html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Exactly.

Friday, June 22, 2007


I very much agreed with this article praising bureaucracy and bureaucrats who uphold governmental integrity. I know how people love to hate on bureaucrats. There's the usual accusation in the Marginal Revolution comments that all bureaucrats want to do it protect and expand their perceived interests. I profoundly disagree with that. That isn't what I've seen.

Look, people work in bureaucracies for reasons. It isn't for the high pay and the glamorous lifestyle, I can tell you that. The reasons that people work for bureaucracies are the same things that make them worthy guardians of the "integrity of the American system of government.". First, to be a bureaucrat, you have to have some respect for rules and authority. Working inside this system would be intolerable if you chafe at rules and want to do slashbuckling dramatic works. Bureaucrats believe in rules, and that faith in rules means that they want to follow an explicit process. When a political appointee comes in at the last minute and wants to change the conclusions and maybe also ignore the public comment or not give full notice in the Federal Register, our bureaucratic souls are offended. There was A PROCESS! You can't JUST CHANGE THINGS! We wrote in the management plan that we would sample these sites and use this decision rule and why aren't we doing that?! People get so frustrated that bureaucrats follow rules no matter what, but when those rules are there to safeguard the public against a rogue executive, what you need is a whole bunch of narrow-minded inflexible pedants.

The second reason that people go to work for bureaucracies is that they love the topic. There's nowhere else Margie could build so many fish ladders. There's a reason I'm here and not at CalTrans. I didn't want to be a bureaucrat so desperately that I would have gone to work for Health and Human Services. I wanted to practice in water, and my agency does more stuff in water than anyone else in the state. People here mostly care about water and, years into their careers, are very knowledgeable. Bureaucrats get buffeted by political changes in agency direction, but many are still people who love the topic. If the political veering gets too extreme, in the end they will stand up for what they know. You cannot convince them that overpumping will not damage groundwater basins, or that Delta smelt are perfectly fine, or you that the levees have no underseep. They know better, because this has been their career, and if political appointees are using the authority of the agency to make blatently false statements, the cognitive dissonance will eventually force them to action.*

Finally, agency staff believe in public service. This sounds so quaint and idealistic that it is hard to believe it could matter. But it does. Some people go to work for bureaucracies because they love their state and want to serve it. I do. The idea of "best for our state/country" comes into every decision we make. You can argue your libertarian "I don't want anyone else deciding what is best for me", which I don't agree with at all**, but whether you like the outcome or not, bureaucrats have "best for our country" at heart the way that doctors have "best for my patients" and teachers have "best for my students" at heart. Sure, not all of them live up to that. Of course not. But in times of Constitutional crisis, when your highest elected official does not believe that the law applies to him, it matters that the people who will be carrying out his orders are used to having a voice in their heads asking "Is this best for my county? Will the people I serve be helped or hurt by this?". That idealism matters when the integrity of your agency and its mission is being blatantly trampled.

So I am not surprised that mid-level bureaucrats stood up to be a check on the political levels of the executive branch. I'm surprised to see recognition of that, and pleased to read someone explicitly saying so. But I am not surprised to see bureaucrats uphold agency integrity. The good bureaucrats crave a rule-guided process and they have decades of knowledge in fields they care about and they are idealistic about serving America. Some of the time, some combination of those things will force them to take hard stands at great personal cost. Respect for you, rumpled and unglamorous bureaucrat. American democracy depends in part on you acting like dedicated public servants. Thank you for living up to that.

*They may not have good ways to do anything. Maybe they have no way to tell people that a political appointee is changing the conclusions for biological opinions, or that safety measures are being de-funded. Maybe it is incredibly hard to explain why it will matter to anyone that inspections are being changed from an on-site inspection to a self-submitted web-based checklist. Maybe the best they can do is keep their heads down and leave the public sector. But people who loved their fields can't watch their core knowledge and purpose be violated forever.

**I will never believe that you want to decide for yourself what concentrations of chemical byproducts from local metalplating shops is safe for your household AND the seismic standards for the bridges you cross AND the optimal level of pesticides on the lettuce you eat AND the proper response to the introduction of West Nile disease into your county AND I could go on forever. You cannot make me believe that you want to deal with all of those personally.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link..!

6:39 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

No problem! Happy to send some traffic your way.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought better of American bureaucracy. I think it's the French bureaucracy that always felt so listless to me (Sartre's fault), the French failing to have that same American optimism and idealism.

More bias, I'm sure.

5:56 AM  
Blogger bobvis said...

Megan, I totally agree that it's largely silly to imagine government bureaucrats conniving to increase their own power. I actually managed to work in government long enough to figure that out.

