The Bureaucratic Dilemma

The fact that bureaucracy is necessary is indisputable. Even government on the smallest of scales must administer its programs and implement its policies. The primary dilemma of bureaucracy, however, is an extension of the dilemma of popular governance -- striking the right balance between providing order and protecting liberty. When a bureaucracy is given authority, it is given that authority to establish order, usually in the form of peace, safety, and economic security or stability. When a government bureaucracy exercises authority, the liberty of the people is necessarily diminished. But how much should liberty be diminished and for what purposes or objectives?

A second and related dilemma faced by bureaucracy is the conflict between authority and accountability. If efficiency were the only objective of administration, bureaucracies would be given extensive power and discretion. However, in a political system in which the powers of government are derived from the people, the government must be accountable to the people for how it exercises those powers. On the one hand, then, managerial and administrative effectiveness demands that bureaucracies and bureaucrats be armed with the tools, authority and flexibility they need to accomplish the tasks they are assigned. However, popular governance demands that bureaucracies and bureaucrats be held accountable for their actions. These objectives are not always compatible. Time spent responding to congressional inquiries and investigations or holding public hearings satisfy the demands of accountability, but they directly diminish the capacity of bureaucracies to accomplish their allotted responsibilities.

Dimensions of the Dilemma

On one level, the bureaucratic dilemma is straightforward. It centers on striking a workable balance between liberty and order, between bureaucratic authority and bureaucratic accountability. However, striking that balance is complicated by several factors.

Ends versus Means

Among the most perplexing problems of bureaucracy and administration is that, in most instances, there is broad agreement between policy leaders and citizens on what the "ends" or final objectives of public policies and programs ought to be. There tends to be significant disagreement, however, about the "means" by which those ends ought to be pursued. Invariably, bureaucracies and their employees get caught in the middle of these disputes.

When Ronald Reagan assumed office, he had a very different view of one of Jimmy Carter's policy objectives--environmental protection. It is arguable that both presidents were in favor of clean air and clean water. They differed sharply, though, in their views on the means that ought to be employed to achieve those ends. Carter had worked to establish the Environmental Protection Agency


Efforts to find the right balance between bureaucratic authority and accountability and to create programs that are both efficient and responsive to the needs of the people are complicated by the fact that public policies and programs are made incrementally. Instead of reviewing and redesigning every government function from the ground up every year, the Congress and the President make minor adjustments, expanding some, shrinking some and leaving others alone. Programs are constantly evaluated and modified, but they are rarely eliminated or completely restructured.

Part of the problem is that when departments, agencies and programs are created, they are created in response to a public need or demand. Once in place, people come to count on the services they provide and eliminating them or reducing them drastically becomes politically unpopular. Instead of removing or rebuilding agencies or programs with defects, the Congress and the President are more likely to create new programs to serve the needs that are unmet by the existing ones. The net result is that there is extensive overlap and duplication. Even in the relatively small sphere of crime prevention and youth development policy, there are more than one hundred federal programs currently in existence. Moreover, as new programs are created, more bureaucracy is required to administer them and the departments and agencies begin to "thicken." (Photo at right:The Federal Triangle Home of the  Department of Commerce and Other Agencies)

In addition to the creation of redundant programs, the departments and agencies already in existence have become "thicker" and new programs with new administrative needs have been created. While a typical Department Secretary was assisted by two Under Secretaries, nine or ten Assistant Secretaries, another ten Deputy Assistant and Associate Deputy Assistant Secretaries and a handful of administrators in 1960, the number of assistants had more than doubled by 1992 to include a Chief of Staff, two Deputy Secretaries, four Deputy Under Secretaries, twice as many Assistant Secretaries, five Principal Deputy Assistant Secretaries, and forty additional Deputy Assistant, Associate Deputy Assistant, and Deputy Associate Deputy Assistant Secretaries plus twenty Assistant and Deputy Inspector Generals and more than double the number of administrators. Keeping track of administrators has even become a significant undertaking by itself. The Office of Personnel Management, the national government's human resource department, employs nearly 4,000 people.1

Undemocratic by Nature

While efforts are frequently made to make the bureaucracy more responsive and accountable, bureaucracies are, by their very nature, undemocratic and unresponsive. Efficient administration, not accountability and responsiveness, is the purpose of bureaucracy. Representative institutions, such as the Congress, are designed to listen to and respond to the people--the bureaucracy is not. Moreover, policies and decisions within bureaucracies are not based on public opinion. Nor are they based on votes cast by bureaucracy employees. They are made authoritatively and unilaterally by bureaucratic leaders. At least in this way, bureaucracies are like private corporations. The employees do not set organizational policies and they often have little discretion when they implement them. It is difficult, at best, to be responsive when an organization's mission and guidelines do not encourage responsiveness.

Public versus Private Bureaucracy

As has been suggested, public bureaucracies are like private ones, but they also differ in significant ways. Take for example the McDonald's bureaucracy. It requires employees to strictly adhere to guidelines on uniforms and food preparation. The organization is hierarchical--there is a clear chain of command. But McDonald's operates under a far different set of guidelines than public bureaucracies.2 While the owners and managers of McDonald's are able to set their own goals and objectives, bureaucracies are established to pursue objectives over which they have no control. The manager of a McDonald's also has discretion in distributing resources, assigning pay levels and hiring and firing employees. Managers of public bureaucracies are much more limited in these areas. Perhaps most significantly, however, is the ability of private managers and business owners to keep the profits they earn. Public bureaucracies (with the exception of some government corporations) are not motivated by the pursuit and earning of profit. While these differences limit bureaucracy in important ways, they are not easily addressed because of the particular constraints that people and politicians feel compelled to place on public bureaucracies. These difficulties are discussed in the next section, "Reforming Bureaucracy."

1. See Paul Light. Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Hierarchy. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1995), 12.
2. This discussion is adapted from James Q. Wilson. Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 113-5.