Chapter Summary

State- and local-level public bureaucracies are critical in the delivery of essential public goods and services. To operate effectively, these public bureaucracies have a specific set of organizational characteristics. Hierarchy, division of labor, formal rules, professionalism, and the maintenance of files and records exist within public bureaucracies to ensure impartiality in the delivery of public goods.

The merit system was formalized in 1883 in reaction to the problems of the spoils system. It is a way of maintaining “neutral competence” in bureaucratic decision making. Although the merit system has reduced bureaucratic flexibility and increased the amount of red tape within public bureaucracies, it also has prevented bureaucracies from operating at the whims of partisan politics. Yet despite their attempts to be neutrally competent, public bureaucracies are political institutions. Beyond implementing public law, they do engage in policymaking through the power of street-level bureaucrats and the rule-making process.

Despite calls for reforming bureaucracies to operate more like private businesses, they operate quite efficiently and hold high standards of professionalism and ethical behavior (contrary to popular opinion). Furthermore, although the size and scope of bureaucracies vary across states, no state could operate effectively without one.