The Bureaucracy: What is its function?

A cartoon featuring a group of dejected former bureaucrats wrapped in blankets, huddling together on a rocky cliff. The United States Capitol is visible in the distant background.

This 1885 cartoon reflects the disappointment of office seekers who were turned away from bureaucratic positions they believed their political commitments had earned them. It was published just as the U.S. bureaucracy was being transformed from the spoils system to the merit system. (Credit: OpenStax modified image)

Learning Objectives

  • Define bureaucracy and bureaucrat.
  • Identify the reasons people undertake civil service

What does the word “bureaucracy” conjure in your mind? For many, it evokes inefficiency, corruption, red tape, and government overreach. For others, it triggers very different images—of professionalism, helpful and responsive service, and government management. Your experience with bureaucrats and the administration of government probably informs your response to the term. The ability of bureaucracy to inspire both revulsion and admiration is one of several features that make it a fascinating object of study.

More than that, the many arms of the federal bureaucracy, often considered the fourth branch of government, are valuable components of the federal system. Without this administrative structure, staffed by nonelected workers who possess particular expertise to carry out their jobs, government could not function the way citizens need it to. That does not mean, however, that bureaucracies are perfect.

Throughout history, both small and large nations have elevated certain types of non-elected workers to positions of relative power within the governmental structure. Collectively, these essential workers are called the bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is an administrative group of non-elected officials charged with carrying out functions connected to a series of policies and programs. In the United States, the bureaucracy began as a very small collection of individuals. Over time, however, it grew to be a major force in political affairs. Indeed, it grew so large that politicians in modern times have ridiculed it to great political advantage. However, the country’s many bureaucrats or civil servants, the individuals who work in the bureaucracy, fill necessary and even instrumental roles in every area of government: from high-level positions in foreign affairs and intelligence collection agencies to clerks and staff in the smallest regulatory agencies. They are hired, or sometimes appointed, for their expertise in carrying out the functions and programs of the government.

What Does a Bureaucracy Do?

Modern society relies on the effective functioning of government to provide public goods, enhance quality of life, and stimulate economic growth. The activities by which government achieves these functions include—but are not limited to—taxation, homeland security, immigration, foreign affairs, and education. The more society grows and the need for government services expands, the more challenging bureaucratic management and public administration becomes. Public administration is both the implementation of public policy in government bureaucracies and the academic study that prepares civil servants for work in those organizations.

The classic version of a bureaucracy is hierarchical and can be described by an organizational chart that outlines the separation of tasks and worker specialization while also establishing a clear unity of command by assigning each employee to only one boss. Moreover, the classic bureaucracy employs a division of labor under which work is separated into smaller tasks assigned to different people or groups. Given this definition, bureaucracy is not unique to government but is also found in the private and nonprofit sectors. That is, almost all organizations are bureaucratic regardless of their scope and size; although public and private organizations differ in some important ways. For example, while private organizations are responsible to a superior authority such as an owner, board of directors, or shareholders, federal governmental organizations answer equally to the president, Congress, the courts, and ultimately the public. The underlying goals of private and public organizations also differ. While private organizations seek to survive by controlling costs, increasing market share, and realizing a profit, public organizations find it more difficult to measure the elusive goal of operating with efficiency and effectiveness.

Bureaucracy may seem like a modern invention, but bureaucrats have served in governments for nearly as long as governments have existed. Archaeologists and historians point to the sometimes elaborate bureaucratic systems of the ancient world, from the Egyptian scribes who recorded inventories to the biblical tax collectors who kept the wheels of government well greased.[1] In Europe, government bureaucracy and its study emerged before democracies did. In contrast, in the United States, a democracy and the Constitution came first, followed by the development of national governmental organizations as needed, and then finally the study of U.S. government bureaucracies and public administration emerged.[2]

In fact, the long pedigree of bureaucracy is an enduring testament to the necessity of administrative organization. More recently, modern bureaucratic management emerged in the eighteenth century from Scottish economist Adam Smith’s support for the efficiency of the division of labor and from Welsh reformer Robert Owen’s belief that employees are vital instruments in the functioning of an organization. However, it was not until the mid-1800s that the German scholar Lorenz von Stein argued for public administration as both a theory and a practice since its knowledge is generated and evaluated through the process of gathering evidence. For example, a public administration scholar might gather data to see whether the timing of tax collection during a particular season might lead to higher compliance or returns. Credited with being the father of the science of public administration, von Stein opened the path of administrative enlightenment for other scholars in industrialized nations.

