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Bureaucracy in Action

Before he became President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson had pursued a career as a professor of political science at Princeton University. He had contributed a strain of thought which is still active: He strongly divided policy-making from administration. Reflecting the earlier tradition of British civil service, Wilson considered policy-making a higher order activity than administration and recommended that policy-making should be distinctly separated from administration.

This might be a helpful design in theory, but not always clear in actual practice. Wilson claimed that administrators were not only subordinate to policy-makers but were presumably value-neutral and efficient. They carried out policy and did not make policy.

Recall that we have already argued that planners and analysts also do not make policy, but assist the policy-makers formulate alternatives, but do not decide among those alternatives. We assume that policy makers are accountable to the electorate either by direct election or by appointment by elected officials. If Wilson's model was wrong, than bureaucracies would control our lives, which could never happen.

Wholesale delegation to administrative agencies and the failure to articulate precise and operational goals, objectives, procedures, and plans expands the authority granted to administrative agencies. Further, legislation may specifically authorize broad powers to administrative agencies, often in regulatory matters or other highly technical applications. Often, this is due to the inability of the legislative process to build a majority for a coherent course of action or reflects the technical complexity of the policy area. The policy-makers might settle for or even prefer deliberate vagueness as a momentary expedient to finalize a law, thus authorizing a policy which often proves unworkable, unsatisfactory, or even contradictory to other policies. Still, it is seen as action, can be defended by a variety of rhetorics, gives something to almost everybody, gets the issue off the agenda for now, and, anyway, will soon be forgotten. If the policy fails, however, it will come back. But that is another day.

During the nineteenth-century heyday of French and British world power, social structures which held together a newly defined territory, a nation, needed to be developed. Efficiency and fairness under the impartial rule of law suggested that these social structures would not be easily pressured by forces outside the control of the policy-makers, that they were predictable, and that they remained under political, often centralized, control. The social structure invented was called the bureaucracy.


Bureaucracies are generally the instruments which implement public policy. Bureaucracies are necessary for policies to be carried out with some predictability, equity, and due process. To understand how policy works, we must have some idea as to how bureaucracies operate. There is a larger reason for understanding bureaucracy: it is a primary structural form of modern society.

Literally, the term bureaucracy means the rule of government. It defines a form of social organization which provides both the structures and the procedures which promote efficiency and equity in the pursuit of organizational goals (Krushke and Jackson, 7). According to the nineteenth century German sociologist, Max Weber, bureaucracy was characterized by its span of control, functional specialization, hierarchy, formality, and presumed impartiality. In our society, large scale organizations in both the public and the private sectors require bureaucracy, but the term, especially in its pejorative interpretation, has been associated with arbitrary rule by non-elected, unaccountable government agencies.

Quite possibly, the antipathy to government, especially federal government, may reflect widespread disdain for what is considered its bureaucratic face. For many, the idea of bureaucracy has become laden with highly negative connotations, often symbolizing government as a whole. The term may suggest tortuous and arcane procedures, high-handed authority, tunnel vision, rigid applications of procedures, petty and unresponsive civil servants, and agencies characterized by slow, uncoordinated, ponderous, blundering inaction. Most people detest bureaucracy, from inside and from outside: red tape, punctiliousness, delay, extra social overhead, unresponsive monopoly of authority; statism; illegitimate power over our lives. This is the dystopia of Kafka, the faceless totalitarian rationality which destroys the human spirit.

Even serious students of bureaucracy, free from exaggerated claims of its dysfunctions and sensitive to its positive contributions, recognize such latent concerns as the accumulation of power without accountability, the self-interested tendency to survive and to expand, and the lack of responsiveness to individual citizens. Yet, despite its problems --- which may be overemphasized --- bureaucratic organizations are essential to the successful implementation of most, but not all, public policy.

In this view, the original goals are displaced by what is most important for the bureaucracy itself: its survival. In fact, organization theory, a branch of sociology, often assesses the success of a bureaucracy by the increased resources it commands, not the results it produces. Bureaucracies have other major dysfunctions: they are hard to get rid of and they cost money to operate. Both of these have implications for policy. Further, as goal displacement sets in, the key to understanding the purpose of an agency is simply its survival, if not proliferation and extension.

Despite popular opinion which asserts that government, particularly the federal government, has gotten too big, only about four percent of the labor force is employed by the federal government, far smaller than public employment in all other industrialized nations. Nonetheless, the negative connotations of bureaucracy contribute to the current withdrawal of public confidence in the efficacy of public policy.

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The Public Policy Web, July 12, 2001
©by Wayne Hayes, Ph.D., ®ProfWork
October 27, 2002