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date: 19 April 2019

Bureaucratic Policymaking on Natural Hazards

Summary and Keywords

Bureaucratic politics, discretion, and decision-making for natural hazards governance present an important challenge of the use of autonomous bureaucratic discretion in the absence of political accountability. Understanding how these factors influence discretion and policymaking is of critical importance for natural hazards because the extent to which bureaucrats are able to make decisions means that communities will be safer in the face of disaster. But the extent to which they are held accountable for their decisions has significant implications for public risk and safety. Bureaucrats are unelected and cannot be voted out of office.

There are two significant areas that remain regarding the use of bureaucratic discretion in natural hazards policy. One key area is to consider the increasing emphasis on networked disaster governance on bureaucratic discretion and decision-making. The conventional wisdom is that networks facilitate disaster management much better than command and control approaches. However, the extent to which the use of bureaucratic discretion is important in the implementation of natural hazard policy, particularly for mitigation and preparedness, remains an open area of research.

The other key area is the influence of bureaucratic discretion and decision-making when communities learn after a disaster. The political nature of disasters and the professional expertise of public service professionals imply that in order to make communities safer, bureaucrats will have to use discretion to push forward more aggressive mitigation and preparedness policies. Bureaucratic discretion would need to be used for both political and policy purposes in order to engage in policy learning after disasters that produces a substantive change.

Keywords: bureaucratic discretion, natural hazards, disasters, public policy, governance, shared governance


Policymaking on natural hazards occurs in a system of governance where power to make policy and the authority to implement it are divided and shared. For instance, in a federal system of government like the U.S., authority is shared in an intergovernmental model among federal, state, and local governments tasked with reducing risk and managing natural hazards. It’s further fragmented in a classical politics-administration split between political leaders that place a heavy emphasis on disaster response and civil servants who tend to focus more on preparedness and mitigation. And finally, governance of natural hazards is divided into different approaches—ranging from models of command and control to networked systems of coordination.

Understanding just how bureaucrats and public service professionals make policy decisions under these constrains is of critical importance for understanding how hazards science is interpreted and translated into practice as public policy.

The idea of bureaucratic politics generally implies that there is some decision-making process that occurs out of public view. Government professionals who are concerned with crafting good policy carry out the politics of bureaucratic policymaking strategically—and often this occurs far from public view (Lynn, 1996).

Within this fragmented system, public service professionals, responsible for the day-to-day assessment and management of the risks posed by natural hazards, make public policy at the local level of government, in ways that directly affect life in their communities. Ideas about intergovernmental relations, models of decision-making, and issues of bureaucratic politics and accountability influence the extent to which these public service professionals, or so-called members of the bureaucracy, are able to use discretion and make policy.

Understanding how these factors influence discretion and policymaking is of critical importance for natural hazards because the extent to which bureaucrats are able to make decisions means that communities will be safer in the face of disaster. But the extent to which they are held accountable for their decisions has significant implications for public risk and safety. Bureaucrats are unelected and cannot be voted out of office. Bureaucratic policymaking at the federal, state, and local levels of government can influence community resilience after a disaster, the social vulnerability of people in a community, and the sound recovery that insulates a community from future risks. Social vulnerability can vary significantly from one location to another based upon several important factors, including personal wealth, an individual’s age, and the density of the built environment in a community (Cutter et al., 2003). The manner in which bureaucrats in local government make policy based on the characteristics of their environment may help to reduce vulnerability and promote resilience after a disaster. Moreover, how bureaucrats understand and interpret information from other areas of hazards science, including hazard mappings, models of potential property and crop losses, and engineered building designs and materials, is of critical importance for how hazard science gets put into practice in communities.

