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By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Laws and policies are put into effect by departments, agencies, bureaus, offices and other government units. These administrations are collectively known as bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is any large, complex organization in which employees have specific job responsibilities and work within a hierarchy of authority.

Congress passes laws, and the executive office administers the law. Government bureaucracies -- inherently service-oriented -- are delegated to sort out the details of the laws and encourage pluralistic democracy. To the extent they are under any officer's control, bureaucracies are answerable to the President.

Employees of bureaucracies are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats have bad reputations for the following reasons reasons:

  1. Bureaucracy is somewhat incoherent and has been created piece by piece. This results in overlap, confusion and tumorous agencies latched onto major bureaucracies. However, agencies will protect their jurisdiction so that they can continue to receive funds and so their employees can stay employed. This means that bureaucracies are easier to create than to disassemble.

  2. There is little or no accountability in bureaucracies. Most people who work in the bureaucracy get their jobs through the Civil Service: after taking a civil service exam, the highest scores are hired. This theoretically results in hiring based on merit, but rules protect employees from being fired (especially for political reasons).

  3. There is limited upwards mobility within the bureaucracy. This is because the highest positions are appointees of the president and remain for a maximum of eight years.

  4. Bureaucratic agencies have two bosses. They are created by Congress, which provides a mission statement, purpose and limitations as well as funds. Each year, the agency must petition the chairs of pertinent committees to provide money. However, these agencies are also administered by the President. The President can use vague language to shape policy. When Congress and the President differ in this policy, a policy stalemate can ensue.

Bureaucrats are important as rule-makers. Bureaucrats make administrative law, which is a rule that has the force of law. This speeds the process of law-making, allowing Congress to not get bogged in minutiae such as helmet thickness requirements. In non-emergency situations, agencies are required to gain input from public interest groups and the White House before enacting new rules.

Also, bureaucrats had the power to adjudicate (judge) issues involving their regulations. Decisions have the same standing as Courts. However, Congress has the power to overturn decisions made my bureaucracies.

Multiple agencies are created by Congress and placed within the executive branch. However, civil servants can resist presidential policies by dragging their feet and finding support in Congress. After finding support in Congress, committees can cut an agency's budget, alter a key program and the Senate can delay confirmation of nominees.

To the average citizen, government seems like a sprawling tumor that has entrenched itself everywhere. However, America's government is in fact smaller than the governments of other Western democracies. This size is measured by what percentage of the population is employed by the government (less than 20% for the U.S., less than Spain, United Kingdom, France and many others).

America's government began unchecked growth near the beginning of the twentieth century. This growth -- mostly via bureaucracies -- is largely due to society's increasing complexity. NASA did not exist because there were no rockets; there was no HazMat because today's hazardous materials were nonexistent. Also, this growth is due to economic intervention. While people originally supported laissez-faire economics, this shifted when oligopolies grew to control markets. Government intervention was perceived as necessary to control oligopolies and monopolies.

Modern presidents have vowed to reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy. However, state bureaucracies grow in size as the federal bureaucracy increases in size. Also, as seen below, the vast majority of the bureaucracy is involved in essential government corporations. In fact, contentious agencies have among the lowest number of employees.

Despite its poor reputation, smoking laws are a stellar example of bureaucratic success. The bureaucracy was an additional point of access for public interest groups to be heard. With their elected leaders in the House and Senate were unwilling to act against smoking, meeting with and petitioning bureaucrats proved to be most effective. Click here for a more detailed history of smoking laws.

BureaucracyAny large and complex organization whose employees have specific responsibilities within a hierarchy.
BureaucratAn employee of a bureaucracy.
DepartmentThe largest unit of the executive branch with broad responsibility. They are headed by secretaries, forming the cabinet.
Independent AgencyAn executive agency not part of a cabinet department.
Regulatory CommissionA bureaucracy that controls or directs a part of the economy.
Government CorporationA bureaucracy operating in a market setting and providing an essential service.
Civil ServiceThe program through which persons are employed by the bureaucracy. It uses civil service exams to select candidates and includes tremendous job protection.
Administrative DiscretionFlexibility granted by Congress for agencies to make policies within their mandates.
Rule MakingCreation of regulations by government agencies, which have the power of law.
RegulationsAdministrative rules governing a government program.
IncrementalismPolicymaking performed as a sequence of modest decisions.
NormsAn organization's tacit rules guiding individual behavior.
ImplementationPlacement of specific policies into action.
RegulationGovernment intervention in a market to accomplish a goal for the greater good.
DeregulationA reform that reduces government regulation.
Competition & OutsourcingAllowing private contractors to bid on duties once held by government employees.
Government Performance
& Results Act of 1993
A law requiring government bureaucracies to measure their success at accomplishing goals.