Bureau 'Life Cycle' and Budget 'Muddling'

David Wiles, Eaps 760


To understand the literature on modern educational management you must appreciate the meaning of bureaucracy. From post World War II into the 1960's, the bureaucracy was instrumental in framing discussions of "decision behaviors" and "social sys tems." Baseline sources that all Eaps 760 students should be familiar with before taking comprehensives are James March and Herbert Simon, Organizations (1958), Richard Cyert and James March, The Behavorial Theory of the Firm (1963), Peter Blau, The Life of the Bureaucracy (1963), Peter Drucker Management, Harvey Mintzberg The Nature of Managerial Work (1973) and, of course, Anthony Downs and Charles Lindblom. In each source, the ideas of working within complex instit utional arrangements and making decisions based upon "instrumental rationality" calculations are emphasized. Such arguments about organizational complexity underpin Graham Allison's argument (in Shafritz and Hyde) about the distinctions between public a nd private sector institutions.

One criticism of the literature on bureaucracy is the "snapshot" or cross-sectional picture of operations. Anthony Downs, Inside Bureaucracy, (1957) presents an evolutionary or longitudinal premise by tracing the political "life" of a b ureau over time. Using the analogy to a human life line, the birth or start up of a department within a bureaucracy is a fragile time. Downs emphasized the Darwinian-like patterns of competition for scarce resources that threaten the early existence. Over time, the bureau that survives early threats will grow in strength and political maturity. It will form alliances for mutual survival regardless of the institutional stipulations of purpose or function. The type of people that inhabit a bureau in t he early stages of its evolution are far different from the ones who work in more mature and established bureaus. Finally, Downs asserts that no bureau will voluntarily terminate itself. To survive a bureau will transform itself from its original intent or organizational history.

Charles Lindblom's famous 1959 article on "muddling through" is another perspective on organizational complexity. The bureaucracy is less understood by formal structures or stipulations of functions and more by assessing the allocation p attern of the yearly budget. This is a somewhat different slant on the "life cycle" of a bureaucracy, although the basic premise of perpetuating the precedent remains. Lindblom argued that, once an organization's core allocation pattern was established, securing and retaining the stability of resources became the predominant decision value. Decisions are made in increments, branching from the existing core allocation. This results in the bureaucracy "muddling along" on an annual budget cycle.

The perceptions of Downs and Lindblom fit well with the argument of Pressman and Wildavsky about bureaucratic implementation. Again, the very complexity of the organization creates its own rules for operation. Pressman and Wildavsky n ote that the intentions of policy makers may bear little resemblence to the discussions about implementing the same policy and that the "impact" of actual policy on people to be served may be coincidential or unrelated.

The arguments about complex bureaucracy also fit with the "social systems" premises of Katz and Kahn. The equilibrium of external stresses and internal adaptations create a "balanced" system. The purposiveness of the system depends upon the relative relationship of the input to output equation. An equal balance resembles a "person standing still" or "static" organization while an imbalance (not too much of an imbalance) can resemble a "person jogging forward" or "directional" system. Al though management is related to the control features of equilbrium (e.g. the "thermostat" as mechanical, the "broker" as dynamic) the life cycle of growing maturity in the Downs bureau and the incremental investment of Lindblom's annual resource securing cycle are features of thinking bureaucracies as the complex social system.

Readings and Sources

  • Todd LaPorte(ed), Organized Social Complexity (1978);
  • James Miller, Living Systems (1980).