Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Bureaucracy, Organizational Redundancy, and the Privatization of Public Services

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Bureaucracy, Organizational Redundancy, and the Privatization of Public Services

Article excerpt

A common theme in the platforms of political candidates from presidents to big city mayors is a promise to consolidate fragmented systems, reduce needless duplication of services, and streamline public bureaucracies upon election to office. Although a cardinal premise in the thinking of many current reformists, this view is actually quite consistent with some very traditional - and limited - thinking in public administration: that the government which functions best is one with zero redundancy. In this view, government agencies should strive to be "lean and mean."

This notion has motivated numerous government reorganization efforts throughout the past century. When two government units are performing the same function, conventional wisdom suggests that one unit be eliminated, or consolidated within the other, to minimize the duplication of functions and overlapping of jurisdictions. Although appeals are made to scientific management and common sense, the theory that supports this conventional wisdom is never explicitly stated. Yet the benefits of reorganization and consolidation are widely touted - cost reduction and better service to the public.

However, not all forms of duplication and overlap constitute waste. Some forms of duplication and overlap can increase organizational efficiency, effectiveness, and reliability. These points were made in Landau's (1969) seminal essay that challenged those in the discipline of public administration to rethink whether zero redundancy is indeed the measure of both economy and efficiency. Landau urged that:

there are good grounds for suggesting that efforts to improve public administration by eliminating duplication and overlap would, if successful, produce just the opposite effect. That so many attempts have failed should perhaps alert us to what sociologists would call the "latent function" of this type of redundancy. This possibility alone is sufficient warrant for transforming a precept into a problem (1969; 349).

American political culture has long stressed the virtues of competitive redundancies in the constitutionally described governing process, embodied in such precepts as federalism, checks and balances, separation of powers, and competitive political parties. Why then did public administration, focused on the organizational dynamics of modern, bureaucratic government, "condemn competition in our public bureaucracies in a one-sided fashion?" (Bendor, 1985; 33).

Although the virtues of competitive interorganizational arrangements for both public and private sectors were discussed by early political economists, the fascination of early writers in public administration with getting government to operate more like business led to an emphasis on restructuring of the type occurring at that time in the private sector. More than a century ago, privately held corporations were consolidating "horizontally to reduce competition and vertically to coordinate specialized and interdependent processes" (Bendor, 1985; 34). Early public administration reformers sought to do the same for government. Ironically for government, the deliberate reintroduction of competition, eventually a great concern for governance of the private sector, seemed not to have surfaced as an imperative for the public sector itself until far more recently. Perhaps the redundancies built into governance by the Constitution obscured the monocratic logic elaborated in routinized administrative activities.

As the authors of Reinventing Government acknowledge, "it is one of the enduring paradoxes of American ideology that we attack private monopolies so fervently but embrace public monopolies so warmly" (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992; 79). In Breaking Through Bureaucracy, Barzelay similarly comments that for "Americans supporting the reform and reorganization movements, bureaucracy meant efficiency and efficiency meant good government" (Barzelay and Armanjani, 1992; 4).

In this context, it might be said that the current "reinventing" brand of reform thinking represents an interesting combination of two kinds of efforts. …

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