American governmental structure began to take on its present form during the Progressive Reform Era, 1900-1915. Progressives decried the waste and corruption in government at all levels and desired professional administration based on fixed principles.
Their enemy was the political party, and they believed administration could be separate from politics. Some of their accomplishments — line-item budgeting and civil service — took root everywhere. Their desire for professional management led to the creation of independent commissions such as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Appointed board members serve staggered terms. They have flexibility in setting their budgets and are staffed by strong teams of experts (i.e., lawyers, engineers).
This particular form of bureaucracy provides an excellent illustration of a continuing administrative conflict. Efficiency can be gained only at the expense of accountability and vice versa.
The more removed an administrative entity is from legislative oversight, the freer it is to pursue its professional goals without interference. At the same time, it is not answerable to the people through their elected representatives.
Woodrow Wilson recognized this conundrum. In “The Study of Administration,” he acknowledged the need for oversight but said that it should not be “meddlesome.” He had no ready answer on how to achieve accountability without sacrificing operational achievement. He hoped the ennobling nature of the tasks would keep administrators in harmony with the laws.
Yet, human beings often fit their labor to their convenience and/or to the reward system in their workplace. Interestingly, some of the early regulatory commissions were captured by the industries they regulated. This was not a single conscious action but came about as those with shared backgrounds found it easy to work together.
Regrettably, bureaucrats may often forget the purposes of their bureaus and, instead, work to ensure their own comfort and stability. To ensure accountability means, legislators must use time and resources to check on the agencies. This work is seldom welcomed And often, reforms only come after independent audits.
Accountability becomes more difficult when bureaus cross jurisdictional lines. For instance, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which administers area bridges and tunnels, sets its own mission and goals. The governor of each state appoints staff. But it’s not clear to whom the authority is beholden – though it is now clear that political manipulation is possible.
We have similar arrangements. St. Louis and St. Louis County joined together to create the Metropolitan Sewer District and the Zoo-Museum District with its 5 institutional members. These are often viewed as a wonderful coming together but none is answerable to elected officials in either the city or county.
These institutions raise their own money, from dedicated taxes, user charges or donations. They spend as their boards decide. It is only audits by the state auditor that have revealed certain very questionable undertakings.
The entities in the Zoo-Museum district often receive plaudits from those in their fields and have a wide following among the wealthy and connected as well as the general public. But their decisions often do not see the light of day and, in the case of land acquisition on Delmar by the History Museum, can be very questionable.
Is this a model for future city-county cooperation? In some ways it is. We enjoy the benefit of the institutions. But we sacrifice accountability in the process.
Woodrow Wilson did not have solution for the problem and neither do I. However, as we think about recasting institutional arrangements, we should not downgrade the need to hold bureaucrats of all kinds accountable.
Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.