Becoming Bureaucrats: Socialization at the Front Lines of Government Service

Becoming Bureaucrats: Socialization at the Front Lines of Government Service

Becoming Bureaucrats: Socialization at the Front Lines of Government Service

Becoming Bureaucrats: Socialization at the Front Lines of Government Service


Bureaucrats are important symbols of the governments that employ them. Contrary to popular stereotypes, they determine much about the way policy is ultimately enacted and experienced by citizens. While we know a great deal about bureaucrats and their actions, we know little about their development. Are particular types of people drawn to government work, or are government workers forged by the agencies they work in? Put simply, are bureaucrats born, or are they made?

In Becoming Bureaucrats, Zachary W. Oberfield traces the paths of two sets of public servants--police officers and welfare caseworkers--from their first day on the job through the end of their second year. Examining original data derived from surveys and in-depth interviews, along with ethnographic observations from the author's year of training and work as a welfare caseworker, Becoming Bureaucrats charts how public-sector entrants develop their bureaucratic identities, motivations, and attitudes. Ranging from individual stories to population-wide statistical analysis, Oberfield's study complicates the long-standing cliché that bureaucracies churn out bureaucrats with mechanical efficiency. He demonstrates that entrants' bureaucratic personalities evolved but remained strongly tied to the views, identities, and motives that they articulated at the outset of their service. As such, he argues that who bureaucrats become and, as a result, how bureaucracies function, depends strongly on patterns of self-selection and recruitment.

Becoming Bureaucrats not only enriches our theoretical understanding of bureaucratic behavior but also provides practical advice to elected officials and public managers on building responsive, accountable workforces.


Though it has more than four letters, “bureaucrat” is a bad word. It evokes Kafkaesque paperwork and government workers who are out of touch, rule- obsessed, and heartless. Despite the word’s cultural resonance, and its usefulness as a rhetorical device (Safire 1978), the myth bears little resemblance to reality: publicsector workers aren’t the alienated, rigid lot of our imagination. In fact, there is considerable variation in bureaucratic thought and behavior across governments and inside particular agencies (Brehm and Gates 1997; DeHart- Davis 2007; Goodsell 2004; O’Leary 2010). Some bureaucrats are unpleasant, rule- focused, and motivated by a pension; others are friendly, comfortable bending the rules, and driven by a strong sense of public service.

Despite a growing scholarly recognition that actual bureaucrats don’t resemble the bureaucrats of public imagination, we have little understanding about what explains this variation. In part this is because we know little about bureaucratic socialization—the process by which public- sector entrants develop the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to function as bureaucrats. To what extent do factors outside the organization shape who a bureaucrat becomes? To what extent does working in a bureaucracy cultivate particular tendencies?

Answering these questions is important because elected officials and public managers delegate responsibility to bureaucracies for implementing a wide range of services. In the abstract, this relationship is simple and evokes the efficiency of a vending machine: elected officials insert money and make selections, and bureaucrats do as they’re told (Kettl 2002). In reality, the process is exceedingly complicated (Bardach 1977; Pressman and Wildavsky 1984; Riccucci et al. 2004). One of the chief complications is that bureaucrats have considerable discretion (Lipsky 1980). Elected officials pass legislation, and public managers instruct workers about how to accomplish their goals. Nonetheless, it is bureaucrats who . . .

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