The Agenda Explosion and Public Management

Leaders at all levels of government should think twice before assuming government can solve a particular problem, writes Paul L. Posner.
December 5, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Paul Posner
By Paul L. Posner  |  Contributor
The late director of the public administration program at George Mason University

C. Wright Mills once said that building the agenda for government action involves the conversion of private troubles into public problems. Beginning with the 1960s, this conversion and expansion of the public agenda has become both more rapid and insistent. This change is due to both the rising expectations of citizens for public action and increasingly competitive political leaders, interest groups, and an ever more watchful media. One needs only to contemplate how many media outlets now vie for breathless new angles on public policy issues, going well beyond traditional news programs to include such venues as entertainment programs and talk shows in what one observer called the "infotainment" explosion. Many of us champion this process of issue expansion -- cleaner air and water, expanded health care for seniors and children, and greater opportunities for disabled Americans are among the policy victories won at the national level through persistent advocacy and responsive political leadership.

While the agenda explosion clearly makes for a more frothy and responsive public sector, we should pause to reflect on its implications for public management. Managers and leaders at all levels of government find it increasingly difficult to respond to the burgeoning list of public problems. There are risks to the performance and credibility of government in this process, which few have examined closely:

o More daunting policy problems that lack clear solutions

Many private troubles are not easily addressed by any public manager, regardless of credentials or managerial prowess. Obesity is a good example. What was once considered largely a reflection of personal discipline has now emerged as a major public policy problem for managers to solve. There is no question that the consequences of the growing national waistline bring about higher health-care costs, but increasingly restive publics are holding public officials accountable for failing to deliver each of us from temptation. Local zoning and design decisions, for instance, are reprimanded if they fail to provide sufficient opportunities for exercise. Likewise, school superintendents are being held accountable for our children's expanding girth. Personally, many of us would agree with these expectations, but it places the public manager in the difficult position of being responsible for results that are only indirectly and partially the responsibility of public programs and choices.

o More precipitous decision-making

As the drumbeat grows for public response to a wider range of private troubles, public officials are pressured to adopt programs with greater speed and less deliberation. In the past, our federal system provided laboratories of democracy with time for ideas to germinate in states and communities before the entire nation took the leap into major new national programs. Often, national programs would begin only after piloting in a majority of states, providing time to assess policy implications and political support for the nationwide expansion. This learning process has become short-circuited, as increasingly insistent advocates and media clamor for national action without waiting for our laboratories to work. For instance, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 sought to automate the election booth by pressuring states, via grants, to replace punch-card and mechanical ballots with electronic voting machines. Since these machines were only tested in a few states, it is no surprise that subsequent studies found that such machines might prove to be more vulnerable to fraud and abuse than the old-fashioned methods they replaced, prompting states to reconsider their strategies after only several years of implementation.

o More impatient and demanding expectations for policy results

In such a competitive media culture, advocacy succeeds through hyperbolic statements promising major improvements or remediation of long-standing problems. Gaining space in media rich environments and gaining support by hard-pressed leaders often entails exaggerated definitions of problems and unrealistic expectations of results. Having laid new programs at public managers' doorsteps, advocates frequently become quickly disillusioned as they realize that progress takes many years of patient implementation. New programs test existing administrative systems and often call for new staff and partnerships with other sectors. Incipient conflicts that were neatly sidestepped in the policy formulation process raise their ugly heads when public managers face the realities of implementation -- the rush to judgment becomes replaced with gridlock, as difficult tradeoffs must be resolved in the management environment. For instance, while Congress rushed to adopt Megan's Law in 1996 -- which required communities to publicize the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders -- Congress also sidestepped difficult civil liberties issues that later confronted local public officials responsible for implementing this federal mandate.

o More challenging implementation regimes

Many of the emerging issues placed on the public agenda cannot be solved by traditional bureaucracies alone. Whether the issues are environmental, public health or transportation goals, achieving these broader societal objectives naturally requires the actions of a broader network of federal, state, and local governments, as well as nonprofit and private for-profit actors. However, achieving real collaboration with the diverse range of independent actors is among the most difficult challenges faced by public managers today -- each of these actors has their own values and interests that may conflict with one another's. For instance, collaborative networks are best suited to solve the deterioration of water quality stemming from nonpoint source pollution in major estuaries, such as the Chesapeake Bay. However, constructing and sustaining partnerships among the many competing interests responsible for these problems -- including farmers, local governments, developers and homeowners -- is a task that often proves elusive. To make matters worse, even when collaboration succeeds in producing new programs and policies, progress may be undermined by factors such as population growth, weather, and economic forces. We nonetheless hold public managers accountable for making progress in solving such "wicked problems."

We have very demanding standards for our public managers, and rightly so. Observers, auditors and advocates alike are vigilant overseers in a healthy process of accountability and oversight. As we issue our critical broadsides and assign grades in management report cards, it would be prudent to remember the hand that managers are dealt by our very active and responsive political system.

Paul Posner
Paul L. Posner | Contributor