I think the mechanism by which government bureaucrats increase their power is based on the fact that as you say, government bureaucrats may actually be the most knowledgeable people on a particular topic. They can see the mistakes that are being made out there in the world by the people who aren't them, and they have the power to go fix it. This may be a good thing if you work at an agency that preserves a public good. When a bureaucrat or law writer decide that people are starting the wrong kinds of businesses in the wrong areas or aren't buying big enough homes and the like, he isn't protecting a public good. Rather, he is using his own superior knowledge of what should be happening to affect the changes he wants to see despite the preferences expressed by the people government presumably serves. You are right that it isn't because he maliciously wants to wield his power. It is because he, like you, believes that he honestly knows what's best. Again: good for water, bad for commerce.
Thanks for the link..!

I laughed way too hard when I saw this.

6:08 AM  
Blogger John said...

I find it surprising that ANYONE would find it surprising that mid-level civil servants -- not bureaucrats -- would stand up to the wrong-headed efforts to politicize the federal government, especially the justice and intelligence agencies.

The history of the evolution of the civil service system should explain why this is so.

Now, that's not to say that I think government has a role in all of aspects of our life. I wouldn't, for instance, want the government to establish an agency that would decide who was qualified to have children. And I would like to get the government out of the business of deciding what is acceptable speech.

But government is necessary and valuable and the administration of the laws must be done by professionals who are focused on the letter and the intent of the law, not on political concerns of one interest or the other. That is why what the Bush administration has attempted is so scandalous.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Spungen said...

People get so frustrated that bureaucrats follow rules no matter what, but when those rules are there to safeguard the public against a rogue executive, what you need is a whole bunch of narrow-minded inflexible pedants.

Very well said. I'll probably incorporate this into my mission statement, uncredited of course. ;)

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

What might contribute to the poor image of bureaucrats is that the low-level ones people deal with on a routine basis often are lazy and unpleasant. While the middle managers at a state DMV might be honest and hardworking, we rarely enounter them. On the other hand, the counter workers at the local DMV office, the people with whom we deal, all too frequently are slow, inefficient, and nasty.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous D said...

cool topic... In dealing with federal bureaucracies, I have a more complex opinion, too complex really to delve on a computer not my own. Suffice it to say I have met many experts that completely fail to see the big picture. Sometimes that is a good thing... and sometimes not. But perhaps that is the way of balancing the thing of life, yes? Actually I make it a habit of splitting bureau, into TECHNO and Bureau, because sometimes a person is just a Vogon without any knowledge of WHY a procedure exists, and sometimes you run into pure SME's that know why the procedure exists, but not that it no longer applies [I'd love to hear your thoughts on The Salton Sea sometime]... but like them or no, the point is once a basic size is acieved in any process or group, you simply need them. The downside is that they cost money, and budgetary restriction often dictates their QUALITY....

but all in all, great topic. As an aside, and having a lot of knowledge on what the previous admistration to W did... well lets just say that NOTHING ever changes in DC. Really. NOTHING.


8:39 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

John at 9:16 was a good comment. You really have to distinguish between bureaucracy and the civil service. Bureaucracy is an ancient institution that appears in the private sector, the public sector, and intermediate forms between private and public (like feudalism). The thing that distinguishes the civil service is that it is in service to the civil state, as opposed to an individual like the president, king, emperor, etc., or a private entity like a corporation. So the ethic Megan is talking about is inherent to the civil service and in fact the reason it was founded. It is not inherent to other bureaucrats. (Although the quality and ethics of the state the civil servant serves is of course critical).

Bureaucracy has been central not just to the growth of the state, but the growth of capitalism. (This point is often missed by people who identify modern capitalism simply with the market, which is misguided). Some people think that the growth of modern infotech will make it possible to run capitalism without large corporate bureaucracies. (I wonder about this, but whatever). An interesting question is whether you can do the same with the civil service, de-bureaucratize it using technology, while keeping many of the advantages Megan points out, which are rooted in the civil service ethic and not bureaucracy per se.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Marcus, that was super excellent. I'm going to have to think more about that distinction.

1:01 PM  
Blogger bobvis said...

John 9:16? You mean: Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them.?

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Megan.

I've been reading your blog for over half a year; I'm responding to the double-asterisked note:

Why don't you include the third choice: allowing me to decide who will decide for me. I don't want to think about the details of how to make a car safer, but I want to choose what car I get from what company, or whether I even get a car. I don't want to consider the details of what's in my food, but I want to decide which restaurants I go to. I don't want to decide for myself how much an airplane should be maintained, but I want to choose the airline. I even want the choice not to think about (and not have anyone take care of for me) all the items you listed. I could go on an on forever, too.

As you can imagine, I'm a big Justin fan.

- Jan

4:03 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

Good points Jan. I totally agree with your examples, but also with Megan's. I think that certain distinctions are conflated in the choice of who should decide what.

Your examples (Jan) all admit of competitive alternatives subject to market discipline. Companies can provide a bond of quality and safety, and they can compete on maintaining that bond. I won't fly an airline whose planes drop from the sky, and I doubt the bureaucrats at the FAA care more about that than the managers or workers at the airlines. I think the FAA is largely superfluous in this case.

