How to Use the Bureaucracy to Govern Well

Good Governance Paper by Rebecca Ingber:”…Below I offer four concrete recommendations for deploying Intentional Bureaucratic Architecture within the executive branch. But first, I will establish three key background considerations that provide context for these recommendations.  The focus of this piece is primarily executive branch legal decisionmaking, but many of these recommendations apply equally to other areas of policymaking.

First, make room for the views and expertise of career officials. As a political appointee entering a new office, ask those career officials: What are the big issues on the horizon on which we will need to take policy or legal views?  What are the problems with the positions I am inheriting?  What is and is not working?  Where are the points of conflict with our allies abroad or with Congress?  Career officials are the institutional memory of the government and often the only real experts in the specific work of their agency.  They will know about the skeletons in the closet and where the bodies are buried and all the other metaphors for knowing things that other people do not. Turn to them early. Value them. They will have views informed by experience rather than partisan politics. But all bureaucratic actors, including civil servants, also bring to the table their own biases, and they may overvalue the priorities of their own office over others. Valuing their role does not mean handing the reins over to the civil service—good governance requires exercising judgement and balancing the benefits of experience and expertise with fresh eyes and leadership. A savvy bureaucratic actor might know how to “get around” the bureaucratic roadblocks, but the wise bureaucratic player also knows how much the career bureaucracy has to offer and exercises judgment based in clear values about when to defer and when to overrule.

Second, get ahead of decisions: choose vehicles for action carefully and early. The reality of government life is that much of the big decisionmaking happens in the face of a fire drill. As I’ve written elsewhere, the trigger or “interpretation catalyst” that compels the government to consider and assert a position—in other words, the cause of that fire drill—shapes the whole process of decisionmaking and the resulting decision. When an issue arises in defensive litigation, a litigation-driven process controls.  That means that career line attorneys shape the government’s legal posture, drawing from longstanding positions and often using language from old briefs. DOJ calls the shots in a context biased toward zealous defense of past action. That looks very different from a decisionmaking process that results from the president issuing an executive order or presidential memorandum, a White House official deciding to make a speech, the State Department filing a report with a treaty body, or DOD considering whether to engage in an operation involving force. Each of these interpretation catalysts triggers a different process for decisionmaking that will shape the resulting outcome.  But because of the stickiness of government decisions—and the urgent need to move on to the next fire drill—these positions become entrenched once taken. That means that the process and outcome are driven by the hazards of external events, unless officials find ways to take the reins and get ahead of them.

And finally, an incoming administration must put real effort into Intentional Bureaucratic Architecture by deliberately and deliberatively creating and managing the bureaucratic processes in which decisionmaking happens. Novel issues arise and fire drills will inevitably happen in even the best prepared administrations.  The bureaucratic architecture will dictate how decisionmaking happens from the novel crises to the bread and butter of daily agency work. There are countless varieties of decisionmaking models inside the executive branch, which I have classified in other work. These include a unitary decider model, of which DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is a prime example, an agency decider model, and a group lawyering model. All of these models will continue to co-exist. Most modern national security decisionmaking engages the interests and operations of multiple agencies. Therefore, in a functional government, most of these decisions will involve group lawyering in some format—from agency lawyers picking up the phone to coordinate with counterparts in other agencies to ad hoc meetings to formal regularized working groups with clear hierarchies all the way up to the cabinet. Often these processes evolve organically, as issues arise. Some are created from the top down by presidential administrations that want to impose order on the process. But all of these group lawyering dynamics often lack a well-defined process for determining the outcome in cases of conflict or deciding how to establish a clear output. This requires rule setting and organizing the process from the top down….(More).