Drawing Inspiration from James Q. Wilson’s “Bureaucracy”

Few have had as much influence on my development as a researcher as Professor Wilson.
July 20, 2012

Originally published by The Regulatory Review (theregreview.org)

Although one of my advisors is, I am not a student of James Q. Wilson in the sense of having had the opportunity to take a class from him. Nor have I had the privilege of meeting him or even the good fortune of hearing him speak. As a result, it may seem odd that I am writing this reflection. What can I say that can even begin to convey Professor Wilson’s influence as a scholar of bureaucratic politics and public administration?

Yet, it is precisely because of the fact that I have not been a student of Professor Wilson’s that I believe my thoughts can help illustrate the importance of his contribution to the study of government agencies. His impact on my research has been deep and far-reaching. In addition to citing to his influential book Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It throughout my dissertation, it is this work which more than any other kindled my excitement about and shaped my desire to study government agencies. It is Bureaucracy which demonstrated to me that careful analysis of regulatory agencies requires considering both the operational and organizational factors as well as the external political and environmental forces that shape agency behavior. Further, it is this book which helped convince me that statistical and formal mathematical models, although certainly valuable, are not the only mechanisms for understanding government administration specifically and approaching research more generally. Aside from my advisors at Harvard and Penn, I can think of few others who have had as much influence on my development as a researcher as Professor Wilson—and I never even had the opportunity to meet him.

Interestingly, Bureaucracy is perhaps the antithesis of what I have been taught through my doctoral studies constitutes good social science research. It reports no formal model and no original quantitative analysis. In its roughly 400 pages, there is not even a single chart. Professor Wilson makes no claim to a coherent theory nor as he suggests “is [the book] very practical.” From a particular perspective the volume seems to be nothing more than a detailed literature review. In fact, Professor Wilson suggests as much. He tells us, “Students of public administration have produced detailed studies of countless government agencies…But not many people are going to sit down and read them all. I have tried to. This book summarizes what I found.”

Still, for its unconventional approach—at least to a recent graduate of a Ph.D. program in public policy—the volume provides an outstanding model for presenting research. Even over 20 years after its publication, to say it is a comprehensive treatment of U.S. federal agencies seems woefully inadequate. I am fairly convinced that just about any topic even loosely related to the operations, organization, or performance of such agencies can be found somewhere in the pages of Bureaucracy. However, Bureaucracy has become a classic of public administration and bureaucratic politics not merely because it provides an amazing compilation of stories about and insights into the behavior of government agencies. Rather, it is the way that Professor Wilson presents the evidence and illustrates his points that, in my view, elevates the book to its pedestal as a timeless contribution to the field of political science. He writes using such an accessible style that the volume at points reads like a novel while not in any way compromising the necessary nuance that his insights require. He weaves existing scholarship into the context of his theories such that instead of a distraction, his examples—most of which are pulled from other academic studies—clarify and energize his points effortlessly.  In sum, it is everything that most literature reviews (and some social science articles more generally) are not: engaging, coherent, and illuminating.

I first read Bureaucracy on the beach during the summer after my second year as a doctoral student. Although I was already interested in studying regulation, I was reasonably sure at the time that I would approach the topic from the perspective of regulated businesses, given my background as a manager at various business firms prior to enrolling for my doctoral studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. With its collection of disjointed themes and inherently dry topical focus coupled with my vacation-induced shortened attention span, in retrospect, I now realize that this could have easily been one of those books that I merely held in my hand briefly prior to setting it aside for good. Rather, what I found was a fascinating and rich set of stories and insights so expertly tied together that it inspired me to want to launch an academic career focused on explaining the behavior and helping to find ways to improve the performance of the regulatory agencies instead. In encouraging my transformation, Professor Wilson’s Bureaucracy, which I have gone on to read time and again, serves as a reminder that in addition to good ideas and analysis, good writing is still important to producing truly stimulating, significant, and lasting research.