When We Pay Administrators to Lie to Us

Sometimes our public administrators act like private entities that seek to serve their own interests. They should be held to a higher standard, however. They are, after all, entrusted to serve the public interest, which makes the core of what government does different from other institutions. Hospital administrators, for instance, don’t have to pretend to advocate for anything other than the interests of the hospital. But our public administrators should have the public interest in mind, even if it is against their own private interests.

It’s understandable that public administrators become sympathetic to the programs they administer. Yet they can cross an important line when they evaluate their own effectiveness and go beyond simply reporting on what they do to instead engage in an effort to justify their existence. That’s because public officials who overstate their impact and their effectiveness betray the public trust.

And these overstatements are more common than they should be.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the state administrator for wasteful business subsidy programs, judges the effectiveness of its own taxpayer-paid tourism advertising campaign. It says, every year, that it provides huge returns, although Mackinac Center research has shown the returns are probably miniscule, if not negative. So residents should be skeptical — it’s in the agency’s self-interest to make such claims.

The state administers some taxpayer-sponsored preschool programs. The state Department of Education provides an evaluation of how effective these preschool programs are. It says that their participants do better on tests, but without a control group of nonparticipants to compare it to, the claim doesn’t say much. The department does have at least one older evaluation that has stronger methods, though.

State lawmakers wanted school districts to reward good teachers, so they required administrators to evaluate teacher effectiveness and give extra pay to good teachers. Mackinac Center investigations have revealed that over a quarter of all districts rated every one of their teachers as effective in 2014.

Overstatements are different from promotional material. People should expect that an agency’s press releases broadcast the good things its does. And it’s fine to tell stories about the things public employees have done.

Self-interested attempts by an agency to show that its work is worth the public expense, on the other hand, are a different story. While its employees are public servants who may believe in the value of the services they provide, they are hired to serve the public interest. Attempts to inflate their value should be met with disdain from the public in general and lawmakers in particular.

It is possible, despite the skepticism I’ve expressed so far, for government administrators to provide adequate evaluations of their activities. They can set up experiments, perform cost-benefit analyses and run other tests to check the effects of their operations. I trust the Michigan Department of Transportation’s research reports, for example. They look and sound like honest attempts to assess how to do transportation better.

Also, the state auditor general provides evaluations of public expenditures that you can trust. But it is also an institution whose self-interest is to provide honest evaluations.

A department that attempts to save money and improve quality is a good thing. But some administrators seem to think they are in a contest with the public for taxpayer dollars, and they are happy to bend the truth to keep their funding. That is bad governance. Residents shouldn’t pay for their public administrators to lie to them. Perhaps it’s time for lawmakers to find ways to ensure that evaluations of public agencies are transparent and performed by organizations whose primary interest is gaining a reputation for honest evaluations.