In Praise of Bureaucracy . . . Really

In Praise of Bureaucracy . . . Really

I’m relieved by the news that Florida’s coastline will continue to be protected from offshore oil drilling. This happy event is the direct result of intervention by our governor, Rick Scott.

It seems likely that the success of his intervention owes much to the governor’s personal relationship with the president. The evidence for this assertion: the speed with which Interior Secretary Zinke granted the governor a one-on-one and the speed with which that meeting produced the exemption. No “I hear your concerns, but . . .” or even “we’ll take this under advisement”; the announcement came in a tweet minutes after the meeting ended.

Even as I am pleased by this result, I’m reminded that those who live by the politics of personal relationships also die by them. What happens, for instance, if Governor Rick Scott does not become Senator Scott this November and Florida elects either a Democrat as governor or a Republican who is a critic of the Trump Administration?

Which is why . . . I’m grimacing as I write this . . . I am a fan of bureaucracy.

Seriously. I’m not kidding.

“Bureaucracy” has become synonymous with “inefficiency” and “bureaucrat” with both “lazy” and “abusive,” but it was not always so. Indeed, the emergence of the bureaucratic state was hailed as a cure for much of what ailed the body politic, and not without justification.

To appreciate the valuable role of the bureaucracy, we must consider the alternatives.

One alternative is the absence of public policy. If the government has nothing to do with an activity, then there’s no policy to implement, no decisions to appeal.

In the absence of public policy on drilling for oil, for example, rigs could go up anywhere that a property owner and a leasee could agree on a price. Drilling could be done without any safeguards. And the only option for those harmed would be litigation against the drillers, a costly and uncertain process in which those harmed frequently would be overmatched by those making a profit.

Which is why we have public policies related to oil drilling.

If there is policy, then it must be implemented and a process must exist for handling appeals. Here, there are two basic options. One, pure politics. Purely political systems rely on relationships, whether of partisan or personal allegiance, rather than rules and procedures. They also frequently devolve into transactional, pay-to-play systems where the magnitude of the payoff to the decision-maker (whatever form it takes), not the merits of the case, determine the outcome.

The other, a bureaucratic process. Here, professional administrators develop and apply standards, procedures and processes of appeal. These professional administrators can be compelled, as conditions of their continuing employment, to demonstrate that they applied the rules reasonably and consistently. The oversight authority politicians retain often convinces the bureaucrat that the only hope for continuing employment lies in following the rules.

The result isn’t necessarily good public policy, nor absolute justice. But a bureaucratic system is the only system that can give every individual some hope of procedural justice. Which is why the bureaucratic state emerged . . . and why we need to insist on making it function fairly and efficiently, not simply work around it.



Interested in hearing me speak live? I’ll be at the National League of Cities Congressional Conference with two opportunities to learn: Leadership 101- Rules and Tools and Leadership 201- Fostering a Culture of Ethics. Join me on Sunday, March 11. 

2 Responses to In Praise of Bureaucracy . . . Really

  • Carolyn Olivero

    Something needs to be done with with our current bureaucracy. They don’t just implement policy but also enforce policy. This gives them power to file charges against perceived violators, they also have powers of judge, jury and executioner (Note: they already decided you were guilty when charges were filed) You can try to mount a defense – at your own expense. Criminals have more protection than those who come to the attention of the huge number of government bureaus. We need them but they have become too powerful.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Carolyn. A bureaucratic system can become an abusive system if both the executive leadership of the government and the legislature look away for too long. Like everything else, we need effective checks on power so that it is not exercised unfairly.