A male government official and three female student fellows from the HKS Government Performance Lab meeting in a conference room around a table in front of a whiteboard.

MLD-630: Government Turnarounds with Jeffrey Liebman

For the past ten years, Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Social Policy Jeffrey Liebman has led the HKS Government Performance Lab which provides technical assistance to state and local governments interested in improving the results they achieve for their citizens. During that time Liebman and his team of experts, many HKS students and alumni fellows, have become experts at using analytics, outcomes-focused contracts, and cross-sector collaborations to help improve social service programs at the city and state levels. The GPL helps governments address thorny questions, like how to use data to find individuals who had fallen through the cracks, or how to restructure contracts to incentivize providers to serve the most difficult clients. Originally founded as a platform to explore the efficacy of Pay for Success (PFS) projects like Social Impact Bonds, where the governments agrees to pay for services only if they are shown to be successful, and allowing them to test promising new interventions and collaborative stakeholder models, the GPL evolved in response to a need Liebman and his team discovered across the agencies in which they worked. “Our government partners began to ask whether the same models we developed in PFS could be applied to help government social service agencies run their core operations better,” says Liebman.

Portrait photo of Harvard Professor Jeffrey Liebman in tan suit and tie in front of an HKS building
Jeffrey Liebman

Government leaders were seeking data-driven, boots-on-the-ground technical assistance, so Liebman rapidly expanded the GPL, placing students and HKS alumni with backgrounds in data analysis, public policy, and implementation in the field with a variety governments and agencies selected through national competitions. Projects began with programs aimed at reducing prison recidivism and reintegration for young people exiting the juvenile justice system, then expanded to include initiatives in maternal and infant health, high-quality pre-K, and addressing homelessness. Working across jurisdictions allowed Liebman and his team to discover and refine a set of approaches that responds to the recurring, problematic issues governments face.  For example, one of the key insights Liebman’s team uncovered during its PFS work was that procurement and contracting were too often seen as back-office compliance functions instead of used as powerful levers for systems change. GPL developed a signature framework for Results-Driven Contracting to help governments achieve high-priority strategic goals and drive improvements in service delivery.

This and other lessons are now taught at HKS each Fall in MLD-630: Government Turnarounds.  The course delivers proven strategies that government leaders have used to turn around troubled agencies and improve government performance. In teaching, Liebman draws on a mixture of lectures, case studies (often with guest visits by the case protagonists and other experts), and student presentations. Topics covered include:

1. Setting strategic goals and getting your organization to follow through on them.
2. Data-driven leadership strategies for improving agency performance, such as performance stat and delivery units.
3. Using results-driven contracting strategies to improve procurement.
4. Techniques for recruiting, training, re-energizing, and retaining talent.
5. Strategies for overcoming inertia.
6. Strategies for sustaining reforms.

MLD-630: Government Turnarounds is good complement to other MLD Courses in Government and Urban Innovation such as MLD-102 Getting Things Done: Management in a Development Context (Andrews); MLD-601 Operations Management (Fagan); MLD-605 Systems Thinking and Supply Chain Management (Fagan); MLD-618 Leadership, Social Change, and its Challenges: Boston as a Case Study (Winship & Jackson); and especially, MLD-412 Greater Boston Applied Field Lab: Advanced Budgeting, Financial Management and Operations (Bilmes) and  MLD-620M The Data Smart City: Driving Innovation with Technology (Goldsmith)

If you have any questions about this course, or any other in the MLD curriculum, email Greg Dorchak, MLD Area Administrator.

Greg Dorchak

Administrator of the Management, Leadership, and Decision Sciences Area at the Harvard Kennedy School.