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Learning While Governing

Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch

Although their leaders and staff are not elected, bureaucratic agencies have the power to make policy decisions that carry the full force of the law. In this groundbreaking book, Sean Gailmard and John W. Patty explore an issue central to political science and public administration: How do Congress and the president ensure that bureaucratic agencies implement their preferred policies?
The assumption has long been that bureaucrats bring to their positions expertise, which must then be marshaled to serve the interests of a particular policy. In Learning While Governing, Gailmard and Patty overturn this conventional wisdom, showing instead that much of what bureaucrats need to know to perform effectively is learned on the job. Bureaucratic expertise, they argue, is a function of administrative institutions and interactions with political authorities that collectively create an incentive for bureaucrats to develop expertise. The challenge for elected officials is therefore to provide agencies with the autonomy to do so while making sure they do not stray significantly from the administration’s course. To support this claim, the authors analyze several types of information-management processes. Learning While Governing speaks to an issue with direct bearing on power relations between Congress, the president, and the executive agencies, and it will be a welcome addition to the literature on bureaucratic development.

336 pages | 4 line drawings, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Public Policy


“For the creativity of its design, the importance of its subject matter, and the depth of its analysis, Learning While Governing is sure to make a splash in the discipline. Pairing formal theory with American political development, Sean Gailmard and John W. Patty dish up a rich array of insights into the development of policy expertise within the executive branch. Most importantly, they show that the development and transmittal of expertise is unavoidably haphazard, as the institutional solutions to some problems of governance unavoidably exacerbate others.”

William G. Howell, University of Chicago

“This book tackles big questions in governance: how to recruit expertise, how to cultivate it, and how to keep it. Sean Gailmard and John W. Patty deftly connect political choices about the structure of institutions with the provision of government expertise in a theoretically rich and accessible work.”

David E. Lewis, Vanderbilt University

Learning While Governing offers an entirely fresh perspective on the transformation of the executive office into a full-blown institution. Pushing against the received wisdom that the expansion of the presidency undermines constitutional forms, Sean Gailmard and John W. Patty show how an executive-centered administrative state emerged from the complicated dance of executive-congressional relations. Cautiously optimistic about the incentives for responsible governance ingrained in America’s complex system of checks and balances, the book offers a compelling formula for the construction of a representative bureaucracy. Strongly recommended for anyone seriously interested in the historical development of political institutions in the United States.”

Sidney M. Milkis, University of Virginia

“This smartly argued work will be of interest to graduate students and scholars interested in the newest thinking on the question of the development of the US administrative state. Recommended.”


An ambitious book that analyzes the effects of organizational structure on the acquisition and dissemination of information by public-sector bureaucrats in the United States. Scholars interested in longstanding issues related to the national bureaucracy, such as the alleged erosion of neutral competence, will learn much from Learning While Governing."

Congress and the Presidency

“Gailmard and Patty’s engaging book . . . explores the implications of endogenous policy expertise for the institutional relationships between the government’s constitutional branches and the bureaucracy. Skillfully weaving together theory and history, the book offers a compelling and unified account of how government organization affects bureaucratic incentives to acquire, share, and elicit policy-relevant information. . . . Through the importance of its subject matter and depth of its analysis Learning While Governing represents a significant contribution to the political economy of bureaucratic expertise and institutional design that is bound to enrich discussion in graduate classes in political science, public administration, and regulation economics. All future research on bureaucratic institutionalization will need to engage the ideas developed in this work.”

Journal of Politics

Table of Contents


1 Introduction

PART I Acquiring Information
2 Developing Administrative Expertise
3 Expertise and Deference
4 The Federal Civil Service

PART II Sharing Information
5 Agents for Policy Advice under Separation of Powers
6 Congressional Development of the Institutional Presidency

PART III Eliciting Information
7 Information, Regulated Interests, and Administrative Policymaking
8 The SEC and the Regulation of Finance
9 Conclusion



APSA Political Economy Section: William H. Riker Book Award

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