Bureaucracy and democracy are often considered antithetical properties of political systems. There is a large scholarly and popular literature arguing that bureaucracies are major problems limiting the capacity of democratic political systems to effectively respond to their citizens.
The importance of bureaucracy for democracy in contemporary political systems arises in part from the weaknesses of more conventional institutions of democracy. For example, participation in elections has been falling rapidly in most democratic systems and membership in political parties in also declining.
Parliaments have for some time been argued to be losing power to the executive, and within the executive the collegiality of cabinet is eroding in favour of greater powers for the prime minister. Thus, the usual instrumentalities of political democracy are, if not failing, certainly weakened.
Although we usually think about “bureaucracy” in the context of public administration, the system of appointed officials, military and civil, in every state also has great political significance, not only in the sense that officials exercise direct influence on the shaping of public policies but they also affect the capacity of regimes to survive.
Maladministration not only leads to popular dissatisfaction with governments but it can provoke public officials, led by military officers, to seize power and become a ruling elite. They may do this to abort revolutionary movements and rebellions, or simply to replace a regime that cannot govern. Explanations based on the ambitions of military officer’s strike me as quite inadequate.
Good public administration reflects not only the ability of appointed officials to work effectively but also the capacity of a country’s political institutions to maintain effective control over its bureaucracy.
No matter how democratic the institutions of representative governance may be, they cannot survive for long if they are not also able to exercise enough control over their appointed officials to assure the honest and effective implementation of public policies — at least to some degree! Without such controls, bureaucrats left to them will easily indulge in corruption, abuse of power, laziness and inefficiency.
Conscientious and public spirited officials are numerous, but they easily succumb to counter-productive practices tolerated or even encouraged by ambitious and aggressive colleagues who typically dominate bureaucracies that are not effectively controlled by extra-bureaucratic political institutions.
Maladministration is much more than bureau pathology – all administrative systems suffer from difficulties that antagonize and worry citizens and administrative reforms are able to correct many of them. By contrast, maladministration involves the fundamental inability of appointed officials to perform the functions normally expected of them.
When, over two centuries ago, the administrative functions of the federal government were minimal and most public administration was, actually, carried out by state and local officials. Farmers, merchants, and artisans working in the private sector were self-sufficient and able to manage most of their affairs without governmental intervention.
Since then, however, the industrial revolution and the global interdependence brought into being by the world-encircling conquests of modern empires have vastly increased the need for public administration in every sphere of life. All constitutional democracies, if they are indeed to meet the needs of their citizens, must provide a host of new public services.
The inherent complexity and interdependence of these functions requires the support of a large number of talented and dedicated public servants. Their capacity and willingness to perform these functions cannot be taken for granted: no bureaucracy can, in principle, be internally designed on democratic principles.
Rather, they need to become specialists with authority to act based on their competence and knowledge of the technical problems involved in every domain of public policy, not by taking votes to see who agrees! Put simply, good public administration requires the empowerment of appointed public officials — they need to be able to act quickly and efficiently in order to accomplish the missions assigned to them.
The more powerful officials become, however, the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable for their performance and the greater the need for effective institutions of representative government (legislatures and courts of law as well as chief executives) that are able to direct and monitor public bureaucracies.
The survival of constitutional democracy, therefore, hinges not only on the internal design and effectiveness of the institutions of representative government but on their capacity to manage public bureaucracies. This has always been true, but the emergence of modern technological, scientific, and industrial institutions and problems on a global basis has raised the problems of bureaucratic control and management to new heights.
The need for such controls is most dramatically evident in the successor states created by the collapse of all the modern empires, whether capitalist or communist in design. In these states, colonial bureaucracies have been transformed into state bureaucracies in whom indigenous personnel replaced expatriates but authoritarian practices and attitudes survived.
Those who wanted to democratize these polities faced the stupendous problems involved not only in creating institutions of representative government but also in empowering them to exercise effective control over the bureaucratic institutions which they inherited (or, in some cases, were able to create).
Understandably, they often failed and maladministration resulted. Indeed, it is fair to say that in many of these countries anarchy resulted throughout much of the territory included within the nominal borders of the new states. Not surprisingly, crime, banditry, and gangs emerged, often provoking both public officials and political elites to resort to violence in futile fruitless efforts to restore or establish order.
Such efforts, however, in the absence of effective public administration, merely provoke more anger and resistance to authority. Quite often political movements based on ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism, or traditional clan and tribal structures, take shape in vain efforts to create islands of security (“sovereignty”) within the domain of anarchic states.
