Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Rationality Project: Myth and Practice of Policy Making in Mexico City
by Muñiz Moreno, Susana Gabriela, Ph.D., State University of New York at Albany, 2019, 352; 13862804
Abstract (Summary)

The mission of rescuing policy from irrationality and politics through the use of scientific methods has recurrently been rebuffed and revived in the last hundred years. Ideologies of rationality, however, are never entirely implemented. People are constrained by organizational structures, pressures, opportunities, and other circumstances which lead to contradictory practices. “Decoupling”, the mismatch between organizational logics, norms, structures and practices, is the sociological concept par excellence that captures this offset. Drawing upon sixty-three in depth interviews with experts, policymakers, and other stakeholders from a policy network of Mexico City, this dissertation examines a case of organizational decoupling in the context of public sector reform. This work makes several contributions to the sociological literature of new institutionalism: it addresses the causes of decoupling, it describes the cognitive work that actors do to sustain it, and it points to the forces behind the persistence of myths.

The case explored here summarizes the experience of a group of political entrepreneurs from Mexico City, who adopted a “New Model of Public Management”, crafted by economists along the lines of rational orthodoxy, to improve the effectiveness of the public administration. Using this tool, they created a program to reduce childhood obesity following its instructions: experts were summoned, rational planning methodologies were employed, base-line research was conducted, quantitative impact evaluation was commissioned, and the private sector and civil society were involved. Simultaneously, they deviated from the new model of management in varied ways: at odds with the recommendations of the model, the goals of the program were not unequivocally defined, but were reconstructed through the implementation process; scientific experts did not consistently produce useful solutions to the tasks presented to them, nor commanded always the highest authority. The very notion of expertise was reinterpreted, and academics were replaced by actors with practical experience. Additionally, all members of the policy network treasured aspects of the program that escaped the logic of effectiveness of this model. Instead of behaving as rational actors, practitioners consistently embraced their intuition, personal preferences, and political gut to establish a course of action to create opportunities for the program to first come into existence, then to gain momentum, and lastly, to survive.

Organizational decoupling is characteristically seen as the result of the clash between norms and personal agendas, or as the result of lack of cultural compatibility and material capacity of organizations to implement the scripts that they import from alien environments. Nonetheless, the blame is rarely assigned to the myth. The first thesis of this investigation asserts that the cause of decoupling lies in the failure of these models to properly address the needs of practice. The model of management that this group adopted is a set of impersonal prescriptions on governance–expressed in universal terms—that did not offer proper guidance to deal with the unstandardized and complex conditions of practice. One of the findings of this dissertation is that actors learn from experience quicker, easier, or less onerous ways to solve problems that rational myths do not even start to recognize as legitimate, so they stray away from formal scripts not out of cynicism, but because they are not conductive to fulfill their first and most important command, which is getting things done.

Second, the shortcomings of this kind of models are relatively well known, so one cannot but wonder the reasons of their endurance. The literature often points to the authoritative forces of the world polity that legitimate this kind of myths. Without denying their relevance, this dissertation posits that the persistence of the myth is strengthened also and precisely by organizational decoupling. The myth does no persevere because actors adopt it, but because when they adopt it, they are allowed not to follow it. When necessary, it is often easier for practitioners to deviate from the script than to challenge it, and to the extent that this happens, the myth remains unopposed. Decoupling, thus, by buffering the myth from serious criticism, becomes an important mechanism of institutional stability.

Finally, the process of decoupling does not simply happen. Cognitive work is necessary to sustain it. This dissertation describes three modes of action that enable actors to compartmentalize their contradictory knowledges about policy making: instrumental, legitimacy-oriented, and allegoric.

Sociological theory has always produced theories of action to explain and predict human behavior. Actors have been portrayed either as rational actors or as legitimacy seeking individuals. The fault of these theories is nonetheless that they have largely assumed action to be unimodal. This dissertation suggests that there is no reason for such assumption. Actors behave instrumentally, they strive for legitimacy, and they are sense-making entities, but not always. I propose that action is multimodal, and that the mode of action is contingent to moment, circumstances, and particular social spaces of the situation. A multimodal theory of action allows us to understand how it is possible for actors to embrace myths and overlook them, to be constricted by institutional norms at the same time than to be free from them. In sum, a multimodal theory action allows to understand how norms and practices are cognitively decoupled.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Berman, Elizabeth P.
Commitee: Lachmann, Richard W., Major, Aaron, Dreby, Joanna
School: State University of New York at Albany
Department: Sociology
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 81/2(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Sociology, Public policy, Organization Theory
Keywords: Decoupling, New institutionalism, Organizations, Policy, Pragmatism, Rationality
Publication Number: 13862804
ISBN: 9781085732642
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