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Teaching, Tasks, and Trust

Functions of the Public Executive

John Brehm, Scott Gates

Publication Year: 2008

The mere word “bureaucracy” brings to mind images of endless lines, piles of paperwork, and frustrating battles over rules and red tape. But some bureaucracies are clearly more efficient and responsive than others. Why? In Teaching, Tasks, and Trust, distinguished political scientists John Brehm and Scott Gates show that a good part of the answer may be found in the roles that middle managers play in teaching and supporting the front-line employees who make a bureaucracy work. Brehm and Gates employ a range of sophisticated modeling and statistical methods in their analysis of employees in federal agencies, police departments, and social service centers. Looking directly at what front-line workers say about their supervisors, they find that employees who feel they have received adequate training have a clearer understanding of the agency’s mission, which leads to improved efficiency within their departments. Quality training translates to trust – employees who feel supported and well-trained for the job are more likely to trust their supervisors than those who report being subject to constant monitoring and a strict hierarchy. Managers who “stand up” for employees—to media, government, and other agency officials—are particularly effective in cultivating the trust of their workers. And trust, the authors find, motivates superior job performance and commitment to the agency’s mission. Employees who trust their supervisors report that they work harder, put in longer hours, and are less likely to break rules. The authors extend these findings to show that once supervisors grain trust, they enjoy greater latitude in influencing how employees allocate their time while working. Brehm and Gates show how these three executive roles are interrelated—training and protection for employees gives rise to trust, which provides supervisors with the leverage to stimulate improved performance among their workers. This new model—which frames supervisors as teachers and protectors instead of taskmasters—has widespread implications for training a new generation of leaders and creating more efficient organizations. Bureaucracies are notorious for inefficiency, but mid-level supervisors, who are often regarded as powerless, retain tremendous power to build a more productive workforce. Teaching, Tasks, and Trust provides a fascinating glimpse into a bureaucratic world operating below the radar of the public eye—a world we rarely see while waiting in line or filling out paperwork.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust

Title Page, Copyright, Series Information

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pp. vii-viii

About the Authors

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-3

Our first book, Working, Shirking, and Sabotage, asked who, or what, controls the policy choices of bureaucrats. The overwhelming evidence indicated that individual bureaucrats’ preferences had the greatest effect. Fellow bureaucrats, the public whom the bureaucrat...

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1. Alternative Roles

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pp. 4-16

Suppose that it is your responsibility to encourage more effort from an employee on a task. The task might be straightforward (say, processing tax returns or collecting mail) or more complex (say, teaching children or managing the drug rehabilitation of recalcitrant clients)...

Part 1. Training

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pp. 17-18

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2. Empirical Data on Training

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pp. 19-41

What is the strength of the evidence that training clarifies the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, or between what is meritorious and what leads to punishment? Training is one way to make the bureaucrat’s job less ambiguous, not so...

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3. Adapting Preferences

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pp. 42-60

Early management schemes, such as those mentioned in chapter 1, worried about characteristics of the division of labor between subordinates and supervisors that inhibited close supervision. Such scholars—especially Luther Gulick—debated optimum span of control...

Part 2. Task Management

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pp. 61-62

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4. Task Allocation in Public Bureaucracies

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pp. 63-76

As should be becoming evident after reading this far, organization theorists are consistent in their argument that the coercive aspects of supervision in public bureaucracies alone cannot account for high levels of performance. Indeed, this point may have...

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5. Task Allocation in Policing

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pp. 77-108

In this chapter, we extend our analysis of the supervisor as coordinator within a public bureaucracy, a role consistent with both principalagency approaches and organization theory.1 In this role the supervisor must define and allocate tasks across subordinates (Wilson 1989). Tasks...

Part 3. Trust Brokering

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pp. 109-110

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6. Trust Brokering

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pp. 111-130

Trust is a central aspect of human relations, and within the context of organizations it plays a particularly strong role. Of course, just what one means by the notion of trust is decidedly unclear. One approach, quite popular with survey researchers, had been to use trust of government or of people in general as proxies for some generalized...

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7. Rules, Trust, and the Allocation of Time

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pp. 131-143

In this chapter, we aim to synthesize the extensive literature in social psychology and organization theory on supervision and leadership. We take as our point of departure an argument from organization theory: the fundamental problem for public bureaucracies is ambiguity...

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8. Leadership: Middle Managers and Supervision

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pp. 144-150

The most conventional view of leadership in political organizations is that leadership trickles down from the top. For example, Daniel Carpenter’s Forging Bureaucratic Autonomy, uses the example of people such as James Wilson and Montgomery Blair (2001). Wilson helped...


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pp. 151-156


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pp. 157-164


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pp. 165-172

E-ISBN-13: 9781610440806
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871540669

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust