Panel Paper: How Public Managers Make Tradeoffs Regarding Lives: Evidence from a Flood Planning Survey Experiment

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Court 5 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Patrick Roberts, RAND Corporation, Kris Wernstedt, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Lucia Velotti, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

Public administrators exercise discretion over a host of matters, including decisions that implicitly trade off lives compared to other objectives such as economic prosperity or health and well-being. While practitioners routinely make choices and the scholarly field of public administration analyzes tradeoffs among a number of public values, there are almost no empirical analyses of whether and how public managers make tradeoffs over lives. Economists analyze tradeoffs and calculate the value of life, and some scholars compare how managers versus citizens’ approach risk in environmental decisions (Carlsson et. al. 2012, Carlsson, Kataria, and Lampi 2011). These studies, however, rarely, address how managers value lives versus other substantive goals in planning and policy decisions.

Our study asks managers to choose among flood planning scenarios with different outcomes and finds that lives are one issue about which they make tradeoffs. We survey city and county managers, emergency managers, public works managers, and urban planners about a flood risk decision that they all commonly face, but which typically has an implicit rather than explicit potential tradeoff regarding lives. We find that individual managers do make tradeoffs regarding lives compared to other features in planning scenarios, including project cost, and property damage sustained. Among the four professional groups we compare, public works managers show a greater aversion to fatalities, while city managers and planners are less averse and emergency managers show no significant relationship. We also find that public managers prefer plans in which losses are distributed equally across a county rather than being concentrated in high or low income areas, which suggests that managers favor decisions corresponding to a particular notion of equity.