Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Administrative Attention amidst Political Failure

Public sector decision-makers operate amidst an abundance of information and unclear political objectives. Attention is the sine qua non of policy-making: What is attended to can be addressed in policy responses; what is overlooked or goes unnoticed cannot. Despite its importance, public administration research has been remarkably inattentive of administrative attention.

2022 - 2027
Joris van der Voet
NWO Vidi grant

The project Administrative Attention amidst Political Failure investigates (1) which issues decision-makers prioritize, (2) how they define the relevant characteristics of a problem, and (3) how they generate policy solutions.

Decision-makers operate in an environment that is characterized by a plethora of societal challenges. In addition, failing political processes increasingly result in unclear, inconsistent or unstable political objectives. This makes it crucial to understand processes of attention allocation by public sector decision-makers, because their attention determines if and how government responds to societal challenges.

This project is the first systematic investigation of the attention of public sector decision-makers, in particular politicians and top-level bureaucrats. The project examines how decision-makers – individually and in decision-teams – allocate their attention across a wealth of information to (1) prioritize issues, (2) define relevant problem characteristics, and (3) generate potential solutions. In three sub-projects, the project seeks to generate a theoretical and practically-applicable understanding of how decision-makers decide which societal challenges should be prioritized over others, how decision-makers’ processing of performance information shapes their problem definitions and potential policy solutions, and how the turbulent political environments affect these processes of attention allocation.

More information on this project is available in this interview with the principal investigator here

A major theory that informs decision-making in public and private organizations is behavioral theory. Behavioral theory states that decision-makers prioritize those issues where performance is below aspirations. This can for instance mean that performance is lower than it was before, or that performance is lower than comparable peers or competitors. The theory leaves unaddressed, however, which issues decision-makers attend to when faced with simultaneous and multi-layered issues that require attention. This is a critical omission for its public sector application, given the wide range and complex nature of goal. To address this knowledge gap, this project aims to generate and empirically test a behavioral theory of issue prioritization. By generating a behavioral theory of issue prioritization, the project advances public administration theory by specifying behavioral theory to

the particular public sector context. The project therefore has high potential to stimulate future research with greater validity and better applicability in the public sector.

For this sub-project, qualitative interviews with public sector decision-makers are held to generate a theoretical model of issue prioritization. This theoretical model is then subjected to an empirical test by means of discrete choice experiment.

Public officials usually rely on performance information in order to take objective decisions about the delivery of public services. However, previous studies have shown that public officials’ interpretation of unidimensional performance information is often impacted by their governance preferences for the public or private provision of services, leading to sub-optimal decision-making within public organizations. Yet, although performance information increasingly includes multiple, often conflicting, performance measures, previous studies have mainly examined the influence of public officials’ governance preferences on the processing of unidimensional performance information. This sub-project addresses this research gap by examining the influence of governance preferences on public officials’ behavioral responses when they assess multiple conflicting performance data. It also examines the influence of governance preferences on the processing of conflicting performance data by both public managers and politicians with the ultimate goal of developing theoretical expectations about the behavioral responses of politicians and public managers, thereby advancing current public administration research.

For this sub-project, we conduct a series of randomized survey experiments among elected politicians and public managers in local governments. This sub-project also integrates innovative methodological approaches such as eye-tracking in order to get in a more in depth understanding of public officials’ behavioral responses.

Attention is frequently invoked as a theoretical mechanism to explain decision-making in the public sector, but is scarcely directly empirically observed. Instead, research has observed the outcomes of decision-makers’ attention on the level of organizations, sectors, or government as a whole, for instance by studying research and development spending, performance recoveries, and policy agendas. Consequentially, attention remains a theoretically assumed rather than empirically demonstrated mechanism of behavioral theory.

To address this knowledge gap, this project breaks new ground by providing a conceptualization of attention as decision-makers’ problem-defining and solution-generating information search behavior. It proposes that, when confronted with a societal challenge or organizational problem, decision-makers may process information aimed at defining the relevant characteristics and causal origin of the issue at hand (problem-definition search), as well as information processing aimed at identifying possible alternative courses of action that may remedy the problem (solution-generating search).

Relying on this conceptualization and utilizing experimental research methods, the project advances behavioral theory by testing to what extent problem-definition and solution-generating search are triggered by negative performance information, and extends behavioral theory by providing theorization and empirical tests about the sequence and locus of problem-definition and solution-generating search.

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