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date: 07 October 2022

Bureaucracy, the Bureaucratic Politics Model, and Decision Making During Crisislocked

Bureaucracy, the Bureaucratic Politics Model, and Decision Making During Crisislocked

  • Hayden J. SmithHayden J. SmithDepartment of Political Science and Public Affairs, Western Carolina University

Summary

To understand how policy is made, one must understand not only the individuals who make the decisions, but also the role of bureaucratic politics and the goals of the institutions themselves. Graham Allison’s classic Essence of Decision created the bureaucratic politics model and was the catalyst for a rich research agenda on decision-making. Using Allison as a starting point, researchers have expanded the understanding of the role of bureaucracies in deliberation and decision-making, particularly during times of crisis. Typically, institutions fill the day-to-day “politics as usual” role of decision-making, but their actions during crisis, by definition an abnormal event, allow bureaucracies to pursue their own objectives by way of a new opportunity to exert influence and to reshape the power structure of the political landscape.

The research agenda on individuals and decision-making has also made great strides since the 1970s and helps to illuminate when the bureaucratic politics model has great explanatory power and when it is less useful. The level of influence bureaucracies have is dependent upon where they sit within the system and how they are utilized by the executive branch of government. Leaders, such as the President of the United States, hold a significant amount of power, and the ways in which they hold onto power, or allocate it to other actors, which is a function of their leadership style, can either empower or disempower bureaucracies. In other words, the importance of bureaucracies connected to the executive branch of government fluctuates with an individual’s personality characteristics and leadership style. Specifically, a leader’s personal need for power, their expertise, and their personal interest in policymaking, as well as their cognitive complexity, the amount of differing information they want and are capable of cognitively processing, influence the way in which the leader will delegate decision-making. Leaders like Lyndon B. Johnson relied heavily upon expert advisers and allocated decision-making to lower-level agencies. Alternatively, some leaders (e.g., Richard Nixon) have experience, particularly in foreign policy, and believe they are their own expert adviser; thus, they are involved in nuanced decision-making and rely upon only a very small number of advisers (in Nixon’s case, just Henry Kissinger).

A common normative criticism of bureaucratic politics, and group decision-making in general, is the collective cognitive conformity, commonly known as groupthink. The general assumption is that individuals within a group will seek conformity and avoid the conflict caused by raising alternatives during policy deliberation. However, bureaucratic politics mitigates groupthink by bringing in a greater number of actors with differing goals and perspectives, making deliberation more open. Again, this is significantly influenced by how the leader utilizes advisers and their respective bureaucracies. Where Kennedy was very open-minded and actively sought various perspectives during the Cuban missile crisis, George W. Bush created an insulated decision-making environment after 9/11 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

As society continues to change, particularly with regard to reliance upon technological adaptations, such as nuclear energy, new crises will occur. These crises will require the cooperation of more bureaucracies and occasionally new bureaucracies. Through these crises, bureaucracies will compete for political influence, and the power structure of the political landscape will inevitably change and affect policy decision-making.

Subjects

  • Governance/Political Change
  • Political Institutions
  • Political Psychology

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