Politics and Bureaucracy

  • Nathan FaveroEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1434-1


Political Actor Political Decision Policy Area Policy Position Political Conflict 
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Politics and bureaucracy refers to the role that government bureaucracies play in making policy or resolving political conflicts.


Governments make important determinations about how social resources are to be distributed and how public justice is to be dispensed. While many key governmental decisions are made by traditional political actors – such as presidents, legislatures, and courts – implementation of many policies is carried out by bureaucracies. Implementing policy is often a complicated task, and many government bureaucrats have substantial discretion over implementation decisions, including in policy areas that lack political consensus. As such, bureaucracies are an important actor to examine when considering how political systems operate. Although bureaucrats often play a key role in implementing policy, they may not enjoy the same level of legitimacy as other political actors, particularly in the context of a democracy where bureaucrats may be compared to other officials whom the public has elected. This encyclopedia entry discusses why bureaucracies are involved in political decisions, where bureaucracies fit into the broader policy making landscape, and some ways that bureaucracies can potentially be held accountable in the context of a democratic government.

Limitations of the Politics-Administration Dichotomy

One simplistic view of bureaucracy attempts to separate administration from politics. Under the politics-administration dichotomy, traditional political actors (legislatures, elected executives, and political appointees) are the arbiters of political conflicts, while government bureaucrats merely administer political programs and make technical judgments based on their expertise (Frederickson et al. 2012). The political actors determine what values should be pursued and how they should be prioritized, while bureaucrats determine the technical means of pursing those values and priorities. Under this view, public administration is a completely neutral, apolitical activity, and the personal or political values of bureaucrats should not affect their work.

While the politics-administration dichotomy provides an interesting ideal to consider, the division between politics and administration is not a clean one in practice. On the one hand, the details of many political decisions are sorted out within bureaucracies. For example, within constraints given to them by political authorities, public school staff decide how to prioritize various student needs, such as core academic learning, extracurricular learning, socioemotional learning, and even health and fitness needs. At the same time, political actors often write into statute certain administrative determinations regarding which technical means will be used to pursue particular ends. Legislation might require the use of a specific type of screening equipment by airport security officers, or elected officials might effectively prohibit the development and manufacture of a particular type of military equipment by failing to fund it.

Political scientists often use principal-agent theory to conceptualize bureaucratic politics. Viewed through principal-agent theory, legislatures or other traditional political actors serve as principals who enlist bureaucrats as agents to implement policies. The political actors must give bureaucrats some degree of discretion in order for the bureaucrats to be able to effectively implement policies, and the political actors cannot perfectly monitor the behavior of the bureaucrats. Bureaucrats sometimes use their discretion to pursue objectives other than those on which the political actors have agreed. In other words, bureaucrats may decide to use their discretion to allocate resources or prioritize objectives in a manner somewhat inconsistent with formal policy, thereby effectively amending the political decisions of the elected officials.

Even if elected officials could perfectly monitor and control the bureaucracy, bureaucrats would still have to make political decisions in areas where elected officials have not fully resolved political disputes. This cause of political decisions pouring over into the bureaucracy can be described in terms of goal ambiguity, a topic that has received much attention among public administration scholars. Bureaucracies often face substantial goal ambiguity, meaning that political actors do not provide bureaucracies clear direction regarding the goals that they are to pursue. It can be very difficult for political actors to specify (in legislation or otherwise) exactly how they want competing priorities to be balanced. Many policy issues are so complex that it may be impossible to specify goals in enough detail for bureaucrats to always know how various factors should be weighed when facing a decision. Bureaucracies can also face trade-offs that were never foreseen by the political actors originally tasking a bureaucracy with the implementation of a policy, perhaps because of a shock like a technological change. In some cases, political actors may have been unable to agree on how to settle a political disagreement regarding the establishment or prioritization of goals and have thus deliberately left it up to the bureaucracy to resolve such political disputes.

Whatever the cause, a lack of clear direction from political bodies regarding what a bureaucracy should aim to achieve makes it necessary for the bureaucracy to make such political determinations itself. In practice, bureaucracies routinely make decisions that are political in nature, often creating winners and losers in society. Some of these decisions are made at the level of street-level bureaucrats, as when a police officer decides whether or not to issue a citation for a traffic violation. In other cases, higher-level officials within a bureaucracy create or amend rules and procedures for the bureaucracy that inevitable prioritize certain interests over others.

Bureaucracies and their officials can also informally affect policy decisions by attempting to influence elected officials’ use of legislation and other forms of policy making. Bureaucratic officials can be called upon to testify before legislative bodies that are considering passing new legislation. Some bureaucracies, such as intelligence agencies, exist in large part in order to provide information to elected officials who are making policy decisions. These avenues give many bureaucracies a direct means of interacting with elected officials and thereby influencing elected officials’ policy making decisions.

