The Case FOR Bureaucracy

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The Role of Reform

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that we look at bureaucracy and bureaucrats through rose-colored glasses – or ignore their shortcomings. There are some inherent problems that can afflict government bureaucracies – most notably corruption and waste. And a hundred years ago, these were rampant problems. The enormously corrupt political machines that existed in many large cities during the early part of the twentieth century are examples of how badly bureaucracies can go wrong. But decades of reform efforts have greatly reduced these problems. We have rooted out large-scale corruption and are increasingly minimizing the amount of bureaucratic inefficiency, excessive paperwork, etc. These problems have not completely disappeared, and we must continue to try to improve the performance of our administrative institutions. A good example of this on-going effort was Vice-President Al Gore’s project, called the National Performance Review, which sought to reduce excess federal workers. Between 1993 and 2000, the number of civilian employees in the executive branch was reduced by 193,000. But while we must be vigilant about pursuing these kinds of reform efforts, we must not exaggerate the extent of the problems in our administrative agencies. And we should not allow the occasional failures of government bureaucracies to overshadow their achievements. A more realistic and accurate view of these institutions recognizes that on the whole they are working well and they continue to play a crucial role in administering vital programs that are improving the lives of all Americans.

The Real Lessons from Katrina

And yet, what are we to make of the kind of massive bureaucratic failure that occurred when hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans in the fall of 2005? The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response was too little too late, and the agency was harshly criticized for its inadequate and bungling efforts. This fiasco seemed merely to confirm many peoples’ worst assumptions about the problems of bureaucracy.

However, it would be a mistake to use the failures of FEMA to paint a negative picture of government bureaucracies. FEMA failed in New Orleans not because of something inherently wrong with government bureaucracies, but because of a policy of neglect by the Bush administration. First, the administration appointed Michael Brown to head the agency, a political crony with no experience in emergency response management and who was fired from his previous job for mismanagement. The agency was then downgraded and folded into the Department of Homeland Security, where its mission was re-oriented toward fighting acts of terrorism. Finally, FEMA’s budget was slashed, with Bush officials arguing that "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into an oversized entitlement program..."30 As the Washington Monthly concluded, “FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration's conservative agenda to reduce the role of government.”31 In the end, then, FEMA’s failure in New Orleans was in large part a result of a conservative administration that had only contempt for the role of government in society and had little interest in ensuring the wellbeing of vital government agencies.

Ironically, the real problem with many public bureaucracies today is not that they are bloated institutions who are over-staffed and spend too much money, but that they are understaffed and don’t have the funds to do their jobs. The continuing right-wing attack on government has left many agencies in a weakened state, unable to vigorously pursue their missions. There are not enough mine inspectors to protect mineworkers. The IRS lacks the personnel to detect and retrieve the billions of dollars lost every year from individuals and corporations that cheat on their taxes. Many school districts lack the teachers to keep their class size down to a reasonable level. In many cases, we have gone way past cutting “fat” out of these bureaucracies and we have begun to cut into flesh and bone. The main threat to the public interest posed by government bureaucracies these days is not that they are wasting huge amounts of our money, but that many are not healthy enough to do their job of promoting and protecting our collective wellbeing. To make matters worse, the very right-wing forces who are starving these vital agencies then turn around and cite any poor performance by these debilitated organizations as evidence of the ineptness of government.

 When President Obama was elected in 2008, he was committed to revitalizing important federal agencies.  For example, he worked to enable the FDA to have enough inspectors to ensure that our foods are safe to eat; and the Democratic Congress acted to increase the funding for the Consumer Product and Safety Commission.  These were important steps in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to strengthen the numerous bureaucracies that serve our vital public interests. Unfortunately, the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010 threatens to undermine any systematic efforts to reinvigorate many federal agencies.

Beyond the Bureaucratic Stereotypes

The negative stereotypes of bureaucracy that we have looked at in this article contribute to a political atmosphere that legitimizes the right-wing attack on government. The problem with these stereotypes is not simply that they are exaggerated and mistaken, but that conservatives and libertarians are able to exploit these misperceptions to justify their attempts to defund and hamstring the public sector. The more Americans believe that bureaucracies are bad, the more likely they are to agree with efforts to slash taxes and gut government programs. That is why it is increasingly important that we begin to see that most of the criticisms of government bureaucracy are based more on myth than reality, and that these administrative agencies play a central role in promoting the important missions of a modern democratic government.



For more on why we need to revitalize the federal bureaucracy and abandon  the conservative philosophy of deregulation, see "Stealth Deregulation:  The Untold Story."


1. Charlton Heston, in a speech given at Hillsdale College.

2. Jacob Weisberg, In Defense of Government (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 32.

3. Joseph Nye, et al, Why People Don’t Trust Government (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) p. 62

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Charles Goodsell, The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic, 4th ed. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004), p. 52. This excellent and much underappreciated book is the basis for most of the arguments made in this article – and for its title.

7. Goodsell, p. 54.

8. Bureau of Labor Education, “The U.S. Health Care System: Best in the World, or Just the Most Expensive? (Orono, Maine: University of Maine, 2001), p. 4.

9. Robert Evans and Noralou Roos, “What Is Right about the Canadian Health Care System,” Physicians for National Health Care Newsletter, March 2000.

10. Bureau of Labor Education, p. 5.

11. World Health Organization, “WHO Issues New Healthy Life Expectancy Rankings,” June, 4, 2000.

12. Barbara Starfield, “Is U.S. Health Really the Best in the World?” Journal of the American Medical Association 284(4), July 26, 2000, pp.483-485.

13. Paul Krugman, “The Medical Money Pit,” The New York Times, April 15, 2005, p. A19.

14. “The Deteriorating Administrative Efficiency of the U.S. Health Care System, New England Journal of Medicine 324, May 2, 1991, pp. 1253-1258.

15. Physicians for National Health Care, “National Health Insurance Could Save $286 Billion on Health Care Paperwork,” January 14, 2004.

16. U.S. Government, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2009) Table 478.

17. Julie Dolan, “The Budget-Minimizing Bureaucrat? Empirical Evidence from the Senior Executive Service,” Public Administration 62, no. 1 (January/February 2002).

18. Dolan, p. 47.

19. Cited in Goodsell, p. 123.

20 Max Neiman, Defending Government: Why Big Government Works (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), p. 212.

21. Neiman, p. 38.

22. Neiman, p. 139.

23. Goodsell, p. 25.

24. Theodore H. Poister and Gary Henry, “Standards of Excellence: U.S. Residents Evaluations of Local Government Services,” Public Administration Review 54, no. 2 (March 1994)..

25. Poister and Henry, p. 158.

26. Kevin Smith and Michael Licari, Public Administration: Power and Politics in the Fourth Branch of Government (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing, 2006), p. 1.

27. Goodsell, p. 157.

28. See Goodsell, chapter 5.

29. Robert Kuttner, “Teachable Moments: Every Week, Celebrate a Public Hero,” The American Prospect, August 1, 2004.

30. Kevin Drum, “Political Animal,” The Washington Monthly, September 1, 2005,

31. Ibid.

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