Everyone loves bitching about bureaucrats but few know what it is exactly that they do. Ed Page‘s new book ‘Policies without Politicians’ provides plenty of insights. As I mention at the end of this book review, everyone who theorizes or criticizes bureaucrats should read the book as a reality check. A shorter version of the review is forthcoming in West European Politics later
This book is about the making of decrees such as the Alcohol Disorder Zones in the UK, Salmon critical habitats in the US, Horse Medicines in the EU and Women’s Organizations in Sweden. If you suspect these issues are rather prosaic, you are not alone. And this is precisely the point. This book is about the making of policies in the absence of sustained attention by politicians. It is a study of how bureaucrats make rules when mostly left to their own devices. It is an exploration into the nature and limits of bureaucratic discretion to regulate our lives.
The main conclusion, based on an analysis of 58 issues in six political systems, is that the freedom enjoyed by civil servants and their insulation from political control are in practice severely limited if not completely illusory, even when it comes to the relatively minor issues discussed in the book. Admittedly, this is a rather prosaic conclusion as well, but one that is comforting, timely andimportant. It is comforting to the extent that it dispels the popular myth of the faceless bureaucrats controlling our lives. It is timely because theories of policy-making and politico-administrative relations have became increasingly preoccupied with issues like bureaucratic drift, shirking, delegation costs, and the like with little evidence that these actually matter in real life. Finally, the conclusion is important in
view of the continuing tendency of political science to ignore the pedestrian reality of everyday policy making which although lacking the suspense of high politics comprises the bulk of the activities of states and public organizations.
The book contains an introduction, six empirical chapters covering policy-making in France, Britain, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and the European Union, and a conclusion. In this review I will follow the opposite route by first summarizing part of the generalizations offered in the last part, then focusing on some of the country-level insights, and finally commenting on the approach of the book.
Studying the origin and passage of a moderately large sample of secondary legislation (decrees), Edward Page concludes that politicians generally get their way even if their attention towards the issues is sporadic. Bureaucrats anticipate the preferences of their political masters and adjust the text of the decrees to the politicians’ explicit or assumed wishes. Moreover, bureaucratic discretion is severely constrained by precedent, existing legal codes, and procedural rules for the preparation of legislation, in addition to the need to anticipate and avoid political vetoes. And if for most of the decrees political direction is passive, there is a tendency for the relatively important ones to be developed under direct
and active political guidance.Contrary to theoretical expectations, the technical and scientific character of many of the issues is not sufficient to exclude political involvement (p.153). Also running against some popular theoretical ideas based on principal-agent modeling is the observation that it was never an ‘alarm’ set off by interest groups (p.151) that brought political attention to an issue. Again, bureaucrats tend to detectand anticipate potential conflicts and solve them before they offer the decrees for final approval. But it
is internal norms rather than external scrutiny or outside interests that are most important in keeping the bureaucrats in check, according to the book (p.165).
Politicians appear to be most often involved in the legitimation of decrees, but that does not mean bureaucrats have a free hand during the agenda-setting stage. Not only did many decrees offer no scope for policy deliberation at all, but in most cases there was almost no scope for choice whether to introduce the proposal in the first place: proposals often followed automatically from prior commitments in primary legislation, the need to update, codify, or clean up existing rules, or the obligation to apply international norms and agreements. In this context the author is right to question the relevance of theoretical concerns like bureaucratic drift and shirking, and ponder what would selfinterested
bureaucratic preferences even look like with regard to many of the policy issues discussed in the book (p.160). If one looks for the influence of civil servants, it is not to be found in the supposedly unconstrained discretion they enjoy in pushing their own agendas or preferences, but in the routinization, regularization and adjustment of policy they perform (pp.168-170).
These general patterns seem to be influenced by the national institutional context (pp.155-158) and vary to some extent across the six political systems studied. Sweden appears to be the place where politicians are most likely to get involved in the preparation of decrees even when one would expects them not to. On the other end of the spectrum, the UK and Germany exhibit the lowest degree of direct political involvement. In the German case, this stems from the fact that potential conflicts are solved in different institutional arenas before the drafting of the decrees had even started. As for the UK, the book posits a ‘general reluctance among politicians to get directly and actively involved in the activity of
rule-making ‘ (p.157). A surprising degree of political involvement (mostly as agenda selectors) is found in the generally pluralist American system, in addition to the continual importance of the agency as the central locus of organizational identity for American bureaucrats. The French system is found to be unexpectedly ‘as close to interest group corporatism as it is to the traditional aloof ‘strong state”’ (p.44).
But it is the chapter on the European Union that most strongly contradicts the popular perceptions and received common, if not academic, wisdom. Page is clear that ‘the role of Commission bureaucrats as [policy] initiators was highly limited’ (p.128), Commissioners often get directly involved, and there is very little scope for independent action. Far from enjoying a bureaucrat’s paradise, civil servants in the European Union appear to have very little substantial autonomy and influence.
Although the synchronic comparisons between the six political systems and the diachronic
comparisons with previous academic accounts suggest intriguing patterns, the book can pursue them only as far. The study is unapologetically inductive, there is little effort to systematize the empirical mess of real-word policy-making into variables, and the case selection is driven primarily by pragmatic reasons. While this serves the exploratory objectives of the book well, it also posits limits on the inferences and generalizations one can make. Since the sample of issues (decrees) is not (intended to be) representative it is difficult to judge whether the case studies provide evidence for genuine change in national policy-making styles (e.g. France, the US), or for systematic differences between countries (e.g. Sweden vs. the UK). Since the decrees researched differ across the six political systems, the question why certain issues are left for bureaucratic policy-making (decrees) in one country but get in the social and political prime-time in others is left answered. Furthermore, by selecting only cases which eventually resulted in a decree, the book might have overlooked potentially interesting cases where (political) conflict stopped the development of policy in its tracks.
These points are as much suggestions for future research as they are criticisms of the current volume. The book is quite clear about its own limitations deliberately positioning itself as an inductive exploration. And it achieves its purpose rather well. As the author notes, it is difficult to produce a good book describing cases which are dull and boring by definition, but, although not gripping, the text manages to provide just enough detail and institutional context to keep the reader interested. In fact, the short presentations of the six policy-making systems contained in each of the country chapters make the book suitable for primary or complementary reading for academic courses on comparative bureaucracy and comparative public policy. But above all, the book should be required reading, and a
reality check, for all those who theorize and criticize bureaucracy and bureaucrats for their alleged discretion in regulating our lives.