Fels’ new head aims at government’s knowledge gap

By Sono Motoyama

Sgt. Friday would have approved. The new director of the Fels Center of Government is a “just the facts” kind of guy. Criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman was named in June by School of Arts and Sciences Dean Samuel Preston to head the Fels Center of Government, ending a six-month search. The administration clearly hopes that Sherman, the sociology department’s Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations, will usher in a new era for the Fels Center, which has had an uncertain future in recent years.

“We want to become the most important center for public affairs,” Sherman said of his goals for the Center. But whereas the curriculum of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School both include a concern for international relations, “our focus has been domestic policy issues.” Sherman said he plans to stay true to the Center’s original mission.

Sherman hopes to accomplish his ends by teaching and, if funds can be raised for his ambitious plans, putting into practice what he calls evidence-based government. He defines this as “using best practices and good measurement to hold government accountable for its bottom line.” He advocates the use of research and evaluation -- just the facts, ma’am -- in implementing government policy rather than the “irrational and unsystematic” way many policies are currently put into place.

He cites current claims that a new football stadium in Philadephia will boost the economy by creating new jobs as evidence of irrational forces at work. “I say, Show me the evidence,” he said. “Show me the evidence from other cities.”

Speaking from his office in the Fels mansion at the corner of 39th and Walnut, dressed in a tweed jacket, Sherman looked the part of an academic but he also has had extensive experience in government and police administration. Just previously the chair of the University of Maryland’s department of criminology and criminal justice, he oversaw that department’s respected 1997 report to Congress on crime prevention. He began his career in 1970 as a fellow in the office of New York Mayor John Lindsay. He currently is an advisor to Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney and to the FBI Academy’s Behavioral Sciences Unit.

In his different positions, Sherman seems to maintain a standard fact-based approach. Of the Behavioral Sciences Unit (made famous by the film “The Silence of the Lambs”) Sherman said he advised it to “stop using unscientific methods, which offender profiling is. It’s the sort of evidence that tells us the Unabomber was a blue-color worker angry at educated people.”

His personal tasks at the Fels Center he sees as raising money for research from public and private sources, and finding a way to “fix the knowledge gap between what universities know about effective programs and what state and local governments are doing.” For this he has in mind a project modeled on the government’s agricultural extension service. “Government hires people who explain new research to farmers,” he said. “It’s taking research from universities and literally putting it in the field. If we can do that for farming we can do that for government.”

Sherman and his Penn faculty, whom he calls “among the finest collection of people studying domestic policies,” will be taking his evidence-based religion into the classroom, into research projects and, he hopes, into the street.

“Walt Disney is led by someone who is constantly monitoring profits,” he said. “We should have government constantly monitoring its services.”

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Originally published on September 30, 1999