THE PARADOX OF EXCELLENCE
May 15, 1994
When I began rooting around in the Forest Service more than forty years ago (Kaufman, 1960), I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn't select it as a subject because I was aware of its reputation for excellence, or because I had a deep interest in forestry or in conservation. I chose it because I was awarded a research appointment at the Institute of Public Administration in New York City and the Institute had decided to embark on a study of national forest policy and administration. If the Institute had fixed on some other field--housing or transportation or the administration of justice, say--I doubtless would have conducted my inquiry in another agency. But forestry at the national level is what its officers had picked for their next effort. So the general area of my research was marked out for me.
That was all right with me. I had already decided on my approach to analyzing whatever organization I looked at; taking a leaf from Herbert A. Simon, who had just published his path breaking Administrative Behavior (Simon, 1947) and would later go on to even greater renown as a trailblazer in artificial intelligence and as a Nobel laureate in economics, I knew I wanted to concentrate on the way the decisions and actions of field officers were influenced within and by their organization. A forestry agency would make as good a specimen as any other. So I proposed to Luther Gulick, who was then the President of the Institute of Public Administration, that I be allowed to study the Forest Service from the ground up. He agreed readily, and gave me full latitude to conduct the research as I saw fit. That's how my work was launched.
The first step was a pilot study, which I used for my doctoral dissertation. It eventually came to the attention of Marion Clawson at Resources for the Future (RFF), and he gave me a grant to carry the inquiry to a conclusion. (Indeed, The Forest Ranger was published as one of an RFF series on natural resource use and management.) Thus, circumstances I did not control accounted for the completion of my Forest Service study as well as for its origin.
Apparently, there is a special guardian angel who watches over uninformed researchers. If, instead of stumbling serendipitously upon the Forest Service, I had conducted a careful survey of prospective agencies for my study, I could not have found one more suitable. Not only was it extraordinarily well-run; its methods were carefully designed and documented, and it was most cooperative and welcoming at all levels. To be sure, its people were at times puzzled about what I was up to--as, indeed, I myself was--and some were a little apprehensive. But they were curious about what would come out of my labors. While they obviously kept each other informed of my groping, I was permitted to nose around without hindrance. Blind luck--or my special guardian angel--served me well.
I recount all this to underscore the absence of preconceptions about the Forest Service with which I came to my project. My eventual findings sprang almost entirely from my work in the agency. I had no thesis I was trying to prove, no axe to grind, no prior position I was trying to establish.
The Nature of Membership in an Organization
I began by acquainting myself hastily with the history and operations of national forest administration. By the time I went into the field, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the way it ran. Out in the districts, however, I learned better. It took me a fair while to make sense of the impressions and information inundating me as I explored all the varied facets of the rangers' work.
If one were to have watched the rangers out in the field without prior knowledge of their membership in an organization, one might well have formed the initial impression that each of them functioned independently, like an individual owner of comparable private land and natural resources. But, of course, they did belong to an organization, and I took it for granted that belonging modified their decisions and behavior. In what way? By what means? These were the questions I resolved I had to answer if I wanted to understand the agency.
Part of the answer, I assumed, was that a group of private owners equal in number to all the rangers in the Forest Service would base their decisions and actions on a wider variety of grounds than the rangers would. That is, they would reason from a much more heterogeneous assortment of values, assumptions, beliefs, perceptions, and motives than their public counterparts. To be sure, the discipline of the market would ultimately constrain the variation by penalizing some kinds of actions and rewarding others. What an organization does, however, is to furnish a more or less common set of grounds for the decisions and behavior of its members. In the most general sense, organization reduces the diversity of the premises governing what members think and do.
My objective was to spell out how this is accomplished. After all, people don't come into organizations like automata, inert until the organizations program them and set them in motion. Most of their premises for action come from sources other than their employers; each person is a unique individual and a member of many social structures. Every organization must therefore have to overcome its members' tendencies to go off in directions of their own. As I studied the district rangers, I realized that they were subject to a host of pressures to do so, some common to all organizations, some unique to the Forest Service. All together, these pressures constituted quite a formidable array of centrifugal forces.
To override them, the Forest Service instituted a set of procedures that predetermined what their field officers were to do in almost every foreseeable situation, that tracked their behavior to make sure they remained within the guidelines, and that corrected and discouraged departures from the prescribed norms. There are limits, however, to what can be accomplished by external controls on people. You can't specify and police everything; without further measures, the centrifugal forces will begin to chip away at any organization's unity.
