Can public authorities "just get things done"? An analysis of politically buffered institutions in a contentious policy arena

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Larry D. Schroeder


Special districts, Solid waste, Public authorities, Politically buffered institutions

Subject Categories

Public Administration | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social and Behavioral Sciences


A central theme in the field of public administration is the trade off between democratic accountability and administrative efficacy. This research examines this theme in the context of a particular form of special purpose government known as a public authority. The theory on public authorities anticipates that these institutions will be able to overcome the efficacy problems that general purpose governments face in a politically contested policy arena because they are buffered from political interference with decision-making. This study comes to the opposite conclusion.

Through an archival survey and comparative case studies, this research explores a series of questions related to institutional choice and outcomes in a contentious policy arena (specifically the siting and development of landfills and garbage incinerators): Are public authorities as effective as theory would predict? Why do local governments choose to use public authorities? How does the institutional design of public authorities shape outcomes?

The findings from the archival survey show that public authorities are created for a variety of reasons, including the need to finance costly facilities, to formalize interjurisdictional arrangements, and to avoid political conflict. However, even controlling for these variables of institutional choice, public authorities still do not perform as expected--they are associated with significantly fewer completed projects than regular public agencies.

Examining the institutional dynamics, a comparative case study analysis reveals that the public authorities have to negotiate periodically with elected officials, and that these institutions with their "politically buffered" institutional design tend to overlook critical political concerns that might bring them into conflict with elected officials. In effect, removing the politics from the decision does not remove the decision from politics. Regular democratic processes seem better able to sort through all the values and auxiliary issues that surround contentious decision-making. This study suggests that if the goal is "to just get things done" there are two alternatives: either create a powerful and well-resourced public authority that is able to subvert political control by elected officials or leave the decision-making to a general purpose government and its subsidiary agencies which are better able to anticipate and accommodate political opposition.


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