engagement in and understanding of government.

Ironically, academic centers and professional research programs have now been built around GRA ideals from which the ASPA wanted to distance itself. The Sloan Foundation-sponsored National Center for Public Performance at Rutgers University specializes in “research and teaching in the engagement of citizens,” and “citizen-driven government performance.” In celebration of its recent 75th anniversary, ASPA members identified the 75 most influential articles from Public Administration Review – its professional journal. It’s striking how many have a strong citizen engagement theme. Examples from the last few years include “Citizen Participation in Decision-Making: Is it Worth the Effort?” and “The New Governance: Practices and Processes for Stakeholder and Citizen Participation in the Work of Government.” The idea that the merits of citizen participation could ever be questioned or considered a “new governance” model would make GRA founders roll over in their graves.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the professionalization of governmental research specifically and public administration generally hasn’t yielded extraordinary “good government” benefits. Minnesota’s good government history is rooted in the strong ethic, capabilities, and professionalism of government administrators and the educational institutions that developed them. But it would be equally ridiculous to suggest that independent research and citizen education is now passé thanks to the professionalization of government. GRA-type organizations are in fact essential partners in the pursuit of good government, whether government interests realize it or not.