The Latest Ash Center Research, Teaching, and Ideas | Fall 2021

New research and writing from the Ash Center community is helping to explain and solve today’s toughest governance challenges.

Published on December 8, 2021 

Landmark Survey Shows Public Narrative’s Global Impact 

“Through [public] narrative, we can articulate the experience of choice in the face of urgent challenge, and we can learn how to draw on our values to manage the anxiety of agency as well as its exhilaration," writes Marshall Ganz, Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society, in a new Ash Center report co-authored by Emilia Aiello, EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow. The “2020 Public Narrative Impact Survey Overview Report” surveys how different groups, campaigns, and professions around the world are using public narrative. The findings detail the responses of over a thousand students of public narrative, demonstrating the efficacy of public narrative in a range of settings, from one-on-one meetings to nationwide campaigns.

Policy Brief Takes Closer Look at How Local Autonomy Shapes US Election Administration 

A new paper published this fall by the Ash Center examines the independence and discretionary powers of local election officials. Co-authored by Tova Wang, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy, and then-HKS students Hannah Furstenberg-Beckman and Greg Degen, the paper describes the larger system within which local election officials operate and demonstrates how local power and voter-focused decision making varies across the country.

Additionally, it provides several examples of past elections in which local officials exercised autonomy as well as shifts in local discretionary powers from the recent wave of state legislative efforts that seek to restrict autonomy. In their paper, the authors offer a framework to better understand local autonomy in the U.S. electoral system and address the implications of local autonomy for those interested in increasing voter access and promoting voter participation.

Building Back Better with Smart Sensors and Self-Monitoring Civil Works 

In “Toward a Smarter Future: Building Back Better with Intelligent Civil Infrastructure — Smart Sensors and Self-Monitoring Civil Works,” Stephen Goldsmith, Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy, and his co-authors, Betsy Gardner and Jill Jamieson, make the case that intelligent infrastructure should be a priority for both policymakers in Washington and state and local government officials developing infrastructure spending plans. Smart infrastructure tools that integrate digital technology, sensors, and data, the authors write, can more effectively bridge the country’s growing infrastructure deficit and identify deficiencies before they become acute dangers.

The authors also note that intelligent infrastructure will play a more central role as rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns caused by climate change pose greater threats to the country’s roads, bridges, and water systems. Equity is another important consideration for increasing investment in intelligent infrastructure. Overall, Goldsmith and his co-authors urge federal policymakers to look beyond roads and bridges and consider intelligent infrastructure as a system: upheld, connected, and integrated by data. Yet state and local officials shouldn’t wait for the funding to start flowing from Washington, the authors caution. They need to begin investing in innovative approaches to infrastructure without delay.

Harvard Project Examines Allocation of Federal COVID Relief Funding for Tribal Governments 

Researchers with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development released a study this fall examining how the U.S. Treasury Department allocated $20 billion in COVID-19 relief funding to more than 570 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act resulted in the single largest infusion of federal funding for tribal communities in U.S. history. However, the paper’s authors found gross inequities in fund distributions, which were contrary to the policy objectives of Congress, the Biden Administration, and the Treasury Department itself.

The paper includes a number of recommendations to ensure a fairer allocation of federal resources in the future. Specifically, the authors call on the federal government to prioritize disadvantaged tribes in future spending building as well as waive bureaucratic restrictions on how tribes can use relief and recovery funds. They also call on the Treasury Department to build a new Office of Tribal Affairs to build the Department’s capacity and expertise in working with tribal governments going forward.

Men and Women Candidates Are Similarly Persistent After Losing Elections 

Women who lose local or state elections are just as likely to run for office again as men, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, authored by Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, and Rachel Bernhard, University of California (UC) Davis Assistant Professor. Drawing on scholarship that indicates that women have less political ambition, the authors conclude that women’s decision making differs from men's at the point of entry into politics — not at the point of re-entry. This, the authors suggest, means the recent surge in women running for office could have a long-term impact on women’s political representation.

On the Persistence of the China Shock 

When U.S. trade with China took off near the end of the 20th century, it not only ushered in lower prices on consumer goods but resulted in the loss of about 1.5 million American manufacturing jobs due to the new influx of cheaper goods. In a new report, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this October, Gordon Hanson, Peter Wertheim Professor in Urban Policy, and his co-authors, David Autor and David Dorn, build on their previous work and detail how the shock of U.S. trade with China continues to impact American communities that suffered from lost manufacturing jobs nearly a decade later. Today, note the authors, the takeaways from the China trade shock should serve as a lesson for other scenarios where localized job loss is a major concern, like in the case of the declining coal industry.

The Political Geography of the Populist Radical Right 

As support for populist right-wing parties and candidates increased across the globe, Ash Center Democracy Postdoctoral Fellow Pauliina Patana set out to answer the questions: What explains variation in populist radical right (PRR) support within Western democracies? And why is contemporary PRR support often and increasingly stronger in areas seemingly detached from the effects of globalization, transnationalism, or immigration — the key issues these parties emphasize? In a new paper, published by Perspectives on Politics (Cambridge University Press), Patana uses a multimethod research design and both quantitative and qualitative evidence from France, an case of long-standing and geographically divided PRR support, to shed light on how residential constraint drives PRR support. Specifically, she shows that PRR is stronger in areas where access to economic opportunities and services is increasingly compromised. Individuals are thus constrained in the ability to move, and public service provision is low.

Bureaucracies as Innovative Organizations 

In a recent Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper, Steve Kelman, Weatherhead Professor of Public Management, argues that bureaucracies, often maligned for their inability to change, can be a source of innovation in government. Specifically, he highlights the case of a Denver local government organization, Peak Academy, that encourages frontline civil services to foster innovation. He also details the importance of “microinnovations,” which he defines as small process changes. Though they might appear mundane, Kelman recommends that they be given more attention by government innovation scholars.

Institutionalizing Deliberative Mini-Publics in Political Systems 

Ash Center Democracy Visiting Fellow Dimitri Courant published an article in Critical Policy Studies exploring how randomly selected deliberative mini-publics can be institutionalized within political systems. Deliberative mini-publics, small groups of randomly selected citizens charged with discussing an issue of public concern, have long been studied by political scientists. Until now, however, little work has been done to make these groups a more permanent fixture of the landscape of democratic governance. In his paper, Courant offers three ways to think about the institutionalization of deliberative mini-publics: in terms of temporality, legitimacy and support, and power and role within a system.

Latest Antiracism Research Highlighted through Free Database 

The Race, Research & Policy Portal (RRAPP), from the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Initiative, is an online resource dedicated to summarizing and promoting research publications on diversity, racial equity, and antiracist organizational change in private, public, and nonprofit firms and entities. As a central repository of research related to antiracist policy, the site is regularly updated with article summaries that allow users to access key ideas from academic publications that may otherwise sit behind a paywall or subscription and go unseen. This October, RRAPP released new content that tackles a variety of timely questions, including: How can we evaluate equitably? How does racism impact employee turnover? And how can historically white universities help deconstruct manifestations of white racial privilege?

How to Democratize the Federal Rulemaking Process 

As the Biden-Harris administration considers modernizing the regulatory review process to better weigh justice and equity, they have much to learn from on-the-ground leaders and scholars already doing innovative work. In a new report published by the Ash Center and New America’s Political Reform Program, titled "Democratizing the Federal Regulatory Process: A Blueprint to Strengthen Equity, Dignity, and Civic Engagement through Executive Branch Action," Archon Fung, Hollie Russon Gilman, and Mark Schmitt share insights from experts in the field and explore the challenges to and advantages of a reformed regulatory review process.

In their paper, the authors argue that one priority in modernizing regulatory review is to improve the federal government’s understanding and incorporation of difficult-to-quantify impacts of policy, such as its effects on human dignity and community health. They also examine how the longstanding practice of focusing on the greatest good in the federal rulemaking process submerges or undermines equity efforts. Additional considerations are essential when taking into account the effect of a policy or regulation on various communities. For example, traditional cost-benefit analysis often falls short in assessing the true impact that a proposed rule may have on policy challenges like climate change.