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date: 10 March 2018

Bureaucratic Politics and Organizational Process Models

Summary and Keywords

Graham Allison’s Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1969) and Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971) introduced two new decision-making approaches—the bureaucratic politics model and the organizational process model—to explain the October 1962 confrontation between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Despite being the subject of significant criticism for nearly four decades, the models are enduring elements of the foreign policy analysis lexicon. The bureaucratic politics model, however, has generated and continues to attract far more attention than the organizational process model across a wide range of academic disciplines. The bureaucratic politics model embraces the perspective that foreign policy decisions are the product of political resultants or bargaining between individual leaders in government positions. These resultants emerge from a foreign policy process, characteristic of a competitive game, where multiple players holding different policy preferences struggle, compete, and bargain over the substance and conduct of policy. The policy positions taken by the decision makers are determined largely by their organizational roles. On the other hand, the organizational process model maintains that foreign policy actions are generated by organizational output, namely the behavior of large bureaucracies with parochial priorities and perceptions following standard operating procedures. Thus, foreign policy is the product of organizational output, namely the behavior of multiple bureaucracies with distinct responsibilities and interests following standard operating procedures.

Keywords: bureaucratic politics model, organizational process model, Graham Allison, foreign policy, policymaking, bureaucracy


The publication of Graham Allison’s “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis” (1969) and Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971) revolutionized foreign policy analysis. In those seminal works, Allison introduced two new decision-making approaches – the governmental politics model (more commonly referred to as the bureaucratic politics model) and the organizational process model – to explain the October 1962 confrontation between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The bureaucratic politics model embraced the perspective that foreign policy decisions are the product of political resultants or bargaining between individual leaders in government positions, whereas the organizational process model maintained that foreign policy actions are generated by organizational output, namely the behavior of large bureaucracies with parochial priorities and perceptions following standard operating procedures. Using these conceptual lenses alongside the traditional rational actor model (Model I), Allison pursued a new path of foreign policy analysis by creating alternative explanations for a single foreign policy episode. Given that the organizational process model (Model II) and bureaucratic politics model (Model III) were pluralist or liberal perspectives that disaggregated the decision-making unit into a collection of competing individuals and organizations, Allison challenged the longstanding realist assumption that states behave as rational, unitary actors.

Although the subject of significant criticism for nearly four decades, Models II and III are enduring elements of the foreign policy analysis lexicon. Essence of Decision, which is now in its second edition (1999), sells thousands of copies each year and has been cited in well over 1500 journal articles (Social Science Citation Index, 2008; Google Scholar, 2008). The models remain prominent fixtures in university courses and textbooks. In relative terms, however, the bureaucratic politics model has generated and continues to attract far more attention than the organizational process model across a wide range of academic disciplines. Within international relations and foreign policy analysis, case studies based on the model, while less numerous than in the 1970s, continue to appear along with articles, literature reviews, and conference panels that reference the model or the behavior that it seeks to capture. In contrast, the organizational process model, which was never a widely used analytical tool, has been overshadowed by new developments in public administration and organizational theory. Consequently, this essay, while not neglecting the organizational process model, devotes considerably more discussion to the origins, underlying assumptions, current treatment, and future prospects of the bureaucratic politics model.

The Intellectual Roots of the Bureaucratic Politics Model

The bureaucratic politics model's intellectual roots can be traced to the field of public administration, the early systematic study of foreign policy decision making, and classic studies examining the role of domestic politics in public policy making.

At the time when the field of public administration was dominated by the scientific management movement and advocates of the politics–administration dichotomy, Herring's groundbreaking work (1936) recognized and accepted the political role of bureaucrats. Drawing on their own experience in government during World War II, scholars of the postwar era became increasingly skeptical of the separation of politics and administration as a description of reality and a prescription for action. Kozak (1988:5) writes, “It was out of this adverse reaction to the politics–administration dichotomy that the bureaucratic politics paradigm was born.” For instance, Appleby (1949) and Long (1949) emphasized the importance of discretionary power, the broader political process, and the involvement of bureaucrats and their agencies in policy formulation, as well as implementation. These themes were developed further and more rigorously in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s by public administration theorists writing about bureaucratic politics. A representative sample of works includes Simon et al. (1950), March and Simon (1958), Holden (1966), Downs (1967), Seidman (1970), and Gawthrop (1971). Public administration scholars did not generate a genuine model of bureaucratic politics. Yet their focus on the political roles of bureaucrats and their organizations fostered a realistic and intuitively appealing perspective for the study of modern government.

