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Tailored Services and Diseconomies of Complexity

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
December 22, 2023

There is much debate in the public forum concerning the duty of public administrators to meet or exceed the needs and expectations of the communities they serve. For the past several years, the debate envelope has expanded beyond efficacy and efficiency to include responsiveness to the needs and expectations of both individuals and small groups. A consistent theme is that public agencies are obligated to provide tailored services at the granular level. This poses an immense challenge.

Traditionally, public agencies have been faced with many challenges and opportunities, having to meet them with limited resources. Consequently, the focus has largely been on providing the greatest good for the greatest numbers, seeking to achieve an economy of scale. For most of the population, this has been beneficial, providing the “biggest bang for their buck,” however, it does not always serve the unique needs and expectations of individuals and small groups who desire services tailored specifically to them.

Futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler explored this within the framework of manufacturing companies seeking to develop an economy of scale by creating a product desirable to a broad spectrum of consumers. Creating products in bulk supports a lower production cost per unit, with greater profit based upon a higher volume of similar products sold. Earlier technologies were well-suited for such an approach. Modern technologies provide for greater customization of manufactured products, such as when customers order a vehicle and may mix-and-match options to meet their own preferences, albeit at a higher price. However, especially in service-oriented settings working with limited resources such as the public sector, this approach is ill-suited. The complexities of crafting tailored approaches to service delivery for individuals ignores the impacts on available time, staffing and financial resources. The Toffler’s referred to these as the “diseconomies of complexity.” Public agencies exist to serve the communities on a macro-level, while simultaneously seeking to leave no one behind. Trying to provide services tailored on a granular level for individuals would be both complex and costly.  

Example 1: Schools: There is a drive in many communities for parents to have complete control of their child’s public-school education, including what might be taught and how learning should be achieved. In many states, this evolved from well-intentioned concerns raised in the political arena, but which have frequently evolved into movements demanding individual parental control over each classroom. It is not uncommon to hear of individual parents insisting upon their right to approve or disapprove of all classroom topics and school resources, arguing their children should not be exposed to anything they as parents find objectionable, even if the parents of other children have differing views. Many public schools are presently overcrowded and understaffed. It is unfeasible to expect teachers to wholly customize classroom delivery for each individual student. To do so would be complex, requiring greater staffing, more financial resources and most likely larger facilities.

Example 2: Libraries, Museums and Art Galleries: In decades past, public repositories of literature, history and art have largely been viewed as neutral grounds welcoming and embracing freedom of thought and expression, at least as an ideal. Recently, there has been increased public debate on the purpose of such institutions in our modern world, including what is appropriate for them to house for public consumption. Often, much of this debate flows from a small but vocal group demanding complete control of what is exhibited and how it is to be interpreted to mirror their individual values.

This contributes to an environment where some within the community demand that any book with opinions with which they disagree, or which presents facts or perspectives which they find uncomfortable, must be removed from the shelves. In some instances, individuals demand the books be destroyed. In others, they demand the government prohibit such books from being published under any circumstances. There are analogous concerns with museums and art galleries presenting historical facts or works of art. Creating a library, museum or art gallery acceptable to everyone would be impossible, and doing so would be legally problematic. The concerns of libraries, museums and art galleries move beyond the issue of diseconomies of complexity, involving as they do First Amendment rights concerning free speech.


In the end, public administrators find themselves in a precarious position. While they desire to meet or exceed the needs and expectations of everyone within the communities they serve, the reality is this will be impossible. The needs and expectations of some within the community will always be at odds with the values or priorities of others within the same community. There will always be individuals or groups who feel marginalized, if not negatively affected.

In the end, most public administrators might find it advantageous to assume James Madison’s view of representative democracy. The role of public administrators is to satisfy as many in the community as much as possible, while simultaneously disappointing as few as possible as little as possible. This creates a perpetual conundrum, perhaps the most challenging for anyone in public service.  

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, is a training and development consultant and independent scholar. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He has more than 30 years in local government and 19 years teaching public administration and related topics. He may be reached at [email protected]

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