Transforming the Public Sector with Research on the People in Government and the Communities they Serve

January 22, 2021

IGS's newest research center, The People Lab, "aims to transform the public sector by producing cutting-edge research on the people in government and the communities they serve." We are thrilled to welcome Faculty Directors Amy Lerman and Elizabeth Linos, along with their talented group of interdisciplinary graduate student researchers, to IGS.

The People Lab now has over thirty projects underway, ranging from recruiting and retaining a diverse set of talented public servants to assessing and addressing the burnout of 911 dispatchers. No matter what project The Lab is working on, the researchers approach the problem in a people-centric manner. When asked how to get people to have faith in the government, Professor Linos replied, "What will work is an approach that is much more personal, direct, and at the local level. It's the interactions people are having with government. It's how they experience government. That's where you can potentially move people."

Read about how The People Lab is conducting empirical, rigorous research in collaboration with public institutions to produce effective policy below in an interview conducted by IGS's Kelly Jones.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kelly Jones: Would you tell us, briefly, how The People Lab came to be? You outline in your mission statement some startling facts about the government workforce turnover that is imminent. There are not enough millennials to fill new vacancies in government. Do you have any hopes for how the Biden administration, municipalities, and states will go about filling them strategically?

Elizabeth Linos: I can start answering both of those questions. And Amy, definitely jump in. So to answer your first question about how The Lab started, it essentially started with that challenge. I had worked in government before, and in program evaluation in various roles. It felt to me like there was this missing gap in the middle where you have really smart people doing really good policy design, and you have really smart people evaluating it, but we didn't have enough good robust research about how to get the people who actually are called to make all these changes—innovations and new policies—in a reasonable time frame. So that, to me, became a really important part of joining academia. 

The Lab was really just an opportunity, or it started off as an opportunity for like-minded government partners and academics to say, “Hey, this is a real problem that we're all trying to solve.” It's an issue that everybody knows is coming and no one has time to think about. What is academia if not the space where you can answer big questions that everyone wishes they knew the answer to? The Lab started working on learning about the experiences of people in government, but it became very clear that if you start talking about people in government, what you're also really interested in is how you can improve how people in government interact with the residents they're serving. That spurred research interest in the interaction between government workers and residents. From that, and from Amy’s work, we started thinking about the government, the workforce side, and then the interaction between those. We thought, “How do we think about how we support residents in asking more of their government—support them in engaging with their government and in politics in a meaningful way?” From my perspective, these all fit together very clearly. But it's certainly rare. And that's why I'm excited that Amy decided to join in and grow The Lab. It's rare to have a research team that isn't on a policy vertical that only works on education or labor or criminal justice, and instead really thinks about government functioning more broadly.  That's been, for me at least, really exciting for The Lab.  

Amy Lerman: What Elizabeth and I always come back to is we want to be useful. Fundamentally, I think that's what The Lab is about. It’s about creating the sorts of relationships between academia and government that help us to bring the research to agencies and to people who can make change—to work with them to design research that answers the questions they want to be answered. They know better than we do what the problems are. We bring the tools and the capacity of the university to people in government who don't have the bandwidth or the time to do all of this work.

There is a mutually beneficial relationship here, where we can do really interesting and exciting research and learn a ton from our partners about what kinds of questions are out there and important. Then we hopefully help them do what they want to do better. 

Kelly Jones: How do you see your research influencing the recruitment practices and retention of people who work in government in the future?

Elizabeth Linos: There are a couple of things to think about. So, I didn't answer your previous question about how the Biden administration or state and local governments are thinking about these questions. One thing that we're learning about talent and government more broadly, is that it's movable. You can create conditions in which all the cool kids, all the smart kids want to work in government. If you think about the US in the 60s—Kennedy's call to serve and how that brought in an influx of brainpower into the federal government. There are also conditions under which that is not the case. And so we're thinking really practically about what are the specific levers you can pull to not only bring talent into government while making sure they stay in and thrive. One thing that has been a growing academic discovery is that oftentimes when we talk about the challenges in government, the shortages in government, the lack of diversity, in a lot of important public service provision environments, we're always talking about recruitment. But actually, it's just as crucial to think about retention. What's happening on the job? Fifty-percent of social workers, or teachers, or correctional officers are going to quit within their first couple of years. Learning about the full workforce pipeline in that way is really interesting. That is why we work with fellowship programs. Many fellowship programs right now, both at the state and local level, are working with the Biden administration to think about how we bring talent into government, so we do research with them. But we also think about some of those horizontal problems that public sector workers face, whether that is mental health challenges, really high levels of burnout, not feeling valued or respected by society at large, or the communities that folks are serving, as well as much more specific and policy-specific work. Amy's work on correctional officers, for example, has completely changed the conversation in California and is being used by unions. It's being used by state governments. It's being used at all levels because no one else is doing this critical empirical work. 

