Poster Paper: In Defense of the Public Interest

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Exhibit Hall C - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Evan Mistur, Gordon Kingsley and Johann Weber, Georgia Institute of Technology

In the US, public organizations are responsible for fulfilling their constituents’ best interests. These agencies are charged with administering services such as waste management, emergency response, or transportation infrastructure to the public. However, the connection between public administration and interaction with the public interest has become tenuous at many organizations. A longstanding tradition in American governance emphasizes a dichotomy between politics, tasked with deciphering the public’s needs, and administration, responsible for delivering on political decisions, but this has distanced the public servants working at many government agencies from the publics they serve. This divide is exacerbated by the continued hollowing out of the state which has pervaded agencies across the US. What motivates fulfillment of public goals when public services are provided not by public servants themselves but by the private contractors they hire? How is the public interest defended in an age of outsourcing?

In this research, we investigate how the public interest is fulfilled at Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT). As a state transportation agency, GDOT is responsible for serving the public with the production of high-quality, on-budget infrastructure projects at acceptable environmental cost. GDOT staff are public servants charged with defending these priorities, but much of the work being done in that pursuit is outsourced to third-party, private consulting firms. We use a qualitative case study research design to examine GDOT and its consultants during the preconstruction process of infrastructure project development, with an emphasis on the environmental review phase. We gather a mix of archival and focus group data from both GDOT staff and consultants to compare the perspectives of different agents in the project delivery process. We focus on evidence from two focus groups which were conducted with experienced GDOT and consultant project managers, allowing us to examine a subset of high-performance GDOT projects in detail and parse out differences between GDOT and consultant viewpoints. These focus group data represent a subset of high-profile projects, allowing us to compare the perspectives of experienced personnel from contrasting sectors. Additionally, we investigate role designation and contract specificity for outsourced tasks by examining GDOT contracts and comparing them with consultant perspectives from the focus group data. We examine who performs what roles in the project delivery process, how priorities are assessed as performance and quality is maintained, and what underlying motivations promote the fulfillment of public goals.

These results can help reveal how public interests are considered and upheld in organizations with high rates of outsourcing and may reveal weak points or potential pitfalls for public goal fulfillment in the project delivery process. They may be useful in advising future considerations about how to defend the public interest in an age of outsourcing.