Miles’ Law is the principle in bureaucratic politics that one’s position in a bureaucracy determines one’s position on an issue.It is named for Rufus E. Miles, Jr., a supervisor in the Bureau of the Budget in the 1940s who told a group of subordinates that, in government agencies, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” This aphorism has important implications for the role of personnel in the Pentagon’s current push for military innovation.
A post here yesterday discussed the New America Foundation’s Jeff Eggers’ recent op-ed at Defense One, in which he argued that promoting smarter officers is the key to innovation, rather than seeking greater access to Silicon Valley’s latest technology. While Eggers is absolutely right that innovation is not solely about technology, there is only minimal evidence to suggest that smart people or “visionaries”—as military historians Allen Millett and Williamson Murray refer to them—produce military innovation. Promoting smart officers is a worthwhile endeavor on its own, but it may have little effect on innovation because of the nature of bureaucracies and what Miles’ Law tells us about the role of personnel in them.
Part of the problem with the broader discussion of military innovation, as noted in yesterday’s post, is that “innovation” is often ill-defined. While not without its flaws, perhaps the best definition of military innovation comes from a volume on innovation following the Cold War edited by MIT political scientist, and Niskanen Center adjunct scholar, Harvey Sapolsky and two of his students—Benjamin Friedman, now at the Cato Institute, and Brendan Green, now at University of Cincinnati. They describe military innovation as follows:
Innovation we define to mean significant changes in organizational tasks and rewards in the service of major change in the organizational output. Significant change is defined relative to the organization, but in the case of militaries it is clear that change, if it is to be called innovation, requires upheaval in organizational hierarchy and doctrine. A faster jetfighter changes neither who runs the Air Force now how the Air Force fights wars. In contrast, the adoption of submarine-launched ballistic missiles by the Navy gave that service a dominant role in strategic warfare, reduced greatly the interest in the U.S. acquiring better strategic bombers, and afforded submariners the opportunity, if only fleeting, to be the senior leaders in the Navy.
Sapolsky, Friedman, and Green equate innovation to economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction.” It is not, they argue, simply the adoption of new capabilities, but the “forceful abandonment of the old.”
The key aspect of this change is that it is destructive change relative to an organization’s existing structure or operations. Bureaucracies resist these kinds of changes and for good reason. Bureaucracies exist to provide stability and reduce uncertainty in the provision of a societal good. Change introduces uncertainty. Given the importance of the societal good militaries provide—security and, in extreme cases, survival—military organizations are likely to be even more resistant. If innovation is destructive change, then organizations will naturally resist it—sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.
Leaders of these organizations also have self-interested reasons for resisting change that combine with inherent bureaucratic rigidity. If where you stand depends on where you sit, and where you sit is in an organization that is structured or operates in a certain manner currently, and your authority is based on that structure or your prestige is based on applying your skill set to those operations, why would you take a position on an issue that would lead to the destruction of those structures or operations?
An extremely intelligent military officer may stymie change because it is in the organization’s interest to seek stability. Another smart officer may simply be very good at the status quo. Therefore, promoting such an officer will only enhance what the organization is already doing. A third officer may find that change, even destructive change, is in the organization’s best interest. Maybe new officers need to be smarter than those being promoted currently, as Eggers suggests, or maybe they just need to be smart enough to know what is best, based on where they sit.