Most criticisms of government bureaucracy are based more on myth than reality. These agencies actually play a valuable and indispensable role in making our society a better place to live.
We all know the case against bureaucracy. Just say the word to yourself and consider the images it evokes. Massive waste. Inefficiency. Poor service. Ever-growing organizations. Mindless rules. Reams of useless forms. The term “bureaucrat” also comes loaded with a whole host of negative connotations: lazy, hostile, overpaid, imperious, and inflexible. In short, bureaucracy and bureaucrats are unmitigated bad things – with absolutely no redeeming qualities.
Conservatives like to play on this popular prejudice by constantly equating government with bureaucracy. The comments of Charlton Heston are typical: “Of course, government is the problem. The armies of bureaucrats proliferating like gerbils, scurrying like lemmings in pursuit of the ever-expanding federal agenda testify to that amply."1 Once government is thought of as “bureaucracy,” the case for reducing it becomes obvious. Who could complain if Republicans want to get reduce these “armies of bureaucrats”? Everyone knows that we would all be better off with less bureaucracy and fewer bureaucrats in our lives. So when conservatives want to make shrinking government sound attractive, they say they are cutting “bureaucracy” – not “programs.” Most people value government programs – especially in the areas of education, health and the environment – and do not want to see them reduced; but everyone hates bureaucracy. Using the term “bureaucracy” in this way is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that obscures the real costs of cutting back on government programs.
But while disparaging and attacking government bureaucracy has become a very effective tactic for anti-government activists, it is based more on mythology than reality. Much of what we think is wrong with bureaucracy – and what conservatives keep telling us – is highly exaggerated and often simply mistaken. This article takes a careful look at bureaucracy and finds that there is little evidence to support most of the common criticisms of these administrative agencies. Studies show that bureaucracy and bureaucrats are not nearly as bad as we usually think they are. We will also consider the case for bureaucracy – that these much-maligned organizations and the public servants that work in them are actually playing many valuable and indispensable roles in our society. Many of the significant achievements of modern democratic government would in fact not be possible without the large bureaucracies that oversee and implement them. It turns out that government bureaucracies are actually good.
Myth No. 1: Bureaucracies Are Immensely Wasteful
A few years ago, local officials in my town were holding a public meeting to promote a referendum that would raise taxes to pay for vital city services. A man in the audience rose to ob
Such is the strength of the notion that government bureaucracies are inherently wasteful. Even if we don’t know much about government, we are absolutely certain that government agencies are wasteful. In fact, waste is the number one citizen complaint about government – and bureaucracy usually takes most of the blame for this. Seventy percent of Americans agree that when something is run by government, it is usually wasteful and inefficient.2 And conservatives never tire of taking advantage of this view to lambaste the government. As two conservative economists have explained: “As every taxpayer knows, government is wasteful and inefficient; it always has been and always will be.” Cutting bureaucratic waste has become a constant theme of conservatives, and it has become a major rationale for cutting taxes. They argue that we can have the best of both worlds: we can reduce taxes and also not cut back on needed government programs. How? By simply cutting out all the “fat” in government.
In the public’s view, government agencies are not only wasteful, they are enormously wasteful. Surveys reveal that Americans believe that 48 cents of every tax dollar going to bureaucracies like the Social Security Administration are wasted.3 Yet investigations by the Government Accounting Office and various blue-ribbon commissions have found that waste amounts to only a small fraction of that figure. Al Gore’s National Performance Review, conducted when he was vice-president, examined the federal bureaucracy in great detail and discovered that waste consisted of less than two cents of every tax dollar.4 Of course we should be ever vigilant about waste and try to eliminate it wherever we can find it, but it seems clear that the extent of this problem is being highly exaggerated by conservative critics of government. As one set of scholars who examined a wide variety of the studies on government waste concluded: “There is … little evidence to support the widespread impression that government inefficiency squanders huge amounts of money.”5
People tend to think there is a large amount of waste in government in part because of the loose way this term is used. For instance, some conservative critics of government count as waste programs they simply don’t like – such as the Legal Services Corporation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Americorp, and subsidies for public television. But to use the term “waste” in this way makes it entirely a political judgment and renders it essentially meaningless. Normally the term “government waste” refers to the inefficient use of funds because of overstaffing, poor productivity, etc. But conservatives are not opposed to the National Endowment for the Arts because that agency is inefficient; they oppose it on ideological grounds. They wouldn’t support the NEA no matter how “lean and mean” it was. It is a misleading, then, to use the term “waste” in this way.
