Sunday, November 03, 2013

Wilson on Bureaucracy:
A Belated Review

The big book I spoke of the other day--it's James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy which has been languishing unattended on myself for years, I now cannot imagine why.  It's a delight--not a grand theory but an almost illimitable number of individual anecdotes with instructive commentary.  I have only one disappointment which I will save for a moment.  First, let me see if I can lay out a few general assertions:

One, "bureaucracy" is not just about "government"  Private entities have bureaucracies just like the government. The difference is in the structure of incentives: Private entities--say, MacDonald's--can orchestrate pay and perks so as to get the most out of its people.  Government bureaucracies operate under the hawk eye of the legislature, often hampered by the  constraint of amorphous and conflicting demands, such as to make you think they are almost defined to fail.

But two, there are  bureaucracies and bureaucracies.   Some have well-defined and achievable missions.  Given good enough leadership, you can almost forget they are there.  Think the Social Security Administration.   Have you ever heard of them  mismailing a check?

And the institution may be the shadow of the man.  Gifford Pinchot at the Forest Service, J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI: love them or hate them, each  defined and instilled an institutional ethos so strong that it has long outlasted its creator.

There's a lot more good stuff here and I may come back and write about some particular topics later. But for the moment, let me go back and drill down on that  matter of "amorphous and conflicting demands."  Wilson argues that if the goals are uncertain, we may end up judging (in default of a good alternative) on procedures.  Thus he says:
Police administrators rarely lose their jobs because the crime rate has gone up or win promotions because it has gone down. They can easily lose their jobs if somebody persuasively argues that the police department has abused a citizen, beaten a prisoner, or failed to answer a call for service.  School administrators rarely lose their jobs when their pupils’ reading scores go down or win promotions when scores go up. But they can lose their jobs or suffer other career-impeding consequences if students are punished, controversial textbooks assigned, or parents treated impolitely. 
So James Q. Wilson Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It (Basic Books Classics) (pp. 132-133).  (Kindle ed.).

This is tempting but wait--is this really so?  And here I come to my one real difficulty with this book: it was published back in 1991.  The more fool I for not reading it at the time.  But a lot has changed since 1991, and speculate he might write it differently today.  How much differently?   I'm not at all sure, but my tentative guess is that cops are a lot more likely to get judged today on the crime write, just as teachers are more likely to get judged on student performance.  "More likely," I'd venture, at least in part because of what Wilson wrote.

Which brings me to my real beef: Wilson had the bad grace to die before he could do a second edition (in 2012, at 79).  How inconsiderate of him to leave us with the the mere abundance of his original insights, unequipped by whatever second thoughts or revisions might have come to him in the busy decades after his first publication.


The New York Crank said...
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The New York Crank said...

Sorry, the last post was infiltrated by the Typo Gremlin to a point beyond repair. Let me start again.

Bureaucracies rarely change in significant ways even when they "change." If anything, improvements make them a bit more bureaucratic, perhaps to the point of brutality.

Dig around old podcasts for the radio show "This American Life" and you'll come across the case of a police officer who was ruined because he taped his bureaucratic superiors fulfilling the wishes of their bureaucratic superiors to make lowly officers stop and frisk more people.

This was part of a "continuous improvement" process to reduce crime by increasing the number of stop-and-frisks every year. The theory (unproven) is that the more people you really and truly piss off by stopping and frisking for just about any reason, the lower the crime rate will go.

The police officer, evidently uncharacteristically blessed by some empathy for the people he was annoying and harassing,finally balked. He was warned that his career would not go well if he kept on balking.

Eventually, he began recording the orders of the bureaucrats above him. For this, his superiors tried to get him committed to a mental hospital. Kafka would feel right at home in this story.

And yet the bureaucracy was anything but moribund. It had achieved its goals by doing what it had been doing, and now wanted even more citizen harassment, in much the same way that the Supreme Court, which favors free speech, wants even more speech, even if more speech drowns out the speech of less well-heeled speakers.

The answer to bureaucracy is not private enterprise. It is smallness. Smash everything into little pieces. Banks were better when each bank could only do business in one state, and could do either transactional banking or investment banking, but not both. Ad agencies were better places to work in, and their work was better, when they were small and recently sprung from the brow of an entrepreneurial adman then they are today, as vast, interchangeale pieces of conglomerates.

A sole exception is national government, which needs to be big, even if unwieldy, to do what it does. Conduct a war. Collected ample and expectable sums for the elderly and infirm. Preserve great forests. And so on.

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank