Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

By James Q. Wilson | Go to book overview

free to decide whether their children go to school at all). Beyond such minimal requirements, however, it is not clear that the values currently taught in public schools (which hardly are neutral) always ought to be preferred to those that many parents hold dear.

We do not know the effect, on values, educational attainment, or operating efficiencies, of a true market in publicly-supported education in which there are strong incentives for parents to make choices and strong incentives for schools to adapt to those choices. We do know that many organizations speaking for public-school teachers and administrators are determined that we not find out.55 As with all other kinds of market alternatives to bureaucratic management, only carefully done experiments will tell us what we need to know.


Conclusions

There are two fundamentally different ways of improving the delivery of a public service: rules and contracts. Rules pervade governmental agencies because the institutions constraining those agencies--courts, legislatures, executive staffs--usually find the formulation and imposition of a rule to be more rewarding. A rule can be drafted that describes a grievance, and thus it appears to be immediately responsive to the person or group bringing the grievance. Rules often need not be reconciled with one another, and therefore the political institutions employing them do not have to make painful choices among competing goals. Rule-imposing bodies do not routinely monitor the output of agencies or bear any of the costs of managing highly constrained organizations and so they need not solve problems of feasibility. Rules tend to heighten the (formal) authority of executives and managers and as a consequence these people often find them attractive.

Contracts--that is to say, agreements about the terms of an exchange-- are less attractive to governments. A contract, unlike a set of rules, does not specify every procedure to be undertaken. The agreement may specify the desired outcome (the desk or truck being purchased), leaving the procedures employed to the discretion of the contractor, or it may specify the service to be rendered (streets to be patrolled, instruction to be provided), leaving the outcomes undetermined. The uncertainty inherent in contracting is unattractive to political actors who wish to see their interests--all of them--fully protected. A contract, being an agreement about an exchange, must reconcile at least certain major tradeoffs, between cost and quantity, for example, or between time and money. The contracting parties must bear the full cost of the agreement: The purchaser must pay for the good or service and the supplier must absorb the costs of supplying

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