In this light, government agencies serve mostly political and symbolic functions: “Congress passes on to these agencies a type of symbolic control; they represent our belief
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in the virtues of planning and the value of an integrated program of action. But the agencies are given no formal authority over the organizations whose services they are to control and few funds to use as incentives to stimulate the cooperation of these existing organizations” (Scott, 1983, p. 126).
In practice, agencies reduce tension and uncertainty and increase the public’s sense of con”dence and security. Only in a crisis—as when people or pets die from eating contaminated food—do people ask why regulators failed to do their job. Theatrically, agencies enact their roles to create a drama showing that violators will be identi”ed and punished and !aws will be remedied so that the problems never recur.
ORGANIZATIONAL PROCESS AS THEATER Rationally, procedures produce results. Administrative protocols coordinate work. Tech- nology improves ef”ciency. Lectures impart information, knowledge, and wisdom. Medical care cures illness. Social workers manage cases and write reports to, occasionally, identify and remedy social ills.
People in organizations spendmuch of their time engaged in such endeavors. To justify their toil, they want to believe that their efforts produce the intended outcomes. Even if the best intentions or themost sophisticated technologies donot yield expected results, the activities play a vital theatrical role. They serve as scripts and stagemarkings for self-expressive opportunities, improvisation for airing grievances, and amphitheaters for negotiatingnewunderstandings.We illustrate how these “gurative forms alter the context of meetings, planning, performance appraisals, collective bargaining, the exercise of power, and symbolic management.
Meetings March and Olsen (1976) were ahead of their time in depicting meetings as improvisational “garbage cans.” In this imagery, meetings are magnets attracting individuals looking for something to do, problems seeking answers, and people bringing solutions in search of problems. The results of a meeting depend on a serendipitous interplay among items that show up: Who came to the meeting? What problems, concerns, or needs were on their minds? What solutions or suggestions did they bring?
Garbage-can scripts are likely to play out in meetings dealing with emotionally charged, symbolically signi”cant, or technically fuzzy issues. The topic of mission, for example, attracts a more sizable collection of people, problems, and solutions than the topic of cost accounting. Meetings may not always produce rational discourse, sound plans, or mean- ingful improvements. But they serve as expressive occasions to clear the air and promote
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collective bonding. Some players get opportunities to practice and polish their lines in the drama. Others revel in the chance to add excitement to work. Audiences feel reassured that issues are getting attention and better times may lie ahead. But problems and solutions characteristically linger on, detached from one another.
Planning An organization without a plan is in peril of being seen as reactive, shortsighted, and rudderless. Planning, then, is an essential ceremony that organizations stage periodically to maintain legitimacy. A plan is a decoration displayed conspicuously and with pride. A strategic plan carries even higher status. A new leader in a school, college, or public agency almost invariably initiates a strategic planning process shortly after arrival. Mintzberg’s insightful book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (1994) presents an array of survey and anecdotal evidence questioning the link between strategic planning and its stated objectives. He shows that the presumed linear progression from analysis to objectives to action to results is more fanciful than factual. Many executives recognize the shortcomings of strategic planning yet continue to champion the process: “Recently I asked three corporate executives what decisions they had made in the last year that they would not have made were it not for their corporate plans. All had dif”culty identifying one such decision. Since each of their plans [was] marked ‘secret’ or ‘con”dential,’ I asked them how their competitors might bene”t from the possession of their plans. Each answered with embarrassment that their competitors would not bene”t. Yet these executives were strong advocates of corporate planning” (Russell Ackoff, quoted in Mintzberg, 1994, p. 98).
Planning persists because it plays an eminent role in an organization’s enduring drama. Quinn notes: “A good deal of the corporate planning I have observed is like a ritual rain dance; it has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does. Moreover, it seems to me that much of the advice and instruction related to corporate planning is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather” (quoted inMintzberg, 1994, p. 139).
Discussing universities, Cohen andMarch (1974) list four symbolic roles that plans play:
• Plans are symbols. Academic organizations have few real pieces of objective evidence to evaluate performance. They have nothing comparable to pro”t or sales “gures. How are we doing? No one really knows. Planning is a signal that all is well or improvement is just around the corner. A school or university undergoing an accreditation review engages in a “self-study” and lays out an ambitious strategic plan, which can then gather a decade of dust until it is time to repeat the process.
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• Plans become games. Especially where goals and technology are unclear, planning becomes a test of will. A department that wants a new program badly must justify the expenditure by substantial planning efforts. An administrator who wishes to avoid saying yes but has no real basis for saying no can test commitment by asking for a plan. Bene!ts lie more in the process than the result.
• Plans become excuses for interaction. Developing a plan forces discussion and may increase interest in and commitment to new priorities. Occasionally, interaction yields positive results. But rarely does it yield an accurate forecast. Conclusions about what will happen next year are notoriously susceptible to alteration as people, politics, policies, or preferences change, but discussions of the future seldommodify views of what should be done differently today.
• Plans become advertisements. What is frequently labeled as a plan is more like an investment brochure. It is an attempt to persuade private and public donors of an institution’s attractiveness. Plans are typically adorned with glossy photographs of beautiful people in pristine settings, of!cial pronouncements of excellence, and a noticeable dearth of speci!cs.
Cohen and March (1974) asked college presidents their views of the linkage between plans and decisions. Responses fell into four main categories:
“Yes, we have a plan. It is used in capital project and physical location decisions.” “Yes, we have a plan. Here it is. It was made during the administration of
our last president. We are working on a new one.” “No, we do not have a plan. We should. We’re working on one.” “I think there’s a plan around here someplace. Miss Jones, do we have a
copy of our comprehensive, ten-year plan?” (p. 113).