Policy Disputes and Bureaucracies

Given that policy decisions are made within the bureaucracy, who exerts influence over these decisions? One basic framework that can help answer this question describes how various actors affect policy making in the US national government and is known as iron triangles or policy subsystems. An iron triangle consists of three actors – an interest group (or multiple groups), Congress, and a bureaucracy – that contribute to policy decisions in a given policy area. Though iron triangles generally describe policy making at the level of the national government in the USA, similar arrangements with somewhat different actors may be found in other governments.

Interest groups are nongovernmental entities that have an interest in the outcome of bureaucratic policy decisions and that actively work to promote their interests to government officials. In the context of a regulatory bureaucracy, the interest group is usually the industry being regulated. Policy capture refers to bureaucratic decision-making that is heavily influenced by an interest group, with the interest group typically being the regulated industry. In its most extreme form, policy capture implies that the industry so dominates the bureaucratic policy making process that a regulatory agency serves to benefit the interests of the regulated industry at the expense of other social interests. The existence of a “revolving door” whereby individuals easily move between jobs within the bureaucracy and jobs within the interest group can facilitate policy capture. If bureaucratic behavior that is favorable toward the industry improves a bureaucrat’s future prospects of obtaining a desirable job in the industry, revolving doors produce incentives for bureaucrats to favor the regulated industry’s interests.

Under the framework of iron triangles, Congress also plays an important role in forming policy. Since iron triangles form around specific policy areas, the most frequent congressional participation in a policy area occurs at the level of congressional subcommittees. These subcommittees serve in an active oversight role with regard to the bureaucracy, and their staff are generally specialized experts in the policy area of their subcommittee. Subcommittees hold formal authority with regard to initiating legislation, but they also hold informal power over bureaucracies. Since Congress plays a central role in allocating resources to bureaucracies through the budgeting processes, bureaucracies have an incentive to demonstrate to their subcommittees that they are effectively achieving objectives that are important to current members of Congress. Furthermore, the hearings and investigations that subcommittees conduct present opportunities for potential embarrassment of bureaucratic officials. Bureaucrats who are concerned about their professional reputations will likely want to develop a favorable relationship with the subcommittee that oversees them in order to minimize the chances of experiencing public embarrassment or criticism from the subcommittee.

The third actor in the iron triangle is the bureaucracy. As they make decisions, bureaucrats may be motivated by a combination of various factors such as organizational pressures, personal values (including a desire to serve the public), and professional norms. The selection of bureaucrats to fill positions in a bureaucracy can influence how that bureaucracy behaves. For example, a bureaucracy that fills positions using a patronage system will likely make decisions more in line with the political values of the lead executive (or whoever has appointed them) than a bureaucracy operating in a civil service system. Bureaucracies that hire individuals belonging to strong professions would be expected to make policy decisions that usually align with the values and ethical standards of those professions.

Just as industry profits often motivate interest group behavior and as reelection concerns can drive elected officials’ actions, self-interest can affect how bureaucracies navigate their surrounding political environment. Individual bureaucrats may be motivated by career concerns, including opportunities for promotion or job security. At an organizational level, the incentives employees within the bureaucracy face with regard to promotion or other desirable career outcomes can affect policy decisions. If individuals are rewarded for taking risks, risky policies are more likely to be adopted. If bureaucrats have strong job security, they may be more willing to pursue unpopular policy positions. Collectively, a bureaucracy is expected to be motivated by a desire for greater autonomy and resources.

In order for a bureaucracy to gain autonomy and resources, it will need support from the other actors in the policy subsystem. As such, the bureaucracy must actively engage with these other actors to achieve its own interests. The political power of individual bureaucracies can vary considerably depending on factors such as their knowledge, cohesion, and leadership (Meier and Bohte 2007; Rourke 1969). A bureaucracy with multiple political principals (e.g., an executive power, a legislature, and a court system) may be able to strategically play the principals off one another or strategically align itself with one to advance its own preferred policies. Or a bureaucracy may turn to interest groups, relying on their backing to strengthen their appeal for resources or changes in legislation. Selznick’s (1949) classic work on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) clearly illustrates the manner in which bureaucracies can function as political actors in their broader environment. The TVA adopted a set of policy positions in order to retain support from specific interest groups who could help the TVA ensure sufficient political will to pursue certain policy goals that were of interest to the bureaucracy.

Democracy and Accountability for the Bureaucracy

Within a democracy, the role unelected bureaucrats play in making important political decisions is potentially problematic from the standpoint of accountability. Issues of democratic accountability within the bureaucracy have been approached using two broad perspectives. The first perspective assumes that bureaucracies uphold democratic norms when they enact policy that is consistent with the wishes of elected officials. Since bureaucrats are able to exercise discretion and elected officials are not able to perfectly observe all actions of bureaucrats, bureaucratic activity will not perfectly conform to the will of elected officials.

