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Is the Bureaucracy a Passive Institutional Actor Under the Presidential Influence?

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

By Intae Choi
September 23, 2022

Presidents are likely to control bureaucratic organizations or agencies in order to acheive the policy agendas they promised to the public, as well as to expand their political influences on agencies. In this respect, the bureaucracy can be seen as a passive actor swayed by presidents’ political controls. The bureaucracy is not an inactive or passive actor in real political environments. That is to say, in spite of hierarchical structures between the bureaucracy and presidents, the bureaucracy can show nonconforming behaviors against presidents’ bureaucratic controls. Bureaucratic organizations can make connections with Congress and legislators instead of presidents, as well as express their voices and complaints actively to presidents. Thus, the bureaucracy is not a passive institution that always follows presidents’ policy drives and initiatives.

Even if presidents’ mechanisms for controlling agencies have institutional advantages for presidents, these benefits will not always be effective bureaucratic controls depending on presidents’ individual abilities. Although presidents possess institutional tools, such as politicization to control bureaucratic organizations, how effectively these mechanisms work depends on each president’s individual competence of management or leadership. Thus, the bureaucracy should not necessarily conform to presidents’ bureaucratic control mechanisms.

Furthermore, bureaucratic organizations can exclude presidents and engage in close connections with Congress and individual incumbent legislators through their own organizational competence. In this respect, the bureaucracy is an institutional organization which has its own interests and capabilities. Hence, if bureaucrats observe that presidents are showing excessive bureaucratic controls, they can perceive that their job autonomy in performing tasks about policy processes as well as their own interests are being violated by presidents. In this situation, they are less likely to follow presidents. Instead, they are highly likely to show active behaviors resisting presidents’ bureaucratic controls.

Bureaucratic organizations’ active behaviors against presidents’ bureaucratic controls can be intensified when presidents want to introduce new policies. Presidents tend to emphasize the legitimacy and necessity of new policies by pointing out problems of existing policies. Presidents are likely to argue that causes of the current problems are from bureaucratic organizations’ ineffectiveness and incompetency in implementing policies. In this situation, bureaucrats in agencies can recognize that presidents are creating a negative image of the bureaucracy in the eyes of the public, which can lead to active resistance against presidents.

Meanwhile, bureaucrats also can perceive that bureaucratic organizations are essential institutional resources for presidents to foster policies that presidents want. This situation suggests that bureaucrats recognize that presidents need them as a tool for implementing policies while presidents are making them the target of reform at the same time. In this regard, bureaucrats in agencies are less likely to show cooperative behaviors when presidents are showing political controls on the bureaucracy. When bureaucratic organizations are dissatisfied with Presidents’ bureaucratic controls, they may defy Presidents’ state administration by neglecting their duties or leaving bureaucratic organizations.


Author: Intae Choi is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri. Email: [email protected]

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