Satisficing, Public Libraries, and Internet Filtering: A Case Study of Public Policy Development by James Jatkevicius, Library Administration & Management 17 no3 135-40 Summer 2003

"children and the internet: policies that work"

Reprinted with permission.

How should public library administrators be guided in making public policy? What is doable and how do we determine what is worth doing in a given socio-economic climate? These are, of course, large questions. Often in practice we reflexively (and perhaps unconsciously) restrict our visions of the achievable. This may occur because of an instinctive awareness of the financial limitations on doing anything in libraries these days. Regardless, by thus restricting our visions, we are in some manner instinctively applying a construct of noted microeconomic scholar Herbert A. Simon. Simon argues that rationality "requires a complete knowledge and anticipation of consequences that will follow on each choice and requires a choice from among all possible alternative behaviors."[sup1] He proposed the concept of bounded rationality whereby decision-makers do, indeed, instinctively lower aspiration levels for themselves and their organizations to seek outcomes they can live with, rather than attempting to find optimal solutions. Simon coined this approach "satisficing."

Why is it so difficult to identify problems and agree upon an ideal course of action in response to, or in anticipation of, events affecting public organizations? Do we "satisfice" in response to these challenges? And, if so, is satisficing a nod to defeatism, or a sound and rational acknowledgment of the achievable in public decision-making?

If identifying problems and solutions in public organizations is difficult, perhaps a better understanding of why this is so can be gained by reviewing the governing challenges defined by value conflict and the influence of postmodernism in twenty-first-century discourse to see how these concepts can inform our decision-making. In the process, it will become evident how, despite the additional challenges wrought by postmodernity, satisficing plays an important role in making public policy and in moving public organizations forward, however lurching the process may feel to the participants.

Fuller and Myers long ago articulated the idea of Value Conflict Theory, which, at its core, argues that in regard to policy analysis, determining what is a problem in a given public arena is ultimately subjective, and subject to where an individual sits within the community affected.[sup2] Problems, in essence, are either social or cognitive constructions. They do not exist as individual truths independent of the varying perceptions of individuals or interest groups. This line of thought has been expanded, coopted, and distorted by various strands of Marxist and postmodernist thinking across many academic disciplines. A certain moral relativism has scented the discourse of the public decision-making process to the extent that problem definition--never mind problem solving--becomes an increasingly stressful and time-consuming process.

It is possible to accept the limits of bounded rationality identified by Simon, and avoid a postmodernist policy design and implementation quagmire with its endless approach to problem definition, by examining what, according to Clemons and McBeth, is known as the nonrational approach.[sup3] It shares something with Simon's satisficing concept. Clemons and McBeth argue that the rational model is, in truth, not only not rational, it is unworkable as public policy. Its very foundation is illusory. Pure rationality depends upon otherworldly foresight and comprehensive knowledge that no administrator can possess. They posit a path to decision-making that may be chaotic but is not necessarily irrational. Group Theory suggests that the constant struggle among interest groups is what shapes public policy, not rational decision-making by public policy experts. According to Clemons and McBeth, the influence of these groups in this struggle is determined by their size, relative wealth, and influence, among other factors. Lindblom's Incrementalism emphasizes that decisions are rarely made as if starting from scratch, but instead build upon what has already been concluded in the past and is already in place.[sup4] Further, various actors with various viewpoints participate in public policy manufacture and implementation. Time and finances are often limited. Also limited is the intellectual capacity of policy makers to comprehend fully those social problems they wish to address. Clemons and McBeth acknowledge and adhere to the ability of group theory and incrementalism to inform public policy decision-making. And they further stress that policies frequently have unintended results, regardless of the amount of planning and vision in the process. Administrators must have the courage to recognize and accept these factors affecting their decision-making and do their best to anticipate consequences beyond their desired outcomes.

An explanation of the nonrational concept would be incomplete without recognizing its postmodernist implications. While logical positivism focuses on observable events to reach objective conclusions not fabricated or altered by a researcher's own bias, postmodernism (or post-positivism) recognizes metaphysical influences that will inevitably obstruct objective observations and conclusions. Postmodernism further distrusts the power elite and the symbolism used in public discourse to maintain the power status quo. It does not recognize the existence of a meta-narrative or a universal truth.

Ultimately, Clemons and McBeth do not wish to discard attempts at rationality when rendering public policy recommendations. They simply wish to acknowledge the impossibility of staying on the rational path and that what is in the brambles may indeed be chaotic, messy, at times conflict-laden, and disruptive, but is still capable of being resolved in responsible public-policy shaping.

