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By Steve Kelman

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How IBM supports academic research on the business of government

I was very happy to see in a recent post on by Matthew Weigelt that Dan Chenok will be succeeding the equally capable Jonathan Breul (who is retiring) as head of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. I am especially pleased because Dan was a student (and course assistant) of mine when he was studying for his Master of Public Policy degree at the Harvard Kennedy School in the late 1980’s, and because I had the pleasure of working with him when he was a civil servant working on IT policy at the Office of Management and Budget while I was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the mid-1990’s.

Dan served in government for, I believe, 12 years after the Kennedy School, and rose either to a GS-15 or Senior Executive Service position from an entry-level job, and I know from dealing with him that even a decade after leaving government, he remains extraordinarily devoted to good government and naturally takes a fed’s-eye perspective.

The transition at the IBM Center provides a good occasion to call attention to the excellent work of this organization in promoting academic research on public administration. The Center provides a significant number of grants each year, in the $25,000 or so range (which for an academic is a nice sum of money), to support research with a prescriptive bent on improving government performance.

Over the years, a significant number of both established and younger public administration scholars have received support for their research from the IBM Center. (My own research has not been supported by the Center, though I once wrote a think piece for them.) The research is published in working papers that IBM makes available. Generally, the quality of these papers is higher than would typically be the case for the in-house “research” reports consulting firms often produce, though they do not typically possess an academic rigor sufficient to allow them to be published in scholarly journals. Over the years, the IBM Center has produced extremely helpful and practical work on subjects such as collaboration across organizational boundaries, performance measurement, business process re-engineering, and reverse auctions.
I wish that other consulting firms that are big in the federal market would put some funds into efforts analogous to that of IBM, although IBM probably now controls the niche for the kind of work they support – i.e. work by academics that is scholarly but somewhat popularized. Accenture has had an Institute for Health and Public Sector Value, though it has a low profile and mostly sponsors in-house research.  It also for a number of years supported a “best article” prize in the academic International Public Management Journal. (Full disclosure: I am editor of this journal. I also do some consulting work for Accenture.)
We have a real need for more and better scholarship about public sector performance, and there are more and more good young public administration scholars.  But it’s hard for them to get funding.  Social science funding from the National Science Foundation goes overwhelmingly to established disciplines. Almost none of the major foundations support public administration research, with a number (such as Pew and Smith Richardson) having in recent years withdrawn earlier support for such research. The federal marketplace supports a number of large consulting and IT contractors, and in my view they should fill in the breach by finding a niche for research support on public sector performance improvement. Since IBM has its niche, I think another firm might want to specialize in a smaller number of larger grants to support empirical research (where data-gathering can often be expensive) of a standard of rigor sufficient for academic publication, but always having a practical aim and application. A firm might want to specialize in supporting a specific kind of research, such as on using IT in government or on performance measurement.
Any company willing to step up to this?

Posted on Jun 07, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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