Reforming Bureaucracy

The bureaucracy is situated in the same separated system as the Congress, the Courts and the President. While it is formally part of the Executive Branch, its size and power are such that many have termed it the "Fourth Branch" of the national government. In some ways the label is appropriate, for it is not entirely under the direction of the President, the constitutional head of the Executive Branch. The bureaucracy is not, however, entirely free from presidential or congressional influence. Indeed, the President appoints and can remove the top twenty-percent or so of all Executive Branch employees, including Department Secretaries. The Congress also wields significant influence over the bureaucracy through its ability to set agency and departmental budgets and even to eliminate bureaucracies altogether (although it rarely does so). Additionally, the Courts act as an important check against bureaucratic excesses.

Obstacles to Reform

It is in the context of the American separated system that the bureaucracy is called on to administer the laws, implement the policies and run the programs created by the Congress and the President. As it does so, it invariably does things that please some and displease others. There are constant efforts to "reform" bureaucracy and to change its objectives. Bringing about such changes, however, has proven difficult for Presidents and members of Congress alike. Public policy making in European parliamentary systems has been likened to a prize fight, where two challengers face off and the winner gets to set policies. The American system, however, is more like a barroom brawl in which "anybody can join in, the combatants fight all comers and sometimes change sides, no referee is in charge, and the fights last not for a fixed number of rounds but indefinitely or until everybody drops from exhaustion."1


One of the most difficult challenges faced by reformers is establishing accountability for the observable outcomes of public policies and programs. (There are even sometimes significant disagreements about how to measure those outcomes.) If a program has failed, is it the fault of the bureaucracy? Or was the program the Congress and the President created fundamentally flawed to begin with? Perhaps the nature of the problem changed so drastically that the original program or policy is no longer effective--maybe no one is responsible. Even if the responsibility for a program's failure can be attributed to a particular department or agency, who within that department or agency should be held accountable? Should it be a departmental Secretary? An Under Secretary? Or are the rank-and-file employees at the department or agency to blame?

"The Buck Stops Here!"
This sign sat on President Truman's desk in the Oval Office. In his Farewell Address, he declared: "The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job."

While Harry Truman was famous for declaring that the "buck" stopped at his desk, not all Presidents have been so willing to accept ultimate accountability for the actions of the bureaucracy. On the contrary, Presidents before and after Truman, as well as members of Congress, have regularly blamed the bureaucracy for policy failures. Congressional committees frequently compel department and agency heads to appear before them to explain why this or that program has not succeeded. Although popular among politicians, bureaucracy-bashing is generally counter-productive and does little to actually improve government administration.2

Competing goals of reformers

Another obstacle to bureaucratic reform is that members of Congress and Presidents often disagree about what it is that needs reforming. As has been noted, American bureaucracy is often pulled in opposite directions by the often contradictory goals of independent and expert administration on the one hand and public accountability and responsiveness on the other. A reformer who wants to make the administration of a program more scientific and professional will probably not want the extensive public review and input that a supporter of more accountability might want.

Political tenure versus bureaucratic tenure

Efforts to reform the bureaucracy or significantly redefine its mission often fail because the people initiating the reforms, elected and appointed political leaders in the Executive Branch, serve an average of two and a half years while career bureaucrats generally serve more than twenty years. Careerists in departments and agencies might be politically, professionally or ideologically opposed to the attempts at reform and may simply wait them out, going along with them only enough to avoid serious conflict but not energetically enough to make them work. Other bureaucrats might simply be tired of repeated reform efforts made by successive Presidents. Believing that whatever changes are made by one President will be undone by the next, a careerist might similarly be less than enthusiastic about implementing mandates for reform.

Attempts at Bureaucratic Reform

Policy makers have made numerous efforts to reform the bureaucracy to make it more cost effective, less redundant, more competent, more accountable and to accomplish a variety of other objectives. Some of the more prominent past and present reform efforts include:

Bureaucratic Reorganization

By realigning or restructuring departments, agencies and their responsibilities, Presidents and members of Congress have sought to contain costs, reduce bureaucratic overlap and improve accountability. Reorganization is, as one political scientist calls it, the "cod liver oil of government--an all purpose cure for whatever ails the body politic."3 Reorganization efforts, however, have generally not saved the money they have promised. They are, though, a significant catalyst of bureaucratic change and invigoration.4

Deregulation and Privatization

Among the more popular reform proposals today is the privatization of bureaucracy and the deregulation of industry. The premise behind these proposals is that "most people do not like working in an environment in which every action is second-guessed, every initiative viewed with suspicion, and every controversial decision denounced as malfeasance."5 Although this account of bureaucracy is, one would hope, an exaggeration of the working conditions within Executive Branch departments and agencies, interjecting the profit motive and easing many of the complex rules that guide bureaucratic behavior is perceived by many as the "answer" to the problems of governmental administration. However, with such reforms would come serious trade-offs, primarily in the form of lost accountability and control over the bureaucracy.


Another approach to reform that has gained popularity, especially among Republicans in Congress and most state governors, is "devolution," the transferring of national government resources and authority for the administration of programs away from national-level bureaucracies to the states. The most significant example of devolution in recent memory is the transfer of most federal welfare programs to the states in 1996. While it is difficult to make final judgments about the success of this reform effort, early indications are that it has been successful in moving people from welfare to work. The drawback to devolution, however, is that the services provided and policies implemented will be uneven across states. With unevenness, there is the potential for inequities. Proponents of devolution are quick to point out, though, that unevenness may also be a sign that each state has adapted programs and policies to its particular needs.

The National Performance Review

One of the most ambitious, and, by many accounts, most successful attempts to reform and reshape the bureaucracy was Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review (NPR). The stated goals of the NPR were to:

Despite its focus on changing the bureaucratic culture of government administration, the first NPR Report was a stereotypically "bureaucratic" document. It was too-long and too technical and was largely ignored. In contrast, the second report, the cover of which is pictured on the right, was short, easy to read and filled with Dilbert cartoons. The second report is symbolic of the ways the bureaucracy has changed and is continuing to change. There is a heightened sense of accountability to the people, the "customers" of each agency and department. And there is a greater willingness to engage in critical self-evaluation and change. As the cartoons suggest, the bureaucracy might even be learning to laugh at itself a bit. For an update on the National Performance Review and its successes, you can visit the NPR web site.

With George W. Bush's victory in 2000, the NPR was disbanded in favor of other reform efforts. But the NPR's impact has outlasted its existence as a formal bureaucratic reform initiative.

Keys to Reform

Given the significant obstacles to bureaucratic reform, several important observations can be made. First, if reforms are to occur, they are unlikely to occur rapidly. Reformers must be willing to work at implementing their proposed reforms over several years. Second, a clear set of goals must be articulated and promising new solutions must be identified. A plan that simply replaces old inefficiencies with new ones is unlikely to win broad support. Finally, reformers must work to build consensus across and within the Legislative and Executive branches. For the reforms to work, they must have broad political support.

1. James Q. Wilson. Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 299-300.
2. Gary L. Wamsley, et al. "Bureaucracy in Democratic Governance," in The State of Public Bureaucracy, Larry B. Hill, ed. (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1992), 80-1.
3. William T. Gormley, Jr. Taming the Bureaucracy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 119.
4. Ibid.
5. Wilson, 369.