Snyder et al. (1954; 1962) also contributed to the evolution of Allison's bureaucratic politics model. In a challenge to the traditional orthodoxy in the field, Snyder and his colleagues argued that human decision making rather than the rational choice of a unitary actor was essential to understanding foreign policy behavior. In their view, a state's foreign policy was determined “by the way in which a situation was defined subjectively by those charged with the responsibility for making choices” (Snyder et al. 1962:212). This subjective definition, in turn, was the result of individual decision makers responding to four extensive sets of variables: (1) the external setting of decision making, (2) the internal setting of decision making, (3) organizational-individual factors, and (4) situational properties (ibid.). Just as Allison would later argue in Essence of Decision (1971), Snyder et al. (1962:98) stressed that individuals and organizational context matter, writing “who becomes involved in a decision, how, and why is essential to an explanation of why decisionmakers decided the way that they did” (italics in the original). Moreover, they emphasized that decision makers’ actions must be understood in light of three factors: spheres of competence, communication and information, and motivation. A further link to Allison's subsequent work is readily apparent given that “sphere of competence” refers to a decision maker's role or behavior that advances an organizational goal. In a similar way, Rosenau's pre-theory (1966) also laid the foundation for Allison's bureaucratic politics model with idiosyncratic, role, and government variables constituting three of the pre-theory's five categories of explanatory factors.

Despite their inherent limitations as analytical tools, the Snyder et al. framework and Rosenau's pre-theory had a considerable impact on foreign policy analysis. The importance of individual decision makers, organizational factors, and the policy process was soon featured significantly in research examining the domestic politics of policy making (see, e.g., Hilsman 1959; Lindblom 1959; Almond 1960; Neustadt 1960; Huntington 1961; Schilling 1961; 1962; Braybrooke and Lindblom 1963; Hammond 1963; Hilsman 1967; Lindblom 1968; Neustadt 1970). Some of these studies were focused on US foreign and defense policy, whereas others discussed public policy more broadly. For these scholars, the essence of policy making – why states do what they do – was politics rather than a rational, cost–benefit analysis of geopolitical and strategic considerations. These now classic works articulated a set of ideas that collectively have come to be known as the “democratic politics model” (Kohl 1975:1) or the “political process model” (Hilsman 1990:58). Art (1973:468–9) provides a summary of the approach's basic assumptions about how foreign policy is made.

Given the centrality of these general assumptions to Allison's later work, Hilsman, Neustadt, Huntington, Schilling, and Lindblom are considered progenitors of the bureaucratic politics model. Yet it is also important to note the important differences that separate this first generation of bureaucratic politics scholars – the proponents of the political process model – from Allison. Unlike Allison's bureaucratic politics model, the political process model contends that decision makers behave both as individuals in governmental positions and through organizations. It also highlights rather than virtually ignores the role of domestic politics, placing a greater emphasis on actors outside the executive branch, such as the Congress, interest groups, the media, and the public. In addition, the political process contends that decision makers’ policy preferences are far more influenced by their worldviews than their governmental roles and the policy-making process. Lastly, it treats foreign policy outcomes as intended political resultants, tied closely to the preferences, strategies, and expectations of the decision makers (see Art 1973:468–72; Hilsman 1990:88–9). These distinctions gain greater clarity once the underlying assumptions of the bureaucratic politics model are articulated.

The Bureaucratic Politics Model

As discussed in the introduction, the bureaucratic politics model was one of three conceptual lenses that Allison (1969; 1971) employed to explain US foreign policy making during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. More accurately, Allison termed it the governmental politics model. However, it is often simply referred to as Model III to distinguish it from the rational actor model (Model I) and the organizational process model (Model II). In essence, the bureaucratic politics model views the actions of government as political resultants. These resultants emerge from a foreign policy process, characteristic of a competitive game, where multiple players holding different policy preferences struggle, compete, and bargain over the substance and conduct of policy. The policy positions taken by the decision makers are determined largely, although not exclusively, by their organizational roles. Miles’ Law (Miles 1978:399–403) – “where you stand depends on where you sit” – is an oft-cited proposition associated with this aspect of the model. The final government decision is not the product of a single rational choice where a unified body of decision makers methodically pursues a coherent set of national objectives, but rather “politics is the mechanism of choice. Each player pulls and hauls with the power at his [or her] discretion for outcomes that will advance his [or her] conception of national, organizational, group, and personal interests” (Allison 1971:171).

