Sunday, August 10, 2003

The Case for Bureaucracy

This may be kind of lazy, but I wrote an essay for my final in my Public Administration class, analyzing Goodsell's "The Case for Bureaucracy", so here goes:

Question 3: Goodsell’s Case for Bureaucracy
Why Bureaucracies are Viewed Negatively
In reading through Goodsell’s book and pondering the popular image of bureaucrats, I have identified 13 reasons that people have a negative view of bureaucrats. Some of these are drawn from Goodsell, and others arose from my own analysis. This catalog of reasons to dislike bureaucracy is not only important because it shows the number of different challenges bureaucrats face, but also because it demonstrates the many sources of American distrust of its public administrators. Any negative interaction with any of the many contacts individuals may have with American bureaucracy may trigger one of many of the following popular revulsions against the bogey man of “bureaucracy”.
1. Running against the Administration: Every two years, a congressional election takes place in every district in the United States. In each of those elections, at least one, and usually more than one, candidate will do his or her best to convince the public that the only way to stop the government from its misguided activities is to vote for that candidate. Repetition breeds learning, and repetition that the government and its programs are bad breeds distrust of government bureaucracy.
2. Huge Scope: Government bureaucracies often take on problems of huge scope, such that the opportunities for disappointment by the public are plentiful. If mistakes are made, they are made on a huge scale, and many citizens will know about them.
3. No Advertising: When a typical American goes into McDonalds, he or she is predisposed to have a pleasant experience. When he or she visits Walmart, he or she is predisposed to find smart, friendly assistance. Why? Because the smartest people on Madison Avenue, aided with piles of cash, teach us that these are good institutions. No such advantage lies for most bureaucracies. Celebrities don’t endorse the Internal Revenue Service.
4. Monopoly: Americans enjoy opportunities to choose. You can get your shoes from a hundred places, but you have to get your license from the Division of Motor Vehicles. The lack of choice heightens frustration.
5. No Small Mistakes: Media, often justifiably, trumpet the mistakes of bureaucracies. Thousands of judges make thousands of decisions everyday, but if one is influenced by a bribe, it is front page news.
6. 20/20 Hindsight: We judge our government through our own prism. Internment of the Japanese was popular when it was undertaken, but the mistakes of the past bear fruit in current distrust of government.
7. Rugged Individualism: The American hero is a maverick doing his own thing, from the “Don’t Tread on Me” of the American Revolution through Spike Lee’s “Fight the Power”.
8. You Work for Me: As taxpayers supporting the government, Americans feel justified in expecting the deference they must pay to their own employers.
9. Tough Problems: Governments are assigned the toughest tasks in society. Education, elimination of poverty, and military action are only some of the amazingly difficult problems on the bureaucratic “to-do” list.
10. Racism/Sexism: Bureaucracies employ and empower women and minorities to a greater extent than private industry. Where else but in the Division of Motor Vehicles is a corporate CEO going to be ordered around by a young black woman?
11. Conflicting Goals: We want our schools to provide a top-notch education, while keeping hoodlums off the street. We expect our police to be tough and aggressive with criminals, but kind and gentle with our families.
12. Public Interest in Complaining: A person who complains about bad service in a restaurant is difficult, but a person who complains about bad service from the IRS is a persecuted soul standing up for the public interest.
13. Unpopular Causes: Bureaucracies are sometimes tasked with integrating schools in areas that don’t want integration, or stopping moonshine production where it is popular.
Arguments in Support of Bureaucracy
Goodsell makes several arguments in favor of the fundamental soundness of American bureaucracy. These arguments can be classified in four categories: the public surveys, direct performance evaluations, the views of the bureaucrats, and the comparative.
In addressing the public surveys of satisfaction, Goodsell examines studies that show what he argues is evidence of public satisfaction with bureaucracy. Unfortunately, his arguments are based on such statistics as “most” citizens believing that police do not accept bribes (p. 27) or that “only” a quarter of welfare recipients waited a half hour or more for service (p. 35). While the data reflected in the surveys relied upon by Goodsell is somewhat supportive of the view that bureaucratic performance is not totally abysmal, that data does suffice to inspire confidence in a critical reader that American bureaucracy is performing at a high level.
