The Administrative Behavior of Federal Bureau Chiefs

The Administrative Behavior of Federal Bureau Chiefs

The Administrative Behavior of Federal Bureau Chiefs

The Administrative Behavior of Federal Bureau Chiefs


Most of the people who keep tabs on the workings of the federal government, no matter what the reasons for their interest, seem to take for granted the power and autonomy of the chiefs of the bureaus that make up the executive branch. Because so much is taken for granted, there have not been many studies of what the chiefs actually do day by day. Of all the participants in the governmental process who wield--or are thought to wield--great influence, bureau chiefs are among the least examined.

Believing that he could narrow this gap in the materials on the federal government somewhat, Herbert Kaufman set out to report his observations of six bureau chiefs at their jobs in the course of a year. The group consisted of the commissioners of the Internal Revenue Service, the Customs Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Social Security Administration; the chief of the Forest Service; and the administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service--a set diversified enough to include a wide variety of organizational situations and experiences, yet with enough in common to allow comparison and generalization.

The objective of his research was to describe the chief's activities so as to explain how they exercise their power. And he hoped to find out whether they are as powerful as they are said to be.

From his efforts emerges a detailed picture of the work of the bureau leaders and of their role in their agencies and in the government generally. The picture reveals that some of the common beliefs about these officials, and perhaps about the system as a whole, are not altogether accurate. Kaufman traces the implications of his findings for organizing the executive branch, for training administrators, and for organization theory.


Professional observers of the federal government have long taken virtually for granted the independence and great power of the heads of major bureaus in the executive departments. To many, their influence seemed too obvious to require examination. But Herbert Kaufman, suspecting that the belief might be based on a few conspicuous examples or on deduction rather than on the weight of empirical evidence, decided to observe the administrative behavior of six bureau chiefs in selected departments to try to find out whether the commonly accepted image applied to them.

He does not suggest that the six he studied were typical of all bureau chiefs in the federal government. But, he reasoned, if half a dozen "specimens" other than the most familiar and commonly cited ones led to different conclusions about the character of bureau chiefs' work and the part the chiefs play in the governmental system, some of our traditional precepts would have to be corrected. and even if the research only confirmed the traditional precepts, a close examination of the chiefs in action would provide a more complete portrait of the day-to-day activities of these government executives than was previously available.

He studied them for more than a year. This book sets forth his findings and conclusions. in some respects, they corroborate conventional lore of executive behavior, but in others they raise questions about the way we think of federal administrators, the federal administrative system and, indeed, large organizations generally. Because this book is aimed at an audience not intimately familiar with the administrative world of Washington, some parts of it will doubtless seem elementary and obvious to old Washington hands. But even they, I believe, will find instructive the panoramic vista of the job . . .

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