New public administration 1968-2002

Image: org chart, Housing and Urban Development (9,500 staff)

Herbert Simon’s important contribution to the study of administrative organizations appeared in 1947, with the title Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations. It is a remarkably sophisticated book in the social scientific study of bureaucracy and large organizations. (Here is an earlier discussion of some of the main lines of thought in the book (link).) Simon provides a treatment of four of what he takes to be the key mechanisms underlying the operations of large organizations: authority, communications, efficiency, and “organizational identification”. These mechanisms contribute to the ability of leaders to coordinate the actions of subordinates in pursuit of goals and plans articulated on behalf of the organization and its division. The book is still worth reading carefully.

In the 1960s there was a flurry of discussion and debate within the field of public administration about how thinking in the field ought to be reconceived. Much of this thinking was summarized in a volume edited by Frank Marini with the title Toward a New Public Administration: The Minnowbrook Perspective. It is now worth asking whether that burst of disciplinary energy lead to new insights about the workings of public agencies. Unhappily, it appears that it did not.

H. George Frederickson’s contribution to the Marini volume provided a substantive synthesis of the field at that time. Frederickson was a leader in the field of public administration, and he was a pivotal figure in reconvening the Minnowbrook Conference in 1988 to assess progress since the first Minnowbrook Conference in 1968. Frederickson summarizes the thrust of “New Public Administration” in these terms (included in Shafritz and Hyde, Classics of Public Administration (3rd ed.)).

New Public Administration adds social equity to the classic objectives and rationale. Conventional or classic Public Administration seeks to answer either of these questions: (1) How can we offer more or better services with available resources (efficiency)? or (2) how can we maintain our level of services while spending less money (economy)? New Public Administration adds this question: Does this service enhance social equity? (369)

He observes that specific emphasis on social equity is needed because …

Pluralistic government systematically discriminates in favor of established stable bureaucracies and their established minority clientele (the Department of Agriculture and large farmers as an example) and against those minorities (farm laborers, both migrant and permanent, as an example) who lack political and economic resources…. Social equity, then, includes activities designed to enhance the political power and economic well-being of these minorities. 369

This realization within the profession of academic public administration represents a recognition of the fact that agencies work within an environment of private actors, and some of those actors have substantially greater power through which to influence agency choices. Agencies are to some extent “open systems”. This is the feature of “industry capture” that arises in the case of regulatory agencies. And it is certainly a good thing that the field of academic public administration was encouraged to shift its focus towards equity, not just efficiency and cost-cutting.

What the New Public Administration literature seems not to have addressed is the need for a meso-level analysis of the internal workings of agencies (and firms). This is a virtue of Simon’s book, but it seems not to have carried over as a central focus into the paradigms of the New Public Administration. The only meso-level analysis offered in Frederickson’s summary of the field concerns the topic of hierarchy. And his observations about “hierarchy” within governmental organizations come into dialogue with Simon’s views. Here are a few passages:

Authority hierarchies are the primary means by which the work of persons in publicly administered organizations is coordinated. The formal hierarchy is the most obvious and easiest-to-identify part of the permanent and on-going organization. Administrators are seen as persons taking roles in the hierarchy and performing tasks that are integrated through the hierarchies to constitute a cohesive goal-seeking whole. The public administrator has customarily been regarded as the one who builds and maintains the organization through the hierarchy. He attempts to understand formal-informal relationships, status, politics, and power in authority hierarchies. The hierarchy environment is at once an ideal design and a hospitable for the person who wishes to manage, control, or direct the work of large numbers of people.

The counterproductive characteristics of hierarchies are now well known. New Public Administration is probably best understood as advocating modified hierarchic systems. Several means both in theory and practice are utilized to modify traditional hierarchies. The first and perhaps the best known is the project or matrix technique. The project is, by definition, temporary. (374)

Frederickson considers several alternatives to the authority hierarchies described here.

