Elizabeth Anne VanderPutten
Subgoals, Outputs and Slippage
A. INTRODUCTIONThis study has focused on the phenomenon of slippage in federal social policies, that is, the differences between policy intent and outputs, and on the roles played by the subgoals of front-line service providers -- street-level bureaucrats -- in loosely coupled social service agencies. The data base used was drawn from a set of ten case studies of different local projects, all of which were attempting to implement the same federal social service program.
The first part of the chapter relates this study to findings from previous research. In broad terms, prior research showed that slip page is generally viewed as a sign of inefficiency and waste and, consequently, is undesirable, and that slippage exists at all levels in the federal social policy development and implementation chain. Explanations of slippage presented in these studies include (1) the often vague, ambiguous and multiple goals of policies; (2) the loosely coupled nature of the federal social service delivery systems; and (3) the discretion enjoyed by local level staff and officials in implementing policies.
Together, these studies suggested that the local site is an appropriate focus of study, and that street—level bureaucrats are central actors in the slippage phenomenon. The questions have focused on why these local service deliverers choose to emphasize some services over others. This work pursued the hypothesis that individually held subgoals of street— level bureaucrats play an important role in this decision—making process.
Major findings of the study are summarized in the form of four generalizations. Because of the sampling procedures used in the study, no claims are made that these generalizations will hold for other populations. Rather, they are patterns that the study suggests may hold in other situations. Areas for further research, both basic and applied, are discussed, as are implications for policy.
B. PREVIOUS RESEARCH AND THIS STUDY
1. Previous Research Findings
For two decades, much research on federal policies has been devoted to examining the congruity between policy intent and its results, to documenting discrepancies between the two, and to explaining the reasons for slippage. Early research focused on the Congressional level, and, in the mode of many traditional political theorists, saw slippage resulting from multiple, vague, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory goal statements which emerged from the political policy-making process. Succeeding studies demonstrated that slippage could be accounted for, in part, by the imperfect translation of legislative intent into programmatic rules and regulations by Executive Branch officials who either had different agendas, or who failed to understand the policy-makers’ intent.
Other research suggested that the accountability and compliance mechanisms embodied in policies and administrative procedures were inadequate.
Much of this research seemed to suggest a kind of “tightening of the reins.” At the same time, theorists and practitioners alike pointed to the improbability that slippage could be substantially reduced by such approaches. The electoral system, for example, is in place; its requirements are relatively fixed; and the law-making process seems unlikely to change greatly. The goals of policies and laws, therefore, appear likely to remain relatively broad and encompassing, at least in many cases. Moreover, it is unlikely that, as long as legislative language is general, Executive Branch officials will cease to shape and reshape policy goals.
2. Loosely Coupled Systems and Street-Level Bureaucrats
Other research focused on the local level, documented considerable variation in the ways that policies were implemented, and sought to explain the variation in terms of the social policy implementation system. Organizational theorists had already shown that organizations vary considerably in the extent to which policy-makers influence the behaviors of those charged with carrying out authoritative decisions. Organizations where goal-setters’ decisions are closely linked to workers' behaviors are often classified as “tightly knit”; others, where workers are relatively free from hierarchical control, have come to be known as “loosely coupled” organizations.
Social service agencies generally exhibit the characteristics of loosely coupled systems. In part because such organizations typically have multiple, ambiguous and sometimes conflicting goals, and in part because higher level authorities rarely exercise strong control over service providers -- teachers, social workers, CETA staff, for example -- have considerable discretion in what services they offer. Outputs, then, are the result, at least in the most direct sense, of the decisions of the frontline staff. To understand slippage, it became necessary to understand factors that influenced their decision-making.
Some studies suggested that the explanation could be found in the commitment of staff to the policy’s goals. The question then becomes, what leads staff to understand and accept policy goals in ways that contribute to the degree of congruence or slippage between policy goals and outputs. This study explores this question.
Herbert Simon had suggested that persons, faced with ambiguous goals and unclear means of linking actions to those goals, seek to fulfill short- term subgoals. Subgoals are objectives that the individual believes can be achieved by allocating resources under his or her control. These subgoals are generally not derived from broad policy goals, but rather from experiences, education, the community and personal needs. This study was designed to explore Simon’s idea as a possible explanation for the behavior of staff charged with the implementation of federal policies.
