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1.13: The Bureaucracy

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    Close your eyes and envision the American government. What do you see? If you are like most Americans, the faces that come to mind will be those of the most prominent actors in national politics: the president and vice president, the Speaker of the House and other congressional leaders, perhaps a Supreme Court justice or two if judicial matters are in the news. Or you might conjure up generic images of government in action: the president signing bills into law or making speeches, members of Congress arguing in the House or Senate chamber. Or you might picture the government’s distinctive architecture: the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court building.

    Photograph of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia
    The world’s second largest office building is the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense.

    Although the subjects of these visions are frequently mentioned on the news and thought about by average Americans, they represent only a small fraction of the people who make up the national government of the United States. The overwhelming majority of the government — roughly four million people, more than one out of every 100 Americans — mostly operates anonymously and out of the public eye, either in the U.S. military or as civilians in the many departments and agencies within the government’s executive branch. (Figure 13.1 below shows fluctuations in the American government’s civilian workforce since 1940). Though not as prominent as the elected and appointed officials whose names and faces are far more recognizable, they perform many tasks which are essential for carrying out government policy.

    Line chart showing millions of U.S. federal employees from 1940 to 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
    Figure 13.1: Millions of U.S. federal civilian employees, 1940–2023 (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

    The large bureaucratic organization that manages the many tasks required of America’s government is a testament to the power of collective action. It can issue millions of Social Security checks, warn citizens of an approaching tornado, launch a satellite into orbit, and kill a terrorist halfway around the world all in the same day. But it is also an unwieldy leviathan, inefficient and impersonal and unresponsive, a byzantine maze of rules and regulations and red tape that frequently thwarts politicians’ best intentions without even trying. And yet, in spite of this complexity, many of the most enduring problems of America’s bureaucracy — the things Americans hate the most about their government — can be explained by a few basic principles of human interaction that characterize all bureaucracies.

    Traits of Bureaucracies

    A bureaucracy is a formal, hierarchical organization for delegating tasks and duties. The term was coined in the 18th century to describe the French government, which at the time consisted of many administrative offices staffed by professional civil servants. Contrasted with democracy, or rule (kratia) by the people (demos), bureaucracy signified rule by officials, bureau being the French word for “desk” or “office.” (The undemocratic implication, of course, was that political power had been taken from the people and given to officials instead.)

    In the context of American politics, “the bureaucracy” usually means the vast network of departments and agencies within the executive branch of the national government. However, bureaucracies also exist at other governmental levels and in many nongovernmental aspects of society, including businesses, religious denominations, and educational institutions. Virtually anything that could be considered an organization of some sort operates more or less according to bureaucratic principles, with a leadership structure made up of multiple members with distinct duties and responsibilities.

    German sociologist Max Weber was one of the first to study the concept of bureaucracy scientifically. Recognizing that the European countries of his time increasingly relied on these complex organizations to manage governmental affairs, Weber examined several bureaucracies to determine what features contributed to their success. In doing so, he identified several traits that characterized an ideal bureaucracy.

    In Weber’s view, a bureaucracy should take the form of a hierarchy, an organizational structure in which each individual bureaucrat is superior or inferior to at least one other bureaucrat. This structure make it clear who outranks whom in the bureaucracy. It also allows for communication to flow through an orderly chain of command. Instead of the boss at the top of the hierarchy issuing orders to and receiving reports from the people at the bottom, messages are passed through the intermediate levels of the hierarchy to keep everyone’s responsibilities as manageable as possible.

    Weber’s ideal bureaucracy leverages the principle of division of labor, assigning each member a specific set of related duties. This enables specialization: instead of striving to be good at everything a bureaucracy does, each bureaucrat can concentrate on mastering a small number of skills. For a similar reason, bureaucracies should be staffed with expert officials, selected based on their ability to fulfill the duties of their positions, and their continued employment and potential promotion should likewise be based on the quality of their performance.

    Bureaucracies endeavor to rely as much as possible on rule-based decision-making. Any task performed by bureaucrats should be done according to well-defined and standardized procedures. Some discretion may be unavoidable, but bureaucrats should be made to follow strict protocols rather than improvising as much as possible, as this will ensure fair and equal treatment across different situations.

    Weber viewed bureaucracy as rational and efficient, necessary for the administration of a modern country. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that bureaucracy’s dedication to rule-based decision-making can have a dehumanizing effect on people if it makes them feel like animals or objects being processed by a machine rather than individual and unique human beings. (If your last experience with “customer service” over the telephone involved talking to someone who sounded bored, stuck to a script, and didn’t seem to recognize or care about you as a real person with wants and needs, you may have experienced a taste of bureaucracy’s potential to dehumanize.)

    Principal-Agent Problems

    Weber identified his ideal characteristics of bureaucracies based on their close relationship to bureaucratic efficiency: to the extent that a bureaucracy embodies these characteristics, it will achieve its goals in a more efficient manner. Yet even bureaucracies which meet most or all of these requirements are often still inefficient. Because of this, bureaucracies tend to have a negative reputation for being slow and bungling, hampered by “red tape” that prevents them from solving problems quickly and sensibly.

