Do local policymakers strategically use delay in permitting development to forestall the growth machine?
Land use and development approval processes vary tremendously among local governments in the United States and globally. State-imposed growth-management rules, economic conditions and the scale of environmental problems can explain some of this variation. But there is little empirical evidence as to whether politicians and public administrators also utilize land use and development approval time frames as a method of strategic choice, expediting the development application and approval process or subjecting development requests to lengthy scrutiny.
In a paper António Tavares, Richard Feiock and I published in Policy Studies Journal, we employ a political market framework to explain differences in local government land use decisions. Project approval delay imposes costs on development, and onerous or ineffective regulatory frameworks for urban planning are often faulted for a host of undesirable urban outcomes. Using Bayesian multilevel modelling of Florida surveys of land-use planners, we find evidence city managers, mayors and city councils strategically use delay in development approval processes to affect land-use patterns.
Three Sides of the Same Coin? A Bayesian Analysis of Strategic Management, Comprehensive Planning, and Inclusionary Values in Land Use
Public administration, policy, and planning research has long suggested land use planning entails intractable value conflicts.
Strategic adjustments to changing external conditions are prevalent, and comprehensive approaches are frequently touted as a way to seek stability, commitment to long-term sustainable development objectives, and the inclusive and equitable distribution of development benefits for both present and future inhabitants. Despite these objectives, the reality of sprawl and infrastructure decline in the modern metropolis appears far bleaker.
Research has been mixed on how specific institutional configurations shape urban political markets for development under changing exogenous circumstances. In an article my colleagues and I just published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, we examine whether city managers are more strategic, comprehensive and inclusive in the use of land-use policy tools at three distinct time periods pre- and post-housing bubble. We employ a Bayesian inferential method underutilized in public administration research to test whether city managers are more strategic, comprehensive, and inclusive than mayors in land use decision-making.
Our analysis finds evidence that, relative to mayor-council and commission forms of government, council-manager governments are (a) more strategic in land use decisions following an economic boom and bust by routinizing sustainable development practices such mixed use and impact fees; (b) more comprehensive in land use tool utilization after an economic shock; and (c) more inclusive of social equity concerns in land use choices such as greater use of incentive zoning that promotes community-wide benefits.
Longevity in the position also appears to mitigate how effective managers are at advancing goals of comprehensiveness.
However, managerial influence is not evident at the housing bubble’s peak, which is an important caveat to the empirical evidence on form of government. These results suggest managerial influence on the comprehensiveness of land use policy may be only detectable in periods when public focus—and the political benefits of appearing responsive—are relatively low.
Metropolitan sprawl is a well-studied, multidimensional phenomenon. Sprawling development patterns play a substantial role in taxing the resources and infrastructure of local governments, as well as contributing to global environmental externalities like climate change. Counties have become increasingly tasked with municipal-style public service delivery, including land-use planning. But how are they likely to perform this task, particularly in areas where populations are more fragmented between cities, unincorporated counties and special districts? My recent study in Urban Affairs Review looks at how counties adhere to their own long-range growth management plans and finds that “modernized” counties are more likely to approve incremental development increases when such fragmentation is greater. How does this occur, and what does it mean?
Counties present relatively abundant and cheap locational alternatives for development, which may exacerbate sprawl. Governmental fragmentation may fuel more leapfrog development patterns on the urban fringe as cities within counties channel development into the county arena. Increased horizontal fragmentation – which is the proliferation of general-purpose governments like cities or towns – encourages counties to compete for development with other localities within their borders but also increases the incentives for developers to locate county sites with relatively cheaper land prices. Vertical fragmentation, meanwhile, is the proliferation of special districts serving single purposes such as fire, water, economic development, environmental protection and education.
Florida is the organizational context of this study, and just over half of all 1,667 active special-districts play an economic development role. Vertical fragmentation facilitates development through provision of services, reducing private development costs, and reducing the pressure for public officeholders to raise taxes. In more vertically fragmented systems, public services can be offered from a tiered system of governments in a complimentary fashion rather than having individual departments within a single government competing for resources. While empirical evidence is mixed as to whether vertical fragmentation leads to higher or lower overall tax expenditures, it also presents a distinct driver for sprawling, leapfrog development patterns outside municipal boundaries.
But fragmentation is only part of the story. Internal capacities developed to comply with state regulations and respond to exploding growth also play a role in shaping these decisions. This analysis finds evidence that counties pursue incremental course corrections to their growth plans as a function of whether they had modernized mechanisms for responding to constituents’ land-use preferences.
