Review of Bureaucracy by James Q. Wilson


Wilson, James Q. Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It is James Q. Wilson’s exploration of government agencies from a “bottom up” perspective of their day-to-day operators and the constraints and incentives imposed on them by the context in which they operate. Wilson was a respected voice in the fields of political science and public administration, and this book is regarded as one of the foremost structural examinations of how American government agencies function. It’s central premise is that “bureaucracy” as a generic label does not predict much about behavior or outcomes, but rather the nature of the tasks assigned to an organization, how clearly their outputs can be observed, and what other societal goals government agencies are called upon to fulfill produce a variety of different behaviors with more or less of the stereotypical characteristics of government bureaucracies. 

I came to this book through my interest in organizational culture and theory, hoping to find applicable insights for both the military and business world despite its primary focus on executive agencies. I was not disappointed, as I believe this book highlights several useful frameworks and explanatory theories useful in application across a broad scope of organizations.

Summary of Content

Wilson opens the book by discussing the importance of organization in analyzing different government agencies, but stresses that organization means more than just boxes and lines in an organizational chart. He begins by contrasting successful and unsuccessful armies, prisons, and schools. In the last case, it’s the same school with largely the same student and teacher populations, but a new principal and new ways of running the school. He then discusses the various ways organization matters to how a bureaucracy operates.

Next, he discusses the “operators” - those people who most directly do whatever it is the agency is for: combat troops in armies, patrol cops in police departments, or benefits processors in a welfare agency. By looking at the circumstances in which they do their work, the beliefs the kinds of people hired by certain agencies bring with them, their self-motivated interests as individuals or representatives of groups, and the culture that grows up based on the experiences of operators, Wilson demonstrates what a profound effect these frontline employees have on the entire organization.

Supervising these operators are, of course, managers. Given the nature of their work, Wilson argues that government managers are far more responsive to positive constraints than to open-ended goals, they have less control over decisions affecting the people on their team (like hiring and firing), and that compliance with a myriad of politically-dictated criteria will dominate large portions of their attention. These factors mean that even dedicated, talented managers with a desire to improve efficiency will have difficulty achieving anything like the results of managers in a private concern.

At the top of agencies are the executives who run them. In the United States government, these people are often political appointees who may or may not have any particularly relevant experience for the agency they head, and are likely to only be in charge for a few years at the maximum. As such, their incentives for maintaining their position and reputation do not always align with the incentives for managing their agency well. The strategies they pursue will revolve around finding a constituency to support them and demonstrating progress on issues they care about. That being said, executives with special talent, energy, and vision can infuse their organizations with a sense of mission and can truly innovate how they are run and what they can achieve.

Having discussed every level of government agencies, Wilson then explains one of the key differences between public and private bureaucracies: the context in which they operate. In the American system, this context is largely defined by congress, the president, and the courts, which all impose different requirements on agencies and pull their executives in different directions. As a point of comparison, Wilson looks at the some international differences, comparing especially the British Parliamentary system and French government with the American, and how structural as well as cultural differences contribute to very differently run organizations.

The book closes with an examination of the ways the American bureaucracy has changed over the years and some of the ways it might change in the future. It examines problems encountered by government agencies, the very many rules that we have created to attempt to address them, and what sorts of things free markets might or might not be able to address that are currently handled by government agencies. Finally, Wilson offers a few of his views on things that might improve bureaucracies’s ability to promote the public interest and reminds us that for all their problems, our agencies have built highways across a continent, fed millions, and put men on the moon - not bad at all.

Analysis and Evaluation of the Book

Throughout Bureaucracy, I found several insights and frameworks with broad applicability in examining organizations - including militaries and businesses. 

The most broadly useful piece of analysis in the book was a framework for placing agencies into one of four categories: production, procedural, craft, or coping. This is based on two factors: how observable are the operators doing their task, and how observable are the outcomes of the organization’s actual goals. For example, the Social Security Administration has fairly observable behavior and outcomes: you can watch clerks administering funds to people, and you can measure if retirees get their checks - this makes them a production organization. Such organizations can be managed in a manner much closer to businesses than others. If behaviors are easy to observe but outcomes are not, you get a procedural organization. An army in peacetime is a good example: soldiers can be watched drilling and training and painting rocks, but you do not know what effect, if any, these activities are having on their wartime effectiveness. When armies go to war, however, they become craft organizations, which are those organizations where outcomes are clear, but activities cannot be closely observed. A general cannot be with every grunt under his command to watch what actions he takes, but he can see if battles are won, ground taken, and enemies defeated. Finally, all too common for government agencies, are coping organizations. In these instances, neither can you clearly observe the outcomes nor the behaviors. In a school, the principal cannot be in every classroom with every teacher, and it is extremely hard to measure what constitutes “a good education”. 

