The Bureaucracy: Who is in control?

Photo of James Comey swearing oath before testimony at congressional hearing.

Director James Comey is sworn in before testifying at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, July 7, 2016. (Credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron and Laura Santhanam of PBS)

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the way Congress, the president, bureaucrats, and citizens provide meaningful oversight over the bureaucracies.
  • Identify the ways in which privatization has made bureaucracies both more and less efficient.

As our earlier description of the State Department demonstrates, bureaucracies are incredibly complicated. Understandably, then, the processes of rule-making and bureaucratic oversight are equally complex. Elected leaders and citizens have developed laws and institutions to help rein in bureaucracies that become either too independent, corrupt, or both.

Consider the Original

|| Federalist No. 70 || 

The Executive Department Further Considered
From the New York Packet
Tuesday, March 18, 1788.

Author: Alexander Hamilton

To the People of the State of New York:

THERE is an idea, which is not without its advocates, that a vigorous Executive is inconsistent with the genius of republican government. The enlightened well-wishers to this species of government must at least hope that the supposition is destitute of foundation; since they can never admit its truth, without at the same time admitting the condemnation of their own principles. Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy. Every man the least conversant in Roman story, knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of Dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.

There can be no need, however, to multiply arguments or examples on this head. A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.

Taking it for granted, therefore, that all men of sense will agree in the necessity of an energetic Executive, it will only remain to inquire, what are the ingredients which constitute this energy? How far can they be combined with those other ingredients which constitute safety in the republican sense? And how far does this combination characterize the plan which has been reported by the convention?

The ingredients which constitute energy in the Executive are, first, unity; secondly, duration; thirdly, an adequate provision for its support; fourthly, competent powers.

The ingredients which constitute safety in the republican sense are, first, a due dependence on the people, secondly, a due responsibility. […]

Federalist No. 70, “The Executive Department Further Considered, March 18, 1788 by Alexander Hamilton; https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-70

Bureaucratic Rule-making

Once the particulars of implementation have been spelled out in the legislation authorizing a new program, bureaucracies move to enact it. When they encounter grey areas, many follow the federal negotiated rule-making process to propose a solution, that is, detailing how particular new federal polices, regulations, and/or programs will be implemented in the agencies. Congress cannot possibly legislate on that level of detail, so the experts in the bureaucracy do so.

Negotiated rule-making is a relatively recently developed bureaucratic device that emerged from the criticisms of bureaucratic inefficiencies in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.[1] Before it was adopted, bureaucracies used a procedure called notice-and-comment rule-making. This practice required that agencies attempting to adopt rules publish their proposal in the Federal Register, the official publication for all federal rules and proposed rules. By publishing the proposal, the bureaucracy was fulfilling its obligation to allow the public time to comment. But rather than encouraging the productive interchange of ideas, the comment period had the effect of creating an adversarial environment in which different groups tended to make extreme arguments for rules that would support their interests. As a result, administrative rule-making became too lengthy, too contentious, and too likely to provoke litigation in the courts.

link to learningThe Federal Register was once available only in print. Now, however, it is available online and is far easier to navigate and use. Have a look at all the important information the government’s journal posts online.

 

Reformers argued that these inefficiencies needed to be corrected. They proposed the negotiated rule-making process, often referred to as regulatory negotiation, or “reg-neg” for short. This process was codified in the Negotiated Rule-making Acts of 1990 and 1996, which encouraged agencies to employ negotiated rule-making procedures. While negotiated rule-making is required in only a handful of agencies and plenty still use the traditional process, others have recognized the potential of the new process and have adopted it.

In negotiated rule-making, neutral advisers known as conveners put together a committee of those who have vested interests in the proposed rules. The conveners then set about devising procedures for reaching a consensus on the proposed rules. The committee uses these procedures to govern the process through which the committee members discuss the various merits and demerits of the proposals. With the help of neutral mediators, the committee eventually reaches a general consensus on the rules.

Government Bureaucratic Oversight

A photo of Lois Lerner.

In this photograph, Lois Lerner, the former director of the Internal Revenue Service’s Exempt Organizations Unit, sits before an oversight committee in Congress following a 2013 investigation. On the advice of her attorney, Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself and refused to answer questions. (Credit: U. S. Congress; OpenStax included image)

The ability for bureaucracies to develop their own rules and in many ways control their own budgets has often been a matter of great concern for elected leaders. As a result, elected leaders have employed a number of strategies and devices to control public administrators in the bureaucracy.

Congress is particularly empowered to apply oversight of the federal bureaucracy because of its power to control funding and approve presidential appointments. The various bureaucratic agencies submit annual summaries of their activities and budgets for the following year, and committees and subcommittees in both chambers regularly hold hearings to question the leaders of the various bureaucracies. These hearings are often tame, practical, fact-finding missions. Occasionally, however, when a particular bureaucracy has committed or contributed to a blunder of some magnitude, the hearings can become quite animated and testy.

This occurred in 2013 following the realization by Congress that the IRS had selected for extra scrutiny certain groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. While the error could have been a mere mistake or have resulted from any number of reasons, many in Congress became enraged at the thought that the IRS might purposely use its power to inconvenience citizens and their groups.[2] The House directed its Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to launch an investigation into the IRS, during which time it interviewed and publicly scrutinized a number of high-ranking civil servants.

link to learningThe mission of the U.S. House Oversight Committee is to “ensure the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the federal government and all its agencies.” The committee is an important congressional check on the power of the bureaucracy. Visit the website for more information about the U.S. House Oversight Committee.

Perhaps Congress’s most powerful oversight tool is the Government Accountability Office (GAO).[3] The GAO is an agency that provides Congress, its committees, and the heads of the executive agencies with auditing, evaluation, and investigative services. It is designed to operate in a fact-based and nonpartisan manner to deliver important oversight information where and when it is needed. The GAO’s role is to produce reports, mostly at the insistence of Congress. In the approximately nine hundred reports it completes per year, the GAO sends Congress information about budgetary issues for everything from education, health care, and housing to defense, homeland security, and natural resource management.[4] Since it is an office within the federal bureaucracy, the GAO also supplies Congress with its own annual performance and accountability report. This report details the achievements and remaining weaknesses in the actions of the GAO for any given year.

Apart from Congress, the president also executes oversight over the extensive federal bureaucracy through a number of different avenues. Most directly, the president controls the bureaucracies by appointing the heads of the fifteen cabinet departments and of many independent executive agencies, such as the CIA, the EPA, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These cabinet and agency appointments go through the Senate for confirmation.

The other important channel through which the office of the president conducts oversight over the federal bureaucracy is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).[5] The primary responsibility of the OMB is to produce the president’s annual budget for the country. With this huge responsibility, however, comes a number of other responsibilities. These include reporting to the president on the actions of the various executive departments and agencies in the federal government, overseeing the performance levels of the bureaucracies, coordinating and reviewing federal regulations for the president, and delivering executive orders and presidential directives to the various agency heads.

Citizen Bureaucratic Oversight

A number of laws passed in the decades between the end of the Second World War and the late 1970s have created a framework through which citizens can exercise their own bureaucratic oversight. The two most important laws are the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 and the Government in Sunshine Act of 1976.[6] Like many of the modern bureaucratic reforms in the United States, both emerged during a period of heightened skepticism about government activities.

The first, the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA), emerged in the early years of the Johnson presidency as the United States was conducting secret Cold War missions around the world, the U.S. military was becoming increasingly mired in the conflict in Vietnam, and questions were still swirling around the Kennedy assassination. FOIA provides journalists and the general public the right to request records from various federal agencies. These agencies are required by law to release that information unless it qualifies for one of nine exemptions. These exceptions cite sensitive issues related to national security or foreign policy, internal personnel rules, trade secrets, violations of personnel privacy rights, law enforcement information, and oil well data. FOIA also compels agencies to post some types of information for the public regularly without being requested.

A scanned copy of a CIA document with large amounts of text blacked out.

As this CIA document shows, even information released under FOIA can be greatly restricted by the agencies releasing it. The black marks (redacting) cover information the CIA deemed particularly sensitive. (Credit: Central Intelligence Agency)

In fiscal year 2015, the government received 713,168 FOIA requests, with just three departments—Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice—accounting for more than half those queries.[7] The Center for Effective Government analyzed the fifteen federal agencies that receive the most FOIA requests and concluded that they generally struggle to implement public disclosure rules. In its latest report, published in 2015 and using 2012 and 2013 data (the most recent available), ten of the fifteen did not earn satisfactory overall grades, scoring less than seventy of a possible one hundred points.[8]

The Government in Sunshine Act of 1976 is different from FOIA in that it requires all multi-headed federal agencies to hold their meetings in a public forum on a regular basis. The name “Sunshine Act” is derived from the old adage that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”—the implication being that governmental and bureaucratic corruption thrive in secrecy but shrink when exposed to the light of public scrutiny. The act defines a meeting as any gathering of agency members in person or by phone, whether in a formal or informal manner.

Like FOIA, the Sunshine Act allows for exceptions. These include meetings where classified information is discussed, proprietary data has been submitted for review, employee privacy matters are discussed, criminal matters are brought up, and information would prove financially harmful to companies were it released. Citizens and citizen groups can also follow rule-making and testify at hearings held around the country on proposed rules. The rule-making process and the efforts by federal agencies to keep open records and solicit public input on important changes are examples of responsive bureaucracy.

