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Wilson: Bureaucracy

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.

Wilson. 1989. Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it.

In Brief

As the title says, Wilson seeks to explain what government agencies (bureaucracies) do and why they do it. More specifically, he seeks to explain why bureaucracies are inefficient--that is, why there is always a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but never at McDonald's. He attributes this inefficiency to bureaucratic rules and procedures, including norms, rules, incentives, goals, context, constraints, culture, and values.

Main Argument

The popular complaint is that bureaucracies behave as they do because they are run by unqualified "bureaucrats" and are enmeshed in "rules" and "red tape", but the scientific answer involves more analysis. To explain why government agencies behave as they do, it is crucial to recognize that they are government bureaucracies, not independent businesses, which gives them a completely different set of incentives (p. 115).

Three Main Constraints

Bureaucracies are subject to three main constraints; these constraints are the independent variables explaining why bureaucracies are inefficient. In particular:

  1. Government agencies cannot lawfully retain and devote to the private benefit of their members the earnings of the organizations (so unlike McDonald's, there is no profit-maximization incentive);
  2. Government agencies cannot allocate the factors of production in accordance with the preferences of the organization's administrators (so unlike McDonald's, we cannot necessarily move people and equipment to where it is most needed);
  3. Government agencies must serve goals not of the organization's own choosing.

Related to these constraints are a few other factors affecting bureaucratic behavior:

  1. Bureaucrats do not (legally) profit from their positions. Normal businesses try to limit expenditures and raise revenues to generate profits, but bureaucrats have no such incentive.
  2. Official routines are characterized by excessive complexity.
  3. The specific, clear and unquestionable goals imposed on bureaucrats create an aversion to take risks. After all, the cost to a bureaucrat of ignoring these goals could be very high. But normal businesses thrive by taking risks.

Effects of these Constraints

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Wilson, James (author)Comparative PoliticsBureaucracy

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