Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 17 January 2020

A Heritage Made Our Own

Abstract and Keywords

This article outlines the book, which provides a portrait of what the American bureaucracy research terrain looked like at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and why it looked the way it did. This article specifically discusses: history of American bureaucracy; bureaucratic rationality; bureaucracy's boundaries; politics, responsiveness, and accountability in American bureaucracy; and its constitutional, resource, and ethical foundations. The second part of this text addresses some of what has passed as conventional wisdom related to the macrodynamics of bureaucracy that Max Weber embraced. The third part revisits the antinomies of Weber's rationality project. Next, the article describes how the single-organizational legacy of Weber's insights is now further exacerbated by the emergence of new governance models. The next part covers the longer-term deleterious consequences of bureaucracy for democracy that Weber anticipated and dreaded. Lastly, the interstices of Weber's lonely organization are shown.

Keywords: American bureaucracy, Max Weber, bureaucratic rationality, politics, macrodynamics, governance, democracy

The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth once wrote, “The world is too much with us.” In penning those words, he indicated his discomfiture with how the “modern” world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was persistently and negatively intruding into the lives of his contemporaries and distorting their visions of reality and what mattered most in life. Paradoxically lost in the advances of knowledge touted by Enlightenment Realists, Romanticists felt, was a true connection with the reality of emotions, intuition, imagination, and heroism that were the essence of life. Faith in reason over experience—in the observed over the unobservable—certainly demystified, disenchanted, and secularized modern minds. By the end of the nineteenth century, it also was limiting definitions of what knowledge was, how it was acquired, and what constituted appropriate grist for debates and choices—political, social, economic, administrative, and technological—that the political science profession in the latter half of the twentieth century would portray as contests over who gets what, when, and why.

As the chapters in this Oxford Handbook of American Bureaucracy make abundantly clear to readers, this debate is not over. It rages on today in research studying American bureaucracy in political science, public administration, public management, American political development (APD), history, sociology, and public policy. None of this should be surprising to readers. Part and parcel of the legacy of Enlightenment scientific rationalism was the bureaucratization of society foretold and lamented by the eminent sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920). What might be surprising, however, is how these debates have taken place over the past three decades across and within these fields, with scholars either unaware of or deliberately ignoring developments in cognate fields (e.g., (p. 4) history) that might inform and advance research in their own. As decision theorists might put it, there is a lot of “parallel” rather than “serial” processing of information in the study of American bureaucracy.

This stovepiping of knowledge continues at the end of the first decade of the twenty‐first century and, in my judgment, constrains the cumulative knowledge building that is necessary to effective practice and theory building in the study of American bureaucracy. Consequently, I felt that if a handbook could be crafted that brought leading scholars together who study American bureaucracy from different perspectives and who could take stock and ponder the future of their areas of expertise, a first step might be taken toward advancing theory and practice. This handbook is the product of that effort.

This handbook will not mend these schisms. However, I hope that awareness and an effort at synthesis (no matter how modest and imperfect) in a single volume might help attenuate these tendencies. Moreover, even if it fails in this endeavor, I hope this collection of essays will at least offer future scholars interested in the study of American bureaucracy a portrait of what the research terrain looked like at the end of the first decade of the twenty‐first century, and why it looked the way it did. As such, and to borrow from Goethe's words in Faust that introduce this handbook, my aim is to leave readers with a sense for three things: (1) the heritage of the study of American bureaucracy; (2) how and why contemporary American scholars have taken that heritage as task, made it their own, and advanced it appreciably; and (3) what some of today's most eminent scholars see as the task remaining for future researchers to truly make it their own.

To help afford readers a link to that heritage, a deeper understanding of why I thought a volume such as this was necessary, and a “compass” as they navigate the following thirty‐two chapters in this handbook, this introduction begins the journey by revisiting the classic insights of Max Weber. Not only is Weber the person with whom the term “bureaucracy” is most often associated in contemporary minds, but his theories of history and bureaucracy embrace the tensions—what he called the “antinomies”—in the ideal model of bureaucracy, in its variants and challenges today, and in the contemporary study of this topic. These continuities notwithstanding, several other of the tensions Weber identified have largely and unfortunately been marginalized or left to other cognate fields and forgotten—leaving discontinuities in any single field. In other cases, debates rage among today's researchers about whether or not these tensions have morphed into qualitatively new or novel antinomies (what might be called “jumps”) because of changes in governance patterns in the U.S. over the past thirty years. Readers might thus think of the chapters in this handbook as reflecting continuities, discontinuities, and disputed “jumps” in the general themes, challenges, and perspectives on bureaucracy offered by Weber at the turn of the twentieth century.

My hope, too, is that placing this collection of essays within the context of the Weberian legacy from the outset will help readers appreciate the historical roots of the five themes that I use to organize the chapters. These five themes were culled from my reading of the essays, but they could just as well have been discerned alone from Weber's theories of history and bureaucracy. Discussed more thoroughly at the (p. 5) end of this introduction, the five themes are: (1) reconceptualizing the history of American bureaucracy; (2) rethinking bureaucratic rationality; (3) redrawing bureaucracy's boundaries; (4) recalibrating politics, responsiveness, and accountability in American bureaucracy; and (5) revitalizing its constitutional, resource, and ethical foundations.

Max Weber, the “Rationality Project,” and the Study of American Bureaucracy

Aspects of the work of Max Weber are certainly familiar to any student of American bureaucracy. Excerpts of Weber find their way into today's “classics” of public administration books or into textbooks, most often listing the components of his “ideal” model of bureaucracy. Contemporary students also may be exposed to Weber's three bases of authority in societies—traditional, charismatic, and legal‐rational—and the inevitable advantages he saw legal‐rational authority having over the other two. Students also may find references to some of the antinomies Weber saw amid bureaucratization—e.g., the advantages of routinization versus the mind‐numbing “iron cage” it afforded for workers, or the advantages of specialization versus the disadvantages of officials becoming dilettantes in the face of an unelected expert bureaucracy. But as the pages of this handbook attest, continuities, discontinuities, and jumps related to a much broader swath of Weber's concerns are—or should be—of contemporary significance to researchers. Thus, the last three decades have seen researchers appreciably advance the empirical study of some of the same issues raised by Weber. At the same time, however, they have also witnessed researchers hindered in trying to address some of these concerns—and ignoring or marginalizing other important ones that he raised—because of schisms that have arisen in the study of American bureaucracy.


Reading this handbook will in many ways be like leafing through Weber's collective works on society, politics, and bureaucracy. Leading scholars of public administration have argued that bureaucracy and democracy are incompatible concepts. For example, Dwight Waldo politely called this incompatibility a dialectical “happening,” one that Louis Gawthrop interpreted more colorfully as a “hell of a train wreck” (1997, 205). For Waldo, democracy and bureaucracy were “counterpolar forces” that gave rise to “hypocrisy.” In his 1977 Royer Lecture at the University of California, Waldo explained that “[h]ypocrisy enters because the ‘dialectic’ between democracy (p. 6) and bureaucracy offers extraordinary opportunities for confusion and self delusion [among bureaucrats] and invites self‐serving opinions…given the human capacity for irrationality and ego‐serving views of the world” (1977, 16). Adds Gawthrop, this hypocrisy is a function of the “manner in which we have twisted democracy to fit the cardinal canons of management, which are embedded deeply in…bureaucratic systems” (1997, 205).

This tension was one that Weber embraced in his work, and it is infused throughout many of the chapters in this handbook. For Weber, however, bureaucracy and democracy were, to continue the metaphor, fellow travelers on a single but similarly ill‐fated train. Put simply, he saw the democratization and bureaucratization of his age—and inevitably of future ages—as mutually supporting. More specifically, he saw existing power and interests getting reified in bureaucratic structures over time. Historian John Patrick Diggins summarizes Weber's pessimistic theories of bureaucracy and history in this way:

Democratization and bureaucracy go hand in hand as each professes the objective execution of authority, while the equalization of opportunity can only be met by the rise of professional administrators. Eventually [however] equitable administration becomes corrupted as the bureaucracy responds to specific interest groups demanding special programs and other advantages. As much as democracy and bureaucracy try to be fair and equitable, a rights‐based political culture pressures government to serve particular constituencies. (1996, 84)

In the end, however, Weber saw bureaucracy triumphing over democracy because of a combination of its own inner tendencies and the technical imperatives of organizations. For Weber, these led inexorably to a power asymmetry favoring bureaucracy and the “castration of charisma.” Reflecting the state of the study of American bureaucracy today, the pages of this handbook will illustrate similar concerns, continuing debates over the extent to which this can occur in the Madisonian system and the antinomies of efforts to attenuate its most pernicious results.

One also finds marbled throughout this volume debates over the applicability, utility, and validity of contemporary economics‐based nomenclature heralded by proponents as theoretical advances in the study of American bureaucracy. The language of transaction costs and principal–agent theory certainly and parsimoniously operationalizes much of what Weber's theories of bureaucracy and history describe. So, too, do such neoclassical economic constructs as moral hazard, information asymmetries, shirking, and bureaucratic and congressional drift replicate Weber's concerns. But critics question if putting new names on longstanding Weberian insights really reflects theoretical advances. Does this application of new terms to old Weberian constructs tell us any more than Weber did a century ago about the causal mechanisms involved? Are we simply engaged in refining Weber's theories to what natural scientists pejoratively call the “sixth decimal” point? In response to these questions, some in this volume will say “yes,” some will remain agnostic, and others will offer a full‐throated “no.”

(p. 7) As the contributions to this volume also illustrate, the rationales of administrative reformers in America over the past two decades (e.g., “reinventing government” and the “new public management”) are not any more novel or provocatively voiced than Weber's. Indeed, they are typically less candid than Weber about their real aim: to advance a public philosophy that reconfigures the relationship between the citizen and the state. Nor can most of the substance and fate of these reforms have been more presciently predicted. As I have written elsewhere (Durant 1995) and will elaborate and extend upon in this volume, most reforms reflect the latest round of “best business practices” in the corporate sector and implicitly embrace control of the bureaucracy. If you do not like the way bureaucrats are exercising their discretion, the solution is more bureaucracy, more astutely applied, and more penuriously funded relative to the mounting responsibilities imposed on them by legislators. Similarly, no one has as yet surpassed Weber in summarizing why the “rationality project” has been persistently pursued by administrative reformers ever since his day, and why that project has provoked a reconsideration of its worth in the Madisonian system.

These extrapolations from Weber's concerns and research methodologies will become vivid to readers. They have prompted, but are not limited to, the social and historical‐institutionalist approaches in political science, the rise of street‐level bureaucracy theory in public administration, and the turn to postmodern critiques and methodologies in public administration. They also are reflected in the perennial jousting on a personal behavioral and evaluative level of Weber's “ethics of conviction” versus his “ethics of responsibility,” and his premise that value and belief systems held by individuals and societies are “chosen” rather than derived from firm principles and “constructed out of a desire for mastery rather than wisdom” (Diggins 1996, 275).

Other theoretical “legacies” of Weber's arguments include theories of path dependency so popular with APD scholars today. In Weber's work, path dependency is witnessed most notably in his view of the ineluctability of bureaucracy triumphing over democracy. On a practical level—and, hence, also of concern to many of the researchers in this handbook—a variety of administrative reform initiatives undertaken in the U.S. directly exemplify Weberian concerns about the downsides of bureaucracy. These include calls over the past three decades to “reengineer” bureaupathologies out of public agencies, to reconnect with and empower citizens and employees, and to push power out of public agencies and into emergent public–private–nonprofit networks while still ensuring accountability. Indeed, the praise for, and alleged efforts to rekindle, an entrepreneurial spirit in American bureaucracy by proponents of the new public management or of proponents of active leadership through cultural change reflects efforts to revivify leaders after the “castration of charisma.” Nor could anything be more Weber‐like methodologically than the emphasis of several contributors to this volume on incorporating long‐term secular trends (e.g., “macrodynamic” trends in democracy, religiosity, and the economy) into the study of American bureaucracy.

