Organizing Attention: Responses of the Bureaucracy to Agenda Disruption

May, Peter J.; Workman, Samuel; Jones, Blyan D.
October 2008
Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory;Oct2008, Vol. 18 Issue 4, p517
Academic Journal
Federal agencies are routinely confronted with requests from policymakers that they must address in some manner. These range from routine directives to cut through red tape to exceptional demands to alter policy priorities. We theorize that how attention is organized by public bureaucracies affects their responses. We draw on a variety of scholarship about public bureaucracies to develop a theory about the bureaucratic organization of attention and its consequences. In illustrating these notions, we trace federal agency attention to the threat of terrorism as it gained prominence on the national policy agenda over the 1980s to 1990s and became a prominent issue after the terrorist attacks of 2001. The consequences of the Department of Homeland Security's centralized attention to the terrorism threat suggest a paradox of issue attention. Though concentration of authority at the top of the organization holds the prospect of control over the substance and speed of policymaking, this control is highly circumscribed by the limits of attention faced by all organizations.


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