Unseen Forces Govern Your Country

Regarding two books of political science from 1955 and 1976 covering structural realities widely disregarded by those discussing politics

Context of Bureaucracies

The federal bureaucracies do the actual work of administration that politicians like to fight about but are rarely interested in actually doing. Freeman insists that parties in the American context are just organizations to help politicians get elected (16–17). Because of this, parties need to avoid controversial, overly-specific, or complicated stances of the kind that are basically inevitable in the work of administering government. Should we increase bridge tolls to finance transit infrastructure improvements? Should we set caps on incomes of dialysis centers? Should we guarantee maximum class sizes for teachers? It usually doesn’t help the party to commit to either side of these.

The Realm of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracies are thus left with the actual administrative work of handling the many and diverse requests brought to government to make things work in whatever context. Freeman makes the rather fantastic point that,

Internal Economy

Indeed, Wamsley and Zald go so far as to ask if there really are any differences between a federal agency and a regular business! Businesses, they explain, are more sensitive to “the price system” while agencies:
• are more controlled by superiors than the price system
• depend mostly on funding rather than revenue, and this funding depends on previous experience and perceptions of supervisors
• tend to have many vague goals
• may not see much benefit from reducing costs and may be able to shift costs to other agencies
• generally lack objective tests of efficacy (5–6)

Market Stability

Going further, Wamsley and Zald claim that agencies tend to do one of three kinds of jobs, which more or less determine how politically tumultuous their work will be. Distributive work simply means providing benefits to specific audiences and tends to be calm. Regulatory work means punishing some and helping others (eg FDA, FCC, FTC), so it tends to be contentious until the regulator has been fully captured by those it regulates and (as a puppet) becomes a stable participant in an industry or similar. Redistributive work moves resources around from some people to others and tends therefore to be very contentious and, in response, extremely bureaucratic with more red tape than others. Treasury, Medicaid, Social Security, and the IRS are examples.

Grooming a Bureau Elite

If the bureau is defending precarious values or needs a high degree of cohesion in its highest-ranking people (but struggles to get it), then grooming can help. Forestry, for example, does a lot of work to make sure its elite has very similar training and worldview. The bureau elite mostly matter for getting the work done of the bureau itself, but they may also represent the agency to other potential political allies. This concept is quite appealing to me and can also be characterized as a facet of the “deep state.” Wamsley and Zald just bring it up as part of the political economy of public administration.

Winning Autonomy

Wamsley and Zald pitch a very alluring set of factors to explain varying levels of autonomy between agencies. Why are some so freewheeling and some constrained completely?

  • Being totally inscrutably complicated, like California’s UC system, is great for autonomy because no one is sure what the hell you do or how you operate or what you are responding to or how it needs to go in the next ten years. This reminds me of a beautiful story about the growth in research commitment to computing at the cost of funding for social science: the congressman could figure out how to make fun of the social science but had no idea what was happening with the computer mumbo jumbo. So the agency slashed budget for social science and redirected it into computers. Thanks, hicks!
  • Providing a service that is seen as fundamental wins an agency a lot of autonomy. What is fundamental and what is not? That is a matter of perception, but given the perception that, say, Veterans Affairs must exist, then the agency can more easily set its own agenda.
  • Developing product-market fit with efficacious clientele can increase support for an agency and thus its autonomy. The US Census made a move like this when it introduced local census surveys for the benefit of those focused on specific localities.
  • Having the right supporters. There are different ways to play it, but Figure 2–2 (reproduced here!) is great fun and gets you thinking. The U.S. Tea Tasting Board is widely regarded with neutrality, but a very small number of the right people think it’s just great. The secret police of the USSR were not at all popular, but Stalin liked them and that was enough!
Then they run this amazing chart o page 31.

The Relevant Legislative Committees

Gosh these guys come off as a real drain (this topic gets more attention from Freeman). The legislature has to approve funding for the agencies and, really, the agency must exist to fulfill promises made by legislative actions (bills passed into law). Furthermore, the agencies exist to do fair, balanced federal work but the members of congress exist to represent the local people federal regulations are usually designed to keep in line. So the committee and agency are both intertwined and working at cross purposes.

  • plays it straight
  • cooperates

Interest Group Leader

A final powerful character in a policy subsystem is the interest group leader. These leaders do not have any formal power, of course. They aren’t employed by the government. They must be well-informed, well-heard, vocal, organized, cohesive, clever, knowledgeable and persistent. (That list is in Wamsley and Zald.) Presumably the interest group they represent has a pile of money that can be contributed to whatever political causes their contacts in congress request. And, in exchange, they will say some stuff that sounds sensible and try to get things moving in the right direction. They can try to make inroads directly with the agency, but that is often much harder.

Policy Subsystems Control Quotidian American Government

These books put together a great set of ideas about the role of agencies in the administrative work of government. Little is said about the onbverse: contributions of the agencies to politics; but that seems ok. We also don’t get a very empirical perspective on how important these microcosmic forces are relative to others in driving social outcomes. And these books don’t cover the states.


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