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Administrative Decision-Making, Essay Example

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Essay

Introduction

Public administration scholar, Aaron Wildavsky (1988), once commented that decision-making was the life blood of government.  The context for his statement concerned the complexities surrounding the development, approval and implementation of the federal budget (p. 69). Wildavsky’s analysis points to the fact that decision-making in public sector organizations can be extremely complex. These complexities can often lead to disastrous outcomes as evidenced in the Columbia and Katrina cases.

Decision theory is useful in assisting public administrators in understanding the multiple factors that must be considered in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of public policies. Decision outcomes are affected by a number of factors; the political context surrounding the issue, the leadership skills of the individuals in charge, the internal and external environment, communication and technology infrastructure, resource allocation and ethical considerations, to name a few.

This paper presents an analysis comparing the factors that led to the space shuttle Columbia disaster with the decision processes surrounding the response to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The primary thesis of the paper is that no single decision theory applies in the analysis of complex public policies. Rather, the paper argues that a combination of theoretical constructs better serves the decision maker and that the decision-making models that are ultimately utilized, are highly dependent upon the political and task environments that exist at the time the decisions are made.

Decision-Making Theory in Context

The Katrina case clearly demonstrates the attempted application of the rational model of decision-making referred to by Lindblom as the “root method.” This approach is typical for agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers where the decision problem is conducive to quantitative tools of analysis. This case is a classic example of why Herbert Simon (2007) was such a critic of the rational model of decision-making. From Simon’s perspective, the best that agencies such as the Corp can hope for is what he called an “intendedly rational” approach. There are four major issues in the Katrina case that support Simon’s argument.  First, there were never any clearly defined goals, objectives or policy outcomes that are a prerequisite for rational decision-making. From its early days as a state through 2005, Louisiana experienced a constant tension between the goals of managing the Mississippi River waterway and its various wetland ecosystems and the need to provide hurricane protection to the City of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers found itself embroiled in an impossible mission of accommodating changing and often contradictory mandates.

Second, the political and power relationships were in a constant state of flux. Large, capital intensive projects such as the construction of levees require multi-year political support as well as large amounts of funding to have any chance of success. In fact, the Corps utilizes long range econometric and cost-benefit models as the basis for project development and implementation. The sustained political and fiscal support was simply not there for the State of Louisiana. The case highlights the constantly changing political environment and changes in federal funding commitments that prevented a rational approach to protecting New Orleans from hurricanes.

Third, this case highlights the complexities of decision-making within the intergovernmental framework of governance established under the U.S. Constitution. Multiple levels of government are often involved in the implementation of public sector projects. In this case, state and local governments were unwilling to put up their share of the capital costs associated with hurricane protection and viewed the benefits of a 200 year flood plane security system as too far in the future to yield any short term political benefit.

Fourth, the case makes clear the constant tensions that decision makers must face between the “economic” benefits associated with a particular policy decision and the “social” benefits of the decision.  Land owners along the Mississippi were advocates for flood control along the river to protect their property interests. In addition, once Atlanta replaced New Orleans as the major economic hub for the South, interest in hurricane protection waned.

The Columbia disaster is a classic case of decision-making within the context of a model referred to in the academic literature as “bureaucratic accountability.” On the surface, one might reasonably conclude that NASA is an excellent example of a public agency that utilizes rational models of decision-making. The organization operates in a highly specialized task environment and the emphasis on engineering lends itself to the application of quantitative decision tools. However, the Columbia case clearly shows that this is not how the agency operated at the time the shuttle exploded.

To a far greater extent than in the Katrina case, NASA managers were in the unenviable position of balancing the pressures from both external and internal constituent groups with the goals and objectives of the shuttle program. On the one hand, Linda Kim, Chair of the Mission Management Team, was under tremendous internal pressure from her political constituents in Congress and the White House to meet budget and flight deadlines because of the political importance placed on the international space station. Externally, she had to convince the general public that NASA was a reputable agency despite the earlier Challenger disaster. Moreover, she had to deal with aerospace industry executives who did not want to lose lucrative NASA contracts because of federal budget cuts. The information provided by NASA engineers concerning the dangers associated with foam debris was only one factor in a complex set of decision-variables that Ms. Kim and her team had to consider.

James Q. Wilson (2000) refers to the type of decision environment experienced by NASA as a classic example of bureaucratic accountability. Wilson argues that this environment renders traditional rational and incremental decision models ineffective because the manager is attempting to deal with multiple internal and external constituent groups who wield significant power and often have competing interests. Wilson notes that the problem across the federal government was exacerbated under the Clinton administration’s National Performance Review. NPR mandated that decision-makers be responsible to the public, that they operate as entrepreneurs similar to businesses and that public employees be empowered to make decisions oriented toward solving problems. This new culture of accountability was the antithesis of the long standing practices within federal organizations.

Conclusion

Decision-making in the public sector requires that managers be responsive to multiple constituents with differing policy agendas. Applying single decision theory to complex problems is probably a recipe for disaster as witnessed in the Katrina and Challenger cases. Effective decision-making requires a solid knowledge of the various decision-making models and tools, an accurate assessment of the external and internal environments impacting the decision and the application of a professional and ethical standard of conduct on the part of the decision-maker.

References

Simon, Herbert. (2007). The Proverbs of Administration. Jay M. Schafritz and Albert C. Hyde (eds). Classics of Public Administration, 6th ed., Boston: Wadsworth Cengage.

Stillman II, Richard J. (2010). Public Administration: Concepts and Cases. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage.

Wildavsky, Aaron (1988). The New Politics of the Budgetary Process. 5th ed. New York: Scott, Foresman & Company.

Wilson, James Q. (2000). Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books.

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