One also finds Weberian continuities in the research questions asked by the contributors to this volume. These continuities are seen in their debates over the (p. 8) most profitable ways to study these research questions and the often mixed (one might say, “antinomial”) findings and interpretations they collectively produce on any given subtopic. These tensions are pregnant in research on the advantages and disadvantages of bureaucracy, democracy, markets, cross‐sectoral networking, representative bureaucracy, energy in the executive, accountability, performance measurement, cultural change, stakeholder and citizen participation in agency decision, different bases of employee motivation, and ethical systems in so‐called new governance models.

Also present periodically in this handbook are decidedly Weberian‐focused criticisms of the scientific research enterprise itself. Weber gave great thought to the normative ideal of scholarship, to its epistemology and methodology, and to the role of scholarship in the university in Germany and the United States. He saw teaching and research as critical to emancipating, if you will, workers and society from the “iron cage” of conformity brought by bureaucratization—and the rationality project more generally. Much as Tocqueville saw the law and lawyers as the antidote to the leveling and public‐opinion‐driven conformity to which democracy in America was prone, Weber saw university teaching and scholarship as the antidote to the same leveling tendencies evoked by bureaucratization (Diggins 1996, cf. ch. 6).

In this sense, Weber embraced teaching and research as a vocation—as a veritable “calling” predicated on the principles of “objectivity, free inquiry, and love of truth” (Diggins 1996, 133). Consonant with the behavioralist movement launched in the US decades after his death. Weber sought “verified principles” of behavior that might serve as a check on state power. But he worried that this vocation might get “Americanized” in German universities, to its detriment. Most worrisome to him in this regard was that increasing levels of government funding for research might make professors “servants of the state.” He was no less sanguine about professors participating in government itself. Attending a meeting in Vienna where Socialists and Progressives “sought to staff government with the expertise of social science in order to influence government policy and bring private enterprise under some form of rational control,” Weber responded that “[t]his passion for bureaucratization as we have heard it expressed here is enough to make a man despair!” (Diggins 1996, 79).

In today's vernacular, Weber believed both universities and individual social scientists should “speak truth to power” but not lose their critical perspective by getting coopted through bureaucratization and resource dependency. Prescient in some ways of President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell speech warning of a military‐industrial‐university complex, Weber worried about research in Germany following American universities' tendencies to become “state capitalist” enterprises as they scoured for resources and became bureaucratized themselves. How this might happen was spelled out in his epic lecture, “The Vocation of Science” (1917). Summarizing Weber, Diggins writes:

The technical advantages of modern education will not only mean more bureaucracy and mediocrity due to the “law of cooperation” in faculty and (p. 9) administrative bodies; it also means more democracy and its accompanying of popularity, which produces the opposite tendency, “the most ludicrous sort of competition” as faculties and universities themselves vie for student enrollments. (1996, 145)

Several of the contributors to this handbook (but not the overwhelming majority) implicitly extend this argument to its logical consequences. Specifically, they identify how perverse incentive structures posed by heavily bureaucratized university needs, organizational structures, and funding challenges have riven the study of American bureaucracy into competing and isolated camps (see more below). Emphasized, as a result, is the need to differentiate curricula as a market lure, a trend further reinforcing the atomization of disciplines within universities. Some also point to promotion‐and‐tenure standards that favor short‐term, cross‐sectional, and quantitatively sophisticated research designs and the reinforcement of these tendencies by equally fragmented research journals facing space limitations.


One also sees reflected in this handbook several things that Weber did not, or had no reason to, contemplate in terms of their longer‐term implications for the research enterprise. Three of these discontinuities are especially noteworthy. They involve the impact of American exceptionalism, the bureaucratization of research within the study of American bureaucracy, and the privileging of the present over the past in contemporary research designs informing the study of bureaucracy.

The American Exceptionalist Problematic

Although Weber visited the United States in 1905 for an extended tour and admired the nation in many ways, his theories of bureaucracy and history failed to take seriously what some today call American exceptionalism (Lipset 1996). Weber was certainly aware of Tocqueville's observations in this regard—i.e., that the new republic was attitudinally unique from Europe in ways of signal importance, including religiosity as well as faith in markets, individualism, equality of opportunity rather than outcome, and anti‐statism. But as I noted earlier, Weber saw the “play” ending the same way in all countries, regardless of history, context, or contingencies. More precisely, bureaucracy and its capture by corporate interests always trounced democracy in the end. In the interim, bureaucracy—as well as all politics—ultimately became a battlefield for control of power.

In the U.S., Weber argued, these unpleasantries were well under way by the time of his visit. The Founders' original republican focus on civic virtue and responsibility as the basis for a commonwealth of citizens had shifted to one of “rugged individualism” ever since the Age of Jackson—epitomized by the pursuit of self‐interest. The absorption with status differentials based on property ownership and wealth accumulation were very pronounced by the turn of the century (also see Balogh 2009). (p. 10) Moreover, during the Gilded Age in America (1877–1893), the courts had already opted to treat corporations as “persons” entitled to comparable rights as citizens.

Historian Brian Balogh (2009) puts it best in writing about the significance of this turn of events. In the early American republican tradition, Balogh contends, “service to the Republic disciplined self interest in the cause of the commonweal of all citizens” (24). Nor, Balogh continues, did this commonwealth tradition “acknowledge a distinction between state and civil society or, for that matter, public and private roles for citizens” (24), making “politics foundational” to capitalism (25). As another historian, Bernard Bailyn, argues, however, early republicans “had no illusions about the virtue of ordinary people, and all of them believed in the basic value of personal property, its preservation and the fostering of economic growth” (1992, vi).

