Bureaucratic Accountability: Definition & Institutions

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  • 0:03 Bureaucratic Accountability
  • 1:16 Presidential Scrutiny
  • 2:47 Congress Oversight
  • 4:45 Court Action
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will look at some of the many ways in which the president, Congress, and the courts hold the bureaucracy accountable, or responsible, for its actions and performance.

Bureaucratic Accountability

Let's face it; America's federal bureaucracy, the administrative organization that handles the day-to-day business of the government, is huge. By some estimates, it employs about four million people. Like a team of Clydesdale horses pulling a large wagon, the bureaucracy has lots of power, lots of energy, and lots of momentum. When it gets rolling, it can be hard to stop.

The bureaucracy also faces plenty of hazards as it travels along its daily routine. It can easily fall into the potholes of red tape (overly complex rules and procedures), waste, duplication, conflict, and imperialism (taking on a life of its own). To minimize such risks, the government must somehow rein in the bureaucracy, like a driver reins in a team of horses. It does so through a process called bureaucratic accountability, which is the ability of the government, especially the president, Congress, and the courts, to hold the bureaucracy responsible for its performance and its actions.

Let's take a closer look at this process.

Presidential Scrutiny

The president has the power to rein in the bureaucracy in several ways. First off, he is authorized to appoint about 4,000 higher-level bureaucrats, including cabinet secretaries, top officials in bureaucratic agencies, and some assistants. These bureaucrats have the president to thank for their jobs, and they are often committed to his vision and goals.

Further, the president can reorganize bureaucratic agencies and departments as he sees fit. In doing so, he can get rid of duplication (agencies doing pretty much the same thing), cut down on conflict and waste, and basically keep the bureaucracy from getting too big for its britches. One political scientist has even called reorganization the 'cod liver oil of government - an all-purpose cure for whatever ails the body politic.'

Finally, the president's Office of Management and Budget helps him keep a close eye on the bureaucracy. It frequently monitors and evaluates the performance of various agencies and departments, taking a close look at their efficiency, growth, budgets, and organization. Based on the Office's recommendations, the president makes decisions about budget allocations, appointments, and reorganization.

In these three ways, then - appointments, reorganization, and monitoring by the Office of Management and Budget - the president helps rein in those big bureaucratic Clydesdales and holds the bureaucracy accountable for its actions.

Congress Keeps an Eye on Things

Congress places a second pair of hands on the reins and assists the president in keeping the bureaucracy out of trouble. It does so in several different ways.

  1. Congress establishes bureaucratic agencies and departments and is, therefore, able to limit their numbers and functions.
  2. Congress creates the bureaucratic budget and can limit how much money the bureaucracy receives.
  3. Congress also appropriates funds to the bureaucracy; it only hands out so much money at a time.
  4. Congress has the power to confirm the president's bureaucratic appointments, double-checking to make sure the appointee is qualified to do the job.
  5. Congress puts its stamp of approval or rejection on new bureaucratic programs or shifts in focus.
  6. Congress conducts investigations when the bureaucracy is accused or suspected of wrongdoing.
  7. Congress can reprimand bureaucratic officials as necessary.

Along with all these ways of keeping the bureaucratic horses under control, Congress also has the ability to pass laws that affect bureaucratic procedures. The sunshine laws, for instance, require bureaucratic agencies to be open to the public by holding regular meetings. The sunset provisions, on the other hand, set expiration dates on bureaucratic programs and the agencies that implement them, making sure that no part of the bureaucracy outlives its usefulness.

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