C. GENERAL CONCLUSIONS CONCERNING SUBGOALS, OUTPUTS AND SLIPPAGE
Despite the exploratory nature of this research, and the limited number of cases and individuals, data do suggest that certain patterns are present and are likely to be found in similar situations. Generalizations about these patterns are discussed in this section, along with implications for both policy and future research.
This study defined professional subgoals in terms of the services offered by the projects. Organizational subgoals were defined as the extent to which the person felt committed to his or her organization or the project, and wished to promote its goals. Personal subgoals were defined in terms of economic and personal security, and in terms of a sense of accomplishment.
This finding perhaps may be another way of saying that, when people are asked to do something they already want to do, they are likely to comply with the request, and, conversely, that, when they are asked to do something they oppose, compliance is less likely.
The study found strong patterns between the outputs at a given site and the relative emphasis the staff placed on various services. In general, staff seemed to allocate most resources to the fulfillment of professional subgoals they considered important, but less or none to those they considered unimportant. However, where the project placed a very high importance on a particular service, staff often delivered more than could be predicted solely on the basis of their subgoals
These findings are consistent with the concepts of “loosely coupled” systems and “street-level bureaucrats.” Individual staff members are comparatively free to provide whatever levels of client services they choose. While higher-level authorities cannot directly influence the actions of street-level bureaucrats, they can influence decisions by providing Incentives.
This finding does not mean that professional subgoals equal delivery. Good will alone, or even intent, is not enough. A staff may simply not have the resources, including time, energy, skills and cooperation from others, to provide the types of services they value. Indeed, one of the findings of the study was that scarcity of resources not only has direct effects on outputs, but also has an indirect effect by influencing staff subgoals.
From a common-sense perspective, when a person believes that one activity will contribute to the attainment of a personally important objective, the individual is likely to perform the activity. This generalization is consistent with the Simon hypothesis that subgoals can be derived from several sources, including other subgoals.
The process seems to work in two ways. One involves instrumentality. If a project subgoal is seen as instrumental in the achievement of a strongly held individual subgoal, then, over time, the instrumental sub goal will become more important to the person. Conversely, when staff views a project subgoal as detrimental to the achievement of an important individually held subgoal, delivery will probably drop not only for that service, but for other services as well.
The second way this process seems to work involves complementarily of subgoals. When two or more subgoals of roughly equal importance are perceived by staff as mutually reinforcing, total project outputs will probably be greater than would be predicted on the basis of the subgoals considered individually. Allocation of time and effort to one subgoal, rather than taking away from the achievement of other subgoals, actually makes their achievement possible.
Some factors emerged in the study that seemed to be related to subgoal clustering and reinforcement. When a project had a strong focus, and it promised to deliver relatively few services at a high level, staff seemed more likely to view project subgoals as reinforcing to each other and to their own professional subgoals.
Where the staff had some flexibility in implementing the proposal, and modifying it to meet the needs of clients, staff were more likely to view the project’s subgoals as more inherently consistent and more rein forcing of their own professional subgoals.
In this study, the subgoals of short-term economic security and personal safety were strongly held. When they were threatened, delivery suffered. The reasonable security and fulfillment of these subgoals, how ever, did not guarantee high delivery, nor did their lack of fulfillment mean that no delivery occurred.
There appear to have been three processes at work. One involved a certain threshold of security that must be maintained or reached. Staff cannot be continually threatened and still be expected to produce at high levels. On the other hand, security does not seem to guarantee high levels of delivery. A partial explanation for this might be that a limited degree of insecurity may foster increased efforts and, consequently, higher delivery levels. Data however are too limited to support this conclusion or to even know that there was such a thing as a proposal.
Staff seemed to need reinforcement from the communities within which they worked. The processes involved seemed to work in several ways. By making it easier for staff to provide services, a pre-existing community helped the staff feel a sense of personal accomplishment, which, in turn, reinforced their commitment to the project subgoals. On the other hand, where such a community did not exist, staff had to devote large amounts of time and effort to providing generally fewer and often lower-quality services.