By Weber's death in 1920, and continuing through to the present, policy debates over the appropriate reach of American government typically portray the public and private sectors as separate spheres, with the private foundational to the public. Consider, for example, how this framing today drives policy debates over healthcare reform, global warming, and financial market reform—framing that also plays a major role for scholars in this handbook discussing the evolution of reform movements in American bureaucracy. Also typical is portraying the public sphere as the target of needed “discipline” lest the private sector not perform to its inherent potential. No less an authority than Nobel Laureate in economics Herbert Simon (2000) vigorously argued that the reverse is true—but to little apparent avail in the popular consciousness in America. Several of the contributors to this handbook join Simon in making their cases.

More recent historical narratives have argued that the path dependency created by American exceptionalist values—especially the links forged long ago in American minds among capitalism, democracy, and religion in this nation—goes a long way toward accounting for the privileging of market over government‐centered approaches to public problems. Some also argue from this premise that the administrative state and not the networked “neoadministrative state” recently “discovered” by public management theorists is the aberration in American politics (this point will be developed further below in the discussion of networks). Several authors in this handbook attribute this misinterpretation as a bias among researchers for European state‐centered approaches to governance. Historians are only now correcting this bias, but their work has not gained attention from anyone except for APD scholars (who themselves labor within their own stovepipe). Regardless, American exceptionalism—and the values, overlapping institutional authorities, intergovernmental tensions, and joint custody of bureaucracy it produces among Congress, presidents, state and local governments, and the judiciary—is a recurrent theme in this handbook.

The “Bureaucratization” of Research

A second schism reflected in this volume involves the fragmentation of the study of American bureaucracy itself. In Weber's day, of course, the fragmentation of the academy most salient in America was among the disciplines themselves: during the (p. 11) 1880s, the American Historical Association, the American Economics Association, and the American Statistics Association split off from the American Social Science Association. Following suit in 1903 were breakaway scholars creating the American Sociological Society and the American Political Science Association. In a sense, Weber did anticipate some of the critiques mounted in this handbook related to the bureaucratization of universities and its impact on general scholarship itself. But although a logical extension of what he saw happening in the universities of his day, there was no pressing immediacy for Weber to give great attention or worry to the bureaucratization—i.e., the internal fragmentation—of the disciplines housed within universities, let alone of the study of single topics such as bureaucracy.

As students of Weber and his ideal monocratic (or “machine”) model of bureaucracy are well aware, one of its major strengths is its ability to take a problem, break it into smaller and more manageable parts, and assign responsibility for those parts to various units in an organization which have specialized expertise in that domain. Moreover, while the source of contemporary opprobrium, the characteristics or principles of bureaucracy that Weber enunciated in his classic Economy and Society were revolutionary in their intent. These principles include: specialization; departmentation by function; authority in the position rather than in the person; secure tenure in office; and coordination by hierarchy, rules and regulations, and superior–subordinate relationships. But these same characteristics produced what Weber foresaw and what scholars later called “bureaupathologies”—antinomies, if you will, of the advantages of bureaucracy. Moreover, as many of the chapters in this handbook make clear, these bureaupathologies—stovepiping, information hoarding, rigidity, unresponsiveness to turbulent environments—have since fueled (fairly and unfairly) the rhetoric of administrative reform movements in the United States.

One can only imagine the despair Weber would feel in seeing the same or related bureaupathologies—specialization, balkanization, and the stovepiping of knowledge—rampant in the study of American bureaucracy itself. Moreover, in the process of this bureaucratization of the research enterprise, two important “sub‐schisms” have arisen: (1) in disciplinary, subdisciplinary, and subfield antagonisms (as my colleague David Rosenbloom quips, these are disputes over “who's got the bigger rigor?”); and (2) in predispositions to research separately the study of policy, politics, and administration. These are fissures in cumulative knowledge building that will be noticeable to readers of this handbook because of the cross‐referencing and alternative arguments presented within the texts of the chapters.

“Bigger Rigor” Disputes

Writer Mary McCarthy once said of author Lillian Hellman, “Everything she says is a lie, including the ‘the's’ and the ‘and's.’” Fortunately, schisms over “bigger rigor” have not reached this level of contempt—but sometimes the disputants get close. One leading political science colleague who engages in the “scientific study of bureaucracy,” for example, once asked me why he and his colleagues would want to “waste time” reading public administration articles with their atheoretical focus; another public administration leader has asked me the same question about reading (p. 12) political science research based on the scientific study of bureaucracy because the principal–agent models they offer comport so poorly with real life in agencies or the networked governance that is now so popular in the United States. About a decade‐and‐a‐half ago, I also watched a bureaucracy panel I put together for the American Political Science Association deteriorate into a heated donnybrook among luminaries from various stovepiped perspectives. The panel ended with a representative from the new institutional economics labeling the rest of the perspectives “a mess,” while a leading scholar from public administration proposed banning the term “principal–agent theory” from research articles for a decade.

These aspersions aside, a stunning lack of cross‐referencing of authors exists in the literature on American bureaucracy. This is true with the exception of a handful of seminal contributors (e.g., Max Weber, Herbert Simon, and Dwight Waldo) to the study of bureaucracy, as my experience in editing this handbook has further illustrated to me. Relatedly, it is not uncommon to find scholars studying American bureaucracy either unaware of or deliberately ignoring research in cognate fields that might usefully inform their research. This is especially curious, first, because of the historical tendency of “breakthrough” thinking in one field to come from developments imported from another and, second, because of the history in public administration of self‐conscious borrowing from other fields.

Importantly, this “bigger rigor” myopia is avoidable, as a “critical” case narrative illustrates. Several years ago, a panel honoring the lifetime contributions of Richard Fenno to the study of the U.S. Congress was held at an annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Most stunning was that formal modeler theoreticians from the University of Rochester were honoring Fenno for the contributions his decidedly less rigorous “soaking and poking” methodology had made to their deductive theory building. As the formal theorists who hosted Fenno's Festchrift understood, for theory building premised on both explanation and prediction to profitably proceed, both types of research must inform each other. Otherwise, each alone can offer observations akin to the illusory shadows on the walls of Plato's cave rather than the essences of administrative phenomena.

