Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The First Step in the Reinvention Process: Assessment

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The First Step in the Reinvention Process: Assessment

Article excerpt

The age-old dictum, "know thyself," applies to organizations as well as people. The penalty for lack of self-understanding is usually failure in crisis and an inability to plan realistically for the future. Because the need and desire to change is becoming commonplace in public sector organizations, causing innumerable organizational planning initiatives and probably as many crises, organizations must be very careful to understand their current values and problems before lunging toward "new" values and solutions. Yet ironically, it is amazing how many organizations do not know themselves and flounder in a sea of conflicting values when hastily initiating organizational changes. Organizations are usually far wiser to proceed thoroughly through the first step in the reinvention process, assessment, rather than discovering later that fundamental disagreement or misunderstanding exists about the problems of and solutions for organizational maladies.

In this article, I briefly focus on values changes in society and in public sector organizations. I note that social and organizational values are in a period of unusual change. The bulk of the article then looks at the strengths and weaknesses of seven types of assessment strategies being used by organizations today. This inventory is meant to provide an overview for practitioners confronted with "reinvention" challenges and for scholars studying those organizations.

Distinguishing Value Shifts

and Value Adjustments

Value shifts are substantial changes in social systems that consequently affect subsystems such as public administration (Kanter, Stein, and Jick, 1993). In stable societies, major shifts only occur every few generations. In the United States, it seems to result in a 50-year cycle, epochal changes having occurred in the 1930s move to activist government, the 1880s progressivism, the 1830s Jacksonian patronage-responsiveness movement, and so on (Lan & Rosenbloom, 1992; Rosenbloom & Ross, 1994).(1) This infrequent level of substantial value changes is particularly important for us now because we are in the midst of a substantial value shift (T. Peters, 1992, 1994; Ingraham & Romzek, 1994).

Value adjustments are the intermittent adaptations made by institutional subsystems such as churches, civic organizations, and public agencies as a result of value shifts. Value adjustments often do not occur in a direct linear relationship with value shifts because of internal traditions, priorities, rigidities, and critical mass issues. Value adjustments occur more like the pressure that builds up for earthquakes; sometimes the pressure produces a number of small earthquakes and at other times, a big earthquake with aftershocks. In the private sector, organizations that cannot make appropriate value adjustments usually go out of business. In the public sector, many agencies are not allowed to die, but they may remain in a state of suspended malaise for decades if they are unable proactively to adjust priorities and values.

There are three responses to the need for organizational value adjustments. The first response is not to make any adjustments at all. In many instances, this is the correct response. In a stable era, value adjustments may be so few and infrequent that for all important purposes they are unnecessary and inappropriate because things are functioning well. Because we are currently not experiencing a stable era in public administration, this is rarely an appropriate response for organizations today.(2)

The second type of response is to make minor value adjustments. Such value adjustments can be implemented for two reasons. One reason is that the stated values in formal organizational aspects such as personnel rules, organizational procedures, and executive directives do not match actual values as demonstrated by performance. Another reason to make minor value adjustments is that both the current values and actual performance (whether or not they are aligned with each other) are out of alignment with the environment. …

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