Seven Letters

Abstract

Seven Letters is a classic case that dramatizes the perennial dilemmas of budgeting in a public agency, and illuminates the contrasting perspectives of program managers and budget officials. The sequence of documents going back and forth between program agency and budget office provides a provocative stimulus for exploring the tensions and release valves in the relationship between key players in governmental budgeting. The escalating rhetoric prompts discussion of better ways to communicate, by first understanding one's own role, perspective, and priorities, and then those of the other. While simplified, and brought up to date with minor modifications, the documents are taken from an actual exchange that is so timeless the case could just as well be titled "Seven E-Mails."

By engaging in observation, critique, and revision of this documented dialogue, both pre- and mid-career students, budget experts and novices alike, can gain insight into the management of key relationships and the process of bureaucratic problem solving. The case is used in Masters degree courses and mid-level executive programs in budgeting, often as the basis of an introductory discussion. Such classes frequently include budget professionals as well as program managers, and the exchange in class can be highly illuminating to both. The case also yields general lessons about bureaucratic rivalries and turf wars, and about how common practices and reactions can be counterproductive to organizational goals and destructive of the trust and communication necessary to work in a system of divided powers.

The exemplary, insightful teaching note by Arn Howitt of the Kennedy School of Government will assist budgeting course instructors in leading students to gain a clearer perception of the power and influence among players in the budget process, and to play a more effective role in allocating resources to public programs.

Seven Letters was written by Edwin O. Stene of the University of Kansas and published originally in "Public Administration Review." It appears on the Electronic Hallway by permission, and through the courtesy, of the American Society for Public Administration.

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