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Two recent books within the field of public administration have tried to provide an evaluation of the American bureaucracy. While both books share a common interest in this same subject, and a very similar view of its importance, they come to very different conclusions about its essential nature and attributes. The two authors, moreover, see their views as diametrically opposed, and yet, these two views can be combined into a more general view of what might be termed "the bureaucratic effect."
Charles Goodsell's book The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic delivers an extremely strong defense of the field and its values. The bureaucracy he finds to be responsive, efficient, solution-oriented, and very human. This bureaucracy he champions as a progressive, fair-minded builder of society that features performance comparable to that of any other government or private corporation. If anything, he sees that the most serious problem that the bureaucracy faces is declining morale in the face of unfair public and press evaluations, such as the book written by Hummel.
Ralph Hummel's book, The Bureaucratic Experience: A Critique of Life in the Modern Organization, in contrast, considers bureaucracy the most serious challenge facing our culture. Bureaucracy, in Hummel's opinion, dehumanizes its functionaries by stunting their psychological growth through displacement of responsibility and decision-making. The bureaucratic mind, which functions in a machine-like way, comes to see and treat others beings not as humans, but as cases, much as a computer program treats objects. This process, in Hummel's view, causes an unending and devastating conflict in both the minds of bureaucrats themselves and between bureaucrats and their clients. Both groups continuously find themselves fighting to control their own human feelings and emotions in an inhuman, over-logical environment. In the end, in Hummel's view, bureaucracy creates a "terminal society," in which we're no longer truly human.
This paper will not argue that Hummel's pessimism or that Goodsell's optimism is correct. Rather, it will be argued that both writers are correct on certain points, and, in fact, agree in many areas. Partly this is because, despite the similar covers, the two writers are not always considering the same subject. Partly, this is because the two writers are not always writing from the same perspective. Finally, both their main arguments can be subsumed into a larger one that includes both. Before this larger viewpoint can be considered, each of the author's positions needs explored.
Goodsell makes his case, and it is a "good sell," that government functions far better than is generally it is considered acceptable to say in polite circles. Goodsell credits this fine governmental performance to the bureaucracy.
Goodsell's definition of bureaucracy is vast. He takes this term to include all public servants in the country from garbage men to GS supergrades. To consider policemen or teachers "bureaucrats," may seem strange, but Goodsell uses this larger definition despite the fact that (p. 4) that he considers it to cover an unacceptably broad category. Apparently, Goodsell wishes to defend the most public servants possible.
Goodsell's general methodology is to cite relevant data in support of his conclusions. Data includes surveys, meta-analysis, studies, etc. Goodsell uses attitudinal surveys most often. Typical questions concern whether respondents consider the police department's performance "fair," "outstanding," "good," or "adequate." While this may seem to have more relevance than Hummel's approach, which relies more on logic and citations of other authors, there are some problems.
There are problems with Goodsell's research methodology. The sheer size of the phenomena that Goodsell has chosen to defend makes questionable his choosing, for example, even a dozen surveys to show people are "satisfied" with governmental performance. Moreover, the citizens in question may not always be appropriate judges of governmental performance. In many cases, there may not have ever been an alternative to the government performing the assigned task, so standards may be low. Further, Goodsell occasionally reaches backwards as far as thirty years or across a border or ocean to obtain a study necessary to make his point.
Another problem with Goodsell's methodology is that his studies do not always show what he is intending to prove: that bureaucracy works. What Goodsell's studies show is that the people within the bureaucracy achieve results. These results may well be obtained despite the bureaucracy, instead of because of the bureaucracy. As an individual fitting within Goodsell's definition of a "bureaucrat," this author has certainly experienced succeeding, despite the system.
Given these reservations with methodology, a balanced examination can be made of Goodsell's general defense of the public bureaucracy. Goodsell's defense begins by considering public perceptions of the bureaucracy. As is typical, he examines surveys and finds them showing that, in generally, the public rates public bureaus pretty highly. Moreover, the studies that he cites, tend, in general to picture beaurocrats as "helpful, honest, responsive, adaptable, efficient, dependable, fair, friendly, respectful, considerate, and courteous" (p. 46). Not only this, productivity, including that measured by the US Department of Labor, has been rising in the public sector and rising faster than productivity in the public sector. From this, Goodsell concludes "bureaucracy works." Again, however, it could be concluded just as easily, not that bureaucracy works, but the bureaucrats work, especially given that they possess all the admirable personal qualities attributed to them by Goodsell.