Bureaucratic Decisions in the Context of Hazards and Disasters

Generally, in the United States the civil servants that make up the bureaucracy are valued because of their neutral, professional competence that is presumably apolitical (Kaufman, 1956). The rationale behind neutral competence of civil servants in public service is that they will provide technical expertise to government with a blind eye to politics. While politicians and elected officials are responsive to constituents, voters, and mobilized interests, the bureaucracy and the public service professionals who work in it are professionally neutral. They typically remain in their position from administration to administration and work across party lines. Their work tends to remain focused within a policy subsystem, like emergency management, natural hazard mitigation, or disaster preparedness.

The idea of neutral competence has been much more of an ideal type, where the pressures of political responsiveness to public pressure is held simultaneously with professional expertise (Moe, 1995; Hammond & Thomas, 1989). The problem for bureaucratic policymaking in the context of natural hazards is to understand the balance between how professional competence is used in a political context in ways that have a direct impact on community vulnerability and resilience in a disaster.

“Bureaucratic politics are conducted quietly, behind the scenes, in skillful ways, with strategic reversals possible, caution, and contentment with sharing credit for good results. A person needs these attributes in order to exhibit good stagecraft” (Lynn, 1996, p. 91). Neutral competence is inconsistent with the motivations of career bureaucrats who are motivated to advance a particular policy preference (Gailmard & Patty, 2007).

While public service and government favor the ideals of neutral competence and technical expertise, the context for bureaucratic decision-making, and hence policymaking, is one that is inherently political. And it is inherently political in terms of responsiveness to constituents and citizens, to electoral concerns, and to how images of disasters are depicted and portrayed. Furthermore, the context for bureaucratic decision-making is one where governance is shared among levels of government and between multiple, different public sector actors.

The literature on bureaucratic politics and neutral competence means for natural hazards two very specific things. First, that for public service professionals actively working in fields like floodplain management or earthquake risk reduction, their policy preferences are very likely to be tied to a policy objective that is driven by their professional membership or association. Second, the relative effectiveness of these public service professionals to advance policy change within the bureaucracy means that they often work behind the scenes, engaged in more incremental policy change than dramatic shifts in hazards policy.

Both of these aspects of bureaucratic politics pose serious concerns for accountability in bureaucratic policymaking because these public service professionals tend not to be elected and cannot be voted out of office. The balance between the ideal of neutral competence and policy preferences with political accountability has long been present in natural hazards policy. After Hurricane Andrew in Florida and the poor federal response, President Bill Clinton used that moment of dissatisfaction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to appoint career emergency management professionals to the agency shortly after he was elected (Wamsley & Schroeder, 1996). Clinton made the appointments to FEMA because of the political implications and optics of having a poor federal response to disaster.

Since the early 2000s, the National Response Framework (NRF) guides disaster preparation, response, recovery, and mitigation policy. The NRF encourages state and local government to engage charities, nonprofit organizations, and community groups in disaster planning through a “whole community” approach. Putting disaster plans, particularly response and recovery plans, into action can be challenging because the systems for managing emergencies is rigid and centralized (Waugh & Streib, 2006; Birkland & Waterman, 2008). In addition, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) provides an interoperable framework for coordinating and managing all levels and jurisdictions in emergency response.

At the heart of disasters and bureaucratic decision-making about policies to address hazard and risk, it is important to recognize that disasters are political events (Platt, 2012). In the 1950s, Congress determined it was appropriate to grant federal disaster declarations on a case-by-case basis, and this process provided an opportunity for legislators to funnel federal dollars back to their home districts (Platt, 2012). Federal dollars funneled back to home districts resulted in pork barrel spending that would not only provide disaster aid but also bolster the political reputations of members of Congress with their constituents. Eventually, the president gained authority to grant disaster declarations, although the case-by-case basis of funneling federal dollars continued and was still in practice into the early 21st century (Platt, 2012).

This shift from a legislative decision to executive discretion in granting disaster declarations as accompanied by and expansion of federal agencies led to the establishment of FEMA in the late 1970s. These changes and expansions in bureaucracy and administration did not occur solely at the federal level. Simultaneously, state and local disaster preparedness and emergency management bureaucracy emerged to address natural hazards (May, 1985).