While this framework is more directly useful for government agencies, the underlying analysis of observability of work and observability of outcomes is quite relevant to business organizations. Even if the entire firm has a clearly observable outcome (profitable or not), individual departments within that business may resemble more or less closely these types of government agencies. Such an observation can allow for more skillful intervention - for example, procedural organizations tend to focus on the most easily measured or observed behaviors, even if they are not very important. Knowing this can help leaders fight against this tendency.

This book also had a great deal of useful things to say on Organizational Culture. The most interesting to me were the roles of strong executives in setting culture, foundational myths, and the interaction of “professions” with an organization’s culture. J. Edgar Hoover and his almost single-handed creation of decades of steady culture at the FBI is cited as a primary example of the effect of both a strong founder and the importance of early myths. The importance of culture and its positive and negative effects is also demonstrated by the FBI: their long-time reputation for an utter lack of corruption came from their clear sense of mission and what was and was not acceptable work for special agents - but as times changed, that squeaky clean reputation began to exact a cost in the form of turning down vitally important work like investigating organized crime. 

The importance of “professions” as defined by Wilson in interacting with an organization’s culture was also especially fascinating to me. He describes a profession as a type of career with a strong sense of identity and shared norms among practitioners separate from their specific employer - good examples include lawyers, engineers, and accountants. Organizations that employ large numbers of professionals will tend to be strongly influenced by the norms and values of that profession. The book describes the large differences in how the Federal Trade Commission has seen its mission and the decisions it has made based on when either lawyers or economists have waxed ascendant. As such, professionals can either greatly strengthen or severely hinder an organization’s sense of mission to the degree that its aims are or are not in line with their professional norms.

Another insight that is especially relevant to government agencies, but still usefully applied to businesses, is the importance of constraints in incentivizing employees' behavior, but especially that of managers. In a context with a plethora of rules and restrictions meant to satisfy various interested parties, the penalties for violating a constraint are often known, sure, and painful. On the other hand, the rewards for achieving goals are often vague, uncertain, and unlikely to have much positive impact on the individual manager. Most government agencies are unwilling to provide the kind of autonomy needed to lessen this effect due to the numerous political masters they must serve (presidents, congressional subcommittees, organized citizen groups, business lobbyists, and so forth). Businesses have more leeway in theory, but often fall into the same trap of creating situations that will stifle initiative and lessen the likelihood of employees pursuing stated goals.

At the executive level, Wilson highlights the central role of “turf” or autonomy in how executives view their positions and ability to act. To achieve autonomy, executives must build a constituency - supporters within their political context who can back them when they make potentially unpopular or contentious choices. The degree to which an executive achieves autonomy is the degree to which they can pursue a clear vision for what their agency should do and secure the resources to do it. This means that autonomy is vital to an organization’s sense of mission. I found this analysis extremely interesting, especially given the value often placed on collaboration and coordination in a business context.

The idea of a constituency for an executive is seemingly unique to the political context, where agency heads must wheel and deal with congress, secure the blessings of various other agency heads, and ultimately answer to a public that wants specific and often contradictory results. I believe that the wider idea that the head of an organization (of whatever size) must take particular care with the context in which his or her organization operates is usefully applicable in many instances. Very many people have a distaste for “playing politics”, but when viewed as a necessary component for building a strong sense of mission for your team and achieving great things, it may become more palatable.

One argument that I found interesting and useful, but slightly deficient, was Wilson’s assertion that the definition of “efficiency” should be broadened when dealing with government agencies to mean not just resources spent versus outcomes achieved, but resources spent versus outcomes plus socially mandated aims. For example, in awarding a contract to build a public facility, we as a society have determined that it is important that small, American owned businesses be given preference, that there be as little chance as possible for government officials to profit from the exchange, and that the bid be almost totally decided by lowest cost. Contrast this with a private construction project where contractors will be chosen largely based on the hiring firm’s judgment, and will include factors such as past performance, reliability, and special skills. While I find the argument compelling that government agencies be evaluated according to different standards if they are to be imbued with special authority, it seems only to muddy the waters to bundle those standards into the term “efficiency”. For my purposes, this complaint is largely moot, however, as both militaries and businesses operate in environments where empirical results will rather strikingly act as the final arbiter of an organization’s overall effectiveness. 


Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Bureaucracy. It is extremely carefully thought out and deliberate, but maintains an easy, sometimes drily humorous style throughout. While some of the specific observations and examples were a bit dated, the core tenants drawn from them remain relevant and deeply insightful. If your interest is not specifically in the government, or only in the limited part of it that is the military, you may find large swaths of this book of less direct interest, but those relevant gems are truly excellent. 

Review of Absolute Destruction by Isabel Hull

Hull, Isabel V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.


In Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany, author Isabel V. Hull deals with the effects of the military culture and standard practices of the Imperial German Army in producing extreme violence towards civilians consistently from the unification of Germany through World War I, regardless of the theatre of war. Hull is a historian at Cornell University specializing in Germany from 1700 - 1945, focusing on sociopolitics, political theory, and gender & sexuality, and is widely recognized for her deep knowledge in the field. 

I was drawn to this work for its potential insights into organizational culture and its applications in a military context. Hull’s primary argument is that systemic elements of Imperial German military culture, the interaction with the civilian government (or lack thereof), and standard operating procedures led to dysfunctional extremes of violence towards civilians, without any substantial top-down strategic or ideological direction.

I found her book a remarkable case study in using organization theory and organizational culture to arrive at important insights about the behavior of a military in a historical context, leading to several conclusions that would be hidden or at least less obvious using other methods of analysis.

Summary of Content

Hull opens the book with a general outline of the coming work and an introduction to organization theory and organizational culture. In laying out the structure, she states her thesis that the German military repeatedly descended into dysfunctional extremism that did not serve Germany’s political goals or meet international norms of the time, and explains how the work will demonstrate that.

She then moves into a detailed explanation of the German war against the Herrero and other native peoples in German South West Africa (modern Namibia) and how it progressed into the effective annihilation of entire peoples. The behavior demonstrated in German Southwest Africa is presented as a dark preview of what to expect in World War I, with these so called “small wars” different in degree, rather than in kind as claimed by many contemporaries.

The case study is followed by an analysis of what forces were seen at work in the form of German Military Culture and how that culture developed. German military culture is compared and contrasted with other contemporary European militaries, acknowledging the many similarities, but especially highlighting the uniquely German characteristics. Hull draws the connection between these distinctive features with several formative events, such as the decisive battle of Koniggratz and the conduct of the Franco-Prussian war, and shows how certain patterns of thinking and approaches to problems were celebrated, enshrined, and propagated as institutional and cultural norms. 

Next, the book provides a detailed analysis of the same behaviors seen in German South West Africa being used against Europeans in World War I. In short, the same extremes of subordinating civilians to “military necessity” and pursuing seemingly rational goals (like forced labor) repeatedly ran to dysfunctional extremes due to German military cultural traits, such as leaving logistics to chance, putting the needs of soldiers over the needs of civilians, expecting military levels of discipline and control from civilians, and using force as the default answer to all challenges. Hull shows that these military cultural assumptions ran all the way to the top, with the Army’s focus on tactical and operational methods substituting for any sort of actual national level strategy, all the way from the Schlieffen plan through to punishing last months of the war.

Finally, the book offers several conclusions and contrasts them with other common explanations for the behavior of the Imperial German Army, such as the roles of technology, ideology, and imperialism, concluding that these contributing factors are not satisfactory causal explanations when compared with the organization and culture of the military and its place in the Wilhelmian constitution. 

Analysis and Evaluation of the Book

I find Hull’s argument that organizational culture better explains the behaviors of the Imperial German Army than other explanatory theories quite compelling, and in the process of building her case, she shares several insights that are usefully applied to analysis of other complex organizations.

First, her approach emphasizes a “bottom up” view of the organization in question - looking at the actual actions and situations faced by the members of the organization fulfilling its raison d’etre. The bottom up approach is most extensively applied in the detailed analysis of the German Southwest Africa war. I initially found this section a bit tedious, as I was eager to get to the theoretical conclusions, but I later realized its in-depth analysis was essential for demonstrating that the observed behaviors emerged from assumptions and SOPs organically, and were not the product of the admittedly racist ideology of the German commander. The analysis includes an ongoing focus on default modes of action, the kinds of attitudes and behaviors encouraged by training, and the effects of hidden assumptions, all supported by extensive quotes and references to the primary sources. 

Though Hull's analysis begins from the bottom, it does continue all the way up to the highest levels. An especially acute example is the complex interplay between Germany’s geo-political position and its tactical and operational approaches. Germany was  a relatively small country surrounded by large, rich countries, which meant that its smaller military had to be highly effective. To be effective, this military had to take risks to overcome France or Russia’s intrinsic advantages - such as seizing the initiative by doing the unexpected and acting aggressively. Such behavior paid off tactically and operationally, most famously at the battles of Koniggratz and Sedan. To encourage this behavior, however, the German military encouraged a “can do” attitude to the point of irrational optimism as a necessary characteristic for soldiers at all levels. This default assumption and the organizational norms that supported it - such as punishing errors of hesitation far more harshly than errors of aggression - produced dysfunctional behavior all the way from massacring civilians to entering World War I without any clearly articulated war aims.

