Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

By James Q. Wilson | Go to book overview

of these two strategies, but the operators--the street agents--have tended to define their jobs as one of making undercover buys and lower-level busts. The reason for their resistance to defining their jobs as intelligence gatherers and document readers is that the culture of the street agent rewards officers who are skilled at making buys and busts. As one administrator put it, they feel that "there is something wrong with a guy who will pass up the buy tonight."38 Undercover work is dangerous and requires strong nerves and considerable skill. To sustain themselves in these tasks, the agents depend on the respect of their fellow agents. But that respect comes in time to form a set of expectations that resists change, and so it is no easy matter to convert street agents into document readers.

That peer groups affect task performance will hardly be news to anyone familiar with the classic studies done at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company. There, as every student of organization knows, men who wired together the electrical connections in telephone equipment restricted their output to conform to a group norm, thereby producing less than the amount of work that would have maximized their wages.39 To a degree, peer rewards were sufficiently important to offset money rewards.

I am making a somewhat different point: Peer expectations not only affect how hard people work at their jobs, they can affect what they decide the job is. Soldiers will stand and fight rather than cut and run (here peer expectations induce rather than limit performance); miners will dig in dangerous--but not too dangerous--places; narcotics agents will buy and bust rather than watch and wait; police officers will decide when and how to use force and make arrests.


Conclusions

Given these great differences in how the work of government agencies actually gets defined, it is foolish to speak about bureaucracy as if it were a single phenomenon. When tasks can be inferred freely and unambiguously from the stated goals of a government agency, they can be defined by the agency's executive and, given proper leadership, can become the basis of a strong organizational culture. The Social Security Administration is an example. When goals are relatively unambiguous but the agency lacks the political freedom to convert those goals into tasks, the formation of a suitable culture becomes much harder. The Post Office was an example. When the goals are too vague or ambiguous to permit them to become a ready basis of task definition, the tasks often will be shaped not by executive preferences but by the incentives valued by the operators. This is especially true in government, where the need to acquire and

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