Shared Governance of Hazards and Disasters

In the United States, the primary piece of federal legislation guiding disaster preparation, response recovery, and mitigation is the Stafford Act and its amendments. Similar pieces of landmark disaster statutes in other countries are the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 in the United Kingdom, the National Civil Defense Emergency Management Plan in New Zealand, and the Framework for Major Emergency Management in the Republic of Ireland. Similar to the Stafford Act, these non-U.S. examples demonstrate how national legislation for a specific response plan provides a guiding framework for bureaucratic decision-making and policy goals.

In the United States, the effect of the Stafford Act was to create an intergovernmental system of shared governance of natural hazards (Godschalk, Kaiser, & Berke, 1998). In this system, bureaucratic discretion and authority at all levels of government are necessary to make policy decisions, particularly about mitigation. FEMA regional offices facilitate state level implementation based upon the individual state’s commitment to mitigation and its own mitigation plans. The state then implements the plan to reduce risks for local governments. Under “shared governance,” the federal government supports the states when they lack the resources to respond to major disasters. But it also encourages effective disaster preparedness and mitigation to reduce damage, thereby making disasters more manageable and creating less demand for disaster relief. Setting national standards for mitigation, preparedness and response represent one way to reduce the cost of disasters.

From the perspective of bureaucratic politics and decision-making, the shared governance system creates multiple opportunities for bureaucratic policymaking. Federal officials in FEMA, either in Washington or in the regional offices, have wide latitude to interpret and implement provisions of the Stafford Act, the Disaster Mitigation Act, and other important pieces of public policy like the National Flood Insurance Program.

But because natural hazards are governed in a shared way, it also means that state officials also have wide-ranging discretion in how they prioritize federal objectives and flow information and policy objectives to local governments. And in turn, local government officials have discretion in the extent to which they choose to take on natural hazards, how they interpret scientific information about risk that comes from federal and state sources, and ultimately decide how addressing natural hazards fits in with other policy problems in a community. For example, if the economic base of a community is deteriorating or if crime is rising, the local government would give immediate attention to that problem rather than the potential risk posed by a natural hazard at some unknown point in the future.

Indeed, local levels of government are consistently innovative at addressing the risk of natural hazards, stemming from climate change, when national politics to address risk and hazards are gridlocked (Gerber, 2015; Goggin, Gerber, & Larson, 2014; Krause, 2010; Lee & Koski, 2012). In this sense, the political dynamics of bureaucratic direction and decision-making are not solely constrained to the national level. Simply put, local governments, in response to the risk of a hazard, can possess the political wherewithal to address a problem when the federal or state governments do not.

The role of the federal government’s influence on mitigation policies should not be discounted but the so-called “intergovernmental mitigation system” may be more of an ideal type. This system relies on the states being willing and able to undertake initiatives to plan for and mitigate the effects of disasters through various risk reduction measures. However, this system is highly variable within and among states (Cutter et al., 2008; Birkland & Waterman, 2008; Vale & Campanella, 2005).

The trend over time has been one of a cycle of escalating politics where politicians can use the backdrop of a disaster to demonstrate their responsiveness to citizens in distress (Wamsley & Schroeder, 1996) and the media to depict images after disaster and play on common, false tropes like looting and lawlessness. Furthermore, presidents when running for reelection are more likely to grant disaster declarations to states (Downton & Pielke, 2001).

The inherently political nature of hazards and disasters means that bureaucrats must navigate challenges simply to effectively implement a policy, to say nothing of the motivated bureaucrat that desires to make policy behind the scenes to achieve an outcome. In effect, the implementation context becomes highly political, particularly at the local levels of government where bureaucrats would be in close contact with citizens who are directly impacted by the policy decision.

The role of government and the public sector more broadly has grown and evolved over time, particularly in response to catastrophic disasters (Kapucu & VanWart, 2006). The growing professionalization of emergency managers shifted expectations for their performance from one of a command and control approach to a more collaborative, cooperative approach to managing hazards and disasters (Waugh & Streib, 2006). But the ability to effectively manage natural hazards and risk is highly variable based on a community’s organizational commitment and capacity (Burby & May, 1997).

