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10.8: What Are the Purpose and Function of Bureaucracies?

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Explain the purpose and characteristics of bureaucracies.
    • Differentiate between patronage (politically based appointments) and civil service (merit-based appointments) within bureaucracies.
    • Explain how bureaucracies function within their political framework.
    • Describe the rulemaking process and its importance to policy formation.
    • Analyze how individual actors play a role or have an impact in bureaucratic rule.
    A group of officials sit around a conference table, surrounded by other seated observers who look on.
    Figure 10.14 The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) meets to discuss decommissioning a nuclear power plant in 2014. (credit: “NRC Discusses Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning - July 15, 2014” by Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    Bureaucracies present a challenge to the claim that individual actors matter. The term bureaucracy literally means “rule by desks.” It is an institution that is hierarchical in nature and exists to formulate, enact, and enforce public policy in an efficient and equitable manner. Of all governmental structures, bureaucracies likely have the most negative image. Their functions and operation have been described using terms like “red tape,” “mindless rules,” “impersonal,” and “slow-moving.” Indeed, in the movie Zootopia, DMV workers are portrayed as sloths. Yet, bureaucracies perform important tasks, allowing governments to function effectively and efficiently.

    The Importance of Bureaucracies

    Before the 1900s, especially in Europe and the Americas, government employees were small in number, and their impact was minimal. In China, however, bureaucracy has a long history, stretching back to the Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE). Many of the characteristics of modern day bureaucracy were present then.62 Today, in all parts of the world, government employees are significant in number, and bureaucracy affects people’s daily lives. For example, bureaucrats in Brazil number over nine million. There are even individuals known as despachantes, or “expediters,” who help individuals navigate the maze of Brazilian bureaucracy. Indeed, in Brazil the government is the largest employer.

    Show Me the Data
    A bar graph shows public sector employment as a percent of all employment for select countries. At the low end of the graph is Brazil, where 12.1% of total employment is in the public sector. At the high end of the graph is Finland, where 30.6% of all employment is in the public sector. In the United States, 20.9% of all employment is in the public sector.
    Figure 10.15 The public sector is often the largest employer in a country, and it may employ upwards of 25% of all workers. (data source: Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators, The World Bank; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

    In the United States, the largest private employer is Walmart, with about 2.2 million employees. By contrast, when employment across all levels of government is considered (local, state, and federal), the number of government employees in the US, excluding military personnel, is more than 10 times the number of Walmart employees. As Figure 10.15 shows, the United States is not unique in having a sizable bureaucracy.

    The Characteristics of Bureaucracies

    German sociologist and political economist Max Weber identifies six characteristics of a bureaucracy:63

    • Hierarchy or hierarchical authority
    • Job specialization or division of labor
    • Formalized rules
    • Maintenance of files or records
    • Impersonality
    • Professionalization

    In addition to the above characteristics, a key bureaucratic concept that emerged with civil service is “neutral competence.” Embracing these characteristics, bureaucracies function to both form and implement policy. Additionally, the characteristics make sure that bureaucracies function efficiently and provide the services that people need.

    Hierarchy, or hierarchical authority, refers to a chain of command whereby officials and units at the top of a bureaucracy have authority over those in the middle, who in turn control those at the bottom. The primary benefit of a hierarchy is that it speeds action by reducing conflict over the power to make decisions.

    Division of labor, or job specialization, refers to how responsibilities for all positions are explicitly defined. Within an organization, each position is clearly delineated and distinguished from other positions. Division of labor fosters efficiency because each individual is required to concentrate on a particular job.

    Often called standard operating procedures (SOP), formalized rules are established regulations within a bureaucracy. These rules explicitly state how an organization conducts its operations. The advantage of formalized rules is that they enable workers to make quick and consistent decisions because those decisions are made on the basis of preestablished guidelines rather than individual deliberation or personal inclination.

    In a systematized manner, bureaucratic agencies are required to accurately and precisely maintain files or records. Records are archived and made retrievable. These records provide a body of knowledge that can be utilized in informing future policy decisions as well as in providing service to clients of agencies. In dealing with clients, bureaucrats follow the norm of impersonality by treating all individuals fairly, equally, and impartially. This reinforces the system’s legitimacy because there is no favoritism based on perceived economic, political, or social status. Throughout the bureaucracy, an overarching norm is professionalization. Bureaucratic agencies are professional inasmuch as they make hiring and firing decisions based on merit. Related to impersonality and professionalization is the concept of neutral competence. In making decisions and administering policies, bureaucrats are policy experts following set procedures and do not consider personal, political, or professional loyalties in performing their responsibilities.64

    Political and Merit-Based Approaches to Filling the Bureaucracy

    Not only has the size of the bureaucracy changed considerably over the years, but how one enters government employment has also changed. Within the United States, the process of filling bureaucratic positions has moved away from being extremely political to becoming more of a merit system. In the 1800s, the process was known as the “spoils system.” Attributed to New York Senator William Marcy, the phrase “to the victor belong the spoils” describes the patronage of the spoils system.