Government Privatization

When those in government speak of privatization, they are often referring to one of a host of different models that incorporate the market forces of the private sector into the function of government to varying degrees.[9] These include using contractors to supply goods and/or services, distributing government vouchers with which citizens can purchase formerly government-controlled services on the private market, supplying government grants to private organizations to administer government programs, collaborating with a private entity to finance a government program, and even fully divesting the government of a function and directly giving it to the private sector. We will look at three of these types of privatization shortly.

Divestiture, or full privatization, occurs when government services are transferred, usually through sale, from government bureaucratic control into an entirely market-based, private environment. At the federal level this form of privatization is very rare, although it does occur. Consider the Student Loan Marketing Association, often referred to by its nickname, Sallie Mae. When it was created in 1973, it was designed to be a government entity for processing federal student education loans. Over time, however, it gradually moved further from its original purpose and became increasingly private. Sallie Mae reached full privatization in 2004.[10] Another example is the U.S. Investigations Services, Inc., which was once the investigative branch of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) until it was privatized in the 1990s. At the state level, however, the privatization of roads, public utilities, bridges, schools, and even prisons has become increasingly common as state and municipal authorities look for ways to reduce the cost of government.

One the most the most important forms of bureaucratic oversight comes from inside the bureaucracy itself. Those within are in the best position to recognize and report on misconduct. But bureaucracies tend to jealously guard their reputations and are generally resistant to criticism from without and from within. This can create quite a problem for insiders who recognize and want to report mismanagement and even criminal behavior. The personal cost of doing the right thing can be prohibitive.[11] For a typical bureaucrat faced with the option of reporting corruption and risking possible termination or turning the other way and continuing to earn a living, the choice is sometimes easy.

Under heightened skepticism due to government inefficiency and outright corruption in the 1970s, government officials began looking for solutions. When Congress drafted the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, it specifically included rights for federal whistleblowers, those who publicize misdeeds committed within a bureaucracy or other organization, and set up protection from reprisals. The act’s Merit Systems Protection Board is a quasi-juridical institutional board headed by three members appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate that hears complaints, conducts investigations into possible abuses, and institutes protections for bureaucrats who speak out.[12] Over time, Congress and the president have strengthened these protections with additional acts. These include the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, which further compelled federal agencies to protect whistleblowers who reasonably perceive that an institution or the people in the institution are acting inappropriately.

An ad on the side of a bus featuring a photo of Edward Snowden. The text says

In 2013, Edward Snowden, an unknown computer professional working under contract within the National Security Agency, copied and released to the press classified information that revealed an expansive and largely illegal secret surveillance network the government was operating within the United States. Fearing reprisals, Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then Moscow. Some argue that his actions were irresponsible and he should be prosecuted. Others champion his actions and hold that without them, the illegal spying would have continued. Regardless, the Snowden case reveals important weaknesses in whistleblower protections in the United States. (Credit: modification of work by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño)

Questions to Consider

  1. What concerns might arise when Congress delegates decision-making authority to unelected leaders, sometimes called the fourth branch of government?

  2. Which model of bureaucracy best explains the way the government currently operates? Why?

  3. Do you think Congress and the president have done enough to protect bureaucratic whistleblowers? Why or why not?

Terms to Remember

negotiated rulemaking–a rulemaking process in which neutral advisors convene a committee of those who have vested interests in the proposed rules and help the committee reach a consensus on them

privatization–measures that incorporate the market forces of the private sector into the function of government to varying degrees

whistleblower–a person who publicizes misdeeds committed within a bureaucracy or other organization


  1. Philip J. Harter. 1982. "Negotiating Regulations: A Cure for Malaise," Georgetown Law Journal, 71, No. 1.
  2. https://www.treasury.gov/tigta/auditreports/2013reports/201310053fr.pdf (May 1, 2016).
  3. http://www.gao.gov/ (May 1, 2016).
  4. http://www.gao.gov/about/products/about-gao-reports.html (May 1, 2016).
  5. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb (May 1, 2016).
  6. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/5/552; https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-90/pdf/STATUTE-90-Pg1241.pdf (June 6, 2016).
  7. http://www.foia.gov (May 1, 2016).
  8. http://www.foreffectivegov.org/access-to-information-scorecard-2015/ (May 1, 2016).
  9. Kevin R. Kosar. "Privatization and the Federal Government: An Introduction," CRS Report for Congress, December 28, 2006. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33777.pdf (June 16, 2016).
  10. https://www.salliemae.com/about/who-we-are/history/ (June 16, 2016).
  11. Alan K. Campbell. 1978. "Civil Service Reform: A New Commitment." Public Administration Review 38 No. 2, 99.
  12. Campbell, "Civil Service Reform," 100.