Hence, in its earliest days, the Forest Service introduced another set of techniques to elicit compliance. It instituted a set of measures that instilled in its members the will to conform. That is, it not only got its officers to do what the agency leaders directed, but got them to want to do what the leaders wanted. In this fashion, the leaders could be confident that their wishes would be carried out by field officers without close, continuous supervision and with minimal feelings of compulsion. Compliance in the field was not merely imposed on subordinates; appropriate behavior was, in a manner of speaking, implanted in them, so that when they, in their professional capacity, exercised their independent wills, they freely chose courses of action that conformed to the agency's policies. They were of course aware of alternatives; to state the case in extreme terms for emphasis, they simply could not conceive of following them.
The result of all these practices was remarkable success producing conforming behavior on the part of the agency's staff. (Admittedly, the evidence of this success was circumstantial, but it was convincing.) In this regard, the Forest Service was indeed a model organization, and its reputation for superior performance in molding its personnel into a cohesive and loyal body was well-deserved.
The Down Side of Cohesion
It came at a price. The system functioned as well as it did because internal and external influences on behavior worked in tandem. Ingraining the will to conform and a common set of outlooks in members not only engendered voluntary compliance; it also intensified the effectiveness of external controls by broadening receptivity to them. External controls, in turn, reinforced the internalized ones by making obedience, even when not entirely voluntary, habitual. But while both sets of influences were crucial, the internalized ones carried greater eventual risks. While welding the organization into an effective, unified entity, these influences tended to lock members--especially leaders who had come up through the system--into a prescribed set of ideas and behaviors formed in a particular context, and thus were likely to impede formation of new patterns for which changes in the context might one day call. [Later on (Kaufman, 1971), in an exercise of poetic license, I would refer to this mechanism as the imposition of "mental blinders."] In other words, the better the organization got at using techniques of mental manipulation to improve its performance, the more uncertain its future became. This ingredient of managerial success seemed to contain the seeds of its own ultimate undoing.
I expected the Forest Service to be outraged by this characterization of its managerial style; who in America wants to be portrayed as engaged in a type of brainwashing, no matter how administratively effective such a strategy proves to be? I also anticipated that the public administration community, and social scientists in general, would seize on this finding as the major conclusion of the study. I was wrong on both counts. The Forest Service, students of public administration, and the social scientists who paid attention to my book, focused on the acknowledged cohesion, high morale, and outstanding performance of the agency, and on the contribution of its methods to those attainments. For a long time, hardly anybody took note of the long-range implications I considered disturbing.
Ben W. Twight, in his own work and in his collaborations with Fremont J. Lyden, was, to my knowledge, one of the first to do so (Twight, 1985, 1990; Twight and Lyden, 1988, 1989). It was through their efforts, a quarter-century after The Forest Ranger first appeared, that I initially became cognizant of the extent to which Gifford Pinchot, influenced by Brandis and Fernow, had deliberately modeled the Forest Service on the Prussian paramilitary paradigm. According to Twight and Lyden, the pattern I detected--and which, they confirmed, produced the results I feared it would--was intentionally embraced while the agency was still in the planning stage.
In retrospect, I'm glad I was not conversant with that history when I conducted my inquiry; my observations might otherwise have been colored by that knowledge. And even if they had not been, all my work might have been clouded by the suspicion that I projected onto the Forest Service an a priori image drawn from the past rather than from practices then current. As things stand, my study is free of those taints.
As a matter of fact, the evidence of Prussian influence on the design of the Forest Service lends support to my account. Without knowing of that influence, I independently picked up its effects. Very little is ever proved in social science, but when two separate bodies of evidence dovetail so neatly, the conjunction builds confidence in their validity. I find it reassuring.
Further supporting evidence comes from the present turmoil besetting the Service. My fear that the firmness of attitudes and behaviors implanted in the minds of its officers could present difficulties when the winds of change begin to blow seems to have been justified. (Admittedly, with typical academic caution, I qualified my remarks by noting the limits on any organization's ability to control minds, and by citing the measures taken by the agency itself to prevent complete uniformity of outlook in its staff. But my misgivings were clear). The political, economic, and social environments that shaped the Forest Service are being transformed. Decade by decade, perhaps year by year, new public-policy goals are added to the list from previous generations, and things once taken for granted and even applauded now clash with these newer values. (Some years ago, an assistant chief of the agency, with a lifetime of service in it, lamented to me that the Girl Scouts had brought suit against the Forest Service on environmental grounds. "Can you imagine" he asked incredulously, "them suing us this way? Why, we invented conservation and were practicing it before their parents were born!"). The tensions I thought changing times might engender have apparently come to pass. The organization as a collectivity and many of its members individually are clearly feeling the strain.
