Paying Attention to the Trees in the Forest, or a Call to Examine Agency-Specific Stories

AuthorEllen V. Rubin,Keith P. Baker
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2019, Vol. 39(4) 523 –543
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X17753865
Paying Attention to the
Trees in the Forest, or a
Call to Examine Agency-
Specific Stories
Ellen V. Rubin1 and Keith P. Baker2
Public administration scholarship needs to strike a better balance between large
sample studies and in-depth case studies. The availability of large data sets has led
us to engage in empirical research that is broad in scope but is frequently devoid of
rich context. In-depth case studies can help to explain why we observe particular
relationships and can help us to clarify gaps and inconsistencies in theory. Our
argument for more case studies aims to encourage researchers to bridge insights
from qualitative and quantitative research through triangulation. We describe the
value of case study research, and qualitative and quantitative design options. We then
propose opportunities for case study research in public personnel scholarship on
patronage pressures, performance management, and diversity management.
case studies, critical and deviant cases, quasi-experimental design, patronage, diversity
management, performance management
The availability of large data sets like the Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys and
other sources of agency management and performance data creates incentives for
public personnel and public management researchers to design studies that prioritize
1University at Albany, NY, USA
2Oregon State University, Corvallis, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ellen V. Rubin, Associate Professor, Department of Public Administration and Policy, University at
Albany, State University of New York, 135 Western Ave., Milne Hall 101, Albany, NY 12222, USA.
753865ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X17753865Review of Public Personnel AdministrationRubin and Baker
524 Review of Public Personnel Administration 39(4)
breadth above substantive depth. The reliance on large sample studies has produced a
situation in which researchers lack knowledge of the nuances of the operating or polit-
ical environment of the agencies studied. Failure to understand context can result in
“inaccurate inferences” and “inaccurate interpretations” (Durant & Rosenbloom,
2017, p. 725). Furthermore, this lack of contextual knowledge increases the likelihood
that we might claim a successful innovation in one context is the solution to a similar
problem in a different context with different legal, political, and/or administrative tra-
ditions (Pollitt, 2006). As we become more data-rich, we are simultaneously becoming
From an optimistic view, the availability of large sample data sets across agencies
has supported considerable scholarship into bureaucratic behavior, the actions and
motivations of employees, and the impact of various policy agendas (see, for example,
Cohen, Blake, & Goodman, 2016; Meier & Hicklin, 2008; Nicholson-Crotty,
Nicholson-Crotty, & Fernandez, 2017). More data, and more data over time, allow the
field to inch closer to the standards of experimental research from the natural sciences
as a way to signal our rigor and claim legitimacy as a field of scientific study.
However, overreliance on cross-agency studies with inadequate understanding of
the operational realities may lead to significant problems with internal and construct
validity. Take, for example, the public personnel and public management scholarship
on diversity management. Four different reviews of diversity management research
have all called for more detailed study within organizations to assess the degree to
which diversity management policies impact individual, group, and organizational
outcomes (Ivancevich & Gilbert, 2000; Pitts & Wise, 2010; Sabharwal, Levine, &
D’Agostino, 2016; Wise & Tschirhart, 2000). Despite these calls, published research
claiming to be focused on diversity management drawing from U.S. federal agencies
provides very little detail on the deliberate policies implemented by public agencies.
Furthermore, an unclear or imprecise definition of diversity management could lead
scholars to select measures that actually represent organizational culture or manage-
ment support for diversity, rather than actually assessing the effectiveness of imple-
mented policy. Questions and measures that are not thoughtful about the operational
reality in agencies may lead to misinterpreting results and drawing the wrong lessons
for theory (see Riccucci, 2010, for a further discussion).
The central purpose of this article is to describe how studies of individual agencies
can be designed in a manner that are empirically defensible and inform theory devel-
opment. Agency-specific case studies, whether using quantitative, qualitative, or
mixed-methods designs, are particularly useful tools for exploring research questions
in public personnel and public management scholarship. The “Balkan-ization” of gov-
ernment personnel systems resulting from piecemeal reform efforts in agencies with
privileged political status or in agencies under the spotlight of scandal creates impor-
tant opportunities to understand how the unique rules and situations matter—but only
if we know about the details of those reforms and/or scandals. For example, case-
based research might consider the impact of patronage pressures in hiring practices at
U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Bush administration (DOJ Office of the
Inspector General, 2008) or whether incentive systems at the U.S. Department of

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