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Do Politics determine the way in which bureaucracy works?

©2013 Essay 5 Seiten

Zusammenfassung

The given proposition ‘politicians determine the way in which bureaucracy works’ may be approached from various perspectives. Starting from the assumption that politicians today do not have complete determination over the bureaucratic apparatus, I will focus on the discussion of two strategies which politicians may employ in order to increase their power over civil servants: administrative reforms and politicization of bureaucracy. While the former may enable politicians to determine how the bureaucratic apparatus functions as a whole, the latter seeks to enable politicians to determine the work within the bureaucracy via influencing the selection process of high-level officials.

This essay continues as follows: after providing a brief overview of the historic development of the power-relationship between politicians and bureaucrats until today, I will focus on the ‘outside’ strategy and discuss in how far politicians can initiate and direct administrative reforms, and which institutional factors determine their relative power positions vis-à-vis the administrative system. I will then turn to the ‘inside’ perspective and discuss the politicization of the bureaucracy as a means of increasing politicians’ power.

Leseprobe

‘Politic determines the way in which bureaucracy works’

The investigation into the nature of power relations between elected politicians and bureaucrats in modern democracies has seen a substantial research interest over the past decades, particularly in Europe and the U.S.. Once one dismisses the applicability of the ‘classical mode’ of bureaucracy and Weber’s original “ideal-type relationship” in which bureaucrats impartially implement politicians binding decisions, one enters the field of a sizeable amount of theories and frameworks serving to assess of the degree to which politicians influence bureaucratic activity and outcomes.

The given proposition ‘politicians determine the way in which bureaucracy works’ may be approached from various perspectives. Starting from the assumption that politicians today do not have complete determination over the bureaucratic apparatus, I will focus on the discussion of two strategies which politicians may employ in order to increase their power over civil servants: administrative reforms and politicization of bureaucracy. While the former may enable politicians to determine how the bureaucratic apparatus functions as a whole, the latter seeks to enable politicians to determine the work within the bureaucracy via influencing the selection process of high-level officials.

This essay continues as follows: after providing a brief overview of the historic development of the power-relationship between politicians and bureaucrats until today, I will focus on the ‘outside’ strategy and discuss in how far politicians can initiate and direct administrative reforms, and which institutional factors determine their relative power positions vis-à-vis the administrative system. I will then turn to the ‘inside’ perspective and discuss the politicization of the bureaucracy as a means of increasing politicians’ power.

The rise of civil servants and the fail of the ideal-type relationship

Accompanying the increasing size and scope of the state, the relevance of civil servants has seen a growing trend throughout the past century. When in 1870 the civil service sector in the UK employed just around 50,000 people, a hundred years later the figure had increased 16-fold, reaching 800,000 in 1970. And not merely the size of the state’s bureaucracy expanded, but growth was accompanied by a change in the nature of civil servants tasks, and brought along an increase in specialization, professionalization, and power (Aberbach, Punam & Rockman, 1981). The peak of this development has been famously described by Weber in 1972, who concluded that the bureaucratic system of rule is based upon the knowledge and expertise of public servants, who, commanded by non-specialist “dilettants”, may often find themselves in a position capable of eroding their commanders power (quoted in Page, 1985).

At this point, Weber himself refutes his earlier “ideal-type relationship” which claims a clear distinction between politicians who write policy and formulated programmes, and civil servants who are merely responsible for implementation. In the context of increasingly complex and numerous state activities, the constraints of limited expertise, information, and time binds politicians to the task of developing broader ideas, but does not allow them to articulate detailed orders for the execution of plans, not to mention responses to changing environments. This claim is underpinned by today’s observation that, within the executive division of government, politicians are always outnumbered by civil servants (Aberbach et al, 1981). As Knill (1999) puts it, “the autonomy of an instrumentally designed bureaucracy emerges as the inevitable consequence of an ideal-type model incompatible with a complex reality” (p. 122).

For the remainder of this paper I will side with Knill’s statement to the point that I will assume the power of politicians over bureaucrats is, at least, limited. Nonetheless, I argue that elected politicians have an interest in advancing their policy agendas, with their motives including a certain desire to represent voter’s preferences in order to be re-elected. Hence, politicians have an incentive to pursue strategies that will strengthen their power vis-a-vis bureaucratic rule. In the following, I will present and discuss two strategies which may yield this result.

Control of bureaucracy by means of administrative reform

The ability of politicians to reform the bureaucratic apparatus is a critical route through which they can ‘write the rules of the game’ and hence determine how bureaucracy works. Re-writing the rules has often been seen as a welcomed tool of new governments in order to overwrite unfavorable policy implemented under their predecessors, when assuming that the bureaucracy may favor these policies or the status quo and hence not be fully supportive of the ambitions of the newcomers. Lewis (2012) quotes the example of Japan, where the new government under the rule of the Democratic Party made bureaucracy and pension reform one of their first legal acts.

