Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Political Science
Studies in public policy document what is described as a `punctuation equilibrium' pattern of change, where negative feedback forces that act to maintain the status-quo are occasionally disrupted, leading to brief and dramatic changes before a new equilibrium is rapidly established. The causal process that explains this pattern rests on fundamental limitations to human cognition and institutional capacity and as such, is thought to be widely applicable across organizational structures. From this perspective, punctuations are inevitable to the policymaking process, rather than rare, idiosyncratic events. In this dissertation, I search for the limits of the punctuated equilibrium framework by identifying conditions under which proportional, as opposed to punctuated, change is possible. I identify variance across organizations in their ability to process and respond to new information and by leveraging this variance, interrogate the causal mechanism behind punctuated equilibrium; using data from U.S. government budgets with corporate and financial data points as reference. I identify two factors as having a powerful effect on the stability of outputs- the scope of organizational focus and the degree to which organizations take a decentralized, or market-based, approach to decision-making. When organizations are sufficiently limited in scope or decentralize decision-making, output distributions show fewer extreme changes. The dissertation argues that these conditions are not especially uncommon. The implication is that highly punctuated change distributions, while certainly abundant in the public sector, are not inevitable to human decision-making processes.