Examining Learning and Culture in the Public Workplace

Posted: April 2, 2013 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: April 3, 2013 at 6:40 am

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By Robin Herron

Julianne Mahler, Professor Emerita of Public and International Affairs. Creative Services photo

Julianne Mahler, professor of public and international affairs. Creative Services photo

For anyone who studies the federal bureaucracy, NASA is practically a dream come true.

The space agency’s glory days and successes have been widely celebrated, while its tragic failures, the space shuttle accidents (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003), have provoked national mourning and hand-wringing.

Over the course of her 31 years at Mason, Julianne Mahler has studied many government bureaus, but NASA holds a particular fascination for the professor of public and international affairs.

“It’s a symbol of American progress and strength and scientific expertise,” says Mahler, an amateur astronomer. “If [media] want to show America triumphant, they show a shuttle taking off, or they show Earthrise over the moon — these are symbols of the greatness of America.”

In researching her 2009 book, “Organizational Learning at NASA: The Challenger and Columbia Accidents” (with Maureen Hogan Casamayou, Georgetown University Press), Mahler wanted to answer the question, How could such a scientifically accomplished organization not have ferreted out and fixed the problems that affected the shuttle program the first time? She found that NASA did learn some lessons, and some causes of the first accident were not repeated in the second.

In both cases, the problems that led to the accidents were not only scientific or technical but organizational and managerial as well, Mahler discovered. And the answer to her question lay in NASA’s culture and the pressures — budgetary and political — it faced.

Mahler explains culture in the context of organizations: “Culture is about the meaning of the work of people in organizations and how they find in their everyday activities the energy they need to keep going. This is true in all organizations, but I think it’s especially interesting in public organizations because their missions are critical for the survival of the country. They are often exciting and noble.”

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NASA’s workplace culture is the subject of Mahler’s research.

Mahler says that NASA’s culture presents “an interesting set of issues. I hardly know where to start!” Just one example she gives is a phenomenon that contractors working with the space agency dubbed “NASA chicken.”

“It is the concern not to appear unready,” Mahler explains. “NASA is not just one organization, it is 10 different centers. There is a lot of rivalry among the centers and a lot of jockeying back and forth. To appear as if part of your project may have a problem in it that might delay the whole enterprise — this is often seen as unacceptable.”

Another cultural issue for the agency was the status of safety under the shuttle program.

“If you look at how NASA sees itself, you can see that its mission, what excites them, what is meaningful to them, is exploration and the scientific and engineering challenges. The sort of nit-picking safety culture is not as engaging as that energizing scientific work,” Mahler says.

At the same time, given the high cost of NASA’s programs, budgetary issues have always been a problem.

“They’re being told by Congress if they don’t hurry up and launch, they’re not going to get the kind of funding they need,” she says. Periodic government downsizing has also led to a loss of important redundancies. “So they’re caught in a very difficult place, politically and culturally,” Mahler says.

Mahler’s work on NASA and other government bureaus such as the Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers provides examples for a new textbook on public organizational theory she’s writing. The book has a working title of “Organizing for Public Purposes,” and she hopes for publication by the end of 2013.

Mahler and Mason colleague Priscilla Regan have also done much research together over the past decade on “how government speaks to its employees online.” Examples are government intranets and blogs — who governs them and who decides what information goes out on them. Mahler has also written about virtual public organizations and how their management through online communication is different from face-to-face organizational management.

As an extension of that interest, Mahler recently wrote a paper on the managerial and personnel challenges of telework. She says there has been “a huge increase” in the number of government employees teleworking over the past five or six years. And several surveys on managers’ and employees’ attitudes about teleworking have been conducted.

“What I found in looking at these reports is that people who are not permitted to telework, for a variety of reasons, are very dissatisfied with their organization and the situation creates friction between those who telework and those who don’t.”

Mahler suggests that small pilot programs could help. “We are only beginning to uncover the outlines of these new organizational forms with their benefits and their challenges,” she says.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2013.

Write to Robin Herron at rherron@gmu.edu

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