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BUREAUCRACY AND CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY
by Fred W. Riggs

Although we usually think about "bureaucracy" in the context of public administration, the system of appointed officials, military and civil, in every state also has great political significance, not only in the sense that officials exercise direct influence on the shaping of public policies but they also affect the capacity of regimes to survive. Maladministration not only leads to popular dissatisfaction with governments but it can provoke public officials, led by military officers, to seize power and become a ruling elite. They may do this to abort revolutionary movements and rebellions, or simply to replace a regime that cannot govern. Explanations based on the ambitions of military officers strike me as quite inadequate.
Good public administration reflects not only the ability of appointed officials to work effectively but also the capacity of a country's political institutions to maintain effective control over its bureaucracy. No matter how democratic the institutions of representative governance may be, they cannot survive for long if they are not also able to exercise enough control over their appointed officials to assure the honest and effective implementation of public policies -- at least to some degree! Without such controls, bureaucrats left to themselves will easily indulge in corruption, abuse of power, laziness and inefficiency. Conscientious and public spirited officials are numerous, but they easily succumb to counter-productive practices tolerated or even encouraged by ambitious and aggressive colleagues who typically dominate bureaucracies that are not effectively controlled by extra-bureaucratic political institutions. Maladministraton is much more than bureaupathology -- all administrative systems suffer from difficulties that antagonize and worry citizens and administrative reforms are able to correct many of them. By contrast, maladministration involves the fundamental inability of appointed officials to perform the functions normally expected of them.
When, over two centuries ago, the American constitution was adopted, the administrative functions of the federal government were minimal -- and most public administration was, actually, carried out by state and local officials. Farmers, merchants, and artisans working in the private sector were self sufficient and able to manage most of their affairs without governmental intervention. The need for officials and administrative functions was not included in the terms of the constitutional charter for the new U. S. government.
Since then, however, the industrial revolution and the global interdependence brought into being by the world-encircling conquests of modern empires has vastly increased the need for public administration in every sphere of life. All constitutional democracies, if they are indeed to meet the needs of their citizens, must provide a host of new public services. The inherent complexity and interdependence of these functions requires the support of a large number of talented and dedicated public servants. Their capacity and willingness to perform these functions cannot be taken for granted: no bureaucracy can, in principle, be internally designed on democratic principles. Rather, they need to become specialists with authority to act based on their competence and knowledge of the technical problems involved in every domain of public policy, not by taking votes to see who agrees! Put simply, good public administration requires the empowerment of appointed public officials -- they need to be able to act quickly and efficiently in order to accomplish the missions assigned to them.
The more powerful officials become, however, the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable for their performance and the greater the need for effective institutions of representative government (legislatures and courts of law as well as chief executives) that are able to direct and monitor public bureaucracies. The survival of constitutional democracy, therefore, hinges not only on the internal design and effectiveness of the institutions of representataive government but on their capacity to manage public bureaucracies. This has always been true, but the emergence of modern technological, scientific, and industrial institutions and problems on a global basis has raised the problems of bureaucratic control and management to new heights.
The need for such controls is most dramatically evident in the successor states created by the collapse of all the modern empires, whether capitalist or communist in design. In these states, colonial bureaucracies have been transformed into state bureaucracies in which indigenous personnel replaced expatriates but authoritarian practices and attitudes survived. Those who wanted to democratize these polities faced the stupendous problems involved not only in creating institutions of representative government but also in empowering them to exercise effective control over the bureaucratic institutions which they inherited (or, in some cases, were able to create).
Understandably, they often failed and maladministration resulted. Indeed, it is fair to say that in many of these countries anarchy resulted throughout much of the territory included within the nominal borders of the new states. Not surprisingly, crime, banditry, and gangs emerged, often provoking both public officials and political elites to resort to violence in futile fruitless efforts to restore or establish order. Such efforts, however, in the absence of effective public administration, merely provoke more anger and resistance to authority. Quite often political movements based on ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism, or traditional clan and tribal structures, take shape in vain efforts to create islands of security ("sovereignty") within the domain of anarchic states.
