Back to POSDCORB?

For me an examination, in addition to testing the knowledge of individual students, is an experiment intended to determine whether my curriculum got through to most of my students. I’ve just completed grading the final exams for my undergraduate public management course, and have some important results about what has and hasn’t.

My exams always include both factual and interpretive questions. The factual questions ask students to identify concepts or institutions and explain their significance to the practice of public management. Two examples from this year’s exam are the Public Service Commission pf Canada and Twitter. Every student got full marks for Twitter, the Public Service Commission not so many. The exam also confirmed my impression that the students have a high level of technological literacy and can readily apply it in a public management context.

The interpretive questions take as their basis recent events, put the student in the shoes of a manager, and ask them what they should do and why. One question referred to the results of the April 4 Saskatchewan Election and asked for issues or priorities in terms of politics or policy that the newly-reelected Premier Brad Wall should deal with. The question told students that the government didn’t release a budget prior to the campaign, but was forecasting a deficit of $430 million. It mentioned that the Saskatchewan Party had made some spending promises, the largest of which was $30 million for highway repairs, and that it had also promised to privatize government-owned liquor stores. Finally, it referenced Premier Wall’s conflict with the Trudeau Government over carbon pricing. (I use my book with Alan Blakeney as a text and in the last class I show Wall’s eloquent and thoughtful

eulogy of Blakeney.)

Almost all the students’ answers dealt with the policy issues. Very few recognized Wall’s responsibilities in the area of political management: to shuffle the cabinet and to meet the Legislature. The latter, of course, require writing a Speech from the Throne and preparing a budget. Perhaps my question was ambiguous, but my concern is that these responsibilities – which I had discussed in the context of the Trudeau Government’s new mandate – were not top of mind for the students.

I also had a question about the Zika virus, which was the topic of the course’s crisis management simulation, which I discussed in my blog post of last March 16. (I should note that the deliberately scary title of the post, Zika Comes to Canada, attracted a huge spike in visits to my webpage.) Based on an article in the New York Times on April 5, I outlined the dire situation faced by Chalmers Vasquez, the manager of mosquito control for Miami. His budget of $1.8 million and small staff will be inadequate to deal with the situation this summer when local mosquitoes are expected to be carrying the virus. The question asked students to outline a comprehensive strategy for Mr. Vasquez to deal with the situation.

The facts of the case given to students also included that the mosquitoes carrying the virus breed in stagnant water in pools, flowerpots, and recycling containers and that the mosquitoes are not susceptible to traditional spraying from airplanes and trucks. Many students realized that mobilizing the community to drain stagnant water themselves would be critical to controlling the virus, and that mobilization would require information and direction from government.

Many answers were written as though Vasquez had a great deal of managerial autonomy, for example calling press conferences on his own initiative, and paid little attention to his tightly constrained budget (despite my including the title of the New York Times story: “At Singular Risk for Zika, Miami has Limited Money to Fight It”). Students didn’t seem to realize that Vasquez is a middle manager and that, to fight Zika, he will have to mobilize his colleagues and superiors. Very few suggested he ask for more money through an in-year supplementary appropriation to deal with this unforeseen crisis.

Management thinking may not be getting through to some of my students because they aren’t accustomed to it. Many of the students in the course are UTCS Public Policy students and their political science courses pay a great deal of attention to politics and policy, but very little to implementation. (This also seems to be the case in the MPP Program at U. of T.’s School of Public Policy and Governance.) Maybe it’s in the nature of young adult thinking to want to attack a problem directly, without thinking empathetically about the resources available to, and constraints faced by, the protagonist a case or exam question selects.

If my diagnosis is correct, what should be done? Applying implementation logic to this context, I may have less success changing my colleagues’ courses than my own. Perhaps what my course needs is the old-fashioned Fayol, Gulick, and Urwick remedy: POSDCORB, or the basics of planning, organizing, staffing, directing, co-ordinating, reporting, and budgeting. But I have no idea what to drop in order to fit in at least a passing reference to this formula. Or perhaps I should use a more modern take on POSDCORB such as the graphic I used for the link. I will definitely contemplate this problem while spending the summer working on my research.

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