Staff members also looked to their communities to determine which services to emphasize. Where there was a good fit between community, project and staff subgoals, output was generally high. Where the project and community were at odds, staff was in a no-win situation. Pleasing one group could risk alienating another. Consequently, staff could not turn with confidence to the community for help, support, or reinforcement of subgoals.
This study examined three factors about community that influenced staff subgoals. These were (1) pre-existence, (2) diversity of participants, and (3) congruence of subgoals. Of these, the effects of the presence or absence of a pre-existing community seem best documented. Where a pre-existing community of interests was present, with goals and subgoals similar to the project, staff members were likely to find reinforcement for their professional subgoals, as well as some help in achieving personal subgoals. Where such a community did not exist, staff had to devote considerable effort to establishing one. This study also suggests that, where the pre-existing community contained a variety of individuals and organizations with similar interests, It was more likely to provide reinforcement to staff.
It should be reiterated that these interactions with the community are, in part, the result of the particular goals of the projects funded by the Youth Employment Demonstration Projects Act and Youthwork. In order to provide required services, project staff were required to work with members of the community and other organizations. It may be possible that these findings would not hold in projects that could be self- contained in a particular organization.
D. IMPLICATIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
1. Nature of Subgoals
As previously discussed, professional, organizational and personal subgoals were narrowly defined in this study. While these definitions seem to have worked reasonably well, they may not have gotten to the essential nature of subgoals. As stated previously, the definition specifically failed to take into account a sense of professionalism. Moreover, because the definitions are project-specific, they would have little meaning for staff at other sites. While this will probably always be a problem with any definition of subgoals, given that they are derived, in part, from the project, a broader definition is needed if the findings of research on subgoals are to have general meaning for policy-makers. Perhaps a taxonomy of subgoals could be developed or more general instruments with which to measure them.
2. Sources of Subgoals
One of the research assertions guiding this study was that the educational and experiential background of persons would influence their professional subgoals. Unfortunately, the data proved too limited for this kind of analysis. Ultimately, such analysis is necessary if policy- makers and administrators are to have improved ways of predicting how staff with different institutional backgrounds and organizational settings may differ in their professional subgoals. Future research designs should take the need for this analysis into consideration.
A second and more fundamental analysis of the antecedents of subgoals involves the relationship between values, value structures or value hierarchies, and subgoals. How do subgoals and values differ? How do values influence subgoals?
On a more applied level, policy research could focus on the conditions that lead staff to emphasize professional subgoals, and to re-prioritize these subgoals to be more in line with the project’s subgoals. The study suggests that policies with a somewhat limited set of goals may help staff to focus their subgoals. Clearly, then, attention must be devoted to how to develop and communicate policy subgoals so that they are accurately perceived by staff.
The study also strongly suggests that where personal subgoals are threatened, staff are unlikely to deliver services at a high level. Are there ways of modifying policies, administrative procedures, and employment conditions so that staff are less likely to perceive threats to their security?
Policy analysts could examine the extent to which a policy may be seen by local implementers as having either divergent or reinforcing subgoals. The study suggests that tension is created when staff feel they are asked to deliver services that are perceived to have conflicting requirements, such as maintaining academic standards while providing employment to youths.
Tension does not necessarily mean that a policy will be ineffective or that slippage will occur. Further research may be able to (1) identify whether or not a given policy might be asking staff to behave in ways that they might perceive as non-reinforcing to important subgoals; (2) evaluate the negative and positive effects of the possible resulting tensions; and (3) identify means of enhancing the positive while limiting the negative impacts. Research might also help to identify and create appropriate balance between open-ended or broad policy goals -- that may provide little direction to implementers and little focus to their sub goals -- and too narrow a focus that does not permit implementers to shape the program to meet perceived needs at the site, and for the specific clients for whom services are provided.
3. Subgoals in Action
This study used a relatively static measure of subgoals. Although data on subgoals were collected from interviews or observations that spanned over a year, only one questionnaire was filled out for each person. From a more open-ended analysis of the site data, however, it seems clear that the subgoals of staff changed over time. Further research could identify how and why this occurred. Another interesting question would be the relative impact of subgoals, the environment and other external factors on outputs.
One interesting research question to explore is how different would project outputs be if staff from a low-slippage sites for example, were placed at a high slippage site. While this would probably not be practical as a real experiment, it might be possible to develop a computer simulation. Many more variables and sites than were used in this study would have to be utilized.
