By Steve Kelman

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In case you missed it -- the government's 12 most-impressive successes for 2015

Performance meter

This is the time of year for 2015 retrospectives, and I was especially intrigued by Lauren Girardin's contribution on GovLoop, titled 12 Most-Impressive Government Successes of 2015.

What did Girardin come up with? Well, one is a genuine big deal -- beating back Ebola in Africa (and preventing spread to the U.S.). Another is a neat bit technical whiz-bangery, the NASA flyby by Pluto, a mind-boggling 2.5 billion miles from earth. (That feat was also honored by FCW's sister publication GCN this year.) A third is a good example of the kind of government action that often is important but frequently ignored -- the Department of Health and Human Services' announcement of regulations against discrimination by health insurers against transgender people -- the latest step in a long march since the birth of the Republic to recognize the dignity and status of various groups (starting with propertyless people given the right to vote in the nineteenth century, and continuing through the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and civil rights protections) that were otherwise being mistreated.

Then the successes start becoming self-referential, involving government improving its own procedures. One was awarding more government contracts to small businesses, another developing a centralized organization for the government's response to cyberterrorism. A third was allowing government officials to publish selfies of themselves, and a fourth a decision to admit fourth graders to national parks for free. (The list even includes avoiding a government shutdown as one of the "most-impressive" successes -- talk about lowering expectations!)

The "in case you missed it" header above was, of course, intentional. An important question prompted by the GovLoop post is why "good news" stories about government -- even major achievements such as Ebola -- get so little attention. The most-common theory among people in government (as well as those in other large institutions) is media bias, which is a negative way of expressing what journalists themselves regard as a treasured feature of their culture, namely the watchdog role of scrutinizing the powerful.

Actually, in my view the media tend to be sensitive to what they think their consumers respond more than they follow their own personal agendas. Thus, an important reason for the lack of attention to good news about government relates to some basic psychological facts about what people tend to pay attention to in general. Most individuals, for example, attend more to the abnormal than the normal, because it sticks out more amidst the cacophony of stimuli that assault us. Government folks (and those, like me, who are sympathetic to government folks) bemoan how few people notice that the air is pretty clean, that people almost always can drink tap water without getting sick, or that more than 99.99 percent of government procurement contracts are signed without a bribe having been paid. But the normal simply receives less attention than the abnormal -- such as a procurement contract tainted by bribery.

Additionally, research studies have demonstrated that people tend to pay more attention to negative than to positive news. Both these facts apply to readers' reactions to news in general, not just news about government.

But there are additional important reasons for the lack of attention to good news that do relate more specifically to government. One arises from the fact that people tend to interpret new information in light of expectations they have built up over time. Once an expectation has developed that government will fail, it feeds on itself in a downward spiral of negativism -- people tend to notice new stories of government failure and not to process those of government success that contradict expectations.

The second is that the good news -- such as the 12 examples in the GovLoop post -- is often not nearly as good as the bad news is bad. How many stories like the one about fourth graders being admitted for free to national parks would be needed to counteract the effects of a bad news story such as the Healthcare.gov rollout (in 2013), the Department of Veterans Affairs patient appointment scheduling problems (in 2014), or the all-too-frequent stories of IT projects being cancelled after having effectively wasted hundreds of millions of dollars? Looked at from this perspective, the balance of attention seems less skewed. (Actually, one might say that government's greatest success in 2015 was avoiding some new version of the Healthcare.gov and VA debacles from 2013 and 2014.)

So those who are worried about imbalanced attention to good and bad news about government are right to be frustrated about features of human psychology that drive such imbalance -- and to work to make good news more salient for people than it naturally would be. [Editor's note: A well-written nomination for this year's Federal 100 Awards is an excellent way to do just that!] But at the same time, the best fix for the imbalance would be to improve the substantive performance of government such that the ratio between big successes and big failures becomes more favorable.

I will be breaking for Christmas along with the rest of FCW and returning after the New Year. Happy holidays to all from Steve Kelman.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 22, 2015 at 8:19 AM


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