Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

By James Q. Wilson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3 Circumstances

TO A BUSINESS EXECUTIVE, the importance of tasks and mission is old hat. Figuring out how best to define tasks and motivate workers to perform those tasks is often described as creating the right organizational culture. The voluminous literature about effective firms repeatedly stresses these matters, urging business executives to emulate "the one hundred best firms" or "the Japanese" or "Theory Z" or whatever is currently the fashionable model of well-run enterprises. The literature on public administration, however, rarely mentions these matters. Save for a few celebrated exceptions, books on government agencies hardly refer to organizational culture at all. There will be chapters on structure, planning, decision making, and congressional oversight--all important matters, to be sure--but none on what the organization does or the problem of getting people to want to do it.

The omission of much discussion of tasks and incentives in these books may partly reflect the academic interests of their authors, but to a large degree it accurately captures the world of the government executive. In the United States, high-level government executives are preoccupied with maintaining their agencies in a complex, conflict-ridden, and unpredictable political environment, and middle-level government managers are immersed in the effort to cope with the myriad constraints that this environment has imposed on their agencies.

Government executives spend much more of their time and energy on handling, face to face, external constituencies than do business executives. One example: The chief executive officer of the New England Electric System (NEES), a firm with assets of nearly $4 billion, revenues of almost $1.5 billion per year, and a work force of over five thousand persons, meets with his board of directors for three or four hours about six times a year;

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