Commentary: Removing the Concept of Impossibility from Public Administration: The Case Made by Kevin Morrell and Graeme Currie

Published date01 March 2015
Date01 March 2015
Andrew Costello is deputy inspector
in the New York City Police Department.
A 25-year veteran of the agency, he was
assigned to riot policing in the early 1990s.
He is also adjunct professor at John Jay
College and holds a doctorate in criminal
Removing the Concept of Impossibility from Public Administration: The Case Made by Kevin Morrell and Graeme Currie 277
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 2, pp. 277–278. © 2015 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12328.
Andrew Costello
New York City Police Department
“Impossible Jobs or Impossible Tasks? Client
Volatility and Frontline Policing Practice in Urban
Riots” by Kevin Morrell and Graeme Currie extends
the theoretical framework of Hargrove and Glidewell
from their 1990 work Impossible Jobs in Public
Management. Hargrove and Glidewell continue the
apologetic mantra allowed for most public execu-
tives, which can be traced back to Robert Martinson’s
“Nothing Works” (1974) essay. In fairness to
Martinson, he was critically describing issues within
inef‌f‌i cient and nonproductive correctional rehabilita-
tion programs and was looking for change in order to
improve results. Similarly, Hargrove and Glidewell do
not portray a completely hopeless view and describe
the coping mechanisms of successful bureaucrats,
but they still allow for sympathy for the public
By using the specif‌i c example of policing riots, Morrell
and Currie expand on Hargrove and Glidewell’s con-
cept of impossible jobs by dividing jobs into tasks that
are possible and impossible.  is important distinc-
tion removes the concept of impossible jobs, a term
that is overused (except for the rare circumstance of a
job in which every task is impossible).  is distinction
cannot be overstated. Without it, public administra-
tors and public servants may easily throw up the white
f‌l ag of surrender and fail to provide the services that
the public expects of them under the guise that their
mission was impossible from the start.
Having worked in the public sector, and specif‌i cally
policing, for more than 25 years, I have been exposed
to several examples of this theme of hopelessness in
accomplishing the mission. Being told that crime
reduction is a greater societal problem that cannot
possibly be solved by the police was the most com-
mon statement ref‌l ecting impossibility. Hearing from
fellow colleagues how they were overwhelmed by their
current assignment was another annoyingly repetitive
theme. By looking at a job as a set of tasks, public
administrators will be able to divide their mission
into smaller, more consumable portions and triage
which tasks are possible and which tasks need further
thought to solve.
Policing in general and riot policing in particular are
useful cases for demonstrating this new distinction.
While some may perceive policing as an impossible
job, it is a job with many tasks that are achievable
and a few tasks that are impossible. Even within riot
policing, there are tasks such as crowd containment,
barrage protection, and cordon formation that are
possible and should be applied when feasible. Other
tasks, such as determining crowd motivation, factions
within crowds, and reaction to escalation or deescala-
tion of force, prove more dif‌f‌i cult and appear to be
Morrell and Currie’s inclusion of frontline super vi-
sors is a signif‌i cant step in researching impossible jobs
and an improvement on the framework. Prior to this
work, the f‌i eld was strictly reserved for commissioners
and agency heads. Research examined behavior in the
context of riot policing, where decisions have to be
made quickly in the f‌i eld at a local level by frontline
supervisors with imperfect information. Knowing full
well that their decisions might be fully reviewed after
the fact by a board of inquiry with access to informa-
tion not available to them at the front line, supervisors
could easily perceive such responsibility as an impos-
sible task. Such perceptions might well lead some
frontline supervisors to indecision.
Overall, Morrell and Currie’s extension of the
framework removes complete pessimism from certain
jobs deemed impossible by dividing a job into tasks
that may or may not be possible.  is new concept
allows for accountability for commissioners and
frontline supervisors for routine or dif‌f‌i cult tasks
while acknowledging certain tasks within a job title as
impossible.  is distinction will also prevent managers
of dif‌f‌i cult jobs from being lionized purely for assign-
ment or appointment to a position deemed impos-
sible. Under this new framework, only a small number
of positions should be deemed impossible.
Removing the Concept of Impossibility
from Public Administration:  e Case Made
by Kevin Morrell and Graeme Currie

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