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Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

3.97  ·  Rating Details ·  302 Ratings  ·  25 Reviews
Bureaucracy is the classic study of the way American government agencies work and how they can be made to work better. Examining a wide range of bureaucracies, including the Army, the FBI, the FCC, and the Social Security Administration, James Q. Wilson provides the first comprehensive, in-depth analysis of what government agencies do, why they function as they do, and how ...more
Paperback, 464 pages
Published January 30th 1991 by Basic Books (first published 1989)
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Dolly
This is a very dense book, highly in need of a more recent revision. The narrative is difficult; I often felt like I was slogging through the text purely through determination rather than a sense of fulfillment or enjoyment.

Still, the book offers a very informative historical context of our government agencies and identifies several anecdotal instances of the best (and worst) practices of these agencies. Some of the examples were fascinating and I can see how strong leadership can play a large
...more
Miriam
Jun 03, 2016 Miriam rated it it was amazing
Who would ever have thought that a book about bureaucracy would be fascinating as well as enlightening? But it is. Wilson eschews easy answers and points out that the bureaucracy can not be described by a single model, but that there are four types of agencies each with their own missions. One problem is that those missions get multiplied by politicians trying to respond to constituents demands. Another is that they are constrained by paperwork that results from fears of corruption, cronyism, an ...more
Frank Stein
Jul 13, 2009 Frank Stein rated it it was amazing

The best book I have ever read about government.

It's a theory book, big-think style, but it's not grandiose and doesn't dwell on hypotheticals. James Q. Wilson, probably the most respected political scientist alive (and now I know why), merely decided to read every good study ever written about government agencies and then write a book on some of the generalizations that can be drawn from them. The generalizations are particular ones, insights about localized times and spaces, but they are worth
...more
Oz
Oct 14, 2012 Oz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quote from wikisum:

Three Main Constraints

Bureaucracies are subject to three main constraints; these constraints are the independent variables explaining why bureaucracies are inefficient. In particular:

Government agencies cannot lawfully retain and devote to the private benefit of their members the earnings of the organizations (so unlike McDonald's, there is no profit-maximization incentive);
Government agencies cannot allocate the factors of production in accordance with the preferences of the
...more
Marks54
Jul 18, 2012 Marks54 rated it really liked it
This presents a really perceptive analysis of how government agencies work. The author, who recently passed away, was a very influential scholar on public organizations -- especially police organizations (Varieties of Police Behavior). The perspective in this book combines a rational action perspective (managers make choices to pursue their interests, etc) using a perspective of traditional organizational sociology - what might be called contingency theory. The basic idea is that there are diffe ...more
Nate
Sep 03, 2013 Nate rated it really liked it
A thoughtful take on Bureaucracy. Notes:

Notes on James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy
“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.” p. 375
Preface to the New Edition
Bureaucrats have a variety of preferences, not just salary, rank, and power
Personal experiences w/ bureaucracy tend to be good, but citizens dislike in abstract
Part 1: Organizations
Chapter 1:
...more
Benjamin
Jun 08, 2014 Benjamin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent book, but it does get tedious.

One of its main theses is that American governmental bureaucracies could not be different than they are without fundamentally changing the entire political process or governmental structure. A free society based on the separation of powers results in a system in which people are empowered to organize and lean on the legislative branch, who then respond appropriately as they dictate the rules surrounding the executive branch's execution. The resu
...more
Jacob
Apr 20, 2013 Jacob rated it it was amazing
I found this book very interesting, though it's about a subject that would strike most as quite dry: administering government bureaucracies. Wilson has a firm grasp of the issues, writes clearly, and explains why things work the way they do, often producing undesirable results.

The book includes many examples and case studies, looking at the DMV, the army, public schools, prisons, the State Department, the Forest Service, the CIA, and many others. The examples are always apt and demonstrate the p
...more
Ari
Sep 24, 2013 Ari rated it it was amazing
I found the book wonderfully engaging and thought-provoking.
Despite the title, its focus is narrower than "bureaucracy in general." It's primarily about what US governmental bureaucracies, particularly Federal ones, do and do not do well, and why. Comparisons to foreign and private bureaucracies are primarily used to illuminate the core topic, not explored at length.

One insight that I haven't seen elsewhere but that I now think matters a lot is that the US is very unusual in having a separate
...more
Andrew Owens
Apr 18, 2012 Andrew Owens rated it it was amazing
This being a chestnut in administrative studies, there are plenty good, quick summaries that describe Wilson's main points (like this summary and this from a professor here in Richmond. The full book is still worth a read primarily because his overarching point--that government agencies have a series of unique characteristics--is best experienced
through the many stories Wilson recounts.

Most of the book is description - Wilson creates categories to describe and differentiate agencies. With those
...more
Ross Neely
Jun 20, 2014 Ross Neely rated it really liked it
Q Wilson explains the problems of bureaucracy well. Government agencies face many constraints. Managers spend a great deal of time managing the constraints as opposed to managing the agency.
Shadow
Oct 09, 2014 Shadow rated it liked it
If you are interested in understanding how the government agencies work, read this book. It is not easy to read, and it is boring. but the probably the best written book on bureaucracy.
Sean Hackbarth
Jan 19, 2016 Sean Hackbarth rated it really liked it
As good a place as any to grasp how American government bureaucracies work and why they often don't. It's a stunning piece of institutional analysis by James Q. Wilson.
Erica
Sep 04, 2012 Erica rated it it was ok
Shelves: grad-school
This book was full of examples as to why the government and its bureaucracy is (seemingly) inefficient. Wilson's argument is certainly still relevant today, but the material is quite dated (most examples from the 60s and 70s, as the book was originally published in 1989). My favorite example is that the Army Corp of Engineers is an elite agency. Maybe it still is, but after Katrina, at the least, it got a lot of bad press. I had to read this for school and there must be a more recent book out th ...more
Mills College Library
353.01 W7492 2000
Anna
Oct 24, 2007 Anna rated it really liked it
Shelves: poli-sci-for-fun
A functioning bureaucracy is key to a democratic society. This was not part of my courseload but it's such a classic I wanted to read it.
Plus I felt so innteljent afterwards.
Kelly (TheWellReadRedhead)
Had to read it for my public admin class. It was okay...not exactly thrilling stuff, but I like the fact that he relies heavily on examples.
Cameron
Mar 29, 2014 Cameron rated it really liked it
This book has a very boring name, but is actually quite good. Interesting perspectives on why the government ended up working this way.
Jesse Schexnayder
May 22, 2012 Jesse Schexnayder rated it really liked it
Both the pros and cons of bureaucracy are effectively presented, wrapped up in an equally effective explanatory backdrop.
Mike Henneberry
Nov 23, 2012 Mike Henneberry rated it really liked it
It's a very insightful read that works as a good substitute for an Org Theory class.
Jim
Jan 12, 2009 Jim rated it it was amazing
Yes, I'm a dork (and yes, Wilson is a conservative), but this was fun to read.
Addie
Sep 28, 2011 Addie rated it it was amazing
Read this in Batten School. Need to read again...great insight into bureaucracy
Joseph
Aug 04, 2012 Joseph rated it liked it
Good read for understanding how various government agencies really operate.
Brian
Jan 17, 2013 Brian rated it it was amazing
Every word of this book is true, every page illuminating.
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James Q. Wilson was one of the leading contemporary criminologists in the United States. Wilson, who has taught at several major universities during his academic career, has also written on economics and politics during his lengthy career. During the 1960s and 1970s, Wilson voiced concerns about trying to address the social causes of crime. He argued instead that public policy is most effective wh ...more
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