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It’s Time to Bridge the Divide Separating Policymakers and Researchers

President Biden’s management agenda provides the perfect opportunity for government officials and public policy researchers to help one another solve pressing problems.

It’s been a long while since I got a homework assignment. That, however, is just what the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget have rolled out, in their request for help in shaping learning for President Biden’s management agenda. How can we get the research we need to solve some of government’s toughest problems?

This is truly a historic effort, not only to reach out for help on the management agenda’s big questions. It’s also an unparalleled opportunity to bridge the often-huge chasm between policymakers and researchers.

For years, researchers have complained that government doesn’t pay enough attention to the work they do. There are some notable exceptions, especially in the areas of welfare policy and evidence-based government. For public policy researchers, however, the evidence about the use of evidence is that policymakers use research in highly selective ways, often to support the positions they’ve already taken, and rarely to pay attention to the deep lessons that researchers have to teach.

Policymakers have their own complaints. One senior government official once told me that she came into her office after having been sworn in, expecting to find a big pile of research reports with practical advice on how she could improve government management. Instead, she said, the stack was puny. One of her staffers explained that he had looked and just couldn’t find much in the published research that helped. Complaints from government officials run like this: too few reports on the issues where they want help, and too little help that’s timely for the questions they face.

It’s a gap that frustrates those on both sides of the divide. And that’s why the GSA/OMB call for help in shaping the learning agenda is so important. The new president’s management agenda is sharp and crisp, with a focus on three big issues: strengthening and empowering the government workforce; improving customer service; and advancing equity. These are things that researchers know a lot about.

So, if there were ever a time to build a bridge, it’s now.

Here’s a short version of my homework assignment, with suggestions about how to close the gap:

  • More feds should define big problems in more detail. A big reason for the gap between government officials and researchers is that researchers tend to define their projects to build on past published studies, while government officials are galloping ahead into the future on issues that researchers haven’t yet tackled. It would make a big difference if feds laid out big puzzles on which they’d welcome help. Otherwise, if researchers drive down the road by looking in the rear-view mirror and policymakers press their accelerators to the floor, the gap will never be closed.

  • The government should more aggressively release datasets. Researchers have developed ever more sophisticated statistical techniques, which they can use to surface insights from big datasets. But building datasets can be an expensive process, so researchers—especially younger scholars who need to produce lots of quality work using cutting-edge statistical tools—often fall back on existing datasets. That tends to make researchers even more backward-looking—and policymakers even more frustrated. Getting access to cutting-edge datasets is often enormously frustrating for scholars. Privacy concerns about cleaning personally identifiable information, coupled with the instinct of federal agencies to circle the wagons around information they want to control, makes it hard to close the gap. In other datasets, like the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, researchers note that “it seems there is an incoherent and random redaction of public data over time,” with “inconsistent access to raw data across stakeholders,” as Professor William Resh at the University of Southern California pointed out. What researchers want agency officials often don’t want to give and, when they give it, it’s often in a form that makes it impossible to draw comparisons across time.

  • Bring more researchers into government (and vice versa). A too-often-hidden gold mine is the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which creates short-term opportunities for researchers to spend time in government. It’s one thing to read about government policy from a distance; it’s quite another to be in the middle of the big battles. It would be invaluable for academics to understand those realities far better. It would be invaluable as well for federal government employees to spend more time in state and local governments, universities, and research centers to share their expertise with students and researchers, and to learn more about the often-arcane world of academia. I’m fond of pointing out that universities invented “medieval” 600 years ago, and they still do it better than anyone.

There are some big jawbreakers where researchers and government employees could truly benefit from joint work. Here is just a sample of big research issues that go right to the heart of the president’s management agenda.

  • Best places to work. The annual “best places to work in the federal government,” organized by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group, has found that NASA is the best large agency in which to work and the Homeland Security Department is the worst. Why? We know precious little about the forces that drive these big differences.

  • Employee engagement. Fascinating data framed by OMB, the Veterans Affairs Department, and the Transportation Security Administration shows that there are strong patterns between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Among airports served by TSA, complaints are low at Chicago O’Hare while engagement is high. It’s the reverse at Atlanta Hartsfield. The answer can’t be just the part of the country, because O’Hare is a high engagement/low complaint airport but, just miles away, Chicago Midway is low engagement/high complaint. In the New York area, LaGuardia is high engagement/low complaint while Newark and JFK airports are both low engagement/high complaint. Why? Research here could help managers know how best to improve such high-touch, high-impact government programs.

  • Diversity, equity and inclusion. Federal managers want to improve DEI in their internal operations and in the ways they connect with people. To what degree do we have problems with DEI now? What steps are most likely to prove most effective in making improvements? How is a more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive federal system likely to improve trust and the performance of the federal government?

There are lots and lots and lots more issues crying out for good work. Here are some ideas. You’ll undoubtedly have your own. But it’s truly exciting to consider this administration’s focus on a learning agenda to help us make progress down the road.