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Depictions of bureaucracies as inefficient and even inhuman systems of management are familiar to all. And yet the federal bureaucracy is responsible for delivering many goods and services that we take for granted, from Social Security to the postal service. In this sense, bureaucracy, whatever its faults, is “an essential part of any modern democratic state.” 

So argues Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, who joins us for the fifth episode of “The Future of the Administrative State” podcast. “We may think poorly of bureaucrats, but the fact of the matter is that if you suddenly fired everybody, there would be an awful lot of things that Americans value that wouldn’t happen.” That does not mean bureaucracies always work, and Kamarck understands better than most how and why the administrative state must be reformed. 

Kamarck served in the White House from 1993 to 1997, where she helped create the National Performance Review, an interagency task force aimed at reforming the federal government. The project, which originated with Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to “reinvent government,” cut costs and regulations, shrunk the size of the federal workforce, and “brought the federal bureaucracy into the information age” by putting government services online. According to Kamarck, the Clinton administration jumpstarted a process of government reform that we must take up and reinvigorate today. 

At the most general level, bureaucracy is “the means by which a government executes policy.” At its dawn in the early 20th century, it was seen as a way to rationalize and professionalize government, prizing efficiency and merit over favoritism. In this sense, Kamarck explains, the “impersonal one-size-fits-all administrative state was actually an improvement” over what came before. But “as we neared…the end of the 20th century,” when “technology was allowing us to cater more to individual needs,” “the standardization that made bureaucracy so important and so useful became irritating to many people.” Thus bureaucracy, once the paradigm of scientific efficiency and professionalism, began to look outmoded and sclerotic. At the same time, the tasks we assign to the administrative state have multiplied, causing a widening gap between what we demand of bureaucracy and what we expect of it.

The solution, Kamarck thinks, is not to abandon the administrative state but to reform it.

First, Kamarck argues, we must reform the civil service by making it easier to hire and fire employees. “Sometimes the reason it’s hard to hire is legitimate,” Kamarck concedes, but “sometimes it’s just a bureaucratic nightmare.” Such difficulties encourage an overreliance on private-sector contractors. 

Second, Kamarck notes, technology has changed the nature of work, inside and outside government, but our agencies have not kept up. “In the mid-20th century…we didn’t have computers” and so “we needed lots and lots of people and lots and lots of paper” to carry out government functions that have since been “automated.” And yet, while “the federal government has stopped being a government of clerks,” “we still have a…clerk mindset,” with pay caps for civil servants that make it difficult for the government to attract top talent from the private sector. Changing that is not likely to be popular, Kamarck concedes, but “when you don’t let your pay structure compete with the private sector, you’re going to always be behind the eight ball.” 

Kamarck’s suggested reforms do not end with the executive branch. She also thinks we need more and better congressional oversight. “Congress has basically stopped” overseeing administrative agencies in recent decades, nowadays practicing what political scientists call “emergency” rather than “police patrol” oversight. “Almost all the oversight you see now” occurs only when there is “an emergency,” when “something has gone terribly wrong” as in the 2014 Veterans Health Administration scandal. 

A common argument against such robust oversight is that Congress simply does not have the means or expertise needed to do it. But Kamarck points out that this was not always the case. If “Congress doesn’t have any capacity” today that’s because it “keeps cutting the very agencies that would support it and allow it to have the expertise to do oversight.” She praises Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) as one of the few lawmakers who recognizes this problem. 

Ultimately, Kamarck argues, reforming the administrative state requires clarifying what governmental functions are. What should the federal government — as opposed to state and local governments or the private sector — be doing or not doing in the first place? “Nobody has actually sat down and said ‘Here are the things the government should not be involved in.’” According to Kamarck, the Clinton administration “took the low-hanging fruit when it came to government efficiency because we were operating at the dawn of the Internet.” To be sure, “you can always make improvements” in efficiency, “but you’re talking…maybe if you’re lucky a 5 percent efficiency improvement.” The task for reformers today is both more urgent and more challenging: 

If you want to really cut the federal government, you…have to decide it should stop doing x, y, and z. And that is not a discussion conservatives have realistically had. They don’t, frankly, have the political guts to do it. They talk about it in the abstract, but they don’t have the guts to do it in the particular. And, until that happens…we’re going to have the same size government we’ve had. 

If that’s not a call for bipartisan reform of the administrative state, I don’t know what is.

 M. Anthony Mills is editor of RealClearPolicy.

Photo: Andrea Booher (Wikimedia Commons)

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