Clarity or collaboration: Balancing competing aims in bureaucratic design

November 27, 2017

Download this Article (Journal of Theoretical Politics)


Following the Gulf oil spill and US housing meltdown, policy-makers revamped the associated administrative infrastructure in an effort to sharpen each agency’s focus, based on the perspective that asking an organization to fulfill competing missions undermines performance. Using a formal model, I demonstrate that priority goal ambiguity introduced when an agency balances multiple roles does have detrimental effects. Yet, assigning competing missions to one organization can be better than separating them, as the underlying tasks supporting the goals may require coordination. In fact, it is precisely when ambiguity becomes more debilitating that the importance of coordination intensifies. Moreover, if the bureau is misinformed about which goals are more valued politically, fostering uncertainty in agencies charged with multiple goals can even be beneficial. The article thus describes how such organizations function and why these arrangements persist, demonstrating that structural choices impact behavior even when agencies and overseers agree on policy objectives.