Sarah James Receives the 2022 Leonard D. White Award

The Leonard D. White Award is presented annually by the American Political Science Association (APSA) to honor the best doctoral dissertation in the field of public administration. 

Sarah James received her PhD in Government & Social Policy at Harvard in 2021, and will be an assistant professor of political science at Gonzaga University in the fall.  Sarah studies the American political economy, inequality, and social policy, particularly at the state and local level.  Her current research examines how the availability of research alters the power dynamics among vested interests and policy opponents in the politics of reforming failed policies.  Most recently, Sarah has focused on the use of data in state response to COVID-19.  Sarah has also studied the changing nature of the political organizations supporting political parties in contemporary America.  Sarah and her partner have two kiddos and a golden retriever.  Prior to graduate school, she worked as a teacher and, later, high school principal in Boston.

Citation from the Award Committee: 

The Leonard D. White Award Committee is happy to select Sarah James’s “When is Hindsight 20/20? The Politics of Acknowledging and Revising Failed Policies” as the 2022 award winner.

Sarah’s research addresses an interesting and understudied question: Under what conditions is information likely to impact policy discussions and outcomes?  She begins by relating how states deal with policy failure based on both their data collection and analytical capacities, and develops interesting comparisons in the following chapters.  By looking at where the evidence is coming from, and whose analyses are available/utilized, Sarah’s research helps illuminate biases in the process that could be addressed by focusing attention on government structure and resource allocation, and conceives of policy failure as an opportunity for learning.  We feel that it offers important implications for public administration and public policy, identifying possible ways for decision-makers (e.g., legislators) to overcome their tendency to focus attention on empirical findings that support their preexisting preferences.

The dissertation was enjoyable to read and clearly written, based on a well-thought-out research design.  By choosing states with different ideological dispositions and levels of governmental professionalization, Sarah accounts for known constraints in the process (e.g., professional legislatures are generally more able to utilize research findings and the actors generating/analyzing the data can impact the acceptance of results).  We are also impressed with the breadth of her data collection, which included reviewing newspaper and legislative archives (including audio tapes of committee meetings), as well as interviews.

A number of her findings were intriguing.  First, data collection by government is imperative.  It especially helps if the data are collected for general purposes, which signals impartiality in the process.  Second, outside entities can supplement a lack of internal analytical capacity, especially if the state gathers a wealth of data, as was the case with one of her examples from Texas.  And third, the results also offer insights into how data-driven learning may assist policymakers and advocates in making policy choices that can address and mitigate racial and class inequality.

Overall, we commend Dr. Sarah James for her research efforts and congratulate her on winning the 2022 Leonard D. White Award.

APSA thanks the University of Chicago for its support of the award and the committee members for their service: Maria Christina Binz-Scharf (chair) of CUNY-City College of New York, Scott Lamothe of the University of Oklahoma, and Dr. Sanghee Park of Boise State University.

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