By Steve Kelman

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Professional values and government outputs

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A long time ago I wrote my PhD dissertation (published in book form as Regulating America, Regulating Sweden) comparing how worker safety and health were regulated in the United States and Sweden. One of my surprising findings was that the level of protection the regulations required was very similar -- and quite strict -- in the two countries. 

This was surprising because the political and ideological climates were so different; Sweden was ruled by a left (though not far-left) government and was generally considered one of the politically most liberal countries in the Western world, while the United States at the time was ruled by a Republican president and was generally considered politically one of the most conservative ones.

My conclusion was that this surprising similarity was driven by the fact that the regulators in question were mostly professional safety and health experts, trained in the pro-protection values of that profession. Professional values, I concluded, could trump political and ideological differences.

Manuel Teodoro, a young associate professor at Texas A&M University, just published a very interesting paper on the same topic in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, the best academic journal featuring research on public management. The title is a mouthful: When Professionals Lead: Executive Management, Normative Isomorphism, and Policy Implementation. But the findings are interesting, both to help us understand why government agencies behave the ways they do, and to craft leadership interventions to change that behavior.

What's neat about this paper for an academic -- we are a tribe that sets great store by finding interesting ways to prove, or come as close as possible to proving, things that others only speculate or opine about -- is how Teodoro went about examining the question of whether the kinds of professionals you have affects how your organization approaches its job. He had to find a kind of government organization that is sometimes headed by people from one profession and sometimes by people from others, and see whether having a leader from a certain profession influenced how the agency behaved.

What he looked at in this paper were local government water utilities (the municipal organizations that deliver water to homes and industries). Many of these organizations, but not all, are headed by engineers. So Teodoro asked: Does having your water utility headed by an engineer have an impact on how the utility does its job? The impact he measured was the number of monitoring and health violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act during the executive's tenure, controlling for several other factors that influence the number of such violations.

What he found was that water utilities headed by engineers had significantly fewer violations than those headed by people with other professional backgrounds. Why? The sanitary engineering profession was a driving force behind passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and professional norms emphasized the importance of safe drinking water. Utility chiefs with that professional background simply put more emphasis into that part of their work than did others, and the difference showed in the form of fewer safe drinking water violations.

As observers or citizens, examining impact of professional norms on an agency's behavior can help explain aspects of government behavior that would otherwise be puzzling. It might even inform some decision-making by citizens about where to live -- if you really, really value safe drinking water, you might want to look to live in a community whose utility is headed by an engineer. But Teodoro's insights also provide some practical advice to managers or political overseers who would like to change an organization's behavior -- one way to do so is to change the organization's professional mix. Many regulatory agencies that have wanted to move to a less adversarial and litigious approach to regulated industries have replaced some lawyers with economists (whose professional culture is less adversarial towards industry and less oriented to lawsuits). Similarly, if you want your IT organization to pay more attention to cybersecurity, hire a cybersecurity professional to head it.

P.S. - As I mentioned, academics put great store on finding cool ways of measuring things that provide great confidence that your conclusions are correct and not marred by confounding factors. I invite reader ideas (in the form of responses to this blog) about what problem makes Teodoro's findings plausible, but not airtight. First correct response will get a smile from Steve.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 20, 2014 at 10:18 AM


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