Over time, bureaucratic policymaking on natural hazards has occurred in a set of policy subsystems around emergency management, disaster preparedness, and mitigation where government has taken on a more expansive and prominent role. It is of critical importance for natural hazards and disasters sciences to consider this complicated, fragmented context when examining how information is analyzed and acted upon by bureaucrats. And, as the next section will highlight, the manner in which bureaucrats use discretion in making decisions has important implications for resilience and vulnerability in communities.

Bureaucratic Discretion and Policymaking

One of the classic ways to consider how public service professionals engage in bureaucratic policymaking is in the capacity of a “street level bureaucrat.” These street level bureaucrats are the policy delivery officials in local government that serve as the nexus between the tensions in the scope and objective of a policy and interaction with citizens (Lipsky, 2010). Classic examples of street level bureaucrats include the police officer in how he/she uses discretion in a traffic stop, a planning department official using discretion on whether to grant a zoning variance, a teacher deciding how to handle student conflict in the classroom, or a judge using discretion in determining how to render an appropriate sentence.

There are two important characteristics of street level bureaucrats: (1) they tend to have wide, autonomous discretion in how they interact with citizens and make decisions; and (2) their cumulative decisions add up to department, agency and organizational behavior. Street level bureaucrats are policy implementers and delivery people but their discretion has the effect of rendering them policy makers (Lipsky, 2010).

The challenge of bureaucratic discretion as a form of policymaking is that it cannot be eliminated completely. The feasibility of predicting every potential policy decision and prescribing a set of responses from an emergency manager, police officer, floodplain manager, building code enforcement official or planning and zoning director is virtually impossible. The challenge of bureaucratic discretion is that their work situations are too complex to reduce uncertainty for decision-making and there is a strong citizen interaction component to their work, making the balance of accountability and compassion a delicate one to strike (Lipsky, 2010).

Hazards and disasters pose a unique problem for the use of bureaucratic discretion. In spite of the systems in place to prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of a disaster, conflict, tension, and uncertainty can arise for public servants in a disaster. This tension creates conflicts and disrupts bureaucratic norms that favor stable processes and emergent norms that can be highly unpredictable (Schneider, 1992).

Thus, in the context of natural hazards, considering how bureaucratic discretion is used when norms diverge from day-to-day practice there is no aggregation of individual decisions to create agency or department policy. The implications of poor discretion could result in neighborhoods left particularly vulnerable because of land use decisions or marginalized groups unable to bounce back because they felt the effects of a bureaucratic policy decision more acutely than other community members.

For hazard and disasters, particularly for preparation for and management of, Gerber (2007) and Comfort (2005) offer up the reminder that the basic function of government is to protect citizens from harm. Given this most basic function, it stands to reason that the public generally should want bureaucrats to have a good deal of autonomous discretion when making decisions to keep citizens safe—whether it is from a disaster, crime, epidemic, or terrorist. Autonomous discretion allows bureaus to make decisions in a timely manner, be innovative and responsive. In short, it is in the public interest to have bureaucrats make policy. The concern, however, is when poor decisions are made and questionable discretion is used in a way that aggregates into agency-wide public policy that increases vulnerability.

Generally, when bureaucrats make poor decisions and use questionable discretion during normal circumstances, it can lead to a scandal. However, in times of a crisis, like police discretion in the aftermath of the Rodney King court decision, emergent norms can cause irreversible damage and have long lasting consequences (Maynard-Moody & Musheno, 2003). More specifically, in the context of Hurricane Katrina, strict adherence to bureaucratic norms that erred on the side of procedure and process overlooked the largely low-income, minority population of the City of New Orleans that had no means to evacuate, acutely affecting community members by stranding them in a flooded city with no immediate means of evacuation (Stivers, 2007).