Goodsell next proceeds to destroy four common stereotypes of bureaucracy as monolithic, discriminatory, uncompetitive, and (comparatively) inept. The sheer variety of agencies, bureaus, etc. effectively shows that all bureaucracies are not alike in size, function, etc. In fact, as mentioned above, these differences between governmental bodies may be so great as to make grouping them together irrelevant. Second, Goodsell finds that governments, on the basis of various surveys, do not seem to have a racial bias, or, at least, not much of a bias. As for the uncompetitive argument, again, Goodsell shows performance data for the areas in which public and private industry are allowed to compete to show that public agencies are more than competitive in those areas. This obviously raises the question of whether the government is competitive in those areas because they know private industry could supplant public services if they were not competitive and less competitive in areas in which they have no such fear. Finally, Goodsell rounds off this chapter by comparing American government to that in other countries. Here he offers two contrasts between the U.S. and India and Nigeria, two third world countries, and several European countries. As might be expected, the U.S. government soars above third world performance and about equals that of other first world countries. The question arises, however, as to whether the government is responsive because of bureaucracy or the American political, social tradition that demands service be a certain level. Even the government, after all, can be, and is, sued and petitioned.
Next, Goodsell deals with the general perception that American bureaucracy is unresponsive and inflexible. As Goodsell points out, one big reason the government doesn't "solve," a lot of serious problems is because the problems themselves, such as poverty, abortion, an aging population, etc. are beyond governmental solution. A serious handicap on the power of government to solve problems is that it is often operating "by proxy," buying services instead of delivering. Further, governmental initiatives are always subject to negotiations between client, politicians, interest groups, etc. that hamper performance. Finally, Goodsell defends government against the charge that it must become "more responsive" by showing that it already is responsive. All of the important public social programs of this century, though devised by the legislature, were, in fact, put into practice by bureaucrats. Thus, to Goodsell, bureaucracy is neither "for" nor "against" change but change defined within the parameters of the missions of the government. In Goodsell's view, then, government is about as responsive as it can be, without being irresponsible.
Goodsell directly refutes Hummel, whom he calls "my friend" in his defense of bureaucrats as "ordinary people" who do not, in Goodsell's opinion, materially change or alter by becoming part of the bureaucracy. He first illustrates this point by showing data that indicates that public administrators do not differ significantly in any respect from their private sector counterparts-except for having a higher percentage of minorities and women. Nor did the opinions of public servants on most matters differ markedly from that of society in general. Obviously, however, when you consider that breadth of Goodsell's definition of bureaucracy, this would tend to be the case.
Goodsell, next, defends the bureaucrats against charges that its members are "inflexible," "rule-bound," "overcautious," and "categorizing." He's attacking, therefore, Hummel's position that bureaucrats tend to view others with the mentality of a machine sorting parts. Goodsell, again, relies on surveys. Some of them found little difference between public employees and private; others actually found public employees opinions contradicted the stereotypes and seemed to be less rule-bound. This makes some sense. A relatively secure public servant would feel greater freedom to experiment, within bounds, than a private company employee tied to making a profit. Again, however, Goodsell's definition of bureaucracy is very wide; Hummel's definition of bureaucracy, as will be shown, would include both the public employees in these surveys and the private, so that it would be surprising if public employees did not closely resemble private sector employees on such surveys.
Goodsell, in a final direct attack on Hummel, challenges the assumption that a bureaucratic work place is "sick place." Once more, Goodsell relies on studies. One study, by Moeller and Charters, found that teachers from more bureaucratic schools showed a greater sense of power than those in less bureaucratic schools. Further, in an Organ and Green study, employees tended to feel less alienated in a more formalized setting (p. 126). Moreover, several studies showed a high degree of job satisfaction. This is, however, exactly what Hummel would anticipate as he would argue that employees have come to identify with their workplace to such a degree that they're no longer even aware of how "sick" their work place has become.
Having dispensed with the idea that bureaucrats are sick, Goodsell next make the case that agencies and bureaus are not ravenous entities or sick old dogs (p. 139). In this context, Goodsell first proves that governmental bodies are not all of the same size. Some have as few as one employee. This naturally, again, leads to the question of whether they should all be considered as a group. Goodsell also disproves the myth that agencies expand and grow with no reference to their original purposes. Goodsell first shows that, in absolute terms, the public sector has grown little since the 1970s. Further, studies seem to show no correlation between the age and size of bureaus or the age and performance. Seemingly, a bureau can be just as perky a century later. Bureaucracies can even die, sometimes even an "unnatural" death, though at only half the rate of private companies.
