For more than 50 years, scholars and practitioners have examined the role that fiction plays in public administration. For the most part, attention has centered on the degree to which practitioners can learn something about administration by exposing themselves to works of fiction (Egger, 1944, 1959; Waldo, 1968; Kroll, 1965, 1981). Fiction has been used as a teaching device, like the case study, to illustrate principles and expand experience (Holzer, Morris, and Ludwin, 1979; Argyle and Bright, 1992; Hunker, 1992; Marini, 1992a, 1992b).
In this article, I suggest that fiction plays an additional role in public administration. I argue that fiction (and other works of imagination) affect what public managers do and how they do it. Fiction appears to shape the policies that public servants carry out and the way in which they conduct their duties. It probably influences the choice of administrative methods. It does this by entering the public consciousness or popular culture and becoming part of the cognitive base for making decisions about public policy and administration.
This expanded view of fiction complements broader efforts currently underway to examine ways in which managers imagine the world around them (Morgan, 1986; Kass and Catron, 1990; Hummel, 1991; Kramer, 1992). It is also part of the effort to understand the relationship between humanistic arts and public administration. The latter is being advanced by a new Section on Humanistic, Artistic, and Reflective Expression in the American Society for Public Administration; by the section's new journal Public Voices, and by a new book on the role of the arts by Charles Goodsell and Nancy Murray (1995).
Conventionally, fiction is a term that encompasses works of art portraying imaginary events and persons, as in novels, cinema, television drama, and the theater. I have broadened the subject matter to include additional works that seek to portray events or places in imaginative ways, especially those in the future. Television docu-dramas, various types of paintings, theme parks, and popular science thus join fiction in a broader class of media that affect administration through imagination.
In this article, I present three cases that illustrate the influence of fiction and imagination upon public administration. The debate over the best way to treat the mentally ill shows how fiction can influence the outcome of policy debates, especially those for which empirical evidence remains inconclusive. The creation of the U.S. space program shows why other works of imagination must be included along with the study of fiction. The case of the National Performance Review illustrates the way in which fiction affects the course of administrative reform. These cases are followed by some suggestions on the ways in which the study of fiction and imagination might improve the understanding of public administration.
Fiction and Mental Institutions
Fiction can influence the choice of public policies and the methods for carrying them out, especially in areas where experts cannot agree. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the history of the deinstitutionalization movement. During the 1960s, a great debate took place in the United States on the best way to organize public facilities for the mentally ill. It culminated in the effort to replace large state institutions with community-based mental health centers. The debate began within fairly narrow policy circles, among specialists who treated the mentally ill. The issues they raised could not be settled conclusively through scientific investigation, as is often the case with public policy. Works of fiction slipped into this intellectual vacuum, creating vivid images that lent support to the advocates of deinstitutionalization.
Sociologists and psychologists had begun the debate before the 1960s, with a small group of reformers suggesting that government incarceration of the mentally ill served to remove the powerless and odd from society. Some went so far as to suggest that mental illness did not objectively exist and that the rude behavior of the mentally ill was a means of protest against their oppression. Social scientists supporting this point of view conducted field studies in mental institutions. Using the tools of anthropology, they suggested that life in the madhouse could be viewed as a coherent culture where the "crazy" behavior of inmates was a reasonable response to the conditions of confinement. These studies contradicted the prevailing view, also supported by scientific evidence, that saw mental illness as a serious medical disease. The reformers used their studies to press the case for deinstitutionalization (Goffman, 1961; Szasz, 1961).
Artists had been exposed to such issues through the incarceration of their own kind. The poet Ezra Pound, for example, was incarcerated in the St. Elizabeth's mental institution in Washington, D.C., in part for conducting radio profascist broadcasts from Italy during World War II. Hollywood had raised suspicions about the ethics of involuntary commitment through vehicles such as the 1947 movie classic Miracle on 34th Street (Perlberg, 1947), in which a department store bureaucrat seeks a judge's order to incarcerate an overly zealous Santa Claus. The movie, as with others of its time, suggested that unscrupulous persons employed incarceration as a means to remove troublesome but otherwise healthy persons from society.
