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Economizing Attention: Bureaucracy and Bottom-up Signaling in the Administrative State
Unformatted Document Text:  dynamics of signaling by the federal bureaucracy? These questions are not only of theoretical significance,but also of real-world policy significance as the entry and exit of substantive issues onto or off-of thegovernmental agenda represents real consequences for policymakers, political coalitions, and the publicwrit large. Theoretical Foundations Beginning with Wilson’s (1887) discussion of the politics-administration dichotomy, the influence ofbureaucracy on the policy process and the questions for democratic governance raised by this influencehas been one of the central concerns of scholarship on the role of public administration in democracies.More recent work in American politics and public policy has posited various sources of this influenceand political reaction. Work on the sources of bureaucratic power point toward expertise, agenda control,and reputation among issue networks as key to bureaucratic autonomy (Kaufman 1960, Niskanen 1971,Carpenter 2001). As a consequence, the political control research associated with rational choice andprincipal-agent models concerns how political institutions design incentive structures such that control offederal agencies is attained and democratic accountability secured (McCubbins 1985, Moe 1985, Gormley1989, Wood & Waterman 1994, Huber, Shipan & Pfahler 2001). 4 In a separate research tradition, scholars working with bounded rational models of human decision making have reached different conclusions about the nature of bureaucratic behavior and influence on thepolicy process (Simon 1947, Lindblom 1959, March & Simon 1958, Wildavsky 1964, Lipsky 1980, March& Olsen 1989, Wilson 1989, Jones 2001). 5 Collectively, these works take a more benign view of bureau- cratic influence and point to the difficulty of decision making in complex policy environments, underindividual cognitive limitations, and public settings where bureaucrats are governed by considerationsother than consequences (i.e. ”appropriateness,” tasks, or rule-bound behavior). Taken together, theseseparate literatures suggest that understanding signaling and influence in the political-administrative sys-tem requires recognition that the information carried in policy agendas flows upward in the system viabureaucratic signaling and agenda setting activities, while authoritative political decisions and influenceflow downward, defining the contours of future bureaucratic signaling. Information Processing in the Administrative State The argument developed in this paper builds from insights in the policy processes literature emphasizingthe role of shifting attention in explaining agenda change (Baumgartner & Jones 1993, Jones 1994, Jones& Baumgartner 2005) and signaling models of inter-institutional relationships (Carpenter 1996, Epstein& O’Halloran 1999), to develop a theory for understanding the influence of bureaucratic signaling onagenda change. I develop an information processing theory that recognizes two fundamental properties of the political-administrative system. First, scarcity of attention is central to understanding the influence ofbureaucracy in policymaking. At some level of aggregation, all institutions face limits to attention. Thefundamental problem of information processing in political systems is rarely a lack of information, butrather, an excess of information which calls for prioritization (Workman, Jones & Watson 2008, Jones& Baumgartner 2005). The collections of agencies comprising the federal bureaucracy are institutionaland organizational mechanisms for prioritizing the information carried in policy agendas. The creation 4 For an alternative view of the dynamics of political control and democratic accountability, see Gary Miller’s (2005) discus- sion of the evolution of principal-agent models. 5 Also see Brehm and Gates (1997) who use an ”enhanced” principal-agent model and find that street-level bureaucrats, by and large, work rather than shirk. 2

Authors: Workman, Samuel.
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dynamics of signaling by the federal bureaucracy? These questions are not only of theoretical significance,
but also of real-world policy significance as the entry and exit of substantive issues onto or off-of the
governmental agenda represents real consequences for policymakers, political coalitions, and the public
writ large.
Theoretical Foundations
Beginning with Wilson’s (1887) discussion of the politics-administration dichotomy, the influence of
bureaucracy on the policy process and the questions for democratic governance raised by this influence
has been one of the central concerns of scholarship on the role of public administration in democracies.
More recent work in American politics and public policy has posited various sources of this influence
and political reaction. Work on the sources of bureaucratic power point toward expertise, agenda control,
and reputation among issue networks as key to bureaucratic autonomy (Kaufman 1960, Niskanen 1971,
Carpenter 2001). As a consequence, the political control research associated with rational choice and
principal-agent models concerns how political institutions design incentive structures such that control of
federal agencies is attained and democratic accountability secured (McCubbins 1985, Moe 1985, Gormley
1989, Wood & Waterman 1994, Huber, Shipan & Pfahler 2001).
In a separate research tradition, scholars working with bounded rational models of human decision
making have reached different conclusions about the nature of bureaucratic behavior and influence on the
policy process (Simon 1947, Lindblom 1959, March & Simon 1958, Wildavsky 1964, Lipsky 1980, March
& Olsen 1989, Wilson 1989, Jones 2001).
Collectively, these works take a more benign view of bureau-
cratic influence and point to the difficulty of decision making in complex policy environments, under
individual cognitive limitations, and public settings where bureaucrats are governed by considerations
other than consequences (i.e. ”appropriateness,” tasks, or rule-bound behavior). Taken together, these
separate literatures suggest that understanding signaling and influence in the political-administrative sys-
tem requires recognition that the information carried in policy agendas flows upward in the system via
bureaucratic signaling and agenda setting activities, while authoritative political decisions and influence
flow downward, defining the contours of future bureaucratic signaling.
Information Processing in the Administrative State
The argument developed in this paper builds from insights in the policy processes literature emphasizing
the role of shifting attention in explaining agenda change (Baumgartner & Jones 1993, Jones 1994, Jones
& Baumgartner 2005) and signaling models of inter-institutional relationships (Carpenter 1996, Epstein
& O’Halloran 1999), to develop a theory for understanding the influence of bureaucratic signaling on
agenda change.
I develop an information processing theory that recognizes two fundamental properties of the
political-administrative system. First, scarcity of attention is central to understanding the influence of
bureaucracy in policymaking. At some level of aggregation, all institutions face limits to attention. The
fundamental problem of information processing in political systems is rarely a lack of information, but
rather, an excess of information which calls for prioritization (Workman, Jones & Watson 2008, Jones
& Baumgartner 2005). The collections of agencies comprising the federal bureaucracy are institutional
and organizational mechanisms for prioritizing the information carried in policy agendas. The creation
4
For an alternative view of the dynamics of political control and democratic accountability, see Gary Miller’s (2005) discus-
sion of the evolution of principal-agent models.
5
Also see Brehm and Gates (1997) who use an ”enhanced” principal-agent model and find that street-level bureaucrats, by
and large, work rather than shirk.
2


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