Battle for Political Power: Politicians and Bureaucrats

Central to politics around the world is the concept of power. Power is commonly acknowldged as excercised in  modern states by the poltical class. There is the usual adage that it is the politician who wields political power and is the real authority making centre. Along side the political class has emerged the bureaucrat. This is evident to anyone who has watched the BBC’s serial ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’. Though political satire, it effectively denotes that in nine out of ten cases of decision making on a matter affecting government, it was the bureaucrat who made the final decision, leaving the Minister to only sign on the dotted line.(Yes Minister, 2003).

In governments of modern states there are two components. First is the political part, with its elected leaders, members of parliaments and the like and second is the civil service that actually administers. Normally, the political system makes the policy and the civil service, or the bureaucracy, implements them. Of course, there is a need to distinguish the political system in democracies and in dictatorships. The rise of bureaucracy is associated by some with Fabian institutions such as the London School of Economics which are believed to have led to promoting the power of bureaucracy. (Micklethwait, 2000).

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In the US, the politician wields a lot of power, both through Congress and the individual post that he or she holds. But the bureaucrat retains his traditional powers to nullify decisions of the politician if he thinks it will impinge on the interests of the bureaucracy. Perrow (2002) has indicated that American society has been shaped more by bureaucracies than by other attributes of Americanism. This bureaucracy is also seen to pervade all sectors of American society thereby making it all powerful. In Japan it is said that till 1993, the Liberal Democratic Party took all the major decisions. Thereafter weak governments has led to some transfer of power to the bureaucrat. This is an ongoing process and has interesting implications for other countries also.

There are several ways of defining political power. The most simplistic view would see it as power used by politicians to institutionalize social control. If one were to dissect the various aspects of political power there would emerge three dimensions of power. These include decision-making, agenda-setting, and preference-shaping. The first advocates the idea that the formal political arena with its elections and voting brings forth the politician who controls or takes decisions. A broader sociological view would inform us that in fact decisions are often controlled in democracies by the elite, whether intellectual, bureaucratic or administrative.

The other view is that of the politician acting as the agenda setter. This involves both the formal political arena and elites deciding the agenda for the Government or its departments. Vested interests within and outside the Government who will set the agenda may often have hidden agendas which the public may not know of. Of course, there can be a combination of both political processes and agenda setting. Another perspective takes the route of civil society dealing with the government. And how the latter tend to shape the preferences for society by propaganda or by disinformation.

To this end political power can be exercised for narrow ends without the general public knowing what decisions are actually taken and how these may affect the people. There is thus a possibility of a distortion in the perceptions of the people about the Government. There may be variance as to who is seen to be the real centre of power. There is one view that holds that most Americans see the preservation of bureaucracy as being the main goal of American society. It is claimed that bureaucrats are not liked by the general public in America. This is a historical fact also. Because bureaucracies are inherently power hungry and very conservative they do tend to operate at a level where self-preservation is all pervasive.

The US President heads the Executive Branch and is independent of the Legislature. The bureaucracy in the US is distinctive in that political authority over it, is dispersed among several institutions. And secondly, the bureaucracy itself in turn shares its functions with state and local agencies. Historically, patronage was the main means by which people could get federal jobs. But the modern bureaucracy in the US can be traced to the 1930s and the Second World War. The bureaucratic machinery in America is huge, but more important than size is the fact that those in office wield inordinate discretionary power to take decisions. The US government today employs over 2.7 million employees. And to just mention a historical fact, the government began with just three agencies in 1789.

One must be aware that some aspects of political power within the bureaucracy are universal. We know that each time a new President is elected in the US, there are positions in the government waiting to be filled. Most of these positions often go to political “friends” and some others who possibly made huge contributions to the political campaign of the President in office. What happens is that these appointees who become bureaucrats are often ignorant of what they are supposed to do. So the bureaucrat trains the political bureaucrat on what to do and how to do it. This is how it happens everywhere around the world in democracies.

Historically we can trace three phases in the development of American bureaucracy. First there was the government by gentlemen from 1787-1829. Then came the spoils system from 1829 to 1883. The modern civil service system can be traced to 1883 and continues to be in place with modifications till date. In the American system, the manner in which bureaucrats are appointed and kept in their jobs determines their power quotient. Additionally, the type of people who are recruited, does not reflect the broad social strata of society. Unlike the UK, where the civil servant is hired through an examination system and is permanently employed, in the US a federal employee can be politically appointed. But in the US too federal employees who are non-bureaucrats can last a lifetime in service.