Specifically, the bureaucratic politics model encompasses more than twenty detailed assumptions, organizing concepts, or general propositions (see Allison 1971:164–81). However, its most significant claims can be summarized as follows.

Of the three models within Essence of Decision, Model III immediately generated the greatest attention and enthusiasm. Many analysts found it accurate and intuitively appealing to depict government actions as “intranational political resultants” where “players in positions” adopt policy stands based on their “parochial priorities and perceptions” (see Allison 1971:162–81). The model's descriptive element resonated particularly with American scholars who had long seen multiple actors, overlapping jurisdictions, poor coordination, and conflict as prominent features of the US political system. Several studies employing, refining, or relating to the new framework were published in the 1970s (see, e.g., Allison and Halperin 1972; Destler 1972; Halperin 1972; Rourke 1972a; Allison 1973; Gelb and Halperin 1973; Halperin and Kanter 1973; Thompson 1973; Allison 1974; Halperin 1974; Gallucci 1975; Halperin 1975; Beard 1976; Allison and Szanton 1976; Destler et al. 1976; Jefferies 1977; Peters 1978). In fact, the initial popularity of Allison's work led one scholar to observe: “the bureaucratic interpretation of foreign policy has become the conventional wisdom” (Krasner 1972:160).

Of these second generation bureaucratic politics scholars, Morton Halperin’s work is most noteworthy. Allison and Halperin (1972) combined elements of Allison's Models II and III into a bureaucratic politics paradigm. In addition to aggregating the models, the authors extended Model III in four ways. First, they assumed that in some instances organizations could be treated as single policy actors, just as senior, junior, and ad hoc players were in Model III. Second, Allison and Halperin included shared attitudes and organizational factors as constraints on political bargaining and final outcomes. Third, a distinction was drawn between policy, decision, and action games. Fourth, they offered advice, in the form of a “planning guide,” to senior policy makers on how to play the game of bureaucratic politics more effectively. Overall, Allison and Halperin sought to refine the bureaucratic politics model (as outlined in Essence of Decision) so it could be employed as a more effective analytical tool. Nonetheless, Allison's original Model III remained the prevailing means of explaining the influence of bureaucratic politics on foreign policy behavior; and the presence of two bureaucratic politics frameworks ultimately created confusion rather than facilitated clarity, with some observers mixing elements of the two together to create an amorphous bureaucratic politics “approach.”

Morton Halperin's Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (1974) was chiefly responsible for supplementing the bureaucratic politics approach as articulated by Allison (1971) and Allison and Halperin (1972) by providing his readers with a richly detailed account of how the game of politics is played within the foreign policy-making arena. Specifically, his contribution was threefold. Halperin identified and described the wide range of executive branch actors – the president, political appointees, career bureaucrats, and organizations – that are consistently engaged in foreign policy decisions, namely military and security affairs. Importantly, the book described these players’ interests, which emanate from their governmental roles and are essential to understanding their policy positions. In this context, he introduced the concept of “organizational essence,” which relates to how bureaucrats interpret their organization's mission through the performance of particular tasks. Halperin also addressed extensively how these policy positions are advanced and defended through the use of arguments, the manipulation and control of information, and a variety of other bureaucratic maneuvers. Furthermore, he stressed the significance of distinguishing between decisions and actions with particular attention to the bureaucratic politics that pervade the implementation process and often distort decisions. However, Halperin (1974) did not refine or extend the preexisting bureaucratic politics model (1971) or paradigm (1972), introduce a new framework, or tackle the issue of how much bureaucratic politics truly matter within the foreign policy-making process.

The Bureaucratic Politics Model under Attack

While the bureaucratic politics model remained the dominant framework within the second generation literature, its scholarly appeal began to wane. By the late 1970s, the number of published critiques began to rival the number of published studies employing Allison's model (see, e.g., Holsti 1972; Krasner 1972; Rourke 1972b; Art 1973; Ball 1974; Conford 1974; Perlmutter 1974; Wagner 1974; Brenner 1976; Freedman 1976; Yanarella 1976; Caldwell 1977; Steiner 1977; and Nathan and Oliver, 1978). While critics argued the bureaucratic politics model was plagued by a number of deficiencies, including some descriptive inaccuracies, the most serious charges concerned its explanatory power. In essence, the model was considered too complex. The same quality that allowed the model to offer accurate description, namely its rich detail, was seen as an impediment to parsimonious explanation. Some critics, moreover, complained that this added complexity did not eliminate the model's ambiguity on key issues (discussed below). Overall, scholars consistently identified nine criticisms of the bureaucratic politics model.

