Discretion in Public Administration

Anatole France said “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to steal bread, and to beg in the streets.” If anyone is wondering why it’s important for bureaucrats to have discretion and scope for judgment, and why trying to constrain them as completely as possible with mechanistic, detailed rules and regulations is a losing proposition, consider this heartbreaker. Let’s see, one amendment specifying that “this and that provision shall not apply to the widow of any person who died attempting to save the life of two or more persons under the age of….”

I don’t think so. Someone has to have the unilateral authority to do the right thing, and say why.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Discretion in Public Administration”

  1. Are we to think that this situation is relatively common?
    If it isn't, then what's wrong with the private bill solution? I'd be disappointed if there were anything other than support for a private bill to make her a citizen (or at least to provide her legal residency).

  2. I don't see why Congress is the right place for decisions of this kind. This situation is not only not common, it's unique; that's why no set of rules could cover it. But many, many unique and unpredictable situations arise in implementing something like immigration law, and executive branch officials are the people who should be able to dispose of them as they come up.

  3. Michael, I'll leave the debate over the sole judge/absolute monarchy stuff to you and Mark.

  4. You policy wonks don't get it.
    We have to deport the productive and educated legal immigrants who make minor errors in filing forms. Otherwise we wouldn't have room for all the illegal aliens who run the borders to do all the jobs that citizens won't do.

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