    A political cartoon shows Andrew Jackson riding a pig.
    Figure 10.16 This Thomas Nast political cartoon from 1877 criticizes the spoils system associated with President Andrew Jackson. (credit: “In memoriam—our civil service as it was / Th. Nast.” by Nast, Thomas/Library of Congress, Public Domain)

    Under the patronage system, government jobs were awarded based on political loyalty. One of the reasons individuals would work for a candidate’s election was the hope of obtaining a government position because presidents had the ability to hire and fire individuals at will. President Andrew Jackson believed that this approach would result in a government that was both less corrupt and more democratic. It also suggests that government jobs did not require specialized knowledge and that virtually anyone could do the job. Of course, there were a few problems with this approach, not the least of which was that Jackson was incorrect about both the need for expertise and the hope for a more honest government.

    In 1881, a disgruntled individual who did not receive the government position he believed he was promised assassinated President James Garfield. In the wake of the president’s assassination, Congress passed the Pendleton Act of 1883, creating the civil service system through which a large percentage of government jobs are filled today. That system bases hiring and promotion decisions on merit rather than on political affiliation. Hiring decisions are now determined by formal competitive examinations. They are based not on “who you know,” but instead on “what you know.”

    The United States is not unique in adopting formal, competitive examination to fill its bureaucracy. Throughout Western Europe and parts of Asia, formal examination is used to fill civil service positions. Indeed, data demonstrate that some countries exceed the United States in terms of the professionalism of their bureaucracies. France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Nordic countries all score slightly higher on a bureaucratic professionalism scale.65 In Germany in particular, bureaucrats are highly respected for their expertise and professionalism.

    How Bureaucracies Function within the Political Framework

    Essentially, there are three policy stages: policy formation, policy implementation, and policy enforcement. It would be natural to view the policy formation stage as belonging only to legislative bodies, with bureaucracies charged with the tasks of implementing and enforcing policies, and to be sure, bureaucracies do carry out those responsibilities. But it would be a mistake to assume bureaucracies do not form policy.

    The relationship between executives and bureaucracies is a complicated one. In a hierarchical and command sense, bureaucracies typically fall under the authority of the executive branch. On the one hand, one could think of the president as the CEO of a large corporation with many departments that, on paper, report to them. On the other hand, Congress creates bureaucracies themselves through legislative action. As such, bureaucracies have more than one parent, with the legislative branch being the creator and the executive branch being the administrator. Nevertheless, bureaucracies tend to take on a life of their own and are likely to decide for themselves how best to proceed. In this sense, they have been viewed as the “prodigal child” because they are perceived to have rejected both parents and have decided what is best for themselves.66 As Truman noted: “I thought I was president, but when it comes to these bureaucrats, I can’t do a damn thing.”67

    While bureaucracies function within set procedures and guidelines, they also have relationships with other political actors. In particular, they interact with interest groups and legislatures to form and implement policy. A traditional approach to describing the relationship is the iron triangle.

    A figure of a triangle shows the interdependent relationship between Congress, the bureaucracy, and interest groups. Congress provides funding and political support for the bureaucracy, which in turn helps Congress make and execute policies. Interest groups lobby Congress to support the bureaucracy, and in return the breaucracy provides low regulation and special favors to interest groups. Interest groups provide electoral support to Congress, which in turn produces legislation and oversight friendly to those interest groups.
    Figure 10.17 The iron triangle represents the interdependent and cooperative relationships among members of Congress, interest groups, and bureaucrats. (CC BY 4.0; Rice University & OpenStax)

    Iron triangles have the following characteristics: (1) the actors have specialized knowledge, (2) the actors work in cooperation with one another rather than in opposition, and (3) they are very stable over time. As noted in the graphic, each actor receives benefits from the other actors, which contributes to a desire to maintain the status quo. Iron triangles have been justly criticized for being fairly closed to outsiders and new information, for working in relative obscurity, and for being undemocratic. Additionally, iron triangles form around a shared interest and protecting that interest, rather than around addressing an issue. In other words, membership is defined by possessing that interest. The classic example revolves around agriculture. Members of the agriculture triangle include the USDA (bureaucracy), the House Committee on Agriculture (Congress), and the American Farm Bureau (interest group). When determining policy, discussion centers on the best course of action to protect their shared interest. Of course, that is not the only way to view these relationships.

