The New Case for Bureaucracy


Charles T. Goodsell

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Copyright


    Dedicated to the memory of Charles True Goodsell 1886–1941

    Tables, Boxes, and Figures



    In our daily language the word “bureaucracy” is a term of vilification and ill will. Its popular meaning conveys disgust for nonfunctioning government that is slow to act, mired in technicalities, and probably bloated and controlling. No case at all could be made for such government, and I would be the last to try.

    In this book I use the word very differently and without a negative emotional loading. It refers simply to the institutions that do the ongoing work of government, the agencies of public administration. These departments, bureaus, and local government administrations enable government to perform the exacting tasks expected of the public sector in a modern society. They are staffed by men and women who make it possible for a democracy to succeed over time.

    I have written on the subject of bureaucracy in America for thirty years in successive editions of The Case for Bureaucracy. The volume you are holding is not, however, the latest version of that work. It is entirely different in two senses.

    First, it is new in content, structure, and tone. Whereas the earlier “Case” was consciously written and labeled as a polemic, this volume is in the nature of an extended and rather personal essay. Instead of summarizing all scholarly research on the positive aspects of US public administration that make it defensible, the book identifies selected ideas and research findings for consideration, examines them in sufficient detail so readers can judge for themselves their importance, and allows me to express opinions based on a half century of study and reflection. In short, the former polemicist is now a more mellowed author who is still opinionated but wants his readers to think for themselves. Indeed, some sections of the book are not devoted to defending bureaucracy at all but to describing its scandals and shortfalls.

    I seek to build this case for bureaucracy at all levels of American government, although the availability of research conclusions that can be generalized has been skewed by scholars in favor of the national government. Hence by necessity more attention is given in the book to federal administration than to government bureaucracies in the states and localities. This is unfortunate since it is at the state and local levels that most US public administration operates. I apologize for this imbalance to the millions of present and future state and local public employees who serve their citizens ably.

    Mention of the book's federal emphasis brings us to the second sense in which this case for bureaucracy is “new.” At this writing the federal government and the nation it serves face perilous times. The country's deep partisan divide, bitterly deadlocked Congress, and unresolved public financial status have created a crisis of governance. While centered in Washington, DC, the situation's adverse effects penetrate the entire federal system.

    At the end of the book I offer my views on an appropriate role for federal agencies in this emergency. It is not passive, anxiety-ridden acquiescence, but rather being alert to opportunities for taking bold action. The stance I propose for bureaucracy includes a readiness to exercise political savvy in fighting for the funds needed to save vital missions and to take policy initiatives when necessary in the face of congressional inaction. In view of this perspective, I see the purpose of the new case for bureaucracy as more than correction of an overly pejorative view of bureaucracy. It is also to invoke a moral imperative for bureaucracy to stand tall in this difficult period of our nation's history.

    Several events occurred in the closing months prior to finishing this book that pertain to this “new case” argument. A shutdown of the federal government revealed once again the importance of uninterrupted administration to public trust and it is discussed in Chapter 5. The bungled launch of the Affordable Care Act reminds us how important in-house bureau capacity is to complex governance and is commented on in an Afterword. Passage by Congress of a limited federal budget compromise effective through FY 2015 is a modest step beyond partisan stalemate, yet an enormous chasm of policy disagreement remains that will likely necessitate more proactive moves by agencies to protect their missions. As for revelations about the information-gathering activities of the National Security Agency, I ask you—upon reading this book—to work out your own opinions.


    My largest debt of gratitude is owed to Charisse Kiino, editor for social sciences at CQ Press. She encouraged the project from the beginning and has helped keep my morale up throughout. I could not ask for a better or more supportive editor and publisher.

    Four persons kindly agreed to read the manuscript in advance of a Southeast Public Administration Conference at Charlotte, NC, on September 26, 2013, and then act as discussants at a panel dedicated to it. These individuals are Brian J. Cook of Virginia Tech; William M. Haraway III of the University of West Florida; Richard W. Jacobsen, retired public administrator at Mecklenburg County, NC; and Claire Mostel, retired public administrator at Miami-Dade County, FL. I greatly appreciate their comments, criticisms, and suggestions.

    Others I would like to thank are Professor Maja Husar Holmes of West Virginia University for allowing me to try out early ideas on her classes; William C. Adams for sending me useful survey data; Michael B. Cooke for his explanation of tax code matters; Gautama Adi Kusuma for researching the social media and providing statistics help; Gregory B. Lewis for providing literature guidance; Ken Wylie for listening to my inner thoughts over coffee along the way; Ellen Howard, who performed as my able and dependable copy editor; and Olivia Weber-Stenis for her helpful assistance as production editor.

    A personal expression of love and thanks goes to my wife, Mary Elizabeth MacKintosh Goodsell. As always, she was tolerant of my preoccupations with writing over these past two years and always ready to hear me vent on issues that arise. Liz is an unbelievably good speller and gladly helps out when I fall short in that area, which is often.

    The dedication of this book to the memory of my father has special meaning. While writing the final chapters it came to my attention that his ashes had been unclaimed for over seventy years in a funeral home in Michigan. I was able to acquire them, and it was my pleasure to celebrate his life with family and friends present when I placed them in a columbarium niche in Blacksburg, Virginia, on May 11, 2013. He too was a teacher and author.

  • List of Books

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    Goodsell Charles T. Mission Mystique: Belief Systems in Public Agencies. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011 .
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    Price, Byron Eugene . Merchandising Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization? Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006 .
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    Von Mises Ludwig . Bureaucracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944 .
    Wamsley Gary L. , Bacher Robert N. , Goodsell Charles T. , Kronenberg Philip S. , Rohr John A. , Stivers Camilla M. , White Orion F. , and Wolf James F. Refounding Public Administration. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1990 .
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    Wood B. Dan , and Waterman Richard W. Bureaucratic Dynamics: The Role of Bureaucracy in America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994 .

    About the Author

    Charles T. Goodsell is Professor Emeritus at the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His other books include The American Statehouse; Public Administration Illuminated and Inspired by the Arts, co-edited with Nancy Murray; The Social Meaning of Civic Space; Administration of a Revolution; American Corporations and Peruvian Politics; The Public Encounter (editor); The Case for Bureaucracy; Mission Mystique: Belief Systems in Public Agencies.

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