Toward a Theory of Loosely Coupled Systems: The Implementation of Federal Youth Employment Policies

Elizabeth Anne VanderPutten



In all social systems, no matter how rigidly controlled, a certain amount of "slippage" occurs between the intentions of decision-makers and the outputs of decision-implementers. Even armies -- sometimes among the more disciplined of organizations -- have been observed to experience this phenomenon. Not all privates always behave exactly as their generals might wish. To some extent, slippage exists at most levels of nearly all organizations. Why it occurs is the subject of a large body of research literature; indeed, slippage seems to be one of the central problems in organizational theory.

Slippage between federal social policy goals and outputs has been examined in numerous studies. Among these are works concerned with the congressional policy-making process that often results in vague and sometimes conflicting goals. Other studies explain slippage, in part, as the result of the processes by which general laws are translated into specific programs by Executive Branch officials. Other studies have explained slippage in terms of the loosely coupled nature of the system within which policies are implemented. Finally, implementation research has sought to explain slippage in terms of local level staff. Together, these studies suggest that the staff of social service agencies charged with implementing federal policies have considerable discretion in terms of what services or outputs to deliver and at what level.                  

This work seeks to expand knowledge of slippage by exploring policy outputs and, in turn, slippage, in terms of a hypothesis involving individual subgoals that was advanced by the Nobel Laureate, Herbert A. Simon. In loosely coupled systems, goals and intended outcomes are often broad, ill defined and vague. In such systems, Simon observed, street- level implementers typically have no objective ways to tie individual actions to broad end goals. In such cases, he suggested, the subgoals of the individual may have a strong influence on the actions of frontline workers.

Examined in this work are a series of ethnographic case studies involving an education and work-related youth program funded by the Department of Labor in 1978. While various types of factors influenced final outputs, the analysis presented here suggests that outputs were the direct and immediate results of the actions of individual street-level bureaucrats. The primary question examined here centers on the relationships between individually held subgoals and policy outputs.

While this study focuses on the local implementation level, it could have implications for slippage at any level. The administrative staff, in part because of the globalness of the policy's wording and in part because of the loosely coupled nature of the system within which they work, enjoys considerable leeway in interpreting the meaning of the policy and translating that understanding into program rules and regulations. It seems highly likely that individually held subgoals may account for part of their behavior and, therefore, at least part of the slippage.

Chapter I introduces the concepts of slippage, loosely coupled systems, and street-level bureaucrats, and explains their particular relevance for research on slippage in social service policy. Chapter II reviews various works documenting the continuing existence of slippage; considers a number of different lines of explanations for slippage; and presents a theory of individually held subgoals that helps account for the discrepancies between policy intents and actual outputs. Chapter III offers a research design aimed at testing the subgoal hypothesis. The following chapter presents data from participant surveys gathered at ten project sites and analyzes them in terms of high-, medium-, and low-slippage projects. Chapter V analyzes the same data in terms of subgoals and outputs, and Chapter VI analyzes the relationships among certain concepts, subgoals, and outputs. The final chapter offers a summary of tentative findings from this research and suggests a set of possible implications.