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The Federal Bureaucracy: Administering the Government

This chapter describes the nature of the federal bureaucracy and its personnel. It clarifies the bureaucracy's responsibilities, organizational structure, and personnel management practices. This chapter also focuses on bureaucratic policymaking from the standpoint of the ways in which agencies acquire the power they need in order to maintain themselves and their programs. It examines the power imperatives of the bureaucracy, and the related issue of bureaucratic accountability. These are the main points of the chapter:

  • Bureaucracy is an inevitable consequence of complexity and scale. Modern government could not function without a large bureaucracy. Through authority, specialization, and rules, bureaucracy provides a means of managing thousands of tasks and employees.
  • The bureaucracy is expected simultaneously to respond to the direction of partisan officials and to administer programs fairly and competently. These conflicting demands are addressed through a combination of personnel management systems--the patronage, merit, and executive leadership systems.
  • Bureaucrats naturally take an "agency point of view," which they promote through their expert knowledge, support from clientele groups, and backing by Congress or the president.
  • Although agencies are subject to control by the president, Congress, and the judiciary, bureaucrats are able to achieve power in their own right. The issue of bureaucratic power and responsiveness is a basis of current efforts at "reinventing" government.

Bureaucracy is a method of organizing people and work that is based on the principles of hierarchical authority, job specialization, and formalized rules. As a form of organization, bureaucracy is the most efficient means of getting people to work together on tasks of great magnitude and complexity.

The United States could not be governed without a large federal bureaucracy . The day-to-day work of the federal government, from mail delivery to provision of social security to international diplomacy, is done by the bureaucracy. The federal bureaucracy's 2.5 million employees work in roughly four hundred major agencies, including cabinet departments, independent agencies, regulatory agencies, government corporations, and presidential commissions.

Yet the bureaucracy is more than simply an administrative giant. Bureaucrats exercise considerable discretion in their policy decisions. In the process of implementing policy--which includes initiation and development of policy, evaluation of programs, delivery of services, regulation, and adjudication--bureaucrats make important policy and political choices.

Each agency of the federal government was created in response to political demands on national officials. During the country's earliest decades, the bureaucracy was small, a reflection of the federal government's relatively few responsibilities outside the areas of national security and commerce. As the economy became increasingly industrialized and its sectors increasingly interconnected in the late nineteenth century, the bureaucracy expanded in response to the demands of economic interests and the requirement for regulation of certain business activities. During the Great Depression, social-welfare programs and further business regulatory activities were added to the bureaucracy's responsibilities. After World War II, the heightened role of the United States in world affairs and public demands for additional social services fueled the bureaucracy's growth. Government agencies continued to multiply in the 1970s in response to broad consumer and environmental issues as well as to technological change. The bureaucracy's growth slowed in the 1980s because of federal budget deficits and the philosophy of the Reagan administration.

Because of its origins in political demands, the bureaucracy is necessarily political. An inherent conflict results from two simultaneous but incompatible demands on the bureaucracy: that it respond to the demands of partisan officials but also that it administer programs fairly and competently. These tensions are evident in the three concurrent personnel management systems under which the bureaucracy operates: patronage, merit, and executive leadership.

The federal bureaucracy is actively engaged in politics and policymaking. The fragmentation of power and the pluralism of the American political system result in a policy process that is continually subject to conflict and contention. These is no clear policy or leadership mandate in the American system, so government agencies must compete for the power necessary to administer their programs effectively. Accordingly, civil servants tend to have an agency point of view: they seek to advance their agency's programs and to repel attempts by others to weaken their position. An agency perspective comes naturally to top-level bureaucrats. Their roles, long careers within a single agency, and professional values lead them to believe in the importance of their agency's work. In promoting their agency, civil servants rely on their policy expertise, backing of their clientele groups, and support from the president and Congress. When they are faced with a threat from either the president or Congress, agencies can often count on the other for support. Institutional rivalry, constituency differences, and party differences are the chief reasons for conflict between the president and Congress over control of the bureaucracy.

Because bureaucrats are not elected by the people they serve yet wield substantial independent power, the bureaucracy's accountability is a major issue. The major checks on the bureaucracy are provided by the president, Congress, and the courts. The president has some power to reorganize the bureaucracy, appoints the political head of each agency, and has management tools (such as the executive budget) that can be used to limit bureaucrats' discretion. Congress has influence on bureaucratic agencies through its authorization and funding powers and through various devices (including sunset laws and investigative hearings) for holding bureaucrats accountable for their actions. The judiciary's role in the bureaucracy's accountability is smaller than that of the elected branches, but the courts do have the authority to force agencies to act in accordance with legislative intent, established procedures, and constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Nevertheless, the bureaucracy is not fully accountable. Bureaucrats exercise substantial independent power, a situation that is not easily reconciled with democratic values, particularly the principle of self-government. Efforts to reconcile the conflicting requirements of bureaucracy and democracy must take into account society's interest in having both competent administration and responsive administration.

Efforts are currently under way to scale down the federal bureaucracy. This reduction includes cuts in budgets, staff, and organizational units, and also involves changes in the way the bureaucracy does its work. This process is a response to political forces and also new management theories.

Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:

Describe the major functions of the executive bureaucracy.
Identify the major types of organizations within the federal bureaucracy and provide examples of each type.
Contrast the patronage, merit, and executive leadership systems. Discuss the aims and weaknesses of each system.
Comment on how the bureaucracy functions as a creative political agent and policymaker.
List some of the ways in which bureaucratic agencies are held accountable for their activities. Evaluate the success of these measures.
Define and comment on "the agency point of view." Describe the implications this view holds for bureaucratic politics, policymaking, and accountability.
Discuss the inherent conflict between bureaucratic power and democratic values.
Assess the impact and effectiveness of "downsizing" the federal bureaucracy.

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