Review (Guest): Bureaucracy–What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It

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James Wilson (Author)

43 of 46 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive Guide To Government Bureaucracy, January 1, 2002
By Tansu Demir (Springfield, IL) – See all my review

This book is really a “comprehensive” (in the literal meaning of the word), clearly written, richly supported by concrete cases (mostly, federal agencies) guide about government bureaucracy mainly in the United States. From introduction to the end, Wilson clearly and convincingly demonstrates the reasons what the government agencies do and why they do that in the way they do.

The book is organized into six parts: Organizations, Operators, Managers, Executives, Context, and Change. In the first part, Wilson's thesis is simply that organization matters. Organization must be in accordance with the objectives of the agency. In the second part, the author examines the operators' behavior (say, street-level bureaucrats) and how their culture is shaped by the imperatives of the situation they encounter in a daily basis. The third part deals with the issues peculiar to managers of public agencies. In this part, attention is focused upon the constraints that put the mangers in a stalemate (see chapter 7, this chapter is completely insightful!!). The fourth part is devoted to the Executives. This part clearly illustrates why the executives of government agencies compete with other departments and which strategies are used in the process of competition and/or cooperation (especially see the 10th chapter about Turf, insightful!!). In the fifth part, Wilson focuses on the context in which public agencies do their business (Congress, Presidents and Courts). In the last part, Wilson summarizes the problems and examines alternative solutions (the market alternatives to the bureaucracy) and concludes with reasonable and “little” propositions.

In the book, I found especially some points very insightful to me. One of them is concerned with the distinction between government agencies. According to the typology Wilson forms the government agencies are classified into four groups. That is, production organizations, procedural organizations, craft organizations, and coping organizations. This distinction is chiefly based upon the visibility/measurability of the organizations' outputs and procedures. In this logic, the “production organization” is defined as having both measurable processes and visible/understandable outputs (i.e., Social Security Administration). “Procedural organizations” perform measurable processes, but they have no visible or easily measurable outputs. The “craft organization” is characterized by having immeasurable processes and visible outputs (i.e., the armies). However, the “coping organization” has neither measurable/controllable processes nor visible outputs (i.e., the Police Department, the Department of Education). This taxonomy is put forward and used in the rest of the book as one of the main determinants of the problems (and also successes) in the public sector.

The second important and insightful point made by Wilson is concerned with the efficiency in the public sector. To Wilson, measuring efficiency is a difficult project in the public sector. Wilson approaches the efficiency from a different perspective that we are not so accustomed. His question is that if the efficiency is the ratio of input to the output, what are the outputs of the public agencies and can those outputs be measured/quantified? “Contextual goals” sought by public organizations in addition to their main objectives make the efficiency measurement problem more complex and elusive. If contextual goals are taken into consideration the efficiency of the public organization incredibly increases.

The third important point is concerned with the organization mission. Wilson sees organizational mission in the public sector radically different from how we learned it in the organization theory courses. To Wilson, organization mission is same with the public agency's culture if the culture is widely and heartily shared by the most of the organization's members. To connect organizational mission to the organization culture provides the author with another insight that in public sector, the culture of public agencies defines their mission (not congressional mandates or paper enactments!!). Culture is formed mainly according to the situational mandates of the work being done (and also many other factors such as leadership). That is, in addition to the “organization”, also the “situation” matters.

Wilson does not neglect to touch another (susceptible) problem in the public sector: “red tape”. To the author, the main reason behind the red tape can be explained with the fact that since there are high risks at stake when the rules are violated there is a “tendency” to multiply the rules, as (big or small) scandals occur, so as to impede the future scandals and violations that consume the trust capital generously in the eye of the common citizens.

Wilson also asks the question why public agencies are not given specific and well-defined goals. The reply to this question is “multiplication of interests”. According to Wilson, as time pass, different interests find a place in the mission of the organization and accordingly new goals (for new interests [supported by politicians] to be satisfied by the agency) are added to the “objectives” list of the agency (mostly, contradictory to each other). You can discern this dynamic by comparing the total page number of the some enactments today in enforcement with the original page number when the enactment was first adopted (maybe ten years ago).

Having reviewed the government bureaucracy comprehensively, Wilson develops some “little” reform propositions. Wilson believes that if a reform is to be successful, it must take into account the situational imperatives of the public sector organizations, and the “reward systems” must be suitable to the output expected (this point can be summarized with the motto that DON'T REWARD THAT YOU DON'T WANT TO SEE).

Once you have finished the book will you likely to ask this question: Is really “bureaucracy” not a simple phenomenon? It has always been difficult to summarize the “great books”, and this book is one of them. This book must be read in its entirety. Highly recommended.

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