The Sources of Distress
Any organization buffeted by change would experience comparable problems. The problems may be particularly acute in the Forest Service, however, because for many of its long-time members, the agency and its familiar mission are inseparable, and both are venerated. This double bond explains the zeal of seasoned forest officers under ordinary conditions, and their alarm and resistance when the Service or its mission is contested.
Things would be easier for them if they were not emotionally tied to either the program or the organization. There are such folk; they are indifferent to what they do and what they belong to as long as they are adequately paid. They can casually reverse policies and switch organizations with no pain. (Before you disparage them as callous opportunists, bear in mind that they approximate the specifications for the ideal civil servant, especially in the Senior Executive Service.) I believe you don't find many of this sort in the Forest Service.
Things are easier also for people who are committed to either the organization of which they are part or to the cause for which they labor, but not to both. The organization-centered ones have no qualms about carrying out whatever drastic changes of program their leaders announce because the important thing to them is to keep the organization going no matter what it does. National loyalty is a prime example of this attitude, which is why so many citizens throughout the would readily follow their countries into alliances with former enemies and wars with former allies. Less dramatic, but of analogous character, are the loyalties of those dedicated volunteers who preserve organizations that fought specific diseases long after the diseases have been conquered; the survival of their organizations becomes an end in itself for them, and they search for new missions to keep the groups going.
Doctrine-centered people are apt to react to sharp policy shifts quite differently, but like their organization-loving colleagues, they are seldom conflicted and torn by doubt. For they have no compunction about quitting, and possibly joining or forming doctrinally pure rivals, even at the risk of causing severe damage to the organizations they had been with. That, for example, is what Theodore Roosevelt and his followers did when they bolted the Republican Party to form the Progressive Party in 1912. That's why interest groups throw their weight from one political party to the other depending on which one they think will respond more completely to their demands. As long as their programs are advanced, they are content in, or associated with, almost any organization.
But for those who see an organization and a program as indistinguishable, there are no satisfying responses to threats arising from changing circumstances. They can't compromise on the basic elements of the traditional program so as to conciliate external foes, relieve internal stresses, and thereby possibly save the organization from extinction because, since the organization and the traditional program are one as far as they are concerned, such compromise is equivalent to destroying the organization. Yet it is equally dismaying for them to contemplate remaining with the organization and fighting adamantly against change because the result may be to provoke internal warfare and alienate essential external supporters, which can also cause the organization's demise. Even departing with the idea of struggling for the traditional program from beyond the organization's borders is an unpleasant choice because it surrenders the organization to the opponents of that program. Every practicable line of action is painful.
Perhaps that's why so many Forest Service officers leaped at the chance when the federal government offered them early retirement. John H. Cushman, Jr., writing in The New York Times (Cushman, 1994), described their exodus as "a virtual stampede." I imagine they felt they at least might as well get some material benefits as their familiar world began to fall apart. I don't think the same thing would have happened had the same opportunity been available to these officers and their predecessors when I was studying the agency. In those days, had they been given generous inducements to leave, I'm convinced that most professionals would have rejected them out of hand, so strongly attached were they to the agency and its work. But these are different times, and senior members of the Service obviously see little to hold them.
The anguish of these dedicated public servants is easy to understand. They are treated as rigid opponents of progress and new ideas for what they consider staunch adherence to principle. They are portrayed as obstructionist bureaucrats who will not execute the will of an elected Administration when all they are doing is protesting what they regard as politicization of an agency long governed by the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. They believe that numbers of public spirited special interest groups, each mobilized around one or two uses of the public forests, such as recreation or preserving wilderness or maintaining scenic beauties or protecting particular species of wildlife or vegetation, are so intently, exclusively, and self-righteously focused on their narrow goals that they have lost sight of other equally worthy uses and have misrepresented the Service's multiple-use philosophy. They are disheartened because they think the general public, not well-informed about the agency's diversified program, has been taken in, if not panicked by the propaganda of these groups, which portray the agency as a tool of the lumber industry. They wish elected officials would stand up to the single-interest pressure groups and educate the public about the need for balance in the management of the national forests instead of bowing to the groups in matters of policy and perhaps even in the selection of the Chief. Journalists picture senior forest officials as hostile to new ways and changing needs and unfamiliar fields of learning, yet seldom mention that the junior people within the agency, many of whom differ from--and with--their seniors and, are in professions other than the customary ones of forestry and engineering, were recruited and appointed by the very seniors now under fire (Tipple, 1991). So if the embattled seniors are resentful and embittered, one can easily appreciate their point of view.
