Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Budget-Minimizing Bureaucrat? Empirical Evidence from the Senior Executive Service

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Budget-Minimizing Bureaucrat? Empirical Evidence from the Senior Executive Service

Article excerpt

In a representative democracy, we assume the populace exerts some control over the actions and outputs of government officials, ensuring they comport with public preferences. Since the founding of the United States, public control over government spending has been at the top of the list of public concerns (Stabile 1998). After their colonial experiences and cries of "taxation without representation," the framers placed the power to tax and spend within the Congress, the branch expected to be most closely aligned with and controlled by the people (Oleszek 1996; Rossiter 1961). In doing so, the expectation was that government officials would heed public demands for taxing and spending or would face electoral repercussions. (1) However, the growth of the fourth branch of government has created a paradox: Unelected bureaucrats now have the power to affect government budget decisions (LeLoup 1977; Wildavsky 1964).

Concern over bureaucratic behavior stems from the increasingly important role that public administrators play in American governance. If they neutrally executed policy decisions made by their political superiors without personal involvement, their attitudes and values would be of marginal concern, as we would not expect them to affect the decision-making calculus. However, it is widely recognized that bureaucrats, especially those in executive positions, do engage in policy making (Aberbach, Putnam, and Rockman 1981; Meier 1993; Rourke 1984). Because these individuals hold unelected positions protected by civil service personnel regulations, how can the public be certain their decisions will comport with the public interest? Can substantial bureaucratic involvement in governance be reconciled with democratic ideals?

Focusing specifically on budgetary preferences, this article addresses how well the top ranks of the federal civil service represent the demands and preferences of the American citizenry. I empirically assess the competing claims of representative-bureaucracy and budget-maximization theories by focusing on members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), those employed within the top career ranks of the federal government. Because SES members are career civil servants who are intimately involved in policy making, focusing on how well their attitudes reflect public sentiments provides important information about the representative nature of the top ranks of the fourth branch of government.

Bureaucratic Politics and Federal Spending Priorities

Competing theories in the bureaucratic politics literature lead us to different expectations about whether public administrators can be expected to heed public demands on budgetary matters. On one hand, some scholars claim that the federal bureaucracy will make broadly representative decisions, on budgetary matters as well as on other issues, because it is a representative institution itself (Kranz 1976; Krislov and Rosenbloom 1981; Long 1952; Nachmias and Rosenbloom 1973). Thus, because public administrators are drawn from the population they serve, their values and attitudes are likely to resemble those of the larger public, thereby ensuring democratically accountable decisions on their part. Along these lines, a number of works demonstrate that a demographically representative bureaucracy produces policy that is responsive to the citizenry. Although very little research focuses specifically on government spending, scholars have examined government outputs such as Farmers Home Administration loans, decisions to move Equal Employment Opportunity claims forward, and a variety of educational rewards and sanctions, to produce convincing evidence that public administrators at all levels of government heed the preferences of a variety of social groups and produce government outputs in accordance with their wishes (Hindera 1993; Hindera and Young 1998; Meier 1984; Meier and Stewart 1992; Meier, Stewart, and England 1991; Selden 1997; Stewart, England, and Meier 1988). …

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