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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop 3 THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CONTEXT: PERSPECTIVES ON BARRIERS TO INNOVATION Because most of the participants were program managers from the federal government, discussions at the workshop often focused on linking knowledge with action in the context of the federal government. Participants suggested that the institutional histories, missions, and evaluation systems in the current federal government system result in numerous barriers to addressing some of today’s most pressing problems. This chapter contains brief overviews of many of the barriers cited by participants, such as structural barriers to collaboration; risk aversion and barriers to collaboration as reflected in evaluation systems; a funding environment that can stifle innovation; human resource constraints; and political uncertainty. Although the discussions did not provide a thorough evaluation of these barriers or the identification of many solutions, the process of identifying key barriers is an important step toward identifying techniques to overcome these barriers and can lay the groundwork for future research. Agency Missions and Structure Federal government participants described efforts to link knowledge with action as being different from the historical approach of federal research systems – requiring changes to the status quo. Many federal participants indicated that efforts to link knowledge with action often take place within individual projects or in certain programs. They suggested that in many cases, an emphasis on linking knowledge from research and development systems with action is different from the norm or expectations of their agencies as a whole. Some participants suggested that the federal research support system is geared more toward knowledge generation than problem solving. One participant stated: There still exists a mismatch, in part, between what is success or failure in linking knowledge to action and what is success or failure in managing federal research programs. In part, the problem is historic and cultural. Success from the perspective of a federal research program is a high-quality peer-reviewed system that gets the funding out the door in a timely and effective manner and can demonstrate a long list of peer-reviewed publications. I am overstating a little … but there is not nearly enough pressure to evaluate critically and consistently the extent to which practice or action benefited from the incorporation of new insights. This orientation toward generating knowledge can lead to a situation in which important issues or problems end up peripheral to all agencies. Participants pointed out that given the bureaucratic structure of the federal government, it can be difficult to engage all the necessary groups in dialogue; “stovepipes” and limited scope of missions may limit the breadth of conversations. Problems often involve multiple environmental media and require a variety of disciplines and even sectors to tackle. Some integrated problems would require researchers from many programs or agencies. This can lead to some problems being ignored, even when there is a clear need to
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop address them. One participant expressed this in terms of the capability of federally funded systems to deal with such problems as rapid urbanization or climate change: Are there better ways to consider the whole of the federal investment in ways that reveal more consistently or vividly our most pressing challenges that call for new knowledge? Is there a federal forum that involves partners from both the Executive and Legislative branches of government as well as the university, private, and nongovernmental communities, to discuss such topics as the management of urban sprawl, changes in water delivery and supply, the role of climate in the emergence and spread of disease? Could such a forum or process inform the development of scientific research agendas? In some cases, an agency may be interested in dialogue on a broad issue but does not have a funding mechanism for the issue. Interagency task forces were identified as a potential forum for addressing crosscutting issues that fall outside the missions of individual agencies. However, to be dealt with at an interagency level, an issue needs to have strong administration support, which can often vary from administration to administration. A focusing event that drives people and organizations to rally around an issue that may not normally be within or entirely within an organization’s jurisdiction can sometimes create the necessary impetus and political support for innovative forms of collaboration. Examples of focusing events include natural disasters (tsunamis), national security threats (9/11), and even international meetings, such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Such focusing events can drive the establishment of programs and institutions that are explicitly designed to address a specific problem. A few participants pointed out that dialogues have often been started as a result of a crisis or other focusing event, but many have been continued because of their success. Although a focusing event can draw attention to a problem, participants emphasized that in many situations, it is preferable to begin a dialogue in advance of a problem, so that if a problem arose, one would be able to react effectively right away. Most of the programs represented were examples of such preemptive programs. In the absence of such focusing events, limited agency missions and stovepipes often make it difficult to address challenges that require integrative solutions. Space to Innovate Systems to bridge research and decision making in the federal government are innovative and often entail relatively radical institutional innovations, such as new dialogues between users and producers of knowledge, new links across agency or discipline stovepipes, intrusion into others’ turf, and generally doing things that have not been done before. The response to such efforts by established interests may involve resistance, efforts to co-opt, or more generally efforts to turn the radical innovation into something less threatening that has been done before, or something that is more likely to survive existing evaluation systems. Successful projects and programs create safe spaces in which to carry out their experimental innovations. Such spaces protect innovators from hostile takeovers, encourage experimentation, and embrace error. Safe spaces or spaces to innovate require leadership and an environment that welcomes new ideas and risk. Some participants emphasized the accepting environment required of an organization that fosters innovation: an environment that welcomes new ideas and a realistic