Allison and other second generation scholars failed to counter these nine major criticisms with refutations or corrections. Instead a small number of scholars used the model as a point of departure for theory building. Rosati (1981) drew on the insights and limitations of the bureaucratic politics literature to present a systematic decision-making framework, encompassing decision context, structure, participants, process, and outcome. Kellerman (1983) sought to complement Allison (1971) by developing a Model IV, Model V, and Model VI to capture the role of small groups, the dominant leader, and the cognitive process in shaping decisions. Vertzberger (1984) used elements of what he termed the organizational and bureaucratic paradigms, coupled with intra-group dynamics, to explain the foreign policy behavior of developing states. Drawing on the agenda-control literature, Hammond (1986) developed a set of propositions related to the effect of organizational structure on bureaucratic politics and policy making. Hollis and Smith (1986) explored the reasons why decision makers do what they do by probing the relationship between bureaucratic roles and decision makers’ individual perceptions. Lastly, Kozak (1988) drew on Allison (1971) and Halperin (1974) as well as Appleby (1949), Long (1949), Rourke (1972a), Peters (1978), and Wildavsky (1981) to develop a broader, more loosely defined model of bureaucratic politics for the study of national security policy.

More commonly, however, scholars simply employed the bureaucratic politics model (1971) or the bureaucratic politics paradigm (1972) as an explanatory tool in cases when bureaucratic or governmental factors were clearly salient (see, e.g., Weil 1975; Valenta 1979; Rosati 1981; Townsend 1982; Smith 1985; Hicks 1990; Spear 1993; Jones 1994; 1999; Qingshan 1994; Conley 1998; Holland 1999; Wiarda 2000; Carey 2001; Jones 2001; Tayfur and Goymen 2002; Zhang 2006; Lavallee 2007). These case studies, many of which were characterized by low presidential engagement and high bureaucratic involvement, provided useful insights on a range of issues, including foreign policy decisions related to crises, the use of military force, arms control negotiations, export control policy, arms sales, the revolution in military affairs, weapons procurement, oil pipelines, humanitarian intervention, and bilateral relations between the United States and particular countries. At the same time, critiques continued to appear (see, e.g., Hill 1991; Bendor and Hammond 1992; Welch 1992; Rhodes 1994), suggesting that the bureaucratic politics model remained flawed, but nonetheless worthy of continued scholarly interest and discussion. These critiques, coupled with fewer applications of the model, caused the political approach to foreign policy analysis to become less fashionable. Realists clung to rational choice models; and many pluralist analysts devoted more study to group dynamics, cognition, perception, and decision-making style than to the influences highlighted in Allison's Model III (for an overview, see Hudson 1996:224–5; Garrison 2003:155–202).

The publication of a second edition of Essence of Decision (Allison and Zelikow 1999) did nothing to alter this state of affairs. Instead it prompted sharp criticism (see, e.g., Bernstein 2000; Houghton 2000; Rosati 2000; Garrison 2003:179). As Bernstein (2000:147) observed, “The revised volume seems hasty and less like a thorough revision and more like a patchwork operation: inserting new material, adding qualifiers, and acknowledging much of the new history, but not dealing thoroughly, and often not adequately, with many criticisms published since the 1971 edition.” In another review, Rosati (2000:396) wrote that Allison and Zelikow's revision of the governmental politics model “is extremely disappointing […] Indeed, the ‘original’ chapter on [Bureaucratic] Politics in the first edition remains clearer and much more powerful than the revised chapter. Why the authors chose to ignore so much relevant literature and why they decided to review literature that had limited application to Model III is unclear […] This is the model that required the most updating and refinement, but it has been neither enriched nor extended.” Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the revised discussion of Model III related to role-based behavior, namely the oft-cited and much criticized Mile's Law – “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Allison and Zelikow (1999:307) explained that a player's policy stand on an issue is not “always determined by where he or she sits, but rather is substantially affected by bureaucratic position.”

