Fedblog FedblogFedblog
Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

A Scholar of the Bureaucracy Remembered


I was saddened today to learn of the death of James Q. Wilson, one of the leading political scientists of his generation and a key thinker about how government really works. I've returned to his book Bureaucracy (eloquently summarized by my erstwhile colleague and Fedblogger Alyssa Rosenberg here) many times over the years for insights about the machinery of government.

The book contains two of my favorite quotes. First is this, from the preface to a recent edition:

We have less confidence in government precisely because it is trying to do many things that cannot be done, by anyone, very well.

Then there's this, about a topic of great interest to the Obama administration these days -- reorganizing federal agencies:

Presidents have taken to reorganizations the way overweight people take to fad diets -- and with about the same results.

Wilson gained fame for his highly influential 1982 piece "Broken Windows" in our sister publication, The Atlantic, which posited that failing to stop small acts of criminal behavior in urban areas led to greater crimes. His work won him the respect and admiration of many conservatives.

But Wilson also acknowledged the power of government to effect change in society. Just last year, in a piece in The Wall Street Journal, he tried to come up with an explanation for why the crime rate didn't explode amidst the recent recession -- as experts predicted based on historical trends. His theory was that societal actions, many of them undertaken by government entities, combined to have a positive effect on crime. Some actions were direct, such as stepped-up law enforcement. Others were indirect and long-term. Environmental Protection Agency efforts since 1974 to keep lead out of gasoline and paint products, for example, may have resulted in reduced crime rates by curbing the aggressive behavior linked to lead exposure.

That's just one example of the kind of thinking embodied in Wilson's work that will be greatly missed.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.