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Moe: The politics of structural choice

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Moe. 1990. The politics of structural choice: Toward a theory of public bureaucracy. In Organizational Theory from Chester Bernard to the Present, ed. Oliver Williamson, pp. 116-153. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Moe gives a theory of bureaucracy that involves political and bureaucratic actors and interest groups. Describing the bureaucracy in terms of a two-tier hierarchy, he argues that the problem of information leads to interest group importance (based on reputation). But at the same time the problems of political uncertainty and compromise are always present. This shapes interest group interaction with the president, bureaucracy, and legislature, and ultimately constricts and structures bureaucracy.

Fit in Literature

Argues against McCubbins, Noll, and Weingast (1987).


  • Lack of information/expertise leads to use of interest groups (interest group influence)
  • 2 major problems of political firms
    • Political uncertainty: uncertainty over political property rights. creates incentives for interest groups to try and control the bureaucracy, or create its own bureaucratic agents, and use various methods to protect and nurture them (6 points, pg 137)
    • Political compromise: process by which opposing political parties give large concessions. creates incentives for opposing groups to attempt to shape rules and processes of agencies to impede original goals. (6 methods by which they attempt to stop goals from happening: pg 138)
  • Motivations of different political actors
    • Legislators: reelection is main goal. tends toward more particularized control. No goals of what bureaucracy must look like. Open and responsive to what interest groups want. Congressional bureaucracy.
    • Presidents: being judged successful in the eyes of history is main goal. Requires control over bureaucracy (capacity, even if not exercised) and has ideal of rational, coherent, centrally controlled bureaucracy. Interest group feels threat. Presidential bureaucracy.
    • Interest groups
      • Winning group: prez is source of uncertainty because his/her need for control. Wants to insulate bureaucracy from prez.
      • Losing group: presidential bureaucracy is viable alternative (can be attractive)
    • Bureaucrats: 2 types
      • Political appointees
      • Careerists: try to reduce political uncertainty. Prez, etc can be unreliable allies. End up trying to use "insulation" (means and methods p 145). Have specialized expertise, seek autonomy
  • Therefore, interest groups and politicians design structures ex ante that anticipate the autonomy problem.