Garbage-Can Model of Organizations

  • Nancy S. LindEmail author
  • Taryn ButlerEmail author
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Violent Crime City Council Decision Situation Undocumented Migrant Illegal Alien 
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Garbage-can model of decision-making is a form of decision-making often used to explain choices made in higher education that views organizations as choices looking for problems and solutions looking for issues.


The Garbage-Can model of organizational decision-making was originally developed by Cohen et al. (1972) to describe organized anarchy. The model attempts to explain organizational decision-making anomalies. In particular, according to Maister (1983), this model is most relevant in decisions made by “organized anarchies,” or those which attempt to conduct themselves on democratic, consensus-building principles. Cohen and March, in their book Leadership and Ambiguity, defined “organized anarchy” organizations as having some of the following characteristics:

First, an ambiguity of goals with inconsistent, poorly defined preferences and numerous objectives. Due to this aspect of ambiguity, very few problems are resolved by adhering to indisputable and universal (or prioritized) goals within the organization.

Second is an unclear technology, consisting of activities such as teaching, lawyering, consulting, and other professional services which have fairly ambiguous processes. In these activities, there are some consistencies or regularities in terms of standard procedures, yet the activities themselves are considered an “art” to be learned through various experiences, imitation, inventions which are born out of necessity, and trial and error.

The third characteristic is that of fluid participation within these organized anarchies. Members differ in the amount of time and effort they put forth into the concerns of the organization. Sometimes, one actor will focus only on his or her own personal work while leaving the goals and decisions of the organization in the hands of others. In other cases, some may be exceptionally concerned with the organization as a whole and wish to be involved in its affairs. Determining the degree of participation of each member cannot be discerned from an organizational chart, but rather on the basis of the issues being addressed, timing of the issues, and temperament of the issues and/or actors.

Fourth, many of the issues faced by these organizations have little significance to most people in a majority of situations. The decisions made are often only the product of partial, sometimes erratic, attention from participants. A majority of the support or attention given to a particular issue is more representative of the problem’s symbolic significance or of the impact it has on the group’s esteem than it is of the content of the problem.

As a result of this small significance of issues facing the organization, there is a high level of inertia present, meaning that it takes a great deal more effort and energy for anything to be changed. Typically, there is a minimum amount of effort being put into most decisions, problems, and choices within these organizations, therefore there is also a tendency to continue past policies, procedures, and patterns so as to avoid effort as much as possible.

Lastly, the final characteristic of organized anarchies is that most have a weak information base. The information and data needed to make an educated and informed decision is nonexistent more often than not. Most of the time, this information is not collected or properly disseminated. Perhaps this lack of collection is due to the unclear technology or it could be due to the fact that most issues are of low participation and low significance to a majority of people within the organization and therefore there is no incentive or motive to collect the necessary information required for informed decision-making.

Consensus-Based Organizations

These organized anarchies are political, consensus-based “democracies,” whether they are law firms or national assemblies. Cohen et al. (1972) studied universities, which are a well-recognized example of organized anarchy. Their findings from this observation were that organizations such as these could be viewed as a collection of choices looking for problems to solve, decision situations in which issues and feelings might be aired, and various solutions looking for a problem to which it may be the answer as well as decision-makers looking for decisions to be made.

These organized anarchies relate to the garbage-can model of decision-making because this model is seen as a process which changes the actual problem facing the organization. Many claim that there are four basic components which can influence decisions: problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities. Within the garbage-can model, there could be any combination of the four components, and how they will be mixed is unpredictable. In garbage-can decision, situations, problems, solutions, and participants frequently move from choice to choice. In situations that fail to adhere to the conditions of more classical models of decision-making in some or all of three important ways: preferences are problematic, technology is unclear, or participation is fluid, the garbage-can model is found.

The “garbage cans” in this model are choice opportunities like meetings, committees, and any other decision-making forums. The four components mentioned above are also contained within the choice opportunities. Each of the components flow in and out of the garbage can, which results in solutions getting attached to problems almost solely by chance.

