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Goal Displacement in the Public Sector

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

By Intae Choi
December 23, 2022

In general, policies of public organizations can be evaluated through how much the policies have achieved their goals. The concept of “goals” may be comprehensive or abstract depending on how those goals are defined since policy outputs and policy outcomes can both be considered policy goals. Policy outputs can be understood as what public organizations or public policies produce. Policy outcomes refer to what public organizations or public policies want to achieve. Put differently, while policy outputs are closely related to specific measures or actions by public organizations, policy outcomes indicate whether public organizations have made changes or solved public problems from both short-term and long-term perspectives. In this respect, it can be said that policy outcomes are more ultimate and higher-level goals than policy outputs.

That being said, scholars have identified a situation in which policy outputs can be replaced by policy outcomes in the public policy process. The problem is called goal displacement. When public organizations experience goal displacement, this suggests situations in which they are overlooking the ultimate goals and are exclusively interested in achieving sub goals. The following figure illustrates goal displacement. Policy output B, which is achieving policy outcome A, is converted into an outcome itself.

Therefore, it is necessary to understand the context of why goal displacement occurs in the public sector. Usually, policy outcomes are somewhat vague or abstract compared to policy outputs. Although these ambiguous policy goals can provide public organizations advantages of interpreting and implementing the policy goals differently with their own discretion and authority, they pose the risk of policy failures due to misinterpretation of original and ultimate policy goals. In addition, public organizations have numerous outside stakeholders including the public to report their policy performance to. In this circumstance, they care more about quantitative performance outputs or short-term outcomes which can be easily recognizable by the stakeholders rather than long-term outcomes or ultimate policy goals.

As for a specific example of goal displacement in the public sector, a few years ago a firefighter was arrested by a police officer. The reason for the arrest was that the firefighter obstructed traffic with a fire engine. In terms of policy goals of the police, the policy outcome of the police was to secure public safety. To achieve this outcome, there must be traffic control as a policy output. In this circumstance, performance of the police can be evaluated by cases of crackdown on vehicles which are interfering with traffic. However, the controversy lies in the interpretation of the police officer’s choice to arrest the firefighter. Even though the fire truck interfered with traffic at that time, the firefighter was on duty to save an injured person in an emergency scene. Therefore, the police officer needed to seek alternative ways to secure traffic control rather than focusing on cracking down on vehicles.

Goal displacement might easily occur in the public sector and the example above shows an example of its side effects. Thus, in the public policy process, public organizations as well as practitioners should pay careful attention to what the ultimate policy goals are and be wary of being overly obsessed with sub goals.

Author: Intae Choi is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @intaechoi_

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