For the Benefit of Mr. Thompson: Organizations, Uncertainty, and Administrative Science

Published date01 March 2019
Date01 March 2019
For the Benef‌it of Mr. Thompson: Organizations, Uncertainty, and Administrative Science 153
The beginning of the new semester provides
us with another chance to reflect on the
usefulness of classic writings for the next
generation of academics and practitioners. Preparing
our courses on organizational theory and public
management resurrects the typical fare from Simon
(1957) and Cyert and March (1963), as well as a
number of similar definitive tomes—most notably,
James D. Thompson’s contribution to administrative
theory. While the renewed interest in the behavioral
sciences in public administration has reintroduced
Simon–Cyert–March to a new generation,
Thompson’s contribution is sometimes overlooked
in this nascent foray into administrative theory. Our
current issue explores the role of structure within
organizations and among organizations in bringing
about desired outcomes, which provides a novel
opportunity to reflect on Organizations in Action.
Sometimes the intensity of desire for certain
kinds of outcomes leads to the creation of
complex organizations to operate patently
imperfect technologies. (Thompson 1967, 15)
The drive for performance—the search for desired
outcomes—has become even more intense in
the current maelstrom of interorganizational,
intergovernmental, intersectoral, networked, and
collaborative governance. Many of the articles in
this issue tackle this complexity directly, exploring
the role of structure on performance, for example,
in the context of climate research agencies (Franklin
et al. 2019), emergency management networks (Jung,
Song, and Park 2019), and “perverse” public–private
arrangements (Wise and Witesman 2019). Cheng
(2019) examines the role of park-supporting nonprofit
organizations in large cities, finding that they fill gaps
where government capacity is lacking—particularly
when they are larger, younger, and operating in more
stable communities. Past research has demonstrated
the significance of role of capacity in performance
(Hall 2008); in this case, cogovernance and
coproduction are influenced by structural constraints
and characteristics of both public and nonprofit
organizations, with capacity playing a significant
role in determining the nature of the arrangement
of service provision. Elkomy, Cookson, and Jones
(2019) compare hospitals that contract the provision
of ancillary services (such as cleaning) with those that
do not; ironically, the contracted solution is cheaper,
but dirtier, when using acquired infections rates as
a performance measure. This finding is intriguing
because it demonstrates how the use of contracted
service provision for an ancillary service can impact
the core mission of the organization.
Three articles examine complexity from a fiscal
or financial perspective. In addition to Wise and
Witesman’s (2019) look at perverse privatization,
Yang’s attention to the negative externalities of fiscal
problems demonstrates a case-specific contagion
effect of municipal bankruptcy on cities with
borrower and bond-specific similarities without a
geographic proximity effect (Yang 2019). Mughan
(2019) explores the conditions under which municipal
consolidations reduce government expenditures,
finding that voluntary mergers reduced spending,
while higher government-forced consolidations
did not.
Perhaps Thompson had not envisioned the extent
to which networks would add to organizational
complexity, but his paradigm is resilient in spite of the
pervasiveness of such arrangements. For Thompson,
the organization is a “problem-solving” and “problem-
facing” institution, limited only by its ability to
develop and learn processes that enable it to make
decisions in a complex environment. Developing
and learning choices and courses of action allows the
organization to cope with “an environment which
does not fully disclose the alternatives available or the
consequences of those alternatives” (9). Embracing the
Simon–Cyert–March tradition, Thompson advocates
understanding the limits to taking on environmental
complexity by making decisions under conditions
of bounded rationality. Specifically, he suggests,
R. Paul Battaglio
University of Texas at Dallas
Jeremy L. Hall
University of Central Florida
For the Benefit of Mr. Thompson: Organizations,
Uncertainty, and Administrative Science
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 2, pp. 153–155. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13044.

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