Another problem is that critics of bureaucracy often lump together “fraud” and “abuse” with “waste” to come up with high figures for government losses. But does it really make sense to blame government when doctors defraud the Medicare program, criminals scam the food stamp system, or private contractors cheat the Pentagon? We usually don’t consider it the fault of business that they lose over $15 billion a year to employee theft and $10 billion to shoplifting. Most people blame the thieves for these losses and few consider these thefts to be an indication of something inherently wrong with capitalism. Similarly, it is unfair to consider the problems of fraud and abuse of government programs to be a product of inherently “wasteful” bureaucracies. Naturally, government should do everything it can to reduce these losses, but we should not be blaming the victim.
Myth No. 2: Business is Always Better than Bureaucracy
Another of the more persistent myths about bureaucracy is that “business is better” – that businesses are always more efficient than government efforts. Since government bureaucracies don’t have to produce a profit and they are not subject to market competition, it is argued, they have much less incentive to be cost-efficient in their management and delivery of services. The assumed superiority of business has become so commonsensical that it hardly ever questioned at all. This notion has also become an important argument for conservatives in their effort to reduce government and to privatize many of its functions. But are public agencies always less efficient than businesses? A careful look at this issue casts doubt on this common belief.
There have been many empirical studies examining the efficiency of government bureaucracies versus business in a variety of areas, including refuse collection, electrical utilities, public transportation, water supply systems, and hospital administration. The findings have been mixed. Some studies of electric utilities have found that publicly owned ones were more efficient and charged lower prices than privately owned utilities. Several other studies found the opposite, and yet others found no significant differences.6 Studies of other services produced similar kinds of mixed results. Charles Goodsell is a professor of Public Administration and Public Affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who has spent much of his life studying bureaucracy. After examining these efficiency studies, he concluded: “In short, there is much evidence that is ambivalent. The assumption that business always does better than government is not upheld. … When you add up all these study results, the basis for the mantra that business is always better evaporates.”7
Further evidence that business is not always superior to government bureaucracy can be found in the area of health care. This is a critical issue today and it is well worth examining in some detail the question of whether market-based health care is superior to government run programs. Conservatives constantly warn us that adopting “socialized” medicine would put health care in the hands of government bureaucracies, which would be recipe for incredible waste and inferior care. But is this really the case? We can answer this question by comparing the performance of public versus private health care systems. Every other developed country has some form of universal health care with a substantial amount of public funding and administration. In contrast, while the U.S. has a few programs like Medicare and Medicaid, most of our health care system is privately funded and administered. According to conservative mythology, this market-based system should produce better health care and do so more efficiently. But neither of these claims hold up when we look at studies of the actual performance of public and private approaches to providing health care.
First, studies have found that the U.S. health care system is by far the most expensive in the world. We spend 13.6% of our gross domestic product on health care – the highest in the world. The average for the other 13 industrialized countries in the OECD is 8.2%.8 We also rank number one in terms of health care expenditures per capita, with U.S. spending $4,090 a year for every citizen. The highest figures for other industrialized nations are $2,547 per year for Switzerland, $2,339 for Germany, $2,340 for Luxembourg, and $2,095 for Canada.9 But while we clearly have the most expensive health care system in the world, it does not always deliver the best health care nor does it provide health care in the most efficient way.
