The Public Administration Workbook
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The Public Administration Workbook

Dennis Dresang

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eBook - ePub

The Public Administration Workbook

Dennis Dresang

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Public administration is a craft that demands real-world application of concepts and theories often learned in a classroom. Yet many students find it difficult to make the leap from theory to practice completely unaided. The Public Administration Workbook, 8e is specifically designed with the theoretically-grounded, practice-minded student in mind. It reviews scholarship in political science, law, industrial psychology, and the sociology of organizations and then allows students to see how these intellectual fields inform the analytical and managerial tasks that comprise public administration. Where standard public administration textbooks examine the nature of public agencies and explain how bureaucracies relate to other institutions, this workbook promotes a more effective way of learning—by doing—and more directly prepares those who will pursue careers in public agencies.

Each chapter begins with a discussion of relevant concepts and scholarship before moving into a hands-on exercise analyzing core analytical and management challenges. This edition includes an all-new exercise on contract negotiation, many international examples interwoven throughout the book, and a fully updated HRM section to reflect alternative ranking and compensation systems. Each chapter is further supported by a detailed Instructor's Manual written by the author to guide instructors on solutions, explanations, and ideas for using or modifying the exercises to fit a variety of course needs, as well as downloadable datasets and exercises, providing students with a unique opportunity to apply and test classroom concepts outside of the job.

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Decision Making and Policy Analysis


The classical view of constitutional democracy does not have much to say about bureaucracy and public administration. Congress and other legislative bodies, we are told, follow the wishes of the citizenry and make the laws, while the president, governor, mayor, and other executives, under the watchful eye of the courts, implement laws. To the extent they are recognized at all, public administrators are understood to be somewhere in the background, working under the direct control of the executive to carry out the technical details of legislation. Elected officials make policy; administrators simply administer it.
This is not a very accurate description of the actual relationship between politics and administration in the United States—or anywhere, for that matter. It seriously understates the role of public administrators in the governmental process. Administrators do not just carry out policy; they make policy. Indeed, few areas of life are untouched by administrative decisions. From highway safety and the regulation of oil drilling to the processing of Social Security checks and student loans, public administrators make choices that have significant effects on all of us.
The term that we use to describe the latitude or freedom that administrators have to act on their own is administrative discretion. How is it that administrators have come to exercise such discretion? The U.S. Constitution and equivalent documents in other countries, after all, create no such role for them. The main reason is the complexity of modern government. It is no longer possible (and perhaps no longer desirable) for legislators and other elected officials to issue precise and detailed instructions to administrators about many questions of public policy. Even if they were so inclined, they have neither the time nor the expertise to do so. Consequently, they rely on administrators. Although legislatures still try to set the broad goals of public policy (e.g., “air transportation should be as safe as possible”), they often leave it to professional administrators to make the rules that give the policy meaning (e.g., “airlines must install seats and carpeting made only of noncombustible materials”).
Policy decisions are seldom self-implementing. Administrators are the ones who actually have to get their hands dirty and put decisions into effect. They have to identify and clean up toxic waste dumps, plan soil conservation projects, manage job training schemes, and fly reconnaissance aircraft. Even given clear goals and even absent formal delegations of authority, administrators cannot do these jobs without exercising considerable discretion. No statute—no matter how detailed—no rule book—no matter how thick—can anticipate all contingencies and program all administrative actions.
Administrators not only exercise discretion in implementing existing laws, but they also play a key role in the development of new laws and policies. Bureaucracies are the eyes and ears of government. It is often the bureaucracy that first becomes aware of problems in need of governmental attention. The administrator who defines a problem and structures the information on which a decision is made has a subtle, though powerful, impact on the decision itself. For example, an employee in a department of transportation that notices that police are issuing a high number of speeding tickets in a particular location could—or could not—identify this to his or her superiors as a problem. If it is considered a problem, it could be defined as an issue of law enforcement (speed trap?), safety (need stop lights, speed bumps, roundabouts, or road redesign to slow traffic), or traffic flow (speed limit is too low). Although politicians in an open society have multiple sources of information— the press, interest groups, and individual citizens—public administrators occupy a strategic position.
The point of this analysis is very simple: Administrators are key actors in American government. Directly and indirectly, formally and informally, they make decisions and take actions that fundamentally shape the character and direction of public policy. The essence of public administration is problem solving. This implies that we, as students of public administration, need to pay close attention to the processes of administrative policy formulation and implementation. Administrators use specific techniques that, ideally, ensure that decision making proceeds in orderly and rational ways. The exercises in Part I introduce some of these techniques.


An excellent text and reference for policy analysis is David L. Weimer and Aidan R. Vining, Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2010). Useful overviews of the role of public administrators in the political process are Emmette S. Redford, Democracy in the Administrative State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969); Kenneth J. Meier and Lawrence O’Toole, Bureaucracy in a Democratic State: A Governance Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); and John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 2002). For a classic analysis of the roots and implications of administrative power, see Norton E. Long, “Power and Administration,” Public Administration Review 9 (Autumn 1949), pp. 8–27. Mark H. Moore, Creating Public Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), draws on case studies to discuss administrative discretion and the role administrators can and do play in policy making. Paul A. Sabatier offers a broadly theoretical overview of policy making in Theories of the Policy Process, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007).

Exercise 1
Rational Decision Making


We all like to believe that we think and act rationally and resent it if someone suggests we are doing otherwise. But what exactly does rational mean? In everyday discourse, we use the term fairly loosely and say that someone is rational if he or she acts reasonably, logically, and normally. We label as irrational any behavior that we find strange or abnormal, which, depending on one’s perspective, may encompass everything from paying $225 for a concert ticket to exhibiting active fantasies about being chased by creatures from Venus.
For the student of public administration, rationality has a more precise meaning. We say that a decision is rational if there is a systematic relationship between an end being pursued and the means used to get there. More specifically, a rational decision is one that entails selecting the best alternative to reach a particular goal.
The classic discussion of this subject treats rational decision making in administration as a seven-step process:1
1. Define the objective or problem.
2. Identify possible solutions.
3. Evaluate the alternative solutions.
4. Select the best option.
5. Announce the selection.
6. Implement the decision.
7. Evaluate the results.
You may object that this definition of administrative rationality isn’t really much more precise or objective than the definition of rationality in general. After all, who is to say what alternative is best in any particular circumstance? Doesn’t it depend a lot on the values we hold?
This objection has some merit. It is certainly true that estimates of the worth of an alternative will vary from person to person or from agency to agency. It is even true that we often don’t know what our objectives are or how we should define the problem, much less which alternative might best get us the results we want. Moreover, any effort to apply this definition in an administrative context has to come to grips with the fact that decisions are often made collectively, with many different people applying many different values to many different goals.
Sometimes the challenge of group decision making is to find common ground when individuals in the group hold diverse views. More commonly, the impediment to rational group decision making is the tendency to emphasize reaching a consensus over making a good decision. This tendency, which is called groupthink, is based on our desire to get along with others and/or to defer to those who have more authority or expertise than we have.2 Groupthink has been identified as having contributed to cases—like the surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001—in which, at least in retrospect, wrong decisions were made despite credible warnings.3
Although it may be impossible to make (or even identify) purely rational decisions, it is possible and necessary to try to make relatively or intended rational decisions. In fact, it may be useful to talk not about rational decisions but about a rational process for making decisions. If we make an effort to clarify and rank our goals and then search for and evaluate alterna...

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