By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

No good deed goes unpunished?

Don't be a cog in the machine

There was an amazing story in last Sunday's Boston Globe about a 26-year-old Dorchester teacher named Nikki Bollerman. Last year Bollerman won the grand prize in a contest sponsored by Capital One Bank called #WishforOthers, where entrants wrote about a wish for other people they would like to make happen.

"I'm a third-grade teacher in a low-income, high risk elementary school in Boston, MA," Bollerman wrote. "My #wish for others is that my voracious, adorable, hard-working loving scholars all leave for their December break with a book in their hand." Her essay won both her wish and a $150,000 prize. Bollerman then proceeded to give the check to her school as a gift.

Following this remarkable act, Bollerman was honored at a press conference by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and subsequently invited to tell her story on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." On the show, DeGeneres contributed from her own funds a $100 gift card and a backpack with school supplies for each student; a $500 gift card for each teacher to buy school supplies; and a $25,000 check for Bollerman.

Unfortunately, after all this the story became astonishing in a different way as well. It appears the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission has opened an investigation against Bollerman for violating the prohibition against government employees receiving gifts of more than $50. (The commission did not comment on the case for the article, but one can guess that the purported violation was keeping the $25,000 check from DeGeneres.)

Now that the Globe has broken this story, I suspect it is highly unlikely that anything bad will happen to Bollerman. Mayor Walsh already has made a statement supporting her and urging that a way be found to solve the problem.

But this incident highlights important issues about the forces that inhibit public-sector employees from trying new things that might improve how government works. Bollerman could have just gone about her job and not bothered to spend her own time writing an essay for this contest. And even with the gifts prohibition, she could have directed the $150,000 prize to some private charity instead of her school.

But, as this story dramatically indicates, innovating -- doing something in a new way -- always carries some risk, even in Bollerman's case, where the risk might have seemed miniscule. In an environment of outsize distrust about the motives and competent of government officials, the way our political system treats government and government officials boils down to a simple rule: success is passed over with silence, failure is excoriated.

Contrast this with the environment of a business executive. Yes, a business executive's failures are often noticed and punished -- but the upside for success is hugely greater. In terms of a willingness to innovate, even if there is risk and the innovation might well fail, the balance of incentives in business is much more balanced -- and if anything favors risk-taking. In government, the balance totally favors caution over innovation.

If we want government to work better, we need to understand that this imbalance must be redressed. There must be broader changes in how we assess and cover government. Many political leaders, at both local and federal levels, are now collecting and publishing regular information about performance indicators, which can tell the public about both improvements and problems. If elected officials and the media started giving these reports anywhere near the attention the business papers give corporate profit reports, we'd all be better off.

And public servants like Nikki Bollerman shouldn't be punished for their efforts.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 30, 2015 at 10:54 AM


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