Research has shown that the U.S. ranks poorly compared to many other countries in terms of some common measures of health. For example, we rank 26th among industrialized countries for infant mortality rates.10 We also do much less well in terms of life expectancy. In one typical study, the World Health Organizations (WHO) looked at “disability adjusted life expectancy”– the number of years that one can expect to lead a healthy life. The U.S. came in a disappointing 24th on this measure. As one WHO official concluded: “The position of the United States is one of the major surprises of the new rating system. … Basically, you die earlier and spend more time disabled if you’re an American rather than a member of most other advanced countries.”11 Moreover, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000 noted with concern the results of a comprehensive study that compared how 13 industrialized nations were ranked on 16 different measures of health. The U.S. ranked an average of 12th – second to last.1
Why do Americans spend so much on health care but not get superior care? There are several reasons. One is that doctors tend to make more in the U.S. than in other countries, and another is that governments in other countries negotiate better deals with pharmaceutical companies on drug prices. But the other major reason is that our private, multi-payer system is much less efficient than the public single-payer systems in other countries. Consider this: the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that administrative costs take 31 cents out of every health care dollar in the U.S., compared to only 17 cents in Canada.13 Why is this the case? Private insurance companies spend much more on paperwork and administrative overhead. The sheer number of people that are working in these private insurance bureaucracies far outstrips those required in government-funded programs. In Massachusetts alone, Blue Cross/Blue Shield employs 6,682 workers to cover 2.7 million subscribers. This is more people than work in all of Canada’s provincial health care plans, which cover over 25 million people.14 Why do insurance companies need so many workers? One reason, as Paul Krugman explains, is that millions of health insurance personnel in the U.S. are employed not to help deliver health care at all, but to try to get someone else to pay the bills instead of their company.
Another source of administrative inefficiency in our private multi-payer health care system is the enormous amount of overlap between companies. Each insurance company must maintain its own records and develop its own billing processes. This is much more expensive than using a single government administrative structure. Moreover, our multi-payer system drives up the administrative costs for doctors and hospitals. They must deal with dozens of different insurance plans, each with their own coverage, payment rules, etc. We then need to add to all of this excessive overhead the need for private insurers to make a profit – something that government needn’t do. This makes our private system becomes more expensive. It has been estimated that higher overhead and the need for profit together add from 15% to 25% to the costs of private insurance plans, while the overhead for the government-run Medicare program is a mere 3%. Given all this, it should not come as a shock to find that a 2004 study by researchers sat Harvard Medical School and Public Citizen concluded that the U.S. could save up to $286 billion a year on paperwork if we switched to a single-payer, national health insurance program.15 This money saved from eliminating the private health care bureaucracy would be more than enough to offset the costs of extending coverage to the millions of Americans who now have no health insurance at all.
To sum up, government-funded universal health care plans provide better care to more people at a lower cost. This one example by itself should be enough to explode the myth that business and privatization are always better than government bureaucracy in providing vital services to the public.
Myth No. 3: We Want the Government to Act Like a Business
The astronaut John Glenn tells a story about his first trip into space. As he sat in the capsule, waiting nervously on the launching pad, he couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that NASA had given the contract for the rocket to the lowest bidder. This raises another important point about government bureaucracies: we don’t always want them to act like businesses. Conservatives are constantly saying that we would all be better off if government were run like a business. But would we? Businesses are obsessed with their bottom lines and are always looking for the cheapest way to make a product or deliver a service. But in many cases, we don’t want government services to be as cheap as possible. Often, with government, the main concern is the quality of the service, not its costs. For example, do we really want to spend the least amount of money possible on our air traffic control system? Obviously not – the main goal should be maximizing the safety of the aviation system. Also, do we want the cheapest possible workforce in charge of security at our airports? Again, of course not – and this point was even acknowledged by Republicans when they agreed to abandon private security companies in favor of a federalized system in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. Private security had certainly cost less, but it is clearly better to have a federal program that spends more money on training personnel and pays higher salaries to attract employees who are more capable.
Similarly, we don’t really want the cheapest system for dispensing justice in our society. We could certainly save a lot on court costs if we didn’t pay for lawyers for those who can’t afford them and if we got rid of jury trials and lengthy appeal processes. But this would undermine the main goal of providing justice. The point here is clear: unlike businesses, public agencies are not just concerned with the bottom line. We expect our government organizations to pursue a wide variety of important goals, and often cost is not the most important consideration. In this sense, it is unfair to expect many government bureaucracies to be as cheap to run as businesses.
