The Boston Marathon Bombings: Who's to Blame and Why It Matters for Public Administration

Date01 November 2014
Published date01 November 2014
AuthorJohn D. Marvel
John D. Marvel is assistant professor
in the School of Policy, Government, and
International Affairs at George Mason
University. His research focuses on work
motivation, employee turnover, and public
sector organizational performance.
The Boston Marathon Bombings: Who’s to Blame and Why It Matters for Public Administration 713
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 6, pp. 713–725. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12263.
bombings—af‌f ect citizens’ beliefs regarding which
government organizations, if any, are culpable for
failing to prevent the bombings. We are particularly
interested in whether high-level public administra-
tors enjoy higher levels of credibility than politicians
and, consequently, exert more inf‌l uence over citizens
blame attributions. We take no position on whether
the inf‌l uence of public administrators is normatively
desirable; instead, we treat the question of public
administrators’ inf‌l uence on citizens’ blame attribu-
tions as an empirical one. By exploring how elite
“blame statements” inf‌l uence citizens’ beliefs about
government’s culpability for the Boston Marathon
bombings, we aim to show that public opinion is a
substantively important area for future public admin-
istration research.
Blame Attribution and Its Implications
for Public Administration
In the aftermath of terrorist attacks and other tragic
public events, politicians and other elites inevitably
look to assign and avoid blame—blame for failure to
anticipate an event (e.g., 9/11), blame for failure to
respond swiftly and competently to an event (e.g.,
Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill),
and blame for any other failures, real or perceived
(Gomez and Wilson 2008; Malhotra and Kuo 2008).
is “blame game” usually takes place in full view of
the public, and so it inf‌l uences citizens’ beliefs about
which government actors are responsible for whatever
failure, if any, has occurred (Maestas et al. 2008).
ese beliefs, in turn, af‌f ect citizens’ more general
political attitudes (e.g., what policies to support) and
decision making (e.g., whom to vote for), which inf‌l u-
ence the policy responses that politicians are willing to
support publicly (Iyengar 1987; Pef‌f‌l ey 1984). Finally,
these policy responses, which might include such
things as funding changes for government programs
or organizational restructuring, have crucial implica-
tions for public administration.
Wise (2002), for instance, questions the wisdom of
the post-9/11 impulse—driven in part by a public
is article examines how elite attributions of blame—
statements from politicians and high-level public
administrators assigning responsibility for failure to
prevent the Boston Marathon bombings—af‌f ect citizens
beliefs regarding which government organizations, if
any, are culpable for failing to prevent the bombings.
e primary hypothesis is that public administrators,
owing to their greater credibility relative to politicians,
will more strongly inf‌l uence citizens’ notions of who is
to blame. Findings show that public administrators are
viewed as signif‌i cantly more credible among Democrats,
and this credibility advantage translates into inf‌l uence.
Additionally, blame statements implicating the Federal
Bureau of Investigation for failing to prevent the Boston
Marathon bombings are particularly inf‌l uential among
Republicans, and exculpatory statements are particularly
inf‌l uential among Democrats. As discussed in the context
of the Boston Marathon bombings, the public process of
attributing blame for a perceived governmental failure
has important implications for public administration.
The political and public opinion aspects of
governmental responses to terrorist attacks are
understudied within the discipline of public
administration. Instead, the technical and manage-
rial aspects of governmental responses (e.g., how
can intergovernmental coordination of emergency
response functions be improved? How can we train
public sector managers to be ef‌f ective leaders in crisis
situations?) receive the lion’s share of attention from
public administration scholars.  ere is good reason
for this, as answers to these kinds of technical and
managerial questions are crucial for public admin-
istration practitioners. Nevertheless, this substan-
tive imbalance represents a signif‌i cant gap in public
administration scholarship, given that politics and
public opinion can shape government’s organizational
and institutional responses to terrorist attacks.
Accordingly, this article examines how elite attribu-
tions of blame—statements from politicians and
high-level public administrators assigning respon-
sibility for failure to prevent the Boston Marathon
e Boston Marathon Bombings: Who’s to Blame and Why
It Matters for Public Administration
John D. Marvel
George Mason University

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