Bureaucracy Is Not a Dirty Word

Amit Magdieli on Bureaucracy

The midterm elections have come and gone, leaving a changing political environment. Even when the political landscape changes, the various bureaus of the government remain. Until 40-50 years ago, the bureaucracy was viewed positively. With public initiatives such as The New Deal, the works of various bureaus made the mission clear – serving America to better life for its people. In our system of checks and balances, government was arranged this way to combat political patronage and partisan activities, and to prevent rogue employees within the government from acting independently or inconsistently against the mission and values within the bureau. It was purposely designed to be a system where the rules and regulations were more powerful than any one person in the system.

What Is the Definition of Bureaucracy?

Now however, the definition of bureaucracy has changed. Many people see bureaucracy as a dirty word, as another name for bloat and gridlock.

How did we get here, and what can we do to change that perception for the better? Even as a more conservative Congress prepares to take hold, can we find common ground to allow our agencies to run effectively?

People working in our government are committed to helping their agencies succeed, and are often there because they want to make a difference. From my experience at the Department of Labor and other agencies, most people work within the government because of their commitment to the agency mission to help people, serve this country, and make a positive difference, often turning down higher paying jobs in the private sector. A recent government study shows that government employees make 30% less than their private counterparts, and put in longer hours.

How to Overcome Challenges

The challenge is that in government, you are serving 310 million customers while reporting to multiple stakeholders. Many of these stakeholders have conflicting priorities, whether because of the varied priorities of their customers, their immediate supervisor chain, political appointees, Congress, or special interest groups. Scrutiny and direction can come from all of these directions. These various stakeholders often try to point fingers at different government entities when the agency mission differs from the mindset within this interested party. This finger pointing has left a perceived public image of a bloated and ineffective bureaucracy. Congress can be an asset or a hindrance to the effectiveness and efficiency of our bureaucracy.

So, how do we find that common ground, and make Congress a champion of the Bureaucracy, rather than an opponent? Too often, leaders in both parties have passed or held up nominations for appointments, or have struggled to approve budgets for our government to effectively function. To do this, we need to reimagine the makeup of our Bureaucracy. We can model off of what works well in the business world to help create a more effective model. Each agency needs to be looked at as its own corporation, with the head of the department being a CEO, and Congress as the Board of Directors. While oversight is an important part of their job, just as significant is that Congress takes ownership of the success of the administration in an advisory role, rather than focusing on the “gotcha” moments.

The midterm elections are bringing in a more conservative Congress that will recognize the importance of fiscal responsibility. They should assist the various departments by aligning budget committees to interagency initiatives with a goal of reducing duplicative spending practices. Another responsibility of Congress should be to pass a complete and full budget on time. When delays occur, and the government needs to be shutdown because a budget was not approved, the waste of time and monetary resources can have far-ranging effects.

Congress needs to not view themselves from the outside peering in, but as leaders sitting on top of the complex business of government. Both parties campaigned strongly this year on coming to Washington and cleaning it up, eliminating waste, and championing themselves as the “outsiders” who would change things for the better. As of January, those elected “outsiders” officially become insiders. Only taking a responsible leadership role will create the change that any Member of Congress envisions. Instead of trying to eliminate government agencies across the board, focus more on improving how they function and serve the people.   To paraphrase a popular quote on democracy – bureaucracy is not a perfect form of government, but it’s better than many of the alternatives out there.

About Amit Magdieli

AmitwebAmit Magdieli is an expert in government management and efficiency. After successful stints in the private sector with PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM, Amit followed his passion to pursue a public service career. Known as a top-notch problem solver, he has held various management positions within the federal government. He is also an adjunct professor at Syracuse University