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Why Bureaucracy is Necessary

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
February 12, 2016


Bureaucracy never seems to be in favor. You hear statements like, “it got caught up in the bureaucracy” (to explain why an action was delayed).

Here’s a pretty good definition of bureaucracy:

1. Government by many bureaus, administrators and petty officials.

2. The body of officials and administrators, especially of a government or government department.

3. Excessive multiplication of, and concentration of power in, administrative bureaus or administrators.

4. Administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine.

Note the negative connotations in three of these definitions: “petty officials,” “excessive multiplication of, and concentration of power,” and “excessive red tape and routine.”

At the federal level, we have extreme legislative complexity, as can be seen from reviewing the thousands of pages of the United States Code. As I stressed in an earlier column, agencies must attempt to correctly implement every sentence in the U.S. Code that applies to them. They can’t just focus on broad goals.

In addition to applicable U.S. Code text, a federal agency must comply with applicable regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations and applicable Executive Orders. Agency employees must also cope with many other documents such as internal manuals, training materials, advisories, websites and computer documentation for a multitude of computer systems. If you put all of an agency’s documents on a table, it would be obvious to anyone that one individual or small group of individuals could not possibly perform all of the necessary work.

Government agencies cope with complexity by adopting extreme specialization. Agencies also combine hierarchal organization with specialization because the span of control for managers becomes too wide within a flat organization. Each manager can only effectively manage so many people. Individual abilities vary. Organizations adopt a hierarchy that works for typical managers. A very gifted manager might be able to cope with more issues and manage a flatter organization. A below average manager might need a narrower span of control to cope.

The United States Government Manual shows the organization of the entire federal government. For the executive branch, the manual lists the Executive Office of the President, 15 cabinet departments and 58 independent agencies. To staff these executive branch organizations, the federal government in 2014 had approximately 2.7 million civilian workers (including the Postal Service). There were approximately 1.5 million active duty personnel. These workers are supplemented by a very large but difficult to estimate contractor workforce.

Each of the 15 cabinet departments is a complex bureaucracy with multiple bureaus or sub elements, which are themselves bureaucracies. The independent agencies are bureaucracies in many cases as well. The complexity of some independent agencies can be seen from the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) organization chart.

We see that 13 major internal organizations report to the SSA’s commissioner. All agencies have executives in charge of programmatic issues. The SSA has deputy commissioners for disability adjudication and review, and for retirement and disability policy, as well as a chief actuary. To manage its extensive field operations, the SSA has a deputy commissioner for operations.

All agencies must address general management issues. The SSA has a deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management and deputy commissioners for communications, human resources, legislation and congressional affairs, strategy, technology and a chief information officer. There is also a general counsel and an inspector general.

The words in the U.S. Code define most of what the SSA must do. By contrast, agencies like the Department of Defense face complex words (title 10, U.S. Code is quite complicated) but also face factual complexity that is vastly more intricate than the words. Imagine having to manage a worldwide effort involving multiple complex systems, multiple overseas bases, multiple threats, various ongoing operations, a large number of active duty and reserve personnel, a large number of civilian personnel and a large contractor base.

The number of layers in individual bureaucracies varies. In my experience, there were about five or six layers between workers and the agency’s top executive. The chain of command for the Army indicates there are 10 organizational layers between ordinary soldiers and the commander in chief.

Based on the observed frequency of reorganizations (both large and small), I believe organizations are continually reviewing and tweaking their organization charts to achieve better results. Sometimes there is a flattening; sometimes more layers are added. Occasionally, there is an expansion or contraction of elements without adding new layers. There is no magic formula. Flattening isn’t necessarily the best solution in all cases. Bureaucracy is not dying as some have predicted.

There is generally a belief that a bureaucracy has many unnecessary rules. In my experience, there were a very large number of rules but in most cases the rules could be traced back to specific requirements in the U.S. Code. The supposed “red tape” largely results from the sheer volume of rules in the underlying legislation.

The results of bureaucracy may at times be disappointing. However, we need to bear in mind that bureaucracy is the only way agencies can cope with the complexity of the legislation and mission assigned to them.

Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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2 Responses to Why Bureaucracy is Necessary

  1. John Pearson Reply

    April 10, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Organizations like the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration are very much focused on rules — coming down from legislation. The Department of Defense is just big and not so much focused on rules. There is no evidence that either type of bureaucracy is going away. You can’t get away from the standard operating procedures because legislation is increasingly complex not the other way around. I don’t see networks based on problem solving and outcomes (at least in the government) because of the incredible complexity of the underlying legislation. Government agencies cannot focus so much on outcomes because they have to focus on the details of legislation — sentence by sentence. Where is there any evidence that bureaucracy is going away?

  2. Patrick B. Edgar, DPA Reply

    February 18, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    While some of Mr. Pearson’s points are valid, there is one piece that I think he misses. The definition of bureaucracy in scholarly circles is much more specific to the type of organization it is. Drawing from Max Weber description, the bureaucratic model is one that is based on fixed and official jurisdictions, based on a hierarchy, and focused on the rules. The common mistake is that a bureaucracy is simply a large organization. So in the sense of bureaucracy understood as a model, the bureaucracy is going away. The replacement will look more like networks based on problem solving and outcomes rather than standard operating procedures. Technology provides us with the capability to rid ourselves of unnecessary layers and decentralize.

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