The Case FOR Bureaucracy

page: 5 of 8


Myth No. 5: Bureaucracies Usually Provide Poor Service

Yet another common criticism of government bureaucracies is that they routinely provide very poor service to the public. Unlike businesses, where the rule is “the customer is always right,” public agencies seemed to adhere to the rule that “it’s my way or the highway.” Many people have stories of at least one frustrating encounter with a government worker where they received rude or inadequate service.

But how frequent are these bad experiences? How widespread is dissatisfaction with government workers and the services they provide? Studies show that negative experiences are not nearly as common as many think and that most people’s encounters with government workers actually turn out well. For example, when a survey was done in Virginia about the quality of the services provided by local government workers, the results were surprisingly positive. Over 80 percent of citizens said that the services they receive from the fire department, EMS service, police department, public library, and parks and recreation were either “excellent” or “good.” An average of a mere 2.7 percent of citizens rated these public services as “poor.”23 Pretty impressive figures for any organization.

Perhaps more surprisingly, surveys show high citizen evaluations for most large federal agencies as well. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2000 of citizens and businesspeople who used the services of the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Aviation Administration. Predictably, only 47.6 percent had a favorable view of the IRS. But 84.5 percent had favorable views of the FDA. For the Social Security Administration that figure was 72.0; for the FAA, 69.3; and for the EPA, 68.0. What makes these strong favorable ratings all the more impressive is that they include the views of people from businesses being regulated by these agencies – respondents who are going to naturally feel some hostility toward these bureaucracies.

Of course, to really evaluate the quality of services being provided by public sector bureaucracies, we need to compare them to services provided by the private sector. Such a study was done by Theodore Poister and Gary Henry, who conducted a survey of citizen satisfaction with both public and private services in Georgia.24 They compared satisfaction with public services like the police, public health clinics and trash collection, to that of private doctor’s offices, fast-good restaurants, banks, etc. As they explained their findings: “Given the conventional wisdom about the poor quality of services provided by government and the general superiority of the private sector in delivering services, the private services included in this survey might have been expected to receive consistently higher ratings than the public services. But this was clearly not the case.” 25 We can see this in their findings summarized in Table 1. Both public and private service providers received consistently high scores from people who had recently used their services. On a scale of 0-100, the public agencies averaged a score of 73.5 for customer satisfaction, while the private businesses averaged 73.9 – a negligible difference. Clearly, people’s actual experiences and evaluations of public agencies runs directly contrary to the negative stereotype that government organizations consistently provide inferior service to that available in the private sector.

Table 1 Citizen Ratings of the Quality of Public and Private Services


Ratings by Recent Customers



Fire department


U.S. Postal Service


Public health clinics


Municipal trash collection




Parks and Recreation


Public transportation


Public schools


Street maintenance


All Public






Private mail carriers


Grocery stores


Banks and savings and loans


Private doctors' offices


Fast-food restaurants


Movie theatres


Auto garages


Cable TV providers




All Private


Source: Theodore H. Poister and Gary T Henry, “Citizen Ratings of Public and Private Service Quality: A Comparative Perspective,” Public Administration Review 54, no.2 (March/April 1994), p. 158.

This is not to suggest that people don’t sometimes have bad encounters with government bureaucracies – we all have. The point here is that these encounters are not the rule, and we usually get pretty good service from our public agencies. It is also worth keeping in mind that bad encounters with bureaucrats are not limited to the public sector. Who hasn’t had a horrible time trying to get approval for a drug or a medical procedure from the rigid bureaucrats in private health insurance companies? And who hasn’t wandered through seemingly endless phone trees and spent hours on hold just trying to get some technical help from large computer and software companies? Instances of poor service are hardly confined to government bureaucracies.

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