Full public exposure of the issue occurred with the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. Deinstitutionalization fit well into the growing distrust of authority and search for personal liberation that motivated the counterculture movement. In his highly influential portraits of the exceptional but troubled characters Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger expressed dissatisfication with traditional methods of psychiatry.
You go right ahead and call in some ignorant psychoanalyst.
You just do that. You just call in some analyst who's
experienced in adjusting people to the joys of television,
and Life magazine every Wednesday, and European travel,
and the H-bomb...and God knows what else that's
gloriously normal--you just do that, and I swear to you,
in not more than a year Franny'll either be in a nut ward
or she'll be wandering off into some goddam desert with a
burning cross in her hands (1961; 108).
In 1962, Ken Kesey published the most influential statement of this philosophy. His best-selling novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, depicted conditions at an Oregon state mental institution as seen from the point of view of one of its inmates. Kesey's novel subsequently became a Broadway play and an award-winning Hollywood movie. In the story, Kesey pits Randle Patrick McMurphy, assigned to the mental hospital because of aggressive tendencies, against Big Nurse Ratched, the symbol of institutional authority. McMurphy's free-wheeling behavior has the power to cure other inmates, including the narrator, Chief Bromden, a mute half-Indian distressed by the disintegration of his native culture. Big Nurse interprets McMurphy's skills as a threat to her personal authority, and eventually incapacitates him through a frontal lobotomy.
The story applies the freedom from and freedom to philosophy of the counterculture movement to the treatment of the mentally ill. Kesey depicts state-run psychiatric treatment as offering little more than imprisonment, manipulation, humiliation, and torture. The fictional story, actually based on Kesey's personal experience as a worker at a Menlo Park veterans' hospital psychiatric ward, created widespread support for the release of the mentally ill and helped to make deinstitutionalization what psychiatrist Paul McHugh characterized as the "cultural fashion" of the day (McHugh, 1992; 498). Absent convincing evidence to the contrary, many people accepted the artistic view of incarceration. While other forces also encouraged deinstitutionalization (altered approaches to health care financing and medical treatment played important roles), the shift in public perceptions provoked by works of imagination helped to make this policy change occur.
Fiction and imagination enlarge policy debates that take place among small groups of experts, exposing ideas to a wide public audience. By widening the scope of debate, fiction helps to shape its resolution (Schattschneider, 1960). The issue of how to treat the mentally ill exploded upon the public consciousness through fiction. Novelists took up the personal liberation cause and made deinstitutionalization culturally fashionable.
Imagination and the U.S. Space Program
The second case, the creation of the U.S. space program, shows how popular views of the future amplify the messages carried through fiction. Science fiction and other works of imagination created images that provided the basis for the ambitious space program adopted by the United States and the system of administration necessary to carry it out.
With President John F. Kennedy's 1961 decision to race to the moon, the United States government adopted the type of exploration program for which space boosters had been clamoring for years. Kennedy's decision launched a crash program of human expeditions supported by an extensive infrastructure jointly developed by government and industry. Space boosters saw the decision as the first major step in a long-term program of spacecraft development, space stations, lunar bases, and human expeditions to Mars. The ambitious scenario had strong support within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), created in 1958 to lead the civilian space effort (NASA, 1959).
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first U.S. president to preside over a major space build-up, favored a different program. Both in policy direction and administration, his alternative differed considerably from the program that Kennedy approved. Fiction and imagination played no small part in building official support for Kennedy's bolder approach. The U.S. space program and the operation of NASA would have been considerably different had Eisenhower's alternative prevailed.
Eisenhower placed far more emphasis upon satellite technology than did Kennedy and the space boosters. Faced with a limited budget and a pressing requirement for continued surveillance activities over the Soviet Union, Eisenhower wanted the U.S. government to concentrate its efforts on the development of satellites and automated orbital platforms.
Commensurate with his devotion to satellite technology, Eisenhower's space program deemphasized the role of humans in space. Eisenhower steadfastly refused to approve any manned space flight program that went beyond the single-seat Mercury capsule. The civilian space program he favored was directed more toward scientific discoveries than engineering achievements. He had no interest in entering into a race with the Soviet Union that depended upon large rockets, where scientific questions took a back seat to engineering capability and the Soviets held a commanding lead. Even after leaving the White House, he continued to rail against the wisdom of engaging in what he called the "mad effort to win a stunt race" to the moon (Eisenhower, 1962; 24).
