Printer Friendly

Bureaucratic responsibility.

Bureaucratic Responsibility.

JohnP. Burke, Johns Hopkins University Press, $23.50.

Democracy calls forresponsiveness to the public will through elected officials. Bureaucratic organization, designed for order and stability, contains, by its nature, an element of self-aggrandizement, an appetite for independent power, and a stubborn resistance to external--that is, political --control. These two concepts are in frequent conflict so the problem is how to make bureaucracy the servant of democracy. Burke, who teaches political science at the University of Vermont, is not the first person to noodle this one around.

One school of thought, which includedWoodrow Wilson among others, holds that bureaucracy functions best on a tight leash-- when it rigidly follows the procedures laid down from on high, including strict adherence to the chain of command. There is no room for individual bureaucrats to make their own interpretation of how to carry out the intent of the lawmakers, and any independent actions they take are usurpations of authority.

A school newer to the scene,though its roots go back to Jefferson, stands for a more informal and decentralized approach where the bureaucracy interacts with activist citizen groups; this view of "participatory' democracy extends to the bureaucrat or administrator a degree of political latitude in accommodating the interests of competing groups.

Burke winds his way between thetwo schools. "A firm allegiance to democratic politics,' he writes, "is a necessary part of a properly defined understanding of bureaucratic responsibility, but so, too, is recognition of the active contributions to the policy process an individual official can make. In the absence of such recognition, public policy suffers. . . .' Burke suggests that the bureaucrat has a responsibility not only to his own chain of command but to the larger political enterprise; he has a responsibility to react to the failure of those higher in the bureaucracy, and even to the failure of political leaders, as, for example, when legislation is too vague or sets conflicting objectives for the bureaucracy to perform.

Having tackled the question of abureaucrat's responsibility to his superiors versus his obligations to the public, Burke cannot avoid the troublesome matters of leaks and lies. After wrestling with the question of whether a bureaucrat is justified when, in defiance of superiors, he leaks to the press stories that may embarrass his agency, Burke concludes that he is justified if by so doing he enhances the democratic process. How's that, again? What leaker of information does not maintain--indeed believe --that his object is to get the facts to the public, thereby enhancing the democratic process?

As an example of justifiable lying,Burke cites President Eisenhower's denial to the Russians that the famous U-2 was a spy plane and contends that the lie had "minimal effects on the democratic process.' Perhaps. But, in any case, Eisenhower was not a bureaucrat but an elected official subject to the judgment of the electorate. It would be hard to find any circumstance in which tolerance of lying by the bureaucracy has done anything but erode the fabric of democracy.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Reed, Leonard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1986
Previous Article:Why the ERA failed: politics, women's rights, and the amending process of the constitution.
Next Article:Sometimes a shining moment: the foxfire experience.

Related Articles
Beyond human scale: the large corporation at risk.
The Death Shift: The True Story of Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders.
The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America.
Criminal Justice?: The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility.
Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Origins of the Authoritarian Welfare State in Prussia: Conservatives, Bureaucracy, and the Social Question, 1815-70.
Railroaded in Cooperstown.
Boys, books, blokes and bytes.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters