The study of the bureaucracy is at the heart of public administration, given that it is the organism that executes the policies created by politicians. Since the Pendleton Service Act of 1883, there has been a distinctive political/administration dichotomy or the separation of power between political leaders and the merit-based appointment of professional permanent civil servants. Elected officials are chosen by ‘the people’ they represent and their actions are held “in check” by periodic elections, which is not the case for bureaucracies. The theory of representational bureaucracy argues that policy implementers should also represent the public and can do so by having an equal proportion working within the various agencies.
Furthermore the theory of political control of the bureaucracy comes from principle-agent theory. It is associated with matters of compliance or responsiveness of elected officials’ wishes. Politicians will attempt to control the activities of bureaucrats by influences policies and platforms. Therefore academics study the outcomes of policies and evaluate their relationship to agencies influence. Related is the theory of bureaucratic capture, which argues that the agencies are ruled by elites and suggests that there is too much political control of bureaucracies.
Seeing as bureaucracies are ultimately organizational structures managed by humans, their behavior is studied in bureaucratic politics. Since bureaucrats are not elected, the public should scrutinize their actions to ensure they are working for the public good and not for their own benefits. Wilson (1989) studied how and why bureaucratic discretion was exercised to produce government action. He distinguishes between managers and executives to examine administrative compliance. In addition, it is theorized that bureaucracy’s reputation is based on an agency’s autonomy. Once an organization has become legitimate, based on the uniqueness of its purpose, it will be able to forge new relationships with other public agencies and a broad range of political actors. This required political legitimacy (Carpenter, 2001) enables the bureaucracy to later demonstrate its capacity to provide the public with “benefits, plans, and solutions”.
Empirical work to test these theories is vast and somewhat inconclusive with various scholars finding a wide range of conclusions. For example, Ringquist (1995) addresses the issue of political control by studying the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and efforts by the politicians to alter agency outputs. He evaluates EPA enforcement actions and policy outcomes under the Clean Water Act from 1974-1987. He finds that for political control of bureaucracy to be lasting, it must be institutionalized. Agency’s political appointees must share the same political values and goals as the management and agents attempting to control their efforts. Finally, Ringquist confirms Gormley (1989) theory that the more salient policy area, the more likely to have political involvement (e.g. air pollution vs. water pollution).
From the opposing view, Balla (1998) evaluates if administrative procedures enhances political control of the bureaucracy toward policy choices preferred by legislator-favored constituencies. His interest is whether the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) was able to “stack the deck” and influence the outcome of notice and comment process or vice versa. He finds that the agencies were responsive to physicians and didn’t necessarily imply congressional influence over the decision making process.
Moe (Nov. 2005) searches for the source of bureaucratic power. He argues predominate theory overlooks the role that bureaucrats have used to control politicians. He theorizes that the rank and file bureaucrats can also exercise power in elections to coordinate their behavior through collective action to change policy outcomes. He studies teacher unions in California, NEA and AFT like that of the AFL-CIO, and found that although politically active, unionized teachers provide evidence of influencing their outcomes.
While Moe’ findings did not make definite claims about this power-relationship, O’Leary (Oct. 1994) study of the Department of Interior (DOI) attempts to implement a bill pertaining to an irrigation project in Nevada did find bureaucrats undermine higher-ranking administrators. In her qualitative study, Department of Wildlife employees ignored agency protocol and formed partnerships with outside groups like the Chambers of Commerce, environmental, conservation, and Native American groups to lobby support and change the bill. Her study found bureaucratic administrators specialized environmental matters were not only able to outpace Washington’s laws, but also use their specializations for the public good.
Finally, to conclude, Coleman Selden, at el. (July 1998) examined bureaucratic representation of racial and ethnic minorities in government agencies by studying the policy outcomes of Farmer’s Home Administration (FmHA) and whether or not they reflected minority interests. They found minority interests were pursued in policy outcomes and it was dependent on the bureaucrat’s education, their perception of work role, age, and political party identification. These finds suggests that the normative theory of representative bureaucracy does not necessarily produce favorable policy results for those groups represented. People might have interests that they strive for which does not necessarily focus on their gender, race, ethnicity or the like. A bureaucrat’s public dedications to a specific issue may override their concern with their own minority identification. Therefore this suggests, empirical evidence is important to validate theoretical opinions within the literature, because they might produce unexpected outcomes.