Risk Management and Risk Avoidance in Agency Decision Making

Published date01 September 2014
Date01 September 2014
Adam Eckerd is assistant professor in
the Center for Public Administration and
Policy at Virginia Tech. His research focuses
on the complex relationship between
organizational decision making and social
outcomes, with particular interests in
environmental justice, nonprof‌i t evaluation,
and contract management.
E-mail: aeckerd@vt.edu
616 Public Administration Review • September | October 2014
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 5, pp. 616–629. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12240.
Adam Eckerd
Virginia Tech
Despite decades of ef‌f orts to enhance the public’s role in
bureaucratic decision making, citizens still tend to have
little inf‌l uence on the decisions that public managers
make. Solutions often focus on the processes or structures
of participation, but such changes may be of limited
ef‌f ectiveness if the structure is on ly part of the problem.
Although much research has argued the normative jus-
tif‌i cation for including the public, noting that frame-
works that do not encourage genuine participation may
diminish rather than enhance public inf‌l uence, there has
been less focus on how participants’ divergent frames of
reference may also diminish the inf‌l uence of public input.
is research explores this gap from a risk management
perspective, suggesting that public managers tend to view
risk as something to be managed, whereas citizens tend to
view risk as best avoided.
Including the public in public agency decision
making is perceived not only as a means to bet-
ter policy but also as a democratic end on its own
(Bingham, Nabatchi, and O’Leary 2005; Frederickson
1991; Roberts 2008; Stivers 1990;  omas 1990). As
such, public managers have long been encouraged, and
in some cases required, to include public input in their
decisions (Golden 1998; Koontz 1999; West 2004).
Subsequent evaluations of the extent to which this input
inf‌l uences decisions are mixed at best (Delli Carpini,
Cook, and Jacobs 2004; Diduck and Sinclair 2002;
Hartley and Wood 2005; King, Feltey, and Susel 1998).
Although there is wide agreement that the public should
be involved (Renn et al. 1993), there has also been
criticism, noting that the modes of receiving input often
focus on the process rather than the outcome (Fischer
1993), rarely result in genuine discourse (Halvorsen
2003) or collaboration (Huxham and Vangen 2000),
include participants that are
not representative of the actual
stakeholders (McComas 2001),
and may actually be counterpro-
ductive (Innes and Booher 2004;
Irvin and Stansbury 2004). In
short, despite democratic intent,
previous empirical evidence
suggests that public inclusion has little ef‌f ect on subse-
quent decisions and could actually exacerbate rather than
close the democracy def‌i cit (Innes and Booher 2004).
In the U.S. federal government, and often in the states,
comment-response processes are a common form of
soliciting public input (Jewell and Bero 2006; Yackee
2006). With widespread agreement that the comment-
response system does not foster collaboration or achieve
its intended purpose (Innes and Booher 2004), propos-
als for more ef‌f ective inclusion often focus on devising
a better form of participation, under the assumption
that well-designed participatory processes can create
genuine democratic discourse (King, Feltey, and Susel
1998; Ryfe 2005; Vigoda 2002). However, although
altering the form of participation may be a necessary
component for increasing public inf‌l uence on bureau-
cratic decisions, form alone appears to be insuf‌f‌i cient to
foster genuine discourse (Dorcey and McDaniels 2001;
Koontz 1999; Koontz et al. 2004; Rummery 2006).
is research investigates one potential reason why.
Ef‌f ective and inf‌l uential public participation is,
among other potential variables, dependent on the
context of participation (Delli Carpini, Cook, and
Jacobs 2004; Rowe and Frewer 2004), the extent to
which stakeholders are informed about and have an
understanding of the policy (Baker, Addams, and
Davis 2005), the breadth of stakeholders that are
involved (Koontz and Johnson 2004), the level of goal
incongruence among the dif‌f erent stakeholder groups
(Gastil 2000), and, f‌i nally, the focus of this research,
varying perceptions of the risk involved in public
projects, and the extent to which the government is
able to convey (and the public interprets) the poten-
tial risks and benef‌i ts of a policy
(Frewer 1999; Kasperson 1986).
e framework for this article
is based on risk perception
and management. People in
professional roles and people
in citizen roles may be coming
Risk Management and Risk Avoidance in Agency
Decision Making
In the U.S. federal govern-
ment, and often in the states,
comment-response processes are
a common form of soliciting
public input.

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