Paul Pillar

The Denigration of Bureaucracy

A worthwhile take on the U.S. government bureaucracy is offered in an op ed by Paul Verkuil, former president of William and Mary and chair of the Administrative Conference of the United States. Verkuil's piece begins by referring to some of what Donald Trump has said about reducing the federal bureaucracy, but more broadly it is a response to the very widely held attitude that with regard to that work force, less is better. One of Verkuil's main points concerns how less not only is not necessarily better but also may be more expensive. Supposed savings from reducing the work force may not be savings at all. The outstanding example is the Internal Revenue Service, in which savings in salaries and benefits from personnel cuts are more than outweighed by reduced revenues from non-payment of taxes owed, because there isn't enough staff to do the necessary enforcement. Verkuil also mentions the increased use of contractors to perform what are still essentially governmental functions, a pattern that not only is usually more costly than having those functions performed by federal employees but also raises issues of control and accountability.

Verkuil is talking mainly about the overall size of the bureaucracy, and it is indeed useful to dispel the myth that there has been out-of-control growth, or even any growth at all. The federal bureaucracy (not counting the postal service, which has since been given separate status) is about the same size today as it was during John F. Kennedy's administration. That means it has been nowhere close to keeping pace with the subsequent growth of the country, its population, and its economy, not to mention with added functions the government has been expected to perform, such as some of those represented by the Department of Homeland Security.

The overall size of the federal bureaucracy is not the main issue, however. There is nothing inherently good or bad about that bureaucracy being a certain size; it all depends on what we want, and need, that bureaucracy to do. Probably a better indication of the problems in how the bureaucracy is thought of in this country is what the country is about to go through and that it goes through every time there is a change in presidents: a purging of much of the upper and middle layers of the executive branch, with all of the disruption, prolonged vacancies, and other confusion this entails. The process is the working of an extended spoils system that is unlike what most other advanced democracies subject themselves to and that puts into positions of responsibility many people who are at least as far removed from democratic accountability as the typical career bureaucrat is.

The underlying problem can be described as insufficient recognition of the importance of a professional government service that embodies continuity and is held to high standards of expertise and of apolitical behavior that includes loyally implementing the policies of whatever president the people have elected. Such a service is essential for some of the same reasons that government itself is essential. It is essential because experience and expertise matter, in government as much as in other organizations. Probably the underlying reality that is most often overlooked or is obscured by political combat is that most of the nation's interests are unchanged from one presidential administration to the next. Intense arguments over the portions of policy where people and parties have significant differences make it easy to forget how much and how important are the things on which there are not such differences and in which government must play a role.

In Kennedy's time there still was a widespread understanding and an appropriately positive attitude toward public service, and related to that attitude, a respect for the professional bureaucracy. Prevailing attitudes have changed significantly since then, for several reasons.

One set of reasons involves the sequence of historical events and the context they provided. Kennedy was elected just fifteen years after the Greatest Generation's greatest governmental accomplishment—victory in World War II—and he succeeded one of the generals who led that victory. But then in the next presidential election Barry Goldwater's candidacy marked the capture of one of the major parties by an ideology centered on the idea that less government is better. Within the next few years the Vietnam War, led mainly by Goldwater's opponent Lyndon Johnson, would sour people of many political persuasions on the idea that as long as the best and brightest got into government then government would do well. In subsequent years an anti-government ethos has increasingly prevailed in the United States, with negative attitudes about the governmental bureaucracy being a corollary. That ethos is sustained mainly from the right, but it has become strong and widespread enough that one hears few Kennedy-like rejoinders from the left. Meanwhile, a portion of the left promotes its own version of an anti-government, anti-bureaucracy ethos with ideas about a deep state focused on security matters in which departments and agencies do the nation harm by acting in their institutional self-interest.

The intensifying partisanship that has become such a prominent part of American politics is another reason for lack of understanding of the role of an apolitical bureaucracy. Protagonists in political and ideological combat are so immersed in their causes and they so completely subordinate their own speech and writing to advancing the cause that the whole concept of objective analysis and execution of policy is foreign to them. When seeing the work of an apolitical bureaucracy they do not recognize it as such and instead assume that there must be a hidden political agenda at work.