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Solving Public Problems

Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World

Beth Simone Noveck
Yale University Press
448 pp.
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Governance professor Beth Simone Noveck, who formerly served as the first White House deputy chief technology officer, believes that “public entrepreneurship” can counter the failures that have dominated public policy design in the United States since the 1960s. Her new book, Solving Public Problems, revisits the four stages of policy design—identifying problems, identifying solutions, designing for implementation, and evaluation and evolution—while identifying 20 crucial decisions that prioritize “human-centered public policies.”

Experts often expend much effort on program design, but once these programs are created, there is usually little fine-tuning of the implementation and hardly any emphasis on measuring whether the desired outcomes are achieved. The US federal civil service, for example, first celebrated as a defense of the “public interest” for its structural insulation from shortsighted patronage and political corruption, has recently come to be viewed by some as a nonelected “deep state” that frustrates legitimate partisan power and private sector freedom. Noveck fearlessly defends the existence of “public interests,” arguing that their complexity and ethical significance are distinct from academic theory, electoral politics, and private sector capitalism.

Noveck describes governance ideas that expand public policy designs in a variety of sectors, such as health care, transportation, housing, employment, justice, information, and education. She emphasizes participatory elements of the process that ensure that the communities most in need and those who will be most directly affected by proposed policies are consulted throughout the process, and she encourages training in quantitative and qualitative scientific techniques, such as data analysis, research design, artificial intelligence, survey construction, interviewing, crowdsourcing, budgeting, and program evaluation. She discusses what can be learned from administrative records and from the temporary suspension of regulations that encourage private sector experimentation.

Each chapter ends with exercises that, if conscientiously followed, could launch a community and its institutional partners on the path to practical policies that combat problems such as unemployment, information deficits, and housing discrimination. These exercises include checklists of tasks that must be accomplished to achieve the desired outcome, and they direct readers to an index full of organizations that could be sources of assistance.

If there is a weakness to the guide, it is that there are an almost overwhelming number of examples, replete with management jargon, that must be waded through without a lot of information on their relative quality. A list synthesizing what Noveck considers the best of these programs—organized either by agency type or by the skill set supported—would have been useful. Overall, however, the book offers a wealth of information necessary to improve human-centered design in public policies.

About the author

The reviewer is professor emerita at the Department of Integrated Science and Technology, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, USA.