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What motivates bureaucrats?

Marissa Martino Golden. 2001. What Motivates Bureaucrats? Politics and Administration During the Reagan Years. New York: Columbia University Press. Cloth, ISBN: 0-231-10696-3, $49.50. Paper, ISBN: 0-231-10697-1, $19.50. 320 pp.

Marisa Martino Golden has written an insightful study of the compliance of career civil servants with the priorities of their politically-appointed superiors during the Reagan administration. She conducted seventy interviews at four federal agencies that the Reaganites had targeted to have their authority and activities curtailed. The agencies have regulatory or social welfare missions, which Reagan and his appointees sought to cut back in their drive to reduce and reform regulatory activity by the federal government. They sought also to reduce the waste that they saw as rife in social welfare programs. Most of the Reaganites were very aggressive, anticipating resistance from the federal bureaucrats. While they varied in their orientation toward the denizens of the federal bureaucracy, most of the Reganites rode into the fray firmly convinced of the accuracy of the popular stereotype, often embodied in academic theory as well, of self-serving bureaucrats anxious to defend their prerogatives and power and to pursue a liberal agenda.

Golden mounts a convincing case that this stereotype and its kindred academic oversimplifications erode in the face of empirical evidence. The bureaucrats were strikingly cooperative, compliant, and dutiful in their reactions to the often demeaning, occasionally incompetent, or even illegal actions of the Reagan appointees. The book thus joins a growing body of work, by many authors that Golden cites, that moves us toward more subtle and empirically based analyses of bureaucratic politics and behavior than are available in much of the public and academic discourse in recent decades.

Golden develops a middle ground between two opposing views. Analysts who rely on rational choice assumptions, often economists, have typically assumed that bureaucrats display narrowly self-interested behaviors, and they seek ever larger budgets and maneuver to defend their prerogatives and powers. Other scholars, usually identified with public administration and schools of public affairs, have emphasized the principled, altruistic, and public-spirited motivations of bureaucrats. Golden sees the career civil servants as influenced by both types of motives and by additional influences. She examines self-interest, role perceptions, ideology, and characteristics of the civil servants' agencies, such as their history, dominant professions, and esprit de corps. To analyze the careerists' responses to the Reagan appointees, Golden draws on ideas from Hirschman's prominent book on exit, voice, and loyalty. She asks the civil servants about their behaviors that represent exit (departure or resignation in protest), voice (argumentation, protest, or even sabotage or foot-dragging), loyalty (responsiveness and cooperation), and neglect (passive compliance).

Golden gathered data in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (which operates the food stamp program, the school lunch program, and the Women, Infants and Children program), the Civil Rights Division (CRD) of the Justice Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Anyone who has analyzed even one federal agency will be impressed with this book's coverage of four, since any major agency has a complex history of issues, legislation, and judicial actions, with a correspondingly complicated literature. The book provides well-developed accounts of this background on each agency, which serve as the basis for analysis of the agency's unique situation.

The agencies vary, but they show marked similarities in role orientations of the careerists. The career civil servants seldom exercised voice in the form of individual or group argumentation and protest. They generally spurned sabotage or foot-dragging, or such tactics as leaking information. They usually thought that they should be loyal to their superiors and provide expert advice, but they also thought that their superiors, as appointees of a duly elected chief executive, retained authority over final policy decisions.

In addition, however, the political appointees used their authority in ways that influenced the careerists' perceptions of their self-interest. The Reagan appointees pursued an administrative presidency strategy, in which they sought to carry out the president's priorities through administrative means. They bypassed careerists by increasing the numbers of political appointees and assigning them work that had been performed by careerists. They left careerists out of deliberations, bound their initiatives up with delaying tactics, and sometimes demoted them. In the notoriously hostile relations in the EPA in the early years of the Reagan administration, the Reageanites compiled hit lists of careerists who appeared to be potential opponents of the president's agenda. Golden notes the irony in the Reagan appointees' display of the tactics of delaying, waiting out, and stifling initiative that simplistic stereotypes have attributed to careerists. While the careerists cooperated because of their role orientations, described above, they also came to see that their self-interests depended upon it. Often concerned over their careers, they went along to get along. Often discouraged, some settled into a passive mode. References to hunkering down, caution, passiveness, hesitance, and a sense of futility resound throughout the descriptions of the careerists' responses.

