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Category:Bureaucracy

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Understanding
Bureaucracy

Topic Overview

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Modern academic research has debated the extent to which elected officials can control their bureaucratic agents. Because bureaucrats have more information than elected officials about what they are doing and what they should be doing, bureaucrats might have the ability to implement policies or regulations that go against the public interest. This empirical research is motivated by a normative concern: If we wish to believe that we live in a democracy, then it must be true that appointed bureaucrats cannot act contrary to elected officials' interests. (This claim is itself debatable; if we fully trusted elected officials, we would not spend so much time implementing constitutional checks and balances. See Scholz and Wood 1988.)

Theodore Lowi initiated this debate by concluding in a 1979 book that the U.S. Congress does not exercise effective oversight of bureaucratic agencies. Instead, policies are made by "iron trianges," consisting of interest groups, appointed bureaucrats, and Congressional subcommittees (who, according to Lowi, were likely to have more extreme views than the Congress as a whole). (See Lowi's The End of Liberalism.)

In response, scholars have published numerous studies debating the circumstances under which elected officials can control bureaucratic outputs. Most of these studies examine the American case, though their findings have been generalized elsewhere as well (e.g. Ramseyer and Rosenbluth and Huber and Shipan). These studies argue that Congress (and legislatures generally) have a variety of oversight means at their disposal, and they use many of them regularly. These oversight mechanisms have been classified into two types: "Police patrols" (actively auditing agencies and looking for misbehavior) and "fire alarms" (requiring bureaucracies to use public procedures when making regulatory decisions so that adversely affected groups can notify Congress if an agency is acting inappropriately) (see McCubbins and Schwartz).


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