In sum, the context for bureaucratic policymaking on natural hazards is one that is inherently political, governance responsibility is shared among levels of government. And within this context, public servants have a large degree of autonomous discretion in how they deliver and implement natural hazard policy, particularly at the local level. Concerns about decision-making, and ultimately policymaking by bureaucrats come into sharp relief when emergent norms create uncertainty for how discretion is used and how it affects communities.

Bureaucratic Discretion and Decision-Making on Mitigation

For bureaucratic discretion, the area of policy implementation is an important area of scholarship that sheds light on how public service professionals make decisions on natural hazards and disasters. Policy implementation is putting laws, regulations, executive orders, programs, and plans into action. While many policies that promote natural hazard preparedness, mitigation, and response are made at the federal level, state and local governments put disaster policies into action.

Although state governments and federal agencies play an increasingly important role in all aspects of the natural hazard and disaster policy, state and local governments are the entities that create the rules under which communities plan, prepare for, and mitigate.

Generally, mitigation is a way to reduce, manage, or eliminate the risks posed by a natural hazard to prevent the damage to life and property. In the most general sense, there are four key components of emergency management: mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery. These four components have been conceived in terms of pre-disaster activities in the mitigation and preparedness stages that are passive in nature and in the after-impact stages of the cycle that include response and recovery that are reactive in nature (Lindell & Perry, 2000). The idea that mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery occur in an ordered, cyclical way is unrealistic. For example, a city could recover from a flood but not mitigate the risk of future floods. However, it is useful to consider these activities as interrelated, and to some extent, mutually reinforcing.

Managing hazards by minimizing risk is the goal of mitigation. Gilbert White (1945), and others (Burby & May, 1998; Birkland et al., 2003) have long argued that land use practices and planning are usually effective long-term mitigation techniques for natural hazards. This idea is central to modern hazard mitigation practices, but the extent to which mitigation planning and consideration of mitigation in development is highly variable from state-to-state (Godschalk et al., 1998; May & Deyle, 1998). Moreover, the quality of mitigation plans is highly variable across local governments (Berke, Smith, & Lyles, 2012).

Policy Implementation and Bureaucratic Discretion

Policy implementation has shifted over the years in three major waves of scholarship. In the 1970s through the early 1980s, understanding policy implementation was a major concern among policy scholars; into the 1990s, policy scholars began to be concerned with creating theories of implementation; and in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, scholars became concerned with synthesizing the previous theory and empirical development of implementation.

Policy implementation is concerned with the difference between the stated intention of the policy and its outcomes (Mazmanian & Sabatier, 1980; Ferman, 1990; O’Toole, 1995). The first wave of implementation scholarship produced a series of case studies that examined how single policies or programs were put into place. The most notable work from that time was by Pressman and Wildavsky (1973) in their study of the implementation of a federal jobs program in Oakland, California.

Pressman and Wildavsky’s major findings from the study influence how scholars understand implementation today. First, there is a fundamental conundrum in policy implementation that while all interested staff and agencies might agree on what the end result of the policy should be they do not necessarily agree on how to get there (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973).

For bureaucratic policymaking and the use of discretion, this finding means that much of how a policy will be implemented is open to interpretation. For natural hazards policy specifically, there can be a high degree of variability in how state and local governments choose to implement mitigation planning. For example, in the states that mandate comprehensive land use planning, the quality of local planning only increases when local government officials and citizens are actively engaged and participating in the planning process (Berke & French, 1994).

Second, the challenges of agency control over one aspect of a policy have the potential to create numerous decision points that hinder coordination among agencies and departments (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973). In terms of bureaucratic discretion and decision-making for natural hazards, there are a number of decision points on whether and how to coordinate at the local government level with the state and federal policy. In addition, it creates multiple decision points about whether and how to coordinate mitigation planning, preparedness planning, and response planning in local government. The decision points create the opportunity for bureaucratic discretion, which is an important and valuable aspect of governance, but it can also grind action to a halt, produce partial decisions, or result in inaction.

