Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Review: The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic

Review: The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic.
by: Charles T. Goodsell

This paper aims to provide an overview of the author’s main points of contention, while providing an assessment of any points of agreement or departure from the classic Public Administration literature reviewed, this shall be interspersed with my own personal assessment of the merits of Goodsell’s views and impact on the study of public administration.

“A wide gap exists between bureaucracy’s reputation and its record.”[1] Herein lies the crux of Goodsell’s argument and challenge, to convincingly argue that conventional wisdom about the performance of government is wrong, while providing convincing evidence to prove his case. His quest comes up against years of political, journalistic and scholarly attacks on government: “Our government is a sea of waste, a swamp of incompetence, a mountain of unchecked power, an endless plain of mediocrity…public bureaucracy is bloated in size, inefficient compared to business, a stifling place to work, indifferent to ordinary citizens, the problem rather than the solution.”[2] It is Goodsell’s hope that through the systematic tackling of the negative stereotypes placed on government: from the structural arguments about its size, power, growth, and performance, as well as, negative views about bureaucrats: elitism, unrepresentative, bureaucratic personality and motivation: the reader shall come away with a more comprehensive view of governmental action, and a more balanced view of said action.

The author begins by giving an overview of the main scholarly views on government: primarily those who focus on poor performance, ascribing said performance deficit to the monopolistic nature of government action, failure to respond to market forces, focus on budget maximization and inefficient allocation of resources, this school of thought is classified under public-choice theory. Another line of attack is focused on the nature of government structures (rules, specialization, hierarchy), which lead to bureaucratic think and focus on adhering to rules as opposed to the performance of duties. Scholars also focus on the power endowed on bureaucrats by their position as repositories of information, and permanence. The final grouping (according to Goodsell) focuses on the alienation of those who deal with government either in it (automatons) or clients of it (cases). As Goodsell notes: “Bureaucracy, institutionally, is said to sap the economy, endanger democracy, suppress the individual and be capable of embodying evil. It is denounced on the right by market champions and public-choice theorists and on the left by Marxists, critical theorists, and postmodernists.”[3] Throughout the text Goodsell takes time to critique these perspectives. But he focuses first on providing an assessment of citizens’ views of government, as well as, performance evaluations of governmental activity.

According to the author, and the survey data he provides to buttress his point: “Respondents tend to rate personal experiences with specific bureaucratic organizations higher than more general references to government as a whole.”[4] As an example, he provides a graph showing the results of a study conducted by the Pew Research Center on the views of clients toward five federal agencies.[5] To explain this contradiction, Goodsell argues that citizens’ views of government as a whole are greatly influenced by the “myth” that government is ineffective, while views on specific agencies are influenced by direct experience, which tends to be positive.

Whereas the survey data would show that indeed citizen’s have a more positive view of particular agencies as opposed to the government, it is not clear that this difference can be explained by the influence of the “myth.” It would be entirely possible that views on the effectiveness of the executive in charge of government as a whole (Mayor, Governor or President) could have more explanatory power. As Mosher et al argue in there review of the “Watergate era”: “The revelation, immediately or remotely associated under the umbrella term ‘Watergate’ have had a shattering impact upon American government at all levels. They have played a major role in causing the citizenry to develop, and to give voice to, growing disillusionment, cynicism, and even contempt for government and politics in generally.”[6] It is not my argument that the “myth” hypothesis has no explanatory power; it is that it is not clear that it is the only variable affecting views of government. It would be interesting to see a time series study of citizen views on government over administration, and in times of particularly low scandal.[7]

Aside from the difference between citizen views on individual bureaucracy, Goodsell (using performance measures) finds that government performs quite well when compared to the private sector in terms have: efficiency, cost benefit analysis, output, accuracy and productivity. Based on empirical data, presented and interpreted by him, Goodsell concludes: “We find that many direct measures of performance cast quite a favorable light on bureaucracy, as was the case with citizen satisfaction survey’s”[8] Goodsell concludes his assessment of government performance and citizen satisfaction by providing us with a list of rarely mentioned governmental successes, activities that are not easily identifiable, and quite diffuse.[9] Much to his credit, Goodsell provides us with a more comprehensive view of governmental action, than those who would like to compare government to business. His argument that many government actions are not amenable to performance reviews, or indeed citizen satisfaction indices, is a welcome addition to our understanding of government.

As a corollary to his differentiation of the private from the public sectors, Goodsell finds kinship with Allison’s[10] orthogonal list of differences between the two sectors: “Comparisons between the two sectors [public v. private] run into inevitable ‘apples and oranges’ problems. While the aims of business are profits and growth, government meets multiple and often not complimentary statutory goals. It is also must observe due process as defined by the courts; follow election returns when they show a swerve in direction; seek the participation and involvement of citizens; pursue the ends of justice and equity; symbolize an open, caring regime; and uphold the dignity of the state. That is a tall order.”[11] However, through empirical studies done by others, Goodsell goes on to argue that the contention that: “business is always better than government.”[12] Is wrong when it comes to “apples v. apples”[13] comparisons. It is true that the studies he presents do not clearly show a complete superiority of the private sector; it is worth noting that a plurality of the studies shows that indeed the private sector is superior. It would be unfortunate for us to focus on the failure to fully prove the case, while the preponderance of evidence shows a private sector superiority. Moreover, admitting that the private sector does, as well as, or better than the public sector in apples-apples comparisons, would call into question the necessity of government pursuing ventures that the private sector could provide cheaper, more efficiently and pay the government in the process. Goodsell does not provide us with a positive reason for why government should remain in these sectors, a point that detracts from the overall effectiveness of his argument. Much as he asks others to give credit to government where it is due, he should do the same with respect to the private sector.

In addition to the “business is better myth” assessed above, Goodsell targets a number of other myths that pervade public administration scholarship, and conventional wisdom: bureaucratic determinism (belief that the structure of the bureaucracy leads to similar behavior in all like institutions), bureaucratic discrimination (bias against the poor and minorities) and government reluctance to change. Using empirical data, and scholarly studies from others, Goodsell does a relatively sufficient job of calling these myths in to question. Though once again one wonders if he paints to broad a stroke with his classification of the myth, that detracting from the nuance that may under gird the logic of those who support these viewpoints.

What follows from the authors articulation and attempts to banish government myths, is an exploration of the environment that public administrators operate in, one that is inherently political, and marked with competing interests and unclear goals: “[B]ureaucracy is in a no win situration because it responds not to a single calculus or even to net market demands. Instead, it responds – and must respond to the political process. Since the process involves the pursuit of competing values and claims, inevitably some desires go unfulfilled and some claimants go unsatisfied. The resulting frustrations are multiple and disparate, irritating us to no end when our personal goals are blocked.”[14] Though he does not use the term “public interest”, his conception of the environment as detailed above does have similarities to the conception and development of the public interest as discussed by Barry (especially aggregating the individual interests, and coming up with the public interest).[15] However, his portrayal of the bureaucrat as a passive participant (“responding”) in the process of identifying the public interest, stands in contrast to the ideal role, as identified by Denhardt and Denhardt: “Public administrators must contribute to building a collective shared notion of the public interest…the process of establishing a vision for society is not something to be left to political leaders.”[16] He does not necessarily, use the term, but he does grapple with the role administrator’s play in the process, and finds them playing a more passive role.

A further notch on Goodsell’s belt, is his articulation of the complexity involved in the implementation of policy. By including a treatment of the intergovernmental relations that go into policy implementation, Goodsell enriches out understanding to the task that society charges on bureaucrats: “To the extent that U.S bureaucracy succeeds, it is due not just to the competent work inside individual organizations, but to competent interactions among them.”[17] The introduction of the intergovernmental nature of policy implementation has not been explicated thus far in the literature reviewed, and it enriches our understanding further.[18] To further enlighten our understanding of government action, the author provides a treatment of the role non-governmental and private actors play in the implementation process. This again is a novel explication of how government acts[19], and though less parsimonious than other views, it aids in providing a fuller understanding. From the assessment provided above, we can see that the clear dichotomy between politics and administration espoused by Wilson and Goodnow, may not necessarily be the case in today’s society. Neither is there a clean separation between the private and public sector, there are numerous interactions between the two.

It would seem that Wilson had anticipated the future discontents with bureaucracy: “ I know that a corps if civil servants prepared by as special schooling and drilled, after appointment, into a perfected organization, with appropriate hierarchy and characteristic discipline, seems to a great many very thoughtful persons to contain elements which might combine to make an offensive official class- a distinct, semi corporate body with sympathies divorced from those of a progressive, free spirited people, and with hearts narrowed to the meanness of a bigoted officials. Certainly such a class would be altogether hateful and harmful in the United States.”[20] With these few lines, Wilson foresaw the very nature of the criticism leveled on bureaucracy, which Goodsell hopes to undo. Goodsell argues that those who argue that those who argue that government is not representative of the wider population, fail to see that there have been incremental movements in the right direction. Today the federal bureaucracy (using census data and survey data) is more representative on political, income, region, education, and most important race and gender. Goodsell shows that as of 2000, minority employment stood at 30%, slightly above the population distribution of minorities. While gender representation still lags (45% compared to 51%), there has been consistent progress in the right direction. However, more needs to be done to improve the representatives of the upper echelons of government.[21] On the “meanness of a bigoted officials” Goodsell finds that there is no consistency in the personality traits of those in government. Looking at various empirical studies, considering such variables as: personal values, social orientation, intellectual functioning, alienation and powerlessness, Goodsell concludes that the data “strongly refutes” the conception of bureaucrats as inflexible, conservative, alienated, timid ruthless or uncaring.[22]

The motives for joining the cadre of public servants is also assessed by Goodsell, and true to Appleby’s[23] call for servants who aspire to serve the public above all else, he finds that bureaucrats are typically motivated by the “belief in the inherent worth of their agency’s mission.”[24]

On the nature of the organization in general, Goodsell finds that government institutions are (as par for the course with his main views) varied in size and structure. There exists a variety in government, with some small agencies and some big agencies. This is in marked to the conventional wisdom that government is a “brontosaurus”[25] Moreover, simplistic notions about the exponential growth, aging and woefulness of bureaucracy, are found to be wanting. On this point, it is worth noting that there may be many measures for the size, and growth of organizations, we can focus on size of budgets, measures that Goodsell does not consider, and that form the basis for some of the most vociferous arguments against government growth. It would also be interesting to see the effect that “contracting out” of services plays in reducing the size of government (employee wise).

Another area of concern amongst scholars, is the power that bureaucrats have. This power manifests itself in the organizations structure (hierarchy, specialization, permanence, repository of information, and tenured workforce)., the role bureaucrats play as the implementers of policy with little direct oversight, can also be a source of power; as is the role they play in the advising of legislators, who typically know less about policy areas, as well as, the bureaucrats ability to outmaneuver the head of the department (those typically appointed by the executive). From an analysis of studies done by other scholars, Goodsell argues that: “They [bureaucracy are responsive to external political control but not politically supine. They react not merely to static instructions but changed circumstances. They are not only impalement policy but shape and advocate it.”[26] Aside from the policy role, Goodsell goes on to articulate additional ways that bureaucrats impact society. They, fuel the system (by collecting the necessary funds to implement policy); they sustain missions (doing government work even when no body is watching); making elections count (by adjusting to directional changes in the political process)[27]; intervening in policy; fostering upward mobility (representative government fosters the entry of underserved communities into the middleclass); promoting civic participation.