Eisenhower envisioned a quite different role for NASA under his alternative space program. He and his advisers did not want to turn NASA into a Manhattan Project for human space flight. During the Eisenhower years, NASA officials prepared to merge their manned and unmanned space flight programs at what would become the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Kennedy's decision to race to the moon, along with the interest of Texas politicians in a new space center to direct the effort, undid the early efforts to join human and robotic flight activities. Had Eisenhower's alternative prevailed, the schism that subsequently developed between manned and unmanned activities would not have been so deep.
As a result of the lunar decision, NASA abandoned the tradition of in-house capability that had guided the organizations from which it was formed. By the mid-1960s, NASA officials were contracting out more than 90 percent of their annual obligation budget. Project Apollo also required a higher level of centralization than the agency culture favored. Top NASA executives, led by Administrator James Webb, had to bring Air Force ballistic missile program officers into NASA to carry out the centralization and replace the old guard.
Normally, the president plays a leading role in defining the scope and direction of the U.S. space program. In this case, however, works of imagination undercut the Eisenhower alternative. Advocates of grander schemes effectively used imagination to promote their themes.
The notion of space travel drew only part of its force from science fiction, which tended to be fanciful and unreal. In 1835, the New York Sun, in one of the first efforts at tabloid journalism, reported that the astronomer Sir John Herschel had recorded the activity of creatures on the lunar surface through a specially designed telescope (Locke, 1975). In 1865, Jules Verne published his fictional account of efforts to organize a voyage From the Earth to the Moon. Visitors to Coney Island at the turn of the century could take a fanciful "Trip to the Moon" in a model spaceship. Disembarking on the simulated lunar surface, passengers were greeted by costumed midgets and dancing moon maidens handing out bits of green cheese. During the 1930s, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon attracted large audiences through the comic strips and Hollywood matinees, while science fiction pulp magazines such as Astounding Stories flourished. In 1938, Orson Welles terrified Americans with his radio broadcast of a fictional Martian invasion, based on H. G. Wells' turn-of-the-century novel, War of the Worlds (Ordway and Liebermann, 1992).
These efforts raised public interest in space travel but failed to convince many Americans that government support for space exploration was either likely or desirable. Where fiction failed, non-fictional works of imagination succeeded. Images of the future conveyed through popular astronautics and the nuclear holocaust literature of the 1950s enlarged public support for space travel. In 1949, artist Chesley Bonestell collaborated with science writer Willy Ley to produce Conquest of Space, an astonishingly realistic portrait of a voyage around the moon. Two years later, Ley organized a symposium on space travel at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Ley's unabashed purpose was "to make the public realize that the problem of space travel is to be regarded as a serious branch of science and technology" (Ley, 1951). The symposium incited editors at Collier's magazine (1952) to begin an eight-part series on space exploration, richly illustrated, which in turn inspired Walt Disney to produce three programs on space travel for his highly acclaimed "Disneyland" television program. In 1955, when the Disneyland theme park opened in Anaheim, California, it featured an imaginary Rocket to the Moon and Space Station X-1. All of these efforts sought to create exciting images of future space exploration that people could perceive as real.
Space boosters amplified these efforts by playing on public anxieties about the Cold War. Beginning in the late 1940s, exploration advocates used works of imagination to portray space as the "high ground" from which the Cold War would be decided.
Readers of Collier's magazine were treated to an article in 1948 "Rocket Blitz From the Moon" (Richardson, 1948). The article opened with an illustration of two V-2 shaped rockets rising out of lunar craters. On the adjoining page, two large fireballs spread across an aerial view of New York City. The nuclear blasts, drawn with stark realism by space artist Chesley Bonestell, were part of a larger literature that portrayed the effects of a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Bonestell painted a number of nuclear holocaust pictures, including the cover of the August 5, 1950, Collier's magazine issue that showed an atomic blast leveling Manhattan from the point of view of an airplane approaching La Guardia airport. A similar air burst graced the April 21, 1953, issue of Look.
It is hard for people now separated from the events of the 1950s to appreciate how much the possibility of nuclear war preoccupied the imagination of average Americans during the 1950s. School administrators required children to practice civil defense drills and methods for shielding themselves from unexpected nuclear blasts. Whole cities practiced evacuation techniques and warning sirens wailed weekly in civil defense drills. Magazines published blueprints for personal bomb shelters. The exercises may seem eccentric by modern standards, but they contributed significantly to public anxiety about a nuclear attack during the 1950s.
Promoters of space exploration joined friendly images of space travel with stark messages about military affairs. As science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein and Navy Captain Caleb Laning (1947) warned readers in the August 30, 1947, issue of Collier's magazine, "space travel can and will be the source of supreme military power over this planet--and over the entire solar system" (p. 36). Writers for the March 22, 1952, issue of Collier's magazine (1952), devoted primarily to peaceful renderings of space, did not pass up the opportunity to preach the implications for national security. In his famous proposal for an orbiting space station, Wernher von Braun (1952) argued that the orbital facility "can be converted into a terribly effective atomic bomb carrier" P. 74). In their introduction to the series, the editors of Collier's magazine (1952) warned readers that "a ruthless foe established on a space station could actually subjugate the peoples of the world.... The U.S. must immediately embark on a long-range development program to secure for the West `space superiority.' If we do not, somebody else will. That somebody else very probably would be the Soviet Union" (p. 23).
Hollywood helped to spread beliefs about the military importance of space in a number of early science fiction films. In the classic 1950 movie, Destination Moon, industrial executives agree to finance the lunar expedition once a military general explains:
The race is on, and we better win it, because there is absolutely
no way to stop an attack from outer space. The
first country which can use the moon for the launching of
missiles will control the earth. That, gentlemen, is the
most important military fact of this century (Pal, 1950).
One of the most bizarre conjunctions of imagination and public anxiety occurred through the unidentified flying object (UFO) phenomenon. Beginning in the late 1940s, Americans in ever-increasing numbers began to report encounters both visual and personal with beings from outer space, including some by otherwise reliable witnesses. Sightings increased sharply after the Soviet Union launched the first earth satellite, Sputnik I, on October 4, 1957. Of the 1,178 reported sightings in 1957, 60 percent occurred after the Soviet feat (Tacker, 1960). Discounting the suggestion that aliens actually stepped up observations following the event, one is left with the explanation that the sightings represented some form of mass hallucination triggered in part by hysteria over the Cold War, an interpretation favored by persons such as astronomer Carl Sagen (1993). Hollywood fueled public imagination on the issue with films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which a visiting saucer and its captain impose nuclear disarmament on bickering nations.
This rather lengthy history shows how imagination can join fiction to create public images that reshape the public consciousness, which in turn become part of the knowledge base for making policy decisions. Interest in an aggressive space effort prompted the Space Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives to attack Eisenhower's alternative as a "beginner" program that failed to show "proper imagination and drive." Committee staff urged the administration to mobilize facilities throughout the nation in order to develop manned space stations, build large launch vehicles, and dispatch rockets to nearby planets (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1958). Discontent with Eisenhower's space alternative reached near-hysterical proportions following the Soviet launch of Sputnik I and II in the fall of 1957, as politicians picked up the Cold War theme. "Control of space means control of the world," Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson told Senate colleagues (Dallek, 1991; 531; Johnson, 1962). Similar statements were issued by Senator Stuart Symington (D-MO) and then Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA).
The Eisenhower administration's is attempts to defend its moderate space program simply encouraged the belief that the president was inept and did not understand the nature of the challenge. Administration leaders tried hard to dispel images of bombs falling from platforms in space. "I don't know that anyone knows how you would rule the world with a space station," Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson remarked in 1954 (Saegesser). Intercontinental ballistic missiles were a much greater threat, Eisenhower's Chief of Naval Operations explained through the Reader's Digest (Palmer, 1958). The president's science committee explained that bombs dropped from a satellite would tend to remain in orbit and not immediately fall to earth.
