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Thoughts about Decision Making in Government

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

By John Pearson
February 12, 2018

Persons at all levels in public administration are constantly making decisions, large and small. A supervisor needs to decide whether to approve an employee’s leave request or an employee’s telework request. A program official at the Social Security Administration needs to decide to approve a social security disability claim. A middle manager needs to decide whether a new computer system is a “go” or “no go.” A top management official needs to decide whether to sign off on a new agency policy. A president needs to decide whether to sign a new executive order. A Member of Congress needs to decide how to vote on a controversial issue.

In my observation, public administrators go through a two-step process in making decisions. First, they determine what the applicable law requires. If they have discretion, they make decisions pretty much like everyone else. They nearly always attempt to maximize utility as best they can, taking into account the facts, as they understand them, and weighing the values that seem relevant (public values and personal values).  This doesn’t mean decisions are completely rational or not subject to criticism. It just means that administrators arrive at a decision that seems to have maximum value, all things considered.

In many situations, the law does not allow any discretion. I recall agency lawyers often told the program staff that the law required a particular result. Managers rarely deviated from these legal opinions. They didn’t want to be in the position of losing support from the legal staff and possibly doing something improper.

In such decisions where there is no discretion, no one is maximizing utility. These decisions are based solely on legal analysis. This is an exercise in the logic of the law, an analysis of the exact meaning of words in a statute. It has nothing to do with common sense or what seems best or fair. A vast number of routine government decisions are of this type. For example, a person’s social security benefit is based on a complex formula derived from legislation.

The rules required to implement legislation have been determined by agency headquarters officials and are spelled in regulations, manuals, training guides and other documents. The employees of the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration, for example, must internalize what the rules are or constantly refer to written policy guidance to determine the correct action or advice.

Recently, I bought a car. I did some internet research on two sedans from different manufacturers. After narrowing it down to one sedan, I made two trips to the dealer and test-drove three styles out of 12 available styles. There was significant price variation. I didn’t have nearly all the information (facts) about these three cars or sedans in general that I could have had. I knew my primary values were cost, reliability and safety features. In the end, the safety features dominated my decision and I wound up paying more than I originally expected. I also experienced time pressure in making this decision.

When I finally made my decision, I didn’t have all the relevant facts. There were multiple, competing values. There was time pressure. This is a typical example of maximizing utility in a personal decision. At the time of purchase, I thought I made the best decision — a choice with the greatest value to me.

I never heard a government administrator say they rolled dice to make a decision or say they purposely chose the second or third best alternative or picked the second or third best job candidate. This is evidence they are maximizing utility when making government decisions. Occasionally, there may be may be exceptions where people make decisions with little thought or on a completely emotional basis. Most people know their decisions may be challenged, and they try to think through how they would defend their decision.

Government administrators don’t necessarily have all the facts relevant to a decision. The relevant facts may be hard to obtain or impossible to obtain. Information has a cost, and administrators, like everyone, necessarily limit the information search (just as I did in the car example) because of other demands on their time.

Also, government administrators may have access to more facts than they have the ability to understand. The capacity to learn facts varies greatly from individual to individual. An administrator may rely on subordinates to have a detailed understanding of the facts and to summarize the facts for him or her.

Government administrators face a multitude of competing values—public values and personal values. Examples of public values would be improving customer service, improving program outcomes, or reducing program costs. Examples of private values might be minimizing risk to career or gaining monetary advantage. If the decisionmaker chooses to use his/her office to enrich himself that, of course, is misconduct.

Finally, the decisionmaker has to consider whether his or her decision aligns with the values of the political leadership of the agency. He or she can’t necessarily impose his or her understanding of the facts and values involved.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [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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