All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1991

Book Review: Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It by James Q. Wilson


Basic Books, 10 E. 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022 • 1990 433 pages • $24.95 cloth

All bureaucracies are not created equal. If nothing else, James Q. Wilson’s massive book teaches that the ways of constructing and running a bureaucracy are almost as numerous as bureaucrats themselves. To that end, Wilson goes into a great amount of detail about how such agencies work or, more often, fail to work, and the wealth of concrete examples he has gleaned from other sources make up the most interesting portions of the book.

To show how various bureaucracies function, Wilson divides the book into six large sections (Organizations, Operators, Managers, Executives, Context, and Change) that are subdivided into chapters (“Culture,” “Turf,” etc.). Thus arranged, Wilson starts at the bottom of the structure (the people working in a bureaucracy, their beliefs, whose interests the agency serves, the circumstances they work under, and so on) and works his way to the top (Congress, the courts, and the President). At each level he deals with the problems such agencies face in pursuing their goals.

One thing Wilson stresses is that, unlike private enterprises, government agencies are not driven by goals but by constraints. Bemuse bureaucracies aren’t rewarded with profits when they do something right, avoiding doing something wrong (by “following the rules”) becomes far more important than achieving results.

Thus, government agencies often work inefficiently at moving toward what we perceive to be their objective because the constraints of public policy almost invariably give them not one but several statutory objectives to pursue at the same time. We may see an Army procurement official’s duty as to obtain the best weapons for our troops, but that same official is also required by law to “support small [and minority-owned] businesses •.. buy American-made products . . . rehabilitate prisoners, provide employment for the handicapped, protect the environment, and maintain ‘prevailing’ wage rates.”

Still another problem most bureaucrats face is that they serve many masters. Congress may desire one course of action, the President another, and the courts may decree still a third. In such an atmosphere, it is no surprise that agency executives must not only try to sort out conflicting orders and goals, but also fight to maintain the funding, power, and autonomy of their agency. As Wilson notes, “the real work of the government executive /s to curry favor and placate critics.”

All these problems and constraints lead to organizations that are manifestly inefficient compared with their private-sector counterparts. Absent any signs from the marketplace that its methods aren’t working, a government agency might persist in pursuing an unsuccessful strategy for years. As Wilson notes, “the Ford Motor Company should not have made the Edsel, but if the government had owned Ford it would still be making Edsels.”

In such an atmosphere, it isn’t surprising that scandal and waste are common. Indeed, given the many constraints on their behavior, it’s a wonder that bureaucracies get anything done at all. Yet Wilson cites again and again how effective leadership and strong motivation have made certain agencies (the Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the FBI) far more effective than others. Still, innovation in this arena is rare, and Wilson observes that, for good or ill, it would be almost impossible to create such elite agencies today given the current set of political restraints.

As for solutions to the bureaucratic morass, Wilson has two: privatize as much of the work as possible, and “deregulate the bureaucracy.” The first proposal won’t be new to advocates of the free market. Study after study has shown that private firms are far more efficient and cost effective at supplying goods and services than government agencies, and Wilson suggests several areas where privatization might be carried forward.

However, when it comes to those agencies that largely can’t be privatized because of their verynature (armies, police forces, and so on), Wilson’s suggestion that we deregulate the bureaucracy might be somewhat surprising. Yet his arguments make a great deal of sense. If we look upon these remaining government agencies as a necessary evil, then in most cases the taxpayer would be better off if the agencies ran efficiently, and Wilson makes a strong case for eliminating the many rules that threaten to drown government employees in a sea of paperwork. He provides several general guidelines (eliminate all but essential restraints, judge an organization by its results, and so on) that could help make remaining government agencies more effective.

Bureaucracy, as befits its subject matter, is a deep and detailed book, and one probably not suited for the reader with only a casual interest in the subject. However, those who want to know the details of how bureaucracy actually works will find it informative and rewarding; as a practical manual on making the system work from the inside it is second only to Rector and Sanera’s Steering the Elephant.

Lawrence Person is a writer and editor in Vienna, Virginia.