Chapter Study Outline


The bureaucracy is the administrative heart and soul of government. Policies passed by authoritative decision makers are interpreted and implemented by executive agencies and departments. Created by elected officeholders, bureaucratic organizations exist to perform essential public functions both on a day-to-day basis and, especially, at times of national emergencies. Despite these efforts and functions, bureaucracy is generally unpopular in American government and often criticized as “big government” run amok.

1. Why Bureaucracy?

What is the political status of the federal bureaucracy? What is its power? How does the public view it? What essential functions do bureaucratic agencies and departments perform?

  • Public bureaucracies are full of routines that ensure that services are delivered regularly; those routines are the product of political deals among a variety of political actors.
  • Although it performs essential functions, bureaucracy is the subject of a great deal of mistrust and criticism from politicians and the American public more generally.
  • Whereas administration refers to all the ways in which human beings rationally coordinate their efforts to achieve common goals, bureaucracy refers to the actual offices, tasks, and principles of organization employed in the most formal and sustained administration.
  • Bureaucratic organization enhances efficiency by providing a hierarchical division of labor, allocating jobs and resources, and promoting the accumulation of expertise.
  • Bureaucracy represents a significant human achievement, in which public aims can be accomplished by dividing up tasks and matching them to a specific labor force that develops specialized skills, routinizing procedure, and providing necessary incentive structures and oversight arrangements.
  • Bureaucrats fulfill important roles, including implementing laws, making and enforcing rules when legislative prescriptions are vague, and settling disputes (as courts would) through administrative adjudication.
  • Bureaucracies exist, too, because Congress finds it valuable to delegate; it is common practice for legislatures to express their intent toward a certain action and to have that action fulfilled and supervised by the bureaucracy.

2. How is the Executive Branch Organized?

How are individual departments and agencies organized? What types of departments and agencies exist? How do their functions and political environments differ?

  • Cabinet departments, independent agencies, government corporations, and independent regulatory commissions are four different types of the operating parts of the bureaucratic whole.
  • Departments are organized hierarchically, with a cabinet secretary at the top, several top administrators and undersecretaries beneath him or her, a specialized bureau level, and oftentimes many divisions, offices, and units within bureaus as well.
  • “Clientele agencies” are those executive departments and agencies like, for example, the Department of Agriculture, that serve and represent particular interests in society; other examples include the Departments of Interior, Labor, and Commerce.
  • “Agencies for the maintenance of the union” are those that, in performing essential functions like securing governmental revenue and maintaining internal and external security, keep the government going; examples include the Departments of Treasury, State, Justice, and Defense.
  • “Regulatory agencies” are those that guide individual conduct by imposing disincentives designed to eliminate or restrict certain behaviors that the government deems undesirable; examples include the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission.
  • “Agencies of Redistribution,” like the Federal Reserve System and the Social Security Administration, implement fiscal, monetary, and welfare policies and, in so doing, influence the amount of money in the economy as well as who has money and credit.

3. The Problem of Bureaucratic Control

What goals and motivations do bureaucrats have? To the extent that bureaucrats and bureaucracies are agents, how is this problematic? Who are the bureaucracy’s principals and how do they exert control?

  • Bureaucrats have their own goals and motivations; most notably, economist William Niskanen proposed that bureaucrats are “budget maximizers” motivated by some combination of salary, prestige, and belief in their agency’s mission.
  • Bureaucrats and bureaucratic agencies and departments are agents; control of the bureaucracy is a good example of the principal-agent problem as elected officeholders in the legislative branch and the White House seek control over bureaucratic activities.
    • Bureaucratic agents are subject to before-the-fact control mechanisms including the appointment process and procedural controls.
    • Bureaucracies are also subject to after-the-fact control mechanisms including the provision of incentives for success and the withholding of incentives for nonperformance of a particular task.
    • These mechanisms must be employed to restrict the possibility of bureaucratic drift wherein the bureaucracy might produce policy more to its liking than to the original intention of the authoritative policy makers.
  • As the “chief executive,” the president can direct bureaucratic agencies; efforts to control the expanding executive branch helped create the “managerial” presidency.
  • Congress can promote responsible bureaucracy through oversight and the deployment and withholding of incentives.
    • Congress uses public hearings to monitor bureaucratic behavior.
    • Under some circumstances, Congress can also control the bureaucracy by re-writing legislation and altering appropriations to provide greater direction to those who must implement its policies.
    • Congress is more apt to engage in “fire-alarm” oversight, wherein members wait for citizens or interest groups to bring complaints about bureaucratic behaviors to the legislature, rather than “police patrol” oversight in which congressional committees would systematically monitor bureaucracies under their jurisdictions.
  • There are policy implications that result from the mixed messages from the elective branches of government and bureaucracy’s dual allegiances to the Congress and the president.
    • In part, these mixed messages allow bureaucrats greater discretion in making and implementing public policy.
    • Bureaucrats are more likely to attend to the needs of members of the House and Senate authorizing and appropriating committees that oversee them and the interest groups paying close attention to the policies they implement, as evident in the “distributive tendency.”

4. How Can Bureaucracy Be Reduced?

How has the American national government’s bureaucracy developed in recent years? What strategies exist to reduce the size and scope of the federal executive? What are the inherent challenges involved with each strategy?

  • Currently the national federal service includes about 2.8 million civilian and 1.4 million military employees.
  • Despite fears that the bureaucracy is growing out of hand, the federal government has hardly grown at all in the last thirty years. Overall, government is very close to the size it was in the late 1960s, and the cost of government has not grown faster than the economy.
  • Still, many Americans argue that government is too big and should be reduced; the most common efforts to reduce the bureaucracy include termination, privatization and devolution.
    • Termination—the outright elimination of government programs and the agencies that administer them—is difficult because the public is attached to the services government provides and does not want favored programs to be cut; deregulation, a related effort to reduce regulatory restraints on individual conduct, has been more popular but has only met with incremental success.
    • Reduction in bureaucracy can also be achieved through devolution—efforts to downsize the federal bureaucracy by delegating policy implementation to state and local governments.
    • Privatization—the act of moving all or part of a program from the public sector to the private sector—can also reduce the size of the federal workforce but generally does not decrease the cost of government or the scope of national government power.

5. Conclusion

Does bureaucracy work?

  • While at a theoretical level public bureaucracy is a concrete instrument of purposeful political action, at a practical level this depends greatly on the motivations of bureaucratic agents.
  • The policy principle suggests that the combination of bureaucratic arrangements and individual motivations produces commitment to interested parties that also brings distributive costs.