What was owed
Lessons from the movie "Worth" about client-centered government
“Worth” on Netflix recounts the creation of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, and in particular the role of Kenneth Feinberg (played by Michael Keaton) and his staff who oversaw the fund. The movie does not fit into any particular genre. It’s not a courtroom drama, or procedural but it has elements of both. It is worth watching because it grapples with the idea of what a government owes to citizens in the aftermath of a disaster, and perhaps more broadly.
This isn’t a movie review that tells you if the movie is good (it is) or if you should watch it (you should). Instead, I want to offer two observations about what “Worth” tells us about how to think about the social contract.
“Worth” presents a case where there was very strong pressure on an administrator to increase take-up of a program. As Pam Herd and I have noted, this is unusual. Administrators often face strong pressures to minimize errors in payments for social programs, without equivalent pressure to make sure that those who are eligible receive their due. That was not the case for Feinberg.
The goal of the fund was to protect the airline industries by discouraging the families of victims from suing them. For the economics to work, Feinberg needed to get 80% of the eligible participants to sign up. The take-up target became a key motivator for Feinberg and his staff. In “Worth” he keeps a running tally of the take-up rate alongside the 80% target on a whiteboard in his office. He adjust his tactics to increase take-up, as well as cajoling and engaging in outreach with his critics.
Every administrator of important social benefits should operate like Feinberg - obsessed with take-up, and constantly asking themselves what they can do to help more people. They are more likely to do so if their political bosses value take-up in the same way they value, for example, minimizing fraud. This question of take-up is at the heart of whether key parts of the Biden agenda, most notably the Child Tax Credit, will be successful by providing help to those who need it most.
People’s experience of administrative interactions matter
The second takeaway is that it’s not just the dollar amount of awards that matters. Process matters. A lot. Many of the characters talk about money being secondary. Instead, they want to tell their stories, to feel respected and seen. This urge is central to whether they come to trust and ultimately participate in the fund.
Money of course does matter: Feinberg’s task is to estimate the economic value of the person who died, meaning that the family of a dishwasher got a fraction of the benefits as the family of a financial executive. This economic formulation of human value increased tensions. This dynamic is portrayed by Feinberg’s foil in the movie, Charles Wolf, played by Stanley Tucci. Wolf is distrustful and critical of Feinberg. Feinberg cannot ignore Wolf, who a valued advocate for many families.
The conflict is ultimately resolved when (spoiler alert) Feinberg comes to see Wolf’s perspective, and wins the trust of the families by treating them as individuals. As Feinberg himself has described it, the movie reflects an evolution where he went from being a lawyer to becoming “a rabbi and a priest and a nun.” Wolf ultimately endorsed the fund because of this change, noting
“…a major change in Mr. Feinberg’s attitude. He is now a more compassionate man and is looking for every legitimate way to increase the awards. He doesn’t always come across that way in groups, but I’ve had conversations with him and I believe he is sincere.”
Research on procedural justice emphasizes the idea that we accept administrative processes, even if we don’t like the outcome, when we know they are implemented evenhandedly. There is, however, a risk of equating fairness and impartiality with coldness and indifference.
What “Worth” adds is the idea that people need some personal sense of acknowledgement and respect in their interactions with the state. A victim’s compensation fund is an extreme example, but this point holds true in more mundane interactions. Bureaucrats of course bring their personalities and their views of the public they encounter to such interactions, which will include some measure of empathy. But “Worth” asks what happens when we try to imbue an ethos of care, respect and consideration more systematically into administrative processes.
This is not just a philosophical question. As we describe in our book Administrative Burden, this was imbued in the design of Social Security administrative processes. Historically, Social Security has a reputation among federal agencies of providing accessible and respectful help (the exception being disability awards). Its emphasis on a client-serving ethic was noted by esteemed political scientists such as James Q. Wilson and Martha Derthick.
This ethos of care was no accident. It was deliberately cultivated through the selection of highly qualified staff. The early administrators of Social Security had to fight against patronage efforts of local members of Congress. It was also embedded into an organizational culture that emphasized the rights of clients rather than treating them as unwanted claimants. This culture is reflected in a 1944 Social Security Board report based on interviews with nearly two hundred workers in field offices in nine states.
Rights, however, are not self-maintaining. They are dependent for their realization upon the way in which they are administered. Here two basic considerations are involved: the one is clarity and predictability in the operation of the system and in its relationships with individuals; the other is the spirit of the organization and the attitude of the individual administrator. Rights to be available must be understood. This means that laws and regulations must be clearly expressed. More than that, it must be possible for the person who applies for insurance or assistance to know in advance to what he will be entitled and in what circumstances. This calls for the development and use of regulation and policy. The second consideration, the spirit of the organization and of the administrator, involves intangibles in atmosphere which are expressed in many different ways, from the arrangement of the office to the manner in which the applicant is received.
As with any movie based on a true story, there are some liberties taken. But it’s really rare to see characters ruminate so explicitly on what the government owes to the public. It raises the question of how we might improve public services by centering them around an ethos of care and empathy.