- Federal bureaucracy was not created systematically, but grew haphazardly over time
- There are some redundancies between different agencies
- Some bureaucracies are inefficient, but others are actually quite efficient
One of the most enduring stereotypes about the federal bureaucracy holds that it is a hopeless tangle of overlapping agencies. If they are not working at cross purposes, then they are duplicating one another pointlessly.
There is some truth to this. Persons facing a specific challenge could easily find themselves dealing with several agencies. For example, if you lost your job, you would need to work with the Department of Labor to obtain unemployment benefits and arrange job training. The Department of Agriculture would provide you with food stamps. The Department of Housing and Urban Development would be responsible for assisting you with your housing needs. And the Department of Health and Human Services would arrange for direct assistance for your family if your situation did not improve quickly.
This might be frustrating, but in their interest in providing assistance, the agencies would all be working toward a common purpose. At times, however, the purposes of different agencies are at odds. For example, the Department of Commerce, interested in promoting business development, frequently clashes with the Environmental Protection Agency. Sometimes federal agencies even clash within themselves. President Ronald Reagan's appointment of Anne Gorsuch to head the EPA in 1981 triggered a bitter fight within the agency. As an attorney, Gorsuch had earned a reputation as an "anti-environmentalist," and she quickly provoked her critics by reducing the agency's budget by $200 million and its staff by 23% while slowing the pace of toxic-site clean-up; longtime professionals at the agency opposed Gorsuch's moves at every step.9
To a large extent, the redundancy and conflict within the federal bureaucracy results from the piecemeal way in which it has grown. The federal bureaucracy was not created all at once. It has grown over the past two centuries through a series of congressional acts aimed at the particular concerns of particular times; the behavior of individual agencies reflects the priorities of the Congresses and presidents that continue to shape them. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1971 when a growing awareness of environmental problems led policymakers to the conclusion that America's industries needed more rigorous regulation. But by 1981, when Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch to head the EPA, despite her unorthodox approach to environmental protection, he did so because he shared her belief that these government regulations were inhibiting economic development.
In other words, as frustrating and imperfect as the federal bureaucracy is, most of its shortcomings can be traced to very nature of our democratic government. So long as we continue to separate the powers of the federal government, the legislative and executive branch will periodically work at cross purposes. So long as we continue to elect people to office for limited terms and demand that our government be responsive to our immediate needs, public agencies will be subject to periodic shifts in priorities and practices. Occasionally, they will fall all over themselves trying to change direction.
Many people believe that all bureaucracies are inherently inefficient.
But this sweeping statement ignores a couple of important things.
First, by definition, bureaucracies are designed to accomplish complex tasks efficiently through the implementation of three organizational principles: role specialization, clear and rigid rules, and hierarchical authority. Members of the organization have specialized roles with well defined responsibilities. In filling these roles they must follow precise rules and protocols. And the hierarchical chain of command within the organization is clearly delineated. The idea is that if everyone has a precisely defined job, and all procedures and lines of authority are clearly outlined, the organization will operate with consistency and efficiency.
Second, some bureaucracies are efficient. There are all sorts of bureaucracies. Most large companies organize themselves along bureaucratic principles: large churches like the Catholic Church and large non-profits and philanthropies maintain large bureaucratic organizations. But as we just noted, the federal bureaucracy operates under distinct circumstances. Perhaps most critically, it is difficult to maintain procedural clarity when both the executive and the legislative branches exercise influence over the bureaucracy's rules and priorities.