Full text, as given September 23, 2022, at the ABFM 2022 Annual Conference:
Thank you to Bob Bland and the members of the committee, and my congratulations to the other award winners. I have many people to thank, as I owe many people for this award. I will try to do so quickly.
• My dear colleague Carol Ebdon who nominated me, and Marilyn Rubin and Charles Menifield who supported the nomination.
• My first teachers: My grandparents, parents, and my brother.
• My teachers in school, starting with Mrs. Atkins in second grade at Dr. Howard Elementary in Champaign Illinois; Ella Leppert at University High School in Urbana Illinois, Bernie Saffran, Mark Kuperberg and Charles E. Gilbert at Swarthmore College; Glen Hahn Cope and Leigh Boske at the LBJ School at Texas; and my doctoral advisor Chuck Adams at the Glenn School at The Ohio State University.
• My co-authors, many of whom are here. This award is theirs too.
• My colleagues at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in the School of Public Administration, the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, and many others at a place that has given me all the opportunities I could have asked for.
• Most of all, my wife Lori and my children, Alex and Sarah.
I would like to offer some comments about our field of study, followed by four specific recommendations.
The field of public budgeting and financial management has developed and advanced in remarkable ways during my time in the field. Our journal, Public Budgeting & Finance was founded in 1980, and many of the journals we publish in came after that. There were few textbooks in the field until the 1970’s. Now the field has blossomed. So has ABFM. I attended the second ABFM conference in 1990 in my first year as an assistant professor (without funding), and now look at us: This conference is the place to be – bigger and better than ever.
Public budgeting and finance, and public administration, will continue to thrive as long as they are relevant. I think this is what distinguishes our field, as our clients are ultimately practitioners. While we sometimes focus more on theory or methods, ultimately the value of our work comes down to its usefulness in practice. Our goal as scholars – indeed, our responsibility – is to be able to explain the phenomena we are studying. If we do it well, we produce ideas and theories that are useful to practitioners.
I think scholars need to have regular involvement in the field by doing applied research, consulting, attending practitioner conferences, and reading practitioner publications like Government Finance Review and publications of the International City/County Management Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and others. By doing so, we can be part of a true dialogue where we hear about new developments, and about what does and doesn’t work in practice. By actively participating in this dialogue, we can improve our theories.
In turn, practitioners need us. There are many theories out there and civil servants need to respond to the values of elected officials. Elected officials change office, so if the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) wants to keep their job, they need to help the elected official apply their values which may differ from those of the previous administration. A practitioner “tests” different theories to resolve problems. If one solution doesn’t work, they move on to the next one. Therefore, they need lots of possible solutions to their problems. That is where we can help. The CFO also bridges the divide between elected officials and agencies. Agency heads have differing values from their professions, such as accounting, procurement, and law.
To keep our field healthy, there should be a dialogue between theory and practice. We know about different budget formats, revenue options, and financial management practices, and the different values they manifest. We can help practitioners think more clearly about which values they want to emphasize and what this means for other values that are not included – the opportunity cost if you will – of choosing one value and set of solutions over another. This way we can help them find a workable solution for their current challenge.
Because practice varies cross-sectionally and over time, local histories differ, and current values in one place and time differ from others. Therefore, workable solutions vary. Our textbooks need to move away from a single solution to a range of practices which speak to different values. Any solution needs to be relevant to local conditions and changing political circumstances. To complete the theory-practice feedback loop, if we find that a solution serves the practitioner, then it tells us it has some degree of empirical validity and is a useful positive theory. This is an important finding for our theory-building, which serves our goal to explain why actions work or don’t work.
I would like to offer four specific recommendations for research in our field:
- Tax theory from public finance needs to be more closely tied to tax administration. A policy must be administratively feasible to be implemented, and we have unfortunately disconnected the making of revenue policy from its administration.
- There is a need for a stronger historical basis to understand change over time. Normative theories are largely ahistorical and disconnected from local conditions. Administration is what makes things work, and to help practitioners find workable ideas we need to know local political culture and the constitutional basis for current policy.
- I think the metaphor of balance is a very compelling one we can expand on. Balance is important in the disciplines that we draw from: accounting, budgeting, and economics. It is the central principle of sustainability. It is also the core of jurisprudence — just as judges balance different competing laws and constitutional principles, practitioners need to balance budgets and financial records. To successfully implement a policy, governments need to balance competing values in search for a resolution.
- Finally, Marilyn Rubin would not let me conclude without a comment on equity. I am delighted that our field has brought equity back into the discussion. When I read Musgrave and Musgrave’s Public Finance in Theory and Practice for the first time in 1978, I was struck by the incorporation of equity along with efficiency. We can help practitioners better achieve goals of equity. When governments are asked to respond to the senseless murder of George Floyd, to centuries of oppression of Native Tribes and African Americans in this country, and to centuries of discrimination against women around the world, it rightfully has pushed equity back in the limelight in our field. We need to better define equity, equality, and justice, and we need to help practitioners operationalize and apply it. If we do so, we will not only keep our field relevant for many more years, but we will also improve society.
This award means a great deal to me, and last thing I want to say is, simply, thank you.