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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Promises and performance....

In recent years we have subjected ourselves (collectively) to a pernicious belief in what I term the "promises of accountability" (see here and here). By some twist of rhetorical logic we have convinced ourselves that the development and use of account giving "mechanisms" is the solution to many (if not all) of our political and administrative problems. Those promises take many forms, and I have written and made presentations on the four major ones often over the past few years (see here and here for examples).

There is the promise of democracy, and the idea that merely instilling what we regard as effective accountability mechanisms into the constitutions and practice of governments (e.g., "good governance") will result in more power to the people.

Then there is the promise of justice, with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission process frequently noted as exemplary (although much of our criminal justice system is based on this promise as well). The public giving of accounts (confession) of past injustices by the abusers of power (accompanied by immunity, of course) is often put forward as a means of achieving a level of justice that will render the past moot so we can get on with the present and future....

Another is the promise of ethical behavior , holding to the belief that an accountable individual is more likely to be an ethical one.

Each of these promises, I would (and have) argued is based on false premises and wishful thinking at best. But most significant is a fourth promise -- the promise of performance -- that is driving today's views of public management and undermining significant areas of public policy.

Case in point: the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, passed by Congress in December 2001 under the fog created by 9/11 and signed into law by George W. Bush on January 8, 2002. This morning, Sam Dillon of the New York Times reports what has been evident for years -- that states and local school districts are failing to live up to the goals and standards of NCLB. The focus of the article is on the hardening attitude on enforcement of NCLB provisions at the US Department of Education, and in that sense is a great case study of how the intergovernmental system continues to be used as a means for nationalizing public policy. It is also an emerging case for testing some of the various theories of US policymaking that have been floating around for years. But most of all it is a lesson in what happens when unreflective policy ideologies are institutionalized as national policy.

NCLB is based on unwarranted assumptions -- on an empty and empirically baseless "theory" of accountability that folks on both sides of the political spectrum want to believe. It is energized by the rhetoric of (false) promises and anecdotal evidence that demonizes failures and rationalizes its own logic through greater commitment to a lost cause. (For more of my diatribe, see here).

Gee, sounds like our Iraq policy!

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