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Are We Thinking About Infrastructure?

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

By Robert L. Grant 
August 24, 2019

A critical and often neglected component of our profession is infrastructure. While we are knowledgeable of the proper actions to take regarding infrastructure, not nearly enough attention is given to the thinking and decisionmaking behind those actions. With the numerous responsibilities and issues that emerge daily for the public administrator, infrastructure concerns won’t always rank high on the proverbial to do list. Intuition often leads the administrator to exert their time, resources and energy to more seemingly urgent matters. To adequately address infrastructure concerns, our intuition would have to be overridden by another form of mental processing.

Luckily, intuition does not possess complete hegemony over our minds. While strong, it does have a partner. Although seemingly silent, it can at times overpower intuition. This critical thinking, “Gentle giant,” makes its entry into the decisionmaking plain, when intuition isn’t enough. This occurs most often in instances where the various patterns of familiar associations fail to align, or when prior experiences fail to equip us with a proper frame of reference from which to act both effectively and ethically. The intuition alluded to above is System I thinking, whereas the more thoughtful, critical approach is System II thinking.

To effectively overcome the strength of System I thinking, one must be able to override thinking processes that are not even being conducted consciously. Can such a process be conducted in the face of mounting infrastructure needs? I believe this is possible, but I do not think it will occur without training, nor in the absence of a team-oriented approach to decisionmaking.

As we have learned from scholarship and experience, our intuitive state of thinking is full of biases that only impact our decisionmaking because they operate on the subconscious level. Therefore, when approached with a possible municipal infrastructure need, would it be our natural reaction to begin the process of overriding our intuition with a more complex form of problem solving? Of course not; however, if we seek to decipher the best course of action by recruiting additional minds (assuming these are individuals free from the poison of groupthink), it can occur. Through the process of dialogue, the establishment of mutual trust, acceptance of the merit found in conflicting views, a mutual commitment to public service and the understanding of the responsibilities of each public administrator; our System II thinking could be activated and sharpened.

By consistently experiencing training on innovative approaches to infrastructure issues, individuals will more easily avert or at the very least mitigate infrastructure struggles through knowledge that has become intuitive. Notice, this form of reaction is instantaneous or automatic; In other words, this is System I thinking. The more knowledge absorbed from infrastructure education, the less indecision will impact infrastructure questions. This is the height of public service sensitivity, (in my opinion), the ability to naturally sense and react intuitively to most common public sector problems.

Make no mistake—many public sector issues will require System II thinking. To increase effective service delivery, to cultivate innovative collaboration with colleagues and to develop commitment to overcome the challenges of infrastructure and other public service issues, System II thinking is important. So, while public service sensitivity itself can become intuitive, the process needed to arrive at sensitivity will require ever increasing amounts of diligence, intentionality, training and collaborative decisionmaking.

Therefore, it does seem logical that the fabled and glorified rational administrators are not so rational at all. They must be embodied with emotions if they are to be useful to their communities. The issues that are of greatest concern to the public administrator often involve the component of compassion. Rationality does not take compassion into account, but emotions do. These emotions allow administrators to advocate for the successful and timely repair dams, the introduction of quality transportation systems that reduce social inequity and the construction of roads that promote both safety and comfortability. Granted, these same emotions also release our more selfish passions; those that are contrary to our service-oriented consciousness. These selfish passions prompt the administrator to ignore pressing infrastructure needs in favor of agenda items that might meet less resistance and require less effort.

Thus, increased public service sensitivity, effective team decisionmaking, and adherence to the codes of ethics native to our profession can hold our emotions in check. To state this another way, our System II thinking, when sufficiently trained, can help mitigate the destructiveness of useless emotions and employ the aid of our useful ones. As expected, when thinking of decisions impacting municipal infrastructure issues, biases and unethical matters must not be allowed access to the minds of decision makers. This can best be accomplished by training in the handling of infrastructure needs, dedicated and intentional growth in public service sensitivity, the use of effective team-based decisionmaking and of course the correct balance of System I and System II thinking.

Author: Mr. Robert L. Grant III is currently a doctoral student in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. His email address is [email protected].

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