The Origins of the U.S. Bureaucracy

In the early U.S. republic, the bureaucracy was quite small. This is understandable since the American Revolution was largely a revolt against executive power and the British imperial administrative order. Nevertheless, while neither the word “bureaucracy” nor its synonyms appear in the text of the Constitution, the document does establish a few broad channels through which the emerging government could develop the necessary bureaucratic administration.

For example, Article II, Section 2, provides the president the power to appoint officers and department heads. In the following section, the president is further empowered to see that the laws are “faithfully executed.” More specifically, Article I, Section 8, empowers Congress to establish a post office, build roads, regulate commerce, coin money, and regulate the value of money. Granting the president and Congress such responsibilities appears to anticipate a bureaucracy of some size. Yet the design of the bureaucracy is not described, and it does not occupy its own section of the Constitution as bureaucracy often does in other countries’ governing documents; the design and form were left to be established in practice.

Under President George Washington, the bureaucracy remained small enough to accomplish only the necessary tasks at hand.[3] Washington’s tenure saw the creation of the Department of State to oversee international issues, the Department of the Treasury to control coinage, and the Department of War to administer the armed forces. The employees within these three departments, in addition to the growing postal service, constituted the major portion of the federal bureaucracy for the first three decades of the republic. Two developments, however, contributed to the growth of the bureaucracy well beyond these humble beginnings.

An illustration of George Washington, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Randolph.

The cabinet of President George Washington (far left) consisted of only four individuals: the secretary of war (Henry Knox, left), the secretary of the treasury (Alexander Hamilton, center), the secretary of state (Thomas Jefferson, right), and the attorney general (Edmund Randolph, far right). The small size of this group reflected the small size of the U.S. government in the late eighteenth century. (Credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

The first development was the rise of centralized party politics in the 1820s. Under Democratic President Andrew Jackson, many thousands of party loyalists filled the ranks of the bureaucratic offices around the country. This was the beginning of the spoils system, in which political appointments were transformed into political patronage doled out by the president on the basis of party loyalty.[4]

Political patronage is the use of state resources to reward individuals for their political support. The term “spoils” here refers to paid positions in the U.S. government. As the saying goes, “to the victor,” in this case the incoming president, “go the spoils.” It was assumed that government would work far more efficiently if the key federal posts were occupied by those already supportive of the president and his policies. This system served to enforce party loyalty by tying the livelihoods of the party faithful to the success or failure of the party. The number of federal posts the president sought to use as appropriate rewards for supporters swelled over the following decades.

The Fall of Political Patronage

Patronage had the advantage of putting political loyalty to work by making the government quite responsive to the electorate and keeping election turnout robust because so much was at stake. However, the spoils system also had a number of obvious disadvantages. It was a reciprocal system. Clients who wanted positions in the civil service pledged their political loyalty to a particular patron who then provided them with their desired positions. These arrangements directed the power and resources of government toward perpetuating the reward system. They replaced the system that early presidents like Thomas Jefferson had fostered, in which the country’s intellectual and economic elite rose to the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy based on their relative merit.[5] Criticism of the spoils system grew, especially in the mid-1870s, after numerous scandals rocked the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Image A is an illustration of Ulysses S. Grant being sworn in as President of the United States. Image B is a cartoon featuring a statue of Andrew Jackson riding a pig over a bed of skulls. A plaque on the pedestal reads

Caption: It was under President Ulysses S. Grant, shown in this engraving being sworn in by Chief Justice Samuel P. Chase at his inauguration in 1873 (a), that the inefficiencies and opportunities for corruption embedded in the spoils system reached their height. Grant was famously loyal to his supporters, a characteristic that—combined with postwar opportunities for corruption—created scandal in his administration. This political cartoon from 1877 (b), nearly half a century after Andrew Jackson was elected president, ridicules the spoils system that was one of his legacies. In it he is shown riding a pig, which is walking over “fraud,” “bribery,” and “spoils” and feeding on “plunder.” (Credit a, b: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

A cartoon of Charles J. Guiteau holding a pistol and a piece of paper that says

In 1881, after the election of James Garfield, a disgruntled former supporter of his, the failed lawyer Charles J. Guiteau, shot him in the back. Guiteau (pictured in this cartoon of the time) had convinced himself he was due an ambassadorship for his work in electing the president. The assassination awakened the nation to the need for civil service reform. (Credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

As the negative aspects of political patronage continued to infect bureaucracy in the late nineteenth century, calls for civil service reform grew louder. Those supporting the patronage system held that their positions were well earned; those who condemned it argued that federal legislation was needed to ensure jobs were awarded on the basis of merit. Eventually, after President James Garfield had been assassinated by a disappointed office seeker, Congress responded to cries for reform with the Pendleton Act, also called the Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. The act established the Civil Service Commission, a centralized agency charged with ensuring that the federal government’s selection, retention, and promotion practices were based on open, competitive examinations in a merit system.[6] The passage of this law sparked a period of social activism and political reform that continued well into the twentieth century.