Tendency to Decouple Politics, Policy, and Administrative Research

A second, and related, sub‐schism of the bureaucratization of the research enterprise that is reflected in this handbook involves the fragmentation of the study of politics, public organizations, and public policy over the past three decades. As readers will discern, political scientists have tended to focus overwhelmingly on issues of political control of single bureaucracies without linking their findings to bureaucratic effectiveness, policy agenda setting, or policy success or failure. Historical animosity spawned largely by the behavioral revolution is partly responsible for this situation. In the “divorce” between political science and public administration that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s over behavioralism, political science “got custody” of politics, and hence, its study of bureaucracy tends to focus largely on external politics and to treat public agencies as “black boxes.” Their normative emphasis on top‐down control of bureaucrats—embodied in the emphasis by many political scientists on principal–agent (p. 13) theory—is also dismaying to many of the contributors to this handbook. They view larger—indeed, central—roles for bureaucrats in a democracy—both empirically and normatively. Nor do some see principal–agent theory as robust enough to capture adequately the dynamics of the public–private–nonprofit networks of multiple principals and agents prevalent today in America. Others in the volume, however, see principal–agent theory as the most promising approach to getting all aspects of the study of bureaucracy on a theoretical track.

While this was occurring after the “divorce,” public administration took custody of the “black box” of agency operations and tended to focus on managerial effectiveness. This was done mostly but not exclusively in Wilsonian (1887) terms, meaning a focus on the obstacles posed by external politics and controls. As readers of this volume will also see, public administration scholars have since tended to focus more on the “nuts and bolts” of administration (e.g., public personnel administration), on management issues common to all organizations (e.g., personnel issues), on the impact of administrative reforms such as the new public management on agency operations and democratic values, on representative bureaucracy, and on street‐level bureaucrats in agencies. These are certainly important foci, and researchers have advanced our understanding appreciably in these areas—as this handbook will illustrate. Implicitly taken on good faith, however, is that good management leads to more effective policy. Nor are administrative reforms themselves seen as policies for which the literature on agenda setting, alternative specification, and policy implementation might be useful in accounting for their success, failure, or mixed results.

In turn, the chapters in this handbook reflect how public management scholars—dismayed as they were in the late 1980s that public administration was still too focused on nuts‐and‐bolts management issues unrelated to outcomes or leadership—have developed an impressive literature of their own. They tended early on to focus on assessing bureaucratic processes in single agencies from the perspective of strategic leadership, on differences in public and private management, and on goal ambiguity and its implications for management and program effectiveness. More recently, they have turned to intergovernmental and network analyses, used a range of techniques (e.g., hierarchical modeling) and perspectives (phenomenology and critical theory), and included a range of “black box” variables as important components of analysis. Public management scholars have even more recently offered robust and conceptually refined governance models as ways to organize, coax, and channel more cumulative development of the study of American bureaucracy (Lynn, Heinrich, and Hill 2000; Meier and O'Toole 2006). Still, as scholarship summarized in this volume attests, debates rage over the extent that networks have replaced—or should replace—single agencies as primary units of research analysis. While networks are important, some programs are still carried out largely within single organizations, and the dynamics within single organizations also affect their success or failure. Moreover, agencies in networks remain the only “partner” infused with and exercising the sovereign authority of the state.

At the same time, public policy scholars first began in the 1960s to focus on what they saw as too heavy an emphasis on politics in other fields, and they turned instead (p. 14) to applying microeconomic thinking to discrete public choices. Essentially, they took politics and bureaucracies as constants and turned to pure analysis after fundamental choices had been made elsewhere. Later, their focus expanded to agenda setting, policy implementation, and evaluation. Moreover, some policy scholars have studied the role of bureaucracy as it relates to the policy process. Efforts have been mounted, for example, to link bureaucratic features to agenda setting and alternative specification. Others have noted the importance of epistemic communities of experts that include bureaucrats and their role in advocacy coalitions. Still others have studied the affective dimensions of the relationship between bureaucratic processes and procedures on citizens' sense of self‐efficacy and civic obligations.

Yet these efforts are noteworthy precisely because the larger field has failed to make these links, elaborate or extend them more broadly within given policy areas, or test their validity in domestic, international, and intermestic policy arenas. The study of advocacy coalitions is an exception to this lack of cumulative knowledge building and adjustment of theories over time. But, again, one does not find great incorporation of public administration and public management research in these efforts, nor have these efforts gained much traction in traditional public administration and newer public management research.

Policy analysts also have often variously imposed social constructivist approaches that ignore bureaucratic dynamics, employed top‐down “control” perspectives when studying the vagaries of policy implementation, and used pre‐test/post‐test analyses of program impact. As such, they have tended to focus on explaining differences in the adoption of programs and their impact on social problems, but with scant attention to what actually happens in the “black box” of agency operations to affect those “constructions” or the outcomes produced. Moreover, when they do consider bureaucratic factors, they often add quantitative variables that are only blunt surrogates for complex bureaupolitical dynamics (e.g., size of budgets, salaries for teachers, numbers of employees). Also, because of a lack of consistently collected data in most agencies, policy analysts often join their political science and public management colleagues in “concept stretching”: they are forced to offer measures that are not nuanced enough or collected over sufficient periods of time to identify the true causal mechanisms at work as politics, bureaucracies, and public policies interact.

Discounting the Past

A third schism in the study of American bureaucracy that produces discontinuity results inadvertently from the ascendency of the behavioralist paradigm in research designs: the diminution of historical memory. The contributions of behavioralism to the study of American bureaucracy are prodigious, diverse, and important, as the chapters in this handbook attest. In making these advances, however, behavioralist researchers have tended to focus on proximate (i.e., immediate) causes and effects. In the process, the study of long‐term, slow‐moving secular forces (e.g., demographics, partisan dealignment, and surges and declines in religiosity) as explanatory factors has dwindled in ways that would likely shock Weber. Likewise, and with the notable (p. 15) exception of students of APD, interest in studying “big questions” that are time‐consuming and require huge, typically nonexistent statistical databases has waned. Thus, for some in this handbook, Weber's critique of scholarship that “confused technique with knowledge, mistaking specialization for cultivation, methodological procedure for moral development” (Diggins 1996, 151) resonates powerfully.