A particularly useful model of policy implementation is the “Communications Model of Intergovernmental Implementation” (Goggin, 1990). The intergovernmental model of implementation asserts that messages sent by authoritative senders to willing receivers will be more quickly and faithfully acted upon than will less credible messages sent to unwilling receivers. The concern for how bureaucratic discretion is used is whether the message from top-level governments is credible, whether the sender is considered authoritative, and whether local governments are willing to act upon the information being sent. In this model, state governments are often in the role of intermediaries and interpreters between national and local governments (Hill & Hupe, 2002).

For the use of bureaucratic discretion in the context of policy implementation, the important question is whether the messages received from the federal government are perceived to be credible and the extent to which those messages are considered to be authoritative as they are sent from federal to state to local officials responsible for hazards and disasters. The relative authoritativeness of federal government with respect to mitigation has been uneven. For example, federal incentives to mitigate have been relatively ineffective at influencing local planning towards mitigation (Berke, Lyles, & Smith, 2014).

In disaster mitigation, a great deal of responsibility rests with state governments. The role that states play is important because planning mandates, particularly for land use and hazard mitigation, are influential on the capacity and quality of local land use plans (Berke, Lyles, & Smith, 2014). This is because the federal government shares most resources and creates obligations for states in many cases. State governments are therefore in the middle of the communications chain between the top-level policy designers and local implementers.

Crucially, “state level implementers form the nexus for the communication channels and these implementers are the target of the implementation-related messages transmitted from both federal and local level senders” (Lester & Goggin, 1998). When the federal government may send implementation messages that are considered unclear, states play an important role in sending more authoritative messages to local governments that mitigation, particularly mitigation through land use planning, is important. As recipients, “state level implementers must interpret a barrage of messages. Structuring the interpretation process are the form and content of the messages and the legitimacy and reputation of the sender. Therein lies the key to implementation’s variability” (Lester & Goggin, 1998).

Policy Failure, Learning, and Opportunities for Bureaucratic Discretion

Policy failures are often revealed through potential focusing events, defined as sudden and rare events that create the opportunity for policy change by revealing harm or the potential for harm, and the public and policymakers become aware of nearly simultaneously (Birkland, 1998, 2006). Policy failures as evidenced by focusing events are important for policy learning because they potentially change the socially constructed understanding of a policy problem. Shifts about the policy problems and how to solve them can be substantial. For example, aviation security, previously thought to be something that airlines and airports were responsible for providing, came to be considered as a “public good” that government assumed, most prominently after September 11, 2001 (Birkland, 2004).

Learning is a critical component of policy changes over time because of shifting understandings of socioeconomic conditions and core values (Sabatier & Weible, 2007). Policy learning has been defined as “a change in beliefs (or the degree of confidence in one’s beliefs) or the development of new beliefs, skills[,] or procedures as a result of the observation and interpretation of experience” (Levy, 1994). Alternatively, learning is “a process in which individuals apply new information and ideas to policy decisions” (Busenberg, 2001).

Both of these definitions underscore the importance of information and the role that new information plays in changing beliefs. Levy’s definition suggests the mechanisms for learning are observation and experience. Busenberg’s definition indicates that individuals learn and that the outcome of the learning is policy change.

For bureaucratic discretion, the idea of policy learning can be defined as the process by which individuals observe or experience new information that alters beliefs, resulting in policy change. How public service professionals observe and experience information and then decide how to translate that into policy is of critical importance for natural hazards and disasters.

The general consensus in the policy literature is that either individuals or groups are the objects of learning. Generally, the literature assumes that learning occurs in “epistemic communities” that represent a mix of individuals working in social and natural sciences that are engaged in a common policy enterprise to produce knowledge based on shared ideas of validity (Dunlop, 2009, 2013).