Although this general pattern predominated, Golden reports evidence of variations among agencies and administrators. At the NHTSA, a history of embarrassment in court cases contributed to a cautious reaction to the Reagan appointees, while at CRD a very successful record of court actions gave the careerists confidence. Together with their backgrounds as attorneys--who like to argue, as one of them told Golden--and a strong esprit de corps, this successful record led the careerists at CRD to engage in more exercises in voice--arguing their side--and exit than in the other agencies. Also, the Reagan appointee heading the agency listened and earned the respect of the careerists, even if he frustrated their efforts. Still, the careerist attorneys clung to their professional ethic of representing the political appointees as they would any client and of vigorously pursuing any case they were assigned. They expressed contempt for the suggestion that they would do any less, which would have been manifest by foot-dragging or purposely mounting a weak case. They did all their arguing over policy and priorities in predecision phases, but once the course was set they felt obligated either to pursue it vigorously or to resign. Some did depart, and more of them than in other agencies, because attorneys had more opportunities than many of the careerists in other agencies. In other agencies, such as NHTSA and EPA, the more complex mix of professions provided less impetus to voice and exit, but similarly the engineers and scientists would refer to their professional ethic of providing expert advice but not encroaching on the authority of the appointees of the elected chief executive.

Significantly, for Golden's ultimate conclusions, the EPA involved two different cases. During the early years of the administration, the Reagan appointees at EPA displayed more intense distrust of the careerists, and more intense efforts to debilitate them, than in any of the agencies. The situation led to public controversy, the resignation of the director, and the indictment of one of the high level appointees. William Ruckelshaus, who had been the founding director of EPA, returned to restore harmony and effective working relations at the agency, and thereafter included the careerists in policy deliberations.

Golden takes this effective involvement of the careerists as a lead to her ultimate conclusions. In her final chapter, she considers the issue that has been growing in the reader's mind as the account covers agency after agency. Were the careerists too passive? It becomes evident to the reader that the Reaganite's main problem was not with a recalcitrant bureaucracy. Their administrative presidency strategy suggests that the president, in spite of his great popularity, never had a strong, clear mandate for many of the changes his minions pursued. At points Golden describes the elaborate history of legislation, interest group activity, and court cases pertaining to the agencies. This implicitly raises the question of just how appropriate or realistic it is in our pluralistic system, with its separation of powers, to expect bureaucrats to hew closely to the preferences of a particular president. Golden, however, does not emphasize this point. She does argue that the involvement of the careerists in policy deliberations, as illustrated in the Ruckelshaus era at EPA, can improve those deliberations. She proposes ways by which political appointees can respect and better utilize the experience and expert knowledge of career civil servants.

The study raises concerns over method and conceptualization. The evidence of career bureaucrats' motives and behaviors comes from their own self-reports, and it raises the possibility that they give favorable accounts of themselves the way we humans are wont to do. Golden, however, mounts the evidence convincingly. The framework she uses and its component concepts suggest that we have a lot more work to do in clarifying concepts related to voice, loyalty, motives, and esprit de corps. Notably, in this regard, the title might lead some potential readers to expect coverage of the elaborate literature in organizational psychology and organizational behavior concerning motivation and related topics such as leadership and organizational commitment. They will find that, as in much of the bureaucratic politics literature, there is little utilization of that research here. These concerns, however, do not prevent this fine book from offering a substantial and valuable contribution to the literature on the public bureaucracy and the people in it.
Hal G. Rainey
The University of Georgia
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Title Annotation:What Motivates Bureaucrats?: Politics and Administration During the Reagan Years
Author:Rainey, Hal G.
Publication:Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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