The five-step method of policy analysis as suggested by Clemons and McBeth is demonstrated in the case study. It contains the following steps:

1. Defining the problem and determining its cause

2. Establishing criteria to evaluate alternatives

3. Generating policy alternatives

4. Evaluating and selecting policies

5. Evaluating adopted policy

But lest the reader need further reminding, be advised to exercise caution in assuming that this method provides a stamp of pure rationality on the process. It is a guide to assist in policy analysis, but problems can still be vague and hard to define; and politics, subjectivity, and value conflict cannot be eliminated from the process. Administrators operate in a realm of bounded rationality, hindered by the usual limitations of time, money, vision, and knowledge.

These questions and concepts are examined in the context of a fictional library case study that draws upon standard, rational methods of policy analysis while at the same time giving an interpretation of the nonrational at work in what is essentially a political environment (like all decision-making environments that involve competing interest groups). Public libraries operate as social agents--providing services in indirect exchange for taxpayer dollars. Their missions are guided by perceptions of public demands but not necessarily dictated by them. The public must relinquish some decision-making control to experts when they expect services from municipal agencies--it is not the classic exchange of goods and services that occurs when someone pays $2.19 for a McDonald's Big Mac and is thus free to dispose of that sandwich as he or she wishes. Ownership of issues is limited, and administrators possess discretion to act. This discretion and this action determine outcomes that are in no way inevitable, but are affected by definitions and activities (and the effectiveness of these activities) of stake-holders and the ability of some or all participants to stitch together social constructions of their own desired realities.

Case Study

The Felicity Public Library is a long-established library serving a largely suburban, affluent, white-collar community of 120,000 people on the East Coast. It has established a tradition of quality service to its patrons and has been on the cutting edge of library technology utilization due to generous taxpayer funding that has allowed for large acquisitions budgets and competitive salaries for library staff. Such budgets have allowed Felicity, over time, to provide generous Internet access to the community at more than seventy public computer workstations. Public demand for and use of these computers for accessing the Internet, commercial database research, word processing, e-mail, chat, and other activities is high and growing. Access to information was never easier for citizens of the community and the library seemed to be in an enviable position as an in-demand and valued public service entity in its community. This was the generally perceived state of affairs when the phone rang in the office of Felicity Public Library Director Jane Wheeler.

Unbeknownst to Wheeler or anyone else at the library, a patron had recently been shocked and offended by certain types of material she had seen her nephew access on the Internet from one of Felicity's public computers. This patron was politically active, having worked as a consultant for a number of special-interest groups. Instead of registering a complaint with the library, she contacted an acquaintance of hers at the Family Values Clearinghouse, expressing her concern that Felicity may not be operating in the best interests of children by supporting such an open-access Internet policy.

As it turns out, the Family Values Clearinghouse had many concerns about children's easy access to pornography and violent material. and had been monitoring stories of abuses derived from open-access policies at a large number of public libraries throughout the country. The time now seemed ripe to target one library as exemplary of the shameless promiscuity of public library policies regarding Internet access. For the Clearinghouse, it seemed Felicity would serve as that example.

The media of the early twenty-first century works with amazing swiftness. The phone call to Wheeler came from Dirk Trout, the chair of the city council. Trout informed Wheeler that in the last forty-eight hours he had been contacted by representatives of the Family Values Clearinghouse, the Coalition for Traditional Values (CTV), the state chapter of the ACLU, several very prominent and generous members of the Felicity community, and a reporter from Channel 8 News. All the calls except the one from the ACLU representative were angry and threatening; the ACLU representative had called to offer their organization's legal assistance. Trout had one question for Wheeler: Just what did the library think it was doing by providing pornographic Internet access to unsupervised young adults?

Wheeler, reeling from the assault and its implications, tried to explain the library's policy regarding Internet access, citing the First Amendment and the American Library Association's (ALA's) position on intellectual freedom to justify unsupervised access to the Internet. She tried to explain what she remembered of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The fact was, explained Wheeler, that few complaints about the policy had been registered locally, and while some antisocial individuals have developed the habit of examining hardcore porn in public areas, they were not forcing anyone else to look at it, and privacy screens were being considered for all public computer monitors to provide a modicum of privacy and decency for all patrons. Trout pointed out that people had informed him that filters, a type of Internet software that blocked access to Internet sites based on predefined or user-defined keywords, had effectively solved the problem of inappropriate access at other libraries. Why hadn't Felicity explored such a solution? He pointed out the generous salary that Wheeler received from the city and asked if she knew the possible implications of the gathering firestorm that was approaching. Wheeler thought she did. With her face flushed she gathered her coat and purse from her office and headed for the nearest glass of wine. On the way she began mentally sketching a response (classical and deterministic, although those terms would not have occurred to her as a description of her thought processes) by thinking of external realities and the stakeholders who might influence and shape them.

