Bureaucracy: A Controversial Necessity
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Define bureaucracy.
- Explain the growth of government bureaucracies.
- Identify and illustrate the sources of bureaucratic power.
- Illustrate the wide variety of bureaucratic activities.
- Describe the often overlapping and contradictory expectations
placed on bureaucracies.
Few people attach much importance to bureaucracies, but as this
unit shows, bureaucracies are the key link between policymakers
and the beneficiaries of policy decisions. The unit also demonstrates
that, contrary to general impressions, bureaucrats are not simply
office workers located in some headquarters building, but are often
on the front lines directly delivering services. Finally, the unit
demonstrates that the pathologies often associated with bureaucracies
are frequently the product of contradictory expectations dictated
by policy makers.
Today's executive branch bureaucracy is composed of hundreds of
agencies employing millions of clerical, technical, service, managerial,
and professional workers. Although the reach of executive bureaucracy
is vast, its constitutional sources of power and authority are brief.
Article II of the U.S. Constitution vests the executive power
of government in the president, who is given the responsibility
to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. The president
appoints the principal officers of the executive departments (subject
to Senate confirmation) and periodically seeks their opinions relating
to the duties of their respective offices.
A bureaucracy is an organization with a clear hierarchy of
authority, employees with specific job titles and descriptions,
and formal procedures for hiring, promoting, and firing workers.
Bureaucrats are those who work in bureaucracies. Most federal
bureaucrats are hired through the civil service, which is
a merit-based (as opposed to patronage) employment system. Contrary
to popular perceptions, the vast majority of federal workers are
located outside of Washington, D.C.
The national government's bureaucracy has grown significantly over
the last 200 years. In 1802 there were just under 10,000 federal
employees, most of whom were in the armed forces. By 2002 that number
had grown to almost 3 million civilian employees. While most Americans
believe the bureaucracy is too large, the actual size of the U.S.
government is proportionally smaller than most large industrialized
The growth of bureaucracy has many causes, including:
An increasing population and growing complexity of society.
For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was
not needed before the advent of rocket technologies.
A greater public acceptance of business regulations such
as product safety rules and environmental standards.
A general public acceptance of social welfare programs including
Social Security and Medicare.
The bureaucracy's own need to expand its services.
There are several basic types of government organizations that make
up the executive branch bureaucracy. The largest units of the executive
branch are departments, the appointive heads of which collectively
make up the president's cabinet. Independent agencies
are smaller than and independent from the cabinet departments. Some
independent agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, are
controlled by the White House. Others, like regulatory commissions
(e.g., the Federal Communications Commission) are not under direct
White House control. Government corporations (e.g., the U.S.
Postal Service) are owned by the federal government, but have more
control over their operations and personnel systems.
A popular misnomer is that bureaucrats just carry out the laws passed
by Congress and the president, without any discretion or political
motives. In reality, bureaucracies are inherently political organizations
with wide discretion. The political nature of bureaucracy stems
in part from the fact that bureaucrats must answer to the president,
who expects the bureaucracy to respond to his policy wishes, and
Congress, which controls a bureaucracy's budget.
Many bureaucrats exercise particular discretion in implementation,
rule making, and adjudication. Implementation means to carry
out the law. Often Congress and the president will pass laws that
set broad goals but leave the details of how to reach those goals
to bureaucratic agencies. Rule making entails bureaucrats
taking the broad policy directives of Congress and devising specific
rules that everyone must follow. For example, if the law states
that businesses must obtain a license to operate in several states
at once, rules will describe the steps businesses must take to obtain
the license and the penalties that result if they don't. Adjudication
is a process where rules and their application can be challenged,
and a hearing is conducted to determine if the rules were applied
Because bureaucracies are often seen as unresponsive and inefficient,
they are frequently reformed. Some reforms, like the Government
Performance and Results Act, involve the reorganization and
reinvention of government agencies to make them more efficient and
their employees more accountable. Others reforms stress the need
to privatize some government services. Although reforms often help,
they sometimes fail to deal with an underlying problem: contradictory
demands made on bureaucracies.