Public Bureaucracies Research Paper

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Throughout history public bureaucracies have served as a source of continuity and stability in the life of the state. This role has sometimes led to their becoming a significant obstacle to innovation in government policies. More recently, however, these bureaucracies have also become useful agents of change in many societies. The power that bureaucrats exercise comes mainly from the expertise they command both as individuals and when linked together in organizations. This power has come under increasing challenge in the industrialized democracies. Other institutions—governmental and nongovernmental—have begun to acquire their own expertise, and public bureaucracies are less able to cloak their operations in secrecy. Moreover, many public agencies that formerly performed regulatory or service delivery functions have been abolished, and private or quasi-public organizations have begun to perform tasks that were once within the exclusive preserve of government agencies. By the end of the twentieth century, it had become clear that public bureaucracy was not the growth industry it had appeared to be in the aftermath of World War II, fifty years earlier.

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1. Bureaucracy: The Permanent Government

Although perhaps the least venerable, public bureaucracies rank among the oldest of all existing government institutions. Such bureaucracies played a central and continuing role in the operation of two of the largest and the most effective of the empires that emerged in the early stages of human history, the Chinese and the Egyptian, as they did in the imperial systems of Rome and Byzantium. Each of these was a political system that endured for centuries.

As history evolved and as nation-states emerged as the dominant form of political community in Western society, public bureaucracies were still able to demonstrate as formidable a capacity for holding on to power as their ancient forbears. Even when other political institutions, such as elected executives and legislatures, began to emerge as new centers of government authority, these public bureaucracies still managed to maintain a leading position in crafting and carrying out state programs and decisions.

This continuity in the exercise of power enabled public bureaucracies to be a source of stability in the life of a nation even when fundamental changes were taking place in the nature of the regime they served. Alexis De Tocqueville has given us a memorable description of bureaucratic organizations serving in this way amidst the turbulence of French politics at the end of the eighteenth century: ‘For though in each successive revolution the administration was, so to speak, decapitated, its body survived intact and active. The same duties were performed by the same civil servants … These men administered the country or rendered justice in the name of the King, then in that of the Republic, thereafter in the Emperor’s’ (De Tocqueville 1955).

2. Bureaucracy And Change

Since De Tocqueville wrote, the role that public bureaucracies can play as a stabilizing force in societies beset by a time of troubles has sometimes been seen in a less favorable light. It is argued, for example, that their durability as government institutions has enabled bureaucracies to function as an obstacle to change in the social order, long after it has become clear that such change is urgently needed. During the twentieth century, some bureaucracies, especially in the military sector, have played this kind of obstructive role in the emerging nations of Africa and Asia. In its most extreme form, resistance to change on the part of a public bureaucracy may even lead a government agency to sabotage programs placed under its control that it opposes.

2.1 Bureaucracies As Change Agents

In the modern world, however, it is also possible to find public bureaucracies that serve not as barriers to innovation but as agents of change in their own societies. When Social Democratic political parties came to power in Europe after World War II, it was widely anticipated that the reforms they intended would be undercut by the conservative bureaucracies in their own country that would be responsible for putting these programs into effect. This kind of sabotage did not in fact occur. Such bureaucracies carried out the changes proposed by the Labour Party when it took control over the British government after the parliamentary elections of 1945 with the same diligence they had shown when administering the programs of the Conservative governments under which they had previously served.

Moreover, one of the enduring legacies of that great period of social and economic reform in the USA in the 1930s, which came to be known as the New Deal, was the creation of new bureaucratic organizations such as the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that were designed to serve neglected sectors of the American population. In the 1960s a similar reform movement gave birth to agencies at all levels of government in the USA that were authorized to protect women and minority groups from discrimination in employment and other spheres of everyday life. Of course, even when a bureaucracy is created to serve as an agent of change, it can still find itself under attack from its own supporters on the grounds that it is insufficiently zealous in pursuing this objective. As a result, the stereotype of bureaucracy as an obstacle to change tends to endure, even in settings where an organization is breaking new ground.

The effort to use public bureaucracies as instruments of social reform is the product of a general movement toward democracy that has taken place throughout the Western world. As this has occurred, victory in regularly scheduled elections has become the chief source of empowerment, and the political parties competing in such electoral contests have every reason to see public bureaucracies as vehicles for promoting policy changes or carrying on programs that will ultimately provide the political support necessary to win or maintain control of the government. This convergence of interest between party and bureaucracy has energized the effort in modern democratic societies to use bureaucratic institutions as instruments for breaking with the past rather than preserving it.

