Attempts of Fully Controlling Bureaucracy: Quae Merito?

Jochelle Greaves Siew


The performance of government bureaucrats profoundly impacts the daily lives of citizens, with their unseen decisions affecting, inter alia, the safety of society, public education standards, and working conditions. Still, scholars dispute the power of bureaucrats, and whether and how it should be controlled. Some contend that bureaucratic activity must be firmly controlled since bureaucrats are expected to shirk their responsibilities. Contrarily, others postulate that a trust-based system would be better-suited as bureaucrats subscribe to values related to public interest, professional norms, and organisational loyalty. This article conducts a review of relevant literature on ‘top-down’ and ‘trust-based’ control mechanisms in order to recommend suitable approaches for controlling bureaucratic activity, considering the factors which affect the nature of their work. It is shown that a trust-based model is appropriate as it results in an equilibrium being achieved, with discretion utilised as a tool for implementation, whilst bureaucratic activity is monitored and controlled in a less intrusive and demotivating manner. While command-and-control methods produce better results in cases where short-term cost control and productivity are in question, this approach is unsustainable in the long-run due to inherently faulty assumptions about bureaucratic motivation. This article also recognises that multiple mechanisms of control might be necessary, depending on what is appropriate according to political judgements on contexts and organisational goals. Bureaucrats are accountable in different ways, at several levels and to varying degrees, so the mechanisms used to monitor and control them should reflect this reality.

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