Secondly, this work demonstrates how irrational courses of action can be usefully explained for historical and institutional reasons provided by organization theory and organizational culture. Tactical and operational successes in several wars, especially those early in the formation of the military, such as the success against the French in 1870-1871, created a set of practices and assumptions that were deeply held and seemingly self-evident. When these practices and assumptions were extrapolated up to the strategic level, they had disastrous effects.
Third, Hull highlights how much of the German military’s culture, institutions, and behaviors can be linked to it’s place in the German Imperial constitution. I found this conclusion an especially useful reminder than any given organization operates in a wider context that often determines much of the behavior of the organization. Due to the military’s role as the guarantor of the Kaiser’s supremacy, it was largely firewalled off from the rest of the government, and relied on a highly skilled Kaiser or chancellor to coordinate with the other arms of state. This structural separation resulted in remarkably poor coordination between foreign policy and the military, or even in coordination of national strategic goals of any kind. I found this disconnect especially shocking in the direct cultural heirs to Clausewitz’s famous definition of war as essentially political in aim. 

The lack of connection did not merely create an organization that paid little heed to the aims of the civilian government, the insularism went both ways - the civilian government deferred to the military as the “experts” and without civilian input, the military assumed its strategic assessments built on operational and tactical assumptions were correct. The most disturbing result of the disconnect was the near-complete lack of civilian intervention to curb violence against civilians - it was just another matter of “military necessity."

In the absence of clear national strategic goals provided by the civilian leadership or the Kaiser, the German military attempted to take what it knew best - tactical and operational effectiveness - and apply it to strategic goals. Hence the tactically effective method of holding the enemy while flanking them to deliver a decisive blow and the operationally effective method of defeating one foe completely before engaging decisively with the next were elevated to national strategy in the form of the Schlieffen plan. Most surprising and shocking to me was to learn that Germany went to war in 1914 with no war aims beyond defeat of the French and Russian militaries - and defeat was defined as a decisive battle of annihilation, as demonstrated in their heroic tales of Koniggratz and Sedan. 

As the war went on, this strategic blindness became even stronger, culminating in the discussion of an Endkampf - a final all or nothing battle which would risk the actual destruction of Germany as a country and a people rather than surrender. Hull shows the clear linkage between tactical-level behaviors and norms - an almost irrational “can do” attitude, being rewarded for aggressive risk taking, and willingness to sacrifice life - up to this national level outcome. 

The role discussed of formative experiences and building organizational “myths” - the stories members of an organization tell each other and themselves about about “who we are” was also especially illuminating. This same dynamic is well discussed in Bureacracy by James Q. Wilson, who also emphasizes the role of forceful personalities in the early days of an organization. 

Despite my general agreement with Hull’s conclusions, the argument I found least compelling was that violence as a means tends inexorably towards violence as an end in itself. The general argument that violence will inevitably devolve into its own end was weakly supported and amounted more to an assertion of a position than a clear argument. To be fair, this assertion relies heavily on Hannah Arendt’s position in On Violence, an essay with which I am as yet unfamiliar - perhaps it is better supported in the cited work. I did find parts of the argument convincing, though. Specifically, the idea that force is the military’s job, and therefore it will look to that as the default solution (in the same sense of “if all you have is a hammer. . .”), and that such a default position will lead to an escalation of violence if the military is left to its own devices, was an especially interesting one. I did not, however, find the totalizing argument that such is an underlying truth of military and human violence to be adequately supported.


Overall, Absolute Destruction is a fascinating example of the usefulness of Organization Theory as an analytical approach within military history. It nicely balances empirical examples in the form of the case studies of German Southwest Africa and World War I with a theoretical analysis of German military culture. Several of the conclusions of its analysis provide valuable insight into organizations more widely (such as the effects of formative events and myth-making, coordination with higher level organizations, and how day-to-day practices become defining factors in higher level decision-making). An excellent read for anyone interested in understanding the underpinnings of World War I, how organizational culture can have extreme effects, or seeing how political and organizational structure can produce unexpected outcomes. 


Howdy, Everyone,

My name is Jeff Russell, and this blog is where I will be posting the supporting material for my Military History Ultralearning project. The majority of the content will be reviews of the books and articles I'm reading, which is a form of active recall that solidifies the contents in my head. Hopefully you'll find something useful out of them as well. Eventually it will also include links and show notes for podcasts where I discuss what I'm learning and what conclusions I'm drawing from my study of Military History.

As for myself, I graduated from the University of Texas with a Classics and Ancient History degree, joined the Army as an enlisted airborne infantryman for five years, and went to business school when I got out. These days, I help businesses design organizations and governance models to adapt to a changing digital environment. I'm applying my interests in organizational theory and culture to military history, and I'll share what I figure out here.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions or want to talk Military History.

Jeff Russell