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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

Fellow Spotlight: Bill Gormley

Fellow Spotlight: Bill Gormley

BILL GORMLEY is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University. Until 2023, he taught public policy and government courses and co-directed the Center for Research on Children in the United States (CROCUS) at Georgetown. He has written many scholarly books, including Taming the Bureaucracy (Princeton University Press), which won the Louis Brownlow Book Award. His latest book, Too Many Bridges, due out in July 2024, is a murder mystery set in his hometown of Pittsburgh. His website is

What has been the focus of your writing and research? A common denominator has been bureaucracy – its strengths and its weaknesses. I’ve written about public utility commissions, childcare inspectors, environmental agencies, and schools. I’ve also written a lot about early childhood education policy, focusing on Tulsa’s remarkable universal pre-K program, where we’ve tracked student outcomes from pre-K to college. Recently, as the author of a murder mystery, I’ve investigated how local police departments actually work. Building on that, I’ve launched a podcast, Profs on Cops, which gives listeners a chance to learn from criminologists doing cutting-edge work on police practices in troubled times. To me, the bureaucracy is endlessly fascinating and undeniably important.

What’s the difference between writing fiction and writing non-fiction? When you write a scholarly book or article, you usually have a blueprint and you stick with it. For example, when writing Taming the Bureaucracy, I knew that I would have an analytical framework chapter, a historical chapter, chapters on interest representation, due process, management, policy analysis, federalism and oversight, and a conclusion. In contrast, when writing Too Many Bridges, I began with an idea (that a bridge relevant to a murder investigation might have a distinctive sound) and started writing. At times, my characters took charge. That’s when you know you’re really cooking! In the lingo of mystery writers, I’m more of a “pantser” than a “plotter.” The key to a “seat of the pants” approach is improvisation: if you see an opportunity, take it! Don’t get locked into a master plan.

How do mystery writers portray bureaucracies in their books? In most mysteries, “street-level” bureaucrats such as police detectives lock horns with their bosses. There’s lots of conflict. Sometimes detectives go too far, and they get fired or suspended. Police bureaucracies occasionally look functional, even heroic. Louise Penny’s books fit that description and many of Ann Cleeves’ books. In contrast, Mick Herron skewers spy agencies by portraying them as vicious and venomous and by imagining a “rubber room” (Slough House) where burnt-out bureaucrats are put out to pasture. Most mystery writers portray detectives as flawed individuals who nevertheless manage to solve difficult cases (e.g., Inspector Morse).

Can you recommend any mysteries by lesser-known authors? Yes! Beyond the Truth by Bruce Coffin. The author is a former Portland, Maine cop. All of his books have the ring of authenticity and are very well-plotted. Circle of Influence by Annette Dashofy. Crime-solvers don’t have to be cops. Why not an EMT? Zoe Chambers is a feisty, dogged investigator in rural Pennsylvania, often a step ahead of the local police. Lovable characters, a great series. Dead Drop by James L’Etoile. This is a riveting, timely story about immigration and human trafficking on the Arizona/Mexico border. The author is a former California prison warden who knows the criminal mind. Finally, The Last Sin by K.L. Murphy. I love stories with wrenching ethical dilemmas and this is a great example of that genre, set in Washington, D.C. Sometimes a Catholic priest is the one who needs to do the repenting.

What has been your favorite course to teach? I’ve taught many fun courses over the years, but my favorite is Federalism & Intergovernmental Relations in the U.S. The balance of power between the federal government and the states is constantly being renegotiated. It’s truly dynamic. And the consequences are profoundly important. Federalism is in trouble because of the decline of local newspapers, which used to inform citizens and keep state and local governments accountable. Also, we’ve seen escalating warfare between state governments and the federal government in recent years. We have to figure out how to make federalism work in a highly politicized, intensely partisan environment with lots of sketchy claims and misinformation clouding our thinking.

Who has been an influential mentor for you? I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful mentors. At the University of Pittsburgh, Bert Rockman helped me to grasp the appeal of elite interviews and statistical research animated by strong theories. At UNC-Chapel Hill, Duncan MacRae offered an abundance of wisdom and helped me to understand that public policy analysis, at its best, embraces multiple disciplines, not just one or two. At the UW-Madison, Joel Grossman helped me to appreciate that there is no such thing as a boring class (Administrative Law), only boring instructors! Joel was a master teacher who could have made a lecture on tofu sound interesting. As a mystery writer, I’ve gotten lots of great advice from published authors. Especially from members of the Mystery Writers of America (Mid-Atlantic Chapter) and Sisters in Crime (Pittsburgh Chapter). It makes me feel like a graduate student again, in a good way. Lots of advice, but no comps to take!

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