Interview with Professor Tana Johnson

Several of our posts this year have covered talks by visiting academic and practitioners, but Sanford has impressive thinkers within our own community too! I recently sat down with Professor Tana Johnson to discuss her new book Organizational Progeny: Why Governments are Losing Control over the Proliferating Structures of Global Governance.

Professor Johnson’s motivation for Organizational Progeny arose from an interest in the concept of delegation, which is at the center of not only politics but also what we do in life. Delegation’s role in politics is obvious – for example, individual citizens cannot possibly be informed and involved in every policy decision. In the U.S. for example, citizens send representatives to DC to make choices on their behalf. In a similar way, the U.S. government often delegates policy decisions to the UN or other international intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). We know from our own relationships with family members and co-workers that sometimes the delegation process breaks down and dividing responsibility does not work effectively. And yet we often seem to be surprised when the same problems arise with government officials and international organizations.

When Professor Johnson started researching delegation in graduate school, she thought that a principal-agent model might hold the key for solving delegation problems.  That model suggests that principals (e.g., countries) would create and delegate to agents (e.g., IGOs) that have been incentivized to do what the principal wants. Unfortunately, the world is really complicated (as many of us have learned as policy students), and models don’t always capture the whole picture we need for effective policymaking. Exactly how do we design institutions so that incentives are aligned – and what happens if we don’t?

As she delved farther, Professor Johnson realized that principal-agent models aren’t very good at capturing something that’s been going on in international politics for decades.  Right after World War II, governments created and delegated to the United Nations and several other big IGOs. But since then, these IGOs have been creating and delegating to offshoots, or “progeny,” of their own. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an offshoot of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which is an offshoot of the UN. The international bureaucracy has become a complex family tree, with interactions among multiple generations. The newer generations, which aren’t created by governments alone, also are less likely to be designed with features (such as vetoes or control over funding) that governments traditionally have used to manage delegation relationships.

In other words, governments have a hard time controlling the international bureaucracy, for at least two reasons. First, the number of IGOs keeps increasing, so governments have to divide their time and oversight over many more organizations. Second, organizations that are progeny of other IGOs have been designed differently, without some of the most conventional mechanisms that governments like to use to exert control.  With case studies and an original dataset, Organizational Progeny gives a sense of the prevalence of IGO offshoots and the differences in how those offshoots look and operate.  Professor Johnson’s research indicates that progeny are about 65% of the total IGO population, and progeny can be found in nearly every policy area.

I asked Professor Johnson whether there was an optimal level of autonomy for IGOs. She explained that having some autonomy is useful for enabling agencies to make their own decisions, provide honest recommendations, and develop expertise. However, having a lot of autonomy can strain the relationship between countries and IGOs, sometimes even reducing the organization’s effectiveness. That’s one of the reasons why governments often want to have “ex post” controls, such as approval over organizational budgets. That way, an IGO could have some autonomy to try various things, but if governments don’t like the results they can punish and rein in the organization, for instance by withholding funding.

Professor Johnson also said the “best” level of autonomy can also vary by policy area. Very scientific areas often require deeper levels of expertise and can benefit from a more hands-off approach from governments. The IPCC, for example, is an organization that defies what some of the most powerful states would want. Its autonomy is important because it works closely with the scientific community, which does not want to be or to appear co-opted by government interests. Because the IPCC has a lot of expertise but little authority to create or implement policies, one of its most important roles is sharing information with citizens. In this way, the organization can shape policy by building consensus around the science of climate change.

At the end of our discussion, Professor Johnson offered some research tips for students. First, she encouraged us to consider using both quantitative analyses and case studies.  In Organizational Progeny, these two methods work together to illustrate the full picture. Quantitative analyses were useful for demonstrating that a pattern existed across many organizations, and case studies were useful for showing the history of specific important organizations. Second, even though she put together an original dataset for the book, she warned that this is a difficult and time-consuming process. Before following a similar path, grad students should do a lot of legwork to see whether any existing datasets would suffice. It’s good to know that sometimes if you email individual researchers and ask nicely, they might let you use data that they haven’t made publicly available yet.  Third, Professor Johnson advised that if you do end up collecting your own data, first focus on a sample instead of immediately trying to tackle the overall population. For example, if you use random sampling, then you can feel reassured that the sample is representative of the overall population, even if time or resource constraints prevent you from coding every piece of the overall population. And if those constraints never become a problem, random sampling is still a good idea: you just keep expanding the sample until it eventually captures the entire population.

To learn more about the ideas in Organizational Progeny or read sample chapters, visit the book’s website at

When Google Knows You’re Not a Dog: Electronic Identity and Social Media

These past few months I got to join a seminar on Social Media and Public Policy, led by Sanford grad Matt Perrault, now Head of Global Policy Development at Facebook. It’s been a terrific experience. From that source, musings on the potential impact on the social media landscape of evolving personal identification policies.

