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Thursday, June 2, 2022

Civil Society and Government Reform

Many posts have discussed public administration and public service.

Daniel Stid:

The civil society actors now responding to our present challenges are not doing so within the boundaries of one organization or network but in a wide-ranging and self-organizing pattern. Consider, for example, the work of the policy advocates, practitioners, and scholars from across the ideological spectrum participating in the Fix Congress cohort. A scan of the hearings of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress demonstrates how much its members have been relying on the cohort to advance their work. The Select Committee is something of a unicorn on Capitol Hill. Its scrupulously bipartisan proceedings, consensus-backed recommendations, practical agenda for institutional reform, and steady focus on implementation run counter to the standard narratives of a polarized, grandstanding, institutional-slashing, do-nothing Congress. But there it is, working away and making progress behind the scenes. The Fix Congress participants are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with committee members, informing their deliberations, serving as their sounding board, and helping others appreciate the importance of their work.

Additional nonprofits are stepping up to help legislators do better work at the federal and state levels. The Project on Government Oversight, the Lugar Center, and the Levin Center have been advising members and training congressional staff on how to conduct more effective and bipartisan oversight. The Levin Center is now rolling out resources and capacity-building assistance to support state legislators seeking to do likewise. Meanwhile, the Millennial Action Project has established bipartisan future caucuses of younger lawmakers in Congress and 30+ statehouses, helping them build networks and develop policy agendas they can pursue together.

When it comes to improving the federal executive branch, the Partnership for Public Service has been an indispensable organization for more than two decades. The Partnership highlights examples of excellence, innovation, and leadership among federal civil servants through its annual Service to America or Sammies awards. Its recurring assessments of federal employee engagement, organizational culture, and leadership (or the lack thereof) across agencies generate information that administration and cabinet leaders closely track and use. The Partnership conducts ongoing research to better understand and advance improvements in executive branch performance. Finally, it trains and coaches established and rising leaders throughout the federal workforce.

Multiple nonprofits work at all levels of government to build administrative capacity and results-driven implementation through the provision of technical assistance and training. This work is especially important in state and local agencies, where administrative resources and capabilities can be spotty. The Pew Trusts’ Results First Initiative has for a decade been an important resource for multiple states seeking to implement evidence-based policies. Results for America, the Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab, and Third Sector have likewise teamed up with state and local government officials to help them identify and implement evidence-based solutions. Via their own growing teams and the public servants they are supporting, these nonprofits are steadily increasing the number of well-trained and dedicated people tackling our most vexing social problems.

Along similar lines, Code for America marshals technical assistance and resources to help government agencies harness technology and improve the delivery and citizen experience of public services. Drawing on their technological acumen and experience, Code for America has also articulated a vision of human-centered government that illuminates an appealing path forward in the digital age.

Another crucial line of work is inspiring and attracting talented people to serve in our governing institutions. This has been a longstanding emphasis of the Volcker Alliance, with its core belief that, “public service is a high calling, and it is critical to engage our most thoughtful and accomplished citizens in service to the public good.” The TechTalent Project has a similar but sharper focus on helping government at all levels recruit public servants with the technological skills agencies need to carry out their missions. TechCongress is working toward this same goal via fellowship programs that bring technologists into the first branch of the federal government. Their efforts are already paying off, as demonstrated by the growing sophistication of congressional hearings and legislative activities on technology issues.