Impossible Jobs in Public Management

Erwin C. Hargrove and John C. Glidewell

If you think your job is hopelessly difficult, you may be right. Particularly if your job is public administration.

Those who study or practice public management know full well the difficulties faced by administrators of complex bureaucratic systems. What they don't know is why some jobs in the public sector are harder than others and how good managers cope with those jobs.

“A significant contribution to the literature on public management. The “impossible work” argument will become a major reference point. The authors’ introduction is extraordinarily useful, and the combination of political/organizational analysis with social psychology is stimulating and original. This book should inspire a lively debate. . . . I highly recommend it.”

—Richard F. Elmore, author of Reform and Retrenchment and president of the Association for Public Policy and Management

Drawing on leadership theory and social psychology, Erwin Hargrove and John Glidewell provide the first systematic analysis of the factors that determine the inherent difficulty of public management jobs and of the coping strategies employed by successful managers. To test their argument, Hargrove and Glidewell focus on those jobs fraught with extreme difficulties—"impossible" jobs.

What differentiates impossible from possible jobs are (1) the publicly perceived legitimacy of the commissioner's clientele; (2) the intensity of the conflict among the agency's constituencies; (3) the public's confidence in the authority of the commissioner's profession; and (4) the strength of the agency's "myth," or long-term, idealistic goal.

Hargrove and Glidewell flesh out their analysis with six case studies that focus on the roles played by leaders of specific agencies. Each essay summarizes the institutional strengths and weaknesses, specifies what makes the job impossible, and then compares the skills and strategies that incumbents have employed in coping with such jobs. Readers will come away with a thorough understanding of the conflicting social, psychological, and political forces that act on commissioners in impossible jobs.

About the Author

Erwin C. Hargrove is professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is author of Jimmy Carter as President: Leadership and the Politics of the Public Good and The Power of the Modern Presidency and coeditor (with Jameson Doig) of Leadership and Innovation: A Biographical Perspective on Entrepreneurs in Government.

John C. Glidewell is professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and author of Corporate Cultures. As a specialist on the relationships between individuals and organizations, the exercise of authority, and decisions under stress, he has served as a consultant to Western Electric, H. J. Heinz, Procter and Gamble, Xerox, and the American Red Cross.

Additional Titles in the Studies in Government and Public Policy Series