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An Over-Bias for Action

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

By Geoff Rabinowitz
October 17, 2020

2020 has proven to be a year of challenges both extreme and complicated. These challenge—be they COVID-19, institutional racism, civil-unrest, domestic terrorism, climate change, political divide, a recession or the near-endless need to tell people on video calls that they are on mute—are greatly stretching public resources. This article is not about specific challenges but rather about the public sector’s bias or over-bias to action. 

There are many motivational theories that expose how public sector employees approach their work, whether it is as simple as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Self-Determination Theory, Public Service Motivation (PSM) or probably a combination of these and other theories; public sector employees often have a bias for action. What needs to be kept in check, in my opinion, is that these biases, when indulged on multiple fronts, do not begin to erode the core function of the agency or program.

Some macro-examples of a bias to action are addressing climate change, battling racism, protecting the environment, responding to natural disasters, managing pandemic outbreaks or speaking out about opposing ideologies, all while having to operate within a constricting budget. This is not to be construed as questioning the merit or social value of these actions. Rather, my point is; how do these actions fit into the specific framework of what an agency does, how do they complement or detract from the core work focus and does that particular agency have the actual ability to affect the change sought in the non-core function actions? Conversely, do these noble causes detract from the agency’s core function, thus resulting in a net decrease of public value? This is the question; can over-bias for action work against us?

Let us look at a hypothetical example (and one in which I do not have any direct experience) working for a transportation agency. The core purpose of the agency is to support the economy while safely connecting communities and improving the quality of life. The agency’s mission is to provide a safe, effective and efficient transportation system. From the partial list of 2020 challenges, which issues require bias to action from the agency and which perhaps do not? Should the DOT have a bias towards addressing COVID-19, institutional racism, civil-unrest, domestic terrorism, climate change, political divide, and a recession? Certainly, they should take action on many of these, but how so? Diving further into the natural disaster example, should they have a bias for action that prevents and mitigates damage to the transportation system? They probably should. Should they focus their limited resources on assisting in the cleaning up of impacted urban areas that do not pose a threat to the transportation system? This begins to become a more complicated answer. A nimble and scalable decision system needs to be employed to decide if the desired action is a justifiable bias or a far-reaching over-bias. Figure 1 depicts a simple and fairly crude decision system that could be employed for these types of decisions.

Figure 1

This is not to say that intent to act is wrong. However, applying the concept from the Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, means that since resources are finite, applying them to one action requires their subtraction from another. This is the question that must be answered; does this change in resource allocation detract from the focus on the core agency mission? For an amplified example, does climate change impact a public hospital system? Sure, I think one can easily argue that it does. Now add in that the hospital has very strained resources because of COVID-19 and cannot keep up with the immediate demand for core hospital functions; should the hospital detour resources to combat climate change at this time? Again, this is not questioning the importance of combating climate change; this is asking if the hospital is the right agency to be addressing climate change when doing so will not allow it to meet its immediate and primary mission.

While the examples in this article are fairly simple, real-world examples are not. These discussions will challenge our morals and demand discourse of public sector ethics. We will have to admit defeat on the actions we want to do but just cannot. We will have to accept failures, real failures with tangible consequences, because we have to prioritize resources and desired outcomes. We will have to tell people, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t help you with that.” We will have to battle political pressures that may not recognize or care about the resource variables. We may get fired and we may fail at our desire to take over-biased actions that both serve and protect the public so that we can serve and protect them via the core functions of the agency. Our bias for action will dictate the absolute need for us to not take some actions that we wish we could; and this is the challenge of governing and public service in an increasingly challenging and uncertain world.

Author: Mr. Rabinowitz is completing his Doctorate in Public Administration from Valdosta State University. He has over 15 years of experience working for multiple federal, state, and local agencies in environmental protection. He received his MS in Executive Management from the Florida State University and BSs in Marine Biology and Ecology from the Florida Institute of Technology. Please contact him at [email protected]

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