Myth No. 4: Bureaucracy is a Major Cause of Government Growth
Conservatives also like to charge that bureaucracy is one of the main causes of government growth. They argue that government bureaucracies have an inherent tendency to expand. The reason is this: agency officials bent on their own career advancement are always pushing to increase their power and their budgets. Thus, bureaucracies – like cancer – inevitably become ever-growing entities with ever-increasing destructive effects. Bureaucracies are constantly eating up more tax-payer dollars and imposing more and more rules on American citizens.
This criticism of bureaucracy seems plausible, but is it really true? The evidence suggests that it is not. Consider, for example, the assumption that we are plagued by an ever-growing federal bureaucracy. Figures show that federal agencies have not been growing at an alarming rate. If we go back to 1970, we find that 2,997,000 civilians worked for the federal government at that time. By 2007, that figure had actually gone down – to 2,695,000.16 So much for the constantly expanding federal bureaucracy.
Second, it is not clear at all that bureaucrats are always seeking to expand their agencies and their budgets. This budget-maximizing thesis was directly contradicted by a study conducted by Julie Dolan.17 She compared the views of members of the federal senior civil service to those of the general public when it came to whether we should be spending more or less in a wide variety of policy areas, including education, healthcare, defense, welfare, environment, college financial aid, AIDS research, homelessness, etc. She found that in most areas the public was willing to support increased spending much more than the agency administrators. And in most cases, a majority of these administrators did not support increased budgets. This was due, she believed, to administrators having a more realistic and sophisticated knowledge of these issues and programs. Her conclusion: “In sum, the budget-minimizing tendencies of federal administrators reported here suggest that self-interest is not as powerful a motivator as previously believed, and they suggest we should revise our theories about self-interested bureaucrats inflating government budgets for their own gain.”18
Another theory of bureaucratic expansion suggests that the government grows because once an administrative agency is established, it will stick around even when its program is no longer needed. In short, the bureaucracy never shrinks, it only grows. However, studies have shown that the conservatives are just plain wrong when they claim that outmoded programs are rarely purged from government. Robert Stein and Kenneth Bikers completed a study in which they examined the number of federal programs that were eliminated between 1971 and 1990. During that twenty-year span, an average of thirty-six federal programs were terminated each year.19 A pretty amazing figure. The commonly held notion that bureaucracies never die is clearly false.
The Real Causes of Government Growth
Ironically, during the last several decades, as right-wing complaints about ever-increasing government have escalated, little growth has actually occurred in the federal government. However, if we look back over a longer historical period, say to the early 1900s, there is no denying that the size and scope of the federal and state governments have grown considerably. Our governments have much greater responsibilities in regulating corporations and the economic system, and we have many more programs in areas like health care, education, and the environment. But the question is whether this kind of historical growth in government has been caused by the inherent tendency of bureaucracies to expand. The answer is no. As one political scientist, Max Neiman, who studied this question extensively, has concluded, “Bureaucratic imperialism, by which public agencies generate an autonomous force for government growth, seems fairly insignificant as a cause of growing government size.”20 But if this is true, what has driven the historical expansion of government in the United States?
One important clue can be found by identifying those periods in which government has expanded the most. For example, 70% of the growth in federal regulatory agencies occurred during three decades, the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1970s.21 What these decades have in common is that they were times of enormous economic and social upheaval and increased political activism. In other words, government responsibilities increased because of public demand for social and economic regulation increased. During those eras, massed-based social movements – including the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the environmental movement – insisted that the government address a wide variety of pressing social and economic problems.
We have big government today primarily because citizens have realized that large-scale public programs are necessary to solve big problems – economic depressions, an elderly population mired in poverty, widespread racism, growing environmental degradation, a health care crisis, etc. As Nieman has concluded, “A substantial source of growth in government activity in democratic societies is driven … by citizens and other groups using government to improve their life-chances.”22 So it makes little sense to argue that growth in government has been something forced onto the American people by power-hungry bureaucrats. Government has grown mainly because we have wanted it to grow – something conservatives seem unable to admit. Growth in government is primarily a product of democracy at work, and so it should be something that is celebrated, not condemned.
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
U.S. Postal Service
Public health clinics
Municipal trash collection
Parks and Recreation
Private mail carriers
Banks and savings and loans
Private doctors' offices
Cable TV providers
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.
