Learning While Governing: Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch

Learning While Governing: Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch

by Sean Gailmard, John W. Patty

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ISBN-13: 9780226924410
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sean Gailmard is the Judith E. Gruber Associate Professor in the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. John W. Patty is associate professor of political science at Washington University.

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Learning While Governing

Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch

By Sean Gailmard, John W. Patty

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92442-7



Information is the lifeblood of executive branch action. Or at least, it is for effective action. At least three of the four virtues of executive action that Alexander Hamilton cited in Federalist 70—unity, activity, secrecy, and dispatch—presuppose information to act. Information is also the bedrock of bureaucratic legitimacy in the United States. Bureaucratization is indisputably one of the most important developments in American government in the last hundred years, and information is its principal justification. Bureaucrats are elected by no one. They lack the measure of "democratic pedigree" that elected officials can claim. Most of the vast cadre of professional bureaucrats in Washington and around the country is not even appointed by anyone who is elected to office. Yet bureaucrats have the power to make policy decisions with the full force of law (even trumping, as far as federal bureaucrats are concerned, the decisions of duly elected state legislatures, thanks to judicial decree). What they do have, or are supposed to have, is information.

Correspondingly, the analysis of information has become central to the analysis of executive branch politics. The key premise of the informational literature on bureaucratic politics in particular is that bureaucrats have access not only to reasonably high quality information about policies and programs under their purview but often to better information than other concerned political actors. This in turn gives rise to an information asymmetry between bureaucrats and political overseers that engenders problems for the holding bureaucrats accountable to the aims and vision of elected officials. Similarly, the informational advantages enjoyed by presidents can make it difficult for Congress and other observers of presidential policymaking to determine whether their interests are served by a particular course of action.

There are several variants of this accountability problem. First, actions taken by executive branch officials may be difficult for elected authorities to observe at all, and therefore to scrutinize. This may be either because of claims of secrecy or executive privilege (particularly as pertains to the president), or because the vast scope of the federal bureaucracy relative to Congress raises high barriers simply to figuring out what is going on in all corners of the executive branch. Compounding the difficulty, even when executive actions are perfectly observed (and Congress has evolved practices to help in this respect; see McCubbins and Schwartz 1984; McCubbins et al. 1987), they are often pursued by executive branch policy makers with deeper knowledge of the subtleties of a problem or with information to which Congress and outside observers are not privy. When a policy choice is made in the executive branch—such as escalating a war (e.g., the Vietnam War or the War on Terror), pursuing a particular program of economic recovery (e.g., the Troubled Asset Relief Program and auto industry bailouts), or deferring to industry in response to an environmental catastrophe (e.g., British Petroleum's interminable response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico)—does it represent a generally beneficial response to delicate circumstances, or does it represent the elevation of executives' own personal ideological (or worse, economic) projects over the public (or at least the legislature's) interest? Asymmetric information between executive branch actors and Congress (and beyond), combined with conflicting ideological goals or visions of good public policy, makes the assessment of executive branch action problematic and colors our political discourse.

Yet for all the accountability problems it presents, the value of high-quality information in bureaucracies cannot be seriously doubted. We still largely accept the formulation that James M. Landis presented in The Administrative Process in 1938: the informational demands of modern policymaking are excessively taxing on the institutions of government that were established in 1787, and the need for effective public action trumps the joy of constitutional kabuki theater. Therefore, we must reconcile ourselves to institutional forms that leverage the information necessary for policymaking through the power to act on it.

With some exceptions we note later, analysis of the politics of executive branch policymaking has largely taken its informational advantage as given. This is true of the literature on bureaucratic statutory discretion, especially as articulated by Epstein and O'Halloran (1999), Gailmard (2002), Volden (2002), and Huber and McCarty (2004), but also to some extent by Huber and Shipan (2002). This assumed exogeneity of information is also true of a large strand of literature on the presidency following Neustadt (1960), which focuses on the president's informational advantage as a linchpin of the president's power to persuade (e.g., Canes-Wrone et al. 2007). When scholars do focus on the development of informational supports for the presidency (or, only somewhat less directly, on the sources of the president's bargaining powers, e.g., Dickinson 1996), they typically explore these developments as presidentially initiated and determined.