The prevalence of cross‐sectional—and even shorter‐term longitudinal—analyses is less a problem when the aims of researchers are discerning relationships and making predictions. They become decidedly more problematic, however, when the aim is explanation. As historical institutionalists are fond of saying, institutions, politics, and policies chase each other through time—sometimes as causes (independent variables), sometimes as consequences (dependent variables), and then back again. Moreover, logical positivists do not see the world as a “very small number of causal mechanisms and processes recur[ring] throughout the whole range of collective [behavior studied]—with different initial conditions, combinations, and sequences producing systematic variation from time to time and setting to setting” (Tilly 2003, xi). Instead, they employ a “billiard ball” model of causality for human and organizational behavior that is borrowed from the natural sciences and imposed on human behavior—and, then, with a limited number of interaction factors, data points, and years of analysis.

Interpretation of causality can thus easily go awry. Researchers using cross‐sectional data with few interaction factors, for example, may attribute the ability to keep certain policy alternatives off the agenda to the relative power advantage of existing interest groups. While this might be true, and interest group power an appropriate “independent” variable explaining causality at a single point in time, it is only part of the explanation for the absence of alternatives on an institutional policy agenda. It is equally important to treat interest group power as a “dependent” variable, asking how and why those interest groups gained this advantage. Thus, attributing blocking power to interest groups alone may be insufficient or even erroneous; the real reason could rest in choices made in decades past about structures, policies, and procedures that permanently marginalized or empowered certain agenda options or interest groups.

Regardless, marginalization of history began producing major backlashes in political science in the 1990s, in particular the “perestroika” movement. This movement has certainly not displaced the ascendency of economic perspectives in that field. However, as the incorporation of APD perspectives in this volume illustrates, it has certainly made important inroads in hegemony and requires students of American bureaucracy to rethink some of what they thought they knew. Moreover, in “bringing the state back in” to the study of APD as an important independent actor (Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985), historical institutionalists have rekindled the Weberian intellectual project. Yet, again, this research has not typically made its way into mainstream public administration, public management, or policy research—and vice versa. Indeed, as Alasdair Roberts (2009) has recently written, public administration essentially abandoned the focus on Weberian “macrodynamic analysis” in the 1950s. Ever since, both public administration and public management (p. 16) have moved increasingly toward more sophisticated statistical analyses in their leading journals, reinforcing the incentive structures for junior researchers to focus on shorter rather than longer time spans in their analyses. In the process, the diminution of historical memory in those fields is palpable—and occasionally illustrated in cross‐references in this volume.


In explaining the growth of the administrative state during the first half of the twentieth century, public administration scholar John Gaus (1947) wrote of demands for government redress animated by six primary factors in the “ecology” of public administration. These were changes in people (e.g., rising levels of southern European immigrants), place (rural‐to‐urban or Frostbelt‐to‐Sunbelt migrations), physical technology (e.g., communication technology such as telephones and radio), social technology (e.g., the corporation, international trade agreements, and the professionalization of the military), and philosophy (rural conservative to urban liberal)—plus crises (World War I and II, the Financial Panic of 1893, and the Depression). Together, various combinations of these wrought what some analysts in this handbook see (either retrospectively or prospectively) as three qualitative changes—or “jumps”—in the nature of the state in America, what others see as more mixed and less pronounced changes, and what still others see as more of a return to traditional models of American governance.

The Rise of the Administrative State

During his lifetime, Weber's Germany experienced changes in its ecology much like those of the U.S., changes that led it long before the U.S. toward an activist or positive state philosophy. In that philosophy, government is seen as a countervailing force to concentrations of wealth, power, and privilege. Government—and the administrative apparatus necessary for its operations—serves as the promoter, provider, and guarantor of essential goods, services, and opportunities that citizens overwhelmed by impersonal social, economic, and technological forces need.

In the immediate two decades after Weber's death in 1920, the Depression, a revivified and militaristic Germany, and World War II represented three crises prompting major new responsibilities for governments in America. First came Roosevelt's New Deal “alphabet soup” of agencies and programs. These were joined over the next four decades by Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon's ratification and expansion of the state to meet problems caused by changes in people, place, and technology (e.g., civil rights, the G.I. bill for veterans of World War II, gender discrimination, and environmental regulation).

As Weber would have predicted, these efforts came packaged in a “rationality project” dominated by the growth of bureaucracy in Washington, animated often by interest groups, and stimulated in states and localities by intergovernmental (p. 17) compacts and policy tools (e.g., grants) wielded as levers by Washington agencies to advance national policy goals. Produced in the process was a qualitative shift in the size, scope, and power of what became known in the United States as “the administrative state” (Waldo 1948). Created by that “jump” was a bureaucratic apparatus composed of experts delegated authority by the Congress to exercise discretion on its behalf—authority as unelected bureaucrats, that is, effectively to legislate, execute, and adjudicate on behalf of the nation (Rosenbloom 1983, 2000).

As readers will see, some contributors to this volume contend that the intergovernmental lattice for these efforts and upon which activist governments in the U.S. expanded originated in the earlier Progressive Era. But regardless of its origins, the administrative state championed broad grants of discretion to functionally organized agencies, staffed by experts, and held accountable for their actions by Congress through what Emmett Redford (1969) termed “overhead democracy.” These involved ex ante accountability mechanisms such as budget appropriations, the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, and reorganization authorities, as well as ex post controls such as congressional hearings, judicial review of agency rulemaking, and audits. Delegation of authority and overhead democracy, in turn, set the stage for the bureaucracy to become a battleground for control between presidents and congresses, with the judiciary as arbitrator of disputes. These overhead controls are referenced throughout this handbook as efforts to “presidentialize” the bureaucracy, to “stack the deck” by Congress, and to “judicialize” the bureaucracy, and they have spawned vast amounts of research assessing their logic, tactics, and efficacy.

Toward a Hollow, Neoadministrative, or Renewed Administrative State?