While local governments may generally implement environmental protections specified in their plans, this result presents a normative planning paradox for urban areas confronting growth pressures.
Counties which have modernized their service-delivery processes should generally have more sophisticated, data-driven planning support systems and more capability for responding nimbly to development demanders. Thus, development patterns emblematic of sprawl – low-density, discontinuous, decentralized construction – may be a function of planning rather than a byproduct of its absence. From an urban sustainability perspective, if greater planning capacities amplify piecemeal development patterns, the flexibility of land-use plans may need to be reconsidered.
However, this increased responsiveness of modernized counties is moderated by executive and legislative institutional structure. County modernization via charter adoption is associated with increases in piecemeal development patterns, while form of government accounts for a moderating institutional effect. Professional managers appear to facilitate increases in incremental development, but are more insulated from development interests.
There are several practical points to take away from this study. Cities and counties may be offering similar services, but their experiences on the ground are quite different. Fragmentation may generate more competition for economic development between localities and development spillover into unincorporated areas. Professionalization or the adoption of more managerial-like government administrations has been frequently hailed as a superior model for efficient and effective service delivery. But under fragmented conditions, modernized governmental structures in growing counties may simply serve to positively moderate the push for more sprawling development patterns. For policy design, a normative case could be made for limitations or consolidation of special- districts within high-growth regions. Counties may also require the development of unique growth-management policies which recognize their distinctive, “spillover” role within metropolitan governance.
The farming out of government service delivery and oversight to private contractors has led to a broadened understanding of what improves fairness, transparency and stakeholder engagement in public administration (Daniels, et al. 2000). But it also engenders a vexing host of problems for practitioners. Because the rules and procedures are different for private vendors, across government boundaries, and among different stakeholders, public-private networks present a new host of management challenges and accountability concerns between administrators, the elected public officers and the citizenry.
Problems of accountability in the new network-based public administration arise from a lack of communication and information-sharing that can leave policymakers, public administrators and the public equally flummoxed. The wealth of network literature that has emerged in recent decades identifies a broad array of similar breakdowns associated with the phenomenon.
Network Structures and Cohesion
Public administration has come a long way since Wilson’s classic politics-administration dichotomy. Just as management scholars no longer assume political influences can be decapitated from the proper exercise of government functions, the new public management has come to accept that managers themselves are required to be adept at skills of persuasion and manipulation in order to successfully complete their duties. Stakeholders must be cajoled, incentivized or appeased, and the multitude of actors within public-private networks must be managed with tactics much different from the ordinary vertically integrated government agency. How else can managers tasked with overseeing public policy and programs be successful in an environment in which the hierarchical, top-down institutional machinery they were trained to operate has been replaced by new networked circuitry were they may no longer be the most important component?
The public management research on networks has proliferated over the last twenty years largely focused on network formation, managers within networks, and network outputs and impact on democratic processes (Berry, Choi Sang, Goa, Jang, Kwon, & Ward, 2004) As public managers and researchers alike have come to recognize that traditional top-down bureaucracies are largely no longer the dominant singular structure for implementing policies, both the research agendas and management tactics have adapted. It would be overstating this transformation to say that hierarchical, top-down public agencies are fading into history. But at the least, public institutions are no longer going it alone (Agranoff & McGuire, 2001; Bardach, 2001; Provan & Milward, 1995).
With command and control principles rendered largely ineffective within a network relationship, scholars have identified a plethera of other influences that bind networks together, including trust and mutual obligation (Nohria, 1992); a collective sense of benefiting the public good that creates network cohesion (Alter & Hage, 1993; Mandell, 1999); and the classic organizational perspective that interdependnency based on the availability of resources and their uneven allocation contributes to network formation and maintenance (Pennings, 1981).
More recently, researchers have examined key distrinctions between managing information and knowledge between organizations and networks. Knowledge management (KM) becomes a common currency between individual organizations with unique intellectual capital, experiences, and expertise (Davenport & Prusak, 1998).
Information breakdowns are largely the scapegoat for public organizations’ inability to adapt contractual structures to changing problems, and networks are not immune. As the DCA case illustrates, public organizations all charged with administering federal, state, regional and local development rules are often fallible, and a breakdown in information-sharing and knowledge management often times plays a central role. Information breakdowns are not solely internal problems. In the DCA example, multiple state and local agencies tasked with administered the same growth rules were not sharing information effectively, but external stakeholders were also kept in the dark as key decision-points passed. The rise of networks has created a confusing web of implementation stations with limited responsibility for external communications and media relations, complying with public-records laws, or fielding stakeholder inquiries (DeGrove, 2005).
