Joining Harvard Kennedy School this year from the University of California, Berkeley, Elizabeth Linos is the Emma Bloomberg Associate Professor of Public Policy and Management and faculty director of The People Lab, which investigates how to recruit and support government workers, improve service delivery, and integrate evidence and data into policymaking. We spoke to her about her research and what she plans on teaching at the Kennedy School.
Q: How does your research and teaching connect to solutions to pressing problems in the world today?
My research sits at the intersection of behavioral science and public management, which means I spend almost all my time thinking about how we can use insights from psychology and economics to support the people who work in the public sector and to improve the services that they deliver. Most of my work is in collaboration with people on the ground—people who work in local government, people who work in federal agencies, who are trying to use data and evidence to understand what works in order to improve their own programs and services.
Now, what’s great is that that is also exactly what I’m teaching. I am teaching a course this fall called “Data-driven Public Management” that shares what we know from the research and from case studies about how to manage programs and services, how to manage people, and how to manage reform in the public sector. The goal in the class is to learn from the data and the evidence. We are also learning from practitioners who have decades of experience in the field. My hope is that the students coming out of the class will be better equipped to manage policy challenges in their own work.
Q: What is one thing that you want students to come away with from that course?
One thing that I hope will become clear by the end of the semester for my students is that when you are trying to address some of the big-picture challenges that we all care about, whatever your policy area is, the public sector has a really important role to play. So, if we are not moving the needle as much as we would like on some of these big policy challenges, the solution might lie in more systemic investment in government. Now, the important side lesson is that the people who are already working in government are really trying hard to solve these pressing challenges. So, if we do not see the progress that we want, it’s not because people are lazy or did not think of it or don’t care enough. The nature of the challenges are so large, and what we ask of government is so complex, that it is going to take a much larger investment in using data and evidence in government to be able to move the needle.
Q: What research findings have been most eye-opening or surprising for you?
I am very fortunate to have a lab that I work with to do my research. Our lab, The People Lab, works in three big buckets. The first thinks about the people of government. We do a lot of projects around how to recruit, retain, and support people who work in government. The second is around service delivery: how we can make it easier for people to interact with government and how we can reduce the barriers that people face when they have to interact with our government. And then the third takes a step back to think about the idea of evidence-based policymaking and what it would mean to reimagine that process—so, what it would mean to bring communities that are most impacted by government into the process of producing evidence. And then on the back end, once we have that evidence, how do we get people to adopt it? How do we get policymakers to take it seriously and use that evidence?
In each of those buckets, we have had surprising findings. On the people side, a lot of the work that we have been doing over the past few years has focused on one of the biggest challenges that we have seen in the public sector during COVID, which is the burnout of frontline staff. We have been testing out different ways to reduce burnout with different government agencies. One thing that has been exciting in that research is to see how much can still be done even within the constraints of the public sector. You cannot always pay people as much as they deserve. You cannot triple the size of the workforce. But what we find in our research is that even simple strategies that build support systems through which frontline workers can rely on each other, share their experiences, and give advice to each other end up being incredibly useful to cope with burnout. I have been really surprised to see how effective that’s been. These low-cost and light-touch programs end up having effects on burnout six months down the line, and in some cases, even reduce turnover. What we are excited to discover is how that then affects service delivery, and we have some indication that an investment in the mental health of the workforce does translate to a shifting mindset for the people who deliver services on the frontline.
In the second bucket of research, around service delivery, a lot of the work that we are doing now focuses on the psychological barriers that people face when they have to interact with their government. In particular, we are thinking about people who are eligible for government programs but aren’t taking them up. So about 20% to 50% of people who are eligible for government assistance don’t take it up, and the question is why? I have been really surprised to see what a big role stigma plays in that lack of take-up. We have been doing a lot of work in rental assistance and another housing areas. But I think the challenge is larger; the stigma associated with being poor is really strong in the United States. And then the stigma of using government assistance—above and beyond being poor—is even higher. So, we are working to really destigmatize how government talks about their programs and think about ways to take away some of that shame so that people access the programs to which they are eligible—programs that they deserve and that they should have access to. It is really interesting for me to learn through this process how difficult it is to shift some of those narratives about what it means to be poor in the United States.
In the third bucket of research, our most recent surprising finding is that once you have good evidence—once you work with an agency and they run rigorous evaluations about what works—only about 30% of those results end up getting adopted by the agencies themselves. These are agencies that have already done the hard work of investing in evidence-based policymaking and rigorous evaluation. It is not obvious that, once you have results, things get taken up and adopted. We are going to try and learn why that is and what to do about it.
Q: What else would you like the Kennedy School community to know about you and your work?
One thing that is not very clear in the research that we produce is what is happening on the back end at The People Lab to be able to do this kind of work with cities. What I want to share with the broader Kennedy School community is that there are so many of us out there who aren’t sure whether we are going to make a difference in the world through research or through direct service. My hope is that with The People Lab, and with other labs at the Kennedy School, we are creating a model for doing rigorous research where you don’t have to pick between impact or science—you can actually do both. I am very convinced that there are many students who could play that role and redefine what it means to do good research in the policy space.
This piece was also featured in the Winter 2023 Harvard Kennedy School Magazine