Beyond technical rationality

Out of all the material we’ve read thus far, I think one of the most important takeaways is that technical solutions are not always sufficient on their own. In Green and Kolesar’s overview of emergency response models, for example, they explained how opposition from New York City’s “politically powerful firefighters union” prevented researchers from implementing changes to the fire department’s staffing schedule (Green & Kolesar, 2004). More generally, Johnson and Smilowitz (2007) note that community-based operations research problems are often “highly dependent on political or social considerations.” What these accounts suggest is that those of us working on public sector operations research problems must consider a much broader array of perspectives than what we might otherwise be accustomed to.

Scholars in the Public Management field differentiate between these perspectives using the terms political rationality and technical rationality. Political rationality is used to describe the fact that those operating in the public sector often face political pressures based primarily on “opinion or ideology rather than bodies of knowledge and fairly weighed evidence” (Hill & Lynn, 2015). In contrast, technical rationality is considered a more scientific line of reasoning because it places value on evidence, efficiency, and effectiveness (Hill & Lynn, 2015). Although these concepts were not explicitly defined by the authors of the operations research papers, I feel these definitions get to the heart of what the authors were describing.

What’s more important than the definitions, however, is the advice that accompanies them. Since political rationality is common in the public sector, Hill and Lynn (2015) warn that arguments based strictly on technical rationality are likely to “fall flat” because they often “fail to persuade or capture the attention of policymakers, politicians, and interest groups.” In an extreme example, these scholars reference the fact that some parents have recently decided against vaccinating their children despite countless arguments citing evidence that vaccines are both safe and effective (Hill & Lynn, 2015). These examples suggest that appealing to both political and technical rationality is crucial for gaining support in the public sector.

Unfortunately, as industrial engineers, it seems we tend to focus almost exclusively on issues relating to technical rationality. In most math classes, for example, there is only one solution to a given problem and it’s not up for debate. As a result, we might overlook the importance of political rationality when working on public sector problems in the “real world”.  Returning to the Green and Kolesar (2004) example, I wonder if this might explain why the firefighters union opposed changes to the staffing schedule. While Green and Kolesar don’t elaborate on this issue, it’s possible that the researchers presented an argument that only focused on the technical details and failed to account for the political factors. In general, I think these kinds of problems are important to keep in mind when working on our own projects. After all, if we can’t gain support for our solutions, they’re unlikely to be implemented and will be of little use to the world. For this reason, I think we should take Hill and Lynn’s advice seriously and pay attention to political rationality as well.


Green, L. V., & Kolesar, P. J. (2004). Anniversary article: Improving emergency responsiveness with management science. Management Science, 50(8), 1001-1014.

Hill, C. J., & Lynn Jr, L. E. (2015). Public Management: Thinking and Acting in Three Dimensions. CQ Press.

Johnson, M.P. and Smilowitz, K. (2007). “Community-based operations research”, Tutorials in Operations Research, Institute of Operations Research and the Management Sciences, Hanover, MD, pp. 102-23.


One thought on “Beyond technical rationality

  1. This is certainly a touchy topic. I came across an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel while researching queuing that is quite critical of technical rationalism. The police chief has changed the policing such that, while crime rates are down and clearance rates the same, average response time has increased. By the measures that most of us would think are important from a technical perspective, the police are doing fantastic. The city is technically safe, but to the average person, it may not feel safer.

    What’s even worse is that like any good article it is full of anecdotes. This I think is the biggest problem that we face when trying to implement a technically efficient solution. Even one or two anecdotes of something going wrong with the new system can be enough to kill it. We, as a species, seem to be very bad at seeing the forest for the trees and throwing statistics into the mix doesn’t seem to help most of us.

    Liked by 1 person

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