Kelly Jones: I appreciate that approach because I live in a bubble of liberal educated students who say, “defund the police.” Wrapped up in that statement is the idea that we should reimagine the police by directing funding towards practices contributing to how the police do their jobs—mental health programs, for instance. How do you see your research tying into the Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movements in the charged political context of the moment?

Amy Lerman: It's a good question, and we're doing a lot of work in criminal justice. Most of my research background is in criminal justice and particularly criminal justice reform. I see improving the work life of police and improving policing as completely tied together rather than being at odds. The reforms that are going to improve community safety in the broadest possible sense are also the reforms that are going to improve the working lives of law enforcement. The more you can create a health-focused society, a mutually pure supportive society, a society that has all of the resources for reducing burnout and mental health risk and violence, the more we will be working for everyone’s well-being. So yes, there are trade-offs to be made. When you think about downsizing prisons, there are fewer jobs, but if there are healthier jobs, and we're moving people into a model where everybody has the resources that they need, I think that is a win-win. It’s, “lift all boats.” 

Elisabeth Linos: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. What we are trying to do at The Lab is build on that evidence base. And as I mentioned, she's been doing this work for two decades now, building the evidence base to make that clear. We are investigating what works in fixing policing, prisons, and in all sorts of different areas. Showing the impact of investing in the workforce is really what a lot of our projects are. But what I find really fascinating about The Lab, and I hope we continue to do this as we grow, is that because there's a lot of credibility and trust that we know what we're talking about in the law enforcement space, we can work with police departments to improve their internal practices. And we do. We can work with organizations that are trying to hold police departments accountable. We're doing projects around accountability outside of the police, pushing the police by working with other organizations. We're doing some broader projects around what it means to reimagine public safety from the community level. When we say we're going to “defund the police” or “reform policing,” this requires understanding both the internal operational things that police departments are already doing and struggling with and need help with, as well as what is happening around those police departments. And I don't know a lot of research centers that have managed to bring all those pieces together on any topic, let alone on something as complicated as policing.

Amy Lerman: That is something I really value about the culture of The Lab. The ethos of the work that we do is rooted in really good evidence. It's also very collaborative and very relationship-oriented. And I think we've been really lucky to have extraordinary partners, within all of the policy spaces that we're working in and partners who are really open to hearing all of the perspectives that might inform where we go from here. Having all of these partners in these different spaces—the community, the external accountability mechanism, and the department itself—allows us to do more than just tinker around the edges, which is frequently the criticism of this kind of work. We can think broader and think holistically about systems change. We are building with our partners, answering questions, and learning from them. In that way, we have a unique toolkit to offer in supporting these efforts.

Kelly Jones: It sounds like you're saying that it really takes an ecosystem to mount effective change, and all of these nodes within the ecosystem create a healthy community that will, in turn, lead to healthier and more just ways of being within the police. And perhaps that will shift public opinion as people benefit from these holistically-supported public services? 

Elizabeth Linos: Absolutely. And, and as long as we look at each of those nodes with the same rigorous, empirical lens,  each of those nodes will unlock some hurdle. If we fix each of those nodes, something's improving. I couldn't agree with Amy more that our work dispels the common notion that, if you fix one pain point in a process, it’s the opposite of systems change. In fact, if you do fix enough pain points enough times, that's the system, right? It's a series of nodes. It's a series of pain points. Culture is a series of people. We can come up with big words to describe the problem. But if you really want to do targeted, rigorous work, at least the kind of work that we do in The Lab, it's being able to really hone in on a specific challenge, study it and understand it rigorously. Then you must also have a portfolio of work that looks at the bigger picture.

Kelly Jones: Can you describe a specific intervention? How do you measure the success of an intervention? What impact did that intervention have?

Amy Lerman: Broadly speaking, right now The Lab is working in three areas. One is recruitment and retention and really thinking about government workers. One is service delivery and how we might reduce the barriers and increase the accountability and equity of services and how they're experienced by citizens. And one is creating a democratic, participatory, and educated society that can weigh in on and improve these other two areas. 

Elizabeth Linos: We are launching a project that looks at the mental health of correctional officers. And in that situation, we're creating, essentially, a peer support or social support program for both sworn and non-sworn staff in a mid-sized city in the US. What's interesting about that project, is that not only are we studying how peer support programs provide benefits to the individual, measuring things like burnout and mental health outcomes, and self-efficacy, we're looking at how it affects the organization in terms of absenteeism and turnover. Importantly, we're looking at how it's going to affect inmates in terms of use of force, and other decision-making of correctional officers. The intervention is on the side of how we support correctional officers. But the outcomes go from the individual all the way through anyone who is interacting with those correctional officers, so we’ll let you know in a few months how that goes.