E. POLICY CONSIDERATIONS
1. The Importance of Staff
From the viewpoint of the policy-maker, the most important implications of this study center around the selection, orientation and training of staff. Where policy-makers and administrators are able to design policies and programs so that staff professional subgoals are compatible with policy subgoals, slippage is likely to be low. This is, of course, an extremely difficult task.
One method of achieving this might be to place, in awarding projects, as much emphasis on the selection of staff as on the selection of an organization or project director. At present, many program officials insist on a “key personnel” provision in a contract. Among “key personnel” are such persons as the principal investigator in a research project or the high school principal in a school-based program. Key personnel have to satisfy the funding agency before an award can be made and cannot be changed without the express agreement of the funding agency. The present study suggests that equal attention should be given to recruitment of the staff members who will actually deliver the services intended by the policy.
There would be some difficulties involved in acting on this suggestion, two of which involve timing and local governmental arrangements. Timing refers to the fact that calendars of federal agencies and those of the implementing organizations are often Out of phase. Not only does the federal fiscal year begin October 1, a month or so after schools begin, but also federal agencies often fail to make awards on schedule because of delays in appropriations or for other reasons. Without assurances that an award is coming -- and when -- social service agencies assign staff to other duties. If an award comes through, staff must either be reassigned or new staff hired.
One way of dealing with the difficulties of timing would be an extension of the concept of “forward funding” in which funds are authorized for the beginning of the next school year. A second possibility would be to build in a “planning period” between the time of award and the time of implementation. The level of support during this period, as well as its duration, could vary to meet local and federal needs. During this period of time, the project director could interview staff, and arrange, where necessary, for transfer of staff from other positions at the end of a semester or other unit of time.
The second problem involves the question of local governmental arrangements, and is particularly evident in large centralized systems, such as city school districts. The applicant organization may be a particular school, but the fiscally responsible agent is the district, which controls hiring and reassignment of staff. A project director often has little control over the selection or retention of staff. The “fiscal agent” -- the city school district, for example -- can change staff on the basis of overall school district enrollment.
One way of dealing with this problem would be to “buy up the project.” The federal government might relax the condition of “supplement not supplant” where federal funds must be used as add-ons to local funds, particularly for experimental projects. The federal government could say that it is willing to pay a certain sum of money to provide services, and that it will pay the salaries in full of staff involved in the project, but that the project director would have the right to select and retain staff. This is particularly important for experimental projects where there is some need to ensure that conditions remain the same for the life of the project. However, it appears unlikely that Congress would enact this type of legislation, except for experimental programs such as Youthwork.
Once staff is selected, however, this study suggests that it is important to provide reinforcement for professional subgoals. It makes sense, therefore, not only to recruit staff members whose subgoals are already consistent with those of the project, but to build into the policy provisions for the continued support of those subgoals. Federal policy-makers have little control over the motivation of street-level bureaucrats, and even less reason to assume that they will place the same emphasis on policy subgoals as does the policy-maker, especially when the policy-maker is trying to bring about change.
A variety of mechanisms are available at both the policy-making and policy-administration levels to ensure that staff subgoals become more congruent with project subgoals. Planning time before the project begins --and before the clients are there to be served -- could strengthen the commitment of staff to a project and its goals. This time could be used to help develop the shared understanding of the projects goals that may be necessary, to train staff in particular skills, and to help staff clarify their own goals. Inviting staff to meetings at the national or regional levels, with expenses paid, could do much to help them realize they are not alone. Encouraging project officers to visit when things are going well and to share findings with other projects could also help staff concentrate on professional subgoals, and not view such visits as threats to the refunding of the project.
The study also suggests that the selection -- or training -- of staff with compatible professional subgoals is not enough if the staff is going to perceive that participation in the project threatens the achievement of their personal subgoals.
Staff uncertainty is inherent in “soft-money” projects, and some insecurity is probably unavoidable. If staff is paid with federal funds, they may not be assured employment if and when funds are terminated. For many Youthwork project staff members, this was a reality. For some, it was difficult to concentrate on providing services to unemployed youth when they were trying to find jobs for themselves. Assuming that the federal government will continue to provide some funds in the form of short-term projects, the question becomes how to minimize staff insecurity under such conditions.