    An alternative concept is issue networks. While not denying the reality of iron triangles, the idea of issue networks recognizes that all public policy will not neatly fit into that schema. In fact, issue networks are more common today because of the multitude and complexity of public policy issues that confront a modern society. And each year seems to bring new public policy issues that could not have been anticipated. This means the concept of the iron triangle is inadequate to explain the public policy process today. Similar to iron triangles, actors in issue networks have specialized knowledge. But unlike iron triangles, issue networks are open to input from a variety of sources (such as members of the media) and are likely to include individuals with opposite viewpoints. Moreover, issue networks tend to be temporary and to form around the issue rather than around a shared interest.

    Bureaucracies and the Rulemaking Process

    When legislatures pass legislation, they often do so in broad strokes, with the process of filling in the details delegated to administrative agencies. At times, legislation may be vague. Through their rulemaking authority, agencies issue regulations following set procedures that include opportunity for public input. In the United States, the process is fairly straightforward and systematized. Once the president signs legislation into law, that law is assigned to an administrative agency. Agencies then propose rules providing specificity to the legislation. The proposed rules appear in the Federal Register, which is the “official journal of the United States Government” and is “published every Federal working day.”68 See Figure 10.18.

    A text-filled page fromThe Federal Register shows the complicated process for announcing proposed rules.
    Figure 10.18 This page from the Federal Register illustrates the process of announcing proposed rules. (credit: “The Federal Register” by The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain)

    To illustrate how bureaucracies fill in the details, consider the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act). In part, the FAA Act protects consumers against deception and ensures “that labels provide the consumer with adequate information as to the identity and quality of the product.”69 In 2011, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau proposed new regulations to add “a number of new names to the list of grape variety names approved for use in designating American wines.”70 The announcement included instructions for where to submit comments (online, by mail, or in person) as well as the time frame for comment submission. After the comment period, final rules were promulgated. In requesting a new name be adopted, petitioners were required to demonstrate that (1) the new grape variety is accepted, (2) the name of the variety is valid, (3) the variety is used in wine making, and (4) the variety is grown and used in the United States.71 Demonstrating that not all changes are substantive, the new rule corrected a misspelling in the previous regulations: Agawam had been misspelled as Agwam. Once proposed rules are published, the public has between 30 and 60 days to comment. Agencies are required to consider them and to respond to significant comments.72 A significant comment is one made by more than one individual or group. Even so, agencies are not obligated to implement any suggestions made during the comment period.

    This provides a wonderful opportunity for participatory democracy in which citizens can potentially have a direct impact on public policy. It must be emphasized that this is not a perfunctory process. While policies are generally not changed wholesale, policies do get tweaked or modified. The key questions are who participates and who influences. Generally, business groups comment at much higher rates than individuals and are the most influential groups.73 The process demonstrates that individual actors play a role, even if that role needs be funneled through group activity.

    The Relationship between the Bureaucracy and the Public

    Besides involvement in the comment period, the public interacts with the bureaucracy in a number of different ways. One commonly overlooked example of this interaction is the “street level” bureaucrat. Enforcement is an important part of the policy process. While regulations may be specific in their nature, they still need to be applied and enforced in the field. Think of the speed limit on a road people regularly drive. If it’s an interstate highway, away from cities, the speed limit might be 70. But on any given day, the actual speed limit varies depending on the state police patrolling that day. Some days, a police officer might decide that anything under 80 mph is not worthy of receiving a ticket. The next day, that may not be true. It is the police officer, as a street-level bureaucrat, who determines the policy each day.


    Arkansas Department of Transportation Inspector Who Failed to Report I-40 Bridge Damage Fired

    As the situation described in this news report suggests, the rules and procedures governing the bureaucracy are often in place for good reason.

    A routine bridge inspection of the Hernando de Soto Bridge in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2021 dramatically illustrated the potential power of individual bureaucrats. In the course of that inspection, an engineer discovered a nearly severed beam that could have resulted in catastrophic failure. Immediately, the engineer called 911 and had the bridge shut down until further inspection and necessary repairs could be made.74 The individual who had previously inspected the bridge was soon fired “because he wasn’t following proper protocol.”75 Again, within a system as standardized and structured as a bureaucracy, the individual actor matters a great deal. In this case, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the engineer who discovered the crack saved lives. This example also illustrates that rules and protocols are essential even if they are often frustrating (as, for instance, when you wait for your financial aid to be finalized or as you stand in line to get your driver’s license renewed).

    10.8: What Are the Purpose and Function of Bureaucracies? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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