Myth No. 6: It’s Bad that Agencies Don’t Treat Us as Individuals People are sometimes frustrated because government administrators do not treat them as individuals. Instead, they are treated
People are sometimes frustrated because government administrators do not treat them as individuals. Instead, they are treated like a “number” – simply one case among many others – without any seeming sensitivity to the distinctiveness of their particular situation. Why must bureaucrats slavishly follow the rules, and not treat each person uniquely depending on his or her circumstances? Why can’t that police officer see that we were speeding because we were late in picking up our child at school, not because we were being irresponsible? Why can’t that city official simply wave the zoning rules so that we can run our new business out of our home?
It is true that bureaucrats’ treatment of us is often based on general rules and policies, rather than who we are as individuals. But what we fail to see is that this is actually a good thing. We should want bureaucrats to not treat people as individuals. Treating everyone the same is in the public interest – and often in our own interest as well. It is what ensures that government agencies treat everyone fairly and impartially. Dealing with us impersonally is what guarantees that our treatment is not arbitrary, discriminatory, or abusive. It is what discourages police officers from handing out tickets based on your race or the political bumper stickers on your car. It is what helps to ensure that government contracts are given to the lowest bidders, not those companies that give the most in campaign contributions.
If government workers had the ability to ignore procedures and treat us as individuals, this would also give them enormous power over us – which is exactly what we don’t want to happen. Imagine that you had been waiting in a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. A clerk recognizes a friend at the end of the line and decides to serve them next. It is unlikely that you would praise this “bending” of the rules for this individual – you would undoubtedly be mad about the unfairness of this action. You would be upset about the lack of impersonal, rule-based treatment by officials.
When things go terribly wrong in bureaucracies, it is often because they are not acting bureaucratic enough. We often hear horror stories about someone being caught in a government bureaucracy in some developing country, where nothing can get done unless you have the right connections or unless you offer a bribe to an official. But the problem in these situations is not that officials are being “bureaucratic,”, but that they are not being bureaucratic enough. These abuses occur because officials are engaging in personal favoritism and not treating people the same according to a set of administrative procedures. The cure in these situations involves creating a civil service that is strongly committed to more impersonal, rule-based form of bureaucratic behavior.
So we should not be so quick to condemn government officials for not dealing with us as unique individuals. While we might not always enjoy being treated like everyone else by government workers, we should try to remember that this practice is an important political safeguard of the modern democratic state.
Bureaucracy is Good
So far, we’ve seen that government bureaucracies are not nearly as bad as conservative critics and popular mythology make them out to be. However, there is a much more positive case that can be made here – the case for bureaucracies actually being a good thing. It is not a difficult case to make. It begins with a simple fact: the modern state as we know it cannot exist without large bureaucratic agencies to implement its programs. Modern democratic governments are necessarily bureaucratic entities. And if this is true, then the successes of modern government have to also be considered the successes of government bureaucracies as well. The fact that Social Security has dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly should be counted as an achievement of this agency’s bureaucracy. The Environmental Protection Agency should also get much of the credit for our being able to breathe cleaner air and drink safer water.
In short, if government is good, then government bureaucracies are good. If government programs have had enormous and varied positive impacts on the lives of every Americans, some of the credit for this has to go to the agencies that make these programs work. Without bureaucracy, modern democratic governments could not possibly fulfill all the crucial roles in plays in society – including creating more economic security, curing diseases, caring for the environment, dispensing justice, educating our children, and protecting us from a variety of harms.
