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In Defense of the Bureaucrat

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

By Maren Trochmann
September 21, 2018

I recently took a whirlwind tour of Public Housing Authorities across a sparsely populated Midwestern state. The trip was an opportunity to dialogue with front-line workers about promising practices and everyday concerns, and to better understand the local context of these partner agencies and stakeholders. The themes we heard were often reiterated, and not surprising. These agencies were doing more with less, working tirelessly for those most in need within their communities and sustaining a belief in the potential of the affordable housing programs they administered to transform lives. I took this picture of the white board in a conference room where new tenant briefings occur at one small agency. I was particularly struck by the detailed care which these administrators took to send a clear message to those they serve: We do not see you as needy, as less than or as a drain on public resources, but rather as indispensable members of a community, equal citizens with potential and promise.

Today we refer to those running these government programs as public servants to contravene the negative connotations associated with bureaucrats. I understand this inclination. What better way to depict those housing authority administrators, those individuals who strive to serve marginalized communities and create a place of hope for citizens? Yet the term public servant misses something essential. It speaks to sacrifice and mission but fails to capture those other aspects of the work such as administrative tasks, regulations and policy creation and implementation. Those duties are less glamorous than the feel-good stories, yet they are necessary precursors for the successes. Those tasks may feel removed from the human relationships which drive and define public programs, but without them, those interactions have no foundation on which to occur.

In my scholarship and research, I have been drawn to the term “bureaucrat” and the theories the term encompasses: representative bureaucracy, street-level bureaucrats and bureaucratic discretion. In my career, I recognize how this term embodies something integral to—and inseparable from—the management and oversight of public programs. Bureaucracy, as originally conceived by German Sociologist Max Weber, is simply a form of hierarchical organization governed by rules, procedures, specialization of technically qualified staff and rational-legal bases of authority. This neutral typology seeks to describe, classify and explain rather than place normative judgments. Weber knew there was an appropriate place for such organizational structures, and effective bureaucrats have the opportunity to use the features of their organization to achieve positive democratic ends.

One of these key features is the governing of organizations—and processes and public programs—by rules. People may only notice rules when they are not working, when they feel burdensome, capricious or impractical. Just as rules are maligned for creating inefficiencies, bureaucrats and the bureaucracy are denigrated as byzantine, wasteful or incompetent.  However, as Dehart-Davis suggests, bureaucratic rules can be a form of “green tape” when they are carefully crafted to ensure fairness, equal access and public participation. The bureaucrat—upholding and implementing those rules—has the potential to engage with citizens in a fair, equitable and accessible manner. Bureaucrats can, and often do, make these administrative processes work for local and place-based democracy and citizen engagement.

The process of rulemaking exemplifies the value of the bureaucrat and effective rules. In this quasi-legislative endeavor, federal and state agencies translate legislative intent into executive action and engage citizens to shape policy outcomes. Rulemaking fills in the how of legislation, guides street-level bureaucrats’ actions, and informs citizens’ interactions with government. Rulemaking and administrative procedures are a means through which citizen concerns, diversity, and stakeholder voices can be added to public policy debates. These formal processes, or “green tape,” may encourage cooperation and participation, attributes which make administrative burden worthwhile. Effective rulemaking allows citizen engagement and democratic values to guide public programs.

Bureaucrats utilize technical knowledge and administrative processes to encourage stakeholder engagement and participation, which allows for deliberative democracy beyond the ballot box. This is true at all levels of government and many sizes of bureaucracy — from the federal rulemaking process and the public notice-and-comment periods down to the local agency planning processes in which Administrative Plans are adopted at public meetings for those discretionary policies which govern a community’s own management of a federal affordable housing program.

After all, there would be no place for the inspirational white board in that housing authority conference room if there were no briefings to explain the rules, policies and complexities which allow for a public program to subsidize low-income housing. That heartfelt gesture of public service is only possible because of the myriad administrative tasks and effective, equitable rules which govern the program. I propose we reclaim the term bureaucrat. To do so, recognizes not just the service of these administrators, but also their dedication to technical excellence grounded in rational-legal foundations and governed by rules.

Author: Maren Trochmann is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, a Division Director with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a 2018 ASPA Founders’ Fellow.

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