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop amount of failure in order to have truly innovative successes. If innovative programs are desired, it is important to allow some programs to fail without dire consequences. One participant offered the example of R&D systems, explaining that “successful R&D systems, especially ones that make big leaps, are forever ‘trying things,’ and then discarding or changing them; ‘making progress’ on the way to where they’re trying to go. Insisting that everything, or nearly everything, be accounted for in detail, and that most must be successful, is to misunderstand the nature of the R&D process, at best, or to destroy it at worst … When one of my Center Directors told me that ‘everything we did last year was successful,’ I asked whether next year, he was going to try anything difficult and risky.” Innovative programs that are run in safe spaces tend to exist at the project level, in some cases keeping their experimental innovations “under the radar screen,” often surviving in large part because of a senior-level champion for the program who is willing to accept the risk of failure for the possible benefit of informing action. The importance of leadership was raised in this context. Many participants who worked in large organizations gave credit to dynamic leaders who embrace experimentation and thereby provide safe spaces. One participant explained: “Any attempt to create an institution that radically changes the way things are traditionally done will be met with unbelievable opposition by those who would rather preserve the status quo. Without strong leadership of one individual … (our program) would not have been established.” Participants expressed strong dissatisfaction with environments that necessitate program managers and other leaders to operate “under the radar screen.” They emphasized that such institutions need to be changed so that they embrace a certain amount of innovativeness and so that program managers no longer feel compelled to operate under the radar screen. Several participants were emphatic that an organization that requires safe spaces is a flawed organization; an organization that fosters innovation should not need safe spaces, because the organization itself is designed to encourage innovation and accepts a reasonable amount of failure. Some participants suggested that the performance requirements (evaluation and performance management systems) prescribed in the federal government create a situation in which a certain amount of failure for the sake of innovation is not well accepted, certainly not embraced. One participant referred to resistance to innovation: “The (joint fact-finding) project was established with venture capital awards from the Geology Discipline and from the Director’s Office of the [U.S. Geological Survey] (USGS). These awards are highly competitive and encourage highly innovative research that pushes the envelope of USGS programs and that is outside of traditional USGS programs. The venture capital programs foster high-risk research that has the potential of high payoff (however) … it must be noted that such risk taking is not rewarded in traditional programs. There are no incentives in traditional programs to take risk. Champions are required to allow such risk taking and risk takers need to be prepared to pay a price when evaluated through the traditional process.” Evaluation Systems and Metrics Among many federal government participants, desire for a system that fosters innovative approaches to linking knowledge to action translated into concern about how to survive evaluation in a system that is not designed to foster the linkage of knowledge with action and how to survive in an environment of political uncertainty. Participants stated that although
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop individual leaders can foster innovation, appropriate evaluation and awards systems are needed to encourage innovation more widely. Successfully targeting and sustaining programs linking knowledge with action for sustainability generally requires a clear, readily understood statement of the beneficial outcomes that successful project completion would deliver. Operationally, this translates into the articulation of clear, broadly shared goals, and the development and operational measurement of generally accepted indicators of goal achievement. Metrics are particularly useful for helping a program identify, clarify, and measure its progress toward its goals. These goals need to be able to evolve in response to changing program contexts and experience, while still providing a relatively stable and predictable framework within which to conduct activities. Participants pointed out that while many systems specifying goals, outcomes, deliverables, and metrics are in place in the federal government, not all are appropriate for encouraging the sort of innovative, experimental, high-risk work that is central to mobilizing science and technology for sustainability. Measuring the success of projects, programs, or a boundary organization as a whole can be difficult. Although participants emphasized the importance of metrics, several participants expressed concern about problems associated with using quantifiable information. Evaluation can be awkward and is perhaps easier in traditional research systems than those that are designed to link knowledge with action. One