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On the Uniqueness of Public Bureaucracies
Hal G. Rainey
One of the most important issues for contemporary social theory and institutional design is concerned with the relative virtues of governmentally controlled decision and allocation processes as compared with more decentralized processes.1 A major question within this broad issue is whether organizations under a high degree of governmental direction differ from those under less governmental direction. I shall review here a set of books and articles that assert that they do differ and shall summarize a growing body of pertinent research. Although the assertion that public and private organizations differ is a venerable one, the sizable literature on the subject in the United States has usually treated the assertion implicitly rather than explicitly. Toward the end of the 1970s, however, a number of authors from diverse backgrounds began calling for more direct attention to analysis of the supposed distinctiveness of public organizations. Many of these authors, who apparently were often unaware of each other's work, also argued that concepts and techniques from generic organizational theory should be applied to the analysis of governmental bureaucracies.
These authors generally agreed that a literature in political science and economics offered elaborate depictions of public bureaucracies, but the literature placed primary emphasis on the bureaucracies' role in external political processes and relied mainly on descriptive case studies and anecdotes. Frequently espousing the methodological approaches predominant in generic organizational theory during the 1960s and the 1970s, these scholars differed from the organizational theorists by asserting that public agencies possess certain unique attributes arising mainly from the absence of economic markets for their outputs and from their political accountability. These assertions, which have important implications for both theory and institutional design, require...
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