One option would be to fund multi-year projects. In addition to giving staff some economic security, the longer time would also give them a chance to learn how to achieve project service goals, and might lead to greater congruence between project and staff subgoals.
In many cases, however, multi-year projects are neither feasible nor desirable. The goal of the policy may simply be to provide short- term services. Congress may also worry that the longer the project is in place, the greater the chance recipients will come to view it as an entitlement and resist any changes.
2. Community, Subgoals, and Policy
A second dimension of the importance of subgoal congruence involves the interrelationships among the community, host organization and project. A strong, pre-existing, community of support for a project’s sub goals appears to be an important element in the success of the project. Such support reinforces staff subgoals, provides additional resources, and reduces drains on staff time. Conversely, where such subgoal congruence does not exist among the staff, community and the project -- or where they are at odds -- staff members may be caught in subgoal conflicts; focus is blurred; energy dissipated; and time and resources re-allocated from direct service delivery to resolving conflicts and to acquiring needed resources.
In some ways, this creates a dilemma for federal policies aimed at both providing services in the most efficient manner and bringing about some change in local conditions. To maximize services, funds should probably go to established communities or organizations which have strong ties to support networks. This procedure, however, would effectively eliminate new organizations and innovative approaches from competition. Moreover, it might mean that communities or districts most in need would not receive funds.
One way out of this dilemma would be to provide greater support to the newer organizations or to communities that have no tradition of ser vice in the desired area. This would involve not only more funds, but also establishing a community of interests or networks where such do not exist. Special technical support might also be required. Finally,evaluations of projects implemented by new organizations might very well differ from evaluations of efforts of established organizations. The strengthening of the organizational capacity of the former might be specifically considered an important policy output.
Short-term projects may have special liabilities where community support is required. Even projects with long histories of community support usually have to establish new ties or working relationships as a result of the particular type of new funding. At two low-slippage sites, staff professional subgoals changed to be more in line with the community over the duration of the project. This process, even under the most ideal circumstances, seems likely to take longer than may generally be assumed in planning short-term projects.
Another liability of short-term projects may be that a message is communicated to the community that the project is low priority. In some high-slippage sites, in particular, community members dismissed the project as just another brief federal program. Moreover, it is optimistic to expect that a principal or other administrator is likely to spend much of his or her time and effort establishing and promoting a project whose demise is expected soon after birth.
3. Policy Design, Subgoals and Slippage
It is apparent that the street-level bureaucrats in this study placed a greater emphasis on providing services than on conducting research. The question of whether or not it is possible to run “planned variation” experiments in social service agencies is one that has received consider able, generally negative, attention. The explanations for why it is difficult to maintain research conditions in the field are numerous.
What this study suggests is that the subgoals of staff may be one reason. This study suggests that it is highly unlikely that many individuals would place equally high emphasis on both research and service, even if such a combined focus was desired. The Youthwork projects experienced considerable frustration in having to allocate what they considered to be scarce resources of time, energy and money to research.
Some implications for policy design are clear. First, combining research and service is expensive. It seems to be unreasonable, and per haps dysfunctional, to expect that staff, who are primarily committed to serving clients, devote considerable effort to research. It follows, then, that the federal government will have to allocate extra funds specifically for research. For research purposes, it is probably best to hire persons whose subgoals are compatible with research.
Second, it might be possible to increase the commitment of social service agency staff to the professional subgoals of research by involving them in the planning of the research, and not just in the often onerous task of data collection.
Policy-makers and administrators could learn from the tensions street-level bureaucrats experience between and among subgoals, and from the compromises they are forced to make in choosing what to implement and at what level. Feedback from the street-level bureaucrats is essential to the reality testing of a policy. A policy can simply be wrong in its conceptualization. In this study, academic credit for work experience, which was almost universally opposed by staff, probably should never have been required. Sometimes, the policy calls for too much or takes persons in conflicting directions. Research vs. service is a case in point. Without adequate planning and resources, and without seriousconsideration as to who should deliver services and who should do research, slippage is probably inevitable. Finally, a policy can be generally sound in concept and adequately focused, but wrong in a given situation. Requiring a school to devote a substantial portion of its staff resources to teaching delinquent, near-illiterate teenagers to run a business may not be appropriate. Local staff are often well equipped to help make appropriate functional decisions in such situations, and to modify projects accordingly. The existence of slippage in these cases may not be an indictment of the staff, but rather a call for the policy-makers to map backwards to themselves and re-examine the policies. At the very least, staff views should be solicited as a reality testing before decisions are made on continuing or changing a program.
