Ode to a Bureaucrat

Governors' state of the state addresses inevitably feature soaring rhetoric, tough talk, and bold promises. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels's recent State of the State address to the General Assembly invokes the evergreen sports imagery to suggest his state is positioned for a unique moment in history. He said:

February 21, 2011

Governors' state of the state addresses inevitably feature soaring rhetoric, tough talk, and bold promises. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels's recent State of the State address to the General Assembly invokes the evergreen sports imagery to suggest his state is positioned for a unique moment in history. He said:

“For us sports fans, recent times have brought a frustrating string of 'almosts.' At 60, Tom Watson almost won the British Open. The Colts almost won the Super Bowl. Little Butler almost won a national basketball championship. Besides the disappointment of coming so close, the bad thing about 'almosts' is knowing that you may never get that close to victory, and history, again.

This cannot be the 'almost' General Assembly. We are on the 18th hole, in the red zone, on the final possession of a chance for historic greatness. Indiana has waited long enough for … an education system known for excellence … [to] deliver the results our kids deserve.… We cannot 'almost' end the waiting.

One thing is certain. The rest of the world will not wait on us.... Now comes the chance to lead….

Our children are waiting. Our fellow citizens are waiting. History is waiting…. You’re going to do great things. I can’t wait.”

Indiana is not alone. Many states are poised to enact historic legislation and implement policy to advance education attainment and the completion agenda. However, crossing the goal line will require a cadre of competent bureaucrats -- the real Cinderellas of the statehouse balls.

Yes, the “b” word is certainly unfashionable. No child ever says they want to grow up to be a bureaucrat. But that’s only because the term is just misunderstood and unappreciated. A state’s bureaucratic infrastructure is akin to research and development at Apple -- imperative for generating new sources of revenue and staying competitive.

Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal is learning that. Last year, his state passed an innovative bill that would grant higher education institutions the authority to raise tuition when they meet ambitious targets for increasing graduation rates. The new law could go a long way to keep the state’s focus on more effectively serving students and the state’s work force. But making the law work as intended requires valid analysis and reporting to determine which institutions are meeting targets and which are not, and by how much.

Enter the bureaucrats. Further analysis could help pinpoint trends in enrollment and completion to help colleges and universities improve their completion/graduation rates.

Louisiana and other states might look to Tennessee for pointers. This month, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) issued a report on the degree programs in the state that are most effective in generating graduates and those that aren’t. The report is one of many THEC produces to guide effective policy. The data is gold in making a higher education productivity agenda work. Given this valuable support from state bureaucracy, it’s easy to see why Tennessee has the longest-standing performance funding formula legislation in the country, and the first legislation of its kind focused on college completion and productivity.

It’s not coincidental that Tennessee’s new Governor Bill Haslam appears to fully embrace the state’s college completion agenda, even though it started under a governor of a different party. Incoming governors, like Haslam, are able to review the data generated by the state’s bureaucratic infrastructure to quickly see why and how higher education reform can lead to a stronger economy and workforce, not to mention making better use of students’ tuition money.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell will need this kind of analysis. In legislation introduced this year, McDonnell set a goal to produce 100,000 more degrees in the state over the next 15 years, with a focus on science. A goal this ambitious should represent a full employment effort for state’s bureaucrats. Achieving the goal will require designing and validating metrics and reporting on progress. The state will need to know which institutions and degree programs are helping the effort; which students are dropping out, when and why; and the number and types of jobs projected for the skills and degrees in the pipeline – the blessed work of a bureaucrat.


No state’s higher education system has suffered more than California. Serial cutbacks have decimated the state’s bureaucratic infrastructure. Recognizing the key role goal setting, analysis and data play in engineering a recovery, former state bureaucrat and U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Education Robert Shireman now leads the nonprofit Higher Education & the California Economy. That organization and another, the California College Access Foundation, are committed to strengthening policy decisions with grounding in sound data and analysis.
Shireman knows this vital function – performed by… bureaucrats -- is key to engaging the public as well as state business leaders in achieving more higher education opportunities for California students.

An analysis conducted by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) reveals that states with double digit state funding increases are the result of strong higher education policy agendas guided by continuous analysis. These are not states with the richest tax base, or the highest proportion of college enrollment. They are states, like Kentucky and Maryland, whose commitment to higher education reform is backed by an internal capacity to analyze, uncover trends and act on them to improve service to students.

Those embedded in the state’s bureaucratic infrastructure can also be excellent inertia busters. When the going gets tough, these bureaucrats get going. Fully versed with the latest statistics and analysis, these are the “go to” trusted sources of information for governors’ offices, legislators, businesses, K-12 and others. These low-profile work horses are the unsung heroes behind every successfully implemented piece of legislation. It’s time they get a shout out.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top