Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, May 22, 2014

Moynihan advances Wisconsin Idea through research, teaching

Don Moynihan Don Moynihan

Don Moynihan wants to make interacting with government easier for everyone.

The internationally recognized public management expert is focusing his studies on "administrative burdens" — the difficulties and impediments people encounter when they try to access government services.

"These burdens are an important yet understudied part of governance, affecting whether people succeed in accessing services, whether public policies succeed and people's perceptions of government," Moynihan says. "In other words, a light burden means people would answer yes to these questions: Was it easy to find out about the service? Did I get what I want? Was I treated fairly and with respect?"

Negative answers suggest that burdens are too heavy. "Burdens might be the difficulties in filling out a form to, for example, document your income," Moynihan says. "But you also have to learn about programs, and what is required to qualify for them. In some cases interactions with government may be psychologically demanding and stressful There is evidence that all of these types of costs affect whether people gain access to services they want and need."

Moynihan has examined administrative burden in different policy areas. With political scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison he has examined how allowing people to register on the day they vote improves turnout in elections. "If you want to make it easier for people to vote, we show that same day registration is a more effective way of doing so than other alternatives, such as letting people vote early," Moynihan says. "Same-day registration removes the need to make two trips to a clerk's office to vote, once to register a month before the election when some voters are not really tuned in and then again to vote. Same day registration brings people into the voting process who might not normally vote and therefore helps to ensure greater equality of representation."

Social programs and their administrative burdens are another area of interest. With La Follette School sociologist Pamela Herd, Moynihan is looking at access to Medicaid services in Wisconsin and elsewhere. "In one paper, we showed that efforts to reduce administrative burdens — through simpler forms, concentrated outreach to target populations, and the use of administrative data to identify and recruit eligible citizens — mattered in expanding access to health care among the poor," Moynihan says.

This research also showed how relatively small burdens can have unexpectedly large effects, he adds. "For example, the state put in place a seemingly modest requirement that Medicaid recipients document a lack of affordable employer-based insurance. Officials expected this change to affect 2 to 3 percent of applicants. It resulted instead in an enrollment drop of 20 percent for children and 17.6 percent for adults. Subsequent investigations found that the vast majority of those affected by the policy change were eligible. It was the failure to negotiate the administrative processes, not eligibility, that drove the dramatic loss of access to program benefits."

Moynihan and Herd are expanding their collaboration into other policy areas thanks to a prestigious Vilas award from the university's Graduate School. The two are working on a book that will examine access to social rights via healthcare, including reproductive rights and the Affordable Care Act, and income supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. They plan to examine access to political rights via burdens in election and immigration policies.

"Any context in which the state regulates private behavior or structures how individuals seek public services is a venue to study the burdens imposed in that process," Moynihan says. "This could be the regulation of business, or basic bureaucratic encounters such as renewing a driver's license."

Another elections project with the political scientists helped the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board understand changes to election processes in Wisconsin. "Our research identified strengths and weaknesses of a new voter registration system, and the concerns of local officials who implemented this system," Moynihan says. "We also provided GAB research on how to implement voter identification systems in the state."

How government performs and how it can function better is always at the core of Moynihan's research and teaching. "In recent decades state governments have tried to improve their performance and transparency by creating systems that measure and report performance," Moynihan says. "Despite extraordinary efforts and interest, the general consensus is that these systems have not worked. My work examines the factors associated with the successes and failures."

Moynihan identifies the aspects of organizational culture and individual motivation on which organizations should focus to improve their use of performance systems, as well as routines of learning that increase the likelihood that leaders examine the performance data they collect. Moynihan has presented this research to state employees in Wisconsin, as well as to policymakers at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Commission and the World Bank.

Moynihan has won many national awards for his research, including the American Society for Public Administration Wholey Award on three occasions for outstanding scholarship on performance in public and nonprofit organizations (2009, 2011 and 2013). He won the 2011 National Academy of Public Administration/Wilder School award for scholarship in social equity. Moynihan received the 2012 Distinguished Research Award from ASPA and the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration. His book, The Dynamics of Performance Management: Constructing Information and Reform, was named best book by the Academy of Management's Public and Nonprofit Division and received the Herbert Simon award from the American Political Science Association. In 2011 he was elected to the National Academy of Public Administration. He is president-elect of the Public Management Research Association and serves on the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Policy Council.

On campus, Moynihan has won the La Follette School's Jerry and Mary Cotter Faculty Fellowship and the university's H.I. Romnes Faculty Fellowship.

Making his work accessible is a high priority for Moynihan. He posts pre-publication copies of all his articles online so that policymakers and members of the public who lack access to academic journals can read it. His Performance Information Project is an electronic listing of papers he and other researchers have done on performance information use. "Making this material easily accessible matters," Moynihan says. "When people need information they usually enter a few works in a search engine. If they can't get easy access to electronic research, then they are left with claims that are often not peer-reviewed, or follow sound research guidelines."

Moynihan also writes in venues where practitioners or members of the general public are likely to go. "Some of my research on performance management has been rewritten for a practitioner audience and published online by the IBM Business of Government Endowment, the Brookings Institution, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the World Bank," Moynihan says. "These venues have a direct connection with policymakers and help to push research to those who need it most. Members of the broader public are interested in elections, and I have written op-eds on the topic in local news media, such as the Cap Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Wisconsin State Journal."

Moynihan welcomes the opportunity to talk directly with people about his work. "One nice thing about living in Wisconsin is that there are no shortage of opportunities to interact with members of the public, government employees, and elected officials," he says. "I will often bring policymakers into the classroom – for example, a couple of years ago Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Representative Mark Pocan came to talk to our students about the politics of the budgeting process. I have presented to state legislative staff and members of the Wisconsin Women in Government program. I have organized La Follette spring seminar, the topic of which varies from year to year. One year we brought in about 100 local government officials to talk about dealing with floods and other emergencies in Wisconsin. Another year, to celebrate 100 years of the Wisconsin Idea, La Follette faculty presented to a group of citizens on different aspects of public policy."

All these projects advance the Wisconsin Idea, Moynihan notes, by providing research and analysis to help policymakers shape government to improve citizen's access to its services.

Moynihan emphasizes this responsibility in the classroom. "Our classes matter in two ways to the state of Wisconsin and beyond," he says. "First, we train the next generation of public servants, giving them access to cutting-edge research and objective analytical skills to make the best decisions. Second, all of the classes I teach include a service component, where a group of students work with a government agency and non-profit to study some management or policy issue. "

Over the years, clients have included the Wisconsin departments of Natural Resources, Administration, and Children and Families, plus local governments such as Madison, Milwaukee and Lake Mills.

"Students meet with officials in these agencies, identify the problems they have, and use existing research and their own analyses to offer suggestions for improvement," Moynihan says. "Our classes are perhaps the most important way the La Follette School carries out the Wisconsin Idea, by training our graduate students in public affairs, and by helping public agencies and nonprofits solve problems and improve their services. Students find these experiences to be the most demanding but most rewarding part of their time at La Follette, and they learn what the Wisconsin Idea means in practice."