Am I who I say I am? I can usually satisfy that question with a plastic card, 2 3/8 by 3 5/8 inches in size, featuring my name, the date of my birth, and a scowling, fluorescent-lit semblance of my face. As any college freshman knows, it’s not hard to fake. Transactions requiring a higher level of security might shine a purple light on my ID, swipe a credit card, or ask for a utility bill, passcode, social security number, or name of my first pet. Still not sure? Trace my fingerprints, map the pattern on my iris or the reflectiveness of my retina, or take a snapshot of my DNA.

Aside from the last set (which are resistant to error, just hard, slow, and expensive), any two of these are more secure than the sum of their parts. It’s easy enough to steal my ID card and easier still to guess the name of a hamster (it’s Stuart), but hard to do both at the same time. Taken to a further extreme, this is the principle behind electronic identity cards.

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Sanford LAC presentation event


On Tuesday 24th the Sanford Latin American and Caribbean Group (Sanford LAC) held a reception to formally launch the student group to the Sanford Community.

The passionate discussions we had in our first meetings about what is happening in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as with the region’s immigrants in the United States, led us to create a permanent group that could work as a platform for all members of the Sanford Community to promote academic, social, cultural or career initiatives related to the region.

Sanford LAC, which is led by both MPP and MIDP students, is the first student organization with a Latin American and Caribbean focus at Sanford. Currently, we are 23 students from eight different countries: Mexico, Chile, Peru, Dominican Republic, Brazil, USA, France, and Ecuador.

The ties between the Sanford School of Public Policy and Latin America and the Caribbean are strong. Not only are there 19 students from this region currently pursuing their master’s degree at Sanford, but also one of the first projects of the Duke Center for International Development was to serve as the Secretariat for the Central American Peace Commission in the late 1980s. The Commission successfully drafted the Arias Peace Plan to unite the region.

Throughout the years, Sanford faculty have provided advice and conducted studies around the region on different topics including economic, social, and environmental policy. So far more than 90 students from Latin America and the Caribbean have graduated from Sanford and more students will come.

Sanford LAC’s objective is to build on these strong foundations and bring Sanford, Latin America, and the Caribbean closer to each other. In order to achieve this objective, our mission is to:

Lead and support academic, career, outreach, cultural, and social efforts of the Sanford community focused on Latin America and the Caribbean in order to strengthen collaboration and engagement between the region and Sanford.

In addition, we have defined 4 strategic lines. The first one is Academic Affairs. We would like to increase the discussion about Latin American and Caribbean issues by creating discussion groups between faculty and students, bringing speakers, and participating in conferences. For example, on February 14th some members of Sanford LAC participated in two panels at the UNC-Duke Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

The second strategic line is Networking and Career Outreach. We would like to increase networking opportunities with Duke Alumni interested in the region. We have also started to create partnerships with other Latino groups at Duke, such as the Latino Student Council, and the Working Group of the Environment in Latin America (WGELA).

The third strategic line is Branding Sanford in LAC and vice versa. We would like to support incoming Sanford students from the region. We also want to promote Sanford in LAC and attract talented students.

Finally, our fourth strategic line is Community and Integration. We would like to organize cultural events, such as potlucks and Spanish conversation clubs. At the same time we want to get involved in community activities with local Latino population.

We kindly want to express our gratitude to Dean Kelly Brownell, Prof. Fernando Fernholz, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and to the MPP and MIDP staff who have supported us during this process.We extend the invitation to join Sanford LAC to all the members of the Sanford community interested in any way in this region.

Sanford LAC 2

Follow us on twitter: @Sanford_LAC and/or join us on Facebook

Our Winter 2015 Print Journal is Here!

Our new print edition is out! After months of hard work, the Sanford Journal of Public Policy is proud to announce that our Winter 2015 print journal is ready to go, and we couldn’t be more proud of it.

Sanford Journal Spring 2015 Print Journal








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I Agree with James Fallows: Americans Don’t Feel the Costs of War

James Fallows’ recent cover story in The Atlantic, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” has brought much needed attention to how the U.S. military is treated. Fallows describes the general public and our politicians as being unable to take the military or its troops seriously and of having an unnecessarily “reverent but disengaged” attitude towards those who serve as well as the establishment as a whole.

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National Security Student Group Hosts Retired Major General Michael Repass

General Repass

Photo: Maureen Hartney

On the morning of November 21st, students, staff, faculty, local civilians and military personnel all gathered at the Sanford School of Public Policy for the inaugural event of the newly formed National Security Student Group (NSSG). Attendees sipped coffee and savored pastries in Sanford’s Rhodes Conference Room, a proper setting to host an event ambitiously titled “Special Operations and the Future of American Grand Strategy.”

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