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Holding Bureaucrats Accountable: Politicians and Professionals in St. Louis.

Holding Bureaucrats Accountable: Politicians and Professionals in St. Louis. Lana Stein. University of Alabama Press. $19.95. Lana Stein makes another pass at the taxing question of how to make bureaucracies responsible to elected officials. Is it through patronage, detached civil servants, or wholesale reform of the rules? Some of what Stein shows is hopeful; what she says, however, is not particularly helpful.

St. Louis is a relatively "unreformed" city where the politicians have had more leverage than the bureaucrats-a phenomenon institutionalized when the merit civil service system was created in 1941. Since that time, the city's mayors have regained some lost ground by setting up new agencies outside the merit system and applying political pressure on the old agencies to hire favored (but qualified) constituents.

Stein has carefully scrutinized the St. Louis bureaucracy, distinguishing those agencies that are responsive to elected officials from those that are not. On the responsive side, for example, she cites the Traffic Division of the Department of Streets, which has erected about 1,000 four-way stop signs (compared to 34 in Kansas City) because the aldermen, responding to parents concerned about the safety of their street-crossing kids, demanded them. Similarly, she finds that building inspectors are responsive to aldermen's requests that individual buildings receive priority attention. To tenants worried about unsafe living conditions, that's an important and meaningful gesture.

Police and fire departments, on the other hand, are notoriously intractable bureaucracies. (Stein notes that in 1961, when New York Mayor Robert Wagner decided public housing areas needed more police patrols, he received a letter stating, "I, as police commissioner, having sole responsibility under the law for the disposition of the police force, will go on making determinations according to professional police judgment and with reference to the best interests of the citizens as a whole." English translation: Stick it in your ear.) The St. Louis police are under state jurisdiction; the mayor does not appoint the police commissioner and has no jurisdiction over hiring, firing, or promotion; he must wheedle for anything he wants. For their part, the firemen, through their strong union, have been able to manipulate the political environment by getting favorable legislation passed and voting legislators of their choice into office. As a result, the politicians have become accountable to the bureaucracy rather than vice versa. The public is left out of the picture.

It seems that the issue of whether policy is made by elected officials or by the bureaucracy turns simply on who has more muscle. Yet Stein takes little notice of the weapons that give the federal bureaucracy ascendancy over the elected administration in making (or frustrating) policy: the virtually unlimited tenure of the jobholder versus the transitory life of any administration, and the powerful alliances bureaucracies form with their congressional oversight committees and special interest groups. (To be sure, the skill of the White House in building its own alliances can alter the balance of power. The irony in the newly released Nixon tapes is that a president who thoroughly understood how bureaucracy subverts the democratic process and who was determined to do something about it ended up himself subverting the process.)

"Under the right circumstances," Stein concludes, "bureaucrats can be held accountable for good or ill." Given the qualifying phrase, who can argue? Political scientists as far back as Woodrow Wilson have been searching for the "right circumstances." Still, Stein has done an interesting study. As you tell your tennis partner when she retrieves an impossible shot only to hit it into the net, "Good try."

-Leonard Reed
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Author:Reed, Leonard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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