Many Americans today have a negative perception of the federal bureaucracy. They consider it a huge, immovable object that hinders progress and intrudes on their lives. Most Americans believe the federal bureaucracy has grown in the last few decades to an enormous size. This is a misperception. Since the 1960s, the size of the federal bureaucracy has been very stable. By contrast, however, state and local bureaucracies have grown steadily since World War II, reflecting the increasing extent to which federal programs are administered by the states. Most Americans also feel that the federal bureaucracy is very wasteful. Whistle-blowers and reports of abuses fuel this perception of waste, which does sometimes occur.
The late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin was famous for his “Golden Fleece” awards given to departments and individuals for wasteful spending he found in the bureaucracy. Senator Proxmire’s focus on spending abuses helped end many wasteful and unwise practices. Writing in the first decades of the twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber theorized on governments, institutions, and bureaucracies. Weber believed that bureaucracies function to implement the policies of elected government in a rational, efficient, non-partisan manner. He felt that workers in bureaucracies develop specific expertise and technical knowledge that could not be acquired in the relatively short tenure of elected or appointed policy makers.
He also felt that they possess critical knowledge about the history and practice of their agency within the larger framework of government and society and that they provide continuity from one administration to the next, which is essential for an orderly transfer of power under rule of law. Leadership may change, but the engine of government does not falter on account of having a new driver in a government that possesses a strong bureaucracy. Weber identified the structure of a bureaucracy as a hierarchical pyramid with levels of rank and power and a single director at the top. He said bureaucratic jobs tend to require specialized knowledge, such as accounting, statistics, economics, or health care. Obtaining a position within a bureaucracy is ideally based on merit for performing the job rather than on other factors, such as being a friend or relative of someone with “pull” or being owed a political or financial favor.
Modern theorists feel that while Weber made some good observations about bureaucracies, he did not sufficiently address the manner in which bureaucracies function in government. Bureaucracies tend to resist change because change uses resources and introduces unknown elements into the system. For this reason, a bureaucracy is often at odds with elected officials and their appointees, who by contrast often get elected or appointed on a promise to implement change. To minimize the effects of leaders who come and go, a bureaucracy will tend to seek power of its own and uses its power, for the most part, to maintain the status quo.
When asked to change, bureaucracies often respond with a request for more people and resources rather than with a plan to restructure or become more efficient. In this way, bureaucracies can become large, cumbersome, and complex if they are not required to account for their own practices. Bureaucracies tend to be monopolistic because it makes little sense to have more than one government agency performing the same function. Complaints about bureaucratic monopolies are generally the same as for corporate monopolies—without competition or some strict means of regulation, a monopoly becomes inefficient at best and tyrannical at worst. Government bureaucratic monopolies can have competition from private sources. The U.S. Post Office, Amtrak, and NASA are all government monopolies. Until recent decades, the U.S. Post Office was by law the only carrier of mail and parcels. Private companies that felt they could deliver packages at a profit lobbied for a change in the law to allow private carriers. Now there are several parcel delivery companies that are very successful and profitable.