By Steve Kelman

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Revisiting bureaucracies as learning organizations: an untold government success story

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A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post called Bureaucracies as learning organizations. It was based on experiences I had read about in a book on modern California about the state’s Division of Highways. During the 1950s, the Division of Highways introduced a number of changes over time to improve the design of the new freeways for safety, including improvements in signage and techniques to separate lanes. Officials had noticed problems and systematically tested different solutions to find the one that worked best. I had never come across anybody writing about this approach to organizational improvement in a bureaucratic organization, and wondered how common (or not) such behaviors by large government bureaucracies might be.

We are currently three weeks into a month-long executive education program at the Kennedy School, called Senior Executive Fellows, for federal GS-15s, that we teach four times a year and where I am one of the faculty members. I try to join various groups of students for lunch during the program, and I just invited the five participants we have this time from APHIS (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) in the Department of Agriculture to join me to talk about their jobs and their organization.

One of the five, Michael Marlow, is a senior manager at the APHIS Wildlife Services program. They don’t deal with diseases, but rather with situations where wildlife creates problems for people or other animals. They don’t like to use the phrase “control wildlife,” but they do worry about situations where wildlife creates conflicts. I asked him for an example, and he started talking about the problem of collisions between birds in the runway areas of airports and airplanes.

Collisions between birds and planes are an old problem. Between 1990 and 2010 over 105,000 collisions between birds and planes were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration. Mostly these collisions merely produce physical damage to planes, but sometimes they cause crashes. The largest loss of life from such a crash came in 1960, when an Eastern Airlines shuttle leaving Boston crashed, killing 62. The most famous example was the ditching of a USAirways flight at Laguardia airport in New York in 2009, where no lives were lost due to the amazing water landing engineered by the pilot. One of the main missions of the APHIS Wildlife Services program is to reduce the risks of such collisions.

The way they have done this over the years is for Wildlife staff to learn more about conditions around runways and to suggest ideas for ways to mitigate these risks. They then hand off their ideas to a dedicated research unit at APHIS, the National Wildlife Research Center (USDA also has a department-wide research outfit, the Agricultural Research Service) to test whether the idea works or not.

Marlow cited two examples. One was to look at the effect of different heights of grass cover adjacent to runways on the presence of birds in dangerous places. The researchers were able by experiments to determine the optimal heights of runway grass under different conditions, depending on the species of birds and their proximity to a runway. The other involves what is called “gridding,” placing wire in, say, a pond near a runway to prevent birds from congregating there.

The more I have thought about Marlow’s two examples, the more I realized they – along with the California Division of Highways example I had discussed in my earlier blog -- constitute untold government success stories. I had never thought about this category of agency activities before – noticing and developing solutions for a wide range of practical microproblems an agency confronts. I am guessing examples such as these appear here, there and everywhere in government. They are just about all in low-visibility, technical areas (highway safety design improvements, birds on airport runways). Very few people are conscious that these efforts are going on all the time. But they almost certainly add up to a significant bunch of small wins for people that nobody notices. I am pretty knowledgeable about government management, but I was not aware of the presence in government of this kind of activity before coming across it in the two random contexts I have written about in these posts. And, though I could be wrong, I don’t know of any public management scholars who have written about this either.

Marlow says he likes his job a lot. He has to deal with a wide and ever-changing array of specific problems. And he is encouraged to think and to come up with innovative ideas. This speaks well of him as a civil servant but also of the organization he works for.

What this represents is unheralded government officials doing well what they should be doing. I am thinking that we as a community should do something to discover and honor other examples of bureaucracies as learning organizations.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 25, 2019 at 3:59 AM


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