This more expansive view of the role of bureaucrats is in stark contrast to the more limited and more “adminicentric” view espoused by earlier public administration scholars: “The definitions [of politics and administration], it will be noticed, lay stress upon the fact that politics has to do with the guiding or influencing of governmental policy, while administration has to do with the execution of that policy.”[28] It is also not in the purview of those advocating government reform. This view is more communitarian, in nature, arguing for a more participatory and involved bureaucracy, in the mold of Denhardt and Denhardt’s New Public Leadership.

This view is in sharp contrast by that espoused by politicians and adherents to the New Public Management philosophy, who argue for government run more like a business, leaner, more efficient, and focused on customer satisfaction: “We have spent too much money for programs that don’t. It is time to make our government work for the people, learn to do more with less, and treat taxpayers like customers.”[29] Goodsell, necessarily, and rightly, points out that adherents of the business model focus on government entities that are easily amenable to “customer satisfaction surveys” and “performance reviews”, this leaves out the bulk of governmental action: “This [difficulty in quantifying performance] is especially true when program outcomes depend on uncontrollable variables such as the weather, crime rates, or conduct of other nations.”[30] There is also a philosophical argument to be made about the role social equity would play in a customer-based government, where individual needs would necessarily tramp public interest concerns.[31] The author cautions about the development of cookie-cutter solutions to government problems, and espouses a more incremental policy toward government reform, or what he calls “continuous improvement.”[32]

On balance, the author provides a fuller picture of governmental action than seen prior. Using survey data, empirical studies and other statistical tools, the author is able to provide evidence for his contention that indeed government is accomplished, and not the basket case that is at times portrayed as. By providing for a fuller and richer of the role government plays in American society, he is able to close the gap between the reputation and performance of government. It is a worthwhile read and proves a valuable source for a more nuance view of government.

[1] Goodsell, 4

[2] Ibid, 3

[3] Ibid, 17

[4] Ibid, 25

[5] Table 2-4, p. 29

[6] Shafritz, 323

[7] The data collected was just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, where views on the executive were rather low. It would be interesting to see what the views were during the Reagan, Bush I, early part of the Clinton era, as well as, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, prior to the Iraq war.

[8] Fn 1, 38

[9] ibid, 41

[10] Shafritz, 390. Allison provides a typology that includes public scrutiny, lack of executive control.

[11] Fn 1, 50

[12] Ibid, 54

[13] Here he’s looking at refuse collection, water and electricity utilities, mass transit

[14] Ibid, 65 emphasis is mine.

[15] Barry, Brian: “The Use and Abuse of “The Public Interest’” p. 196-197

[16] Denhardt and Denhardt: “The New Public Service: Serving rather than Steering” pg 554

[17] Fn 1, 66. emphasis in original.

[18] White intimates that administration is found at all levels of government, but keeps the relationship separate, not delving into the interrelation between the levels of government. Shafritz, 50

[19] Rubin provides us with an understanding of the role various actors play in the budgeting process, but leaves implementation up to the agencies and executive branch. However, her essay does provide for a more complicated, yet illuminating view of government. Rubin “The Politics of Public Budgets.”

[20] Shafrtiz, 25

[21] fn 1, 90

[22] Ibid, 101

[23] Shafritz, 119

[24] fn 1, 106

[25] Ibid, 112

[26] Ibid, 128. It should be noted that this view of a more active bureaucracy is different from the earlier conception of bureaucrats responding to politicians. This more complicated conception, calls into question the Politics-Administration dichotomy adhered to by Wilson, Goodnow and White.

[27] We are about to see this in action, when the new President, one largely elected on the mantra of change, takes office in January.

[28] Goodnow, in Shafritz, 28

[29] Shafritz, 552. See also Plastrick and Osborne: “Banishing Bureaucracy” p 35

[30] fn 1, 155

[31] Denhardt and Denhardt, 554

[32] fn 1, 142