Saturday, November 16, 2013

From the Annals of Administrative Train-wreckery: Just Sayin'

James Q. Wilson says:
Executives who want to influence policy but who define “policy” largely in terms of what outside constituencies want (or will not denounce) are in an awkward position—more awkward than they sometimes realize. To change their agency, these officials need to understand its workings, know its people, and appreciate its constraints. But the external, constituency-serving orientation of such executives, combined with their short tenure in office, reduce the time and energy they can devote to this learning process. As a result, the policy changes they make are likely to be ill-considered and inadequately managed.  Even the Social Security Administration, an agency with a tradition of strong and well-informed leaders, seriously underestimated the difficulty of implementing the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in the early 1970s. Top executives were busy assuring Congress and the White House that the SSA could do the job of identifying three million aged, blind, or disabled persons, verifying their eligibility for SSI benefits, and hiring fifteen thousand new employees to service these beneficiaries; meanwhile, the working-level managers were approaching a state of panic, for they knew that the agency was in deep trouble.  It could not possibly train the people and install the computer systems fast enough to meet the deadlines.  Martha Derthick concluded her study of this episode with language that could describe executive-agency relations in many bureaus: It is impossible not to be struck by the differences between the view from the top, reflected in the serene pride that valuable social ends are about to be served, and the mounting panic and frustration in the field offices as unreadiness for the concrete task becomes all too clear.
Wilson, James (1991-01-29). Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It (Basic Books Classics) (p. 206).  The Derthick reference goes to Martha Derthick, Agency Under Stress: The Social Security Administration and American Government (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, forthcoming), chap. 5.


Anonymous said...

The James Q. Wilson of "Super Predator" fame? MMMM? Should I care what he thinks or writes?

Buce said...

Sure you should care. An idea has a truth value independent of the person who believes it. A book full of interesting insights, and far less ideologically programmed than I might have guessed.