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8. Bureaucaracy: A Controversial Necessity, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources



Topic Overview Unit 8

Bureaucracy: A Controversial Necessity

Learning Objectives

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 countries.

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 fairly.

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.


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