Where the second edition of Essence of Decision did not fall short was in its solid updating of the three descriptive case studies that parallel the discussion of each of three conceptual lenses – Model I, Model II, and Model III. It incorporated a wealth of new information from US and Soviet sources that simply was not accessible when Allison first wrote the book. Similarly, Halperin and Clapp's second edition of Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (2006) followed the path of the first edition and did not make significant theoretical contributions. However, its expanded treatment of Capitol Hill did recognize the growing role and influence of Congress in US foreign policy making. With that element noted, the real value of the updated edition was an interesting collection of new examples of bureaucratic politics in action based on developments in the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations. If anything, the book served as a convincing illustration of the continuing salience of bureaucratic politics within a foreign policy process marked by more actors, issues, and overall complexity.

A Third Generation of Bureaucratic Politics Scholarship

Although Allison and Zelikow (1999) failed to respond seriously to two decades of criticisms of the bureaucratic politics model, the publication of a second edition of Essence of Decision coincided with renewed scholarly interest in the approach. Given that Allison drew from an earlier or “first generation” of scholars to create his “second generation” model, new contributions to the bureaucratic politics literature, which began to emerge in the late 1990s, are best characterized as “third generation” work. This wave of scholarship tends to use the term “governmental politics” to highlight the significance of policy actors with and beyond the bureaucracy and executive branch.

One prominent example of third generation literature is a symposium in which eight American and European scholars critically evaluate the current state and future prospects of the bureaucratic (governmental) politics literature (see Stern and Verbeek 1998). From a positivist perspective, Welch (1998) argues that the research program tied to the bureaucratic politics model has been largely unsuccessful, because it has not produced “carefully designed studies testing rigorously deduced expectations from logically coherent theories.” Only by proceeding down a more scientific path, Welch maintains, will the approach have the capacity to cumulate meaningful knowledge about the true role of bureaucratic politics in shaping state behavior. One real benefit of Welch's contribution is his “menu for a bureaucratic politics paradigm,” in which he provides a helpful overview of the bureaucratic politics approach's key axioms, assumptions, and concepts from both an individual and organizational perspective. Weldes (1998) diverges from Welch to embrace an “argumentative turn.” Specifically, she proposes that critical social constructivism may offer a more fruitful path for bureaucratic politics analyses by devoting greater attention to the discursive elements of policy struggles and power relations.

Kaarbo and Gruenfeld (1998), however, see more promise in updating the bureaucratic politics approach through the social psychology literature, especially if one wishes to understand the sources of political conflict and conformity within and between groups of policy players. This position is consistent with Ripley (1995), who argues that blending bureaucratic politics with insights from the social cognition and organizational culture literatures offers a potentially fruitful path for reinvigorating the study of bureaucratic politics and foreign policy analysis. Interestingly, Ripley (1995:96) writes, “Although successful policy bureaucrats may differ substantially in personality, power, or issue positions, they share one common characteristic: a highly nuanced understanding of the policy-making process. Perhaps this understanding is the ‘true essence of decision’ in foreign policy analysis.”

’T Hart and Rosenthal (1998) recognize bureaucratic politics as a pervasive and permanent phenomenon. Writing from the perspective of public administration, they advocate that scholars find ways to move beyond the taboos and risks associated with bureaucratic politics by devising strategies to live with bureaucratic politics, highlighting instances when such interactions enhance policy outcomes (see, e.g., Rosenthal et al. 1991), and identifying the means to “channel BP interactions in productive ways.” Consequently, ‘t Hart and Rosenthal contend that two foci of study are in order: (1) an empirical analysis of the sources of and reasons for bureaucratic politics, and (2) a normative appraisal of the implications of bureaucratic politics. Lastly, Stern and Verbeek (1998) conclude by proposing a “neopluralist approach to bureau-governmental politics.” Such a framework should reformulate Miles’ Law to account for players’ multiple and often conflicting roles, capture how organizational culture shapes conflicting roles and policy views, and seek to explain a wide range of substantive issues as well as transnational and cross-national policy behavior.

