May 19th, 2015
Recently I saw a lengthy obituary in The New York Times for Richard Suzman. I remembered meeting him four decades ago when he was a teaching fellow in Harvard’s undergraduate social studies program and I was a sophomore. His specialty was Freud, the thinker with whom the students were least familiar. He generously offered an extra tutorial one Saturday afternoon to those of us who wanted to know more.
Our paths never crossed again, so I was interested in learning about the life Suzman lived. The Times headline called him a “researcher [who] influenced global surveys on aging.” This seemed like a way of saying he was an academic, but reading beyond the headline, I discovered that he was a midlevel public servant at the National Institute of Health, the director of the Behavioral and Social Research division of the National Institute on Aging.
This intrigued me even more; the New York Times almost never publishes obituaries for midlevel public servants. The answer to the conundrum was that Suzman played a central role in creating the US Health and Retirement Survey, which examines the relationships among aging, medical care, and financial status. Beyond that, he helped other countries replicate the survey, so that research on aging now has a global dimension. And still beyond that, he used his division’s grants to stimulate interdisciplinary research and support the development of behavioral economics, a virtual revolution within the field.
Suzman was described by Alan Krueger, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers as a “uniquely entrepreneurial, proactive bureaucrat” and by Nobel laureate in economic sciences Daniel Kahneman as “an oxymoron – an original and creative bureaucrat.” For me, that’s the essence of Suzman’s story. The key finding of my research on public sector innovation is that the term “original and creative bureaucrat” shouldn’t be an oxymoron, both because there are more public servants like Richard Suzman than the skeptics believe and because there are well-known practices that would encourage even more public servants to act innovatively and creatively.
In The Persistence of Innovation in Government, I reported on interviews with several public servants like Richard Suzman. My regret is that I didn’t know about Suzman’s life work so I could have interviewed him. The Times obituary reported that he was in frequent contact with academics, bombarding them with ideas for how they could use data that NIH had gathered and “all but ordering [them] to apply for a grant.” The obituary, however, said nothing about Suzman’s relationships with colleagues at NIH and elsewhere. I would have asked about which of his colleagues, particularly his superiors, questioned his initiatives and which supported them and how he built coalitions. Did he work entirely at the bureaucratic level or were politicians involved? How did he manage interagency coordination within the US government in his role as director of the Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics? How did he convince other nations to come on board and replicate the United States study?
I would have asked about his intellectual and personal background. How did apply the lessons of Harvard’s interdisciplinary social studies program to stimulating interdisciplinary research? As a youth in the early Sixties, Suzman was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa and also, he told me, the nephew of apartheid’s most effective parliamentary critic Helen Suzman. He left hastily to escape prosecution. How did this backstory shape his view of the public sector’s potential for both good and evil?
Suzman deals with some of these questions in a late-in-life interview he gave the Journal of Economics of Ageing, as his health was deteriorating due to ALS. But I would have probed more deeply.
One way to encourage public sector creativity and entrepreneurship is to study and celebrate the accomplishments of creative and entrepreneurial public servants. Consider this post, therefore, as a celebration of Richard Suzman’s eventful life and innovative and path-breaking work.