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Bounded Rationality in Public Administration  

JoBeth Shafran, Bryan D. Jones, and Connor Dye

Bounded rationality is the notion that while humans want to be fully rational beings and weigh the costs and benefits when making a decision, they cannot do so due to cognitive and emotional limitations. The role of human nature in the study and design of organizations can be examined through three general approaches that are explained using metaphors: organization as machine, organization as hierarchy, and organization as canal. The organization-as-machine approach ignores the principles of bounded rationality by assuming the organizational members perform straightforward cost–benefit responses to the incentives put forward by the operators. Later developments in organizational scholarship incorporate elements of bounded rationality and allowed researchers to link human cognitive capacities to the basic organizational features, giving us two new conceptions of organization: organization as hierarchy and organization as canal. Organization as hierarchy focuses on the organization’s use of subunits to create divisions of labor to expand the capacity to process information and problem-solve. Organization as canal recognizes that the weaknesses of human cognition are still channeled into the organizational structure, making it difficult for organizations to update their preferences and assumptions as they receive new information. These principles of bounded rationality in organizational theory can be applied to policy-making institutions. Hierarchical organizations delegate information processing to the subunits, allowing them to attend to the various policy environments and process incoming information. While the collective organization attends to many issues at once, the rules and procedures that are present within the organization and the cognitive limits of decision makers, prevent proportional information processing. Political institutions are unable to respond efficiently to changes in the environment. Thus, organizational adjustment to the environment is characterized as disjointed and episodic as opposed to smooth and incremental. Punctuated equilibrium theory applies these tenets of bounded rationality to a theory of policy change. Congress has been a vehicle for studying bounded rationality in organizations and theories of policy change, as it is a formal institution with bureaucratic elements and is subject to the constraints faced by any formal organization.