Nonetheless, multiple mechanisms might push bureaucratic activity toward alignment with the wishes of elected officials. Specifically, several blunt tools enable elected officials to exercise a measure of control over implementation. Elected officials often conduct reviews of bureaucratic policies – as in US Congressional committee hearings – which provide opportunities to gain information about what a bureaucracy is doing, to communicate what elected officials want from the bureaucracy, and to publicly embarrass or praise bureaucratic officials for what their organization is doing. Political actors can also manipulate a bureaucracy’s personnel makeup through rules or political appointments, manipulate funding to punish or reward bureaucracies, and strategically adopt administrative procedures such as requirements for public comment periods before bureaucracies impose new regulatory rules (McCubbins et al. 1989). In some cases, there may be multiple government agencies that could reasonably be tasked with implementing a given policy, and elected officials may choose whatever agency has norms or expertise most consistent with the desired policy objectives. Or a new agency might even be created to implement the policy.

Another reason that bureaucracies might enact policies consistent with the wishes of elected officials is that members of the bureaucracy might voluntarily defer to elected officials, perhaps as a result of bureaucratic norms regarding administrative responsibility (Finer 1941). Bureaucrats may believe that they have a moral or social obligation to defer to elected officials with regard to the values and priorities that direct the bureaucracy’s activities. Even if some individual bureaucrats do not personally hold this conviction, broader organizational norms might form that encourage all employees to act out of deference to elected officials.

Whether examined through the lens of voluntary submission or top-down control, works adopting this first broad perspective often emphasize (sometimes implicitly) bureaucratic alignment with elected officials’ preferences as a means of furthering democratic ideals. A major challenge to this perspective is that elected officials do not always direct bureaucracies to act in a manner that is consistent with the will of the electorate. Procedures that make it easier for the public to observe what goes on within a bureaucracy may mitigate this concern by facilitating the public’s ability to hold elected officials responsible for how they oversee bureaucratic activity (Wood and Waterman 1994).

A second strand of scholarship adopts a perspective which assumes that bureaucracies can carry out policy decisions that are consistent with democratic norms independent of submission to elected officials (Gruber 1987). A policy created by unelected officials might derive a democratic character from the bureaucracy’s direct responsiveness to public policy preferences. If individuals within a bureaucracy care about public perceptions of the bureaucracy, they might have an incentive to respond directly to public opinion, particularly on issues that garner substantial public attention. Greater transparency regarding bureaucratic activities may facilitate accountability by allowing the public more opportunity to evaluate and express concerns about political decisions made within the bureaucracy. In some cases, complaints or public demonstrations might alert bureaucrats to public sentiments and compel them to act in a particular manner. Some interest groups may pressure bureaucracies to adopt policy positions that align with the broader will of the public. Bureaucracies can also formally engage the public through practices such as participatory budgeting, solicitation of public comments, or citizen surveys.

Some scholars have argued that it is possible for unelected bureaucrats themselves to serve as representatives of the people in some sense. Representative bureaucracy theory suggests that a bureaucracy with personnel who demographically mirror the public will tend to make decisions that account for broad public interests. Under this theory, individual bureaucrats are seen as representatives of members of the public who share one or more demographic characteristics. Whether bureaucrats actually act in a manner that serves to benefit members of the public who share their own demographic characteristics appears to depend on multiple factors, such as the organizational environment and the salience of a given demographic characteristic to the policy area in which the bureaucrats work.


Bureaucracies play an important role in politics. Without them, government as we know it could not function. Yet bureaucracies occupy a somewhat unusual space in democratic governments given that they operate with the force of government but are run mostly by officials who were not elected to office. The manner in which bureaucracies intersect with political conflicts constitutes an important topic of study both for students of political systems and for students of public administration. Without looking at the bureaucracy, one cannot know how political decisions will actually be implemented on the ground. And without considering politics, it is impossible to fully evaluate the implications of bureaucratic functioning for society. Bureaucratic politics is not easy to study or measure, but several important insights can be taken from existing work on the topic. First, the outcomes of policy programs often depend on who is hired to implement the programs. Second, institutions that dictate relationships among bureaucrats, interest groups, and legislatures will affect policy decision-making in significant ways. Third, personnel policies that change the incentives of bureaucrats can affect how bureaucrats make political decisions. Fourth, the accountability of bureaucracies to more traditional political actors is limited; specific structures that enhance transparency or facilitate direct accountability of bureaucracies to the public may mitigate such concerns. Finally, bureaucracies may have to resolve big political conflicts when other political institutions neglect to do so; legislatures and heads of government that are unable or unwilling to resolve aspects of key political conflicts sometimes give vague mandates to bureaucracies that require them to act without clear political direction. If bureaucracies lack the level of legitimacy that other political institutions enjoy, it may be beneficial to create structures that encourage more traditional policy making institutions to more fully resolve political conflicts.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Texas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA