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.