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Comfort with Ambiguity: Why it Matters and Ways to Teach it

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

By Michael Ford
December 10, 2018

Recently my undergraduate Public Administration students completed their unit on leadership. I lecture on theory, the specifics of how to construct a work plan, the importance of culture, etc. But I always return to the subject of comfort with ambiguity, which I believe to be both the most important public sector leadership quality—and the most difficult to teach.

Consider this football analogy. A mediocre quarterback on another wise good team is often described as a game manager. A game manager is there to execute the directives of the coach, avoid the big mistake and do just enough to allow the team to win the game. The shortcomings of a game manager are exposed when the overall game plan does not go as expected. An elite quarter back on the other hand, is able to improvise when coverage breaks down,audible at the line of scrimmage and proactively lead the team to victory when other aspects of the game do not go to script. Both quarterbacks have their merits, but it is the latter that is able to take advantage of ambiguity for the betterment of the team.

Comfort with ambiguity is crucial for public sector leadership because it is baked into our republican form of government. The people are the sovereign, but the people’s values are often contested, not fully formed and unstable. Rule-driven bureaucracies attempt to create certainty, but bureaucratic structures both serve and are populated with human beings. Our federalist system similarly creates tensions regarding who is exactly responsible for what at the fringes of service delivery. Even Dillon’s Rule, which empowers incorporated municipalities with powers “essential tothe declared objects and purposes” of said municipality invites question. What exactly is essential? How should declared purpose be defined?

The evidence of amorphous values and human-driven governance manifests in specific ways. Most obvious is the role of politics. A government leader must create and execute long-term strategies despite the limited-term nature of political oversight. Quality governance requires a plan longer than the typical political term. The priorities and values of elected officials (and those who elect them) also change rapidly, putting administrators in a position where proactive planning is uncomfortable. Related but separate from politics is resource variability. Here in Wisconsin local governments have been operating under a more or less frozen shared revenue program for some time, placing them in the difficult position of planning for austerity while simultaneously attempting to budget for performance. And of course, mandates can and do change rapidly,forcing local governments and state agencies to quickly change what they do and how they pay for it.

To return to the football analogy, it is tempting for administrators to simply manage this game. How? By ensuring legal compliance with mandates, by delaying decisionmaking until clear political guidance is given and by reacting to the immediate concerns of the day. Sometimes this posture is totally prudent and desired by the electorate. But to truly improve government performance in difficult times, I argue, leadership is needed.

What might leadership look like? First, the development of multiple track strategies which anticipate changing resource environments. While developing multiple plans means some good work will not be utilized, it is not wasted work because it also enables proactive governing. Second, the ability to compartmentalize competing constituency demands so that the governed have a voice even if their voice is not acted upon. Third, proactive education of political leaders and the public at-large so that they understand a course of action prior to it actually being taken. Fourth, transparency that goes beyond mandated reporting requirements. And finally, a willingness to take calculated risks that do not always pay off.    

I employ several strategies for teaching comfort with ambiguity. Some of these strategies pay off, some do not, and most drive students a little crazy. Broadly, I try to make students a little uncomfortable. I expose them to sources documents like local budgets where terminology is often unfamiliar and inconsistent across municipalities. When assigning presentations I give students the freedom to present in a manner that works for them rather than establishing strict guidelines. I explain that the format of any specific project should serve its functional purpose.

In other words, I encourage students to begin with the desired outcome in mind, and let the process flow from that desired outcome. These are just a couple strategies, and as I said, they do not always work. But by rejecting one-best-way thinking and learning from failure in core classes,students are able to learn the core competencies of our field in an environment that more closely mimics the reality of governing. In vagueness there is opportunity and risk, leadership is being able to make the most of ambiguity by taking calculated risks and learning from the inevitable mistakes.


Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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2 Responses to Comfort with Ambiguity: Why it Matters and Ways to Teach it

  1. Michael Ford Reply

    December 12, 2018 at 8:49 am

    Thanks! I to try hard and not always successfully, but when it clicks for students, it is something special.

  2. Brint Milward Reply

    December 10, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    This gets at the heart of leadership in the public sector very nicely. We have multiple and conflicting bottom lines and the best managers are able to do reasonably well on all of them – efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, responsiveness, and equity. I have a hard time imagining a public sector manager being successful without an appreciation for ambiguity. I try very hard (and not always successfully) to teach ambiguity in my organization theory class to our MPA’s and MPP’s.

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