Taking information and information asymmetries as givens can make some sense when analyzing the behavior of mature bureaucracies; they are background conditions that in fact are often satisfied, and the implications of which it is obviously important to explore. Yet policy-relevant information held by executive branch actors does not emerge from the ether. Information must be acquired, expertise must be obtained, and capacity must be developed. In short, information held by executive branch policy makers is endogenous. In particular, it is endogenous to the incentives that executive branch actors have to acquire, share, and use information, and these incentives are in part determined by the organizational structure and political position of executive branch institutions. Taking executive branch information as given elides the paramount developmental problem in executive branch organizations: how can we ensure that they cultivate that information?

In this book, we analyze the microfoundations of information acquisition in the executive branch. We consider the effects of organizational structure on the development of the expertise that has been taken as given in models to date that explicitly consider information asymmetries. The implicit assumption in our analysis is that acquiring expertise and information is more complicated than declaring in a legislative edict that it shall exist. When an executive branch bureaucracy or regulatory agency opens its doors, it cannot ensure that it will be staffed by experts in the policy areas under its domain by putting out a want ad announcing that "only experts need apply." Selecting individuals who pass a merit examination does not per se ensure that those individuals will bring with them or develop any particular understanding of the policy or administrative problems their agency will face. Requiring individuals to undergo university training in a general subject does not per se ensure that they will vigorously apply themselves in the development of their expertise, or that any expertise they might develop will translate into policy-relevant or administratively relevant expertise.

Instead, we analyze the development of information and expertise in executive branch bureaucracies as the product of incentives that bureaucratic agents face to acquire and share it. We assume that information development and transmission must be consistent with the incentives of individuals and organizations that do the developing and transmitting. We argue in the following chapters that the organizational structure and political position of executive branch organizations can decisively affect their and their members' incentives to make costly investments in information and expertise, and therefore can condition whether they live up to their promise in the policy process.

Our theoretical arguments suggest that the logic of accountability and political responsiveness as applied to executive branch bureaucrats is more complicated than simply asking whether the decision making of these unelected officials demonstrates fealty to the citizens' interests, however those interests might be measured. In particular, accounting for the realities of policymaking under uncertainty immediately raises the question of the degree to which executive branch officials can achieve the electorate's policy desires. It is useful to consider this dilemma in some detail, as it distinguishes our theoretical treatment, as well as the set of problems it is intended to help us understand, from the traditional focus of the literatures to which we are speaking.

1.1 Accountability and Expertise

Taking bureaucratic expertise as given gives rise to certain tropes of accountability: a pithy synopsis is furnished by the formulation that expert bureaucrats can be considered fully accountable to political principals when they make the same decisions the principals would have made, if they held the information the bureaucrats hold. We call this the "standard logic of bureaucratic accountability." This logic emerges straightforwardly from a basic variant of a model in which "principals"—whether they be voters, members of Congress, or the president—seek to obtain the best possible results from bureaucratic "agents" who are tasked with choosing some action(s) on the principal's behalf.

Depending on the problem at hand, the principal(s) may be thought of as having various tools to influence the agent's choices, and the assumption in principal–agent modeling is that any principal anticipates the effect of its interactions with the agent on the agent's decisions, and will use whatever tools are at its disposal to induce the most favorable possible action (from the principal's own point of view) from the agent. For instance, principals may be able to select the policy preferences and ideological disposition of their agents. In that case the standard logic would imply that the principal selects its ideological clone to be its agent; this implication of the standard logic is dubbed the "ally principle" by Bendor and Meirowitz (2004). Such an agent is perfectly trustworthy to use its information in the principal's interest, without labor- intensive monitoring of the agent or the need to double-check its information. If principals cannot entirely determine the agent's policy preferences, they may be able to use oversight strategies to monitor the agent's actions and ensure fidelity to the principal's goals, revise or nullify policy choices the agent makes that do not serve the principal's ex post interests (as in, e.g., legislative vetoes or Joint Resolutions of Disapproval under the Congressional Review Act of 1996), make threats of costly (for the agent) budget reductions or withering contumely in congressional hearings to elicit information, tailor the discretion agents can use to set policy that they can reveal information without concern over adverse policy consequences, and so forth.