On the other hand, Megan's examples included an externality (chemical byproducts from local metalplating shops), long-term consideration beyond the time horizon of your typical business (seismic standards for bridges), and public health (proper response to West Nile). None of these are easily subject to market discipline.

The optimal use of pesticides relative to their content on your food can be regulated by the market. Companies that can charge a premium for "organic" can certainly compete on food purity and safety. Again, I'd trust the bureaucrats at Kraft at least as much as those at the FDA; Kraft suffers severe business and legal penalties when people get sick from their food, even if over time. The FDA suffers bad press, then gets an increase in funding. (To the degree that pesticides create an externality, e.g., seeping into the water table, then we're again dealing with something not subject to market discipline. One could go on and on with examples of either side.)

I think that Megan's point about government bureaucrats not being lazy or incompetent is well taken. But I find the opposite assumption to be just as maddening--that concern for public welfare is confined to civil servants, which is often the basis for increased regulation. In my experience, is just as replete with concerned 'bureaucrats,' middle managers who know how to provide goods and services that won't harm their public.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

left out the word "business" (is just as replete...)

7:37 PM  
Blogger Zubon said...

The family of libertarian civil service bureaucrats is small and self-conflicted but surprisingly efficient in maintaining the rule of law.

Also, in contrast to a previous poster, I think you do not know enough civil servants and/or bureaucrats if you do not know any who are trying to increase their personal power, authority, and prestige (by a variety of means, not all in the public interest). Also also, within our areas of expertise, I am more likely to hear what is in the public's interest than any consideration of the public's rights or freedom. The bureaucracy can often be relied upon to make the best choice for a situation; the bureaucracy can almost never be relied upon to ask whether it should be making that choice at all.

Which is to say, a bureaucracy is a self-protecting system. It stops rogue executives because they are trying to violate the system. It will stop heroes too if they violate the system. Building the right bureaucracy over the right domain is a serious business that is often done poorly.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh this is such a wonderful, wonderful post. Sorry you don't have permalinks, because I am passing it around my best urban planner friend, and family members who are hydraulic engineers.

Public Choice economics has corrupted economics' understanding of how organisations really function.

Ironically, public choice economists depend on policemen and fireman and other civil servants doing their jobs in a selfless and professional way, just like everyone else.

Anyone who thinks the US has bad or corrupt government (at the national level: there are some pretty odious examples at the state and local level I suspect) needs to get out and visit other countries: Italy for one, and just about any country outside of northwestern Europe, NZ, Canada and Australia.

Anyone who thinks the private sector has cracked this problem of power aggrandising managers has never worked for a large private sector organisation, particularly one responsible for contracted-out services from government (like a defence or IT contractor).


My biggest concern is the general public discourse is so anti bureaucrat, that good young people don't want to join the civil service. Eventually we will get the bureaucracy we deserve, if we keep treating them as if their only interests are self-aggrandising.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hey vt:

You can get to the permalink by clicking on the time at the bottom of the post on the front page or by clicking on the red name at the top of the comments page. Those are both fairly obscure, but they work. Here's the link if you want it:

I worry a lot about how to re-build the civil service. Bush gutted it, but maybe even more important is that the big expansion of the civil service came with the baby boomers in the sixties. All those forty-year careers are ending and a third to half of California's state employees are eligible to retire in the next four or five years. I don't know how the transfer will happpen, and who will want to work for the state or the feds with it having such a bad reputation.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Φ said...

worry a lot about how to re-build the civil service. Bush gutted it . . .

I'm not sure what you mean by "gutted," but if you mean "cut the absolute number of civil servants," I'm pretty sure that it was the Clinton administration that did that, in favor of contracting government functions out to the private sector. The Bush administration's impact has been relatively neutral.

Good post, though . . .

10:22 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

No, I don't mean cut the absolute number of people. I mean that ethical people left the civil service under Bush (anecdotal evidence from my old co-workers at the feds) because it was simply too hard to work under the systemic disdain for 1. agencies themselves, and 2. science and process.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Φ said...

I mean that ethical people left the civil service under Bush

Really? I googled around and found this report that says turnover is pretty low. The main problem appears to be pay scales that don't pay scientists and engineers what they are worth in the private sector. No mention about how only ethical people are leaving.

Would it be possible that your former coworkers are allowing their objections to specific policies color their perceptions?

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the heads-up re permalinks (perhaps the Simpsons had the right comment? dohh...).

If you are ever Toronto way, I have a friend who is a completely cool public servant in the planning field. He is cute and single, too (although my gut says 'not your type' since I don't know you, so I could be completely out to lunch on this: my forecasting record is somewhat worse than random guessing).

Valuethinker (Vt)

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps you are one completely cool lady, and I devoutly hope that 'he who opens this door, must give and hazard all he hath'.

You and Portia would be of like minds, I suspect.

6:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home