On a national scale, Desouza (2009) examines information and knowledge management breakdowns within the United States Intelligence Community during the 1990s that preceded terrorist attacks on U.S. assets throughout that decade, as well the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the failure to accurately assess the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Desouza employs a qualitative knowledge management model to assess competency in four components identified as “sources management, analytics management, interpretation management and action management” (2009, p. 1228). Through interviews with current and former intelligence community employees, Desouza offers a rich description of how the 22 various intelligence agencies utilize their networked capabilities – effectively and not so much – to develop sources, cull information from them, forecast based on what they’ve gathered, and take action based on their analytics. The results identify three core problems in information and knowledge management that Desouza describes as transcendental to public-sector networks overall: a lack of trust between agencies; a history of past non-collaboration; and the lack of uniform management standards between agencies (p. 1257-1258). Clearly, the rise of networks has created a more complex environment for public managers in which they no longer drive the decision-making.
Accountability in a Networked World
A definition of accountability throughout the literature is essentially the implementation, measurement and refinement of policy objectives and management of public agencies within the specifications of elected policymakers, who in turn are accountable to the public. In practice, accountability for public managers has evolved into engaging private stakeholders into all phases of the development, implementation and maintenance of government programs. But even this assumed accountability fails to deliver when broad swaths of the public not usually engaged on a particular issue become polarized, either by some exogenous shock or political manipulation.
Concerns over keeping government accountable to elected “sovereigns” (and theoretically, the public) are virtually as old as the field of public management. In the post-New Deal era of management, the effects of administrative discretion on the ideals and practices of democratic governance have been a key curiosity of policy and management theory (Mazmanian & Sabatier, 1983). Since economists in 1960s like William Niskanen, Jr., and Anthony Downs first developed formal theories of bureau supply that suggested bureaucracies grow too large, too quickly and should be imbued with market competition for government services, public management scholars have questioned how to practice accountable public management in a democratic context (Niskanen, 1971; Frederickson, 1997).
Networks – if one is to believe they are a relatively new formation in the genealogy on government – have emerged as a response to the failures of managerial accountability, the inefficiencies of interest-group pluralism, and the problems of centralized bureaucracies with implementation. At the same time, knowledge and expertise have become diversified and diffuse, adding to the need for public organizations to collaborate with outside sources of technical expertise (Gray, 1989). This need to network complicates the mission of remaining accountable, because the partners themselves may not be imbued with the same public purpose and mission. For every new branch of the network extending outward from the central government bureau, the chain of accountability becomes one more link further removed.
In their extensive meta-analysis of 137 network studies of collaborative governance, Ansell and Gash sum up the practitioner perspective that has also driven the research when they note that the policy stream “seems to promise that if we govern collaboratively, we may avoid the high costs of adversarial policy making, expand democratic participation, and even restore rationality to public management” (Ansell & Gash, 2007). This may be wishful thinking. But the expansion of democratic participation seems to be an implied assumption that flows forth from better relationships between public managers and stakeholders, and advanced knowledge development and problem solving. The studies encapsulated in their meta-analysis show wide variation between successful collaboration where adversarial relationships have been overcome, and less successful ones where key stakeholders manipulated networks and distrust grew. But the element of accountability itself never emerges as an explanatory variable. While Ansell and Gash are able to develop “contingent conditions” under which collaboration is likely to flourish or flounder, the aim of their work was never specifically to offer suggestions for improving network accountability. Therefore, we turn to one area of policy where accountability has developed into a contractual relationship, one I believe could be utilized as a generalize-able management best-practice beyond any specific policy domain.
Accountability agreements have emerged within the health-care community where public health-care providers such as hospitals have been contractually bound to use public funding and distribute it in accordance with a pre-arranged schedule. They have been utilized extensively in health care reforms in Canada where Local Health Integration Networks have been created to contract with local hospitals and the state, and research is beginning to emerge studying their effectiveness and impact on priory setting for government-run health care (Reeleder, et al. 2008). Accountability agreements have been widely used in the private-sector, but have recently emerged in varied types of government activities, from economic development to transportation projects.
