Public managers within a single organization commonly define
fundamental terms differently. Since public managers come from
diverse backgrounds and have different experiences, it's not
unexpected that they interpret the world around them differently.
Are these differences in understanding detrimental to the public
organization? How should public managers react to these situations?
Perhaps hermeneutics is the best tool for grappling with
differences of understanding within an organization and it is time
to add it to the public management tool kit. The case below of the
Assistant City Manager and the Public Works Director in a mid-sized
southern city describe one example of how public managers within an
organization arrive at divergent interpretations of the world in
which they operate.
The Assistant City Manager
As the Assistant City Manager, Parker Washington's
eagerness to help residents lays in his belief that public
administrators should not treat all residents the same. On its
surface, this philosophy sounds remarkably and ironically unfair,
since it suggests singling out some groups of citizens to be
treated differently than their fellow residents. Upon further
examination, it is clear Mr. Washington's belief in fairness is
grounded in a humanistic approach to governance. According to Mr.
Washington, the City must do for its residents what they are unable
to do for themselves. "Some say that if we do it for one person, we
have to do it for everyone, but shouldn't we do more for those who
can't do it for themselves? If we're trying to make a better
community, we can't do the same for everyone," Washington said.
It is apparent Mr. Washington views the city as more
than a collection of ordinances and policies but as an organic,
dynamic agent for community building. When addressing the routine
issues that citizens raise, Mr. Washington wants to follow the
City's guidelines but, in a broader sense, he wants to do what
helps to build a better community. If that means making an
exception in a certain case, then Mr. Washington is willing to make
that exception. And, when political realities make it difficult to
avoid the letter of the law, Mr. Washington has found ways to take
action that does fall within the City's established guidelines. "As
government officials, you have to look at everything. We all want
the same thing. We want a better community."
The Public Works Director
As the Director of Public Works, Arnold Clark relies on
precedent to make decisions. This public administrator wants to
know what the City has done for every other citizen in the same
position in previous situations, because that will determine what
the City should do for this citizen (and every other person) in
this position in the future. "One of the hardest things is to be
fair and treat everybody fairly, because we never make decisions in
a vacuum. I ask 'What have we done in similar circumstances?'
because you can't wake up new every day," Clark said.
The divergent ways Mr. Clark and Mr. Washington define
a seemingly simple term like 'fairness' guide each of their
approaches to public administration. According to Mr. Clark,
fairness means to treat everyone the same. "A city's credibility is
based on doing what people think is fair... What's more
important than an ordinance treating everybody the same? People can
live with that. It's more important for people to know you're fair
and everybody is being treated the same," Mr. Clark said.
While Mr. Washington takes a holistic and community-wide approach
to fairness, Mr. Clark takes a more legalistic and individual
approach to fairness. The former sees an opportunity to help
someone in need, while the latter sees a responsibility to never do
for one citizen what he would not do for another. "If you feel like
your job working for a city is to help people, then you'll never
tell anyone no, regardless of the situation," Mr. Clark said. "My
job is easier than that. I don't feel my job is to help people. My
job is to be a good steward of the people's money, not to help
everyone. I don't know how I'd do a job if I thought I had to help
every person who calls in."
Hermeneutics in Public Management
Mr. Clark and Mr. Washington reveal a telling and unappreciated
truth about organizations: individuals define fundamental terms
differently within in a single organization. At first glance, one
might conclude this is a sign of a dysfunctional organization but,
upon further examination, that could not be farther from the truth.
In fact, according to the hermeneutical school of philosophy, this
is the necessary and permanent condition of all human interaction.
Popularized by German Continental Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer,
hermeneutics is the study of the meaning of texts. The word 'text'
is a broad term that can be extended to include terms, situations,
relationships and even public organizations. According to this
philosophical tradition, meanings are not absolute but are unique
to individuals based on their individual perspectives, which are
influenced by their previous experiences and their pre-conceived
notions of the text.
The discussions described here reveal a complex and
underappreciated reality about organizations: people within a
single organization define fundamental terms differently. Mr.
Washington and Mr. Clark are both important decision-makers in city
government, yet their guiding principles for public administration
are far apart. For Mr. Clark, fairness means he must treat everyone
the same but, for Mr. Washington, fairness means he can't treat
everyone the same. Within a single organization with a single
mission, key administrators have different definitions of a
fundamental aspect of their organization.
With hermeneutics as a framework for interpretation, it
is evident these public administrators have different backgrounds
that lead them to draw different definitions for a single term.
Additionally, public administration involves interaction with a
variety of constituency groups and administrators must use
hermeneutics as a framework for understanding the realities of each
As we begin to explore the usefulness of hermeneutics
as a tool for public administration, I invite you to share your
thoughts, experiences and suggestions on how hermeneutics can be
added to the public management tool kit.