The Bureaucracy

For most Americans, the term “bureaucracy” refers to the executive branch agencies that carry out laws. However, all large modern organizations, including private, for-profit ones, have certain organizational characteristics:

  • Division of labor:  work is divided into task and function (e.g., computer technology workers, manual labor workers, administrative workers)
  • Specialization:  employees’ jobs and specific tasks are narrowly defined rather than employees’ doing all organizational tasks
  • Hierarchy:  there is a clear vertical chain of command in which those at the “top” of the chain have final authority
  • There are formal, written rules
  • Records and files are maintained
  • Professionalism-most employees obtain and keep their jobs based upon qualifications

(In this course, the terms “bureaucracy” and “agency” refer to governmental organizations and are used interchangeably).

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Governors, as chief administrators, try to manage state agencies (or state bureaucracies) in a number of ways including urging strategic planning, initiating policy, settling disputes among agencies, recruiting administrative and judicial officials, and developing the budget.  Governors have limited appointment and budgeting powers, and these limitations will affect how agencies implement gubernatorial and legislative wishes.  In addition, public bureaucracies are large and complex; there are long-term careerists, who may have been there before the current governor and will be there after the governor leaves and who may have their own ideas about how their agencies should work; outside sources of political influence such as legislative committees and interest groups may influence how bureaucratic agencies carry out laws.

Public agencies are also known for “red tape,” referring to the many steps and all the paperwork required to accomplish a task.  On the other hand, this “red tape” also provides a record of organizational actions taken and a sort of “check and balance” system that protect individuals.

Public bureaucracies both (1) implement (carry out) laws and (2) make policy by interpreting laws and writing out detailed instructions.  Street-level bureaucrats,agency employees who actually work with the public (e.g., police) or clients (e.g., social workers), have considerable discretion in how they carry out a law; so in effect they make policy.

It is important to understand some of the historical development of the public bureaucracy in the United States:  in the beginning governments were small and did only a few things so Presidents, governors, and other elected officials tended to appoint people loyal to them or friends (this is not to say that appointees were always incompetent; it would be a stupid political move to put someone in a position who would later make serious mistakes).

This practice of appointment was called thespoils system (patronage system), or hiring and retention of government employees on the basis of loyalty and political support.  Corruption in hiring and pay often occurred.  However, as more immigrants came into the country, the economy grew, infrastructure demands, and social, economic, and public health issues grew, government grew to provide for the needs of an increasingly complex country.  State governments also expanded, starting in the late 1800’s.  Qualified people were needed, and hiring on the basis of qualifications became a necessity.  The Pendleton Act (1883) was passed to require that many federal bureaucrats be qualified for their positions.  Hiring and retaining on the basis of skills, knowledge, and abilities became known as the merit system.  Almost all states have similar systems.

Not all governmental workers are hired through the merit system.  The governor may have limited powers to appoint aides and certain other higher-level positions to the executive branch.  Also, as in Texas, many of the top executive-branch officials are separately elected, creating the plural executive problem:  many top agency officials may not have loyalty to the governor and support his/her policies.

Reforms of agencies in individual states, like administrative reorganization, have been designed to make government more efficient, effective, responsive, and accountable.  Reforms, however, generally must be put into law by the state legislature, not just the governor, and are not always fully implemented or successful.


Terms and Ideas

Bureaucracy characteristics
Public bureaucracy (governmental agency)
Red tape-benefits and costs
How do bureaucracies affect policy?
Street-level bureaucrats
Spoils system (patronage system)
Merit system

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