Bureaucracy and Bureaucrats Americans depend on government bureaucracies to accomplish most of what we expect from government, and we are oftentimes critical of a bureaucracy’s handling of its responsibilities. Bureaucracy is essential for carrying out the tasks of government. As government bureaucracies grew in the twentieth century, new management techniques sought to promote greater efficiency.
The reorganization of the government to create the Department of Homeland Security and the Bush administration’s simultaneous push to contract out jobs to private employers raises the question as to whether the government or the private sector can best manage our national security. Ironically, the criticism of the bureaucracy may be a product of the nature of the organization itself. I. Why do bureaucracies exist? Why are they needed?
Bureaucracy is nothing more or less than a form of organization defined by certain attributes, including a division of labor, allocation of functions, allocation of responsibility, supervision, the purchase of full-time employment, and the identification of career within the organization. Bureaucracy literally means “rule by desks”; in other words, a government by clerks. The goals of a bureaucracy are efficiency and productivity, which are gained through specialization and repetition of tasks.
The basic characteristics that define the concept of bureaucracy are found in virtually all organizations, whether public or private, military or religious, for profit or nonprofit. Most organizations are bureaucracies, and most of their employees are bureaucrats. II. Has the federal bureaucracy grown too large? Despite the general belief that the federal bureaucracy has grown too large and unresponsive, the size of the federal bureaucracy has declined over the past thirty years and presidents of both parties have called for the trend to continue.
Since the 9/11 attacks, government spending has dramatically increased but is not much higher as a percentage of GDP than it was in 1960. III. What roles do government bureaucrats perform? Bureaucrats communicate with one another, maintain paper for accountability, interpret the law, and implement the objectives of the organization. Congress has delegated a significant amount of authority to the federal bureaucracy by granting the agencies the power to draft federal regulations (rule making) and to adjudicate conflicts over these regulations.
Presidents use the rule-making power of bureaucracies to shape policy. Before 1883, bureaucrats were political appointees—the product of the spoils system. The Civil Service Act of 1883 created the merit system by requiring that appointees to public office be qualified for the job, thereby ending the spoils system. The Organization of the Executive Branch I. What are the agencies that make up the Executive Branch? The federal bureaucracy consists of the Cabinet departments, independent agencies, government corporations, and independent regulatory commissions.
The Cabinet departments are usually headed by a secretary (the Department of Justice is headed by the Attorney General), but it is the bureau level that has the responsibility for interacting with the public. Independent agencies exist outside the structure of the Cabinet departments and carry out functions that are too costly for the private sector such as NASA. Government corporations (the U. S. Postal Service and Amtrak) are designed to run like a business and, we hope, generate a profit. Independent regulatory commissions regulate some aspect of society; for example, the Federal Communications Commission regulates the broadcast media.
II. How can one classify these agencies according to their missions? One of the most important activities of the federal bureaucracy is to promote the public welfare for example, through the Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration. A number of departments and agencies carry out functions that benefit a particular group or clientele—the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, and the Department of Veteran Affairs. A number of agencies exist to provide internal and external national security.
The newly created Department of Homeland Security is charged with maintaining domestic security but has failed to effectively combine the diverse agencies under its auspices. The State Department, the Defense Department and the CIA are central to maintaining external national security. The 9/11 Commission gave the Bush administration low grades for many of its efforts on completing the 41 recommendations in the commission’s 2004 report. Controversy about the powers given in the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s push to claim even more authority has led to widespread criticism and a movement to roll back the government’s powers.
Criticism of the Bush administration’s policies has grown after revelations of secret CIA prisons and illegal wiretaps. Finally, other agencies exist to maintain a strong economy and oversee the tax system—the Department of Commerce, the Federal Reserve System, the Department of Treasury, and the IRS. The IRS is a frequent target of criticism, the most recent being their bias toward wealthy taxpayers who are more adept at hiding their money, though the IRS has promised to step up enforcement activities against tax shelters. Can Bureaucracy Be Reinvented?
I. Can government be made more responsive and efficient? Why or why not? In 1993, President Clinton launched the National Performance Review (NPR)—a part of his promise to reinvent government—which made governmental courses of action more efficient, accountable, and effective. Observers believe the NPR made progress by simplifying standards and procedures, speeding up bureaucratic processes, and saving money. When President Bush took office, he changed directions and began a process of shifting federal jobs to the private sector.
The number of federal civil servants has shrunk since then, but the “true size” of government has actually increased by 32 percent from 1999 to 2005. Can the Bureaucracy Be Reduced? I. What methods have been used to reduce the size and the role of the federal bureaucracy? One method of reducing the bureaucracy is to terminate an agency; however, clientele support has made this option essentially impossible. Devolution or the downsizing of the federal government by delegating the implementation of rograms to state and local governments is controversial, given charges that it promotes a race to the bottom. Privatization, or turning programs over to private companies who carry out government services under government supervision, is another way to reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy. However, there is no evidence that privatization saves the government money, as illustrated by the numerous allegations of overcharges by contractors such as Halliburton.
Furthermore, concerns about oversight and rules of engagement for the more than 48,000 private security personnel in Iraq raises troubling national security questions Can Bureaucracy Be Controlled? I. How do the president and Congress manage and oversee the bureaucracy? The president as chief executive has certain powers over the bureaucracy, including budget and personnel powers; however, these powers are limited because of the incremental nature of the budget and civil service protections.
Congress has the power of the purse, oversight responsibility, and ultimate legislative authority over the programs administered by the federal bureaucracy—but delegation of rule-making power has greatly diminished the ability of Congress to control the bureaucracy. Congress has oversight authority, but has been less willing to use it, especially after the attacks of September 11. Thinking Critically about Responsible Bureaucracy in a Democracy Ultimately, the key to bureaucratic responsibility is congressional legislation.
When Congress enacts vague legislation, agencies must resort to their own interpretations. The president and the federal courts, as well as interest groups, often step in to tell agencies what the legislation intended. This creates confusion as to whom and for what is the agency accountable. Oversight is the effort by Congress, through hearings, investigations, and other techniques, to exercise control over the activities of executive agencies. Presidents and Congress struggle to find the proper balance between democratic accountability and administrative effectiveness.