Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Improvisation in Public Administration and Policy Making in Israel

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Improvisation in Public Administration and Policy Making in Israel

Article excerpt

"Improvisation" is one of those elements that stand outside of conventional models for rational policy making and Weberian administration, but nonetheless account for important activities.(1) The roots of the word are in music, theater, and public speaking. Dictionaries define it as composition, performance, or speaking on the spur of the moment, extemporaneously, without detailed preparation. Improvisation in public policy making and administration partakes of these qualities. Hebrew helps to clarify the concept. It uses similar terms for improvisation and immediate. The implication is that improvisation carries an immediate answer for a need, as in a fluid, uncertain, or dangerous environment (Lee 1995). Improvisation is also a way of responding to unexpected opportunities. It involves activity without formal plans or systematic procedure, or activity that departs from the plan or procedure.

As in music, the theater, or public speaking, it may be difficult to identify instances of administrative or policymaking improvisation as opposed to minor variations from a plan, or an interpretive rendition of prepared material. And as in a performance or speech, improvisation in policy making and administration can be brilliant or clumsy. It may provide just what an organization needs in a difficult situation or a sudden opportunity, or it may be a step toward disaster.

Improvisation is a commonplace phenomenon, found in virtually all areas of life. Perhaps because of this, it is taken for granted and has received little scholarly attention. There is a study by Aram and Walochik (1996-97) on improvisation by Spanish managers; a theoretical paper by Inbar (1991) treating improvisation as "a process ... facilitating the accomplishment of a determined vision" (71); and two recent papers that present improvisation as a supplement or alternative to traditional planning to enable businesses to deal with the uncertainties and fluidities of rapid, unpredictable technological change (Crossan et al. 1996; Orlikowski and Hofman 1997).

For the most part improvisation is mentioned, without much elaboration, as a way of dealing with a particular problem. It is touted in seminars and workshops aimed at increasing individual and organizational creativity, innovation, and problem solving. In the Israeli media, it is blamed for a host of mishaps in government, administration, and business.

This article seeks to shed light on the elusive and complex quality of improvisation in public policy and administration. For this purpose, we define improvisation as an extemporaneous action undertaken to cope with a problem or seize an opportunity. Improvisation is identified not by the action itself, but the process by which it is carried out. We confine our discussion to Israel, where we are familiar with governmental processes. We also limit the discussion to improvisation in ranking positions of government.

Improvisation As a Way of Coping within Bounded Rationality

Improvisation is made inevitable by shortfalls from rationality. Although Weberian theory regards good policy making as an outcome of rational thinking, it has long been understood that human rationality is limited. As the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (1976) pointed out half a century ago, our ability to make rational decisions--defined as the most appropriate decisions for the achievement of a specified goal--is "bounded" by many factors: skills, habits, and reflexes; values, motives, loyalties, and purposes; and the inevitable incompleteness of relevant knowledge. These factors make it virtually impossible to achieve the sine qua non of rational planning--considering all the behavior alternatives prior to making the decision and weighing the whole complex of consequences that might follow on each choice. All the options never come to mind; consequences are matters of prediction rather than knowledge. The unknowns increase when personnel, assets, or conditions are novel or fluid. …

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