The key issue is command and control of the Federal Executive. The US Congress has a range of powers to tackle the issue. To start with Congressional statues will sometimes determine the very nature and character of an agency. Being able to control the purse strings makes the Congress important in more ways than one. But if there is a problem between the executive and the president then negotiations are the way to find a solution.

There are often tensions between the US Department of State, Department of Defense and the National Security Council on foreign policy issues. The State Department has its own bureaucratic set up, and has closer links with Congress, and the NSC staff tends to serve the political needs of the American President.

In the UK the civil service has a very important role to play in decision-making. Political power is vested in a strong executive and is backed by disciplined political parties. The UK also has a strong and insulated civil service, and centralizes power in the national government, leaving localities to implement diktats from London.

In America, federal power is de-centralized from the President downwards and the bureaucracy is not so strong. The states tend to make their own decisions on a range of issues in the decentralized federal system. The UK has a more welfare state oriented government while in America there exists a stronger and more intrusive set of civil rights laws.

The civil service in the United Kingdom supports the Government in power regardless of which political party is in office. Senior civil servants will remain in the post even upon a change of Government. This ensures continuity in policy. But it has also led to institutionalization of power within the bureaucracy, which can influence even things like a political broadcast on the BBC. But because of the institutionalization of power in the hands of the bureaucrats and the problem of red tapism it became necessary for the UK to find ways to reduce bureaucracy. This led to the privatization drive by prime minister Thatcher in the 1980s.

In the case of large democracies like India (as is the case elsewhere too), the bureaucracy is answerable to the political establishment. But given the nature of power informally held by bureaucrats, it is often seen that they can take decisions that even the politician may find difficult to overrule. The civil servant in the Indian context can become a compliant tool of the politician, if he or she accepts political patronage. This is probably true even in the US.

In the US today the war on terror provides the best  examlpe of how interests within the establishment, gives political power a new meaning. Both the political elite and  the bureaucracy have become accustomed to enjoying international power. As a result they want more.

As seen above, in the US, cabinet officers are politically appointed. The executive often regards the bureaucracy as obstructionist, but it is really the bureaucracy that provides long-term stability and ensures the implementation of government policies. One can cite numerous examples of how individuals with strong personalities can overshadow bureaucrats and vice versa. A strong NSC Chairman can sometimes overshadow the Secretary of State, as in the case of Henry Kissinger and William Rogers.

In most democracies, political control over the bureaucracy means having an elected assembly and an executive head of government. The UK system provides a kind of fusion of powers, which enables it to manage a powerful bureaucracy. In the American presidential system the decentralized nature of power tends to often create problems. The unity of authority principle that is applicable to the UK cabinet model of government tends to make control over the bureaucracy more effective than does the presidential system. While the details can be debated, in actual fact, in the Cabinet system in the UK it is the bureaucrat who actually makes the rules.

From a bureaucratic perspective, a de-centralized system of functioning tends to create problems of decision-making and undermines the coordination of work. How does this system actually work? Keeping the bureaucracy relatively weak to ensure it does not usurp powers but can administer well does this.

There are two variables that explain this phenomenon. One is experience and the other is the ability to coordinate. In the American system, most appointees are tenured and stay in office long enough to know how to solve problems. They also have enough powers to take decisions that may not be questioned. By coordination, it is meant that officials have sufficient movement within the national and local government to maintain a meaningful grasp of the issues that concern the nation and manage to work effectively. Actually an interesting analogy can be drawn from India where the civil servants at the top are generalists who tend to broadening their horizons while working and this in turn increases their capacity to exercise power in all fields.

Therefore, it is not easy to find an answer to the question to who wields real political power in the US or in other democracies. Some of the most powerful bureaucracies today are in states which were the first to espouse democracy and freedom. France is perhaps the most significant example where the President and the French bureaucracy remain the most powerful. (Silveira, 1998). The President and the Congress actually wield power, but the bureaucracy also holds a lot of power in its hands. This is apparently more so on the foreign policy front than in domestic affairs. The real issue here is not who controls the reins of power, but the answer seems to depend on the system of government in place in a democracy. It also depends on the element of political power the bureaucrat can leverage within the existing rules and those outside it. Discretionary power can create disproportionate authority in the hands of bureaucrats as seen in the US. This is the key to understanding whether the bureaucrat rules supreme or does his political master.