Home > F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution > Bureaucracy: the 4th Branch of Government

Bureaucracy: the 4th Branch of Government

My father was a government bureaucrat, so maybe I’m biased, but I’ve always believed that a well-run bureaucracy is a blessing.

Now, I’m well aware that bureaucracies have been under attack as warehouses for folks who can’t get a job in the real world; the term “bloated bureaucracies” has practically become redundant. But this is not my memory of things.

As I recollect, my father was a fine bureaucrat who believed in the ideals of public service and earned his place in a manner far more objective than is common these days: not only did he major in overseas service in college, but he also had to pass an exam that in those days was quite formidable.

So I’m somewhat irked by the common assumption that bureaucrats are ne’er-do-well nephews of the powerful. To some degree, of course, positions that are filled via appointment are bound to show the effects of “winner takes the spoils,” but it is certainly possible to limit the damage inflicted by this selection process.

But before we get to selection methods, let’s consider what exactly it is that government bureaucrats do. The short answer is: they implement the law.

But what does that mean? In the first place, public administration has to do with the issuing of regulations. A regulation is a law that implements the primary legislation created by a legislature, issued under the authority of that legislature.

That’s right: the laws that people and organizations must obey are created not by a legislature, but by the executive agencies tasked to do so by the legislature. For instance, the Clean Air Act mandated that the air everyone breathes must not be toxic. But what does that mean in concrete terms? How much sulfer dioxide in the atmosphere will the law permit? The EPA must decide on an acceptable level of sulpher dioxide (and other pollutants) in the air and write this level into a regulation.

EPA (and other regulatory agencies) creates regulations that are intended to deal with the many circumstances that people face in life, circumstances too numerous to be addressed directly in the regulation’s primary legislation. In other words, regulations are necessary because concrete laws must deal with the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life.

And the best people to write these regulations are the experts. Right?

Well, maybe. Check back soon for RT’s next installment on this issue.

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Photo: Chillago Company Manager’s Residence, Queensland, 1905. WikiCmns, Public Domain.

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