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No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs? Evidence about Goal Conflict in Street-Level Bureaucracies


  • William G. Resh is assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. His research focuses on administrative politics, organizational behavior, and personnel policy.E-mail:

  • David W. Pitts is associate professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on public management, workforce diversity, and education policy.E-mail:


Theories of goal conflict suggest that public organizations confront two possibilities when they face multiple policy goals: (1) organizations attain synergy among lower-order, instrumental goals in order to achieve higher-order objectives, or (2) organizations face a zero-sum trade-off among goals. Implicit in this debate is the proposition that trade-off is more likely when performance toward the attainment of multiple goals is measured with substantively exclusive metrics and under varying environments of task difficulty. This research examines which of these theories appears to explain the implementation and interaction of multiple policy goals in the context of Georgia public high schools. The findings demonstrate the highly contingent nature of goal synergy and trade-off. While goal synergy is possible in the interaction of multiple lower-order goal attainment, more robust gains can be made toward a higher-order objective by focusing on one particular lower-order goal rather than an all-inclusive approach to goal attainment.