Bureaucracies are generally very good at what they do. Over time, they develop standard operating procedures that allow for the efficient execution of their mandates. While centralized organizational practices prevent specific, nuanced solutions to each problem, they are necessary for effective management of large, sprawling institutions. Eventually, these standard procedures become ingrained within the organization that developed them; they become defining characteristics of an institution. Each bureaucracy works this way, and each organization utilizes different procedures. The DoD is notorious for its use of Powerpoint, for example, while State is renowned for its employment of memos. By creating standard ways of operating, bureaucracies are able to streamline operations, creating a more effective institution. In other words, they rely on economies of learning to create optimal organizational structures and maximize their output. However, this proclivity for creating ossified, defining procedures means that bureaucratic institutions are often slow to change. Indeed, short of an existential crisis, bureaucracies are often unwilling to modify their standard practices at all, preventing effective adaptation and evolution.
Of course, this is not to argue that bureaucracies don’t adapt at all; that would be an incredibly foolish position to take. Instead, it is to say that bureaucratic change is slow and deliberate, but often long-lasting. Indeed, because of path dependency, it is exceedingly difficult to reverse bureaucratic changes once they have begun because the reforms take on a life of their own. As Francis Fukuyama argues in Political Order and Political Decay, “There is an inherent conservatism to human behavior that tends to invest institutions with emotional significance once they are put in place. Anyone who suggests abolishing the British Monarchy, or the American Constitution, or the Japanese emperor and replacing it with something newer and better, faces a huge uphill struggle.” Institutional change is very rare. But when it occurs, it is often permanent.
What does this mean for citizens? After all, we are facing a historic institutional trust deficit in American politics; people largely distrust politicians, legislatures, and government bureaucracies. This is a difficult question to answer because most people have a very poor understanding of how the government works. Indeed, many have a very poor understanding of how generic large-scale institutions work. This recent election alone demonstrates that people view the current government institutions as inept and corrupt. But instead of trying to reform the existing institutions, many voters seem to want to demolish them outright. This is a naive and dangerous view because it both ignores the power of entrenched bureaucracies and also fails to provide a coherent long-term strategy for replacing the existing system. In a country as large as the United States, there will always need to be large scale institutions to manage, regulate, and run the country. “Cutting red tape” is certainly possible, but nobody will ever be able to remove most of the tape. If anyone ever did, the United States would fall into anarchy. Instead of eliminating institutions and bureaucracies outright, voters and politicians need to develop new ways to force innovation and adaptation. Perhaps mandatory technocratic commissions with the power to issue binding recommendations would do the trick, I’m really not sure. What I do know is that vague Trump-like platitudes with no specificity and generic, sweeping remarks about the venality of government are utterly insufficient. Leaders can’t just fiat the elimination of waste and abuse, and they certainly cannot personally control and oversee every institution. Bureaucracies have power and influence of their own, and they certainly won’t willingly cede power and influence if they don’t have to. As voters, therefore, we have to hold leaders accountable; they have to provide specific, nuanced recommendations for reforms that create more efficient adaptation while still recognizing the power and durability of institutions.
We also have to better understand how adaptation occurs. As Drezner points out in Theories of International Politics and Zombies (Revived Edition), “There is a tragic irony… Government agencies would have the most autonomy when they are most likely to make bad decisions. By the time these bureaucracies adapted to new… exigencies, they would face political hurdles that could hamper their performance.” In other words, the onset of a crisis, when people are most afraid and most willing to give the government whatever it needs to respond, is the period in which bureaucracies are the least prepared and the most likely to make mistakes. As these mistakes pile up, people begin to push back against the bureaucratic incompetence, slashing budgets and demanding leaders’ resignations. However, public push-back occurs just as bureaucracies are adapting and learning to better respond to the crisis, and they are starved of resources and personnel just when they have learned how to use them most efficiently. It is indeed a tragic irony. Thus, as informed voters, it is our duty to hold government accountable in the wake of a crisis, for this is when the government is most likely to make mistakes and squander money and resources. Conversely, we should not blame current institutions for the mistakes of the past; to do so would be to ignore the adaptation and learning that has occurred through practice.
Large institutions like the federal government will never be perfectly efficient. They are hugely complex organizations that have significant inertia and are slow to adapt. However, they are also not willfully incompetent, and the bureaucrats and civil servants who comprise these institutions really do try their best to make the country a better place. Instead of lambasting inefficiencies, we need to understand and appreciate the complexity involved in running such large institutions and demand specific reforms and oversight. We also need to recognize bureaucracies’ strengths and weaknesses and try to maximize their strengths – doing predictable, repetitive tasks very well – while minimizing their weaknesses – adapting very slowly and inefficiently. Ted Cruz-like claims to slice through the bureaucracy might sound appealing, but these promises are unrealistic and largely counter-productive. The institutions that make up our country are complex and nuanced; we need to start treating them as such.