The Bureaucracy Comes of Age

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of great bureaucratic growth in the United States: The Interstate Commerce Commission was established in 1887, the Federal Reserve Board in 1913, the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, and the Federal Power Commission in 1920.

New programs require bureaucrats to run them, and the national bureaucracy has ballooned.[7] For example, Reagan and Congress increased the defense budget dramatically over the course of the 1980s.[8]

“The Nine Most Terrifying Words in the English Language”

The two periods of increased bureaucratic growth in the United States, the 1930s and the 1960s, accomplished far more than expanding the size of government. They transformed politics in ways that continue to shape political debate today. While the bureaucracies created in these two periods served important purposes, many at that time and even now argue that the expansion came with unacceptable costs, particularly economic costs. The common argument that bureaucratic regulation smothers capitalist innovation was especially powerful in the Cold War environment of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. But as long as voters felt they were benefiting from the bureaucratic expansion, as they typically did, the political winds supported continued growth.

In the 1970s, however, Germany and Japan were thriving economies in positions to compete with U.S. industry. This competition, combined with technological advances and the beginnings of computerization, began to eat away at American prosperity. Factories began to close, wages began to stagnate, inflation climbed, and the future seemed a little less bright. In this environment, tax-paying workers were less likely to support generous welfare programs designed to end poverty. They felt these bureaucratic programs were adding to their misery in order to support unknown others.

When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, his criticism of bureaucratic waste in Washington carried him to a landslide victory. Even as late as 1986, he continued to rail against the Washington bureaucracy, once declaring famously that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Questions to Consider

  1. What roles do professional government employees carry out?

  2. Who are they and how do they acquire their jobs?

  3. Who makes the rules of a bureaucracy?

  4. Why might people be more sympathetic to bureaucratic growth during periods of prosperity?

  5. In what way do modern politicians continue to stir up popular animosity against bureaucracy to political advantage? Is it effective? Why or why not?

Terms to Remember

bureaucracy–an administrative group of nonelected officials charged with carrying out functions connected to a series of policies and programs

bureaucrats–the civil servants or political appointees who fill nonelected positions in government and make up the bureaucracy

civil servants–the individuals who fill nonelected positions in government and make up the bureaucracy; also known as bureaucrats

merit system–a system of filling civil service positions by using competitive examinations to value experience and competence over political loyalties

patronage–the use of government positions to reward individuals for their political support

public administration–the implementation of public policy as well as the academic study that prepares civil servants to work in government

spoils system–a system that rewards political loyalties or party support during elections with bureaucratic appointments after victory


  1. For general information on ancient bureaucracies see Amanda Summer. 2012. "The Birth of Bureaucracy". Archaeology 65, No. 4: 33–39; Clyde Curry Smith. 1977. "The Birth of Bureaucracy". The Bible Archaeologist 40, No. 1: 24–28; Ronald J. Williams. 1972. "Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt," Journal of the American Oriental Society 92, No. 2: 214–21.
  2. Richard Stillman. 2009. Public Administration: Concepts and Cases. 9th edition. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  3. For the early origins of the U.S. bureaucracy see Michael Nelson. 1982. "A Short, Ironic History of American National Bureaucracy," The Journal of Politics 44 No. 3: 747–78.
  4. Daniel Walker Howe. 2007. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 334.
  5. Jack Ladinsky. 1966. "Review of Status and Kinship in the Higher Civil Service: Standards of Selection in the Administrations of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson," American Sociological Review 31 No. 6: 863–64.
  6. For more on the Pendleton Act and its effects see Sean M. Theriault. 2003. "Patronage, the Pendleton Act, and the Power of the People," The Journal of Politics 65 No. 1: 50–68; Craig V. D. Thornton. 1983. "Review of Centenary Issues of the Pendleton Act of 1883: The Problematic Legacy of Civil Service Reform," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 2 No. 4: 653–53.
  7. For more on LBJ and the Great Society see: John A. Andrew. 1998. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago: Ivan R Dee; Julian E. Zelizer. 2015. The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. New York: Penguin Press.
  8. John Mikesell. 2014. Fiscal Administration, 9th ed. Boston: Cengage.