Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

The continuing attack on bureaucracy

Posted by David Kassel on October 3, 2007

Kennedy School of Government Lecturer Elaine Kamarck has just published a book called “The End of Government…as we know it,” in which she argues that traditional forms of bureaucratic government are giving way to “reinvented,” privatized and “marketized” forms, and that this is largely a good thing.

Kamarck was in charge of the “reinventing government” effort in the Clinton-Gore administration, and she naturally argues that reinvention is one of the key characteristics of the “post bureaucratic” state.  “Reinvented government” is government that acts more like business.  In reinvented government, performance is more important than process, burdensome budget and procurement rules are lifted to allow managers flexibility to get results, and citizens are treated as “customers,” among other innovations.

I focused on Chapter 3 of Kamarck’s book, titled “Democratic Accountability,”  in which she lays out the basis of her argument that traditional bureaucracies have depended on adherence to rules and process to the detriment of performance and innovation in government.  It’s a seductive argument because it beats up on a target that we all like to beat up on–the hapless, mindless, rules-following bureaucrat. 

In fact, Kamarck’s argument follows a tradition in recent years of attacking government bureaucracy–a tradition that she herself traces back to Michael Barzelay’s 1992 book, Breaking Through Bureaucracy.  Most, if not all, of the attacks that have been levied from Barzelay on have focused largely on  bureaucrats and the bureaucratic rules they follow as they bog government down and prevent it from getting necessary things done.

The problem is that these broad attacks on bureaucrats and rules often lead to contradictions in the arguments put forth by the “government reinventers.”  After all, aside from out-and-out anarchists, most sane people would agree that at least some rules are neccesary to allow our government and society to function with any degree of normalcy.   They also help preserve basic rights for citizens in their dealings with government, through such things as the Freedom of Information Law and the other laws and rules that allow people to sue government when rights are taken away.  “Process” actually doesn’t sound so bad when the word “due” is put in front of it.

Yet, in her enthusiasm for the reinvention ideology, Kamarck makes a number of broad and sometimes unsubstantiated attacks on rules and traditional bureaucracy.  In Chapter 3, she charges, for instance, that inspectors general in the federal govenment support a “rule-based culture” that has “added to (government) waste instead of subtracting from it.”  By way of disclosure, I used to work for the Massachusetts Inspector General’s Office, so it comes as a bit of a painful surprise to learn that I’ve been part of a culture that has added to government waste.

Yet, still continuing her attack, Kamarck goes on a few pages later to praise a federal IG.  She describes a situation in which Clark Ervin Kent, the first IG of the Department of Homeland Security, was removed from his job by the White House after he exposed weaknesses in the nation’s airport security system.  Kent’s investigators had been able to sneak weapons and explosives past screeners at 15 U.S. airports in 2003.  The White House was not happy about Kent’s expose of DHS ineptitude. 

Kamarck argues that Kent was forced out because he had “sought to focus on (governmental) outcomes [which are good things to focus on]  and not process [which is a bad thing to focus on].”  But, in fact, Kent’s investigation of the airport security system really focused on both outcomes and process.  He was forced out because he exposed weaknesses in both. 

 Sure, Kent had uncovered major lapses in governmental outcomes or performance in airport security.  But these lapses were no doubt due, at least in part, to failures in processes and in following rules involving such things as proper training and deployment of security personnel. 

The problem with these types of attacks on rules and bureaucracy is that the logical implication is that if we would only let managers do their thing freely—such as allow airport security managers to ignore written rules and procedures in order to devise their own security innovations—we’d all be safer.   Somehow, I can’t believe Kamarck really believes that.

Kamarck’s reinvention ideology also leads her to praise a move by the Bush administration to exempt the Department of Homeland Security from civil service rules.  She writes:

…when the Bush administration set out to create the Department of Homeland Security it tried to incorporate many of the management flexibilities that are core concepts in reinvented public-sector organizations, including some modest authority to reprogram funds without prior congressional approval and substantial flexibilities in procurement and civil service laws.

What Kamarck doesn’t say here, though, is that while the Bush administration was successful in creating a new personnel system at DHS, it doesn’t appear to have helped the agency’s performance.  Ironically, one of the many failures in that performance has been the continuing inability at DHS to identify counterfeit drivers’ licenses and other forged documents in screening people trying to enter the U.S.  The Governmental Accountability Office, carrying on in Clark Ervin Kent’s tradition, has repeatedly been able to sneak agents with fictitious documents through DHS border security.

Kamarck actually seemed more critical of the supplanting of traditional government bureaucracy by privatization, if not reinvention,  during a discussion on her book at the Kennedy School earlier this week.  Nevertheless, it was disappointing to me that in her chapter on democratic accountability, in particular, Kamarck has largely framed the accountability issue in terms of governmental performance.   She contends that accountability is lessened when government is privatized because no one is adequately measuring performance.   

That is certainly true; but accountability in privatized government is also lessened because, among other things, bugetary and other information is less accessible to the public in privatized functions than in public functions.  As Gilmour and Jensen have pointed out, laws such as the Administrative Procedure Act, which opened the federal bureaucracy to public scrutiny, and the Freedom of Information Act, don’t apply as consistently in privatized situations as they do in purely public transactions.  And those types of things just happen to be process issues.

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