In order to assess the relative capacity of political leadership to implement bureaucratic reforms, the most straightforward criteria to apply would be the analysis of successfully implemented reforms, which directly, or indirectly, constrained the autonomy of civil servants or reduced their sphere of influence. An examples falling into this category, as referred to by Knill (1999), would be in the introduction of external advisers in foreign and economic policy in the UK. Alternatively, one may refer to the number, size, and active involvement of think-tanks in drafting policy as an indicator of a successful political strategy to confine the power of bureaucracies (Knill, 1999).

Knill (1999) argues that the power of politicians to administer bureaucratic reform is determined by the composition of the administrative body at question. He differentiates between autonomous and instrumental administrations, arguing that in case of the former, politicians will be confronted with an organization highly resistant to external inputs while capable of reacting independently to changes in the environment. In case of the latter, the organization is susceptible to inputs and changes from the outside. Knill presents a comparative analysis of the administrative bodies in Germany (autonomous) and the UK (instrumental), suggesting, amongst other factors, that the different historical developments of the bureaucratic apparatus contributed a large share to their current difference in manifestation: while in Germany, democracy was preceded by the establishment of bureaucracy, the opposite is true for the UK. Knill, however, only focuses his analysis of political power on the given, external factors, without alluding to the internal capacity of politicians which might itself be contingent on further institutional factors. As the application of his framework remains a theoretical exercise, the claim that the absence of significant administrative reforms in Germany is due to the powerlessness of politicians facing a highly autonomous administration appears plausible, yet cannot be falsified.

Control over bureaucracy by means of politicization

According to Lewis (2012), the politicization of bureaucracies, alluding to both political appointees at the top level of bureaucratic administration and the shaping of career prospects of civil servants depending on party orientation, has been a common trend amongst modern democracies and continues to be one. Whether or not the politicization of bureaucracies increases the effectiveness of government as a whole is contended. Advocates argue that by means of politicization, a government becomes more responsive to the wishes expressed by voters, hence more accountable, especially under the assumption that the bureaucracy maintains strong ties to special interests and caters to those over the broader interest of society. On the other side, politicization undermines the unbiasedness of the recruitment process and may thereby lead to a decreased working morale, shorter tenure of civil servants and a lower level of qualification of candidates (Lewis, 2012).

Assuming that a larger number of partisan top-level officials in the bureaucratic administration help to advance politicians interests, one may assess politicians’ relative power to determine how the bureaucracy works based on the successful implementation of partisan top-level officials. The most relevant criterion is to investigate whether promotions within bureaucracies are influenced by ideology of civil servants. At the same time, one may want to investigate whether an administrative body’s decisions are based on ideological values rather than evidence, in order to approximate the potential ‘effectiveness’ of politicization.

Lewis (2012) provides empirical evidence on politicization strategies from the U.S. Referring to survey data from 2007/2008, Lewis establishes that policy-driven politicization was occurring in the Bush administration, and was particularly noticeable in agencies which generally maintained a liberal ideological stance, which was opposed to the conservative Bush administration. He also shows some limited evidence that agencies in charge of policy areas that are of high salience to the policy agenda of an incumbent president experience higher degrees of politicization. Potential limitations of these findings may result from the fact that the given data deals with sensitive issues, since in the U.S., politicization represents a violation of civil service regulation, and respondents may have concealed true opinions.

When judging politicians’ power over the bureaucracy on this measure, an underlying assumption is that politicians want to politicize – and one should be careful not to equate the absence of successful appointments of partisan officials with a lack of power. Neither may the sole achievement of appointing presumably faithful servants may per se not result in a politician’s preferred policy outcome.

Conclusion

This essay has argued that both the implementation of broad administrative reform as well as the selective appointment of partisan officials can serve as means of increasing politicians’ power vis-à-vis the bureaucracy. Knill (1999) and Lewis (2012) both provide empirical evidence that these strategies can lead outcomes in which politicians are able to determine bureaucratic functioning to a higher degree. However, if the yardstick to measuring a politicians’ impact on the bureaucratic body is aimed to be the direct influence over policy, further criteria targeting policy outcomes directly might be required. An example for a potential criterion is hinted at by Aberbach et al. (1981): an assessment of whether organized interests turn to first and most intensely to elected politicians or officials. As cited in Aberbach et al. (1981), Mayntz and Scharpf maintain that for the case of Germany, ministries represent the most important point of contact, while on an EU level, parliamentarians are approached. While these observations suggest that EU parliamentarians are more involved in the policy process then their German counterparts, further qualifications including accounting for a the differences in the institutional framework.

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Details

Seiten
5
Jahr
2013
ISBN (PDF)
9783346735454
Sprache
Englisch
Institution / Hochschule
Hertie School of Governance
Erscheinungsdatum
2022 (Oktober)
Note
1,4
Schlagworte
bureaucracy power relations elected politicians bureaucrats administrative reforms politicization of bureaucracy civil servants
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Titel: Do Politics determine the way in which bureaucracy works?