These reassurances did little to alleviate the impression that the Eisenhower White House had become what Washington insiders labeled "the tomb of the well-known soldier" (Divine, 1993; 47). News outlets reporting the president's reassurances gave equal time to space cassandras preaching national doom. The president's science adviser, James Killian, acknowledged that the whole crisis had created "a widespread fear that the country lay at the mercy of the Russian military machine and that our government and its military arm had abruptly lost the power to defend the homeland itself, much less to maintain U.S. prestige and leadership in the international arena" (1977; 7).
Images of the Cold War, joined with popular astronautics, created the level of support necessary for Kennedy to establish a more aggressive space program in 1961. It did not matter that the images were apparitions of a future that in most cases would not prove true. The images were powerful enough at the time to affect the direction of the U.S. space program and the type of management necessary to carry it out. Imagination played a large role in this development.
National Performance Review
The two cases described above support the contention that fiction and imagination broadly affect public administration by shaping the choice of alternative policies and thus indirectly the methods for carrying them out. Both the decision to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill and the decision to race to the Moon created in their wake a specific type of public administration. The third case suggests that fiction and imagination go even further. Fiction and imagination probably affect the conduct of administration, without reference to the policy involved, by directly influencing the choice of administrative methods. The reception accorded the National Performance Review suggests how this might be so.
The 1993 effort known as the National Performance Review led by U.S. Vice President Albert Gore to restructure the executive branch of government is based upon a particular image of public management that owes as much to fiction as to empirical fact. Gore's effort draws its primary inspiration from a book titled Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler (1992). Both the book and Gore's National Performance Review seek to debureaucratize government by providing alternatives to the administrative state as the primary method for delivering public services. This is represented by Osborne and Gaebler's maxim that government leaders should separate "steering from rowing" (Osborne and Gaebter, 1992; 34). Two ways that they seek to do this are through injecting competition into service delivery and replacing rules with a concern for results.
The empirical evidence supporting these reforms is weak. Empirical findings on the causal link between competition and improved governmental performance are promising but slight (Boardman and Vining, 1989; Vining and Boardman, 1992). Competition improves performance in theory but not always in fact. If similar evidence were offered on behalf of a new drug, it would not be sufficient to warrant government approval. Findings on the utility of rules are likewise mixed (Kaufman, 1977; Tolchin and Tolchin, 1983; Perrow, 1972). Some rules are dysfunctional; others protect the public safety.
In spite of the dearth of evidence, Gore's report and Osborne and Gaebler's book contain the same sort of preachy enthusiasm and anecdotes that propelled the earlier management text In Search of Excellence onto best-seller lists (Peters and Waterman, 1982). Although the proposed reforms may not save money or improve the delivery of public services, the Osborne-Gore effort touches such deeply held beliefs within the United States that many people believe the techniques to be effective even in the absence of convincing evidence.
The reforms seem attractive to government officials and the public at large because they appeal so profoundly to the general distrust of bureaucratic government in the United States. Even defenders of bureaucracy acknowledge that governmental administration is in general an object of scorn (Goodsell, 1983).
From where does that scorn arise? There certainly was a time in American history when people depended upon each other rather than public administrators to organize community affairs (de Tocqueville, 1835). That situation, however, has long since disappeared. In fact, it was its passing that caused writers of imaginative literature to enshrine it in American popular culture. Fiction has been a powerful force in maintaining the myth that America works best without large institutions.
Sensing that something unique in the American experience was being lost through the expansion of organized society, novelists such as James Fenimore Cooper developed the myth of American personal independence in the early 19th century. Through novels like The Last of the Mohicians, Cooper (1826) ascribed the highest moral values to individuals who were able to remove themselves from civilization. A lifetime of contact with nature and Native Americans allowed characters like Natty Bumppo (known in that novel as Hawkeye) to develop the highest sense of morality and innate goodness. This same sort of anti-institutionalism permeates the works of Mark Twain (1884), the preeminent American novelist of the 19th century. Huckleberry Finn rows away toward the territories at the end of his novel in order to escape the corrupting influences of organized society.
This theme reached its highest form in the American western. The formula western was created by Owen Wister (1902) in The Virginian and maintained through an outpouring of dime store novels, movies, and television shows. This premier contribution of American imagination presents an unambiguous clash between good and evil, in which the former triumphs without any appreciable government interference. In the novel, the Virginian is obliged to hang a cattle rustler. The Virginian's employer justifies the action by stating that the Virginian had merely taken back the power granted to the government by the people, a necessity given the weak state of law in the Wyoming territory. As with earlier frontier novels, only individuals unfettered by institutions (like the Lone Ranger) are capable of reaching the highest levels of morality and bravery. Organized government is represented by a variety of despicable characters, from slovenly Indian agents to sheriffs in the pay of wealthy landowners. The few virtuous government agents are those (like U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon) who tend to work alone or are recruited from the citizenry at large. In revisionist westerns (such as "Little Big Man" and "Dances With Wolves") even the U.S. cavalry is portrayed as homicidal (Millar, 1970; Costner, 1990; Slotkin, 1992).
Attacks on governmental authority have proved to be a certain method for enlisting audience sympathy in the United States. The art and novels of Franz Kafka, Edvard Munch, Albert Camus, and George Orwell all received a strong reception in the United States in part because of their anti-institutional tone. Stupid government bureaucrats have been a staple fare in American cinema from police dramas like "Dirty Harry" to comedies like "Ghostbusters." Much science fiction, such as the "Star Trek" television series or the top-grossing "Star Wars," apply the story line of the western to outer space. Anti-institutionalism has been a favorite theme of 20th century American writers such as Kesey, Salinger, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jack Kerouac.
Partly because of the relentless message of imaginative authors, distrust of governmental institutions has become deeply ingrained in the American culture. With so many works of imagination preaching this theme, it is hard to win a case for bureaucracy. Fiction has created experiences for many people that are as vivid as encounters with real bureaucrats and more exasperating than reality (Goodsell, 1983). Commission reports and government reforms that appeal to this imaginary experience gain acceptance. They do not require extensive evidence to prove their efficacy because the images on which they draw are so widely perceived to be true.
Suppose that the lessons contained in these cases apply broadly, and that fiction and other works of imagination have a significant impact on public administration. If this is true, it would have important implications for the study of governmental management.
Such a finding would lend support to the point of view that the nature of "good" management is substantially dependent upon the values or culture of the society in which it takes place. Since its founding as a scholarly field of study, public administration has expended a good deal of effort searching for effective management methods. Luther Gulick stated an early case for the existence of administrative absolutes when he suggested in 1937 that precepts of administration might exist, hidden in the fabric of nature and waiting like laws of natural science to be discovered (Gulick, 1937). Writing in 1948, Dwight Waldo made a strong case for the opposite point of view. He argued that all systems of administration, including the administrative science movement, were products of the ideology of their place and time (Waldo, 1948). Gareth Morgan recast the case for relativism in 1986 when he released his popular textbook Images of Organization. Morgan advanced the notion that explanations of administration were based ultimately upon metaphors, such as the view of the organization as a machine or alternatively as a brain. In the conclusion to his book, Morgan suggested that people could change organizations by imagining them in different ways (Morgan, 1986).
Public policies change when people alter their images of them. A strong case can be made for the proposition that public policies depend for their implementation upon a receptive image of society that works of imagination help to create. The case of conservation policy, in addition to the case studies on mental health and space policy cited above, illustrates this particularly well. Government programs to preserve wild areas find support in a particular image of nature. As Roderick Nash has pointed out in his excellent history of the American conservation movement, wilderness is ultimately "a state of mind" (1982; ix). The definition of what constitutes a wild area and the value of preserving it depend considerably upon the point of view of the beholder. Early Americans viewed wilderness as savage and dangerous, thereby supporting public policies to tame it. Not until the late 19th century did Americans in large numbers begin to imagine wilderness areas as places of beauty and spiritual renewal. Painters of natural wonders, beginning with the Hudson River School and extending to the landscape painters of the American West, helped promote this view. The movement to create national parks and national forests waited upon a shift in imagination that was encouraged in large part by works of art.
