Building Senior Leadership Support
One of the most challenging aspects of moving to Results-Based Accountability is building support among the senior officials who must lead these initiatives if they are to have lasting impact. Two people who have succeeded at this challenge – Gary Stangler, former secretary of the Missouri Department of Social Services and Cornelius Hogan, former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services – discuss their ideas on encouraging senior officials, especially Governors, to take on this leadership role. Their discussion ranged over a wide array of suggestions, including the ability of Results-Based Accountability to help leaders set their own agendas, the need to share credit, generating support within the bureaucracy, the value of expert advice, and building the ability of the media to cover this topic knowledgeably.
The dialogue was facilitated and edited by Sara Watson of The Finance Project, with input from Lynn DeLapp.
Why the UK sees Vermont as the future
Gary and Con, what’s your best advice on how to build support for Results-Based Accountability among senior leaders?
Con: For a senior leader to be successful, he or she needs to find a way to make a mark, to get ahead of the bad outcomes and the inertia of just maintaining the machinery of the bureaucracy. Using results can help leaders do that. It can help them get ahead of the "wolfpack" of bad outcomes and bad news that can drag them down. When you are known for being the person who is talking about improving teen pregnancy, you have the high ground. You can be in charge of your own future rather than being forced to react to what’s in front of you. You don’t need to make large changes every year, but if you can use this moral high ground to change how you spend two or three percent of your money every year, over 10 years, it adds up to big changes.
Gary: All state leaders – elected and appointed – know they can’t do this alone. The other great aspect of what Con described is that they can use this moral high ground to bring along the people who need to make this work. People want to attach their hopes and dreams to you. They want to make a difference, and if you convince them that you are leading them in a direction that will make a difference, they will do anything for you.
Gary: It is also incredibly important to share the credit for this work, to make everyone feel they are involved in success. At the Governor’s Education Roundtable, we presented interview data that showed people didn’t realize Caring Communities was a state program, because they had been so involved in designing the version in their local community. I was thrilled with this, because it meant people saw Caring Communities as a grass-roots initiative. But then a state senator pulled me aside and said, "Gary, you don’t understand, it’s important that people know our role in this too." So then we spent a lot of time trying to bring in every legislator, to ensure that all of them felt they had a hand in creating Caring Communities.
It often goes against the grain of bureaucracy to share credit – or even share information, especially when the staff see themselves as the ones with the responsibility for getting information out. Some of my staff said, "why is the Post-Dispatch going to get the credit for putting this information out, when we collected the data?" And I had to say, "that’s fine – it brings them in as part of the solution."
Con: When you can show a curve that’s changing and you can point to 50 people or 50 organizations that can take credit, you’re on the road to broader acceptance. When St. Johnsbury had a 100% immunization rate, I alerted the governor, so he could invite them to his next press conference and say that no one in the nation is doing a better job. That makes him feel great about this system, and it made the other people feel great too.
Sharing credit also works in the bureaucracy. People don’t do human services work for the money – they do it for fundamental altruistic reasons. They’ve been frustrated by the boxes they get put into. So it gives people up and down the line more purpose and energy in their work.
Our excellent, longstanding child welfare director had been running an effective but quite traditional system. But the day the governor pointed to him as one of the main contributors to reduced teen pregnancy, it made a tremendous difference in the way people in that organization viewed their work. It dramatically increased his level of commitment for results work, and his enthusiasm has gone all the way down the line to social workers at the front-line level.
Gary: One problem that we grappled with was the risk when numbers didn’t show dramatic improvement. My governor’s political people were worried, because if you are explicit about the indicators you are trying to change – which you need to be – and the indicators don’t show improvements or even decline, you’ve done the research for your opposition. We’ve got to be prepared for that.
Con: Gary’s right, there are short-term political dangers in this work. One way we tried to get past that initial resistance to publicizing "bad" results is to show a trend line that extends back far enough that no single person or administration is pinned with all of the blame. We use those trend lines to deliver the message that we all contributed to the problem, and so we all need to contribute to the solution.
Con: We also have to change the government employee culture so that bureaucracies aren’t going to undermine leaders who try to make these changes. You can change the employee culture – but you have to have a positive message, say it often and never let up. Ninety percent of the people who responded to a survey of employees in the Agency of Human Services in Vermont said they knew how their work contributed to the Vermont indicators of well-being. And they said they learned about those results from the electronic communications we sent every week to the governor and every state agency employee.
Gary: Ninety percent of the success of this work is communication – communication that fits the 5 "C’s" – it has to be clear, concise, compelling, continual and you have to connect with it. You also have to be "careful" – one thing we learned was that you have to give everyone – the Governor, the House, the Senate, reporters, etc. – the same information.
Leaders forget that a word from us can have a tremendous influence on workers – a note from us, and the employee goes home and tells his wife, "I got a note from the director today, he likes my idea!" He walked home with a sense of being appreciated.