International agencies and national governments (including the U.S.) often responded to such situations by sponsoring programs of technical assistance in public administration and military assistance. They felt unable, however, to deal with the delicate and baffling problems involved in helping new institutions for responsible representative governance become better established and more effective. Instead, therefore, of improving public administration, in many cases these efforts contributed to maladministration by enhancing the power of appointed officials (especially military officers) without strengthening the institutions able to impose accountability upon them. In many cases, military officers already dominated these regimes and, predictably, bureaucratic domination augments the ability of appointed officials to abuse their powers and deepen crises of maladministration.
In recent years, especially following the collapse of the communist empires, the United States and other established democracies, in cooperation with a host of international organizations (both governmental and non-governmental) have striven to promote democratization around the world. Unfortunately, however, many of these efforts have focussed attention on some components of a democracy, such as "free elections", without much attention to the fact that elections contribute to democracy only when elected officials are able to use their powers, not only to represent popular preferences in the shaping of public policies but also to manage public bureaucacies charged with their implementation.
Of course, there is a reciprocal relation between the structures of bureaucratic organization and the design of representative institutions. Many colonial bureaucracies were organized according to the "mandarin" principle first developed in ancient China, but subsequently borrowed by the British for use in their Indian empire and, later, domesticated by creation of the Administrative Class in the government of England. Parallel lines of development had brought mandarinates to power in most of the other modern empires, and this mean that their successor states inherited administrative institutions staffed by mandarin-type careerists.
A major exception can be found in the successor states of pre-modern empires, like the Spanish and Portuguese. They inherited a kind of patronage-based bureaucracy in which officials, with no assurances of tenure, banded together to protect their privileges and positions, forming what I refer to as a "retainer bureaucracy." Although initially less powerful than a mandarin bureaucracy, retainers who are able to retain their perquisites for long periods of time can become formidably powerful, though often not very efficient as administrators. Like the mandarins, however, they are often able, during severe political crises, to seize power by means of a military-led coup d'etat and become the ruling elite.
A truly great exception to these generalizations can be found in the U.S. where our Congress, when enacting the Pendleton Act in 1883, decided to follow the British example by creating career services to replace the patronage/spoils system which had evolved before then. However, the spoils principle was also retained by permitting succeeding chief executives to discharge many incumbents and replace them by new "in-and-outer" (transient) appointees. Since transients have neither the ability nor the will to conspire together to replace elected officials, this simple technique assured the perpetuation of the American constitutional system even if maladministration prevailed.
However, some protection against maladministration was provided by creating the possibility of appointing specialized career officials to occupy positions under the top echelon of in-and-outers. These officials, moreover, would not be mandarins following the British example -- rather, they would be functionaries trained in specific fields of expertise that qualified them, at any age, to occupy specific posts at all levels of government. Such professionalized functionaries, recruited by law from all states in the Union -- making use of the new colleges established under the Merrill act as land-grant institutions -- typically identified more with their fellow-professionals in the private sector than with other bureaucrats in different fields of specialization. The double effect of this design was both to enhance the administrative expertise and capabilities of American officials and to reduce their ability to conspire with each other to advance their common interests as bureaucrats or to join plots to overthrow the government.
I believe this fact, augmented by other matters such as the phenomenal growth of the American industrial economy, contributed signifiantly to the capacity of our Constitutional regime to survive during periods of great crisis. Since all other constitutional regimes based on the American principle of the separation of powers (about 30 in all) have experienced catastrophic breakdowns and authoritarian (usually military-buraucratic rule), the capacity of the U.S. regime to survive is truly exceptional. The division of authority at the top, and throughout the political system, as reflected in the rise of subgovernments ("iron triangles"), provides dramatic evidence for the results of this constitutional design and the tremendous obstacles to effective policy integration that it produced. The pay-off, however, can be seen in the capacity of our constitutional regime to survive despite all the grave weaknesses that are conspicuously present today.
To conclude, the design of a public bureaucracy and its capacity to administer public policies effectively hinges on the capacity of representative institutions to maintain their authority and effective control over appointed officials (military and civil). When such control evaporates (or fails to evolve) because of the weakness of representative institutions and/or the resulting maladministration of public policies, democratic government will almost surely collapse. Moreover, in the design of public bureaucracies, it is important to establish structures that will enhance the power and authority of public officials enough to enable them to administer well but not so much as to enable them to seize power when great crises severely test the capabilities of the institutions of representative governance. The design of contemporary constitutional democracies, therefore, must keep the structure and performance of public bureaucracies in mind as an essential component of the whole system of governance.

 

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