Our problem with the standard logic and its oft-noted implications is not that they are inaccurate as far as they go. The standard logic is, in fact, a fine summary of the accountability problem that political principals face with respect to bureaucratic agents who possess the relevant information and expertise to make informed policy. Furthermore, supposing that it is possible to hire and appropriately control expert agents for the purpose of making policy decisions, traditional notions of political accountability clearly suggest that delegation of authority to such agents, even if unelected, can nonetheless be representative of the voters' interests. Rather, our concern is with the precondition assumed by this trope: where does bureaucratic information, competence, and capacity come from? More generally, how can bureaucratic agents be induced to learn and to share the information that justifies their existence in a titular democracy? Our approach highlights a logic of bureaucratic accountability under endogenous information that is qualitatively different than versions that suffice when information is exogenously given. The interests of political principals include not just using available information as the principals would use it if they had it, but also acquiring policy-relevant information in the first place. Faithfully reflecting those interests, therefore, includes the development of bureaucratic expertise.

A central tension in our analysis is that inducing an agent to faithfully apply information he or she already possesses may directly conflict with inducing that agent to acquire the information in the first place. If one excises the issue of acquiring information, it is often the case that accountability is maximized by choosing an ideological clone of one's self as one's agent (e.g., Bendor and Meirowitz 2004). Given exogenously produced policy expertise, it is frequently the case that the principal can effectively induce the agent to account for all of the principal's costs and benefits from the various possible policy choices with the benefit of superior information to evaluate their effects on the relevant policy outcomes. This logic has deeply affected the analysis of bureaucratic structure. Our claim in this book is that supposition of exogenously extant expertise is key to the conclusions deduced from this logic. Specifically, inducing an agent to acquire, share, or elicit information (i.e., develop expertise) can require the principal to think about the delegation problem in ways that are very different from how he or she need think about providing incentives for a known expert to utilize that expertise when making policy decisions on the principal's behalf.

First consider the issue of acquiring expertise, by which we mean making costly investments in information. An agent's willingness to do so implies that the agent will somehow gain from doing so. For career agents in conventional civil service systems, direct pecuniary incentives (e.g., merit pay) for doing so are infrequently observed. A simplistic reading of this regularity is as an implication that bureaucratic expertise development is unimportant to the principals who control the incentives offered to bureaucrats. However, our arguments in Chapter 2 illustrate that pecuniary incentives are not the only or even necessarily a particularly powerful channel for inducing costly investments in information. Rather, if agents might have intrinsic preferences about public policy outcomes, and acquiring information allows them to improve it, then affording agents some discretion to shape policy choices can be more effective than financial remuneration as an inducement for the acquisition of policy-relevant information and expertise. If agents care about public policy, the discretion to affect it is essentially an incentive to acquire expertise—but providing such discretion is frequently directly at odds with the standard trope of bureaucratic accountability discussed earlier, wherein the personal policy preferences of a perfectly accountable bureaucratic agent shall play no role in the ultimate policy choice. Put a slightly different way, optimally inducing the development of bureaucratic expertise often requires explicit provision of the opportunity for bureaucratic slippage: inducing "neutral competence" is generally impossible unless the competence can be taken as given.


Excerpted from Learning While Governing by Sean Gailmard, John W. Patty. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1 Introduction 1

Part I Acquiring Information

2 Developing Administrative Expertise 25

3 Expertise and Deference 55

4 The Federal Civil Service 78

Part II Sharing Information

5 Agents for Policy Advice under Separation of Powers 137

6 Congressional Development of the Institutional Presidency 167

Part III Eliciting Information

7 Information, Regulated Interests, and Administrative Policymaking 227

8 The SEC and the Regulation of Finance 244

9 Conclusion 275

Notes 283

Bibliography 305

Index 315

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