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Efficiency as the Primary Value in Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
May 13, 2016

Here is a famous quote from Woodrow Wilson’s essay, “The Study of Administration,” published in 1887:

It is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and, secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.

business-card-1015269_640Efficiency is the relationship between input and output. Output includes a quality dimension. Efficiency is just a measure. We can speak of the efficiency of a motor, of an employee or of an organization. We can speak of greater or less efficiency. We can be happy or unhappy with the level of efficiency.

Clearly, many governmental issues have little to do with efficiency. Politicians and public administrators, especially at higher levels, are not always seeking the lowest cost or the maximum efficiency in their decisions.

Here are some governmental issues reported in The Washington Post on a recent day:

  • Rights of transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice.
  • Picture of Harriet Tubman added to the $20 bill.
  • Federal Reserve Board’s low interest rate policy.
  • Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture policy.
  • Restoration of voting rights for 200,000 felons in Virginia.
  • Department of Justice’s criticism of the University of New Mexico over sexual harassment and assault policies.
  • Pentagon pushed to dump Lenovo (Chinese) technology.
  • U.S. auto safety authorities investigating Mitsubishi reporting violations. 

These issues appear to be primarily values/rights issues or misconduct issues as opposed to efficiency issues.

And yet it seems when we consider the production side of government, the overwhelming majority of the millions of government employees, managers and contractors are primarily concerned and should be concerned with efficiency—producing the maximum output with the resources at hand. Wilson was essentially correct.

Recently, a major story in The Washington Post concerned D.C.’s Metro subway system. Metro has fallen behind on its maintenance program and there have been numerous safety incidents. The Washington Post and others accuse Metro of failing to do the maintenance work necessary for a safe system. This appears to be an efficiency issue. If Metro were more efficient, maybe it could have done the maintenance and everything else it was required to do.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) has stated that efficiency, economy, effectiveness and social equity are the four pillars of public administration. To NAPA, efficiency in government is only one of four major values.

Here’s how I see it.

Government agencies should operate as efficiently as possible to implement all legal requirements that apply to them. The rule of law always comes first. In the U.S. that includes regulations with the force of law. And countries must follow international norms. It is not OK if a country efficiently suppresses free speech or efficiently commits other human rights violations.

Why would we ever want less output than is possible or higher costs than necessary at government agencies?
Why would we want the new $20 bills with Harriet Tubman’s picture to cost more than necessary?
Why would we want the Drug Enforcement Administration to interdict fewer drug shipments than is possible within their budget?
Why would we want the military to have less capability than it could have for its budget?
Why wouldn’t we want Metro to operate more efficiently and avoid additional public subsidy if it could do that?

Note that administrators must implement existing social equity rules as well as all other requirements. An administrator can’t decide to increase output by ignoring the Americans for Disability Act or the Equal Opportunity laws. Social equity rules are “baked in” to the long list of requirements that administrators must follow. Likewise, an administrator can’t ignore computer security requirements, workplace safety requirements, wage and hour requirements, ethical requirements or any other legal obligation.

Efficiency is something that administrative study, to use Wilson’s terminology, can do something about. For instance, it is possible for:

* Employees and managers to increase their skills and productivity.

* Work groups to learn to be more productive.

* Projects to be well managed.

* Computer investments and other investments to have higher returns.

* Government employee pay and benefits to be market based so the public isn’t paying more for government workers than necessary.

* Advanced data analysis to be used to assist decision makers.

* Contracting process to be more streamlined and so on.

By contrast, what could administrative study do about value or social equity questions such as:

  • Should we have more EEO rules or fewer?
  • Should we continue with gay marriage or not?
  • Should we have universal health insurance?
  • What bathrooms should transgendered people use?
  • Should the disabled have more rights? 

For value questions, no amount of analysis can tell us what to do. It’s not that value questions are difficult questions. Value questions are inherently unanswerable by logic or factual analysis. Each of us cannot have our own facts, but each of us can have different value preferences.

I will argue in a future column that efficiency should be given greater weight than effectiveness or economy.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is goingstrongn2014@gmail.com.

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2 Responses to Efficiency as the Primary Value in Public Administration

  1. Pingback: PA News: 17/06/2016 | IIAS Knowledge Portal on Public Administration

  2. Pingback: Thoughts about Efficiency (Part II) | PA TIMES Online

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