The other key challenge with considering natural disasters as revealing policy failure is that in the immediate aftermath of a tornado, for example, the damage is undeniable and public efforts are focused on returning to normal life as quickly as possible (Mileti, 1999). Indeed, most behavior after a disaster is pro-social in nature, meaning that people want to help their neighbors and communities bounce back (Tierney, Bevc, & Kuligowski, 2006) This creates an opportunity for policy learning where finger pointing for the policy failure and blame avoidance by policymakers is less critical than it is for most other policy failures (Howlett, Ramesh, & Wu, 2015).

There are clear and sometimes incompatible distinctions between individual learning and group learning (Bennett & Howlett, 1992). In the context of bureaucratic discretion and decision-making, it is important to consider that individuals embedded in epistemic communities are the objects of policy learning. This is consistent with a well-established literature that individuals engage in learning within a policy context (Birkland, 2004; Busenberg, 2001; Levy, 1994; May, 1992). It is also consistent with the previously mentioned idea of street level bureaucrats that use their discretion on individual decisions as a policy delivery service but in the aggregate, agency levels produce a macro public policy. The implication, however, is that the capacity within an organization to learn may vary, meaning that there are different organizational environments that set the stage for policy learning (Dunlop, 2015). Capacity to learn after a disaster is critical to the understanding of how bureaucrats might use discretion and the extent to which they pursue certain policy preferences.

Policy learning has been conceived as occurring based on how knowledge and information are used. It can happen reflexively where problems are manageable and preferences of actors are malleable, epistemic learning occurs where problems are manageable but the knowledge and preferences of the actors are fixed, and learning through bargaining where the problems are somewhat intractable but the preferences of decision-makers are malleable (Dunlop & Radaelli, 2013). Among these mechanisms for how decision-makers balance issues and preferences, there is some outcome that occurs. Even in the most basic sense, policy learning leads to an updating of the most basic beliefs (Dunlop & Radaelli, 2013). However, policy learning is inherently political. In spite of the work in epistemic communities to produce policy-relevant knowledge, the depths of learning can be limited in the assessment of policy alternatives (Dunlop, 2009).


This essay presented an assessment of the filed studying bureaucratic politics, discretion, and decision-making in the context of natural hazards. There are important problems that are associated with the use of autonomous bureaucratic discretion in the absence of political accountability. Nevertheless, the issue of bureaucratic discretion cannot be minimized because career public servants have their own policy preferences that are rooted in technical and professional competence. The influence of bureaucratic discretion and decision-making on how state and local government entities consider federal policy objectives, implement public policy, and learn after disasters are critical for understanding how natural hazard policy is made and put into action.

Furthermore, this essay presented two theoretical lenses by which to examine the use of bureaucratic discretion and politics in policymaking. For students and scholars of public administration and public policy there are other approaches worthy of further study. These include models of administrative behavior, like principal-agent models, network models, and bureaucratic politics models. In addition, this discussion presented a broad view of the intergovernmental context of hazards policy. The scholarship on local policy implementation of hazards policy, particularly planning and mitigation, is another strong source of scholarship in the field. In addition, the hazards literature that focuses on the type of hazard—floods, tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides, droughts, and wild fires—is rich in the study of how policies are devised and implemented at the local level.

There are two significant areas that remain regarding the use of bureaucratic discretion in natural hazards policy. One key area is to consider the increasing emphasis on networked disaster governance on bureaucratic discretion and decision-making. The conventional wisdom is that networks facilitate disaster management much better than command and control approaches. However, the extent to which the use of bureaucratic discretion is important in the implementation of natural hazard policy, particularly for mitigation and preparedness, remains an open area of research.

The other key area is the influence of bureaucratic discretion and decision-making when communities learn after a disaster. The political nature of disasters and the professional expertise of public service professionals imply that in order to make communities safer, bureaucrats will have to use discretion to push forward more aggressive mitigation and preparedness policies. Bureaucratic discretion would need to be used for both political and policy purposes in order to engage in policy learning after disasters that produce a substantive change.


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