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Administrative Decisions and Efficiency and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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

By Kimberley Garth-James
April 24, 2020

In an unscientific poll of 50 friends, colleagues and students in February, 80% were of the opinion that political considerations guided the United States government’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak. Interestingly, the college students in particular were convinced that ideology influences the public sector decisions. Indeed, some point to the apathy shown by the Trump Administration and the United States Congress has been worrisome, feeding concerns about the federal government’s capacity to manage the situation. The problem seems to be effective decisionmaking, something that individuals in their households, professionals in institutions (such as schools and churches) and government officials, some levels at least, do accomplish every day.

A key moment in the study of decisionmaking came in public administration classical writings such as in 1947, with the publication of Administrative Behavior by Herbert Simon (1916-2001), in which he laid out the framework of bounded rational decision theory. Reva Brown’s (2004) assessment of Simon’s work, Consideration of the Origin of Herbert Simon’s Theory of “Satisficing” (19331947), outlines key contributions to administrative science and theory. For instance, Simon’s perspectives on rational and non-rational decision frameworks extend the logic of rational choice, which helps to improve decisionmaking in the context of markets and of governmental responses to public crises. Public managers make decisions daily and are guided by rational information (quality, unbiased, free to become risk takers in time of uncertainty). Faith-based values embrace ideas of rationality along the with the relevant facts, means-to-ends way of doing the right thing, as well as grace spurring inclusion to problem-solve about crises with emphasis on coordination and collaboration.

Coordination among neighboring states—such as New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey setting policies to help manage COVID-19 in their areas—reflects the ideas Simon shared in lectures and scholarship about administrative efficiency and behavior and decisionmaking. His views took shape in the 1930s and 1940s, influenced by pressures to efficiently manage the Great Depression under Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt (the latter of course being responsible for the New Deal). Digital History’s website of global responses to the international economic system collapse that, by 1932, had idled tens of millions of workers worldwide (Digital History ID 3433, 2019, para. 3) has shown that traditions of logical positivism and collaborative coordinated efforts are the basis of the solutions to these crises. The Trump Administration working through the G-7 is prudent. Collaboration and grace do underpin rationality as we see with the events of 2020 thus far—in particular the economic downturn—revealing the shortcomings of the world’s social and political systems and the need to work together.

They also reflect a kind of bounded rationality, as is apparent in the criticism of the efforts of the Trump Administration and Congress to respond to COVID-19 that dominated media reports early on. The instrumentality of rational decisionmaking implies access to quality information and a supportive organizational environment to make a logical choice among plausible alternatives in order to solve problems. Non-rational decisionmaking occurs when information is unreliable or insufficient and the environment does not allow for rational deliberation. Simon’s instructive ideas of administrative behavior and efficiency include scientific inquiry (i.e., empirical research). His aim was notable to develop a science of administration and disseminate knowledge of this science to assist policymakers and public administrators in decisionmaking. Numerous factors naturally affect decisionmaking, in particular resources (staff, funds, organizational capacity and individual actors) and, again, the quality of the information available. Optimally, those affected by the decision must have input, make use of quality information and utilize empirical research. Additionally, teaching students in the social sciences (i.e., public administration, business, sociology and law) to understand uncertainty and feel comfortable taking risks when it comes to selecting alternative scenarios, including both rational and non-rational frameworks, helps them to become practitioners and leaders of public, non-profit and private organizations.

A further contribution of Simon’s was mapping conflicts on a decision spectrum of rational to non-rational corresponding to information (facts), attention and with (without) risk-taking. Of special significance in this regard recognizing that, the situation is inseparable from the process of making decisions, whether by an individual public manager or an organization; in either case, it is necessary to identify means-to-end goals and confidently make the choice. Considering that, public mangers are also experiencing bounded rationality—insufficient knowledge of the facts on the ground or structural constraints (i.e., hierarchies)— so their confident risk-taking to select pragmatic alternatives is limited. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to leverage rationality and knowledge to resolve a crisis. When the rationality and non-rationality of decisions by United States leaders at the national, state and local levels in response to the COVID-19 crisis are considered, then observations about human behavior—in particular, about the tendency of individuals to satisfy themselves and of agencies to endure—are especially on point.

Decisionmaking needs grace for collaborative coordinated and pragmatic solutions to crises as COVID-19 Coronavirus. The assumption that organizational goals are accomplished only through rational processes was shown to be flawed by Simon’s acknowledgement that individual preferences (in a word, politics), rather than a dispassionate weighing of the best available information, are often the basis for decisions. Furthermore, ethics and morals, or, to put it differently, grace, have much to contribute to a decisionmaking system. Thus the biblical Joseph, in maintaining a relationship with God, decided not to retaliate against his brothers, but, marshaling grace and goodwill toward others, was able to do the right thing. The politicization of the Coronavirus outbreak by the leading figures in the United States government and the finger pointing of observers reveals a divide in schools of thought about the efficient management of such crises. The government’s response thus far has also called into question the maturity of the individuals involved and the capacity of the institutions that they operate. By leveraging grace and finding points of convergence among fractious parties, it is possible to construct a decisionmaking system that supports the shared objective of keeping all United States citizens safe.


Author: Dr. Kimberley Garth-James, Associate Professor, Fulbright SpecialistDirector, MPA Program and Center for Public Affairs, Azusa Pacific University

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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