In the garbage-can environment, no obvious or clear rules exist for linking problems and solutions together so as to ensure the resolution of problems (Giesecke 1991). There is an overall theme of unpredictability associated with the garbage-can model which can be seen in the difficulty of discerning organizational goals, objects, rules, and regulations. It is also rather complicated to predict or determine which participants will be present at any given choice opportunity (such as a meeting, for example) where decisions on problems and solutions could possibly be raised or acted upon. As a result, decisions are rarely, if ever, made through the conventional method of “comprehensively rational” policymaking. In this traditional model of rationality, decision-makers or actors first identify the issues or goals facing the organization. These issues are then analyzed and studied so as to generate several diverse solutions or ways to reach their goals, followed by the decision-makers selecting the solution that best fits the problem. Instead of this traditional model, oftentimes the solutions may be present well before the problems ever present themselves to the organization. Any number of individual issues, solutions, and participants can be introduced into various choice opportunities. The process of making decisions in the garbage-can model is extremely unpredictable, and there are a few different methods typically used in this approach.

Within organized anarchical organizations, decisions can be made in three ways. The first is by resolution. This refers to the more traditional model of decision-making in which choices resolve problems after working on solving those problems for a period of time. The amount of time it takes to resolve issues can vary depending largely upon the number of issues the organization is facing at that particular time. The second method of decision-making is by oversight. In this method, a choice is made and put into action while problems are attached to other choices. This choice is typically made quickly and with as little attention to existing problems and as little energy spent as possible. Choices in this method are made quickly so as to avoid having problems drift over into the current choice that is being made. This choice solves nothing, since the problems were attached to a different choice and therefore the choice is more symbolic than practical. The third method is to make decisions by flight. In these situations, choices are associated with problems for a certain period of time until a more attractive choice presents itself for the problem. The problem will leave the choice that the organization was sitting on, so with the problems no longer being attached to that choice, it becomes possible for the organization to make the decision. Like the oversight method, the flight method of decision-making also fails to resolve any problems, because the problems have moved on to another, more favorable choice (March and Olsen 1976: 8; Weick 1979, 21). Besides the first method of making decisions by resolution, the oversight and flight methods either try to make a choice before there are even any problems to deal with or simply wait out the problems and hope that they go away before a choice even needs to be made.

The outcomes that result from the decision-making methods within the garbage-can model are not always reflective of the intentions of the decision-makers. Leaders within organized anarchies can still play a positive role in decision situations. In the garbage-can model, leaders can make a difference in a variety of ways such as: carefully timing the creation of issues, remaining cognizant of the ever-changing interests and levels of involvement of participants, diagnosing the status and power implications contained within all choice opportunities, knowing when to abandon programs/projects/proposals when they become tied too closely with others, and appreciating that the planning process is merely symbolic in a majority of situations and is typically just an excuse for interaction within the organization.

Cohen, March, and Olsen’s garbage-can model of organizational decision-making has been reconstructed by Fioretti (2013) into a more agent-based model. The original garbage-can model states that actors in organized anarchical organizations can delay making decisions. Fioretti (2013) builds on to this postponement of decisions by adding in another possible method to avoid making decisions: buck-passing, or passing difficult issues and problems along to colleagues to avoid having to make a decision. This method emphasizes the selfish nature of individuals within organizations, yet it does not suggest the fruition of dysfunctional consequences for the organization as a whole. Simulation experiments conducted validate and develop further some of the conclusions drawn from the garbage-can model of decision-making. These experiments demonstrate that a majority of decisions are made without resolving any problems, which has been stated as a defining characteristic of this model. The organization ends up creating a cycle by not solving these issues, continually making decisions which do not accomplish any specific goal or conquer any problems. Any problems which are actually solved are usually handled only at the lower levels of the hierarchy within the organization. The conclusions from these simulations identified a consequence that was previously omitted, or possibly overlooked, which was the idea that top executives in organizations do not need to be strong problem-solvers because many of the issues which are actually tackled are taken care of at lower levels.