If imagination creates conditions that favor particular policies, then why would imagination not affect administration in similar ways? Skeptics might grant a role for the former, since policies express values, while denying the latter on the basis that administration deals with facts (Simon, 1945). In practice, however, the empirical reality of "good" public administration may arise from the same societal values that shape policies. Society may recognize good administrators as those people who skillfully promote dominant ideals. Someone skilled in promoting competition would be a good manager in a society that valued rivalry, as in a market economy. The same manager would seem out of place in a society more oriented toward cooperation. Each system of administration could prove successful in its own setting since each would appeal to values that its participants recognize. As David Rosenbloom points out with regard to the current controversy over National Performance Review, the "correctness" of Gore's approach depends considerably upon one's willingness to accept the executive-centered vision of administration that it contains (Rosenbloom, 1993; 506). In a nation more devoted to legislative oversight or due process, the movement toward greater administrative discretion embodied in National Performance Review would be viewed as "bad" management. Unchecked administrative discretion would seem alien and prove troublesome rather than effective.
Good administration, like good policy, depends in large part upon the position of the beholder. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman illustrate this lesson with an interesting story in a videotape summary of their work (1984). After World War II, the two recall, Western economies contained so much pent-up demand that American industrialists could make practically anything and sell it. Managers associated their profits with the administrative methods of the day, which tended to be autocratic and machine-like. In fact, business success was due largely to an unusual set of economic conditions. As people like W. Edwards Deming (1986) tried to point out, American management methods were not as well advanced as many corporate executives wanted to believe. Nonetheless, people viewed the methods of the day as efficacious because they conformed to the norms of the period and the results were so spectacular.
Stories like these irritate people who believe in administrative absolutes. To them, administrative relativity is simply a bad theory that impedes the search for effective management, just like the belief in bodily humors impeded medicine until scientists discovered germs.
On the other hand, administrative reforms may be far more culturally based and less universal than absolutists are willing to admit. If this is true, then the study of fiction and imagination will go far toward revealing how relativity works.
Fiction and imagination may illuminate the workings of administration in another important way. They may help to explain why some organizations change -- and why others fail to transform themselves and continue to operate in dysfunctional ways.
If public administration requires compatible images for its support, then what happens when new images arise? The U.S. space program, as described above, depended for much of its motivation upon public images of the Cold War. Now that the Cold War has ended, part of the supporting foundation has disappeared. For some time, social scientists have studied the divergence of reality and imagination in small groups, such as religious cults that set specific dates for the end of the world (Festinger, 1956). Small groups of true believers do not automatically abandon their activities when new ideas arise. Devoted members rarely admit that they were wrong or change their behavior, especially those who remain dose to the original group. Instead, they increase their level of proselytizing, working hard to spread the underlying gospel. They seek out new beliefs to validate old behavior and new explanations as to why initial prophecies failed. Sometimes they deny that their prophecies in fact did fail.
These findings may sound familiar to people acquainted with large organizations. People in large organizations often cling to old behaviors long after the ideas that originally motivated them have disappeared (Parkinson, 1957). Any substantial gap between old beliefs and new ideas creates what behavioral scientist Leon Festinger (1957) calls cognitive dissonance (knowledge inconsistencies). At a minimum, true believers attempting to maintain their faith in an unfamiliar world encounter a turbulent environment. They often seek to insulate themselves from it. Efforts within bureaucratic organizations to avoid feedback that would require employees to deal with image shifts seem analogous to efforts within small groups to avoid contrary information.
The study of fiction and imagination offers insights into processes such as these. Fiction and imagination offer more than stories to illustrate administrative lessons. Potentially, their analysis offers new insights into the dynamics of public administration.
Howard E. McCurdy is a professor of public administration at The American University in Washington, DC, and a visiting professor of public affairs at the University of Washington in 1995-96. His most recent book, Inside NASA, describes the changing organizational culture of that agency. He is a contributor to the book co-edited by Charles T. Goodsell and Nancy Murray, Public Administration Illuminated and Inspired by the Arts.
Some of the material in this article is drawn from the author's ongoing study of popular imagination and the U.S. space program, supported by the NASA History Division. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Kimberly Kehoe, a graduate student at The American University, for her assistance with the research necessary to produce this article.
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