The uses of authority

Authority has been described as a relation that secures coordinated behavior in a group by subordinating the decisions of the individual to the communicated decisions of others. Thus, the exercise of authority in a group makes possible a large degree of separation of the decision-making processes from actual performance, or what might be called vertical “specialization” in decision-making.

Just as a steersman may permit his moment-to-moment decisions to be controlled by a course laid out beforehand on the map, so a member of an organization submits his behavior to the control of the decision-making portion of the organization. In the first case, the coordination takes place in the behavior of a single individual over a period of time. In the second case, the coordination takes place in the behavior of a number of individuals, over a short or long period of time. The principle involved in both cases is the same: the subordination of specific to general decisions.

Vertical specialization, or specialization in decision-making, is possible, of course, without the use of authority. A unit may be given a purely advisory or “staff” status in an organization, and yet, through its recommendations, actually make decisions that are accepted elsewhere in the organization. However, in so far as the recommendations of a staff agency are accepted without reexamination on their merits, the agency is really exercising authority, as we have defined that term; and it would be difficult to cite examples from organization where an effective specialization of the decision- making process exists without the exercise of at least some authority to maintain it.

The wide employment of authority as a tool for coordination of group activity reflects the important uses to which this tool may be put. Three functions of authority deserve special notice:

  1. It enforces responsibility of the individual to those who wield the authority;
  2. It secures expertise in the making of decisions;
  3. It permits coordination of activity.

1. Responsibility

Writers on the political and legal aspects of authority have emphasized that its function is to enforce the conformity of the individual to norms laid down by the group, or by its authority-wielding members.16 The enactments of a legislature, for instance, are accepted as authoritative not only by the administrative hierarchy employed by the state, but by all the persons subject to its jurisdiction. When disobedience occurs, an elaborate set of sanctions may be invoked and applied against the recalcitrant member. The central core of many of the most important social institutions consists of a system of authority, and a set of sanctions for enforcing it. The state itself is the primary example, but the law of property, the church, and even the family also fall in this category.

This aspect of authority is of considerable importance for our own discussion. The notion of an administrative hierarchy in a democratic state would be unthinkable without the corresponding notion of a mechanism whereby that hierarchy is held to account.64 The question of responsibility must be a central issue in any discussion of the relation between administrative and legislative bodies, or in any analysis of administrative law.

When authority is employed to enforce responsibility, sanctions will probably play an important part in the process; and this accounts for the attention which is usually given to the subject of sanctions in discussions of authority. Even in this connection, the importance of sanctions should not be overemphasized, however. The person who accepts the authority of a legislature, a property holder, or a father within a particular institutional setting, is probably motivated much more by socially indoctrinated ethical notions than by the fear of sanctions. That is, the individual in a particular society believes that he ought to obey the laws adopted by the constituted authorities and that he ought to recognize property rights. To explain away the whole system of authority and responsibility in terms of sanctions is to oversimplify the situation.

2. Expertise

An extremely important function of authority is to secure decisions of a high quality of rationality and effectiveness. It has long been recognized that specialization is of fundamental importance to administrative efficiency, and it is hardly necessary to repeat here the stock examples which show how specialization may increase productivity.65 These advantages of specialization are quite as important when the specialization concerns the process of “deciding” as when it concerns the processes of doing.

The city manager of a small community is a jack-of-all-trades: he must have the skills of an engineer, accountant, executive, foreman, bill collector, and mechanic. He is also an intellectual jack-of-all-trades: he must, by himself, make almost all the decisions that guide his activities and those of his few subordinates during the working day; he must decide when to repair a street, or build a sewer; he must anticipate his equip-ment and personnel needs, purchase the equipment, and hire employees; he must decide what policing is needed, and what health services.

The administrator of a large city’s governmental organization is in a very different situation. If his staff is large enough, he may hire an engineer to direct public-works activities, and to make the technical decisions in that area. He may have one or more personnel specialists and a purchasing agent. Foremen will exercise actual supervision over working crews. Every decision for the city’s operation will receive relatively specialized and expert consideration.