    Although their commitment to rules and protocols can be irksome, many of the problems associated with bureaucracies have less to do with the rules and more to do with the people following (or not following) those rules. A fundamental reason why bureaucracies often fail to achieve their goals is that they are rife with principal-agent problems. A principal-agent problem occurs when someone (a principal ) asks someone else (an agent) to do something but the agent’s motivations differ from the principal’s. This difference can cause the agent to perform the assigned task in a way other than how the principal would prefer it to be done.

    Any situation in which someone acts on behalf of someone else has the potential to become a principal-agent problem. When you take your car to a mechanic, order food at a restaurant, or ask your friend to dogsit for you while you are out of town, you become a principal by entrusting a task to an agent. You want the mechanic to work quickly and cheaply, the cook to wash his hands and give you generous portions, and your friend to be attentive to and careful with your dog — but the mechanic may prefer to work at a leisurely pace and overcharge you, the cook to save time by not washing his hands and money by not filling your plate, and your friend to just provide the bare minimum in pet upkeep because of how busy or lazy she is. In each case, the agent is unlikely to perform the task exactly the way you (the principal) would like it to be performed, simply because of how your motivations differ.

    Not every principal-agent relationship becomes a principal-agent problem. If a principal and agent do not differ substantially in their motivations regarding a certain task, the principal may be able to trust the agent to act as the principal himself or herself would have acted.

    Though principal-agent problems are common, principals continue to delegate tasks to agents despite being aware of motivational differences and the issues that may arise from them. They do this out of necessity: for all of the negative outcomes that can arise from principal-agent relationships, it is still often more efficient for principals to delegate tasks to agents than to do them themselves.

    Fortunately, principals are not helpless when confronted with agents who do not share their motives. First, they can monitor agents’ performance and evaluate it for quality. This can take the form of student evaluations of professors, CCTV cameras watching a store’s cash register to make sure the cashier is not stealing from the till, or a mother inspecting her child’s room for cleanliness. Second, they can reward or punish agents on the basis of their performance. This can be accomplished through a special parking place reserved for the “Employee of the Month,” a generous tip for a timely pizza delivery driver, or the impeachment of a president for committing high crimes and misdemeanors.

    Crucially, neither monitoring nor reward or punishment is by itself sufficient to solve a principal-agent problem. If agents do not expect to be rewarded or punished for good or bad performance, it will not matter how closely they are being monitored by their principals. Likewise, promises of performance-based rewards or punishments will be ineffective if no one is keeping an eye on the agents to determine whether they deserve to be rewarded or punished.

    America's Evolving Bureaucracy

    At its founding, the national government of the United States was considerably smaller than it is today. The Founders, firm believers in the principle of limited government, designed a federal system in which the national government retained only those powers considered to be indispensable, such as waging wars, coining money, and conducting diplomacy. The national bureaucracy began small: President George Washington’s Cabinet contained only three departments — State, Treasury, and War — plus the office of the Attorney General. Anything that could be handled by state governments or private individuals and organizations was considered outside the national government’s purview. Americans got little from their national government, but they also expected little from it.

    The early American bureaucracy lacked expertise as well as size. Beginning in earnest with the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1824, bureaucratic positions were routinely awarded to the president’s supporters under the spoils system. To recruit campaign volunteers and donors, presidential candidates promised prestigious government jobs (and generous government salaries) on the condition that they won the presidential election. Consequently, positions were often filled by people with no particular abilities that would qualify them to execute their new responsibilities. Even if they managed to pick up some skills on the job, they could expect to be replaced within four to eight years by an ally of the next president, likely someone with no relevant job experience. Under this system, the bureaucracy was unstable, incompetent, and corrupt, more a tool for campaigning than an effective means of implementing government policy.

    The term spoils system comes from the proverb, “To the victor go the spoils.” Spoils refers to plunder or treasure seized in a war or raid. Early U.S. presidents treated the appointed positions they could fill less as tools for effective governance and more as prizes to distribute to loyal backers.

    The flaws of the spoils system proved fatal in 1881, when Charles Guiteau, an obsessed supporter of President James Garfield who falsely believed his actions to have been crucial to Garfield’s victory, demanded to be appointed the American government’s consul (a diplomatic position akin to an ambassador) in Paris, France. After being rebuffed repeatedly, Guiteau approached Garfield at a train station and shot him twice in the back, wrongly believing that the Vice President at the time, Chester A. Arthur, would reward him with a patronage job in gratitude for elevating him to the presidency. In the aftermath of the assassination, Congress acted to dismantle the spoils system by passing the Pendleton Act in 1883, preventing presidents from firing certain bureaucrats for political reasons and instituting qualifications-based procedures for filling many bureaucratic positions. These reforms led to the development of a civil service of bureaucrats employed for their merit and expertise, rather than on the basis of political favoritism.

    The American bureaucracy evolved further in the early 20th century with the advent of Progressivism. Although it had already grown in size along with the country by hiring more personnel to deal with the nation’s increased territory and population, this growth mostly entailed performing the same tasks as before but over a larger area and for more people. By contrast, Progressives — including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt — advocated an increase in the government’s scope as well as its size, enabling it to engage in activities that were previously considered to be the responsibility of state governments or nongovernmental actors.

