Review of In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the U.S. Federal Executive

Journal of Politics
November 2, 2011

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It is no secret that many American politicians and citizens view the federal bureaucracy with considerable disdain. In In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the US. Federal Executive, Joel D. Aberbach and Bert A. Rockman report on an ambitious and largely successful effort to investigate the foundations of this discontent. In particular, Aberbach and Rockman focus on two developments within the bureaucracy itself that are widely believed to have fostered cynicism about its capabilities and role in democratic policy making. The first development, dubbed the "quiet crisis"5 more than a decade ago by a blue-ribbon panel on the public service, is a substantial decline in the quality and morale of agency personnel. The second development is that the bureaucracy is increasingly unresponsive to presidential directives, a so-called "noisy crisis" because of the publicity generated by ongoing administration attacks on both specific officials and agencies in general.

In a nutshell, Aberbach and Rockman argue that neither of these developments have actually occurred and thus cannot be responsible for widespread dissatisfaction with bureaucratic performance and outcomes. They draw support for this argument primarily from hundreds of interviews, conducted over a 22-year period, with presidential appointees and senior civil servants who served in domestic policy agencies during the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations. Aberbach and Rockman's longitudinal analysis of these interviews reveals that for the most part, the quality of high-ranking agency personnel, measured as educational achievement, did not appreciably decline across these presidencies. Similarly, although the expressed job satisfaction of these appointees and careerists diminished in some respects, the magnitude of this drop was generally quite modest. In the end, Aberbach and Rockman conclude, contrary to common belief, "people are not the problem" in the contemporary bureaucracy.

Aberbach and Rockman also find that top-level officials, even those in the civil service, are in two important ways remarkably reflective of presidential administrations and the nation's political mood. Early in the Nixon administration, Democrats easily outnumbered Republicans in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. These officials were also quite liberal collectively in that many strongly supported an active government role in the national economy. By the Reagan and Bush administrations, however, there had been an unmistakable shift toward a more Republican and conservative bureaucracy. According to Aberbach and Rockman, these changes demonstrate that agencies adapted to the preferences and actions of Republican presidents and, more generally, to the growth in antigovernment sentiment on the part of the American public.

In sum, Aberbach and Rockman draw on more than two decades of research to support their argument that the quality, morale, and responsiveness of presidential appointees and senior civil servants have not declined in the manner suggested by some critics of the bureaucracy. Although this research is convincing, it is limited in that it does not directly address many important aspects of these three characteristics of federal executives. For example, quality is not measured in ways other than educational achievement, and responsiveness is not assessed in terms of performance and outcomes. In addition, Aberbach and Rockman's analysis does not provide direct insight into alternative explanations for the controversy surrounding the bureaucracy.

On this score, however, Aberbach and Rockman construct a plausible case that many attacks on the bureaucracy "have less to do with bureaucracy per se than with the role of government and its policies" (161). In other words, the programs of the New Deal and Great Society eras sparked an ongoing debate about the proper size and scope of government. Critics of the regulatory state have heaped much of their scorn on the bureaucracy, the institution that delivers the policies they oppose and view as failures. Given the policy-oriented nature of this struggle, reforms that target quality, morale, and responsiveness will ultimately do little, in the eyes of Aberbach and Rockman, to enhance external support for the bureaucracy.

Aberbach and Rockman devote extensive attention to one reform in particularthe Clinton-Gore effort to "reinvent government." In one respect, this attention is understandable; in the 1 990s, reinvention was the most prominent attempt at, among other things, restoring public confidence in the bureaucracy. In another respect, however, Aberbach and Rockman's elaboration and evaluation of reinvention is somewhat disconnected from the rest of their research on federal executives. For example, the interviews with presidential appointees and senior civil servants that form the empirical foundation of this research play virtually no role in the discussion of reinvention tenets such as "cutting red tape" and "putting customers first." Conceptually, reinventing government is motivated by neither the "quiet crisis" (which it largely rejects) nor the "noisy crisis" (which it generally does not address). In the end, Aberbach and Rockman are at their best when they focus on the fundamental question of their careerspanning project: What are the personal and political characteristics of those who occupy positions at the top of the bureaucracy? For scholars and practitioners seeking an answer to this question, In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the US. Federal Executive is essential reading.