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Taming the Bureaucracy: Muscles, Prayers, and Other Strategies

Taming the Bureaucracy: Muscles, Prayers, and Other Strategies

by William T. Gormley

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Americans are just emerging from one of the great reform eras in our historyan era in which we attempted to control public bureaucracies through interest representation, due process, management, policy analysis, federalism, and oversight. The United States has, in fact, undergone an institutional realignment and has emerged with a weaker, less autonomous


Americans are just emerging from one of the great reform eras in our historyan era in which we attempted to control public bureaucracies through interest representation, due process, management, policy analysis, federalism, and oversight. The United States has, in fact, undergone an institutional realignment and has emerged with a weaker, less autonomous bureaucracy. In a book that will interest not only public administration specialists but students of American government generally, William Gormley examines the consequences of the reform efforts of the 1970s and 1980s and seeks to understand why, despite an astonishing number of these efforts, we remain dissatisfied with the results.

"The American bureaucracy is beleaguered and besieged," writes Gormley. ". . . Unfortunately, the bureaucracy's critics are equally capable of blunders." The author explains our situation by analyzing a spectrum of controls ranging from catalytic to hortatory to coercive. Catalytic controls—such as proxy advocacy, environmental impact statements, and freedom-of-information acts—are most flexible, while coercive controls—such as legislative vetoes, executive orders, and judicial take-overs of state institutions—are most rigid. While recommending that controls be tailored both to issues and to bureaucracies, Gormley shows that coercive interventions (or muscles) often generate new bureaucratic pathologies without eradicating old ones. In contrast, catalytic controls (or prayers) energize the bureaucracy without predetermining a hastily crafted response.

Originally published in 1989.

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Taming the Bureaucracy

Muscles, Prayers, and Other Strategies

By William T. Gormley Jr.


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07806-9


A Framework for Analysis

The American bureaucracy is beleaguered and besieged. Its critics, from one end of the political spectrum to the other, are being applauded for their vigilance and concern. Citizens who criticize the bureaucracy are given a respectful hearing and media coverage. Politicians who criticize the bureaucracy are elected and reelected. Scholars who criticize the bureaucracy are awarded the Nobel Prize. The bureaucracy's critics have prospered because they are right on a number of counts. The bureaucracy has become enormously powerful, and that power is especially troublesome in a democracy. The bureaucracy spends a great deal of our money, and taxpayers are becoming frugal. The bureaucracy makes frequent blunders, and those mistakes have tragic consequences for many of us.

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy's critics are equally capable of making blunders. Impatient and self-righteous, they have reversed the usual sequence of target practice. Instead of "Ready, aim, fire!" their motto has been "Ready, fire, aim!" Casualties have run high. Nor are bureaucrats the only victims. In many instances, reforms have ensured that citizens are doubly victimized — first by the bureaucracy and then by the bureau-bashers.

Bureau-Bashing as a Solution

All of us are now familiar with bureaucratic pathologies. These include: (i) clientelism — agencies defer to clientele groups, demonstrating favoritism that runs contrary to the public interest; (2) incrementalism — agencies resist change and tolerate only modest departures from the status quo; (3) arbitrariness — agencies demonstrate arbitrary and capricious behavior in their handling of individual cases; (4) imperialism — agencies seek to expand their resources without regard to cost constraints; and (5) parochialism — agencies miss the "big picture" by focusing narrowly on a limited set of purposes and goals.

In response to these failings, politicians, judges, journalists, and scholars have unleashed a withering barrage of antibureaucratic rhetoric. The bureaucracy has been blamed for a wide variety of social ills, ranging from the decline of the family to the erosion of civil liberties to the disintegration of our foreign policy to the decline in our economy. But the bureaucracy's critics have moved well beyond rhetoric. As Huntington (1981) has pointed out, the 1960s and 1970s were years of remarkable reform. Although Huntington misreads the reformist mood in certain respects, he argues correctly that we have realigned our political institutions. It is my view that "bureau-bashing" has been the central focus of that institutional realignment. At a time when we could agree on little else, we agreed that the bureaucracy must be controlled.

Efforts to control the bureaucracy have dominated the institutional reform agenda at both the federal and state levels. Chief executives have championed administrative reorganization, civil service reform, new relationships between different levels of government, and policymaking through executive orders. Legislators have opted for clearer statutes, oversight, annual appropriations, legislative vetoes (acts invalidating administrative rules or regulations), and sunset laws (acts requiring the expiration of an agency or program on a fixed date). Judges have expanded the concept of procedural due process to include new property rights; they have insisted on "hybrid rulemaking" procedures that increase the formality of bureaucratic hearings; and they have invoked a strict standard of judicial review known as the "hard look" doctrine. In some instances, judges have taken over state bureaucracies, such as prisons and homes for the mentally retarded. New methods of interest representation have also developed. Ombudsmen now represent individual consumers who run afoul of the bureaucracy, while proxy advocates represent consumers as a class in policy disputes within the bureaucracy. Freedom of information statutes guarantee access to bureaucratic records, and sunshine laws require bureaucrats to hold open meetings. The New Federalism, aimed at the federal bureaucracy, has given way to controls aimed at state bureaucracies. These include partial preemptions (the federal government establishes minimum standards that all state bureaucracies must uphold); crossover sanctions (the federal government threatens a reduction in one agency's funding if another agency fails to comply with the law); cross-cutting requirements (the federal government stipulates certain requirements, such as nondiscrimination, for all state agencies that receive federal funds); and direct orders (the federal government insists that state agencies do something or refrain from doing something). Even policy analysis has been turned against the bureaucracy. Planning, Programming, and Budgeting Systems (PPBS) required agencies to group proposed expenditures according to programs rather than traditional categories, such as personnel and supplies; zero-based budgeting (ZBB) instructs agencies to reject last year's appropriation as the starting point for this year's budget exercise; environmental impact statements require agencies to specify the effects of proposed actions on the environment; and cost-benefit orders call upon agencies to choose policies that minimize costs and maximize benefits.

Unfortunately, many of these controls have backfired. Bureau-bashing, a response to the "first generation" of bureaucratic pathologies, has created a "second generation" of bureaucratic pathologies as vexing as the first. These pathologies include: (i) beancounting — agencies that focus on outputs, not outcomes, in order to generate statistics that create the illusion of progress; (2) proceduralism — agencies that adopt uniform procedures in order to rebut charges of arbitrariness and unfairness; (3) avoidance — agencies that escape restrictions by avoiding actions that raise suspicions, even when those actions seem appropriate; (4) particularism — agencies that deviate from the general rules to benefit particular people, organizations, cities, or legislative districts; and (5) defeatism — agencies that abandon public interest goals in the face of tight controls and painful insults. It would be bad enough if we substituted one set of problems for another. In many instances, however, we have created new problems without solving the old ones.

Bureau-bashing illustrates a great deal that is wrong with our approach to institutional reform. We begin with sensible premises and lurch hastily toward questionable conclusions. We pursue vaguely defined procedural values (accountability or responsiveness) without attending to their long-run implications and unintended consequences. We value quick fixes more than slow cures. We value action more than thought. We value headlines more than trend lines. We prefer morality plays to the tedium of rational discussion. Finally, we focus more on problems than on solutions. In this way we virtually guarantee that old problems will not be solved and that new problems will emerge.

This is a book about solutions to the bureaucracy problem. More specifically, it is a book about solutions that steer a middle course between bureaucratic independence and bureaucratic abolition. One premise of the book is that we need to live with the bureaucracy, though not necessarily with every bureaucracy that exists today. Deregulation may be appropriate in some instances, such as transportation and communications, where the marketplace offers the promise of real competition on a durable basis. Privatization may be appropriate in cases where the government may purchase vital services from a number of reliable, capable suppliers (e.g., garbage pick-up and job training services). Yet the bureaucracy is indispensable in a modern society. We cannot eliminate the Department of Defense (DOD) simply because of cost overruns. We cannot eliminate public utility commissions because they approve higher rates than we wish to pay. We cannot abolish police departments because the police occasionally run slipshod over our civil liberties. If neither the private sector nor another government agency can do better, then the question becomes: how can we best control the bureaucracy to improve its performance? In answering that question, it is not enough to invoke such values as accountability, responsiveness, efficiency, and effectiveness. Rather, we must think strategically, employing an approach that is purposive, comparative, and contextual.

Although much has been written about specific solutions to the bureaucracy problem, we lack analytical constructs that might enable us to transform concrete findings into abstract lessons. We also lack the habit of comparing different solutions to the same institutional problem, such as runaway spending. Instead we prefer to focus on one reform at a time. Finally, we pay little attention to political and organizational conditions that might help us to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate reforms. The aim of this book is to generate insight into the consequences of reform by appraising alternative reform strategies. This book is at once a bureaucratic impact statement, an exercise in institutional policy analysis, and a plea for greater civility in interinstitutional relations. A political system in which public officials are routinely "bashed" by other public officials is not likely to serve as a model for our youth. Instead it is likely to generate discontents as worrisome as the original problems that fueled the fires of reform.

Bureaucracy and Its Discontents

Although existing bureaucratic pathologies are numerous, two features of modern bureaucracies explain much of our distress: bureaucratic discretion and bureaucratic authority. Together they constitute the twin pillars of the administrative state from which many pathologies flow. The two elements are of course interrelated. Bureaucratic discretion would be more tolerable if the bureaucracy had less authority; bureaucratic authority would be more tolerable if the bureaucracy had less discretion. However, each problem is also discrete. To some critics concerned about authority, the bureaucracy has no business intruding into private affairs, regardless of the bureaucracy's relationship to its sovereigns; to others who are concerned about discretion, even a nonintrusive bureaucracy should be circumscribed by legislators, the chief executive, and by judges.

Prior to the twentieth century, neither bureaucratic discretion nor bureaucratic authority was much of an issue in the United States. In James Q. Wilson's words (1978: 76), "Some agencies wielding discretionary authority existed, but they either dealt with groups whose liberties were not of much concern (the Indian Office) or their exercise of discretion was minutely scrutinized by Congress (the Land Office, the Pension Office, the Customs Office)." The Progressive Movement and the New Deal changed all of that, though they did so in different ways. The Progressives, who regarded the bureaucracy as an antidote to partisan politics and to dangerous concentrations of corporate power, aggressively promoted bureaucratic autonomy. First, they established independent regulatory commissions (e.g., public utility commissions and railroad commissions), which were deliberately structured to minimize political control by chief executives. Second, they nurtured and institutionalized a strong civil service based on the merit system to protect the bureaucracy from both chief executives and party bosses. Third, they installed city managers at the local level in an effort to remove technical, managerial questions from the political arena. Fourth, they stressed the distinction between politics and administration as the philosophical basis for bureaucratic discretion. The bureaucracy's experts, they argued, should be free to perform technical tasks undistracted and unencumbered by political burdens (Wilson. 1887). Independent agencies, relying on their expertise, would in their opinion promote efficiency, good government, and the common good.

Like the Progressives, the New Dealers created several independent regulatory commissions, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). Unlike the Progressives, however, the New Dealers also created a wide variety of agencies that reported directly to the president (the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, the National Recovery Administration, the Office of Price Administration, and so forth). In addition, they sharply reduced the proportion of federal employees protected by the civil service from 80 percent to 60 percent. After two years in office, Franklin Roosevelt had established sixty new agencies with one hundred thousand new jobs, all exempt from civil service procedures (Van Riper, 1958: 320).

Despite some overlap in approaches, the New Dealers seemed more interested in bureaucratic power than in bureaucratic autonomy. From their vantage point a strong bureaucracy was an indispensable tool of strong executive leadership. To promote that vision the vision they supported several reforms and practices. First, they endorsed broad delegations of authority by the legislative branch to the executive branch, as a means of coping with various national emergencies. Second, they supported the use of executive orders to ensure that presidential policies would be swiftly implemented bv the bureaucracy. Third, they counseled judicial acceptance of both legislative delegations of authority and of executive branch decisions. Indeed, in one celebrated case (Humphrey's Executor v. U.S., 1935). President Roosevelt urged the courts to allow him to replace a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) commissioner who had incurred his wrath. Although the Supreme Court ultimately refused to allow that, the case suggested that the Roosevelt administration's commitment to bureaucratic independence was very weak indeed.

Many New Deal bureaucracies, tightly controlled by the White House, differed considerably from the independent agencies of the Progressive era. This reflected both Roosevelt's style and the mood of the times. Economic recovery and the war effort, it seemed, required strong central control of a growing bureaucratic establishment. With the end of the war and the death of Roosevelt, however, the White House's grip on the bureaucracy relaxed. As domestic and foreign crises receded, the federal bureaucracy became more independent of its sovereigns. The president delegated considerable authority to subcabinet officers and White House aides. The Congress delegated considerable authority to the executive branch and to congressional committees. The courts adopted a posture of deference toward both Congress and the executive branch. The result at the federal level was a prolonged period of neglect during which "semi-sovereign" bureaucracies enjoyed the privileges of discretion without the burdens of accountability. The principal manifestation of this independence was the rise of "iron triangles" — clusters of like-minded congressional subcommittee members, executive bureau officials, and clientele groups. Sometimes known as subgovernments, iron triangles were subject to few external constraints by the president, the Congress, or the courts. A related development was agency "capture," where special interest groups dictated terms to regulatory agencies that were supposed to be regulating them in the public interest. Despite occasional criticism from academics (Huntington, 1952; Bernstein, 1955), this pattern aroused little controversy, because those most affected were reasonably content.


Excerpted from Taming the Bureaucracy by William T. Gormley Jr.. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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