Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Bill of Rights and the Ongoing Administrative Revolution

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Bill of Rights and the Ongoing Administrative Revolution

Article excerpt

The Bill of Rights remains a revolutionary document. It speaks to human dignity, worth, and freedom. In many contemporary nations merely calling for some of the protections afforded Americans by the Bill of Rights can be harshly punished as an act of subversion. Even some countries that have functional equivalents of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments would find the natural rights underpinnings of the U.S. constitutional regime alien. The Ninth Amendment has been unremarkable in American law but, in historical perspective, its implications are radical: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

In 1971, George Berkley authored a prescient book called the Administrative Revolution. In a broad sense, Berkley contended that values similar to those inherent in the Bill of Rights were working their way into American public administrative culture for the first time. He predicted that in the near future public bureaucracies in the United States would become less hierarchical, more participatory, and more user friendly for human beings. Berkley's characterization of these developments as "revolutionary" may have been somewhat overstated but his prognosis that they would continue was essentially sound--even if the pace was far slower than he anticipated.

This article tracks some of the "revolutionary" changes, consonant with the broad concerns of the Bill of Rights, that have taken place during the past two decades. It contends that both directly and indirectly the ongoing administrative revolution has brought many of the essential values in the Bill of Rights to bear on contemporary public administrative practice.


The changes Berkley foresaw were obscured by political rhetoric and economic recessions in the 1970s and 1980s. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all condemned public bureaucracies as intransigent, wasteful, ineffective, and adverse to the public's general interest in a thriving economy and just society. With the exception of Carter's commitment to equal opportunity, each of these Presidents had a program for administrative reorganization and reform that was tangential to the revolution Berkley described.

Carter and Reagan argued that administrative waste was so rampant that the potential savings to be gained through more competent management and controls would make a substantial contribution to balancing the federal budget, despite overall increases in spending and even tax cuts. During the same period, economic downturns placed great pressure on state and local governments to cut back the size of their administrative operations. Deregulation and privatization were advanced at all government levels as ways of reducing the scope, intrusiveness, and cost of public bureaucracies.

By the end of 1990 it appeared that the period of bureaucracy bashing and agency thrashing was ending amid very mixed results. Some improvements had been made, but the federal and many other governmental bureaucracies were as large as ever, government was awash in red ink, deregulation seemed to have run its course, and privatization turned out to be far more difficult to practice than theory suggested.

However, at least three sets of fundamental changes--indeed, revolutionary in Berkley's sense--had occurred. These were no doubt related to the nation's apparent dissatisfaction with its public administration but, for the most part, they occurred in separate arenas and seemed largely unrelated to one another. Taken together, however, they make contemporary public administration very different from that of two decades ago. Moreover, they do seem to have developed a logic and process of their own sufficiently strong to assure lasting impact.

In a broad sense, they are compatible with the Bill of Rights' effort to protect and extol human worth. …

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