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Professor Donald Moynihan
© University of Wisconsin-Madison

A Conversation with 2014 Kershaw Winner Donald Moynihan

October 21, 2014 10:00 AM

Last month Donald Moynihan, professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, was announced as this year’s recipient of the David N. Kershaw Award. Given every two years, the award is presented to a scholar under the age of 40 who has made a distinguished contribution to public policy analysis and management. Moynihan took some time to discuss his work, the award, and people who have had an influence on his life.

Moynihan currently has two areas of research: how performance data about public organizations is used, and the administrative burdens individuals face when seeking public services. “One of the main changes in governance in recent decades has been the profusion of data about public sector performance. This led to high hopes for a new era of data-driven public services,” he says. “But we knew, and continue to know, relatively little about what happens to that data.” Who uses the data, what biases do they have, and how is it used? Moynihan believes that answering these questions helps us understand how major administrative changes to the state are being implemented. He studies this through a mixture of observational data and experimental research designs. “Both are important, since the observational data allows us to figure out if big government-wide performance management requirements actually seem to be making a difference. The experimental designs offer cleaner causal pathways.”

Regarding how administrative burdens shape citizen-state interactions, Moynihan believes it’s only been partially addressed at best. Currently working with Pam Herd, he is conceptualizing the idea and drawing on existing evidence on the topic. “We have done some initial empirical work that seems to suggest that these burdens often reflect a deliberate political choice, and that they have profound consequences for whether citizens access a program or not,” he says.

Moynihan has won several national awards for his research, including the American Society for Public Administration’s (ASPA) Wholey Award for outstanding scholarship on performance in public and nonprofit organizations—which he’s been awarded on three separate occasions. But the Kershaw is different. “I am especially happy to receive [the Kershaw Award] as someone whose work has focused on management issues, since most previous winners have been policy economists. I hope this sends a very strong signal to management scholars about the value of their work to the broader community of scholars at APPAM,” says Moynihan “It’s also nice to receive an award that lets people know you are not yet 40!”

Moynihan credits his success to several people over the course of his career, citing Patricia Ingraham, Founding Dean, College of Community and Public Affairs, Binghamton University, as a major influencer. “I was a student who had just moved to the United States from Ireland, with no idea of pursuing a Ph.D.,” says Moynihan. “Within a couple of weeks of my arriving at [the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University], she had me working for her as a research assistant, and showed me the practical relevance and intellectual fun that could be had by studying public affairs.” Ingraham provided him with several opportunities to co-author, giving him a solid grasp of how to write for an academic audience fairly early in his career. “She is also a model for how one can be a first-class human being in the academic community,” he recalls. “She built an amazing career while never being less than extraordinarily kind and fair to those around her, and those qualities were most on display to her students.”

Not far from his own experiences as a graduate student, Moynihan encourages newcomers to the field to think broadly, ask big questions, and focus on getting quality training. “Figure out how to communicate what you are doing and why it is valuable to every audience that could benefit from your research,” he says.­ “Admittedly, that is something I still struggle with.” He suggests students carefully consider where they go for their first job after graduation. “What will that environment do for you as a scholar?” he emphasizes. “Because technology facilitates collaboration with people all over the world, it’s easy to assume that the value of an institution to your intellectual development does not matter much.” Yet he credits his work at UW-Madison as a large part of winning this year’s Kershaw award. “I feel like I’ve received a second Ph.D. in policy and political science since coming here! My experience at UW-Madison tells me that you can’t go wrong being in a truly interdisciplinary environment surrounded by very smart and very generous colleagues.”

Over the last ten years, Moynihan has seen an evolution of discussion by scholars and practitioners about performance management systems. “There was a time when discussions of performance management tended to feature fairly simplistic claims, without a lot of attention to how social science theories and methods could inform what was a dramatic change in governance,” he says. “At the same time, there was not a sense of how to actually measure the effects of performance measurement.” Moynihan’s research suggests that performance information itself was not purely objective, as selection and interpretation was driven by different beliefs and worldviews. Such ambiguity of performance data saw it shaped by individual ideologies, biases, and institutional affiliations. “This is fairly widely accepted now, and informs a good deal of current empirical research,” he says. Moynihan also makes the case that it was difficult to assess the impact of performance systems, for good or bad, until researchers started measuring how—and to what degree—people used performance data. “There is a booming research literature on performance information use now, and many policymakers explicitly point to rates of use of performance data as a barometer for assessing performance reforms,” he says. “That is real progress in a tricky but salient research area.”

Moynihan believes he will continue to work on performance issues in the future, spending more time examining administrative burdens empirically, as these remain fundamental questions that deserve sustained attention. “But I also want to be open to pursuing entirely new questions,” he says. “Some of my best experiences as a scholar have resulted from looking at policy issues that were distant from my research agenda at the time.” He recounts his interest in election administration a few years ago after hearing a documentary about electronic voting. “From there I started to survey election officials, and now work with some terrific political scientists in trying to understand how different voting rules affect turnout.” His National Science Foundation grant examining the role of networks in crisis response stemmed from seeing the problems unfold after the Hurricane Katrina crisis. “One of the beauties of being a scholar, especially someone working in public affairs, is that we have a lot of freedom to pursue really interesting questions in different policy areas.”

As winner of this year’s Kershaw Award, Moynihan has the opportunity to deliver a lecture at the 2014 Fall Research Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On Friday, November 7, Moynihan will deliver Between Policy and Management: Common Ground and Shared Opportunities, discussing his research in the context of different policy feedback mechanisms: how policy affects management, how administrative processes alter policies, and how both collectively shape citizen-state relationships.



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