Several studies pursue lines of inquiry related to the issues featured in the 1998 symposium. For example, Preston and ’t Hart probe the political psychology of bureaucratic politics to “explain how the interaction between leaders and their advisory groups may create bureaupolitical dynamics that affect (in either a positive or a negative manner) how groups function and how the policy process is likely to evolve over time” (1999:91). In the course of their study, they reconceptualize bureaucratic politics as a multidimensional variable rather than a permanent condition of foreign policy making. The authors also outline two new conceptual frameworks, one of which is used to evaluate empirically the degree to which bureaucratic politics is present in the policy-making structure and process in any given case. The other is employed normatively to assess the impact of bureaucratic politics on the quality of the decision making. While Preston and ’t Hart find the Johnson administration's Vietnam policy-making process marked by “decisional pathologies associated with bureaucratic confrontation,” they stress that the presence of moderate forms of bureaucratic politics in other cases could potentially enrich the quality of the decision-making process (1999:90–92).

In an effort to recognize the breadth and diversity of actors, interests, and politics tied to foreign policy making, Jones (1999:282; 2001:65) suggests the development of a new governmental politics paradigm encompassing multiple analytical models. On one level, the models would share a common set of assumptions capturing the general characteristics of governmental politics, such as multiple actors, role-based behavior, and politically generated outcomes. On another level, each model could be distinguished by particular actors, forms of politics, and other procedural characteristics, which might vary with salience of the policy issue or the locus of decision making. Jones (1996; 2007) presents this approach in greater detail, building on the insights of Allison's bureaucratic politics model and then moving beyond by integrating a procedural issue area variable, several clarifications, and fewer underlying assumptions. These modifications seek to respond directly to the leading criticisms of Allison's bureaucratic politics model and lay the groundwork for a more analytically useful framework.

Similarly, Michaud (2002) reassesses Model III, as presented by Allison and Zelikow (1999), concludes it remains a useful mode of analysis for describing policy-making processes, and then seeks to address one of its longstanding weaknesses – failure to operationalize the model. The study argues that this shortcoming can be addressed by integrating Allison's work with Vincent Lemieux’s “structuration of power” approach (1989). According to Michaud (2002:272), Allison does not provide a means for knowing how political games affect policy outcomes. Yet, Lemieux's framework offers a remedy, because it “allow[s] the researcher to consider the actors involved in the pulling and hauling games Allison refers to, and the power they wield in order to see their preferred option win or establish dominance.” The new approach is then applied convincingly to a case study of Canadian defense policy, namely the formulation of the June 1987 White Paper, suggesting its initial utility as well as the general importance of power structures for comprehending foreign policy making.

Other noteworthy research proceeds in different but related directions. For instance, Brower and Abolafia (1997) draw directly on Allison as well as their own broad ethnographic study to extend the traditional bureaucratic politics model. The result is a framework designed to explain the political behavior of low-level officials rather than the “pulling and hauling” between the high-level players depicted in Allison's work. The “politics from below” are motivated by the pursuit of personal identity and reflect a more improvisational and nondeterministic character than the “politics from above” specified in Allison's Model III. Another study, Hoyt (2000), argues that proponents and critics of the bureaucratic politics model have overemphasized the structure of the policy-making environment at the expense of giving real definition to elements of the policy-making process, such as bargaining, pulling, and hauling. Using literature in political science, public administration, and social psychology as a point of departure, Hoyt argues that a potentially fruitful bureaucratic politics research program lies in process-oriented studies, which emphasize the process of resolving intra-group conflict. Christensen and Redd (2004) are also interested in process, but in a different way. They test the relative explanatory power of bureaucratic politics model and poliheuristic theory to uncover which approach best captures how foreign policy makers assess information provided by their advisers and decide final courses of action in a crisis situation. Consistent with poliheuristic theory, Christensen and Redd find that decision makers consider alternatives in political terms, employing a noncompensatory principle, rather than bargain over options. However, their study reveals that these political evaluations and the choices that follow can be shaped by the presence of multiple advisers representing different foreign policy bureaucracies.

Another area of emerging scholarly interest involves the relationship between ideas and bureaucratic politics. Through a statistical analysis of US Navy force posture over a four-decade period, Rhodes (1994) finds that ideas and images offer greater explanatory power than the bureaucratic roles and interests. The author contends that his study is especially troubling news for the bureaucratic politics model, because it examines a policy area that should be well explained by Allison's work. In a direct challenge to Miles’ Law, Rhodes writes, “where decision makers stand depends not where they sit or whom they represent, but on what they think – and what they think is independent of where they sit.” Mitchell (1999) strongly disagrees. In his own study of US naval strategy in the 1980s, he shows that the navy's service unions have a far greater impact than represented by Rhodes (1994). Mitchell also dismisses the separation of ideas and interests, as well as the claim that ideas are superior. Instead his evidence leads to the conclusion that ideas and interests are mutually dependent phenomena and essential ingredients of a successful naval strategy.

