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The Garbage Can Model and Organizational Metrics

Worlds of Rankings

ISBN: 978-1-80117-106-9, eISBN: 978-1-80117-105-2

Publication date: 22 July 2021


Organizational metrics – including rankings, ratings, and other forms of public assessment – are inextricably tied to uncertainty. Metrics are not only responses to uncertainty in the organizational environment, but they also create new forms of uncertainty within the organizations they evaluate. Given this, it is productive to consider these metrics in relation to the garbage can model of organizational decision making, a framework that was designed to provide insight into uncertain and ambiguous contexts. In this paper, the authors use the case of patient experience surveys to argue for the value of this model for understanding responses to metrics in particular conditions. Specifically, the authors demonstrate how the different features of the garbage can model manifest themselves within organizations managing numbers, and the authors then use these findings to discuss the measurement conditions that promote garbage can responses, the distinctive types of unintended consequences these responses might produce, and the implications of the garbage can model for the understanding of metrics more generally.




We thank our anonymous reviewers and Leopold Ringel for constructive feedback on an earlier draft. The data for this study are drawn from a larger project directed by Mark Friedberg, Denise Quigley, Eric Schneider, and Kristin Van Busum. We are grateful for their cooperation and assistance. Support from this project was provided by a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship, the Max-Weber-Kolleg, and the European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020 under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement 665958.


Sauder, M., Chun, H. and Espeland, W. (2021), "The Garbage Can Model and Organizational Metrics", Ringel, L., Espeland, W., Sauder, M. and Werron, T. (Ed.) Worlds of Rankings (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 74), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 175-197.



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