Rebuilding Government

Columbia Law School Professors Charles Sabel and William Simon Are Teaching a New Course on Effectiveness and Accountability in Government, Drawing on Their Own Research in the Field

 New York, September 18, 2015—When Columbia Law School Professors Charles F. Sabel and William H. Simon set out to compare policing practices in Cincinnati and New York City, they wanted to understand how reforms are implemented in response to minority communities’ claims of systemic civil rights violations.  

They interviewed officers and department leaders and gathered evidence from litigation in both cities. Meanwhile, the relationship between law enforcement and people of color became a national story in the wake of high-profile police killings across the country, including in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York.
“If you look at the places where these things erupted, very often there’s a Department of Justice settlement a short time later,” Sabel said. “What becomes of that?”
For Sabel and Simon, who study effectiveness and accountability in governments and private and non-profit institutions, the answer to that question depends largely on how an organization implements change. Over the years, they have come to favor an approach they call experimentalism, which emphasizes local initiative and central oversight designed to rapidly assess performance and pool information about best practices.
Now, students will have a chance to examine experimentalism in a new course Sabel and Simon are teaching this fall called Rebuilding Government. The course compares experimental regimes to those run by more traditional bureaucracies, which are often slowed down by inflexible rules and regulations.
“The course deals with innovations in government practice,” said Simon, the Arthur Levitt Professor of Law. “The task is to find a way to make government interventions more flexible without losing accountability—in fact, ideally by enhancing accountability.”
That’s what the professors found in Cincinnati’s police department that they didn’t find in New York City’s. Under stop-and-frisk, a practice that was enjoined by a federal judge in 2013, New York City police officers are not encouraged to show initiative or deviate from the norm, which emphasized arrests. In Cincinnati, where a 2002 settlement resolved claims of civil rights violations, policing is more decentralized and new strategies are based on the experiences and problem-solving techniques of local beat officers and community members.
Officers assume standard interventions, such as stop-and-frisk tactics, are ineffective.  Instead they aim to identify dangerous areas or especially violent individuals and to disrupt criminogenic trends through non-traditional interventions, such as environmental redesign, social services, or highly-targeted arrests.
“Both New York City and Cincinnati had a drop in crime,” Sabel said. “The question we’re asking is, are there strategies that are plausibly as crime-reducing as stop-and-frisk but intrinsically more respectful of individual rights?”
Sabel and Simon have studied experimentalism for decades. Together, they spent time as quality control reviewers in Utah’s child protective services department. More recently, Sabel, the Maurice T. Moore Professor of Law, has analyzed special education outcomes in Finland and off-shore oil drilling in Norway. Along with other examples of experimentalism in everything from food safety to nuclear power, the professors plan to have students analyze their policing research in class.
“If you look at the history of interdisciplinary initiatives, they are usually theory driven,” Simon said. “Scholars say, ‘Here’s this really interesting theory; let’s go out and look for some topics we can apply it to.’ Our initiative is unusual in that it’s largely driven by observations of practical innovations. We see new stuff happening that the existing theories don’t fit.”