Review of Democracy in a Democratic State

Book Review

Bureaucracy in a Democratic State: A Governance Perspective

Kenneth J. Meier

Lawrence J. O’Toole, Jr.

Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore


Kenneth Meier and Lawrence O’Toole are to be complimented for wading once again into the muddy waters of the ongoing public administration debate over “which is the dog and which is the tail”—the thorny question of the relative power of democratically elected political representatives and the bureaucracies through which they must act to effectuate the presumed will of the people.


As the authors are quick to acknowledge, this is an issue that has bedeviled scholars and generated contending theories for years. Their book focuses upon two streams of  scholarship,  political science and public administration, disciplines which bring different normative assumptions to the inquiry, and they do a good job of summarizing and reviewing the relevant literatures of those disciplines. As the authors note, however, much of the scholarly literature has been rendered inapposite by today’s “governance” environment, where policy mandates are carried out not by easily defined “bureaus” or “agencies” staffed by government employees, but by often ad-hoc networks of government employees, contract employees (for-profit and non-profit), public-private partnerships and the like.


The New Public Management, outsourcing and various approaches to privatization (which is generally not true privatization at all—the term is most frequently used to describe some sort of contracting arrangement) have dramatically changed the context within which scholars attempt to answer questions of transparency, control and democratic accountability.


“ These differences—in patterns of bureaucratic recruitment and socialization, decision making, links to interest groups and arrays of formal and informal advisory committees, degrees of decentralization and rule-boundedness, and so forth—definitely matter in any assessment of the fit between bureaucracy and democracy. some versions of bureaucracy and some contexts are much likelier to facilitate popular influence than others.” (p.13)


The increasing variety and complexity of government service delivery methods leads Meier and O’Toole to conclude that we need a general theoretical perspective within which context-specific analyses can be conducted.  (As they note, there are more than eighty-five thousand “governments” within the United States, all but fifty-one of which are local. That sobering number alone persuades them—and should persuade us—that  sweeping generalizations are likely to be imprudent.)


After laying out the limited nature of their inquiry, and reviewing the relevant political science and public administration literatures, the authors turn to an empirical analysis intended to illuminate their inquiry. They use data gathered from Texas school corporations to probe various methods of political control—policy-setting, political appointments, and other techniques—intended to make bureaucratic performance more amenable to majoritarian preferences. Their choice of school boards and the educators who report to them is explained by the comparative simplicity of the bureaucracies involved, an organizational simplicity that allows them to conduct empirical research in an environment where the identification of bureaucratic and political actors remains relatively uncomplicated. 


Based upon their review of the literatures and their analysis of their data, the authors conclude that “top-down political control of the bureaucracy has only modest impact at best” on the actual performance of bureaucracies in the United States. While that conclusion will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the literature, Meier and O’Toole go further. They conclude that bureaucrats and political actors share a commitment to democratic values and norms, and that these shared democratic values operate to create a bureaucracy that is surprisingly responsive to the popular will.


The accomplishment of this slim volume is to make explicit the disparities between political science and public management theories of democratic responsiveness, to forge a hypothesis that builds on the insights of both, and then to test those assumptions empirically, in environments thought least likely to be affected by the rapidly changing character of bureaucracy itself. However, the real contribution of the book may lie in the way the authors highlighted questions that they did not choose to research.


While it is obviously unfair to fault a study for failing to explore different issues, or for failing to test a hypothesis different from the one they have chosen, the book raised several tantalizing issues that the authors did not pursue, and that would be—for this reader, at least—fascinating topics for further research. 


One example is the identification of “democratic” values. It is notoriously difficult to determine empirically the values that animate large numbers of individuals, and the comparative importance of those values to the decision-making process. The authors are understandably reluctant to open so subjective an area of inquiry, and instead identify the presence or absence of values through more easily measured proxies or “surrogates.” For example, they use the percentage of Latino school board members and staff as their proxy for a commitment to the value of providing expanded educational opportunities for Latino students. It would be interesting to compare the methods employed by Latino and non-Latino Board Members and staff to operationalize that commitment—to see, for example, whether non-Latinos were really less focused upon the value of expanding educational opportunities for Latino youngsters, or whether those who did share that commitment differed from their Latino colleagues in their choice of methodology for achieving that goal.


The broader question—and clearly outside the scope of this particular book—is the nature and derivation of the democratic values that lead bureaucrats to be responsive to the public will, and for that matter, whether “responsiveness” is the appropriate metric. This is a less abstract question than it may first seem. John Rohr and David Rosenbloom, among others, have argued that governmental legitimacy depends upon consistency with the values of the constitution. Meier and O’Toole seem to imply that sensitivity and responsiveness to the constituencies being served should be an important, if not overriding, value. But these are potentially conflicting approaches; our constitutional system does not privilege majoritarianism to the extent that other democracies do. A public figure in the United States—whether bureaucrat or politician—may find it ethically or legally necessary to resist the “majority will” if compliance would violate a right protected by the Bill of Rights. And then there are the “values” questions posed by the public management literature, questions of professionalism and the ethical constraints that operate in specific subject-areas. Are some of these  values more consistent with a responsive bureaucracy than others? Are there instances where “responsiveness” is a negative, rather than a positive, attribute, and can we identify such instances? Given the potential for conflicting values, which conflicts are to be avoided, and which embraced? 


Even more tantalizing is the issue of increasing complexity in service delivery that Meier and O’Toole highlight. Over the past thirty plus years, units of government have moved—seemingly inexorably—toward greater use of contracting and outsourcing, making it (as they note) increasingly difficult to identify who is principal and who is agent—let alone the consistency or lack thereof of the values held by these multiple actors. There is a robust literature dealing with issues of privatization, particularly but certainly not exclusively the management challenges that these outsourcing arrangements present. Legal scholarship, too, has been increasingly concerned with the consequences of a “governance” that is altering traditional definitions of public and private, and with the effect of that alteration on a constitutional system that depends upon the distinction as a fundamental safeguard of private rights. Nonprofit scholars, in particular, have grappled with the effects of this transformation on the nonprofit and voluntary organizations that have become—intentionally or not—a significant part of  today’s bureaucracy.  As a number of scholars in a wide number of disciplines have noted, the networks of public and private actors to which we allude when we talk of “governance” rather than government require rethinking administrative ethics, and refashioning mechanisms intended to insure transparency and accountability. (see Gilmour and Jensen, 1998; Frederickson, 1993;  Kettl, 1998; Jensen and Kennedy, 2005, among many others).


We are indebted to Meier and O’Toole for raising these issues, and for reminding us of their saliency. Bureaucracy in a Democratic State: A Governance Perspective reminds us that we need to surmount the academic “silos” that tend to frame—and constrict—our inquiries into these important questions.







Jensen, Laura S. and Sheila Suess Kennedy. “Government Ethics and Constitutional Accountability” in George G. Frederickson and Richard K. Ghere, Ethics in Public Management. M.E. Sharpe, 2005

Frederickson, H.George. 1993. “Ethics and Public Administration: Some Assertions.” In Ethics and Public Administration, ed. H. George Frederickson. Amonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, pp. 243-61.


Gilmour, Robert S. and Jensen, Laura S. 1998. “Reinventing Government Accountability: Public Functions, Privatization, and the Meaning of State Action.” Public Administration Review 58: 247-58.


Kettl, donald F. 1988. Government by Proxy: (Mis)Managing Federal Programs.  Washington, D.C: CQ Press.