Public Leadership Through crisis 17: ‘Keep an eye’ on how your crisis response impacts Public Value

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).


This post captures the second part of my interview with Mark Moore (you can find the first part here). It asks how governments should think about public value in times of crisis—and especially about the potential public value tensions implied in choosing different courses of action in response to crises. For instance,

  • ‘Stay-at-home’ orders might promote public health (a public  value) but is this at  the expense of economic well-being (another public value)?
  • Rigorous contact tracing might promote public health (a public value) and even be key to helping countries break out of isolation and promote economic well-being (another public value) but is this at the expense of rights to privacy for  individuals (another public value)?

These tensions matter a lot, because the organized action of government always impacts on public value(s); creating and promoting some types of value and (potentially) undermining other types of value. Given that actions in times of crises are rapid and experimental, these impacts on value(s) can be particularly unexpected and unplanned. How does one manage such impacts?

As with prior blogs, I provide Mark’s video, then offer thoughts and questions for your reflection.

Mark begins answering my questions with some basic concepts from his work on public value, to help show how complicated the topic is—and how hard a challenge it is for governments to think clearly about the public value implications of their work (especially in times of crisis).

He starts with the idea that a social objective function exists that can define the value governments are meant to optimize. But he notes that different groups have different ideas about which values should be optimized in this function. Public health officials might hold a public health conception of public value to be paramount, for instance (focused only on limiting mortality during a pandemic). Economists might, in contrast, hold to an economic conception of public value (where the goal may be to limit economic effects of the pandemic).

Mark stops at this point, recognizing that this makes the job of government very difficult: “So now we have two big objectives … which complicates the design of our social response … because we have to do things to accomplish two objectives … and there may be trade-offs …”

He warns against spending too much time trying to calculate trade-offs between  objectives, or planning a perfect way to balance the different objectives, because “we don’t know exactly what these trade-offs are.” Instead, he suggests that  we should recognize that “all the objectives are important … and we must try things to accomplish all objectives, ideally” and argues that the key is to remember at all times that there are different dimensions of value to pay attention to: “If we’ve got them both in mind, chances are we will do better than if we don’t.”

The first idea Mark offers for managing the public value effects of government action during crises: KEEP ALL THE DIMENSIONS OF VALUE IN MIND AT ALL TIMES, EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO OPTIMIZE THEM. Don’t force yourself to only focus on one dimension or another.

Beyond this discussion, Mark notes that there is more than just a utilitarian approach to public value represented in the idea of a social objective function (where we focus on whether government actions improve the welfare of particular groups by protecting or furthering particular rights, benefits, welfare, etc—like public health or economic well-being). A second approach to public value offers a more philosophical view, where we ask if government actions are consistent with ideas about justice, fairness, and rights based relationships in the society.

The second idea to hold on to when managing the public value effects of government action during crises: KEEP CONCERNS OF ‘FAIRNESS AND CIVILITY’ AS CLOSE TO MIND AS ‘UTILITARIAN’ CONCERNS WHEN THINKING OF PUBLIC VALUE; both are vital.

Reflecting on these points, Mark suggests that it is probably impossible to ask leaders to develop a social objective function that optimizes performance on public value. “If  you ask leaders to compute public value [in some kind of optimization function] … they won’t be able to do it.” But he suggests that leaders can hold concerns for multiple values—and types of values—in their minds, and mobilize actions and reactions around all these values.

The third idea is HAVING MULTIPLE VALUES, MOBILIZES MULTIPLE PEOPLE, IN MULTIPLE POSITIONS, TO ACT. So don’t be concerned if you are balancing multiple values. Actually, ensure that you have multiple values motivating and mobilizing multiple people at all  times.

Mark suggests using something like the Public Value Account to ‘keep an eye’ on  the different dimensions of public value you and your  government are working with in times of crisis (and outside of crises). As shown in simple format below, this is a ‘live’ tool you can use to reflect on the impacts of government action on the costs and benefits associated with all kinds of public value. The goal of having such  account is not necessarily to optimize for all values at all times but rather to be clear about the set of values you are focused on, how the values in this set are being impacted, and where you need shifts in action to manage these impacts.

A simple public value account, where you can ‘keep an eye’ on how actions impact value

Costs of  action (use of collectively owned assets and associated  costs) including: Benefits of  action (achievement of collectively valued social outcomes) including:
Financial costs of action:

Unintended negative consequences of action:

Social costs of using   state authority:

Mission achievement:

Unintended positive consequences:

Client  satisfaction:

Justice and fairness:

The fourth idea Mark offers is TO CONSTANTLY KEEP ACCOUNT OF THE  POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE IMPACTS OF YOUR ACTION ON THE DIFFERENT  VALUES—AND  VALUE DIMENSIONS—YOU CARE ABOUT. This is how you balance the chaos of action with the concern for public value.

Mark suggests that this  kind of mechanism can help you regulate the energy and action across your system. The public value account shows if we have too much energy in one area of public value and not enough  in another, for instance, and helps shift energy across dimensions (by reallocating resources, authority, etc.)

Overall, I would summarize Mark’s comments as saying:

  • Public value challenges are complex (with many public value types, dimensions).
  • It is impossible—and a waste of time—to try craft an optimal response to this
  • Leaders should rather embrace all the public value types and dimensions they face.
  • And mobilize as much energy and action in pursuance of all these public values.
  • An ‘keep an eye’ on how action is influencing all values at all times, to regulate action.
  • Balancing the public value performance of government without stifling  action or learning.

Mark concludes with words to those on the front lines in  crisis.

“This is work is hard  … and emotionally challenging.”

“Many people who want to do this work are hostile to selfishness … they think that’s bad.”

“But it takes a mature person to understand that if you are going to be of any use to others you’ve got to do a little bit of taking care of yourself.”

“You’ve got to care about yourself as well as others … to have the energy to go forward.”

Now, here are some questions for you:

  1. Mark notes that there are many types and dimensions of ‘public value’ to  consider in a government, and especially in times of crisis. Make a list of the public values you think are at play in the current response of your government.
  2. Mark suggests that we need to think about utilitarian and fairness/civility dimensions of these public values.
    • What do you understand by ‘utilitarian’ and ‘fairness’ dimensions?
    • In your list of public values (from question 1), write ideas about how you would assess performance from a ‘utilitarian’ and ‘fairness’ perspective?
  3. Do you think that a public value account could be used to ‘keep an eye’ on your government’s impact on different kinds of public value?
    • If you constructed a public value account now, for each value in your list (from question  1), where do you think costs would outweigh benefits (and vice versa)?
    • How would you regulate energy (and authority and resources) based on  this account?
    • How could this kind of tool help you navigate tensions between values your government is pursuing?

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