International agencies and national governments (including the U.S.) often responded to such situations by sponsoring programs of technical assistance in public administration and military assistance. They felt unable, however, to deal with the delicate and baffling problems involved in helping new institutions for responsible representative governance become better established and more effective.
Instead, therefore, of improving public administration, in many cases these efforts contributed to maladministration by enhancing the power of appointed officials (especially military officers) without strengthening the institutions able to impose accountability upon them. In many cases, military officers already dominated these regimes and, predictably bureaucratic domination augments the ability of appointed officials to abuse their powers and deepen crises of maladministration.
In recent years, especially following the collapse of the communist empires, the United States and other established democracies, in cooperation with a host of international organizations (both governmental and non-governmental) have striven to promote democratization around the world.
Unfortunately, however, many of these efforts have focussed attention on some components of a democracy, such as “free elections”, without much attention to the fact that elections contribute to democracy only when elected officials are able to use their powers, not only to represent popular preferences in the shaping of public policies but also to manage public bureaucracies charged with their implementation.
Of course, there is a reciprocal relation between the structures of bureaucratic organization and the design of representative institutions. Many colonial bureaucracies were organized according to the “mandarin” principle first developed in ancient China, but subsequently borrowed by the British for use in their Indian empire and, later, domesticated by creation of the Administrative Class in the government of England.
Parallel lines of development had brought mandarinates to power in most of the other modern empires, and this mean that their successor states inherited administrative institutions staffed by mandarin-type careerists.
A major exception can be found in the successor states of pre-modern empires, like the Spanish and Portuguese. They inherited a kind of patronage-based bureaucracy in which officials, with no assurances of tenure; banded together to protect their privileges and positions, forming what it can be referred to as a “retainer bureaucracy.”
Although initially less powerful than a mandarin bureaucracy, retainers who are able to retain their perquisites for long periods of time can become formidably powerful, though often not very efficient as administrators. Like the mandarins, however, they are often able, during severe political crises, to seize power by means of a military led and become the ruling elite.
A truly great exception to these generalizations can be found in the U.S. The Congress, when enacting the Pendleton Act in 1883, decided to follow the British example by creating career services to replace the patronage/spoils system which had evolved before then.
However, the spoils principle was also retained by permitting succeeding chief executives to discharge many incumbents and replace them by new “in-and-outer” (transient) appointees. Since transients have neither the ability nor the will to conspire together to replace elected officials, this simple technique assured the perpetuation of the American constitutional system even if maladministration prevailed.
However, some protection against maladministration was provided by creating the possibility of appointing specialized career officials to occupy positions under the top echelon of in-and-outers. These officials, moreover, would not be mandarins following the British example ~ rather, they would be functionaries trained in specific fields of expertise that qualified them, at any age, to occupy specific
posts at all levels of government. The double effect of this design was both to enhance the administrative expertise and capabilities of American officials and to reduce their ability to conspire with each other to advance their common interests as bureaucrats or to join plots to overthrow the government.
There is a more positive case to be made for the linkage of bureaucracy and democracy. First, public bureaucracies are major actors in making and implementing policy and therefore accountability has always been a crucial form of democracy, but it becomes even more crucial when other aspects of democracy are weakened.
Further, the majority of contacts between the State and society occur through the public bureaucracy, and these contacts are important for political inputs as well as simply for administration of programs. This importance is especially evident given the development of a range of networked forms of governing within particular policy areas.
Programmes such as “citizen engagement” and e-government often are largely directed at, and managed by, the public bureaucracy, and provide opportunities for citizens to have more immediate and personalized redressal of grievances against government than would traditional forms of accountability.
Further, deliberative democracy may be more possible vis-a-vis bureaucracies than with the manifestly political components of government, given that this form of decision-making would not be seen as challenging conventional forms of representation.
Although a case has been made for some democratic elements in contemporary public administration, we also need to think carefully about the type of democracy that these contacts between state and society would produce. It would be a localized and sector ally-defined form of democracy, and might be even more skewed toward the affluent, organized and articulate than are conventional forms of democracy.
To conclude, the design of a public bureaucracy and its capacity to administer public policies effectively hinges on the capacity of representative institutions to maintain their authority and effective control over appointed officials (military and civil).
When such control evaporates (or fails to evolve) because of the weakness of representative institutions and/or the resulting maladministration of public policies, democratic government will almost surely collapse.
Moreover, in the design of public bureaucracies, it is important to establish structures that will enhance the power and authority of public officials enough to enable them to administer well but not so much as to enable them to seize power when great crises severely test the capabilities of the institutions of representative governance.
The design of contemporary constitutional democracies, therefore, must keep the structure and performance of public bureaucracies in mind as an essential component of the whole system of governance.