Evaluation Assessing the performance of individuals, departments, or programs is a major undertaking. Organizations devote considerable time, energy, and resources to appraising individuals, even though many doubt that the procedures connect closely with improvements, and Culbert (2010) insists that they do more harm than good. Organization-wide reviews yield lengthy reports presented with !tting pomp and ceremony. Universities convene visiting committees or accrediting teams to evaluate schools or departments. Government requires
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routine assessment of program ef!cacy. Social service agencies commission studies or audits whenever an important problem or issue arises.
Occasionally, actions follow insights or recommendations. Sometimes suggestions yield tangible improvements. At other times they trigger changes that are primarily symbolic. Most higher education accreditors, for example, insist on currently fashionable “assurance of learning” processes, which in practice typically assure additional paperwork more than enhanced learning. Often, results disappear into the recesses of people’s minds or the far reaches of administrators’ !les. But evaluation still plays a decisive role in helping organizations foster faith, belief, and con!dence among constituents.
Evaluation as drama assures spectators that an organization is responsible, serious, and well managed. It shows that an organization takes goals seriously and cares about performance and improvement. The evaluation process gives participants an opportunity to share opinions and have them recognized publicly. It helps people relabel old practices, escape normal routine, and build new beliefs (Rallis, 1980). Although the impact on decisions or behavior may be marginal, methodical evaluation and its magic numbers serves as a potent weapon in political battles or as a compelling justi!cation for a decision already made (Weiss, 1980).
In public organizations, Floden andWeiner argue, “Evaluation is a ritual whose function is to calm the anxieties of the citizenry and to perpetuate an image of government rationality, ef!ciency, and accountability. The very act of requiring and commissioning evaluations may create the impression that government is seriously committed to the pursuit of publicly espoused goals, such as increasing student achievement or reducing malnutrition. Evaluations lend credence to this image even when programs are created to appease interest groups” (1978, p. 17).
Collective Bargaining In collective bargaining, labor and management negotiate to forge divisive standoffs into workable agreements. The process typically pits two sets of interests against each other: Unions want better wages, bene!ts, and working conditions for members; management aims to keep costs down and maximize pro!ts for shareholders. Negotiating teams follow a familiar script: “Negotiators have to act like opponents, representatives and experts, showing that they are aligned with teammates and constituents, willing to push hard to achieve constituent goals, and constantly in control. On the public stage, anger and opposition dominate; rituals of opposition, representation, and control produce a drama of con”ict. At the same time, there are mechanisms for private understanding between
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opposing lead bargainers, such as signaling and sidebar discussions” (Friedman, 1994, pp. 86–87).
On the surface, the negotiation process appears as a strife-ridden political brawl where persistence and power determine the distribution of scarce resources. On a deeper level, negotiation is a carefully crafted pugilistic performance that delivers the show various audiences demand. Going off script carries high risk: “A young executive took the helm of a !rm with the intention of eliminating bickering and con”ict between management and labor. He commissioned a study of the company’s wage structure and went to the bargaining table to present his offer. He informed the union representatives what he had done and offered them more than they had expected to get. The astonished union leaders berated the executive for undermining the process of collective bargaining and asked for another !ve cents an hour beyond his offer” (Blum, 1961, pp. 63–64).
Similar problems have been documented by Friedman in his studies of mutual-gains bargaining (which emphasizes cooperation and a win-win outcome rather than con”ict). A disillusioned participant in an abortive mutual gains process lamented: “It hurt us. We got real chummy. Everyone talked. Then in the !nal hours, it was the same old shit. Maybe we should have been pounding on the table” (Friedman, 1994, p. 216).
In theater, actors who deviate from the script disrupt everyone else’s ability to deliver their lines. The bargaining drama is designed to convince each side that the outcomes were the result of a heroic battle—often underscored by desperate, all-night, after-the-deadline rituals of combat that produce a deal just when hope seems lost. If well performed, the drama conveys the message that two determined opponents fought hard and persistently for what they believed was right (Blum, 1961; Friedman, 1994). It obscures the reality that actors typically know in advance how the play will end.
A perennial example in U.S. politics is periodic budget stand-offs between the White House and Congress. One came in late 2012, as the United States confronted a “!scal cliff.” Without congressional action by December 31, the country faced a set of spending cuts and tax increases that spelled economic turmoil. President Obama, who had just been re-elected in November, and a Republican Congress were at loggerheads. A !nal compromise failed to pass before Congress adjourned for the holidays. Technically, the U.S. went over the cliff at 12:01 AM on January 1. But then at 2 AM the Senate passed the compromise bill, and the House followed suit later in the day. It was a stopgap measure that postponed all the key decisions.
The real drama was a play within a play, a struggle for power between two divided parties. It ended as many expected. No agreement reached. No catastrophe. Both sides fought hard. Republicans in the House demonstrated that they were a powerful force.
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Obama reminded everyone that he was still the president. But to the American public the Washington drama portrayed government as a Keystone Cops comedy.
Power Power is typically viewed as a commodity that individuals or systems possess—something that can be seized, exercised, contested, or redistributed. But power is inherently ambiguous and slippery. It is rarely easy to determine what power is, who has it, or how to get it. Sometimes it is even harder to knowwhen someone actually wields power. You are powerful if others think you are.
Certain performances are widely believed to portray power. People often attribute power to those who talk a lot, belong to committees, and seem close to the action. Yet there may be little relationship between such actions and their impact. The relationship between actions and real clout may even be negative; the frustrated may talk a lot, and the disgruntled may resort to futile political intrigue or posturing (Enderud, 1976).
People also attribute power to individuals or groups in