Finally, Goodsell considers the question of "bureaucratic power." Goodsell is not particularly concerned that bureaucracies have power. That is a given. What he considers is whether they have enough power, and what constitutes enough power. He cites a number of constraints on an agency's power, including client interests, inter-agency rivalry, legislative interference, political appointees, that serve to limit the power of bureaucracies. On the other hand, Goodsell considers the charge the bureaucracies may sometimes "drift" and seem to have no purpose. Basically, Goodsell considers this, with the charge of too much power, an exaggeration. Bureaucracies in a "mundane, imperfect, and 'dirty hands' way, keeps working on America's future. (p. 166)"
Goodsell concludes his analysis of the bureaucracy with a ringing condemnation of the bureaucracy fighters. Much of the popular stereotype of bureaucracy he attributes to blame-shifting and justification. The various attempts to pull the "reform" the bureaucracy, such as PPBS, ZBB, OD, and MBO, he attributes to reactions to false beliefs about the government. In Goodsell's opinion, then Clinton's "reinventing government," initiative, is bound to fail because it has, at its heart, the false premise that bureaucracy isn't doing its job. Goodsell's solution to the "problem" of the bureaucracy is to make everyone realize that it is not a problem at all. It is far better, then, to praise public workers when do their job and let them deal with the far more serious problems facing the public unencumbered by attacks and misguided reforms.
Hummel's book seems, at first glance, a perfect opposite. Hummel attacks the bureaucratic system, its subjects, and its society. To Hummel, bureaucracy is leading us into a future, as Goodsell suggests, but a future of doom.
Hummel, however, is not attacking the government when he critique's "bureaucracy," but an entire way of thinking and, by implication, an entire society of which government is only one prominent part. The bureaucratic model that Hummel develops defines a bureaucracy as a society with a hierarchy, a tight structure of rules, and a formalized manner of dealing with outsiders (p. 61). A bureaucracy is then a human agencies attempting to act like a machine. This definition of a bureaucracy would certainly fit many Federal agencies, but it not all governmental bodies. Moreover, Hummel's definition would also include most major, private firms. In short, Hummel's considering a large portion of our society and not just public sector employees.
Whereas Goodsell's argument relies heavily on "evidence," Hummel's book relies heavily on logic and argumentation. He quotes psychologists, sociologists, and public administration specialists. While this gives a heavy weight to the "experts," there's relatively little evidence from those supposedly "bureaucratized" by this process. This seems strange considering the number of times Goodsell decries the fact that bureaucracies do not depend on workers, but knowledge experts who are deprived of experiential knowledge.
Another problem with Hummel's methodology is its heavy reliance on what might be termed the "psychiatric fallacy." If a given subject admits to being harmed by his bureaucratic experience, then this is taken as evidence. Should someone not to admit being harmed, this shows that he's sublimating, which, as mentioned above, would excuse Hummel from accepting any of the evidence offered by Goodsell. Given that Hummel's argument is not "provable," it can only be evaluated on the basis of either one's own experience or on its internal logic.
At the base of Hummel's argument is that bureaucracy essentially "dehumanizes" the bureaucrat and the "bureaucratic world" around him. Bureaucracy takes what was once experiential phenomena, such as meeting a client, and creates a structure and rule set to quantify, control, and optimize that phenomena (p. 60). The structure includes a set of formalized procedures and a hierarchy to maintain those procedures. As a result of this rigidity, normal human relations die. The bureaucrat sees not a human being, but a case, and the higher the level in the organization, the more "abstracted" the individual's view becomes. The end result is the bureaucrat and the "case," forced into the human role of acting as a part of a machine and acting as object of that machine, lose part of their humanity. An obvious response to this basic premise would be that all of Goodsell's evidence seems to show that bureaucrats do not perceive this to be the case, nor do their clients, but, again the "psychiatric fallacy" provides the answer to this.
Hummel's next step is to extend his argument to that of society. Bureaucracy produces a society, as he explains, that is very machine-like and values "stability, discipline, reliability, formal equality of treatment (p. 29)." To put this another way, a machine, such as a computer, can hardly be expected to perform without surge protection, a room, and stable temperatures. That same machine can only take its data input within given categories corresponding to its programming. To develop this model, Hummel draws heavily on Max Weber's explanation of the bureaucratic state. The bureaucratic society tries, not for quality, but for measurable quantity (p. 83). Bureaucratic organizations, moreover, do not hire individuals. Instead they search for attributes, such as knowledge of computer programming, accounting techniques, etc. just as a computer owner buys a hard-drive here, a floppy drive there, in order to assemble a system that performs the work he needs to do. The bureaucratic society, then, can be considered as a set of vast machines called government bureaus, companies, etc., seeking a kind of economic, mechanical self-perfection.
From the society of bureaucracy, Hummel then turns to its effect on individuals, which he considers almost totally destructive. The bureaucracy, to Hummel, doesn't encourage individual development but individual regression. A bureaucracy is inherently hierarchical. The lowest individuals in the bureaucracy, the workers, are not encouraged to think, but to do as they are told. Their superiors do the thinking for them. While the workers are deprived of a brain, the executives are deprived of a conscience because excessive dependence on rules and regulations to determine behavior robs their behavior of any moral dimensions. Thus, a company executive will fire twenty employees without have any feeling whatsoever except for a vague satisfaction in having followed orders. The only "comfort" that employees in a bureaucracy receive is that of being allowed to serve their organization, which becomes a kind of surrogate mechanical parent. Again, Goodsell makes numerous references to study that seem to dispute this vision of bureaucratic imprisonment, to which Hummel would answer that these employees have become too stunted to even realize their oppression.
Hummel next proceeds to what he considers one of the most powerful tools in bureaucratization: language. Following on many studies of governmental language, Hummel finds that it serves several negative functions. First, it's typically one directional, and the listeners' inability to understand, let alone react to, its hidden assumptions prevent any real communication from occurring. Again, like bureaucracy itself, it functions by analogy, forcing dissimilar matters into a predetermined number of cases. Finally, by forcing the speakers into the language being used, it forces them to assume a basic bureaucratic, machinelike vision of the world (p. 183). Thus a reporter discussing "friendly fire" with a government spokesperson has been forced to desert the emotions that would naturally arise when speaking about soldiers accidentally killed by their own countrymen.
Hummel follows on this discussion of language with a discussion of bureaucratic thought. Again, the bureaucracy is, according to Hummel, a closed world, cleansed of any perceptions of reality. Just as bureaucracy tends to speak to itself, it tends to think for itself. Thoughts are defined, again, to a finite list of cases. Workers, a source of potential reality in this world, are ignored and shut out because their perceptions are dangerous to the models of reality that the bureaucracy promulgates. Even recent efforts on the part of companies and agencies to enlist employees in the decision-making process Hummel considers as basically illusory. While employees are encouraged to produce "quality products," the real measure is, still how many of these quality products can be delivered, a measure of efficiency.
Finally, Hummel proceeds from examining the attributes of bureaucracy to its dangers to the country. In Hummel's view, bureaucracy is replacing politics because the public bureaucracy carries out the laws with relatively little interference from or interest in the outside world. Since bureaucrats are part of an expert culture, experts in managing, there are few that will challenge their knowledge of their field, leaving them powerfully immune from criticism. In this regard, Hummel considers the fall of Eastern Europe as a prime example of what happens when a bureaucracy simply loses all touch with the world around it. As Goodsell states, however, its necessary to recount that the typical public bureaucrat, especially the high level bureaucrat, faces a bewildering array of interference from all three branches of government, audits, citizen complaints, special interest groups, etc. Nor does Hummel's picture of the all-powerful bureaucrat seem particularly frightening when his analysis of bureaucratic culture seems to suggest that these kinds of bureaucrats would be unlikely to take any rash action that might require genuine decision-making or thought due to the inherent sterility of their environment.
Hummel concludes his critique with no attempt at a solution. The average citizen, to Hummel, should strive (p. 257) to understand the situation (bureaucracies exist), imagine alternatives to a situation (not many are offered in his critique), and try to change the situation (fewer suggests are offered as to how to do this either). While Goodsell wishes citizens to applaud their public bureaucracy, Hummel apparently wishes citizens to simply try to cope with it as best they can and, as he does, read a lot of philosophy books.
At this point, its necessary to try to imagine alternatives the kinds of alternatives that Hummel offers to his bureaucratic dystopic society. Interestingly, like Marx, Hummel's only examples of non-bureaucratic individuals stem from the Middle Ages. Clearly, Hummel does not like the modern age particularly, but he still finds it expedient to use the bank, pay his taxes, and lobby for promotion.
Hummel and Goodsell viewpoints, however, can be reconciled. Hummel's analysis of a bureaucratic society is not, after all, merely a critique of government, but of modern society in general as contrasted from a more "romantic" past. It's difficult to find an organization in our society that doesn't, to some degree, have the following characteristics that Hummel attributes to a bureaucracy: a set of rules, formal procedures, a structure, and a hierarchy placing decision-making at top. Hummel defines this as a "bureaucracy," a noun, when it might be more correctly defined as "bureaucratic," a measurable adjective. Some organizations clearly possess these characteristics to a greater or a lesser degree. A given organization, then, can be described, not as a "bureaucracy," but as either "more bureaucratic" or "less bureaucratic."
Further, if bureaucratic can be used as adjective, in a measurable amount, it follows that there can be lesser and greater effects on individuals. Just as some individuals can drink more alcohol without become intoxicated, or endure more stress in their workplace, some individuals can endure more bureaucratic environments than others. A study of the computer industry in the 1980s will illustrate this concept. Throughout this decade, charismatic, creative individuals started new companies. Some of these companies remained at the cottage industry level ten years later. The more successful of these companies, Microsoft, Borland, Apple, however, quickly grew in size, and each company, in turn, gradually became more bureaucratic. The individuals who had started these companies, however, typically left the companies because they couldn't endure that degree of bureaucratization-or they remained as high level executives, immune to the process.
In other words, it's more correct to speak of a bureaucratic effect than it is to speak of a bureaucracy, and this leads back to consideration of the public sector. As noted in the analysis of Goodsell's book, public sector employees work in varying work conditions. Some work for the state, some work for the local government, and some work for the Federal government. These public sector employees work in offices that might have as few as two people. To lump them together as "bureaucrats" and attack them or defend them, may not be as relevant as considering how "bureaucratic" they have become, and to compare the degree of bureaucratization to that of individuals in the private sector.
This author, for example, has worked in three different public schools, two of them belonging to the Federal government and one belonging the city of Los Angeles. While working at the first two schools, despite a considerable amount of rules and regulations, I enjoyed a great deal of autonomy and wouldn't have considered describing myself as a "bureaucrat," despite Goodsell's definition. At the third school, although having actually fewer written regulations than my previous school, the amount of management interference in my job and those of others, would lead me to describe this school as highly bureaucratic. I would even agree that I'd suffered many of the negative effects that Hummel excoriates though a year earlier I would've doubted that such effects could exist. If nothing else, I've discovered that my ability to endure bureaucratization is not equal to that of many of my fellow teachers.
If bureaucratization is taken as something that varies in amount, it should come as no surprise that Goodsell finds so much evidence of good performance on the part of government. Some individuals, undoubtedly, enjoy a high amount of autonomy and can achieve. Further, even in highly bureaucratized environments, individuals may sometimes resist the temptation to treat individuals as cases and succeed despite their work environment. The considerable differences between the work environments of the public sector, probably as wide as that in the private sector, would naturally yield studies in which the two sector do not differ markedly in performance, employee satisfaction, or customer satisfaction.
A reasonable subject to follow on these two books, therefore, is not whether their should be a bureaucracy, but how much bureaucratization is appropriate to an organization. One of the goals of movements such as "reinventing government" is to get clients closer to their public servants and to cut away unnecessary layers in bureaus and agencies. Many events now occurring in the public sector, such as budget cuts, replacement of clerical and supervisory personnel with computers, moreover, will likely cut the amount of bureaucratization. Before we can cut the bureaucratic effect, its important to know what it is, whether it's good or bad, and under what conditions. Neither book offers much guidance in this area.
In conclusion, then Hummel's study of the bureaucracy and that of Goodsell both have their uses in promoting the study of bureaucracy. Hummel's books provides with an analysis of some of the forces that create a "bureaucratic effect," a dependence on structure, a dependence on rules, a tendency of a organization and its members to respond like a machine. By analyzing bureaucracy as "either or" phenomena, however, Hummel's books loses some of its power, particularly as so few organizations would escape being lumped into the category. Goodsell's book, on the other hand, defends the public bureaucracy with long lists of studies showing that bureaucrats and their clients do not seem to be suffering unduly from the bureaucratic form of organization. Goodsell's book, however, by defining any public agency as a bureaucracy, loses some of its precision as many private companies as clearly as bureaucratic as public agencies, and some governmental agencies are less bureaucratic than private agencies. Both books then help start an initial inquiry into public agencies, and their relationships into what might be termed "the bureaucratic effect," but by neither by any means exhaust the subject of the bureaucracy or the "bureaucratic effect."
Goodsell, Charles T. The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic, 3rd edition. Chatham House, 1993.
Hummel, Ralph P. The Bureaucratic Experience, 4th ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.