Amy Lerman: In the service delivery space, we're looking at things like the uptake of government programs. How do you encourage people to take advantage of the programs that they're eligible for? I had a project I completed that looked at the uptake under the ACA and what encourages people to take advantage of health insurance when it's offered. Elizabeth has projects on EITC. How do you encourage people to take advantage of this benefit? We are thinking about all of the different barriers--the information barriers, the ideological barriers, the administrative barriers—that keep people from benefiting from the programs that are out there. 

In the democracy space, we have a big project that we have been running that looks at higher education and prison programs and the returns of the programs well beyond recidivism, but including recidivism. We have a new project that we're launching that addresses voter pre-registration and civic education for high school students. We're using experiments in curriculum to figure out if you can use pre-registration and civic education together to increase voter turnout among young people when they turn 18. We have a huge range of projects, but they are all aimed at the nuts and bolts, nitty-gritty, of how to move things forward.

Kelly Jones: Both of you do work on how certain types of information influence how people behave. Currently, disinformation and misinformation have a role in people’s perception of the government. I'm wondering if you could talk a little about how, based on your research, we might get people to trust the government in the face of widespread mis- and dis-information? 

Amy Lerman: I think that is actually the question for American democracy right now. There is just this incredible distrust—distrust of not only the government but of each other. The vitriol and the misinformation and the declining trust going back a long way. This is not just a Trump phenomenon. The roots of declining distrust go back decades. So a lot of work to do there. So for The People Lab, we fundamentally believe that the answer doesn't lie in “big P” politics. Top-down political messaging is never going to make progress there. Research on the backlash effects of trying to correct people's misinformation, how resistant people are to hearing messages that don’t confirm or reinforce their pre-existing beliefs—all of that suggests that you're never going to get much traction there. What will work is an approach that is much more personal, direct, and at the local level. It's the interactions people are having with government. It's how they experience government. That's where you can potentially move people. So when we're thinking about the person-to-person interactions, the letter that comes to your house that tells you you're eligible for a program, or the experience you have with a police officer, those feel like these very small interactions, but much like how the many little levers can change a system, a lot of those sort of small interactions can build trust or erode trust in government. Systematic changes in those areas can help people in their everyday lives. These are the changes that are gonna add up to rebuilding trust and government.

Elizabeth Linos: One thing that public management scholars have been thinking about for a long time is, how do you set up performance metrics for agencies and how do you think about performance metrics staff? And how do we build the right metric? Right? What are the widgets? Is it test scores? Is it the number of cases completed? And there is the error rate, which totally changes how we think about distributing programs. 

There is an interesting hypothetical now, which is, what if the performance metric for frontline caseworkers and government bureaucrats was whether or not the people they serve trust that they have their best intentions at heart, really simply? How would that change how we design programs? How would we bring procedural justice into those kinds of approaches or interventions? How would it change? Who receives attention in government? There is so much that you can do if you build out the idea that trust is happening in those everyday interactions. You could build an entire performance management system around it. It doesn't have to be an airy, fairy, noble separate idea. You could hit it with the same targets that you hit everything else. The target would be how we are going to fix how people trust the DMV clerk that they interact with, or police officers, and all the other examples that you mentioned. 

Kelly Jones: So how might you sum up the goal of The People Lab?

Amy Lerman: We're developing a model of collaborative research. We're working to figure out how to create an infrastructure to support this kind of work. There doesn't need to be a trade-off between theoretically driven empirical, rigorous research that can be published in academic journals and collaborative work with policy implications and practical applications. We sometimes think of those as having tension. We are building an infrastructure as a proof of concept, in some ways. The concept is that you can do both of those at the same time. We can train graduate students to do both at the same time. In fact, social scientists, given the world that we live in and all of the challenges that we face right now, have an obligation to take the work that we do and make it as useful as it can be. You can have it all. You can do the policy-relevant work and do really rigorous social science. Rigorous social science, in fact, is in the service of that work because we don't do our partners any favors by not using the kind of theory-driven tools that we as scholars, as academics, are trained in.

Elizabeth Linos: And I think that's the part that's exciting as we grow. So you mentioned early on, Kelly, that this is a new organization, but it's growing very quickly. The Lab is growing in terms of the number of students that are trained. And one thing that's interesting, I think, for IGS’s purposes, is that we have graduate students from many different disciplines that are eager to work on these projects because these are horizontal concerns if you care about government. The team is growing in an interdisciplinary way, which is really exciting. What The Lab is adding is an approach that links to partners directly in a really kind of tangible way. So it's been good to kind of expand the type of people that come and work for The Lab, as well as the types of projects we take on.

Kelly Jones: Well, we are thrilled to have you under the IGS auspice!

Amy Lerman: One of the things that I love about IGS is how open it is, how interdisciplinary it is. IGS has a long history of being both an incredible resource for academics and also a resource for the state of California. That is the community we want to be part of. 

Kelly Jones: Thank you Professor Lerman and Professor Linos! It has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for all of your tremendous work.