List key factors that have contributed to the growth of the American bureaucracy.
Explain the difficulties that surround efforts to reduce the size of the bureaucracy.
Outline the basic types of organizations that make up the bureaucracy.
Explain why presidents often feel they have inadequate control of the bureaucracy.
Describe the formal and informal processes of bureaucratic policymaking.
Explain the “rational comprehensive” model of decision making and compare it with real-world decision-making.
Give the main reasons why policies fail at the implementation stage.
Describe the three major initiatives to reform the bureaucracy.
The Bureaucracy and the Challenge of Democracy
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, mistakes by federal agencies—security vulnerabilities left unchecked by the FAA and information not made public by the FBI—drew the attention of the media and elected officials. One fundamental and controversial reform—the creation of the Department of Homeland Security—came about as a result of this criticism. Responses to September 11 illustrate the dilemma created by Americans rejecting big government but wanting the services big government provides. Every day, through the bureaucracy, the government is involved in hundreds of situations that involve conflicts among the values of freedom, order, and equality. Departments, bureaus, and agencies are required to make rules, to adjudicate, and to exercise administrative discretion to fill in the details left out of legislation passed by Congress. In their effort to achieve legislative goals, do bureaucrats go too far? Does the bureaucracy try to do too much? Is it out of control and out of touch?
From a majoritarian standpoint, the answers to these questions would seem to be yes. In recent years, the public has shown a preference for a smaller bureaucracy. Once again, however, we see the impact of pluralism on the American system. The various bureaus, agencies, and departments exist to do what some part of the population (call it a faction or an interest group) wants government to do. Often, the bureaucracy balances competing interests, thus doing a job political scientists think is essential if pluralism is to be democratic.
Efforts to reform the bureaucracy may run into trouble because of pluralist politics. Interest groups that have built up contacts with existing agencies will fight reorganization. Deregulation offers another method of reducing the bureaucracy, but it raises anew the fundamental questions related to the scope of government. It may provide greater freedom, but it may also result in inadequate protection, thus undermining order.
The large, complex mass of organizations that administer the nation’s laws and implement government policies is known as the bureaucracy. Although there is no perfect way to structure all bureaucracies, it is clear that a bureaucracy’s organization directly affects its ability to perform effectively.
Development of the Bureaucratic State
Government at all levels has grown enormously in the twentieth century. This growth results from several factors:
Increasing complexity of society and the range of functions embraced by government
Changing attitudes about government’s responsibilities to society and government’s role in the marketplace
Ambitious officials who wish to expand their organizations to serve their clients more fully
On the whole, the public has little confidence in the government, but cuts in the government’s size are difficult, since each part of the bureaucracy does a job some part of society wants done. Interest groups with a stake in an agency or department will often organize to resist cuts. Pressure to restrict the federal bureaucracy but preserve government programs has led to a gradual devolution of authority to state and local government and increasing use of private for-profit firms and non-profit organizations to deliver government services.
Bureaus and Bureaucrats
The bureaucracy is not a unified entity but a collection of dozens of government organizations, including the following:
Fifteen departments—cabinet-level organizations that cover broad areas of government responsibility and contain within them numerous subsidiary offices and bureaus
Independent agencies and regulatory commissions—not part of any cabinet department and controlled to varying degrees by the president
Government corporations—organizations that provide services, such as mail delivery and passenger rail, that could be provided by the private sector but have been made public because Congress decided it better serves the public interest
Many of the 2.8 million workers in the federal bureaucracy are part of the civil service, a system established to fill government jobs on the basis of merit rather than political patronage. The overall composition of the federal bureaucracy generally mirrors the population and a much broader spectrum of Americans are represented in higher-level civil service positions than either high-level corporate managers or high-level political appointees.
Although presidential appointees fill the top policymaking jobs in the federal bureaucracy, the bulk of civil service employees are independent of the chief executive. Even if they support the objectives of the president, agency administrators are constrained by demands from members of Congress and the scrutiny of organized groups attentive to agency policy choices.
Congress gives the cabinet-level departments and agencies it creates administrative discretion—that is, authority to make policy within certain guidelines. Sometimes the guidelines are vague. The wide latitude Congress gives the bureaucracy sometimes leads to charges that the government is out of control. But Congress does have the power to review the legislation that establishes bureaucratic organizations. It also controls the purse strings. Informal contacts between members of Congress and agency personnel also help Congress communicate its intentions to the bureaucracy.
Administrative discretion is exercised through rule-making—the quasi-legislative process of formulating and issuing regulations. Regulations have the force of law. They are created in accordance with a formal procedure that allows affected parties to register their views. Regulations serve to balance the needs of society. A regulation-writing agency (such as the FDA) may attempt to strike a compromise between interests, but frequently compromises fail to please either side.
Administrative Policymaking: Informal Politics
Real-world decision making in government does not really resemble the textbook “rational-comprehensive” model, in which administrators rank their objectives and carefully weigh the costs and benefits of all possible solutions to a problem. In practice, policymakers find that their values often conflict—that their time, information, and options are limited, and the decisions that are best in theory may in reality be politically impracticable. Policymaking becomes a matter of “muddling through” and tends to be incremental, with policies changing only very gradually over time.