While there is scant research of the pervasiveness of accountability agreements in the public sector, there is evidence they have been effective is some environments in re-establishing some degree of control over interdependent actors in networks environments. Veillard et al. conducted a three-year study of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s efforts to utilize accountability agreements to improve stewardship of public resources and enhance performance management functions of government. The authors concluded that connecting key agreed-upon local and regional health-care goals into accountability agreements “helped to strengthen substantially the ministry's performance management function” (Veillard, et al., 2010).
The common thread between public-private accountability agreements is the expenditure of public resources by private enterprise, but the practice holds promise in other areas of government activity such as service delivery.
Accountability agreements in the private sector are conceptualized differently than public-sector alternatives. They convey “a promise and an obligation, both to yourself and to the people around you, to deliver specific, defined results,” and represents “a personal commitment to the organization and to those the organization serves” rather than “departments, work groups, or entire organizations” (Klatt, Murphy, & Irvine, 1999). Public-sector accountability agreements tend to spell out legal parameters of contracts, technical specifications, and performance standards.
In public policy subsystems, accountability agreements could be used to ensure each participant recognizes their role in the center of a networked community. Network stakeholders would have clearly articulated expectations for participation, and a covenant with each other to accomplish goals.
It should be obvious to public administrators, researchers and anyone who has interacted with government lately, that the privatization and “hollowing out” of government service delivery requires more collaborative strategies for achieving common goals and maintaining democratic oversight. But it is also clear that ensuring accountability between the larger community of policy actors, public managers, policymakers, and the citizenry has often failed to adapt new procedures and tactics to achieve equilibrium with this new environment. Accountability agreements could be more widely utilized between public and private stakeholders within government-led networks to ensure multi-directional communication channels and knowledge-sharing, public access, and alignment and goals.
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Governments confront perhaps the greatest confluence of global challenges today: the first-world financial and fiscal challenges of late capitalism’s conflict with humanism; the looming ecological catastrophe of climate change and quagmire of future energy production; and the third-world challenges of population explosion, urbanization and intensifying conflict over dwindling resources. At the same time, public administrators tend to poll about as well as your average congressional member.
Distrust of government administrators today is a scenario not unlike the nation’s last great economic calamity, when public officials responded to the Great Depression by strengthening the Great Fiction of our field: the separation of policymaking from the administration of government.
The modern conception of the policy-administration dichotomy is often attributed to the writings of Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow. Wilson, in his famous directive for American administrators to emulate a murderous fellow’s skills for sharpening a knife “without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it,” prescribed a comparative study of the “ways and means” of foreign government as a form of self-improvement (Wilson, 1887). Goodnow addressed the flaws in conceiving of an “extreme” literal interpretation of the constitutional separation of powers that ignores the differentiated duties of various authorities within government (Goodnow, 1900).
Wilson was concerned with the corrupting influences of political parties on government administration, as well as with Congress delving into the minutia of management (Stillman, 1973). Goodnow worried that political interference would lead to inefficiencies if administrators cared more for the favor of party bosses than for the good of their departments. But he accepted some level of political involvement and administrative policymaking influence when he noted that “much must be left to official discretion, since what is demanded of the officers is not the doing of a concrete thing, but the exercise of judgment” (81). Foremost, both early founders of Public Administration were seeking to define a “zone of competency” for public professionals to operate in with discretion and developable areas of expertise.
This artificial separation was exacerbated by debates over the organizational differences between business and government, and whether the discipline is more artistry or science. Despite the best efforts of administration scholars, the root-stems of the dichotomy survive in modern American governance and impede the ability of practitioners to establish an acceptable “zone of influence” in policy advising. Worse, the public appears at a loss to comprehend and appreciate the vast size and scope of the tasks government administrators have been charged with performing.
Current scholar James Svara (1998) called the dichotomy model that would grow out of their writings more an “aberration” in the history of government administration theory, one that neither man ever prescribed or even mentioned beyond the general desire to break the hold of spoils-era corruption on public management.
In promoting the council-manager form of government, Richard Childs envisioned the public administrator as a leadership figure in the community who would bring only questions of general policy to the council. Such empowerment of unelected leadership would later become a politically unpopular and minimalized characteristic of the progressive reform era, much to Childs’ disillusionment.
Tax Revolts, and Poorly Understood Progressivism
The dichotomy dates back to the 1927-1936 period in which financial support from the Rockefeller Philanthropies was contingent upon the rhetorical separation of so-called “neutral” government research from the more politically interested social sciences as they were then viewed (Roberts, 1994). Because of the social stigmatism attached to the name of billionaire namesake John Rockefeller, the various organizations his non-profits supported were keenly sensitive to the implication that they were trying to influence the political process. In order to secure support, Roberts wrote, early advocates of government research had to establish a “demonstration of neutrality” to secure funding or simply survive the rampant anti-tax sentiment among the Depression-racked citizenry.
