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Moe: The politics of bureaucratic structure

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Moe. 1989. The politics of bureaucratic structure. In Chubb and Peterson.

Main Point

"American public bureaucracy is not designed to be effective." (267) Bureaucracies are defined by the political situation that determines their structural design. "Structural politics is interest group politics." (269)

Part I: The Politics of Structural Choice (Who influences the bureaucracy's institutional design?)

Interest Groups and Structural Choice

"If one seeks to understand why structural choices turn out as they do . . . it does not make much sense to start with politicians. The more fundamental questions have to do with how interest groups decide what kinds of structures they want politicians to provide." (269)

Technical Problems Faced by Interest Groups (during structural choice)

An interest group, in a 'perfect' world, would "impose a set of rules to constrain bureaucratic behavior." (271) But, because of asymmetric information, control is imperfect. The solution is twofold:

  1. They seek the right 'kind' of bureaucrat. This is associated with professionalism, which implies predictable behavior.
  2. They try to design "a structure that affords them reasonable autonomy." (273)
Political Problems Faced by Interest Groups (during structural choice)

Because interest groups are not politically all-powerful, they face two problems:

  1. Political uncertainty, which "is inherent in democratic government." (273) In order to protect their bureaucratic agents, they can employ the following structural means:
    • "It can write detailed legislation that imposes rigid constraints on the agency's mandate and decision procedures."
    • "It can place even greater emphasis on professionalism...since professionals will generally act to protect their own autonomy and resist political interference... And it can try to minimize the power and number of political appointees."
    • "It can oppose formal provisions that enhance political oversight and involvement."
    • "It can see that the agency is given a safe location in the scheme of government."
    • "It can favor judicialization of agency decisionmaking as a way of insulating policy choices from outside interference."
    • As a result, "the driving force of political uncertainty, then, cause the winning group to favor structural designs it would never favor on technical grounds alone." (275-276)
  2. Political compromise: because the opposition also participates in the decision-making, they too make demands on the structure. They favor:
    • "Opponents want structures that work against effective performance."
    • "They want structures that allow politicians to get at the agency."
    • "They want appointment and personnel arrangements that allow for political direction of the agency."
    • "The favor agency decisionmaking procedures that allow them to participate, to present evidence and arguments, to appeal adverse agency decisions, to delay, and, in general, to protect their own interests and inhibit effective agency action through formal, legally sanctioned rules."
    • "They want agency decisions to be accompanied by, and partially justified in terms of, 'objective' assessments of their consequences." (276)
    • Consequently, "opposition groups are dedicated to crippling the bureaucracy..." (276)

The result is that these two groups force "the structure of public bureaucracy to depart from technical rationality."

Legislators and Structural Choice

The attractiveness of control is diluted by three factors:

  1. "The winning group ... will pressure to have its victories removed from political influence."
  2. "The capacity for control can be a curse for legislators in later conflict, since both sides will descend on them repeatedly."
  3. "Oversight for purposes of serious policy control is time-consuming, costly, and difficult to do well; legislators typically have much more productive ways to spend their scarce resources." (278)

"The result is that legislators tend not to invest in general policy control... they value 'particularized control.'" (278) "Legislators... can be expected either to respond to group demands in structural politics or to take entrepreneurial action in trying to please them. They will not be given to flights of autonomous action or statesmanship." (279)

Presidents and Structural Choice

The President is expected to govern effectively, and the President answers to history. (279) This poses two problems for interest groups:

  1. Presidents tend not to be "susceptible to the appeals of special interests."
  2. "Presidents want to control the bureaucracy."

"Their ideal is a rational, coherent, centrally directed bureaucracy that strongly resembles popular textbook notions of what an effective bureaucracy, public or private, ought to look like." (280)

Legislators, Presidents, and Interest Groups


"The result is that each agency cannot help but begin life as a unique structural reflection of its own politics... Agency bureaucrats are now political actors." (282) Careerists are "pure bureaucrats" with unique interests. They too seek to reduce their political uncertainty:

Structural Choice as a Perpetual Process

Three basic forces supply the dynamics of structural choice:

  1. "Group opponents will constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to impose structures of their own that will inhibit the agency's performance and open it up to external control."
  2. "The winning group must constantly be ready to defend its agency from attack."
  3. "The president will try to ensure that agency behavior is consistent with broader presidential priorities." (285)

"However, the choices about structure that are made in the first period, when the agency is designed and empowered with a mandate, are normally far more enduring, and consequential than those that will be made later." (285)

Part II: Self-Interest and the New Social Regulation

"The 'innovative' bureaucratic designs of the new social regulation are due not to some abstract theory of good government, but to changes in the distribution of political power that have thrust new players and interests into prominent roles in the the [sic] politics of structural choice." (289) Three agencies that reflect the inherent inefficiency of American public bureaucracies:

  1. The CPSC, "at its birth and throughout its life... was a structural reflection of competitive politics. Structure was not a means to effective pursuit of the symbolic mandate. It was a means of political attack and defense." (297)
  2. The "OSHA was burdened at the outset with awkward agency-forcing mechanisms impose by labor in response to political uncertainty, as well as by an ingeniously fragmented set of bureaucratic arrangements imposed by business through political compromise." (305)
  3. "The EPA has grown into a confounding mixture of congressional and presidential bureaucracy... The resulting set of arrangements conforms to no one's idea of what an effective bureaucracy ought to look like... The EPA is a creature of politics and in politics, organizations are not designed to be effective." (322-323)


Three major reasons "why public bureaucracy cannot be organized for effective performance":

  1. Because of political uncertainty, "even the group that successfully pressures for the creation of a public agency... will not demand an effectively designed organization."
  2. "The winning group must usually compromise with the losing group when structural choices are being made... the losing group is dedicated to crippling the agency in whatever ways it can."
  3. "Presidents have the power and incentive to impose their own layer of structure on top of the one that the legislative process has already provided." (325-326)

"The problem is inherent in our democratic system as a whole, and it is our basic framework of political institutions, not the bureaucracy, that must be reformed if solutions are ever to be found... The bureaucracy itself is not the problem." (329)

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Moe, Terry (author)American PoliticsInstitutionsOrigins of InstitutionsBureaucracyPrincipal-Agent

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