The search for less structured, less formal, and less authoritative integrative techniques in publicly administered organizations is only beginning. The preference for these types of organizational modes implies first a relative tolerance for variation…. The second problem [with less formal methods] is in the inherent conflict between higher-and lower-level administrators in less formal, integrative systems…. (375)

This passage suggests the conflict of priorities emphasized by Fligstein and McAdam in their treatment of organizations as strategic action fields (link).

This short discussion of the role and effectiveness of hierarchy is the only example I can find of efforts within the program of new public administration to open up the black box of the workings of a public agency, and this is a blindspot for the discipline.

Decades later Frederickson and Todd R. LaPorte published an article of interest to readers of Understanding Society, “Airport Security, High Reliability, and the Problem of Rationality” (link). (LaPorte is a major contributor to the literature on high-reliability organizations (link).) The establishment of the Transportation Security Administration following the September 11 attacks is the central example. The article reflects some new thinking for public administration from the twenty-first century. The primary new contribution is incorporation of the emerging literature on high-reliability organizations, and the authors’ treatment of air safety from that perspective. The authors also give a nod to normal-accident theory, without working out the implications of Perrow’s theory in the case of air safety organizations.

And in fact, Frederickson and LaPorte offer enough information about the air safety system to make us very dubious that it constitutes a “high-reliability organization” at all. Consider this relatively detailed description of the air safety system:

With the passage of the Aviation Security Act, the formal governance of the air passenger and baggage security system becomes the responsibility of the TSA, an agency in the Department of Transportation. Under the direction of the secretary of transportation, the TSA has dotted-line responsibilities to other executive agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget and now the Office of Homeland Security. Just as important, however, are contemporary patterns of congressional comanagement and the dotted-line relationships of the TSA to the Senate and House Committees on Transportation and Infrastructure, and, of course, to the appropriations committees and sub- committees (Gilmour and Halley 1994). The complex horizontal, lateral, and vertical network of participants in the air travel security system is still in place, augmented now by the coordinating role of the Office of Homeland Security (Moynihan and Roberts 2002). While the establishment of the TSA concentrates air passenger and baggage responsibility directly in governmental hands and provides a system of finance that is independent of the air carriers, it does not reduce the system’s overall fragmentation and complexity. Much of the contemporary debate over whether the Office of Homeland Security should have more than just coordinating responsibilities has to do with perceived disarticulation between the fragmented components of the air security system. (39)

This is exactly the kind of complexity and tight coupling that Charles Perrow identifies as a potent source of “normal” accidents. It is not at all hard to see how this “complex … network of participants” can lead to miscommunication, conflicting priorities, principal-agent problems, and the other sources of organizational dysfunction that lead to disaster. “Fragmentation and complexity” are exactly the attributes that have led to major failures, from intelligence failures leading up to the September 11 attacks to the lack of coordination between principal and contractors in the Deepwater Horizon disaster (link).

It would appear, then, that the field of public administration has not made a lot of progress in incorporating and extending the insights of organizational sociology to permit a better understanding of success and failure in government agencies. More case studies are needed to allow us to better understand the workings (and failures) of government agencies, and a more focused attention to the findings of the sociology of organizational failure would be a very welcome infusion.

One Reply to “New public administration 1968-2002”

  1. At the 2019 conference of the International Research Society for Public
    Sector Management (IRSPM), two professors from the Copenhagen Business
    School spoke on the need to bring ideas from organisation theory and
    organisational sociology into the public admin field and showed some of
    the many gaps where it would be useful. It seemed that many of the audience didn’t see why this was important, I guess their unfamiliarity with these other
    disciplines meant they couldn’t realise what they were missing.
    Their names are Susanne Boch Waldorff & Anne Ruff Pedersen. I can’t see any publication on this topic, but it was a new project so a paper may be underway. Susanne Boch Waldorff has published a piece on organisational sociology recently:
    You might like to look out for their work, or perhaps they would like a collaborator to help them progress this work?


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