Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Goal Displacement: Assessing the Motivation for Organizational Cheating

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Goal Displacement: Assessing the Motivation for Organizational Cheating

Article excerpt

Policy making at all levels of government has become much more complex over the past three decades. Governments are responsible for maintaining economic stability, combating racial discrimination, providing a safety net for the poor, educating citizens, and protecting consumers from unfair business practices. Political actors identify problems and create public policies to address them, but lack the time and expertise to become day-to-day implementers of policy. Rather than implement programs themselves, political actors rely on bureaucracies to translate abstract public policies into functioning programs.

While time constraints and lack of expertise in particular policy areas cause political actors to give bureaucratic organizations the authority to translate public policies into functioning programs, the involvement of political actors in the policy-making process does not stop once this discretionary authority has been granted. With grants of authority comes the expectation that public agencies will perform well in translating public policies into working programs. Concern over bureaucratic performance has spawned various tools for monitoring the work of public agencies. Legislatures often scrutinize the performance of agencies through oversight hearings and review of agency budget requests. Policies sometimes contain "sunset" provisions, in which the performance of bureaucracies in addressing given problems is evaluated after a set period of time to determine if programs are working and should be continued.

Policy monitoring, one far-reaching technique for assessing the performance of public agencies, has recently been proposed (Wood and Waterman 1994). The policy-monitoring framework suggests that political institutions should collect and review data on the activities of public agencies. Wood and Waterman propose, for example, that data on the enforcement patterns of federal regulatory agencies, such as number of inspections or fines levied per quarter, might be considered relevant performance indicators. Once these data are gathered, objective analysts review the data and report the results to elected officials, who then determine whether any corrective action needs to be taken.

While techniques such as legislative oversight and policy monitoring seem straightforward, the existence of clear, precise standards for evaluating public programs varies a great deal from agency to agency. Some agencies, termed "bottom line" agencies by Khademian (1995; Meier, Polinard, and Wrinkle 1999), have clear and objective standards for assessing performance. Many public agencies, however, lack such standards because they are charged with addressing intricate societal problems such as racism, poverty, drug abuse, and crime. Determining causation in such areas is infinitely complex (Goodsell 1994, 92). What effect, precisely, do bureaucracies have in ameliorating these problems? The answers may never be clear given that the contributions bureaucracies make toward solving these problems are interwoven into complicated networks of explanatory factors (Downs 1967). For complex social problems, precise measures of bureaucratic performance may be impossible. Add complex policies to the competing and contradictory goals that characterize public programs, and the task becomes Herculean. The performance of private corporations is relatively easy to evaluate given their one central goal--profit making. In contrast, the performance of public agencies is harder to evaluate because they have many bottom lines--social, political, and economic--making it almost impossible to develop simple quantitative measures of how they perform (Stillman 1987, 177-78).

Given the difficulties in systematically assessing the ultimate ends of bureaucratic activity, political actors rely on shorthand techniques to provide them with information about how agencies are performing. Rather than measuring the final outcomes of bureaucratic activity, those who evaluate the performance of public bureaucracies often pay more attention to the outputs these agencies produce. …

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