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The Role of Bureaucracy in the Policy-Making Process

Bureaucracy, or administration, systematically arranges the work of large groups of people and manages the implementation of programs and policies. The role of bureaucracy is thus set in the areas of organization and realization. Often administrative bodies are viewed as inefficient because of constant growth—and a difficulty in controlling it, but bureaucracy plays a vital role in providing services to people. Max Weber valued administration as a beneficial way of organizing human life, as well as social and political activities. At the same time, he was equivocal about its role in a democratic society. Bureaucracy’s effectiveness, according to Weber, is based on hierarchy, the division of labor, specialization, and a utilization of standard operating procedures (Etzioni-Halevy, 2013). The negative aspect of administration is linked to “the permeation of bureaucratic values and ways of thought throughout the population” (p. 32). Governmental administration does not hold the right to create laws; instead, it puts into action legislation proposed by elected officials.

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So although bureaucracy is not a formal branch of the policy-making process, its role in the mechanism that is law-creating is indispensable. First of all, administration members are highly skilled professionals who bring expertise in specific fields. In comparison to representatives of the legislative branch of power, who have knowledge in diverse areas, bureaucrats comprehend more about the specific issues that form the foundation for developed policies. Moreover, specialization in a particular field means administrative workers bring insights about details and mechanisms of policy implementation. The actions of the bureaucracy are valuable both for the government and for society, yet the notion of power abuse by administration is frequent among scholars and circulates among the population. As stated in Gerston’s study (2010), bureaucrats cannot be controlled by the policy makers or by the public. Administrative officials decide which laws may or may not pass; they make rules that affect policies and applications of them (p. 85). The beneficial side of bureaucracy is in assisting policymakers to develop and carry out laws, while ambiguity about over-exploitation of power by administrative bodies builds skepticism among congressional officials and society.

An example of a bureaucratic agency is the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This institution includes the following departments: the National Institute of Health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The primary goal of HHS is to protect physical and mental wellness of the country’s citizens and provide valuable social services to them. The FDA holds the authority to certify medicine (Klasmeier & Redish, 2011), thus it can restrict the distribution of prescribed drugs. The department can also initiate policies regarding food safety. (The Food and Drug Administration, 2011). An example of the regulation of “off-label” treatments, when a medical care for one purpose can be used for other therapeutic aims, demonstrates the power of the agency over policy-making processes. According to Klasmeier and Redish (2011), Congress was forcing the FDA to expand control over off-label treatments by developing regulations which authorized management of the spread of information about medication’s additional capacities. The result of Congress’ pressure was that the FDA’s policy forced the makers of medications to distribute only the information about the off-label drugs that was certified by experts (p.7). Although the first attempt at regulation of supplementary capacities of medical care failed, the FDA continued its work on the issue through research and development, and the implementation of regulations to adjacent products; finally, the FDA succeeded in prohibiting promotion of information from producers about off-label treatments.

This case study serves as an example of the power of bureaucracy. Agencies like HHS, which contains several influential divisions, have excessive intellectual, technological, and financial resources which allow them not only to influence policy-making processes but also to advocate and promote their ideas. The case of the off-label treatments also demonstrates the tight connections between bureaucracy and other branches of power such as the legislative (Congress) and judicial (the Supreme Court) bodies. The FDA’s actions on the elimination of off-label advertising have not been blocked; however, the Supreme Court stands on the position of insurance of commercial speech rights. For civil rights advocates, the FDA’s restrictive policies and Court support of the agency are remarkably politicized. The case indicates a violation of producers’ constitutional rights – the First Amendment in particular – to the dissemination of information. Moreover, off-label promotional restraints disregard consumers’ rights to obtain explicit information about medical treatment options.

Medicine production, labeling, and distribution are noteworthy areas of domestic policy-making. Governmental institutions aim to protect people from harmful and fraudulent medication as well as from mistreatment. Considering the previously mentioned case, Congress, the national agency, and the Supreme Court are involved in the policy-making process. The mutual work of these institutions affected policy and as a result, affected industry practices; however, therapists and medical practitioners have been opposing development and application of these regulations. The case illustrates the potential for controversy in the policy-making process and bureaucracy’s role in it. Professionals with varying opinions stand the opposite sides. Administration officials want to protect people from mistreatment with the help of sufficient information to back up their decisions.

On the other hand, medical practitioners aim to assist individuals who require treatment and thus view policies and regulations as obstacles. While both sides struggle to defend their positions in the name of the common good, prospective beneficiaries – the people – remain in a state of confusion. The problem is a gap among policymakers, administrate officials, and citizens. Large organizations which are working on the regulations are not easy to control. Space for reform can be found in active civic participation through non-governmental and non-commercial organizations. Civil supervision can be useful in preventing an abuse of power by these agencies. Although people do not elect administrative officials, cooperation with the citizens’ activist groups motivates bureaucrats to a higher level of responsibility. Policymakers and bureaucrats must provide adequate information about their initiatives and they must communicate closely with professional bodies of citizens while developing and implementing regulations.

The notion to eliminate bureaucracy is utopian and does not count as a solution regarding the party that is charged with administrative tasks. At the same time, the constant growth of organizational bodies brings to reality Weber’s fears of the bureaucratization of society. The solution lies in efficient communication among all parties, where people, policymakers, and administrative officials can share their thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and limitations. Hence, the interests of each group may be satisfied with less effort.

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Etzioni-Halevy, E. (2013). Bureaucracy and Democracy (Routledge Library Editions: Political Science Volume 7) (Vol. 7). London, the United Kingdom: Routledge. Web.

Gerston, L. N. (2010). Public policy making: Process and principles. New York, the United States: Routledge. Web.

Klasmeier, C., & Redish, M. H. (2011). Off-label prescription advertising, the FDA and the first amendment: a study in the values of commercial speech protection. Web.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services, the United States Food and Grus Administration. (2011) The Full text of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) (Public Law 111-353). Web.

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StudyCorgi. "The Role of Bureaucracy in the Policy-Making Process." December 20, 2021.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Role of Bureaucracy in the Policy-Making Process'. 20 December.

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