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The term administrative state denotes political systems in contemporary developed nations with rationally organized, technically oriented government agencies that play large, central, and powerful roles in the formulation of public policy and the implementation of government services, constraints, functions, and programs. The term came into common usage in political science with the publication of Dwight Waldo’s classic 1948 book The Administrative State. The administrative state developed from a variety of historical causes including the rise of the twentieth century welfare-warfare state, market failures in capitalist economies, and socialist economic organization.
A chief characteristic of the administrative state is the development of a new and relatively independent power center in government, typically referred to as “the bureaucracy,” that is difficult for chief executives, legislatures, and courts to control.
Independence develops from the selection of tenured administrative personnel based on technical expertise (merit), the scope of administrative tasks and the detailed knowledge they require, and the continuous operation of administrative units regardless of changes in their leadership and staff. Such units are difficult for legislators, elected and politically appointed executives, and courts to supervise and hold accountable due to their technical expertise, knowledge of and adherence to routine, scope of activity, and limited transparency.
The organization of administrative units in the administrative state is typically bureaucratic; that is, incorporating specialization, hierarchy, expertise, impersonality, and large size. Specialization of units is by jurisdiction and function. Ministries or departments are generally the largest units. Smaller units are called agencies, and subunits are called bureaus. Jurisdictional specialization is manifested in such units as Ministries or Departments of Labor, Commerce, Agriculture, and Interior, among others. Specialization by function forms the basis of units devoted to such matters as defense; national security; crime control; education; nuclear power; welfare; and economic, environmental, and social regulation, as well as for overhead administrative activities such as budgeting, procurement, and personnel administration.
These categories are not wholly distinct—overlaps are common and one person’s regulation may be another’s service, as in the case of measures for consumer protection. Hierarchy reaching upward through political appointees in the administrative units to the various offices of the chief executive and culminating with the president, premier, or prime minister promotes coordination of the administrative component as a whole. Expertise, sometimes referred to as “techno rationality,” results from specialization and the selection of administrative personnel based on merit. Impersonality, which contributes to procedural regularity and continuity of operations, is promoted by organizations based on positions rather than on persons (e.g., individual administrators), adherence to comprehensive procedural rules for decision making and other actions, and communication in writing. Large size is a function of the broad range of policies and activities dealt with by the administrative state.
Separation Of Powers Versus Parliamentary Systems
In separation-of-powers systems, the administrative state is at odds with the governmental design because administrative units combine all three functions of government: execution, legislation, and adjudication. Execution of legal mandates is the primary function of administrative units. However, they also legislate in a generic sense by enacting rules setting regulatory standards that have the force of law. Administrative units also adjudicate a wide variety of economic conflicts, such as whether a labor or advertising practice is fair. The collapse of the separation of functions into a modern nation’s administrative component and its individual units is an inevitable outgrowth of expansion in the scope of governmental activity. Legislatures lack the capacity to draft laws with detailed standards for a host of economic, social, and other activities and environmental and other conditions subject to governmental regulation. Similarly, court systems would require dramatic expansion to deal effectively with all the conflicts resolved through administrative adjudication. Because agencies exercise executive, legislative, and adjudicatory functions, they are apt to be subject to some degree of direction and oversight by each branch of government, sometimes dictating conflicting courses of action.
The administrative state in parliamentary systems is more in keeping with the governmental design because the legislative and executive functions are fused in the sense that the political executive is formally a creature of the legislature. Nevertheless, the elective governmental institutions and courts may lack the capacity to exercise close direction over the whole range of administrative operations.
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