This rhetorical imperative of some fledgling municipal research bureaus coincided with the rise of professional organizations in the decade after 1925, centrally organized around the Public Administration Clearing House and International City Managers Association, both run by Louis Brownlow. A former journalist, author, and municipal manager, Brownlow embraced the notion of professional neutrality for public administrators while at the same time espousing a expanded zone of influence for improving the lives of citizens. It was an “activist” and liberal view of government action Brownlow adhered to himself as a city manager and one he prescribed for the federal government while chairing President Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Administrative Management.
The Brownlow Committee would be credited with enlarging the powers of the presidency, and transforming the office into one more focused on administrative management (Stillman R. J., 1998). Still, both Brownlow and fellow administrative professionalist Luther Gulick were heavily indebted to the Rockefeller philanthropies for funding their work and took their charge to avoid government advocacy to heart (Roberts, pg. 225). The economic conditions overwhelming much of the government infrastructure during this period led such efforts to become heavily focused not just on government reform in the council-management government, but the drive for greater efficiency to become the dominant organization goal.
Similarly to Childs’ disappointment over the turn that his municipal reform movement took toward efficiency, Brownlow and Gulick were never disciples of marrying the establishment of professional standards to efficiency alone. Gulick would go on to become a fervent critic of the policy-administration dichotomy, although he is erroneously linked with espousing the model earlier in his career. Following his work on the Brownlow Committee, Gulick would go on to become an advocate for Keynesian full-employment policies for post-World War II economies (Markwell, 2006).
Nonetheless, early administration scholars oversaw the establishment of a new field, the spread of public administration departments at universities across the country, and the greatest period of government expansion and advocacy in history. The scholarship that followed would both seek to challenge and expand the zone of competency, to be more honest and self-critical, fueling a still unresolved argument over the theoretical foundations of the field that has hindered the authority of practitioners.
The Role of Values in Public Administration
Submitted to empirical testing, the politics-administration dichotomy was never an ideal type built to last. Herbert Simon implored administration scholars to abandon the squishiness of “proverbs” in favor of more rigorously testable theory-building that could “rebuild those tools to usefulness,” and clearly articulates a role for administrators in his positivistic prescription. “Certainly neither the practitioner of administration nor the theoretician can be satisfied with the poor analytic tools that the proverbs provide him,” he wrote. (Simon, 2008).
Simon’s influence on policymaking is informative in that he acknowledges the crutch the Classic Paradigm has become for administrators in policymaking. Although his writings urge the development of an empirically driven science of administration that would both develop theory and inform practitioners, he felt the need to wean the professional side of the field from its paradigmatic shelter by proposing a fact-value dichotomy.
But this formulation was equally problematic. Simon envisioned decision-making premises divided along these two lines: fact-based and value-based, in which fact-based premises are falsifiable while value-based premises are not. Therefore, administrators in the policy process should be focused on fact-based premises, which leads to testing whether alternative policy proposals produce the expected outcomes or not. Value-based premises are inherently judgment calls about whether a policy choice is “good” or “bad” and should be left to the less technically minded political leadership (Simon, 1957). By jettisoning the old approach which he found problematic both descriptively and normatively, Simon prescribed a “different standard for administrative behavior,” in which standoffish neutrality was supplanted by involvement in the policymaking process and predictability due to the value-premises imbued in the organization via recruitment and socialization (Fry & Raadschelders, 2008).
Simon’s distinction articulated in Administrative Behavior was immediately criticized as harmful to the development of scientifically based yet politically realistic administration. Although he defended the distinction, it became an afterthought in his later organizational work (Subramanian, 1963). However, the treatment and contention of contradiction between values and facts as Simon conceptualizes them – and others criticize them -- deserves some unfolding here to serve our purposes.
Simon and Waldo, Revisited
The Behavioral movement that began in the 1940s wasn’t the only pressure-point brought to bear on government. Dwight Waldo would argue that Classical scholars were in fact describing a social science in their emphases on principles of management, efficiency, and consolidation of power in the executive which were value-laden. Waldo also rejected the policy-administration dichotomy as a cover for the underlying ideological goals of the Classical paradigm, which he saw as developing government-centered expertise to foster greater efficiencies and advance the “mission of America.” (Waldo, 1971).
