Hermeneutics: Something New for the Bureaucrat’s Toolkit

Public managers within a single organization commonly define fundamental terms differently. Since public managers come from diverse backgrounds and have different experiences, it’s not unexpected that they interpret the world around them differently. Are these differences in understanding detrimental to the public organization? How should public managers react to these situations? Perhaps hermeneutics is the best tool for grappling with differences of understanding within an organization and it is time to add it to the public management tool kit. The case below of the Assistant City Manager and the Public Works Director in a mid-sized southern city describe one example of how public managers within an organization arrive at divergent interpretations of the world in which they operate.

The Assistant City Manager

As the Assistant City Manager, Parker Washington’s eagerness to help residents lays in his belief that public administrators should not treat all residents the same. On its surface, this philosophy sounds remarkably and ironically unfair, since it suggests singling out some groups of citizens to be treated differently than their fellow residents. Upon further examination, it is clear Mr. Washington’s belief in fairness is grounded in a humanistic approach to governance. According to Mr. Washington, the City must do for its residents what they are unable to do for themselves. “Some say that if we do it for one person, we have to do it for everyone, but shouldn’t we do more for those who can’t do it for themselves? If we’re trying to make a better community, we can’t do the same for everyone,” Washington said.

It is apparent Mr. Washington views the city as more than a collection of ordinances and policies but as an organic, dynamic agent for community building. When addressing the routine issues that citizens raise, Mr. Washington wants to follow the City’s guidelines but, in a broader sense, he wants to do what helps to build a better community. If that means making an exception in a certain case, then Mr. Washington is willing to make that exception. And, when political realities make it difficult to avoid the letter of the law, Mr. Washington has found ways to take action that does fall within the City’s established guidelines. “As government officials, you have to look at everything. We all want the same thing. We want a better community.”

The Public Works Director

As the Director of Public Works, Arnold Clark relies on precedent to make decisions. This public administrator wants to know what the City has done for every other citizen in the same position in previous situations, because that will determine what the City should do for this citizen (and every other person) in this position in the future. “One of the hardest things is to be fair and treat everybody fairly, because we never make decisions in a vacuum. I ask ‘What have we done in similar circumstances?’ because you can’t wake up new every day,” Clark said.

The divergent ways Mr. Clark and Mr. Washington define a seemingly simple term like ‘fairness’ guide each of their approaches to public administration. According to Mr. Clark, fairness means to treat everyone the same. “A city’s credibility is based on doing what people think is fair . . . What’s more important than an ordinance treating everybody the same? People can live with that. It’s more important for people to know you’re fair and everybody is being treated the same,” Mr. Clark said.

While Mr. Washington takes a holistic and community-wide approach to fairness, Mr. Clark takes a more legalistic and individual approach to fairness. The former sees an opportunity to help someone in need, while the latter sees a responsibility to never do for one citizen what he would not do for another. “If you feel like your job working for a city is to help people, then you’ll never tell anyone no, regardless of the situation,” Mr. Clark said. “My job is easier than that. I don’t feel my job is to help people. My job is to be a good steward of the people’s money, not to help everyone. I don’t know how I’d do a job if I thought I had to help every person who calls in.”

Hermeneutics in Public Management

Mr. Clark and Mr. Washington reveal a telling and unappreciated truth about organizations: individuals define fundamental terms differently within in a single organization. At first glance, one might conclude this is a sign of a dysfunctional organization but, upon further examination, that could not be farther from the truth. In fact, according to the hermeneutical school of philosophy, this is the necessary and permanent condition of all human interaction. Popularized by German Continental Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, hermeneutics is the study of the meaning of texts. The word ‘text’ is a broad term that can be extended to include terms, situations, relationships and even public organizations. According to this philosophical tradition, meanings are not absolute but are unique to individuals based on their individual perspectives, which are influenced by their previous experiences and their pre-conceived notions of the text.

The discussions described here reveal a complex and underappreciated reality about organizations: people within a single organization define fundamental terms differently. Mr. Washington and Mr. Clark are both important decision-makers in city government, yet their guiding principles for public administration are far apart. For Mr. Clark, fairness means he must treat everyone the same but, for Mr. Washington, fairness means he can’t treat everyone the same. Within a single organization with a single mission, key administrators have different definitions of a fundamental aspect of their organization.

With hermeneutics as a framework for interpretation, it is evident these public administrators have different backgrounds that lead them to draw different definitions for a single term. Additionally, public administration involves interaction with a variety of constituency groups and administrators must use hermeneutics as a framework for understanding the realities of each group.

As we begin to explore the usefulness of hermeneutics as a tool for public administration, I invite you to share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions on how hermeneutics can be added to the public management tool kit.

Griffin Coop is a student in the MPA program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and works as a Management Analyst for the City of Little Rock. This post was written in collaboration with The Public Manager, working to promote best practices in management across the public sector.

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Christopher Whitaker

My unemployment agency has to make decisions bases on unemployment law. Due to the high volume of cases we have to go through every single day, each adjudicator finds their own ‘best way’ to interpret the law. To be fair (and consistant) we try to rule the same way every time we see a certain set of variables. I’ll admit, it is an art more than a science.

We could make decisions based on how bad off the person is, but that wouldn’t be as just. (For instance, I may have a bias against bankers because they make more in their severance agreements than I’ll make in a year – but I can’t start ruling against the bankers because of it) Everyone has to be treated the same – the homeless guy and the ex-banker should get the same service and treatment.

Gary Berg-Cross

I guess this is an argument for “post-modernism” over modernism as Kate implied.

Modern management borrowed things from positivism which defines a set of procedures for creating “valid” knowledge. Such management presumes an easily identified reality that is relatively stable. They live in the familiar territory of a rational, objectively-given world. These are manifested in phenomena that can be rationally known and rationally analyzed by independent observers say doing performance measurement. It certain provides a simple model for the understanding of salient physical-organizational phenomena so they can be manipulated and controlled for targeted beneficial and social ends. But such management doesn’t seem to capture all realities.

Modernist views have been challenged by post-modern approached to management which rejects modernism’s focus on a phenomenal world directly observed and described by a disinterested
parties. The postmodernist strategy considers the relationship of the actor to the phenomena under observation by introducing language as a mediator in that relationship.

I think that hermeneutics is one of those post-modern philosophies that helps us avoid too rigid an interpretation of meanings and has some principles to help clarify truth meanings. Certainly it helps underline the point that language is a key human resource, but it’s only one of several approaches that help here.

Some argue that complexity science is a richer post modern path for management science which tends to favor modern, objective approaches. It offer a bridge between the order-seeking regime of the modernists and the richness meaning seeking approach of the post-modernists. Perhaps a topic for another post.

Griffin Coop

Katie Walden wrote:


It’s interesting too, that the definitions of each administrator seem to fit with the level of specialization. The ACM’s position and job tasks are more subjective, dealing with problems that have become so pressing that they have risen above department level, causing a squeaky wheel effect and compelling the ACM to address the concerns of those who have the most need.

Conversely, the Public Works director oversees a more concrete (pun intended) operation; filling potholes, addressing drainage issues, etc. The work is much more task driven, lending to the accepted definition of fairness being equitable services for all.