    The Progressives’ political philosophy contrasted starkly with the Founders’ belief in the virtues of limited government. Fearful of putting too much power in the hands of the national government, the Founders separated power among three branches and rigged the Constitution with a complex set of checks and balances to prevent its misuse. In the eyes of the Progressives, this intentionally inefficient system tied the government’s hands too much, preventing it from dealing with policy problems — the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, two World Wars — of which the Founders could never have dreamed. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a set of programs aimed at combating the Great Depression, represented an unprecedented level of government involvement in the economy, including jobs programs, wage and price controls, and government-administered pensions in the form of Social Security.

    Photograph of a sketch depicting Charles Guiteau assassinating President James Garfield in 1881
    Charles Guiteau assassinates President James Garfield in 1881, sparking the demise of the spoils system in the United States and the institution of a less politicized civil service.

    Today, Americans expect their government to do many things that Americans two hundred years ago never would have, and the bureaucracy has grown to accommodate those expectations (as evidenced by the increasing size of the president’s Cabinet shown in Figure 13.2 below). Many of these new government responsibilities, such as disaster relief, food and drug safety, and air traffic control, are relatively uncontroversial: most people accept the government’s involvement in these realms. Other new responsibilities, such as welfare programs, national education standards, and publicly-administered health insurance, are topics of frequent and fierce debate.

    Bar chart showing U.S. Cabinet departments by date and precedence from 1789 to 2023
    Figure 13.2: U.S. Cabinet departments by date and precedence, 1789–2023 (Note: Justice, as an expansion of the older Attorney General’s office, takes precedence over Interior and Agriculture.)

    What all of the executive branch’s responsibilities have in common is that they are fulfilled primarily by bureaucrats, working behind the scenes and without direct accountability to voters. This shielding from political pressure enables them to develop expertise over long careers without having to worry about suddenly being fired by the president. It also makes it exceedingly difficult to remove incompetent or corrupt bureaucrats from office, even when their misdeeds do not escape public scrutiny (which isn’t always the case).

    Divisions of the Bureaucracy

    The modern American bureaucracy is a vastly complicated array of departments, agencies, commissions, offices, and other divisions. Although no two divisions of the bureaucracy are structured identically, they can be grouped into several different types based primarily on their level of independence from presidential and congressional control.

    The vast majority of civilian employees in the American bureaucracy work for one of the 15 departments of the president’s Cabinet. These departments are headed by secretaries (or, in the case of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General) appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Presidents have a great deal of influence over Cabinet departments and can fire department heads whenever they choose. When a Cabinet secretary is fired, resigns, or dies, the position is filled by an acting secretary (usually a deputy in the same department) until a replacement can be appointed and confirmed.

    Presidents exert even more influence over the 15 offices within the Executive Office of the President, such as the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council, and the Council of Economic Advisers. Created in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the EOP is overseen by the president’s chief of staff and handles many duties not assigned to Cabinet departments. Most top positions in the EOP are not subject to Senate confirmation and can therefore be filled — or emptied — at the president’s discretion.

    Yet another portion of the bureaucracy consists of independent agencies (such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and independent regulatory commissions (such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Election Commission, and the Securities and Exchanges Commission). These are intended to be mostly independent of presidential and congressional influence. Many of their heads serve terms of fixed lengths and are therefore protected from summary firing if they displease the president.

    A small subset of the American bureaucracy is made up of government corporations. These agencies include Amtrak (which oversees passenger railroad service in the United States), the Tennessee Valley Authority (which provides electricity to parts of the southern United States), and the United States Postal Service (which delivers the mail). Government corporations depend partially on public funding to pay for their operating costs but otherwise function similarly to privately-owned businesses.

    Big Government

    When Americans complain about “big government” or the “deep state” they are mostly complaining about the bureaucracy under the executive branch of the national government. Critics often deride the bureaucracy as bloated, expensive, sclerotic, complex, and hopelessly inefficient. So-called “faceless bureaucrats,” who mostly operate in the shadows and are not accountable to the public through regular elections, are accused of incompetence, corruption, or even active sabotage against the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives in Congress and the White House.

    But as much as Americans dislike big government’s problems, they also like the benefits it offers. The expansions of bureaucratic size and scope promoted by the Progressives were controversial, but many (such as Social Security and Medicare) have become so popular over time that today most politicians are afraid to even suggest paring them back. The more people expect from government, the more tax dollars and personnel government will need to provide it — and the larger and more unwieldy government gets, the more prone it becomes to principal-agent problems.

    That the monumental and insulated nature of America’s bureaucracy lends itself to inefficiency is obvious. Congress strives to provide oversight of bureaucratic action and clear statements of its intent in laws, but there is no way to monitor the actions of an organization this massive without some of them slipping under the radar. Yet a smaller, more directly accountable one would sacrifice many of the traits of an ideal, Weberian bureaucracy. Whether a productive balance between these extremes can be struck, the American political machine as it exists today depends on constant maintenance by a vast supply of technicians — bureaucrats — to ensure that it runs smoothly.


    This page titled 1.13: The Bureaucracy is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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