Bureaucracy in a Democracy
I know of no way to spare them this vexation. The predicament in which they find themselves is built into the American system of government. It plagues not only the Forest Service, but all ranking civil servants. We give them ambiguous and sometimes contradictory instructions. On the one hand, we confer on them tenure in their positions so that they will be guided by rigorous criteria of professional judgment, integrity, decency, impartiality, and the public interest in the performance of their duties, and not by every passing political wind or request for special favors. On the other hand, we tell them they are agents of the elected government and should comply with the directives of their political superiors. But what are they to do when the policies adopted by their political superiors clash with their professional standards or with their definition of the public interest, or when a self-seeking claimant with the backing of a powerful elected bloc comes knocking at the door?
Civil servants in specialized corps--teachers, for example, and social workers, diplomats, members of the uniformed military, police officers, firefighters, engineers, physicians, geologists, foresters, and others--often deal with these uncertainties by simplification: they identify virtually all directives from outside the guild and its circle of allies as political interference by "interlopers," including some commands that come from duly constituted political leaders through appropriate channels. Indeed, a part of the public administration community (Wamsley, et al., 1990) insists that bureaucracies are a constitutional fourth branch of government coordinate with the chief executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Such resolute professionalism occasionally does keep partisanship and personal advantage from running rampant. At other times, however, administrative officials take refuge behind it to escape legitimate political control, thereby impairing the vitality of popular government. They need to be reminded now and then who is in charge.
On the other hand, unquestioning bureaucratic submission to the civil government and the majority party is not an unalloyed virtue. It can lead to the abuses associated with the spoils system, and even to the evils that took place in Germany under the Nazis. Blind obedience, even to legal authority does not always promote democratic governance.
In short, either position gives rise to regrettable results when carried to extremes. Unfortunately, in the heat of controversy, both bureaucrats and political officers tend to forget the legitimate concerns of the other side. Neither then makes a real effort to empathize with the other's perspectives. Both drift into immoderate stances. The result is confrontation.
Each side can mobilize substantial resources. Sometimes the career staff succeeds in outlasting the politicians and minimizes their effects. Sometimes the politicians succeed in changing the policy trajectory, the organization, and the composition of an administrative agency, or in replacing it if they can't. Sometimes the sides arrive at a compromise. Sometimes they remain deadlocked for long periods.
Is this any way to run the administrative machinery of a government? It certainly is messy, costly, and exasperating, stirring yearnings for more orderly, more efficient, less conflictual methods. But as long as our government is as open and democratic as it is, and as long as there are participants in the process who feel passionate about the causes they espouse and the organizations they belong to, I suspect this way of managing the public business will persist. Untidy decision-making, after all, is not the worst possible deficiency of a governmental process. I don't think ours will soon be rationalized into a well-oiled machine--and, in the last analysis, I think most Americans would be displeased with the results if it were.
Cushman, John H., Jr. 1994. "Forest Service is Rethinking its Mission." The New York Times, 24 April 1994.
Kaufman, Herbert. 1960. The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press. The preliminary work on the volume, including the pilot study preceding it, began in the late 1940s.
Kaufman, Herbert. 1971. The Limits of Organizational Change. University, AL.: University of Alabama Press, 1971. Reprinted in 1994 by the Transaction Press, New Brunswick, NJ
Simon, Herbert A. 1947. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-making Processes in Administrative Organizations. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Tipple, Terrence J. 1991. "Herbert Kaufman's Forest Ranger Thirty Years Later: From Simplicity and Homogeneity to Complexity and Diversity," Public Administration Review, Vol. 51, #5 (Sept/Oct): 421-427.
Twight, Ben W. 1985. "The Forest Service Mission: A Case of Family Fidelity," Women in Forestry, (Fall): 5-7.
Twight, Ben W. 1990. "Bernhard Fernow and Prussian Forestry in America," Journal of Forestry, Vol. 88, #2 (Feb): 21-25.
Twight, Ben W. and Fremont J. Lyden. 1988. "Multiple Use vs. Organizational Commitment," Forest Science, Vol. 54, #2 (June): 471-486)
Twight, Ben W. and Fremont J. Lyden. 1989. "Measuring Forest Service Bias," Journal of Forestry, Vol. 87, #5 (May): 35-41.
Wamsley, Gary L., et al. 1990. Refounding Public Administration. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Note: This article originally web-published on now defunct U.S. Forest Service sponsored site: http://fs.jorge.com/archives/History_National/Kaufman_1994.htm