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Sharpening a Knife Cleverly: Organizational Change, Policy Paradox, and the “Weaponizing” of Administrative Reforms


Robert F. Durant is a professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy, School of Public Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C. His latest book is The Greening of the U.S. Military: Environmental Policy, National Security, and Organizational Change (2007).


Prior research has leavened substantially our understanding of how, why, and with what consequences public organizations respond to pressures for administrative reforms. Left underdeveloped theoretically, however, is the hypothesis that agency actors may also assess the ability of administrative reforms both to advance their policy goals and to become “weapons” in battles within agencies for advancing them. To illustrate this possibility, this article analyzes how the Clinton administration’s National Performance Review and related Defense Reform Initiative interacted with its efforts to “green” the U.S. military in the post–Cold War era. Analysis of this clash between defense and environmental values indicates that (1) agency actors did evaluate the potential impacts of administrative reforms on their policy goals before supporting or opposing them; (2) they tried to hijack those reforms as weapons for advancing their policy goals in intraorganizational battles; and (3) the “weaponizing” of these reforms produced policy complications and consequences that proponents neither anticipated nor welcomed. Thus, reform in the administrative domain created unanticipated consequences by spilling over into the policy domain and being hijacked, weaponized, or otherwise miscarried or used opportunistically in intraorganizational policy battles. The study concludes by arguing that these dynamics merit more attention than they have received from either administrative reform proponents or researchers seeking to develop theories of administrative reform.