Title: Bureaucracy
Author(s): James Q. Wilson
Publisher: Basic Books
Pages: 433
Date: 1989

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Joined: 01/20/2010
What Institutions Do and Why They Do It

Public management is not an arena in which to find Big Answers; it is a world of settled institutions designed to allow imperfect people to use flawed procedures to cope with insoluble problems. James Q. Wilson (1989). Bureaucracy

At World Class R&D we are building an institution and hopefully love of institution in our investors. Wilson provides valuable insights in our construction of this institution to allow us to avoid common pitfalls further down the road. Peoples' actions and effectiveness are highly affected by the institutions within which they work and the better the design the better the outcomes.

Individuals working in large institutions take their cues from the oversight committees, from management, from the judiciary, from their professional affiliations and from each other. In organizations that are goal-absent or goal-conflicted (e.g., build that bridge quickly and inexpensively, but make sure you include minority contractors and have at least six bidders, each with rights of redress) workers often take their cues from whatever dominates the culture of their institution at the moment (e.g., strong management, adherence to professional norms - see note below). Financial and career incentives overwhelm most other considerations (e.g., personal political orientation, contempt for the agency mission) in the selection of these cues.

In goal-absent or goal-conflicted organizations rules tend to be selectively implemented and interpreted. The more the rules the more the ability to find one that suits a chosen course of action. Particularly, 'thou shalt not' rules intended to guarantee results often in fact guarantee frustration: central issues get lost in charges and counter charges about 'over-zealous' or 'craven' managers. Great individuals get the job done despite the rules. But these individuals are few and most instead hide behind the 'I followed the rules' excuse rather than having to explain to an often hostile audience why they thought their judgment was good when things go wrong.

New management will come with its own agenda and with an irresitible urge to imprint some identifiable aspect of their character on the institution, regardless the current success of the institition. This imprinting often comes in the form of wholesale replacement of workers in the institition with other like-minded (read loyal) subordinates.

The judicary will develop its own agenda. They are a key player in our Funding Agency+ and their incentives (monetary and reputational) require careful forethought. They often are the check on the actions of others, but who places a check on their actions?

For the Funding Agency we have clear goals. We will argue about the means toward those goals. Wilson provides many examples for why one set of means often gets chosen over another. Reasons for chosing one means over another often are result from the early design of the institution itself. Design the institution to be risk-adverse and you'll soon fill the ranks with tick-and-tie accountants.

Wilson discusses the importance of having a clearly articulated and simple vision or mission for an institution, and how this conflicts with very important activities that are subsidiary to but supportive of the mission. For example, we know end-game+ is important to the Funding Agency, but it will likely not be found in the mission statement. Wilson recommends partitioning off these important but subsidiary activities into separate organizations with their own missions and agendas.

Note: Wilson gives a nod to Rhoads’ spit between lawyers, engineers and economists, as three predominate worldviews each vying for control of an organization.