Problem Definition

First question: Is there a problem here that Wheeler or Trout need to provide a response to? In fact there is, but not necessarily the one that Trout perceives. The problem is, to some degree, about politics and perception. The library has done nothing fundamentally wrong by having an open-access policy, and Felicity is generally a well-educated and tolerant community. However, protecting children from harm has always been a part of its social agenda, and if special interests can paint the library and the city as being criminally insensitive on this issue, funding could be lost, as could the tolerance for open information access that made Felicity Public Library such a model democratic institution in the first place. The problem, in essence, is to provide open access to information while at the same time providing a workable safeguard against children accessing materials on the Internet that their parents may deem to be offensive or dangerous. It doesn't matter what philosophical position Wheeler, Trout, or the board might hold about intellectual freedom as defined in ALA's Free Access to Libraries for Minors.[sup5] If they are placing children at risk by their Internet policy, or perceived to be doing so by enough of their constituency, they need to respond.

At the heart of the problem exist the complexities of managing the flow and distribution of information from the Internet, the most anarchic and democratic publishing medium ever invented. Many libraries have avoided such management at their own peril. Librarians, having been inculcated (or indoctrinated, depending on one's point of view) in the tenets of ALA's Library Bill of Rights are generally loathe to inhibit access to any information, fearing the slippery slope of censorship and the disapproval of their professional peers. In hindsight, the printed page did not provide librarians anywhere near the censorship-versus-open-access challenge of a dynamic communication, publishing, and retrieval system such as the Internet.

For Felicity, the battle lines were forming in an engagement that would test community tolerance for intellectual freedom and the attendant risks it requires of its citizens. Somewhere between the ACLU and the conservative interests groups, Wheeler and Trout, as analysts, would have to first try to determine several objective facts. Were they indeed putting elements of the community (children) at risk with their open-access Internet policy? Were there potential legal ramifications for continuing this policy? Did legal ramifications exist for changing the policy to one of limited access or tiered access, where minors might be limited but not adults? What about the economic implications of both of these options? Both Wheeler and Trout recognized that, in addition to seeking legal advice from the city's attorney, a thorough stakeholder analysis was clearly indicated to identify the legitimate participants in the problem-identification and solution process.

As a public library, one key stakeholder group had to be the library patrons. Wheeler would naturally extrapolate this to mean all citizen taxpayers who support the library, regardless of whether they were in the patron database, had ever set their feet in the doors of any of the branches, or accessed the library's Web page. More controversial stakeholders were the alphabet soup of interest groups who would likely have to be brought into the discussion in order to still their agitation and threats of lawsuits. They must be made to understand the complexities of the issue from the library's perspective, at least as much as they were willing, to avoid having them reflexively throw out cries of censorship or of children being force-fed pornography.

Figure 1 shows a sample stakeholder analysis that Wheeler and Trout might construct. A significant factor the analyst observes while conducting the stakeholder analysis is that the three interest groups are not beholden to any local interests. They are clearly seeking test cases to push their national agendas. Consequently, Wheeler and Trout must carefully consider whether these groups are truly stakeholders at all for the purposes of developing policy. They are included here, but the analyst must tread very carefully before giving them an equal share, or indeed any share, in the process that leads to policy development. A looming danger with the interest groups is the possibility of litigation if they are not allowed to participate.

Defining the problem is obviously a key to effectively working through the five-step method. The problem in some cases can be literal and objective. It can also be an outgrowth of perceptions and values in conflict. Either way, defining its true nature is vital to the rest of the process.

Establish criteria to evaluate alternatives

Technical feasibility (filtering software)
The key factor here is filtering software. While significant in cost, such software is relatively simple to install on the library's computers. Filtering software is at the heart of the contention as both a potential solution and as a censorship problem. Can it do the job it implies that it can--that is, can it protect children from legally defined obscene material while not curtailing free speech? From what is known of current filtering technologies, this is highly doubtful. Effectiveness and adequacy must be considered. It is highly uncertain that any current filtering software can pass these tests. However, Wheeler and Trout are also dealing with perceptions. If the software can be perceived as a good faith effort to protect children by employing the best of current technologies, whether it is objectively effective or not may be well beside the point.

Economic feasibility
Again, the financial cost of installing filters is certainly manageable for a library system with the resources that Felicity possesses. Filters pass this test without difficulty.

Cost effectiveness
This criterion can only be met based on whether filtering forms an effective policy. Technical limitations aside, one can argue that filters can be deployed at a reasonable cost.

Political viability
How will the local community respond? It is difficult to assess the attitudes of communities of any size on this issue, particularly because of the child protection factor. An exercise in democracy is needed to assess whether political viability exists. There is no compelling time constraint that would limit the ability to utilize focus groups to clarify the feelings of the community. Involving representatives of the community in an organized dialogue is one way of empowering them on the issue. But more is required. The community needs to be informed of the limited effectiveness of filters, and this may require further public discussion.

Legality and ethics--compliance with state child pornography laws
This issue is an especially difficult challenge tinged with peril. The interest groups must enjoy meaningful participation in order to stave off potential legal action. The ACLU chapter will be looking to make a freedom-of-speech-and-expression case out of filtering, the conservative interest groups will look for, at minimum, full compliance with any applicable child pornography laws. Whatever is decided, these factors must be carefully weighed. It may be that nothing will prevent legal action and Felicity must prepare for myriad possible outcomes. All affected parties must be forewarned of these possibilities.

Generate policy alternatives
Once criteria are established, policy agents are responsible for identifying policy alternatives to address a problem. Each of these alternatives will offer perceived advantages and drawbacks and, inevitably, unforeseen consequences. Such is the nature of public-policy decision-making.

A. Do nothing. In other words, continue the "Open-Access" policy. This involves severe political risks and potential legal ones as well.

B. Institute tiered access (with or without filters). This may have potential as a way of complying with the most strident demands that children be protected from obscene or otherwise "offensive" material.

C. Filter all public computers for content. A quick fix that will contain nearly as many political and legal ramifications as doing nothing, with the further liability of making the library accountable for material that slips through the filter, once the library has set itself up as an information gatekeeper serving in loco parentis.


The Goeller Scorecard ( figure 2) is a disaggregate method of comparing policy alternatives that allows the decision-makers to assign whatever weight they choose for each variable and rank each alternative by feasibility or desirability.[sup6] Thus, in this case, policy A of open access is given a desired outcome rank of 1 (low) for political viability while it is weighted at a value of 3 (high) because political viability is considered a crucial value or criteria for determining feasibility or desirability in this policy decision. After weighting the values/criteria, each alternative is ranked by desirability, represented by the first number in parenthesis under columns A to C.

Evaluate adopted policy--evaluation research
If the middle path is indeed chosen, that of partial filtering with tiered access, periodic evaluations should be conducted to assess the effectiveness of this policy implementation, as well as to determine the effectiveness of the software in deterring minor's access to pornographic materials. Over time, software-and community values--can change. Indeed, whatever policy alternative is chosen is likely to be transitory, but that should not be deemed relevant to its effectiveness at dealing with current public policy issues.


Any policy-making process involves value conflicts, social constructs, and stakeholders. Wheeler wins, and keeps her job, if she can effectively identify the external realities of the situation, bring in the relevant (and necessary) stakeholders, and adequately manage value conflict. Fashioning a response shaped by recognition of competing values and ideas as well as by our bounded rational tools will, as Simon says, satisfice. Agents, Simon claimed, face uncertainty about the future and costs in acquiring information in the present. These two factors limit the extent to which agents can make a fully rational decision. Thus, they have only bounded rationality. Decisions are made not by maximization but by satisficing, or setting an aspiration level that will bring satisfaction if achieved. Failure demands a modification of either the aspiration level or the decision. These rules of thumb are the utmost agents can achieve in the bounded and uncertain real world. As managers, as policy makers, we cannot see the end results of our decisions. Nor can we identify or recognize all available options in context, even if we had the time and financial resources to pursue them. What we can do as policy makers is to have the foresight to correctly identify the values that will come into conflict, deal honestly with social constructs--those of others and of our own making--and to bring in appropriate stakeholders, all the while reserving the right to exercise our own professional judgment. The five-step method as shown here is an effective tool for organizing and assessing the cogent data in a policy-making process. It is a rational component to what Clemons and McBeth consider ultimately as a nonrational process.

James Jatkevicius is Adult Services Librarian, Boise Public Library.

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