4. Research Policy
Although not directly on the topic of slippage, subgoals, and outputs, there are implications from this study for policies concerning the sponsorship of research by federal agencies. This study was based on the secondary analysis of qualitative data. This seems to be a promising approach for increasing the usefulness of expensive case- study research projects.
In making large awards to ethnographic researchers, the federal government might require that they propose some method of sharing original data with others. This could involve turning over field notes to the government, although this might mean that the information was available under the Freedom of Information Act. It might be more appropriate for the principal investigator to keep the data, but to encourage others to use it.
In any event, care will have to be taken to ensure the confidentiality of persons interviewed. One method of doing this is “blinding” all references to names in the field notes or protocols. Another method might be to share only summary documents, but this might destroy the ability of other researchers to get original insights into the project.
F. FINAL OBSERVATIONS
In this preliminary exploration of the relationships between the individually held subgoals of street-level bureaucrats and their agencies’ social service outputs, perhaps the thing that comes through most clearly is the importance of subgoal congruence. Subgoals might be defined as individually held objectives to which are attached different levels of importance. The person believes that he or she should and can obtain these objectives. Subgoal congruence refers to the degree of sameness in the level of importance that different actors attach to the same subgoal. Congruence between staff subgoals and project subgoals is central for an effective project. Moreover, because of the influences exerted on staff subgoals, congruence between project subgoals and those of the host organization, and congruence between the subgoals of the community, the organization and those of the project are also important.
Federal policy-makers seem unlikely to get more than they pay for, and lucky if they get anywhere near as much as they want for the money invested. In all probability, about the best they can reasonably hope for is to minimize the slippage between what they are paying for and what they get. This study suggests that one of the major determinants of the size of the gap is the degree of congruence between the subgoals of staff and that of the policy. It follows that slippage could be reduced if greater consideration were given to such subgoal congruence in the formulation and administration of a policy.
This conclusion, however tentative, may have implications for explaining and potentially reducing slippage arising at all levels in the policy-making and policy-implementing chain. This study was limited to the subgoals of local staff members in ten youth employment projects. It was found that, at this level, staff subgoals seem to exert a strong influence on outputs. From evidence in related research, there is strong reason to believe that subgoals may also be influencing the decisions -- and therefore the outputs -- for example, of Congressional staff who draft legislation, federal bureaucrats who shape programs, and local principals and others who administer projects. The lack of congruence between their subgoals and the subgoals of the policy may contribute to slippage. This is, at least, a fertile area for additional research.
One of the major areas that remains unexamined is the extent to which the major subgoal findings reported here hold across the broad range of federal social policies. For example, it may be that the influence exerted on outputs by individual subgoals may be greater or lesser in different types of programs and organizations. If this should be true, the extent to which outputs are related to individual subgoals may vary as well between organizations, since the degree of “coupledness” seems to both permit and require individual decision-making.
A second set of questions involves the precise nature of individual subgoals, how they operate, and the conditions that influence them. While it is clear that many of the areas considered in this study are exploratory, the focus on individually held subgoals seems to offer a worthwhile field for further study. To what extent further research may be useful in explaining the phenomenon and in prescribing remedies remains to be seen.
Another interesting question raised by this study concerns the nature and the appropriate definition of slippage. In this study, it was defined as the differences between what a project promises and what it delivers in terms of outputs. While this definition is appropriate both for research and administrative considerations, it does not take into account the unspecified goals of the project or the provision of services not directly called for in the proposal. Under certain circum stances, street-level bureaucrats may choose not to deliver the services promised in the contract, but instead deliver services that they perceive are needed by the clients. It would be interesting to analyze the relationships between professional subgoals and actual delivery of services, not just those specified in the contract. “Mapping backwards” from these findings might provide useful information to policy-makers are they revise and refine policies and programs.