program manager explained: “Program leaders tend to define success using metrics that address factors that are more in the managers’ control (such as the quantitative measure of skill of a forecast).” Participants provided examples of metrics they employed that were fairly typical of research programs, such as the number of publications in leading journals a project results in and the number of presentations at key conferences authored by people who went through a training program. External factors that reflect whether research has informed action (such as effects on natural resources) can reduce the control a program manager may have over results; for example, external factors such as natural variations in Earth systems can distort the results of an evaluation. Several workshop participants noted that some of the incentive structures set up by the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and its associated Program Effectiveness Rating Tool (PART) have not been effective in promoting innovative user-driven sustainability research, suggesting that more appropriate goals and indicators for such innovation-centered programs are needed. One key restriction in the current GPRA and PART evaluations is that they are restricted to a single federal department or agency at a time, making them problematic when interagency collaboration is needed. Several participants mentioned that federal measurement and incentive systems would benefit from more flexibility, especially for use in interagency programs, which are important to and increasingly common in sustainability research. In addition, some participants indicated that they are concerned that GPRA may prevent research activity and innovation because they find that it leaves little room for failure; demands short-term, easily measured results; and fosters a culture of risk aversion. Participants suggested that programs with joint accountability to both users and producers are more responsive to user needs and tend to be more successful in fostering innovation; however, in the federal government there can be considerable barriers to fostering joint accountability. Some participants pointed to techniques they use to obtain user feedback and indicated that evaluation by users and producers could help demonstrate the usefulness of a program and
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop promote improvement. Most participants did not have formal systems in place to foster joint accountability in part because traditional evaluation mechanisms in the federal government are not geared toward joint accountability. In the current system, end users may communicate with program managers, but often the only communication end users may have about the future of a program is through expression of support (or dissatisfaction) through Congress. One participant questioned whether the goals reflected in program evaluations should be to meet users’ needs or to address certain policy goals. Funding Mechanisms The public nature of federal agencies can result in funding complexities that may not be found in other sectors. The integrative, collaborative nature required of programs that link knowledge with action creates the need for flexible funding approaches that are not yet typical of the federal government. Within the government, funding may need to be shared among offices or agencies to facilitate cooperation. Barriers cited by participants included line-item funding and in some cases, earmarks. The line-item funding environment found in many agencies can make it more difficult to foster innovation because of the lack of flexibility in the types of programs that can be funded. Earmarks were described as both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they can serve as seed money with a fair amount of flexibility in a given area and can provide stability in an uncertain funding environment. On the other hand, the guarantee of funding can be a disincentive to innovation. Discretionary funding was mentioned as an especially helpful way to overcome these barriers by promoting a cooperative dynamic among offices and helping break down stovepipes; occasional competition for research funds was also described as helpful for fostering efforts for ongoing improvement. The collaborative approach needed to link knowledge with action can foster creative cost sharing with other federal agencies; international, state, and local organizations; and the private sector. The public nature of the federal government can pose challenges to federal program managers who work directly with end users if that entails providing a good that is a private good (NRC, 2003). This also creates special funding challenges for programs that bridge knowledge producers and knowledge users. One program manager explained that, among other things, the “need for resources (financial, technical, and personnel) to dedicate to the problem increases dramatically as one moves closer to application, and … as one gets closer to the [end use], potential sources of funds tend to dry up … Scientific agencies that might otherwise fund inquiry into the problem at the global scale are generally not prepared to dedicate resources at the local scale.” Many of the programs highlighted at the workshop used cost-sharing strategies to deal with this complication. In many cases, two or more interested parties funded the work. The nature of the work and, perhaps more significantly, the type of user appeared to be significant factors in determining potential funding options. One program used a cost sharing mechanism between federal government agencies in which one agency funded the initial exploratory stage and another provided funding once the pilot stage demonstrated promise. Other programs leveraged substantial resources from researchers and users, often from the private sector in locations specific to the tailored end-information, or from groups with particular interests in those locations. Public-private partnerships and associated joint funding mechanisms were cited as especially useful in ensuring that the benefits of federal research can be tailored to local scales.
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop Human Resources and Capacity The human resource issues that arose in case studies and in discussions were somewhat different from the human resource issues that had been raised in previous meetings. Human resource challenges cited at earlier meetings included a lack of capacity to work effectively across disciplines, issue areas, and the knowledge-action interface. Challenges more commonly cited by federal program managers at this workshop included: (1) lack of flexibility in hiring options; (2) lack of innovative spirit and incentives to innovate; and (3) lack of incentive to take the time and risk to work with user communities. Participants pointed to the need for more flexible and less bureaucratic hiring options; greater incentives for program managers to be innovative and link knowledge with action; and the need for adequate staff and time dedicated to fostering dialogue and anticipating potential problems. Some participants expressed particular dissatisfaction with the lack of flexibility in hiring options. In some programs, people were hired from the user community or were otherwise brought on-site, which was described as extremely useful despite the substantial hurdles to making it possible. One program manager reported several important benefits from having such a person on-site. On-site users can: Communicate the interests and priorities of the respective user community; Provide contacts within the user community; Short-circuit institutional barriers; Transcend cultural differences between the groups or organizations; and Provide information on organizations or geographical context. Another program manager was pleased with the benefits of temporarily hiring someone from the user community but was frustrated with the difficulty of doing so: “There is not nearly enough emphasis on the importance of innovative personnel and management options. One of our greatest successes was bringing a … stakeholder onto our staff for a limited time. The arrangements were not easy and it was not exactly an encouraged practice.” Political Uncertainty Politics clearly had an impact on the institutions and programs represented at the workshop. For government program managers in particular, politics was cited as a challenge to the creation of safe spaces. A participant mentioned that each administration would ideally like to have its own stamp on what is going on within the agencies, so programs repeatedly need to adjust approaches or even terminate according to the interests of a new administration. Ironically, success was cited as sometimes leading to a decline in funding. An example from the health field was provided; if a disease problem improves substantially, it may no longer be seen as a threat and political support for funding may falter. If funding is lost, the problem can reappear. In the case of one program, as tuberculosis (TB) infection rates decreased, funding decreased, because TB was a lesser priority than other diseases. Over time, efforts to combat the disease were reduced and infection rates rose. One participant expressed interest in a dual system in which some funding is used to support longer-term program goals while some is reserved specifically to meet shorter-term goals.
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop In the cooperation between research and operational agencies, there may be differences in the types of approaches to planning and changes. For example, NASA’s [National Aeronautic and Space Administration] research approach is to solicit for almost everything. However, operational agencies like EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] or NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] may adjust activities to immediate priorities, including the data and analysis they need. Therefore, partnerships between NASA and these agencies require flexibility in projects and in accountability. For example, if NASA runs a solicitation for projects, there may be changes in EPA’s and NOAA’s priorities during that year and the projects NASA solicited may not align with the new priority. Therefore, in activities trying to link knowledge to action, there should be a balance between longer-term projects (especially innovative applications achievable through solicitations and longer-term funding) and shorter-term directed projects (that target the specific needs to serve a particular project). However, the program plans, project plans, and accountability measures need to reflect the dual nature of these activities. Performance measures may need flexibility to adjust to immediate concerns while making progress toward longer-term goals. Participants pointed out that flexible programs that can respond to changing needs are more likely to withstand pressures of political change. The dilemma of political uncertainty was described by one participant: “How to make results tangible and useful enough to meet goals across administrations … The missing thing is the long-term theme that transcends administrations, that allows things to rise and fall as they meet needs … Let’s figure out the real research needs.”
Representative terms from entire chapter: