Stories of Experts and Influence:A Discourse Analytic Approach to Bureaucratic Autonomy in the Cold War Era

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Date
2014-05-28
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Virginia Tech
Abstract

Government agencies exercise bureaucratic autonomy when they are able to pursue their goals independent, and sometimes in defiance, of political superiors. Over the last three decades, research in the area of bureaucratic autonomy has provided numerous examples of relatively autonomous agencies and has generally recognized the desire of administrators to carve out greater autonomy for their organizations, but the question of how administrators consciously or unconsciously pursue autonomy remains a rich and largely unexplored area of research.

Most theories of bureaucratic autonomy typically fall into two categories: an autonomy based on task-specificity that is contingent on the function and expertise of the organization and the ability of the agency to accept or reject new tasks; and a reputation-based autonomy contingent on the ability of the agency to build and maintain a constituency and to secure a reputation for effectiveness that makes it politically difficult for elected officials to influence agency action.

This study applies a discourse analytic approach to the study of autonomy in two agencies established during the Cold War whose primary function is the distribution of federal grants-in-aid: the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institute of Mental Health. Drawing on the theory and practice of discourse analysis, this study seeks to expand upon existing perspectives by better understanding how storylines help administrators to define the agency's mission and tasks and to develop its reputation for effectiveness. The findings suggest that storylines serve as causal drivers toward autonomy, operating in complex ways to influence individual decisions such as the scope of agency services and appropriations. They also suggest that storylines operate over time to both construct the circumstances that lead to greater autonomy and are simultaneously made more or less persuasive by those circumstances.

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Keywords
bureaucratic autonomy, discourse analysis, narrative, storyline, Cold War
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