Save the Bureaucrats (While Reinventing Them)

By Barnhart, Tim | Public Personnel Management, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Save the Bureaucrats (While Reinventing Them)


Barnhart, Tim, Public Personnel Management


Administrative occupations in the federal government are under the gun. According to the National Performance Review:

"Most of the personnel reductions will be concentrated in the structures of over-control and micromanagement that now bind the federal government: supervisors, staffs, personnel specialists, budget analysts, procurement specialists, accountants, and auditors. These central control structures not only stifle the creativity of line managers and workers, they consume billions per year in salary, benefits, and administrative costs."(1)

The National Performance Review paints a picture of a top-down federal government, relying too much on oversight and control and too little on an empowered front-line. To be more effective, the federal government should slash its workforce in these overseeing and controlling occupations and turn loose the real doers in government, the line managers and employees, to carry out their assignments free of constraining rules and meddling bureaucrats.

But in the federal government, the bureaucracy is absolutely essential. The government runs on rules - laws, regulations, policies, and procedures - designed and developed to ensure the government serves the public interest. The people who administer these rules are thus involved in the core mission of government. There may be too many of them, some of their rules may be out of date or counter-productive, and they could probably find much better methods or processes for implementing their rules. Nevertheless, their basic mission of effectively administering a system of top-down rules, enacted to protect the public's interest, is vital to an effective federal government. At their worst, they may be bean-counting, nay-saying, inflexible bureaucrats. But at their best, they are public stewards. In the process of eliminating the bureaucrats, we must be certain not to eliminate the public stewards.

The Lure of Empowerment

The empowerment theme that runs through the National Performance Review is currently popular in the business world. It is also highly appealing to most federal managers and employees. Everyone would like to reduce red tape and get rid of the $500 toilet seats. Freeing the individual from the stagnant and corrupting influences of large organizations, harnessing the power, common sense, and initiative of the individual, are old ideas that have appealed to generations of Americans. And they are wonderful ideas. But when applying these or any other notions of management to the federal government, it is critical to understand the purpose of government and of a federal agency. Federal agencies share very little in common with private businesses. The things that work for a private business probably won't work for a federal agency, and vice versa.

The Public is the Customer

There is little disagreement that the federal government is different than a private business, but the common differences cited - it's large, there's no profit, there's no competition - while true, really miss the mark. These imply that you could cut down the size of a federal agency, introduce a profit motive, and introduce competition and suddenly you would have a private business. This is not true. A federal agency will never be like a private business because the government has a different and unique customer.

The mission of each and every federal agency is to serve the public interest. Although the Department of Veteran's Affairs provides services to veterans, veterans are not its customer; its customer is the American public. The public pays the Department for veteran's services. The type, quality, and extent of services provided is defined not by veterans but by the public interest as represented by publicly-elected officials. Most federal agencies are deeply confused about their customers. This confusion stems from a fuzzy notion of what the term "customer" means. Many agencies define their customers as any individual or group they interact with, including groups they provide services to, industries they regulate, and businesses providing them or the public with goods and services. …

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