Goodsell does slightly better when he addresses direct performance evaluation. In this section, he shows that public bureaucracy has witnessed overall growth in productivity from 1967 through 1990. He acknowledges, however, that this cannot be fairly compared to private industry’s experience over the same time period, and thus the point is blunted.
Goodsell then addresses the views of the bureaucrats themselves. This analysis reveals that American bureaucrats like their jobs. From this point, Goodsell attempts to argue that bureaucracy is functioning well. While it is certainly refreshing to hear that people are happy, it is not necessarily a salient point for those who hold negative views of bureaucracy. It does little to cheer the heart of someone who feels oppressed by the bureaucracy to know that his or her oppressors are enjoying the experience.
Finally, Goodsell addresses comparative analysis. His comparative analysis is bifurcated. First, and most easily, he points out that American bureaucracy is more efficient and responsive than the bureaucracies of many other countries. Again, however, someone with negative views toward bureaucracy is unlikely to draw great cheer from the fact that people in other countries have it worse. A child being force-fed spinach rarely reverses his or her appetite upon learning that starving children in some far-off country with they could eat it.
More interesting is Goodsell’s comparison of American bureaucracy to American free enterprise. In fact, the benchmark relevant to most Americans is not whether public bureaucracy keeps its “customers” happy most of the time, but whether it is doing its job as well as private industry would do it.
Goodsell’s statistics here are interesting, but mixed. Trash hauling may or may not be more efficient when undertaken by municipalities (p, 65); water supply may or may not be delivered more cheaply by bureaucrats; state liquor stores may be cheaper, on average, than private liquor stores; and school may be less expensive where there is a blend of public and private options (p. 66). Goodsell deserves credit for acknowledging the mixed results of efficiency studies, but, in the context of what he himself calls a “public administration polemic”, it is difficult to feel good about the fact that this “polemic” can only deliver mixed results and confused conclusions.
Summary and Analysis
Goodsell is at his strongest in describing the prejudice against American bureaucracy. Advertising and the American paradigm have predisposed Americans to believe that private industry is efficient, effective and based on the sound principles of market economy, those same Americans view bureaucracy with a jaundiced eye, full of inefficient, uncaring empire builders, living off the sweat of people who really work for a living. While bureaucracy steps into the batter’s box with two strikes against it, private industry enters the game on third base, credited with a triple.
By labeling his book as a polemic, and then attempting to provide balanced analysis of statistical information, Goodsell either weakens what should be a strong case, or he calls into question what should be considered a balanced analysis. If he wants to present a polemic, then he should pick and choose from available statistical arguments only the strongest and most compelling, leaving to his critics the task of providing the opposite views.
In my life experience, I have seen dedicated public servants providing service at levels far above what they could bring themselves to provide to a corporate employee. I have seen morbid inefficiencies and misguided policies brought to life by petty, self-interested bureaucrats in private industry. I have seen great and egregious behavior in both the public and private sectors.
Goodsell’s book provides one of the few articulate defenses of the merit of the public sector. As such, I appreciate it for what it does, At the same time, I am frustrated because it does not go far enough. It does not address the fundamentally different mindset of people who choose to join a public service “mission” from those who seek to climb the corporate ladder. It does not address the fact that some people choose to eschew financial gain to work for the public good. At the same time, it does not really address the truth that some people wind up in public service because of the lower turnover.
If Mr. Goodsell were to seek my input for a fourth edition, I would encourage him to go deeper. I would encourage him to address the fact that bureaucracy exists in both the public and the private spheres, and to expose more fully the fact that all the criticisms made of public entities may be made of any Fortune 500 company. I would encourage him to include more profiles of great public service, and to address the difference in mindset between those who work for the public and those who work for their paychecks, as well as all the gray areas in between. I would thank him for providing a counterweight to the barrage of negativity America directs toward its public servants, and I would urge him to make his work stronger and more compelling.


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