The accepted history in texts is that the Behavioral and Politics-as-Administration approaches “devastated” the Classical Paradigm, and yet the remains are with us today. What did this devastating assault leave in its place? How did the absorption of both Simon’s and Waldo’s arguments impact the “zone of competency” and what are the lasting effects on policy analysis?
In retrospect, Simon’s substitution of the fact-value dichotomy for the policy-administrative remedies neither the problem of the professional sphere of influence nor the lack of scientific theory-building. Instead, his proposal perpetuated the myth of separateness between policymaking and administration. Because Simon’s conceptualization of organization decision-making as one where all actors in the hierarchy utilize “decision premises” that are in effect the formulation of policy, his own theoretical contribution undercuts the false choice of values or fact-based decision-making he presents.
Simon endeavored to give lift to a “science of administration” as well as a practical scientific basis for government management. But his refusal to accept values as an endogenous element of decision premises – and thus a value-influenced policy formulation at work in every level of government – left policy in the same rut. Those who followed disavowed value-free administration explicitly and articulated vastly different positions for public managers.
Charles Lindblom assaulted classical rationalism in policymaking and discredited the view of neutral competence. Out of fear of the bureaucratic organizations he considered anti-democratic, Lindblom sought to replace analytical problem-solving with a combative sphere of partisan research fueling the mutual adjustment of political actors. Unlike Simon, he does not support the notion that administrators can employ neutral, scientific principles to design and apply appropriate government remedies to problems identified by the public through political leadership (Gregory, 1989). Ironically, Lindblom later in his career appears to lament the end-result of such partisan analysis and triumph of lay ideas in political ends, noting that “we are governed by presidents of dubious qualifications, often working with teams of cronies rather than experienced political leaders,” (Lindblom, 2002).
Likewise, Waldo’s modern treatment of the classical approach is tilted heavily toward his early career, when the scholar admits to having viewed public administration with contempt. Most cursory examinations of Waldo’s contributions overlook the softening of his position toward the dichotomy and the role it played in fostering political reform. Waldo went so far as to write that the policy-administration dichotomy was still engrained in the field’s culture and no satisfactory alternative had emerged (Waldo, 1980).
It is fitting that Waldo – perhaps the field’s most distinguished historian and critic – offered virtually no constructive theory to replace the discredited but not discarded classical paradigm. Public Administration in the United States is at a period of quandary and crisis. Faith in the institutions of government – and by extension, the people behind the machinery -- is faltering without a clear empirical rationale as to why this should be. Every week, we are confronted with growing evidence that public support for the modern governmental apparatus of effectuating public aims is slipping.
One potential long-term remedy is to behave organizationally much like Philip Selznick’s definition of cooptation: “The process of absorbing new elements into the leadership or policy determining structure of an organization as a means of averting threats to its stability or existence.” (Selznick, 1949). Selznick was describing the Tennessee Valley Authority’s methods in the 1930s for generating local buy-in for its mission to improve flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development to the Depression-racked Tennessee Valley. But the concept seems aptly suited for confronting the present disconnect between the public and their government.
Cooptation is applicable to an organization threatened by societal pressure as a form of adaptation to inoculate itself. Although wishful thinking, why couldn’t public administration make similar efforts to strengthen government agencies threatened by modern tax revolts? Much like some countries require citizens to serve in the military, government would be better-suited by political leaders with some level of training in administrative theory and procedures.
Selznick writes that “cooptation reflects a state of tension between formal authority and social power,” and its affect is to limit choices, and change the character and role of the organization. He writes that the phenomenon has taken hold as society has democratized, voluntary associations have formed, and the government has greater need to broaden the public’s participation as a means of control.
Today, quite the opposite patterns of fact have emerged: public participation in government has dropped precipitously over the years. Politicians are hailed for showcasing their lack of basic understanding of governance. While it is unlikely public administrations will resign their positions in mass and run for public offices, the discipline today needs to take a hard look at antiquated prescriptions for policy analysis against the backdrop of today’s modern perceived policy failures. Who is failing whom?
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Like most science fiction fans, most of my life has been a wait for two discoveries which will fundamentally change humankind's role in the world.
One is the discovery of alien life, which may not occur for millennia, if ever. The second is the development of artificial intelligence (AI), which might put me out of a job.
The fear of an AI which surpasses our own intelligence and imposes a "judgement day" on humanity permeates our culture and media. It is also a salient enough threat that Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and dozens of AI experts penned an open letter one year ago this week through the Future of Life Institute, outlining steps for steering the development of machine learning away from a devastating evolutionary course.
