Max Weber, (often) credited with the birth of sociology, the science of social studies, said that the ‘ideal bureaucracy’ consisted of a system that was efficient, worked fast but yet remained precise, wasn’t ambiguous, had knowledge of the files it held, continually discreet, has strict subordination, reduction of friction whilst maintaining the lowest possible material and production costs. While Weber’s statement is itself ambitious (and highly unlikely that a bureaucracy containing all those characteristics could exist in either the US or UK political systems) if a bureaucracy did exist with those characteristics it would be incredibly effective and useful to the administration of the time.
In the US there has always been a long held view of negativity against civil servants and to that end, the term bureaucrat has become one of insult. In fact in 1982 a poll showed that 74% of US citizens thought that Federal Government was being badly run. The same is true of the UK, where the civil service and civil servants have been synonymous with delays, paper work and interference. Indeed the latest head of the Civil Service, Sir Andrew Turnbull, who is often thought of as a Civil Service modernise, especially by the Prime Minister, was brought in to do just that to the Civil Service.
The main similarity between the two bureaucracies is that the heads of government appoints the heads of when the position arises. This usually occurs, in the case of the UK, when the present head retires. In the US it is not uncommon for a new President to replace the head of the Bureaucracy when they come into power. In the UK Civil Service, the head of the service also assumes the role of cabinet secretary. The main need for a bureaucracy in the first place, in either system, is because of the amount of information that is available on any specific topic. It is utterly ridiculous for a single minister to be able to absorb and digest all the information to then produce a clear judgement based on the information they have received. In the first place they simply don’t have the time for such a mammoth task.
That’s why each minister has his own staff and civil service members. It is the civil servant’s job to collate all of the information available and work through what the minister needs to see and then presenting it to them in a report or briefing. That way the minister can spend the least amount of time needed on the subject at hand and still make a fully informed decision. In the US, each of the 14 departments (now 15 with Homeland Security) has its own branch of the bureaucracy. As with their Civil Service counterparts they are responsible for assimilating the necessary information and then presenting it to the minister in each department.
The size of the US bureaucracy has vastly grown since 1914, sized at now over 1700 staff. 500 of those members work in the White House itself. It has been said, several times, that the bureaucracies ‘cocoon’ the premiers from harm. There are several examples of these in recent American history, for example his very own ‘Berlin Wall’ of John Ehrlichman, Bob Halderman and Ron Zeigler shielded Richard Nixon from ‘reality’, very unwisely. The same happened with Jimmy Carter being shielded by Stewart Eisenstaat. The general fear behind these examples is that an un-elected official or officials gain real positions of power and responsibility that really lie with the President. These ‘shields’ can also start to exclude the bureaucracy, which in turn shields the President. That starts to lead to a decrease in the Presidents ability to rule. The same could be said to be happening in the UK. With an increase in the use of special advisors by ministers, the civil service could start to be edged out of the system.
On one hand this is a good thing, with only a few advisors working for the minister, the amount of people involved is less, however on the other hand, the amount of work that can be done also decreases. The main example of the special advisor – minister link is Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair. Tony Blair, who is also trying to turn his own staff into something like the Presidents Personal Bureaucracy, relies very heavily, or so it would seem, on Mr Campbell. Also during a period just after the ’97 election victory it seemed as if Campbell was acting as a spokesperson for the Prime Minster. Jimmy Carter and Stewart Eisenstaat, who adopted the same spokesperson role, acted out that same scenario. The main problem with this is that a person that hasn’t been elected is in a role of power with out being checked.
There have been several different reform attempts, mainly starting from criticisms of bureaucratic agencies. In the UK, criticism is quite low as the agencies are relatively new and haven’t had time to do anything too dramatic to stir up the press. In the US, the main concern is that the agencies form too close a symbiotic relationship, which is unhealthy for the professional situation. Most Presidential and Prime Ministerial response is to be concerned with the complexity and size of the bureaucracy. Michael Hesseltine tried to turn the civil service into a regulatory state. In the US, the bureaucracy was the main feature of Ronald Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union address. In the United States, Congress are also concerned about the power of the bureaucracy.
In 1980 they passed a ‘paperwork reduction bill’ and at the same time instigated the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Congress feel that the administrations are trying to centralise the ‘gate keeping’ of information, where the information is held closer to the President and those in the executive branch and kept further away from congress and make the information hard to get at. However the main problem with any reform attempt is that it goes against the flow of increased state activity. It is hard to curtail the activities of a branch that is becoming increasingly busier. One piece of legislation that the US congress has come up with is the Sunset Legislation. This legislation means that any agency has to go before a congressional committee ever once in a while to justify its existence. Any agency that is not fulfilling its requirements can be dismantled.
In conclusion the two different bureaucratic organisations operate a fairly similar role. They are both there to inform their own ministers of all the facts. At the same time they have to implement law once the various legislative bodies have approved it. The American system operates on a much larger scale due to the size of the country and the number of different organisations that exist within. However it is unusual that the US Federal Bureaucracy comes in for more fire than the UK counterpart. Considering that the US Freedom of Information Act guarantees the openness of the system and the pressure the mass media puts on the system, it could be surprising that the system has not come in for drastic reform.
However when considered that the amount of information that the bureaucracies have to deal with it is not at all surprising that no reform has been possible. In the UK the current government have leant, very well, how to manipulate and manage the media to their own advantage. Very little is heard of the civil service in the daily papers, and therefore it doesn’t come in for too much criticism. Hopefully over the next 8-10 years some serious reform of the civil service may take place, even if it simply works to incorporate the rash of special advisors that are cropping up in modern day British politics.
Courtney from Study Moose
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