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Have You Hugged a Bureaucrat Lately?

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(Oleg Dudko |

Paul F. deLespinasse By Wednesday, 14 February 2024 02:46 PM EST Current | Bio | Archive

Many Americans are not interested in understanding government's administrative machinery —"the bureaucracy." We should, though, since bureaucratic organizations are the part of government with which the average citizen is most likely to have personal contact.

What government officials have you dealt with lately? Do you have a driver's license? These are issued by a bureaucratic organization, part of your state government. Do you pay taxes? Have you ever been on welfare? Do you get mail?

In most American cities, you cannot even drink a glass of water without dealing indirectly with the government organization that finds, purifies, and delivers it.

Bureaucratic organizations are not only dull (compared with presidents, legislatures, or courts) but also probably the most difficult part of government to understand. They are complicated, and their sheer scale staggers the imagination.

In addition to 1,400,000 uniformed military personnel, the federal government employs around 2,392,000 civilian workers including about 522,000 at the U.S. Postal Service.

There are thus nearly 4 million federal employees. In addition to those federal employees, about 15 million people work for state and local governments.

All told, then, the 19 million people employed by our governments come to about 12% of our total employment of about 160 million.

The actual number of people doing work for our governments is actually bigger than these numbers suggest. Government can hire many individuals to work directly for it in various agencies, and this is what we usually think of upon hearing expressions like "bureaucracy," "public administration," or "civil service."

Government can, however, also pursue its goals by making a few big contracts with universities and private corporations, which then hire individuals to do the work.

Contracting helps avoid the appearance of an ever more bloated government bureaucracy, since the individuals employed by private contractors are not counted as government employees. It also allows government to take advantage of existing organizations, with existing expertise and experience, rather than starting from scratch to assemble a government bureau to do a particular job.

The moon landings half a century ago largely relied on scientists, engineers and skilled mechanics employed by corporations that had contracted with the government.

Unlike government agencies which, once created, are virtually impossible to destroy, the contract with a private organization need not last forever.

Contracting also offers some possibility of reducing costs. The government deals directly only with corporate or university administrators, and will not make itself politically unpopular if it drives a hard bargain.

Stinginess in compensating individual government employees is less likely to be regarded as admirable, even though the lower costs similarly benefit taxpayers. Of course hard bargains when contracting out work will be reflected in the wages that the corporation or university can afford to pay, but fault appears to lie with the private employer rather than with the government.

Increased contracting may also have some disadvantages. It may hinder effective public supervision of government activity by making it even more complex and harder to understand. It may invite bribery by organizations seeking valuable contracts.

While rules requiring competitive bidding for government business have helped reduce corruption, the largest deals between the federal government and private organizations have not been put out to bid.

Although I have only referred to contracts between government, corporations and universities, the actual situation is even more complicated, since the federal government also contracts out work to state and local governments. Medicaid, for example, is a federal program but is administered by the state governments, in contrast with Medicare, which is administered directly by the federal government.

Government employees do very important work and deserve our appreciation. Their weather forecasts help farmers plan their work. Their research fuels future technology and economic growth. Their regulations protect us from dangerous foods, drugs, airliners and automobiles. Soldiers and diplomats protect us in a dangerous world.

Have you hugged a bureaucrat lately?

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966 and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981. His most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon and other states. Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Government employees do very important work and deserve our appreciation.
government, bureaucrat, employer, contract
Wednesday, 14 February 2024 02:46 PM
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