The American public often rails about bureaucracy. It is not difficult to fathom why. Who among us has not fumed while standing in a long line at an understaffed post office? And how many of us have thrown up our hands in frustration at the complexity of income tax instructions and outsourced the work to an accountant?

The public tends to explain bureaucratic behaviors by attributing ill motives to the bureaucrats. Civil servants, they allege, are arrogant and lazy. Scholars, such as the late James Q. Wilson, have provided us with social scientific evidence of what many individuals suspect: bureaucracies, especially government ones, tend to be slow to perform tasks, resist change and frequently creep beyond their missions.

But the blame should not be attributed to bad bureaucrats. Rather, research indicates that most of the problems spring from the very nature of government bureaucracy.

Agencies cannot run like businesses because they cannot do what private sector entities do: choose their lines of business and organize themselves accordingly. Instead, bureaucracies’ work is assigned through legislation, usually enacted over decades. The result is a progressive layering of policy duties, which often conflict with one another. And elected officials also tend to impose operational constraints on bureaucracies. For example, instead of allowing agencies to hire whomever they think is best for the job and pay them accordingly, elected officials force bureaucracies to follow byzantine hiring practices and dictate the permissible compensation packages. Thus it is that bureaucracies, as Wilson observed, tend “to be driven by the constraints” on them rather than “the tasks of the organization.”

And thanks to Adam Eckerd, a professor at Virginia Tech University, we know there is an additional reason that bureaucracies get the stink-eye from public: some of them are not good listeners. Eckerd looked at three federal agencies that recently embarked on significant public works. As required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the agencies prepared environmental impact statements in consultation with the public. Eckerd analyzed the comments submitted by the public and the agencies’ responses.

The results of the study, published in the latest copy of Public Administration Review, are dispiriting. He found little evidence of “meaningful dialogue” between agencies and the public. The two sides talked past one another, especially on the subject of proposed projects’ risk to the environment. “[P]ublic managers tend to take a more aggregate and technical view that risk is something to manage, while citizens focus on risks specific to themselves, consider the fairness of the distribution of risk, and come from a viewpoint that risk is best avoided.”

Eckerd further observed that “the administrators involved in the three cases were usually technical or project management specialists who were well versed in the details of the particular projects but likely had no training in public relations or political engagement.” Hence, agencies’ responses many times were tin-earred and merely acknowledged the receipt of the comments.

An Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who reviewed Eckerd’s study, wrote a response that was published in the same issue of the journal. “My experience,” he wrote, “bears out Eckerd’s conclusion that citizen involvement often has little impact in government decision making.” The administrator further validated the study’s findings by unabashedly proclaiming, “Regulatory agencies are charged with the informed, expert implementation of their organic statutes and resultant regulations…. The contrary attitude [amongst the public] stems from a lack of sophistication about the underlying technical issues, or… a predisposition to object to any proposal on the grounds that it risks changes to the status quo.”

These findings are distressing. Most agencies have public comment policies. These policies are intended to improve bureaucracies’ decision-making by providing them with additional information. The adversarial process also forces agencies to think twice about about what they propose doing. But public input serves an additional critical purpose: fostering a sense of democratic legitimacy. Bureaucrats are unelected and often tenured for life. As such, they are inherently suspect to Americans. So getting public comment right is a critical to having their exercise of authority accepted as legitimate by the public.

For the citizen feeling unheard, Congress is the place to turn. It created bureaucracies and funds them. Congress, accordingly, should make it a regular part of oversight to direct agencies to review their public input processes. And agencies should ask themselves, “Were I John Q. Public, would I feel my voice has been heard and taken seriously?”


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