Steve Kelman, Ronald Sanders, Gayatri Pandit, and Sarah Taylor, August 2014
Senior government executives make many decisions, not-infrequently difficult ones. Cognitive limitations and biases preclude individuals from making fully value-maximizing choices. It has been suggested that, done properly, involving advisors or other outside information sources can compensate for individual-level limitations. However, the “groupthink“ tradition has highlighted ways group-aided decision-making can fail to live up to its potential. Out of this literature has emerged a paradigm Janis calls “vigilant problem-solving.“ For this paper, we interviewed twenty heads of subcabinet-level organizations in the U.S. federal government, asking each questions about how they made important decisions. Ten were nominated by “good-government“ experts as ones doing an outstanding job improving the organization's performance, ten chosen at random. Our research question was to see whether there were significant differences in how members of those two groups made decisions, specifically, to what extent executives in the two categories used a “vigilant“ decision-making process. We found, however, that similarities between the two groups of executives overwhelmed differences: at least as best as we were able to measure it, decision-making by U.S. subcabinet executives tracks vigilant decision-making recommendations fairly closely. The similarity suggests a common style of senior-level decision-making in the U.S. federal government, which we suggest grows out of a government bureaucracy's methodical culture. We did, however, develop evidence for a difference between outstanding executives and others on another dimension of decision-making style. Outstanding executives valued decisiveness in decision-making – a “bias for action“ – more than controls. Perhaps, then, what distinguishes outstanding executives from others is not vigilance but decisiveness. Contrary to the implications of the groupthink literature, the danger in government may be “paralysis by analysis“ as much or more than groupthink.