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Bureaucracy As A Force For Conservatism Politics Essay

One of the most important concerns in the study of Public Administration seems to be with how preferences and welfare of citizens are reflected into the policies and actions of the assigned bureaucrats and politicians. Despite the good intentions of some politicians and high level bureaucrats, when they run for elections, promising innovation and change in the administration of public institutions and the development of original policies, once they are elected or assigned to a particular office, bureaucrats face inherited commitments to programs originally started by their predecessors.

This inheritance before choice, rigorously limits their freedom of choice. This issue was explained by Rose and Davies (1994) as “the force of political inertia”. Their argument sustains that although individual politicians and bureaucrats have left the office after a new election, their agenda is carried forward, the laws, public agencies, public projects and public budgets and expenditure targets have continuing effects and any change will bring the opposition of beneficiaries.

This essay aims to explore the effect that Bureaucratic’ inertia may be expected to have on policy implementation by looking at the relationship between Bureaucracy and the willingness to preserve the status quo usually done in the context of bureaucrats and politicians opposing to large and often radical change. This document will consider the bureaucratic process model explained by Golembewski and Rabin (1997) which suggested that a dominant characteristic of Bureaucratic Organisations is resistance to change either by inertia (the tendency to move in one direction until deflected by some outside force) or/and by conservatism (the tendency to fight to remain the same). Their theory also have suggested that bureaucrats will continue to do what they have been doing until some way is found to force them to behave otherwise.

The debate of Bureaucracy as a force for conservatism and inertia, not change, will be discussed throughout this document, thus, with special importance given to theoretical approaches. Some of these areas under discussion will include: Inheritance before choice, the science of “muddling through”, decisions making in political systems (veto players), political manipulation and administrative behaviour.

This essay will also examine these key issues through academic literature, but closing the gap between theory and practice by analysing real life examples, the aim at the end of this paper is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between bureaucracy, inertia and conservatism.

The study of bureaucracy has been heavily influenced by Max Weber (1978) who suggested that bureaucracy has a “rational” character where organisations are managed with carefully developed rules to make sure bureaucratic institutions are conducted through written rules, records and communications. The principles of Bureaucracy included structured hierarchies, rational systems based on rules and procedures, an authoritarian formalisation of decisions making processes and development based on administrative expertise. It was described by Kaufman (1981) as the “will of the high command”; in this approach bureaucracy is not about organisational change but about procedural change indented to maintain hierarchical integrity. Although it has been a dominant form of organisation by more than a century, it has been seriously criticised recently as a source of poor civil service performance, lack of innovation and producer of inertia and poor adaptation to change. Thus, in recent times bureaucracy is regarded as an inefficient model in constant search for inertia and conservatism.

Recently, New Public Management (NPM) has been concerned with the transition from bureaucracy to post-bureaucracy involving a declining in the level of conservatism and inertia in the administration of public sector organisations. According to Cooke (1990), the post-bureaucratic model is characterised by network collaboration, trust, negotiation, groups building, team work, decentralisation of authority and reduced management levels. This approach suggests that organisational control must centre not on the management of tasks, but the management of relationship. In effect NPM expect to bring the desired change into focus.

It might be expected that public organisations would reflect post-bureaucracy principles in response to change in public management and the external environment. However, there is no strong evidence to suggest that public institutions have become post-bureaucratic. It means less emphasis on rules and procedures and more emphasis on flexibility, goals and employee participation along with participative change.

The above assertion was supported by the research conducted by Parker and Bradley (2004) in the Queensland public sector in Australia. The study was a measure of the influence of bureaucratic values in the Queensland Public Institutions. The research suggested that there is a tendency among which public organisations are evolving from one form of bureaucracy, based on political control to a form of bureaucracy associated with market controls and commercial values

These commercial agreements are the new source of inertia and control according to Parker and Bradley (2004). For example the Australian public sector is associated with the influence of competitive pressures, privatisation, outsourcing and contracting between the state and networks of private sector provides. “For the street level bureaucrat this creates a sense of powerlessness and is often associated with work intensification as a reduced workforce seeks to deliver the same level of service”. The fear of job insecurity in public sector organisations is a substitute form of inertia and control and it may explain why employees perceive their organisations to be focused on bureaucratic values lacking employee’s participation in change initiatives.

One of the toughest milestones in Bureaucracy is policy change, not the policy itself but the basis in which policy is conceived, developed and put into practice. According to Page cited by Moran et al (2007), policies can be considered as the result of intentions or actions but more likely as a combination of both where there is not straightforward answer to the origin of new policies. This is why new literature of policy making focus on feasibility analysis and agenda settings rather than on the actual moment of choice or the motivation of new policies.

The purpose of feasibility analysis is a logical structure of analysis supported by micro and macroeconomic theories. It looks at the constrains (technological, political and institutional) that delimit the space of feasible choices. However, when it comes to agenda setting there is not a reasonable approach as suggested by Dearing and Rogers (1997) it is a competition among issue proponents to gain attention of media, professionals, and the public and policy elites. Despite the importance of agenda setting in how public opinion is shaped, it has been highly criticised as a source of political inertia “it serves a fundamental gate-keeping function in bureaucracies determining what issues are ripe for policy and what issues are not even for discussion” , Golden and College (2003).

From that perspective, several theories are attributable to the study of why Bureaucracy is a source of conservatism and inertia but not change. Considering the relationship between bureaucracy, agenda setting and inertia, the first approach is that which Rose (1990) ascribed to “Inheritance before choice” which is deemed as the absence of choice in new public policy, “the inherited commitments of past governments must be accepted as given” the legacy of past bureaucrats and politicians is continued by institutional agreements based in laws, organisations and budgets that are more significant than the preference of individuals.

Rose’s main point is that Political inertia is visible because most policy decisions are based on legislation which already exits, while most day-to-day delivery of policy takes place without significant change. In a case study of public expenditure data for 118 programmes of the UK government over a period of 40 years since 1946, the author finds that the likelihood of a programme remaining part of the new government is a function of attributes of programmes rather than a matter of choice of the new bureaucrat. This is especially evident in programmes related to administration of justice and social programmes. Ibid

There are two divisions among bureaucrats that can also reject proposals for policy change. One involves the political “Veto Points” and the role of “Veto Players”.

Veto points has been defined by Krause and Meier (2006) as the constitutional rule which dictate where in the decision-making process a veto can be exercised in response to social and economical challenges. For example, Parliament represents a veto point if it can turn over the decision of the executive and if it is not controlled by the same party as the executive, similarly interest groups can employ these veto points to block legislation or change possible outcomes.

Veto Players has been analysed by Tsebelis (1995). His theory is interested in the analysis of the bureaucracy with respect to their capacity to produce policy change undermined by the involvement of “Veto Players”, they are individual or united groups (Institutional in presidential systems and partisans in parliamentary systems), whose agreement is required for a change in policy. The potential for policy changes increase or decrease with the number of veto players, the lack of congruence and cohesion (similarity of policy position).

Tsebelis differentiate two types of veto players, Institutional Players as those determined by a country’s constitution.

For example, in US the President is considered a veto player, and Partisian Players those who are given by the way the political environment is developed in a particular country, for example in US the House of Representatives and the Senate. Because they have veto power in a political process and their decisions behave aligned with the strategy of the party or the politician in charge, this implicitly generates casual unification known as policy stability: “the difficulty to changing the existing policies in a political system”, it assumes that the larger the number of veto players the lower the likelihood that policy will change in words of Tsebelis impeding significant departures from the status quo. Ibid

Sometimes policy’s decision-making process operates in a timid and irresolute manner, for improvising small and small changes. This approach to policy change known as “Incrementalism” which in Lindblom view cited by Hayes (2004) is the prevalent form of policy making in theory. The ultimate approach to Incrementalism is that bureaucratic organisations systematically evaluate a range of alternatives and then make the decisions based in careful analysis. It is a superior form of policymaking based in a fair equilibrium of social interests. However, a more realistic approach suggests that bureaucracies often make decisions based in a limited range of information and analysis known as “Disjointed Incrementalism”. Therefore, bureaucracies make decisions by “muddling through” according to Lindblom (1959).

The theory regarding to the Science of Muddling Through has three prominent characteristics. Firstly, decisions are arrived by a continuous bargaining practice between autonomous individuals involved in the decision making process, secondly, each change is a marginal modification of existing policies, which are incrementally adapted to the immediate situation, and thirdly, the search of short-term objectives is excluded by obligations inherited in the past, leaving no margin of choice in the present, thus a rational-comprehensive approach to policy change takes too much time and too many resources. Ibid

As an example, Charles Lindblom (1959) critically exposes the “Science of Muddling Through”, with reference to the US executive bureaucracy as lacking policy analysis, rationality and limited or not theoretical analysis in formulating policies leading to change. The reason lies in the fact that most bureaucrats approach policy-change within a framework given by the view of a chain of past consecutive policy choices. Therefore, those bureaucrats make quick decisions influenced by other’s knowledge of the incremental steps taken up to the present.

Until now, I find hard to deny a large core of truth in the criticism that Bureaucracy is a source of Conservatism and Inertia not change, it is practically impossible to develop a model of efficient change in the public sector. The reason according to Waterman and Rouse (1999) is like in any bureaucracy, some individuals are more influential than others. Similarly, as with voters and politicians who share common characteristics (age, race, social class, ideology, and so forth), bureaucrats also share common characteristic with their peers and some member of the public. For instance some more have influence over public opinion, information or public budgeting than others do, thus, they may benefit their own wellbeing first at the expenses of the public interest.

The following section is devoted to identifying these theories that analyse the constant pressure for change in public policy, and it will demonstrated that to some extent change is an integral part of the policy process. Here I will approach Bureaucracy as a political system which facilitate in some scope unintended change in policy.

Change without choice is a concept developed by Rose (1990) who sustains that sometimes policy change is without intention, because the programme has to adapt to changes in the environment, changes in the economic climate or programmes must respond to changes in market conditions, as well as to actions within the government of the day.

Most of the programmes related to administration of justice, public order, and health care are programmes designed to have a long-term life-cycle perspective, most of these programmes are part of the ongoing legacy from previous to new politicians and bureaucrats, and continuity is not a choice is a must. However, within the life-cycle changes can be introduced. Ibid

The result is compounding incremental change. This approach to policy change decreases the level of inertia in long-term programmes. Throughout the programme’s life-cycle change is the cumulative sum of many actions taken by many governments. Thus, change without choice is the tendency of ignore the long-term consequences of short-term choices.

The UK’s Royal Mail strike in October 2009 was the trigger for the government, unions, managements and regulators about the need for structural change. Once a world-class postal service company owned by the nation, has experienced a large decline in the last few years due in part to a highly bureaucratic organisation with large political influence along with commercial stagnation, resulting in a company embarrassingly near the bottom of the premier league of European postal operators. Since this event Royal Mail has improved its industrial relations calling for more relaxed policies allowing modernisation and change within the organisation, thus ensuring the survival of the company in the long-run. This example demonstrates that change without choice happens to public organisations in order to maintain their competitiveness in this changing market conditions. The Guardian (Cited 18 April 2010).

The perceived economic climate also influences the rate of increase or decrease in spending on inherited programmes, therefore a stable and wealthy economic growth will help to increase the programme’s budget, thus new policies will appear to introduce new programmes or change the currents one. Indeed the opposite happens if the economic climate is depressed.

Military budget is a good example of change influenced by the economic climate. According to Homeland Security Research (Cited 18 April 2010), over the period of the “Global War on Terror” between 2001 and 2008 military expenditure increased by nearly 70% in US as a result of a bullish economic climate, globalisation and the rapid military expansion of China, India and Russia. However, now days the global economic crisis along with the increase of oil prices is forcing both policy-makers and military leaders to deal with relatively restrained budgets. In an economy in emergency both constituencies and politicians are no in the mood to hear about the need to spend millions on what many consider a misguided Bush administration’s ambition.

Social Learning has been defined by Hall (1993), “a deliberate attempt to adjust the goals or techniques of policy in response to past experience and new information”. Learning is indicated when policy changes as a result of such a process, it means policy change happens as a response to the consequences of past policy rather than the actual social and economic conditions.

Hall illustrates his statement explaining the changes of macroeconomic policy in Britain over the 1970-1989 periods. Since Thatcher government came into power in 1979, the welfare state was the biggest are of non-market activity in the British economy. Resources were produced, allocated and distributed by bureaucratic systems, many of this activities lacked market approach, for example the National Health Service was the largest employer in Western Europe consuming almost a quarter of UK GDP. Ibid

Three distinct kinds of change of policy occurred in Britain over the 1970-89 period as a result of social learning. The first change was a process whereby policy was changed in the light of new knowledge, while the overall goals and instruments of policy remain the same. The second change was a response to dissatisfaction with past experiences. Even though the overall goals of policy remained the same, the instruments of policy were altered. For example the introduction of a new system of monetary control in 1971 and the development of a new system of monetary control in 1971. Source: Hall (1993).

Finally, change occurs as a reflection on past experiences, the instruments of policy, the hierarchy and goals behind policy are changed. For example the Thatcher economic-policy change was a radical shift from Keynesian to Monetarism model of macroeconomic regulation.

A glimpse look at Bureaucracy gives the impression of being a negative word associated to inertia and high degree of political control along with political stagnation. Given such ill reputation it is high to remember that it once was considered a great organisational innovation. Bureaucracy used to be a positive word, in early democracies bureaucrats would be rule-driven to tackle corruption and dedicated to the civil service mission of serve their constituents instead of partisan goals.

I conclude, therefore, that a reconsideration of the value of bureaucracy, a rebalancing of political objectives and a reassessment of the importance of bureaucracy in policy progress is required. Bureaucracy is not a threat for democracy is just a rational product of society needing restructure, at the end bureaucrats are people too, some are bad some are good, but most at least try do their jobs aligned with the wellbeing of society. It would seem to be a useful counterweight to the rhetoric of bureaucracy as a source of conservatism and inertia that has shaped the public debate over the last decade.

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