As a former oarsman and current American Politics instructor, I feel compelled to straighten out the record on both rowing and bureaucracies. In an MWI article yesterday, ML Cavanaugh suggested that we put the term “row hard and live,” which he calls “a perfect slogan if you happen to work at the DMV,” to bed. He argued we should focus on developing novel solutions based on our expertise as military professionals.

Successful bureaucracies aren’t where expertise dies, however, but where it lives in the government. In Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, noted political scientist James Q. Wilson describes five traits of successful bureaucracies. They look little like the straw-man DMV trotted out whenever the subject of bureaucracies arises. In the American Politics course I teach at West Point, cadets make the connection between these five principles and military bureaucracies. They emerge ready to play a role in improving the Department of Defense—our biggest federal bureaucracy.

The first principle Wilson identifies is that critical tasks guide bureaucracies. Like the profit motive that guides private companies, critical tasks define what the bureaucracy must accomplish to be successful in their mission. In the military, we’re familiar with critical tasks. Patrol leaders brief the commander’s intent, so when the patrol faces a new situation, they rely both on their personal expertise and the critical task to guide their decision making.

Second, successful bureaucracies inculcate a sense of mission. They do not rely on the whip, but instead cultivate agreement and widespread endorsement of the critical task. Gen. John Schofield knew this when he addressed the United States Military Academy’s class of 1879 and said: “It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling, but an intense desire to obey.” To accomplish their critical tasks, military leaders must inspire their soldiers to put aside other concerns and complete the mission.

Third, bureaucrats must exercise autonomy. In the military bureaucracy, this autonomy permits us to redefine key problems and then build a sense of mission around the tasks that are key to solving those new problems. The Army’s concept of mission command reflects this principle because it relies on subordinate autonomy. Mission command requires trust in subordinates who can plan, coordinate, and execute flexible yet disciplined decision making. These are hardly the DMV’s automatons.

Fourth, successful bureaucracies judge themselves by their results. For many bureaucracies, the temptation is to measure performance: the number of patrols conducted, enemy killed, or dollars spent. When we, as a military, understand this principle, we are better situated to instead define what success means, and then measure performance towards those goals. The number of rifleman qualified expert during a unit’s range training is a better metric for success than the number of rounds expended.

Fifth, bureaucracies must manage their standard operating procedures (SOPs). Big organizations establish SOPs to manage complex processes. While we like to hate on the DMV, they know how to process all sorts of forms and do it relatively quickly. The Army lists the benefits of SOPs in its manual dedicated to them: SOPs reduce “training time, the loss of unwritten information, the commission of errors, the omission of essential steps or processes, and the time required for completion of tasks.” Wilson also notes that SOPs are not static, and the Army also knows that they must change, sometimes rapidly, as environments or missions shift. Military professionals, with their expertise built on education and practical experience, recognize when our SOPs must change and work to shift them.

When called upon, military bureaucrats exercise our expertise and professional autonomy to shift tasks, inspire our subordinates, and determine whether we’ve succeeded. It is critical that we avoid leveraging characteristics of successful bureaucracies counterproductively, of course. Too often, for example, we change successful, highly efficient SOP when the hyperactive fairy strikes. But this is why, instead of rejecting bureaucratic principles from the profession of arms, we should seek always to better understand and makes use of them. Officers should take pride in managing repetitive tasks at high levels of efficiency. Sometimes, “row hard and live” is the right choice.


Maj. Zachary Griffiths is a Special Forces officer and American Politics Instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He studies how insurgent groups relate to the water. He holds a master’s of public policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School and a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, DOD, or the US Government.


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Felix R. Fimbres, US Army