habit

We plan on reviewing (commenting on) books that have some nexus with bureauphilia. Our first review is for The Power of Habit: Why We Do the Things We Do in Life and Business? By Charles Duhigg

You might be inclined to think we were stretching a bit when we decided that Habit had anything to do with governing. However, the book spends a fair amount of time with former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill. Prior to that post he was the CEO of Alcoa where, according to the book, he refocused the company towards safety, which had a net effect of changing the whole company and increasing its profits. With respect to governing, he said:

“That’s when O’Neill’s education in organizational habits really started. One of his first assignments was to create an analytical framework for studying how the government was spending money on health care. He quickly figured out that the government’s efforts, which should have been guided by logical rules and deliberate priorities, were instead driven by bizarre institutional processes that, in many ways, operated like habits. Bureaucrats and politicians, rather than making decisions, were responding to cues with automatic routines in order to get rewards such as promotions or reelection. It was a habit loop—spread across thousands of people and billions of dollars.” pg. 102, 1st Edition

He goes on to comment, “The best agencies understood the importance of routines [habits]. The worst agencies were headed by people who never thought about it, and then wondered by no one followed their orders.” pg. 104.

So, like all aspects of life, habits can rule the day.

We have a word for people outside of government trying to influence how government allocates and spends money: lobbyists. The study of public choice theory goes to how government workers seek to spend money from Congress so as to protect the budgets of the government worker’s offices, and thus their jobs. But we don’t really have a word for those specific government workers. If the word lobbyist comes from people congregating in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, then maybe we need a name for these government workers congregating in conference rooms all over DC. (Thoughts dear readers?)

What Habits would argue is that both sides are acting out of habit. There is a cue: government money at stake. Then a routine: lobbying and the spending through budgets. And finally a reward: more government spending.

Is the naiveté in believing that government workers are completely unbiased and unaffected by the knowledge that their behaviors affect their budgetary outcomes or in believing that curtailing how lobbyist work will reduce the amount of lobbying? To change any habit, you have to change the routine. I am not sure how or even if we need to do it. If someone above my pay grade decides we do need to change, then they will need to look to the habits of government to do so.

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2 thoughts on “habit

  1. Super interesting! I haven’t read the book, but it seems to popularize ideas with some pretty deep roots. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s development from a French word “to have,” noting:

    “Holding, having, ‘havour’; hence the way in which one holds or has oneself, i.e. the mode or condition in which one is, exists, or exhibits oneself, a) externally; hence demeanour, outward appearance, fashion of body, mode of clothing oneself, dress, habitation; b) in mind, character, or life; hence, mental constitution, character, disposition, way of acting, comporting oneself, or dealing with things, habitual or customary way (of acting, etc.), personal custom, accustomedness.”

    It’s that second meaning that students of politics and organizations have found so appealing. The OED quotes Thomas Hobbes (1656), for example, “Habit is Motion made more easie and ready by Custome.”

    William James calls them habits. Schumpeter (1955) talks about “accustomed circular flows,” which he contrasts to innovation (Winter 2006: 136). March and Simon (1958) talk about “performance programs.”
    For Nelson and Winter (1982), they are at once “genes” that capture distinctive and persistent firm attributes and “truces,” stable patterns that diffuse conflict among interests.

    Personally, I favor the term “routines.” Routines enable coordinated action by enhancing the reliability with which actors predict others’ behavior (Cohen et al. 2006; Cohendet and Llerena 2003: 274). I particularly like recent work by Martha Feldman and others emphasizing routines as more than patterned behaviors, but as ongoing, “effortful accomplishments.” Feldman observes, “One can think of routines as flows of connected ideas, actions, and outcomes. Ideas produce actions, actions produce outcomes, and outcomes produce new ideas. It is the relationship between these elements that generates change” (Feldman 2000: 613). A few cites:

    Feldman, Martha S., and Brian T. Pentland. 2003. Reconceptualizing Organizational Routines as a Source of Flexibility and Change. Administrative Science Quarterly 48.

    Feldman, Martha. 2000. “Organizational Routines as a Source of Continuous Change.” Organization Science. 11(6):611-629.

    James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology.

    March, James G. and Herbert Simon. 1958. Organizations. New York: Wiley.

    Nelson, Richard R. and Winter, Sidney G. (1982). An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press

    Winter, Sidney G. 2006. “Toward a Neo-Schumpeterian Theory of the Firm.” Industrial and Corporate Change.15(1): 125-141.

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