Public administration research -- in particular, the study of organizational decision-making -- should be playing a major role.
Today, public organizations --both hierarchical and networked structures -- distribute public goods and services, with humans sitting at most of the decision nodes. These cops, budget directors, contract managers and case workers function in a rule-structured environment of human interactions. Yet they're still not that great at long-term sustainability, or working information-disadvantaged and marginalized citizens into authentic decision-making positions within government.
Public organizational goals such as efficiency are imbued with normative values. The humans at the decision-nodes may be expected most of the time to rank efficiency or effectiveness over secondary objectives such as social equity. This doesn't mean bureaucrats don't care about the disadvantaged; in fact, they are generally ethical. But they may also be sloppy in their rank ordering and inconsistent. With widespread distrust in government, AI may be eagerly deployed to reduce perceived bureaucratic incompetence in the future. Human decision-making nodes are likely to become scarce as machine learning advances. If we cannot engage disinterested or disadvantaged citizens in policymaking and implementation today, what will the chore look like when algorithms displace the administrators?
As Herbert Simon is famous for noting, humans have biases, sympathies and cognitive limits which force them to take mental shortcuts and make boundedly rational decisions. AI will be able to easily surpass its maker in this regard. Public organizations may be rendered far more efficient by removing corruptible and incompetent humans from public service delivery. Automated fleets may snow-plow our streets. Automated systems will record, ticket and debit the bank accounts of humans who still take manual control of their cars and speed. Public assistance programs will be fully automated, including eligibility determinations. Local government officials competing for economic development may turn to machines to improve strategic decision-making in the face of uncertainty. But how will a sentient budget system decide which schools to close in a contracting school district? How will an autonomous law enforcement drone apply ethical standards in a protest?
In a response to Musk's call for open-access to machine learning technologies, evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin wrote last month that the competitive nature of organizational systems meant such a move would make it more likely that AI will "wipe out" itself and humanity.
Her argument is straight-forward: humans have been pretty good at competing for scarce resources, but machines will be better. This is the basic logic of Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons." Agents have incentive to exploit a resource by taking more than their share when it is limited. Only humans have learned over thousands of years what happens at the small scale when you over-harvest a natural resource. Public and private organizations compete today globally and have never experienced a similarly scaled "tragedy of the commons," Sadedin writes. They simply have no evolutionary history to draw from, and their first tragedy may be the final one.
There is a middle ground.
Elinor Ostrom's work on Social-Ecological Systems has contributed much to our ability to "govern the commons." Inter-generational ethics, social equity and citizen participation are holy grails in public administration. Their importance should become more mission-critical as humans are removed from the decision-making processes. Our field -- sometimes frowned upon for its "explicitly normative" focus on ethics, equity and practical policy problems -- has produced a tremendous depth of knowledge to offer the birthing of AI.
As terrifying as AI-empowered oil companies and militaries might sound, why is it not possible to teach our machines like we would teach our children -- to cooperate, to trust and reciprocate?
Remember "WarGames?" Last year, researchers developed a learning program which teaches itself to play different Atari games. Other programs are demonstrating the building-blocks of creative thinking -- inductive, deductive and temporal reasoning. They can read books and answer questions about them. "Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep?" the sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick once asked us. MIT and Microsoft researchers last year moved us a step closer to answering with a graphic network which could "dream" meaningful imagery.
On many fronts, 2015 showed us AI is developing mentally much like a child. What we teach these children is still very much up to us.
Academics on the conference circuit sometimes justifiably get a bad reputation for the perception that travel is less work than play.
Despite a severe political fight in Illinois over public spending, my department found a way this month to send myself and two colleagues to Thailand for talks to establish or expand joint-degree programs with Thai and Chinese universities and to attend the 6th International Conference on Local Government hosted by Khon Kaen University.
Local government in Thailand takes on a different meaning than in the U.S. context. While the cities are administered by municipal clerks, the central government – led by the military -- appoints them and calls the shots in local development, service delivery and finance decisions.
The same week we met with political science department administrators at Thammasat University to discuss the parameters for a joint-Master’s in Public Administration program with Northern Illinois University, hundreds of students and activists marched to Bangkok’s Democracy Monument to mark the nine-year anniversary of the country’s 2006 military coup. Thailand has had a succession of military juntas since then, and protests are technically outlawed. In the Bangkok Post, government officials threatened to hold the organizers of the protest “accountable.”