A lot of our peers go in with the attitude that they are going to go in and kick that bureaucracy, whip it into shape. That’s a guaranteed short-term strategy. Most of us are fired by our subordinates – if they want to get you, they will. I don’t understand this notion of blaming staff. Everyone should start their job with the notion not of wanting to tear down their staff but of wanting to build their staff into people who will go through hell for them.
Con: And people will march through hell to reduce teen pregnancy.
Gary: Another factor is the branding from foundations that this is a good course to pursue – that branding provides a great deal of political cover. The endorsement from Danforth, from Kaufman, from Casey and others helped give us cover and encourage other people to come to the table.
Con: Other outside influences help too – such as awards, and messages from the governors. That constant approbation from outside all adds up.
Gary: There’s nothing better than a peer encouraging you to do something. Our governor came back from an NGA meeting on early childhood all fired up from what he had heard from other governors.
Con: There’s another aspect of buy-in. People will not buy a pig in a poke anymore. You can’t just say, this is a good idea and expect leaders to support it. You need to have the technical basis for this work. The advice from outside people who have a sophisticated theory of change, who have a body of information to back up their ideas, and who can answer questions based on experience has been invaluable.
Gary: Yes, and we need to develop the next generation of that science – the causal relationships, the array of factors that contribute to results, the economics of prevention, the relationships between people, etc. Con’s method of using the insurance model – using risk management techniques to reduce the downstream costs of what we are doing or not doing – will be the key. [Cornelius Hogan and David Murphey, Towards an Economics of Prevention: Lessons from Vermont’s Experience. Washington, DC: The Finance Project, 2000] Lee Schorr’s new work on pathways to determine what affects children’s readiness for school will be another important part of the puzzle.
Another aspect of this is the need to show practical results – places that have used accountability to improve results and change the way we do business. Missouri is the "show me" state, so we need to see this work before we will really invest in it.
Gary: The media are also essential players, and we have to cultivate their understanding of this work and support leaders who take risks. People don’t realize that reporters are not "after you" – they are "after" one thing: to get their article on the front page of the paper. People think they are "after" them when they are just doing their job. If your integrity is unassailable and you help them do their job, they will work with you. When we issued press releases, we gave reporters the names and phone numbers of people they should contact to understand the whole story, including what our outcome numbers were, and the story behind them. Because we had made it easy for them, they used them.
Con: Getting the media to support this work, even in my small place, took five years – five years of riding around in a car, all around the state, with reporters, giving them the message and making sure they understood it. When our teen pregnancy rate went down, reporters would ask "what program caused that?" It look a long time for them to understand that it wasn’t just one program, but a whole new way of governance in communities and citizen involvement. They are conditioned to be questioners and even to be cynical, so it takes a long time of saying the same thing before they begin to believe you.
Our outcomes reports made it easy for reporters to understand the data and the story behind the data. So when reporters called asking for information about one incident, I could point to the outcomes report and make it easy for them to get the data they needed. Instead of focusing on one bad incident, they would put that incident in the broader context of how that outcome was doing across the state.
Gary: Another factor we need to consider is racial politics. Once a newspaper editor asked me if race was an issue in a particular situation. I said "race is always an issue." You always need to think about how Results-Based Accountability will be perceived in different communities and how to factor in different perspectives.
Con: We also need to figure out ways to encourage people not to think of this as just the latest fad. The way we do that is to use 10-year graphs – long timelines.
Another factor is the language we use. We have to use words that resonate with people – no gobbledygook. I don’t use the word outcomes – I use teen pregnancy or child well-being.
Gary: Yes – outcomes don’t have a constituency – teen pregnancy does.
Con: I also think we should start using the word "responsibility" rather than "accountability." Accountability is a proper word for looking at programs and it sounds like a fad word – but responsibility is a broad word that has meaning for everyone. Also we need to think about when we are ready to go ahead with this – for example we’re not ready to put this into a full budgeting process.
Con: There is great frustration in government at all levels, and that’s what brings out some of the anger and tension in all the relationships – between elected officials and advocates, between the executive and legislative branches, and others. There is something about the language of this work that is so basic and reaches people on such a human level, that it brings out the best in people. It allows – it requires – us to think beyond ourselves and our own boundaries. Thoughtful policymakers connect to this work instinctively.
Gary: When you bring the senior leadership something they can do, you’re a leg up on getting their attention. There is such a pervasive belief that nothing works, it makes it hard for senior leaders to act. But if you can bring them something they can run with, something they can use to make an impact and feel appreciated, you’ll have a better shot at getting their support. So often, advocates will come to us and say, "we want high-quality child care for all children and it will cost lots of money." That’s all fine and good, but it’s hard to implement. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If it doesn’t get us to utopia, they don’t think it’s good enough. And then government takes the blame.
Once when I was traveling with the governor, we were talking about Caring Communities, and I pulled out the real estate section of the paper. The description of one of the houses listed as one of the assets that it was in a Caring Communities neighborhood. I said to the governor, "I’ve spent most of my career having human services chased out of communities. Now I’m contributing to real estate values – something so tangible and practical for our communities." That was really a high-water mark for my career.