Institutionalizing Congress and the Presidency: The U.S. Bureau of Efficiency, 1916-1933

Institutionalizing Congress and the Presidency: The U.S. Bureau of Efficiency, 1916-1933

Institutionalizing Congress and the Presidency: The U.S. Bureau of Efficiency, 1916-1933

Institutionalizing Congress and the Presidency: The U.S. Bureau of Efficiency, 1916-1933


With its creation of the U.S. Bureau of Efficiency in 1916, Congress sought to bring the principles of "scientific management" to the federal government. Although this first staff agency in the executive branch lasted only a relatively short time, it was the first central agency in the federal government dedicated to improving the management of the executive branch.

Mordecai Lee offers both a chronological history of the agency and a thematic treatment of the structure, staffing, and work processes of the bureau; its substantive activities; and its effects on the development of both the executive and the legislative branches.

Charged with conducting management and policy analyses at the direction of the president, this bureau presaged the emergence of the activist and modern executive branch. The Bureau of Efficiency was also the first legislative branch agency, ushering in the large administrative infrastructure that now supports the policy-making and program oversight roles of Congress.

The Bureau of Efficiency's assistance to presidents foreshadowed the eventual change in the role of the president vis-a-vis Congress; it helped upend the separation of powers doctrine by giving the modern executive the management tools for preeminence over the legislative branch.


Sometimes interesting research topics come to one’s attention in serendipitous ways. For a previous project on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of Government Reports (OGR), I was looking to document the earliest existence of OGR’s predecessor agency, the National Emergency Council (NEC). I knew nec had been created by Roosevelt in 1933 but was not sure exactly when. So I decided to go through the lists of executive branch agencies in all the 1933 issues of the Congressional Directory.

Forgetting that presidential inaugurations in those days were in March, I began with the first Directory issued before March 1933 (72d Cong., 2d sess., 2d ed.). While, of course, not finding any listing for nec, in the section entitled “Independent Offices and Establishments” I stumbled across a listing for the Bureau of Efficiency (BOE). Even though I have had an ongoing interest in federal government history, I had never heard of it. Also, the agency’s name was so arresting, it almost sounded like a joke. a federal agency dedicated to efficiency in Washington? You must be kidding! Reading on, the Bureau of Efficiency’s mission was described thusly: “It was created to provide a small force of specialists to serve the President and the various administrative heads by studying specific problems of organization and business methods and developing constructive recommendations for improvement, and to provide information or recommendations on administrative and legislative matters” (p. 373). Now this was worth looking into! I eventually found the first listing for the nec, but I kept wondering about this odd agency, the Bureau of Efficiency. After finishing my ogr project, I was still curious. This volume is the product of satisfying that piqued interest and accidental find.

This book relies substantially on archival documents, federal publications, and newspapers. These disparate sources could never have been accessed without the patient help of scores of librarians and archivists. They are truly unsung heroes who make the writing of history possible. Regrettably, with so many having helped me, I cannot thank them by name. However, I hope that each will accept this expression of utmost appreciation as individually addressed. Their patience, guidance, and . . .

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