The protests were meant to embarrass the country’s current military-backed prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is slated to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York about Thailand's plans for poverty alleviation and sustainability, as well as when elections could be held (maybe 2017).
Thailand is a tourism mecca, but it’s also an urban development hub where research on urban sustainability could find an audience. Everyone knows about Bangkok, a 14-million-population hub of investment, transportation and health-care companies from the Asian economic boom. But the country’s provinces are also in an anxious mood to boost development – creating Special Economic Zones (SEZ) where in some cases, residents are being displaced to make way for massive development projects.
At the conference, I presented some research on Florida’s growth-management history which shared some commonalities with the Thai experience. Florida centralized its growth-planning in the 1980s in order to achieve more consistent and less-sprawling, environmentally damaging development patterns (although the policy never perfectly synced with the institutional design).
Like many well-intentioned governmental efforts, Florida never adequately funded its growth-management system. My dissertation work (admittedly unpublished so far) has consistently found evidence that local government managers in Florida generally attempted to adhere to their comprehensive plans and resist sprawling, leap-frog types of development patterns. This negative managerial effect is conditional, of course, on the structure of the legislative institution in the community. Council members representing more concentrated areas in counties had a positive effect on more intensive land uses, offseting the effects of managers to some extent. And the mangerial effect differs between counties -- the locus of sprawl -- and cities.
In a fit of political hubris – made possible by the broad disaffection with Florida’s sprawling results – Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers decentralized growth-planning in 2011, handing control back to the local policymakers and developers who weren’t trusted to make those decisions in the 1980s. Where the state goes in terms of future growth is an open question.
But my Thai experience reinforces the mandate scholars have to make our work relevant, not only to practitioners in the United States, but in developing countries where lessons from experiments in urban planning can offer insights. Thai professors I spoke with generally distrust elected politicians as a result of the widespread bribery when the country was under democratic control. At the same time, there was a general sense that the country needed more local control of its growth decisions in order to better protect the rights of marginalized populations. U.S. federalism has allowed us to experiment with a wide array of variants in local government structure and policies, and those experiences need more comparative work.
Managing urban land use and development poses challenging governance issues to state and local governments not just in the United States but around the globe. Cities account for more than half of the world’s population (UN 2012) and will be home to 66% by 2050. At the same time, 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change come from urban areas (IPCC 2014). Current global land-use trends suggest urbanization will accelerate globally over the next two decades -- in fact, we're on pace to develop more land between 2010-2030 than in all of recorded human history.
Applying our findings – stretching them to see if they hold up in an international context – should be the primary goal of urban scholars in the coming years and decades. This is a precise moment in time when it makes the most sense to expand social science research investment. Hopefully, I can get back to Thailand and developing urban centers elsewhere to do that.
In recent years, urban researchers have been understandably doing lots of work on sustainability – this conceptualization of the economic development, environmental protection and social equity activities of local governments as single, unidimensional latent construct.
While the literature to date has offered a lot of insights, my co-author William Swann and I argue in a new Journal of Urban Affairs article that researchers need to now move beyond treating all “green” policy tools as these equally weighted commitments to sustainable governance.
Specifically, we explore whether the degree of such commitment reflects different motivations and test for distinct political economies underlying decisions to commit to energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction policy tools. We find evidence that the determinants for the two types of policies are distinct, and subsequent research should focus on disentangling these distinct motivations for sustainable action by governments.
It's been nearly five decades since Robert Dahl called local governments a "laboratory" for democracy, but only seven years since urban research was re-christened a "black hole" of political science from which "[n]o ideas escape the event horizon ... " (Sapotichne, Jones, & Wolfe, 2007).
Despite the many valid criticisms (or perhaps in response to some), public policy has continued recently to explore the problems of urban growth and decline in a multi-disciplinary fashion, focusing multiple theoretical lenses on questions of governance and division of authority as well as the practical applications for areas of policy specialization.
I wrote a paper for the Policy Studies Journal 2015 Yearbook edition which reviews recent articles on income, housing, and racial/ethnic stratification, and the common link of mobility-based prescriptions. It also reviews the role sustainability, equity and cultural norms play in scholarship. The field is moving in a direction that integrates classical rational choice and sociological explanations for policies addressing sustainability and equity, the role of cultural identity in urban renewal efforts, and long-standing problems of citizen participation in government decision-making.
I work as an Assistant Professor at Northern Illinois University. I received my PhD in Public Administration from Florida State University.