As Weber also would have predicted, the bureaupathologies of those efforts—real, imagined, and contrived—soon brought them within the crosshairs of both proponents and opponents of the positive state philosophy. The former—exemplified by proponents of the Clinton administration's “reinventing government” initiative in the 1990s—proposed mending, not ending, the administrative state. The latter—exemplified by the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations—worked actively to “starve the beast” in terms of resources and capacity in domestic policy areas that they did not support but to invest in areas that they did.

To still other critics, however, the appearance of shrinking the administrative state was less ideological during the 1980s and early 1990s than politically and administratively pragmatic. Elected leaders, for example, were called on to assume new obligations while cutting taxes and to do so without increasing the visible size of government. Meanwhile, another set of pragmatists with a decidedly more activist policy agenda than their conservative colleagues were coming to many of the same conclusions about the necessity of a multi‐sectored vision of public service. Ascendent, they argued, were a host of “wicked” policy problems such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, terrorism, urban runoff, public health threats, and global (p. 18) warming. These are issues where no accepted definition of the problem exists and where one problem is interrelated with others. Consequently, they are said to require cross‐disciplinary, cross‐jurisdictional, interorganizational, and cross‐sectoral efforts to address (Rittel and Webber 1973). But traits required to do these things are hardly ones for which public agencies are well known; bureaucracies are designed for predictability and procedural fairness, not for flexibility, participation, and innovation.

These and other concerns were preceded in earlier decades by calls from political science and public administration scholars to reform public agencies in ways that would revive democratic constitutional values in agency policymaking. For example, Theodore Lowi (1969) argued for the limitation of congressional delegation to agencies absent clear standards set by Congress (juridical democracy). Redford (1969) called for greater sensitivity for understanding the moral dimensions of agency decision making (democratic morality). George Frederickson (1971) called for abandoning technocratic rationales favoring efficiency and economy in favor of the primacy of social equity as a value animating agency policymaking. And Vincent Ostrom (1973) urged abandoning public administration's embrace of centralized government and the principles of administration as ill‐suited to the U.S. Constitution's focus on decentralized policymaking.

By the 1980s and 1990s, however, they were joined by economists who no longer portrayed public agencies and the public servants in them as the solution to market failures. Markets were now portrayed as the solution to government failures. The public interest was best served, politicians argued, by lowering expectations about what government agencies could do, by cutting back on the number of agencies that had to cooperate to get something done, and by eliminating as much direct delivery of services by public agencies as possible. Government as countervailing force was out; private–public partnerships were in. Further turning the New Deal and Great Society's logic on its head, part of the solution was decentralizing authority outside Washington and within agencies, defunding and cutting the number of professionals in the progressive domestic agencies and programs that remained, and placing greater numbers of political appointees in those that remained to supervise the career bureaucracy.

This does not mean that the administrative state as we knew it has disappeared, supplanted totally by a “hollow,” networked, or “neoadministrative state.” As students of comparative state building might say, the transition from the administrative to the neoadministrative state to date is “halting, halfway, and patchworked” (Skowronek 1982). Indeed, this is partially why some in this handbook will argue that claims of a hollow government are accurate, others will see it as overdrawn, and still others will contest whether “governance” has replaced—or should replace—“government” as a central organizing framework for the study of American bureaucracy today.

Regardless, this qualitative jump is underway, and it means that doing network‐oriented tasks (e.g., marshaling partners to address public problems, issuing and overseeing contracts and grants, and using what are called performance partnerships) is quite difficult. This is especially the case because it must be done against the (p. 19) “shadow of hierarchy” that is the linchpin of the remaining administrative state, a linchpin with rules, regulations, and incentive structures that can complicate if not stymie partnering altogether. All of which raises to a more acute level the questions raised over a century ago by Weber, and dealt with repeatedly in this handbook, regarding how to assure accountability, cooperation, coordination, and ethical behavior in networks.

A Weberian Model Redux?

At this writing, some have speculated that a combination of the financial crises and scandals of 2008 to 2009, combined with the Obama administration's ambitious plans to reform programs now accounting for one‐third of America's gross domestic product, will return the administrative state to prominence. Early rhetoric from the administration in some ways suggested that such is its intent: to reign in contracting (especially no‐bid contracts), “contract‐back‐in” (Chen 2009) tasks that were really core government functions, and impose massive regulatory responsibilities for managing healthcare, greening the U.S. economy, and avoiding a recurrence of the decade's financial woes.

At the same time, the White House seems bent on “presidentializing” the bureaucracy. The administration has done so in some ways reminiscent of, and others even more expansionary than, its predecessors. For example, the creation of nearly two dozen policy czars in the White House reflects the realities of trying to cope with or coordinate stovepiped and insulated bureaucracies constructed piecemeal by various congresses to diminish presidential control. But it also reflects an expansion of the centralization of policymaking within the White House that has increasingly consumed presidents and their staffs during the modern era of the presidency.

As several of the authors in this handbook argue, it is too early to tell if a resurgence of the administrative state will or will not occur. In effect, it is not clear whether recent and future changes in people (e.g., an aging population), place (e.g., immigration), physical technology (e.g., information technology), social technology (e.g., social networking), philosophy (e.g., fiscal profligacy), and crises (e.g., the national debt) will spur or preclude this revival. Explicitly or implicitly, most see the continuation of the turn to networked governance as an aberration, some see it as exaggerated to begin with, and still others see it as a return to pre‐New Deal American normalcy. Only time will tell.

Weber certainly would be familiar, and indeed comfortable, with these antinomies or tensions. He spent his professional life holding them in his supple mind, integrating them, and prognosticating from them into the future in his enduring theories of bureaucracy and history. For him, the vocation of the scholar was to address dispassionately what Leo Tolstoy once called the only important question: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” For Weber, the answer to the first half of that question was to be discerned empirically, while the latter half would take care of itself once the former was pursued in earnest. The contributors to this volume—as well as the scholars they reference—have taken up Weber's heritage as their task and made it their own in disparate, sometimes contentious, but important ways. Borrowing again (p. 20) from Goethe's Faust, they have taken Weber's heritage, created their own from it, and passed it on for others to take as their task and make a heritage of their own.

