Fiction and Imagination: How They Affect Public Administration

By McCurdy, Howard E. | Public Administration Review, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview
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Fiction and Imagination: How They Affect Public Administration


McCurdy, Howard E., Public Administration Review


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.

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