Ambiguity in Public Organizations - Is it always Negative and Difficult to Manage or does Theory Assume Too Much?: A Case Study Review of Customs and Border Protection's Container Security Initiative

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Virginia Tech

This research study provides a conceptual framework to understand how public managers strategically engage ambiguity and translate the complexity associated with ambiguity to manageable objectives to control complex work within federal programs. A central assumption for this study is that ambiguity is an organizational reality due to the social nature of administrative systems, influencing how managers approach and understand problem sets. This research study demonstrates the impact of management strategies in combating organizational ambiguity, at a strategic level, as well as mitigating and reducing uncertainty at more tactical levels of an organization.

Theoretically, this study engages the current divide between organizational theory and public management scholarship by providing an empirical perspective on the management and execution of a key national security program. Through examination of the Container Security Initiative (CSI) program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP), this research explores how ambiguity and uncertainty, within bureaucratic settings, is managed on an ongoing basis in the pursuit of defined goals and objectives. Examination of how public managers strategically engage ambiguity and implementation pressures, which manifest as a result of systemic external and internal pressures, to translate complexity associated with the ambiguity into manageable program objectives, provides valuable insight into the impact of managerial processes within public organizations.

Through this managerial process and by setting priorities and objectives, public managers decompose and translate ambiguity and complexity in order to more actively and effectively utilize strategies and resources in support of those defined objectives. Central to the translation process is managing the interface between the strategic and tactical dimensions of programs, through goal setting and priority definition, enabling the execution of key program activities and operations.

This study's findings build upon existing research that examines the role of management within public organizations, as well as challenges several assumptions within the extant literature regarding the influence and consequences of ambiguity within public organizations. Addressing the need to empirically demonstrate how management matters, this research emphasizes the role public managers play in actively engaging and managing organizational and program complexity in order to accomplish the objectives of public bureaucracies.

Ambiguity, Uncertainty, Complexity, Management, Implementation