Most of us also know, on some level, that public agencies are primarily there to help us, and that they often do so reasonably well. That is why we keep asking for more of them. Kevin Smith and Michael Licari are two political scientists who have written a textbook about public administration. They have noticed a curious fact: that even those of us who say we don’t like government are usually more than willing to demand and accept a new bureaucracy if it will make our lives better off. Even people who live in that notoriously anti-government state of Texas. As Smith and Licari explain:
Rural Texans tend to be an independent bunch. The stereotypical image is a politically conservative business owner, farmer, or rancher, raised on the myth of rugged individualism and a strong supporter of property rights. Not the sort of people, in other words, who favor big government programs. Or even small ones. Surely such citizens are the least likely group to start agitating for more government bureaucracy. So what does a conservative, small-government group like this do to help spur economic development and advocate for their issues? Well, it asks for a bureaucracy. And it gets one: the Office of Rural Community Affairs (ORCA). Created in 2001 by the Texas legislature, ORCA annually spends tens of millions of dollars on a wide variety of programs ranging from health care initiatives to business development to disaster relief. Rural Texas communities and their legislators are by all accounts pleased with ORCA. Now there is an agency full of bureaucrats whose job, as Texas State Representative Warren Chisum put it, is to get to work in the morning and ask themselves, “What are the people out in rural Texas doing, and how can we help them?” 26
However, it is important to see that the case for bureaucracy is about more than what those agencies can do for us as individuals, it is about the crucial role they play in creating a better society for all of us. As Charles Goodsell has noted, government bureaucracies form the public infrastructure that is essential to maintaining a free and prosperous society:
A good bureaucracy is indispensable to a free society, a democratic polity, and a capitalist economy. The freedom to wander the streets at night, for example depends on competent law enforcement. The ability to vote governments out of office without disruption requires a reliable administrative apparatus. A prosperous business community demands good schools, highways, health departments, post offices, and water and sewer systems.27
So if you feel that America is a good place to live, at least part of the credit for that must be given to government bureaucracies. Literally, the good life as we know it in the United States could not exist without the numerous and various essential tasks being performed by these public agencies on all levels of government.
Bureaucrats or Public Heroes?
If we should be thankful for government bureaucracies, we should also be thankful for the people – the “bureaucrats” – who work in them. Yet they are one of the most maligned groups in our society. They are constantly the butt of jokes and are stereotyped as being lazy, rude, rigid, arrogant, and controlling. Of course, some are like that. But you find these kind of people in every organization, including business bureaucracies. Moreover, studies have found that government bureaucrats are much like all other Americans and that there is no credible evidence supporting the charge that a pathological “bureaucratic mentality” is prevalent among government workers.28
On the whole, our civil servants are hard workers dedicated to serving the public and improving our lives. There are times when this point is made in such dramatic way that no one can deny it. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy in New York, there was an outpouring of public praise and appreciation for the incredibly brave and self-sacrificing actions taken by numerous police officers and firefighters. What we tend to forget is that for these public employees this was not unusual – they are putting their lives and health on the line everyday, not just during terrorists attacks.
And we also tend to forget that police officers and firefighters are not the only heroes working for the government. Our government bureaucracies are full of “everyday heroes” – public servants who labor away in anonymity to protect us from harm and to make our lives better. As Robert Kuttner has observed:
[We] should not let a week go by without celebrating a public hero, and not just the firefighters and the veterans. The civil servant at the Food and Drug Administration who fights drug-industry pressure and keeps a harmful drug off the market is a public hero. So is the SEC auditor who busts a corporate thief so a million people don’t lose their pensions, and the Environmental Protection Agency scientist who safeguards our water from some scofflaw mogul.29
Or consider the government workers of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These are the people who do automobile crash tests, evaluate child safety seats, initiate recalls of defective cars, and so on. The motto of the agency is, appropriately enough, “People Saving People.” They will never meet you or know your name, but they are working week in and week out to protect your health and safety. Unfortunately, we rarely celebrate these kinds of public servants – instead they must put up with the public disdain leveled at everyone who works for the government. This is the reward they get for choosing to work for the government and to promote the public interest. It is no wonder that many of our best young people are discouraged from taking on these kinds of public service jobs.
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.
Fortunately, we now has a president and Congress that are committed to revitalizing important federal agencies. For example, Obama is working to enable the FDA to have enough inspectors to ensure that our foods are safe to eat; and Congress has acted to increase the funding for the Consumer Product and Safety Commission. These are important steps in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to strengthen the numerous bureaucracies that serve our vital public interests.
Beyond the 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
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. http://www.who.int/inf-pr-2000/en/pr2000-life.html
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. http://www.pnhp.org/news/2004/janaury/national_heath_insu.php.
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, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_09/007023.php