The garbage can model – pertinent to activist organizations?

[James] March and his colleagues, Michael Cohen and Johan Olsen, developed an extremely important perspective on organizational behaviour, with the infelicitous title of the “garbage can model,” which seeks to explain how complex organizations make decisions under conditions that differ radically from those that reign under rational models. According to the model, such “organized anarchies” exhibit three general properties. First, instead of having clear and consistent objectives, “the organization operates on the basis of a variety of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences.” Different individuals at different levels of the organization may hold conflicting goals; the same individuals may hold different and incompatible goals at different times; organizations may not even know their preferences until after choices are made. Second, such organizations use extremely “unclear technology” in their operations: “Although the organization manages to survive and even product, its own processes are not understood by its members.” The organization’s left hand does not know what the right hand is doing; what happened in the past and why it happened is not clear; and the connections between the organization’s actions and the consequences of its actions are obscure. Third, there is extremely “fluid participation” in the organization’s decision-making process. Participants come and go; some pay attention, while others do not; key meetings may be dominated by biased, uninformed, or even uninterested personnel.

Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton University Press. 1993. p. 29

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

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