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From Rubrics to Garbage Cans: New Professional Perspectives on Decision-Making

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Amy Uden

One of the most nuanced and risk-laden challenges facing public administrators is a task they undertake so frequently that they probably never even realize they are performing it. It hums along as a part of the administrator’s day-to-day backdrop, yet all the while it brings the typical administrator directly into the midst of countless potential landmines.

Uden mayHow can public administrators be oblivious to such an important and constant function? They can when the task at hand is decision-making.

Most practitioners are rightly focused on the content of their practice—on actually making decisions—to the exclusion of explicitly considering the fact that they are making them. Even stopping to consider decision-making as a distinct task may seem a strange leap to a practitioner.

This is not the case, however, for public administration academics. Numerous, well-rounded theoretical frameworks address the process of public administration decision-making. As a field, we discuss decision-making theory with an almost overwhelmingly wide set of vocabulary buzzwords: rational choice, organizational environment, open and closed systems, incrementalism, interdependency, satisficing, optimization and—my favorite—the garbage can model, to name just a few.

Complementary and conflicting frameworks for decision-making abound. Yet while our theoretical training causes us to dispute which model most accurately represents the elusive job of making day-to-day decisions, we seldom stop to ask ourselves a very significant question—whether this dialogue equips us any better for the decisions at hand.

A professional mentor of mine often says something to the effect of, “Sure, I can be aware of the precise direction and magnitude of the gravitational pull that my body will endure. It still doesn’t mean I’m prepared for that feeling in the pit of my stomach when the roller coaster goes over the first drop.” Public administration is a unique and rich field because it speaks to both theory and practice. Yet if we wish both to understand and to equip public servants, if we hope to make that practitioner-academic gap any narrower, then it may be helpful to re-examine our academic methods.

The members of our profession that most bridge the gap between academia and practice are the recent graduates who are entering the field with fresh degrees in hand. The typical new professional, particularly among younger graduates with less work experience, has probably studied decision-making, but more than likely has not yet been required to make seriously impactful decisions in the course of those studies. While our publications frequently discuss the importance of preparing young professionals for careers in public service, at times our classrooms struggle to find a methodology that does so.

In fact, as a new professional entering the field myself, I would argue that the patterns of ‘studenthood’ we use to prepare our public servants actually train them away from the mental framework needed for effective public administrative decision-making. This is particularly true of the environments we create related to stakeholders, feedback loops and impact.

  • Stakeholders. This month, PA Times Online emphasizes the topic of partnerships and collaboration. Cross-sector partnerships stem from increasingly fluid and networked approaches to problem-solving. In this collaborative environment, a large number of stakeholders can be invested in a project. Consider the development of a community comprehensive plan, for example. Here, citizen stakeholders, elected officials, neighborhood associations, technical experts, special interest groups and nonprofit collaborators all must agree on the plan.

The student’s framework is starkly different. There, a single professor, or at most a review panel with fairly a homogeneous understanding of the work at hand, is the “stakeholder” affected by decisions made regarding a work product. Academic coursework seldom allows meaningful opportunity to engage a number of stakeholders.

  • Feedback. Another decision-making reality that may seem foreign to students is that of unclear expectations and feedback. As a student, project are often accompanied by rubrics. Tests are given in a context of study guides and controlled preparation. Comments on papers are clear. The heuristics we use to measure our level of success, ranging neatly from A to F, are clear-cut.

This is not the case for practitioners. I often encounter public servants who would like to know whether or not their programs are successful, but do not have the time or capacity to collect and examine performance data. It is difficult to discern whether a decision’s impact is decidedly positive, and the complexity of programs and their outcomes makes measurement and feedback a challenge. The clarity of expectations provided in a rubric is a far sight from the potpourri of decision-making factors that inspired the “garbage can” model as an apt description for what occurs in decision-making.

  •  Impact. Finally, academic decision-making is often fairly limited in the scope of its impact. Poor time management or missteps in analysis will usually be professor-corrected or peer-reviewed out of a paper. A poor grade or academic embarrassment—highly individual-oriented disincentives—are the standard negative outcomes most students will experience. Although I would never argue that academic success is at all insignificant, the scope of impact given to students while in academia can at times engender a type of self-reflective thinking that may not always be a luxury afforded to practitioners.

A failed exam has a different impact from, for example, a budget cut that removes a social service depended upon by underprivileged families. Neither gives one a particularly great gut feeling, but it is hard to argue that the academic context does not create a filter between actions and realities that is thicker than the one enjoyed by practitioners. In fact, academia is largely intended to do so, in order to allow for uninfluenced critical thinking. While valuable in the theoretical sense, this phenomenon can result in a widening of the theory-practice gap and an on-going tension for new professionals as they build their capacity to understand the impact of their decisions.

If the variety of decision-making models in the public administration academic literature suggests anything, it is that the complexity of practicing public administration does not often afford opportunities for a controlled environment. Those that value the exercise of bridging theory and practice for new professionals should consider means for addressing these concerns related to stakeholder relationships, clarity of feedback and understanding decisions’ impact. Internships, field work and applied projects can benefit young professionals through direct decision-making training.

To embrace our unique niche as an academic and professional discipline, public administrators in both roles should continue to incorporate these opportunities and consider new possibilities for building students’ decision-making capacity. In doing so, we will better equip a new generation of professionals for the dangerous background task of public administration. If we choose to ignore these resources, what some would call a garbage-can model of decision-making may end up feeling to new professionals regrettably more like a rollercoaster model instead—strap yourself in and hold on tight.


Author: Amy Uden is an Associate Planner for Policy Research and Analysis at the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission. She can be reached at [email protected].

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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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