3. Bureaucratic Expertise

Throughout history the fundamental source from which public bureaucracies derive their power is the possession of a body of knowledge or skill indispensable to the successful performance of the government in which they operate. In many cases, especially during the early stages in their historical development, these organizations held a monopoly of such expertise. In addition to the influence it gave them within the councils of government, it enabled them to win a certain measure of deference within the community at large. To be sure, this deference was usually coupled with hostility, since ordinary citizens commonly resent the power exercised by bureaucrats in democratic as well as authoritarian societies. Such antagonism toward bureaucracies is perhaps the chief way in which these disparate systems of government continue to resemble one another in the modern world.

Over the course of modern history societies have differed in their willingness to allow expertise to become the signature characteristic of their public bureaucracies. The UK, modeling itself after the example of ancient China, pioneered in this respect, and various segments of the British Empire followed this example even after they won independence. In the more egalitarian culture of the USA, proposals to establish such a Mandarin-style bureaucracy met with strong initial resistance in the nineteenth century as betrayal of the country’s democratic traditions. A similar outcry can still be triggered today in US politics by proposals that the country create an institutional counterpart to France’s ‘Ecole Nationale d’Administration,’ a school for the training of the French administrative elite.

3.1 Competition Among Experts

One development that has greatly diminished the advantage public bureaucracies derive from their command over bodies of expertise in specialized areas of government policy has been the gradual migration of such expertise to other institutions of government. In the USA, for example, Presidents now have a large number of experts of their own clustered in various units within the Executive Office of the President. While Prime Ministers and Cabinet members in the parliamentary systems that prevail elsewhere in democratic societies do not have similar access to such organized cadres of experts, they are often able to turn elsewhere to satisfy their need for expert assistance.

3.2 The Rise Of Think-Tanks

Another important source of expertise widely available to elected officials today lies within the private sector in the form of private research organizations known as ‘think-tanks’ that have emerged and begun to focus on current issues of government policy in the Western democracies. The research findings of these organizations sometimes attract almost as much, if not more, public attention than the reports emanating from the public bureaucracies whose work they monitor. In earlier days these think-tanks tended to provide intellectual support for programs and policies that led to an expansion in the size and power of public bureaucracies, especially in the areas of the social services and economic regulation. More recently, however, think-tanks with a conservative orientation have begun to emerge, and they have provided intellectual ammunition for groups critical of public bureaucracies and the programs and policies these organizations pursue.

4. Bureaucratic Secrecy And Open Government

The emergence and expansion of new forms of mass communication has tended to make public bureaucracies increasingly vulnerable to scrutiny and criticism from institutions and groups outside the government. Pressure from such media organizations has been chiefly responsible for the enactment in a number of modern societies of ‘freedom of information’ statutes which require public bureaucracies to provide information in their files to private citizens or groups upon request, except for certain specified categories of data. Max Weber long ago saw the secrecy in which the public bureaucracies of his day normally operated as a major source of the power they exercised. As a study edited by Itzhak Galnoor has shown, the scope of such secrecy has been greatly narrowed in both Europe and the USA today.

5. Alternatives To Public Bureaucracies

Critics of the role of public bureaucracies in government, or of the programs they administer, have long argued that they are in fact immortal institutions, which, once established, are impossible to terminate. Certainly it is true that such bureaucracies are tenacious organizations, sinking deep roots into the fabric of the societies they serve.

Still, recent developments in modern societies make it abundantly clear that public bureaucracies are far from immortal. During the past two decades a wide variety of regulatory agencies have been put to death in both the USA and Europe, casualties of a bipartisan consensus that they mainly serve not the public but the interests of the industries they regulate. Public bureaucracies have also been victims of the growing belief that private ownership is more efficient than state operation. A striking example of this trend occurred in Canada in 1996, when Parliament transferred the vital task of carrying on the country’s air traffic control system from the government’s transport department to a nonprofit firm created by the legislature.

Along with these developments, there has been a continuing expansion in both Europe and the USA of organizations in the nonprofit sector that administer programs that were once thought to lie within the exclusive domain of government. These nongovernmental agencies, or ‘semi-public’ bureaucracies as they might be called, supplement rather than supplant the work of public bureaucracies in such areas as health, welfare, and education, and much of their revenue actually comes from the government itself. One such organization in the international sphere—Medecins Sans Frontieres—received the Nobel prize for Peace in 1999 for its work in providing medical care and moral support for population groups in distress around the world.


  1. De Tocqueville A 1955 The Old Regime and the French Revolution. 1st edn., Doubleday, Garden City, NY
  2. Galnoor I (ed.) 1977 Government Secrecy in Democracies. Harper and Row, New York
  3. Gidron B, Kramer R M, Salamon L M (eds.) 1992 Government and the Third Sector. Jossey-Bass, Inc., San Francisco
  4. Huddleston M W, Boyer W W 1996 The Higher Civil Service in the United States: Quest for Reform. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
  5. Kaufman H 1976 Are Government Organizations Immortal? Brookings Institution, Washington, DC
  6. Rourke F E 1984 Bureaucracy, Politics, and Public Policy. Little, Brown, Boston
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