Lastly, Drezner (2000) contends that his modified ideational approach addresses critical research gaps in the bureaucratic politics literature by drawing attention to the sources of bureaucratic preferences, the means employed to maximize organizational interests, and the use of organizational culture to sustain ideas that are critical to shaping final outcomes. Through case studies of the United States Peace Corps (1961–76) and the State Department's former Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (1976–88), Drezner explores the capacity of “missionary” (idea-infused) organizations to survive and thrive within an environment marked by bureaucratic politics. The key variable is the institution's placement relative to others. Agencies that are insulated from other bureaucracies have a better chance of surviving (maintaining their ideational mission) than embedded agencies. However, those embedded agencies that are able to survive are more likely to thrive (influence national policy) than insulated agencies.

As the foregoing discussion has outlined, there is an active and potentially rich contemporary research agenda associated with the bureaucratic or governmental politics approach to foreign policy analysis. Scholarship since the publication of the second edition of Essence of Decision (1999

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. Allison provides an analysis of the Cuban missile crisis that contrasts bureaucratic politics bargaining with two other models of policy making. The first of these assumes that policy decisions are made by a unitary, rational decision maker, represented by “the state” in many formulations. Thus, bureaucratic politics is often offered as a counterpoint to realist or rationalist conceptions of policy decision making. The second alternative approach describes policies as guided by, even resulting from, previously established bureaucratic procedures, which leaves little room for autonomous action by high-level decision makers. Compared with these and other alternative conceptions of policy making, the bureaucratic politics model represents a significant and distinctive strain of organization- and state-level theory in international relations, organization theory, public policy, and American politics.

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?

Each of these queries masks a number of additional questions and hypotheses about the bureaucratic politics process. Whether actors are elected or appointed, high-, mid-, or low-level, and new to their stations or old hands can all affect their interests and bargaining positions. For example, actors who serve as part of a temporary political administration, such as political appointees of the U.S. president, might be likely to pursue shorter-term interests than would career civil servants with long-standing organizational affiliations. Many aspects of the policy environment also influence the bureaucratic politics dynamic. Issues that are highly salient and visible to key constituencies, for instance, may cause politically ambitious actors to alter their bargaining positions. The venue in which bargaining takes place—cabinet room, boardroom, public news media, and so forth—may also privilege some actors and some interests over others.

Important implications can be drawn from this model. A main goal of Allison’s initial analysis was to show that the assumption, common among practitioners of foreign policy, that governments act as rational, unitary actors is fundamentally flawed. To understand the actions of a state—indeed, of any large, complex organization—one must understand the rules governing its decision-making processes and the motivations of actors participating therein. The result of such a process may well indicate a compromise point without any clear internal strategic logic and may even reflect the unintended consequence of a dynamic tug-of-war among actors. Thus, it may be very difficult to interpret the intentions that underlie the seemingly strategic behaviour of complex organizations, making interactions with these bodies less predictable and, in some spheres, such as international conflict, consequently more dangerous.

Though the bureaucratic politics model has been used to describe decision making in many different contexts, it is most commonly applied to national policy making in the United States and particularly to U.S. foreign policy. This focus has meant that the theory remains underdeveloped in many policy areas, and the traditional pluralistic view of bureaucratic politics has been challenged by critics who claim alternative paths to policy making. Some critics argue that in the American context the model underestimates the power of the president, who dominates policy through the selection and control of appointed officials. Others critique the model because it places too little emphasis on the power of lower-level administrators and structures to influence policy through the control of information and implementation. Because the bureaucratic politics approach has most often been applied to studies of crisis decision making, critics have also asserted that its value for explaining ordinary policy making, particularly over time, is limited. Finally, some have expressed normative worries about the implications of the bureaucratic politics model for government accountability: if government decisions cannot be traced to individual policy makers but rather result from an opaque process of give-and-take among both elected and unelected leaders, assigning responsibility and therefore accountability for these activities becomes far more difficult.

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