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Polco News & Knowledge

The Experimenting Organization: A Giant Leap for Manager-kind

Experimenting Organizations Part I

- By Tom Miller -

Say citizen survey results show that your residents are growing ever more afraid to walk on downtown streets at night. This opinion trend signals to the Business Improvement District (BID) director that management needs to stop or reverse the fear. What all the best opinion (or performance) data do not tell the manager is if she should add police, run a street watch program, add street lighting, try a new teen entertainment program, change zoning to permit mixed uses, add free parking, change traffic patterns to slow autos, add mature landscaping, and on and on. Among this list of possible solutions, there is not one program or policy that is patently irrelevant to the situation. But in any given locale, the list may be different if not shorter.

My organization counsels local government managers to build a trend line of citizen survey results so that changes in programs can be linked to changes in public opinion or vice versa. While a trend line of resident perspective is a necessary attribute of the best uses of community opinion, it is not sufficient. Once a trend is uncovered signaling the need for a shift in service delivery, the department manager is left with this significant challenge: what should we do at least to start to reverse the trend? This is the puzzle that confronts the director of the BID and a problem that afflicts even the most data-driven decision maker.

Good managers are told that they are the pilots of their local government ship. However, pilots have relatively circumscribed tasks, often as checklists, with known consequences. If the plane is headed too far north, turn the stick south. If you are losing altitude, pull the nose up and accelerate. There are no manuals that offer step by step fixes to local government programs. Sure, there are rules of thumb and general (if not proven best) practices for public administration, but managers of every local government department regularly rely on their own training, their most senior staff and a gut feel to craft responses to declining public opinion about community or service quality.

When in doubt (and you should be in doubt), experiment


No matter how skilled or experienced a manager is, s/he will never before have faced whatever this very problem is at this single point in time in this community. Solutions to important problems – like how do we turn around resident fear about walking downtown at night – should be hard. If solutions were obvious, they wouldn’t have time to bloom into problems.

At this moment in history there is no tradition in local government for systematically trying things out. Outside of clinical trials in medicine or public health, there is little experimentation anywhere in society. Donald Campbell, a psychologist and eminent researcher wrote this in 1991:

“An experimenting society is one that vigorously tries out proposed solutions to recurrent problems and then tries other alternatives if evaluation shows that previous efforts are ineffective or harmful.”

This kind of experimentation requires a shift in attitude from, “managers are paid to know how to solve problems” to “managers are paid to know how to test solutions to problems.” Testing solutions requires experience and intuition just as asserting solutions does. The difference is that the manager who is willing to question before answering will have a system to evaluate his best guesses. Trends in resident opinion are part of that system, but not necessarily all of it.

Coming posts will explore how experiments should work and will show how one city’s “Learning Lab” went awry.


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This article appeared previously in Perspectives, a hard copy newsletter of ICMA and National Research Center, Inc. vol 8, no 4 and the ASPA National Weblog.



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