An example of the garbage-can model can be seen in the actions which took place in Hazelton, Pennsylvania in 2006 through the local government’s response to increasing numbers of unauthorized migrants in the community. While there was no way to determine the exact number of undocumented migrants living in Hazelton, estimates believed the Hispanic population was between 11,000 and 12,000, with roughly 1,700–2,400 of those suspected to be unauthorized migrants. Many migrants moved to Hazelton to find work, education, safety, security, and an overall better life (Bressler and Delaney 2002). This influx of migrants created debate among some who claimed that undocumented migrants were taking a toll on the economy while others believe this to be false (Lipman 2006). However, the American Immigration Law Foundation stated that while undocumented migrants may pay more in federal taxes, they are still costing state and local governments more in services (Paral 2005).

These migrants, then, are leaving local economies struggling to pay to provide services to their communities. This point is validated by examining data from the City of Hazelton where it is found that in the years surrounding 2006, there was a continuous rise in services provided but no rise in revenue from local taxes on wages. Services such as health care and education became highly taxed and many businesses saw losses in income. The Hazelton Area School District increased tremendously in student population, resulting in overcrowding. The number of English as a Second Language Programs rose also, costing the district a substantial amount of money. The number of undocumented students was unknown but estimated to be high due to the lack of English spoken and lack of paperwork by many students.

City officials noticed the increase in unauthorized migrants in the area. A trend of violent crime committed by Hispanic individuals, most of them undocumented migrants, that began in fall 2005 prompted the Mayor and city council of Hazelton to believe there needed to be an ordinance. Having no other options, the Mayor searched online for a solution which would meet the needs of Hazelton and found an ordinance in San Bernardino, California which dealt with “illegal aliens” (Dorell 2006). The Illegal Immigrant Reform Ordinance was formed on the foundation of partial statistics, assumed information, and the need to act swiftly. Hazelton could be described as an organized anarchy during this time, which created the perfect atmosphere for the garbage-can model of decision-making. The city’s lack of means to deal with the problems locally led officials to search elsewhere for answers. The shortage of information collected on undocumented migrant crime statistics and the unwillingness of the federal authorities to assist in the issue resulted in the Mayor searching for his own solution. The vague goal of reducing crime is characteristic of the garbage-can model, but the problem was not essentially solved through the created ordinance.

Hazelton was also accused of having unclear technology in the ordinance because there were no clear means of identifying undocumented migrants in the area. The ordinance faced legal issues and backlash from groups, mainly Hispanic organizations, which should have been included in the creation of such a piece of legislation. However, the Mayor stated that none of these groups spoke openly about the issues facing Hazelton or came out publicly against the violent crimes being committed. Local businesses and organizations, instead of taking positive action, used this ordinance to protest the actions of the Mayor and city council for discriminating against anyone they believed to be foreign (Hall 2007). Before many local groups had a chance to respond to the ordinance, national organizations stepped in, forcing the Hazelton community to argue their cases on the national level. A court case was filed then heard in the US District Courts where the ordinance was ruled unconstitutional. Both sides continued to fight over the policy in court.

The focus of this issue is the local government’s responsibility to protect its own citizens versus the federal government’s right to handle immigration policy. Hazelton was a community experiencing transition in their increasing numbers of immigrants, which led to the inability of local government to make an effective decision regarding the reduction of violent crime. The Mayor and city council sought answers to the problem elsewhere, yet the solution was ineffective. This is representative of the garbage-can model where decisions are made, yet problems are rarely solved. There was unclear technology on how to implement such an ordinance and there was a lack of sufficient research and data gathered to make a decision. The Mayor’s choice of using the San Bernardino ordinance as a model is reflective of a choice being plucked by a participant and pasted onto the problem as a band-aid solution. The actions of Hazelton’s government are a prime example of the garbage-can model in action.


The garbage-can model is used to explain discrepancies in decision-making within organizations. This method is found most often in organized anarchies with poorly-defined goals, fluid participation, and problems which hold little significance to a majority of participants. It has been shown to be an ineffective method in which decisions made rarely solve any problems. Though it seems to be counterintuitive for organizations to engage in this form of problem-solving, or lack thereof, organizational studies continue to find the persistence of the garbage-can model within organizations.

To sum it all up, organizations operate on the basis of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences. Various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped, and the mix of garbage depends on the mix of labeled cans available.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of POLIllinois State UniversityNormalUSA