To gain the advantages of specialized skill in a large organization, the work of the organization is subdivided, so far as possible, in such a way that all processes requiring a particular skill can be performed by persons possessing that skill. Likewise, to gain the advantages of expertise in decision- making, the responsibility for decisions is allocated, so far as possible, in such a way that decisions requiring particular knowledge or skill will rest with individuals possessing that knowledge or skill. This involves a subdivision of the decisions governing the organization into numerous component decisions, and a restriction of the activities of each member of the organization to a very few of these components.

A fundamental device for securing expertise in organization decisions is to locate the expert in a strategic position in the formal hierarchy of authority—that is, in a position where his decisions will be accepted as decisional premises by the other organizational members. This is a major advantage of organization by “process.” When all activities to which engineering decisions are relevant are organized in a single department, then it is easy to allocate the function of decision in such a way as to secure the necessary technical competence.20

So long as the communication of decisions is restricted to the formal hierarchy of authority, however, it is not possible to secure the several kinds of technical assistance that are often needed for a single decision. A small school department, for instance, may lack the technical medical facilities for making decisions with regard to its school health services, or the engineering advice needed in the maintenance of the school plant.

To secure all the advantages, therefore, of expertise in decision-making, it is necessary to go beyond the formal structure of authority. The “authority of ideas” must gain an importance in the organization coordinate with the “authority of sanctions.”

The emphasis in this discussion has thus far been on the technical knowledge needed for decisions. Expertise may apply to other types of information as well. Modem police departments in large cities have central dispatching rooms which receive information, by telephone or otherwise, of incidents requiring police attention, and which assign policemen by radio, to investigate these incidents. The importance which the dispatching rooms have for the process of decision (in this case the assignment of policemen) lies in their strategic location with respect to relevant incoming information. Again, the formal stmcture of authority may play only a small part in this process, and may actually, except in cases of disagreement, be disregarded by the lines of communication.

In the organizational hierarchy, the superior ordinarily enjoys, by virtue of his position, the same advantage of information over his subordinate. The extent to which this advantage is real, and the extent to which it is mythical, may depend in large part upon the design of the lines of communication in the organization. The superior who possesses such advantages of information will have much less occasion to invoke the formal sanctions of authority than the superior whose subordinates are in a better situation than he, from the standpoint of information, to make the decision.

3. Coordination

The third function of authority, to secure coordination, was discussed at some length in the earlier sections of this chapter. Coordination should be clearly distinguished from expertise. Expertise involves the adoption of a good decision. Coordination is aimed at the adoption by all the members of the group of the same decision, or more precisely of mutually consistent decisions in combination attaining the established goal.

Suppose ten persons decide to cooperate in building a boat. If each has his own plan, and they don’t bother to communicate their plans, it is doubtful that the resulting craft will be very seaworthy. They would probably have better success if they adopted even a very mediocre design, and then all followed this same design.

In the first portion of the Waterloo campaign, Napoleon’s army was divided in two parts. The right wing, commanded by the Emperor himself, faced Bliicher at Ligny; the left wing, under Marshal Ney, faced Wellington at Quatre Bras. Both Ney and the Emperor prepared to attack, and both had prepared excellent plans for their respective operations. Unfortunately, both plans contemplated the use of Erlon’s corps to deliver the final blow on the flank of the enemy. Because they failed to communicate these plans, and because orders were unclear on the day of the battle, Erlon’s corps spent the day marching back and forth between

By the exercise of authority, it is possible to centralize the function of deciding, so that a general plan of operations will govern the activities of all members of the organization. Again, this procedure is analogous to the process whereby an individual plans his own activities over an extended period of time.

Coordination may be exercised in both a procedural and a substantive sense. By procedural coordination is meant the specification of the organization itself—that is, the generalized description of the behaviors and relationships of the members of the organization. Procedural coordination establishes the lines of authority, and outlines the sphere of activity and authority of each member of the organization.

Substantive coordination is concerned with the content of the orga- nization’s activities. In an automobile factory, an organization chart is an aspect of procedural coordination, while blueprints for the engine block of the car being manufactured are an aspect of substantive coordination.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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