Bureaucracies develop written rules and regulations to promote efficiency and fairness. In addition, certain unwritten rules and norms evolve, influencing the way people act on the job. Employees in a bureaucracy—the bureaucrats—wish to advance their careers, and as a result they may avoid rocking the boat—that is, engaging in behavior that might violate written or unwritten canons.
Problems in Implementing Policy
Policies do not always do what they are designed to do. To find out why, it is necessary to look beyond the process of policymaking, to policy implementation. Policies may fail because the directives concerning them or their implementation may be vague, or because lower-level officials have too much discretion. Programs may fail because of the complexity of government; the necessary coordination among federal agencies or among federal, state, and local agencies may be impossible to achieve. Policies may also fail because policymakers overestimate the capacity of an agency to carry them out. While bureaucrats have often been criticized for having too much discretion, more recently critics have charged that bureaucrats need more flexibility to be able to tailor their solutions to fit the specific context.
Reforming the Bureaucracy: More Control or Less?
Because organization makes a difference in a bureaucracy’s ability to achieve its goals, people in government often tinker with organizational designs to make bureaucracy more effective. Three different reform strategies have emerged in recent years: deregulation, competition and outsourcing, and performance standards. The use of performance standards was mandated when Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act. The act requires each agency to develop strategic plans describing overall goals, objectives, and performance plans, and to publish reports with performance data on each measure.
competition and outsourcing
Government Performance and Results Act of 1993
Research and Resources
The U.S. government bureaucracy is large and complex, but there are some good reference tools to help you make sense of it. The United StatesGovernment Manual, published annually and billed as the official handbook of the federal government, contains detailed information on all three branches of government as well as extensive material on departments and agencies. Typically, each agency description provides a list of the principal officials, a summary of the purposes and role of the agency, an outline of the legislative or executive functions, and a description of the agency’s activities. In the back, the manual offers organizational charts of each agency it describes. It is now available on the Internet in searchable form at <http://www.gpoaccess.gov/gmanual/index.html>. For links to home pages of individual federal departments and agencies, check out: <http://www.gpoaccess.gov/agencies.html>
Congressional Quarterly’s Federal Regulatory Directory, 11th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press 2003) contains much of the same information found in the United States Government Manual, though this work is not updated as frequently. It does have some other useful features, however. It opens with an introductory essay on the regulatory process, exploring the history of regulation and current trends and issues. There are detailed profiles on major regulatory agencies, including analyses of their past histories, current issues, and future prospects. Biographical sketches of major administrators within each agency are included also.
Using Your Knowledge
1. Using the Federal Regulatory Directory and the United States Government Manual, prepare a profile of at least two government departments. Outline the functions, present status, and future prospects of each. How large are their budgets? How many persons does each employ? Have these figures increased or decreased? Have its responsibilities grown or decreased recently?
2. Visit the websites for the agencies you profiled in question 1. Describe the information presented. Note the similarities and differences between the sites. What types of users would each site serve best?
As the chapter noted, the national government employs people all over the country in virtually every field imaginable. If you are interested in government, you may want to consider a career working in one of the many departments, bureaus, or agencies of the federal system. As we noted in the text, all federal government employees (except for a very few political employees at the highest levels) are part of the civil service merit system. What should you do if you are interested in joining their ranks?
In the past, the Office of Personnel Management played the biggest role in the hiring process, but now the process is more decentralized. This means that in addition to visiting the Federal Job Information Center in your area and filling out Standard Form 171 (SF 171), the basic résumé form required in order to apply for most federal jobs, you’ll also want to contact particular agencies where you think your talents and interests could be put to use. If you are interested in positions in the area of international affairs, be sure to look at the Getting Involved section in Chapter 20.
There are many useful resources to help you learn more about the federal job-seeking process. Here are two:
Krannich, Ronald, and Caryl Krannich. Find a Federal Job Fast! Cutting the Red Tape of Getting Hired. 4th ed. Woodbridge, VA: Impact Publications, 1998.
Damp, Dennis. The Book of U.S. Government Jobs: Where They Are, What’s Available, and How to Get One. 8th ed. McKees Rock, PA: Bookhaven Press. 2002.
Be warned: despite the title of the Krannich and Krannich book, getting a government job is not always a quick process.
Sample Exam Questions
1. How many agencies and employees were merged together to form the new Department of Homeland Security?
a. 8 agencies and over 55,000 employees
b. 11 agencies and over 60,000 employees
c. 18 agencies and over 120,000 employees
d. 22 agencies and over 170,000 employees
e. 25 agencies and over 230,000 employees
2. How large is the U.S. government compared to other western democracies?
a. relatively large
b. relatively small
c. offers a more extensive array of services
d. imposes a higher tax burden on citizens
e. employs a higher proportion of the nation’s workers
3. What do we call the practice of filling government jobs with political allies or cronies?