Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Lots of big questions, but can we answer them?

Asmus Leth Olsen contributes to our discussion on public management research and the state:  Doing (public administration) research is about balancing trade-offs. On one hand, we have a potential unlimited universe of big unanswered questions. On the other hand, we are faced with constraints in terms of data, methods, and theory. Great research arises when we maximize the importance of the question while minimizing the constraints on our ability to answer it. Kettl acknowledges this argument by stating that some argue “that it’s hard to attack these big questions because many of them lack the datasets required for careful research.”  I would sign on to that quote and add theory and methods to list of “lacking elements” for approaching many “big” questions.

Both Kettl and Durant make valid points about the importance of engaging with big questions in public administration. They also provide reasonable explanations for the absence of “big question research”.  However, my sense is they get the balance wrong between “question importance” and the “constraints” facing us. I see the recent “instinct to drill ever-deeper into ever-smaller questions” (in Kettl’s words) as an attempt to get this balance right. Public administration has spent too much time saying something vague about major trends and reforms. I see this vagueness as a major reason for why public administration research is to easily ignored by policy makers. In our hunt for the big questions we have forgotten that our effort should end up with a credible result.

The recent focus on experiments and micro-level studies that draw on insights from psychology is a good example of a re-balancing. It is in fact also a commitment to early calls made by Herbert Simon [1] who both Durant and Kettl refer to as an example of a “big question” researcher. I agree: Simon’s impact has been huge, however, his road towards the big questions always initiated with getting the “tiny” stuff right first: Building on detailed insights about how humans process information [2].

As in so many other aspects of life, we should do as Simon said: Sort out the basics and then slowly move into the wilderness of big questions.

[1]  Olsen, Asmus Leth (2015). “Simon Said,” We Didn’t Jump. Public Administration Review 75(2): 325–326.

[2] Simon, Herbert A. (1955). A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice. Quarterly Journal of Economics 69(1): 99–118.

Asmus Leth Olsen is an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen in the Department of Political Science. His research is centered in the areas of behavioral public administration, political and administrative psychology, and experimental methods. His most recent research focuses on the effects of performance information on citizens and the selection of (dis)honest workers into public service.

Written by Governance

November 23, 2015 at 5:37 pm


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