Local Government Innovation & Redesign

To support local government redesign efforts and recognize the innovative work already underway, the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center has partnered with state associations to create the Local Government Innovation & Redesign Guide and host a yearly Local Government Innovations Awards ceremony.

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Practical Wisdom

Barry Schwartz was among the featured speakers at the 2009 TED Conference. Ed. If you aren't familiar with TED, check it out--many great thinkers and entrepreneurs.

Schwartz makes a passionate call for "practical wisdom" as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy. He argues powerfully that rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical, everyday wisdom will help rebuild our world.

A few years ago, I read Schwartz' book The Paradox of Choice, in which he argues that the abundance of choice that Americans encounter in the course of everyday life actually has harmful effects on our psychological well-being.

Schwartz is now studying wisdom. In his speech to TED, he cites Aristotle: "Practical wisdom is the combination of moral will and moral skill." In an effort to meet and solve ambiguous, ill-defined real-world problems, one must improvise. However, Schwartz contends, when solving problems we too often reach for one of two tools, neither of which get the job done:

1. Rules: more and better
2. Incentives: more and better

Moral skill is learned. Moral leaders are made, not born. Moral skill takes practice--use it or lose it. When rulesets are looked upon as the final answer to any question or the ultimate guide to professional behavior, moral skill erodes. "An abundance of rules may prevent disaster, but assures mediocrity."

Incentives, another modern policy tool, "demoralize professional activity," says Schwartz. Instead of asking "what is my responsibility?," overuse of incentives condition us to ask "what are my interests?"

What implications does Schwartz' argument have for education? (He offers a few recommendations of his own at the end of the speech.) I'm thinking particularly of public affairs education--when our brains are full of positive and normative analytic methods, is there another analytic dimension that should be considered? "Moral analysis?" If practice makes perfect, let's get started now.


Thanks for your thoughts, Bjorn. Fascinating speech, and I highly recommend that others check it out. I found his remarks regarding remoralizing work particularly relevant to the work we do both as public affairs "students" and professionals. Teaching more ethics course, celebrating moral exemplars, and highlighting character, are all critical steps to shifting the paradigm of morality. As Schwartz argues in "allowing people to be virtuous - paying attention to what we do, how we do it, and structure organizations within which we work to allow people to develop wisdom rather than suppress it" is no easy feat, but one that is necessary if we really do want change.

Update: here is a list of TEDtalks available online through 3/30/2009:


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