This post is part of a series where I quote and link to short descriptions of different social-science models and perspectives. The idea is to collect important models in easily accessible formats to help people aspiring to take a “many-model” approach to reasoning.
Bureaucratic politics / Where you stand depends on where you sit
Bureaucratic politics approach, theoretical approach to public policy that emphasizes internal bargaining within the state.
The bureaucratic politics approach argues that policy outcomes result from a game of bargaining among a small, highly placed group of governmental actors. These actors come to the game with varying preferences, abilities, and positions of power. Participants choose strategies and policy goals based on different ideas of what outcomes will best serve their organizational and personal interests. Bargaining then proceeds through a pluralist process of give-and-take that reflects the prevailing rules of the game as well as power relations among the participants. Because this process is neither dominated by one individual nor likely to privilege expert or rational decisions, it may result in suboptimal outcomes that fail to fulfill the objectives of any of the individual participants.
Most discussions of bureaucratic politics begin with Graham T. Allison’s 1969 article in The American Political Science Review, “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” although this work built on earlier writings by Charles Lindblom, Richard Neustadt, Samuel Huntington, and others…
Perhaps the most-abiding concept from the bureaucratic politics model, and the shorthand many have used to define it, is that actors will pursue policies that benefit the organizations they represent rather than national or collective interests. This idea, that “where you stand depends on where you sit,” is often called Miles’s law after the Truman-era bureaucrat who coined the phrase. A central and intuitively powerful claim of bureaucratic politics explanations, this premise has been criticized for its narrow view of preference formation. For example, critics note that it fails to explain the role of many important actors in the original bureaucratic politics case study of the Cuban missile crisis. Yet even the early bureaucratic politics theorists, including Allison, were explicit in acknowledging that other factors, such as personality, interpersonal relations, and access to information, also play important roles in the bureaucratic politics process. For these theorists, three key questions guide one’s understanding of the policy-making game: (1) Who are the actors? (2) What factors influence each actor’s position? and (3) How do actors’ positions come together to generate governmental policies?