What Follows

Readers will ultimately have to judge the merits of the legacy, methods, and arguments bequeathed by the prodigious amount of research on American bureaucracy summarized in this handbook. The chapters in Part II variously urge readers to rethink and pursue additional research to understand better some of what has passed as conventional wisdom related to the macrodynamics of bureaucracy that Weber embraced. These include the nature of the American state, the approach presidents have taken to coordinate it, the role of women in shaping it, the forces driving administrative reform, and the methods we have used to study these topics. Chapters in Part III then invite readers to revisit the antinomies of Weber's rationality project, suggesting that they “rethink” conventional understandings of the premises, logic, techniques, forces, and levers of rationality in public agencies—as well as how to advance their study and become more theoretical in the process.

The chapters in Part IV next urge readers to understand simultaneously how the single‐organizational legacy of Weber's insights—and the antinomies and bureaupathologies that focus revealed—are now further exacerbated by the emergence of new governance models. Each of the contributors identifies how these arrangements compound—or are compounded by—Weber's bureaupathologies. Several of the chapters also offer new methodological approaches to the study of these dynamics and support for the idea that networks are not so much new as they are a return to America's traditional anti‐statist roots in American exceptionalism.

The chapters in Part V turn readers' attention to the longer‐term deleterious consequences of bureaucracy for democracy that Weber anticipated and dreaded. The contributors variously confirm how tendencies toward centralization of power, routinization, and control are produced, as well as how they are addressed and attenuated to a degree by the institutional framework of the Madisonian system. Critiqued in the process, however, are the top‐down perspectives often taken in research on these topics, the failure too often to appreciate empirically and normatively the vital role that bureaucrats play in policymaking, and the empirical and choice‐theoretic base upon which perceptions of the role of actors in agency rulemaking are discerned.

The chapters in Part VI return readers to the interstices of Weber's lonely organization. Each of the contributors reminds readers in various ways about the still protean role that individual organizations play in helping to run a constitution in the twenty‐first century (Rohr 1986). The contributors also urge readers to study the various ways that laws, organizational incentive structures, fiscal profligacy, (p. 21) demographic trends, and the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of agencies affect the capabilities of public agencies. Some eschew networks as a new ordering principle for the study of American bureaucracy by re‐invoking the constitutional role that public agencies play. Others talk of new governance models not only compounding Weber's fear that corporate and self‐interest would override the virtues of bureaucracy and democracy but also requiring new ethical schemas for its participants.

The Roman playwright, Plautus, wrote in 190 bc, “One eyewitness is worth more than ten who tell you what they have heard.” As an editor of a volume of this scope, I might reverse that order in this case. Being only one eyewitness to the study of American bureaucracy, my lens in organizing the themes of this handbook may have left out important ones that are readily apparent to readers. By assembling some of the leading “witnesses” to the evolution of this field who tell readers “what they have heard” and helped develop in their areas of expertise, I hope this problem has been attenuated. Moreover, if doing so helps to reduce in the future some of the fragmentation that has plagued the study of American bureaucracy in the past, editing this handbook will have been worthwhile.


Bailyn, B. 1992. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enlarged edn. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.Find this resource:

Balogh, B. 2009. A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth‐Century America. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Chen, C.‐A. 2009. Antecedents of Contracting‐Back‐In: A View Beyond the Academic Paradigm. Administration & Society, 41/1: 101–26.Find this resource:

Diggins, J. P. 1996. Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Durant, R. F. 1995. The Democratic Deficit in America. Political Science Quarterly, 110/1: 25–47.Find this resource:

Evans, P. B., Rueschemeyer, D., and Skocpol, T. (eds.) 1985. Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Frederickson, H. G. 1971. Organization Theory and New Public Administration. In Toward a New Public Administration: The Minnowbrook Perspective, ed. F. Marini. Scranton, PA: Chandler Press.Find this resource:

Gaus, J. M. 1947. Reflections on Public Administration. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

Gawthrop, L. C. 1997. Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Hypocrisy Redux: A Search for Sympathy and Compassion. Public Administration Review, 57/3: 205–10.Find this resource:

Lipset, S. M. 1996. American Exceptionalism: A Double‐Edged Sword. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.Find this resource:

Lowi, T. J. 1969. The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (p. 22) Find this resource:

Lynn, L. E., Jr., Heinrich, C. J., and Hill, C. J. 2000. Studying Governance and Public Management: Challenges and Prospects. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 10/2: 233–62.Find this resource:

Meier, K. J., and O'Toole, L. J., Jr. 2006. Bureaucracy in a Democratic State: A Governance Perspective. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Find this resource:

Ostrom, V. 1973. The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

Redford, E. S. 1969. Democracy in the Administrative State. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Rittel, H. W. J., and Webber, M. M. 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4 (June): 155–69.Find this resource:

Roberts, A. 2009. The Path Not Taken: Leonard White and the Macrodynamics of Administrative Development. Public Administration Review, 69/4: 764–75.Find this resource:

Rohr, J. 1986. To Run a Constitution: The Legitimacy of the Administrative State. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.Find this resource:

Rosenbloom, D. H. 1983. Public Administrative Theory and the Separation of Powers. Public Administration Review, 43/3: 219–27.Find this resource:

—— 2000. Building a Legislative‐Centered Public Administration: Congress and the Administrative State, 1946–1999. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

Simon, H. 2000. Public Administration in Today's World of Organizations and Markets. PS: Political Science & Politics, 33/4: 749–56.Find this resource:

Skowronek, S. 1982. Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Tilly, C. 2003. The Politics of Collective Violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Waldo, D. 1948. The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration. New York: Ronald Press.Find this resource:

—— 1977. Bureaucracy, Democracy, and Hypocrisy. A Royer Lecture, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley.Find this resource:

Wilson, W. 1887. The Study of Administration. Political Science Quarterly, 2/2: 197–222.Find this resource: