Most of the people who keep tabs on the workings of the federal government, no matter what the reasons for their interest, seem to take for granted the power and autonomy of the chiefs of the bureaus that make up the executive branch. Because so much is taken for granted, there have not been many studies of what the chiefs actually do day by day. Of all the participants in the governmental process who wield–or are thought to wield–great influence, bureau chiefs are among the least examined.
Believing that he could narrow this gap in the materials on the federal government somewhat, Herbert Kaufman set out to report his observations of six bureau chiefs at their jobs in the course of a year. The group consisted of the commissioners of the Internal Revenue Service, the Customs Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Social Security Administration; the chief of the Forest Service; and the administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service–a set diversified enough to include a wide variety of organizational situations and experiences, yet with enough in common to allow comparison and generalization.
The objective of his research was to describe the chief’s activities so as to explain how they exercise their power. And he hoped to find out whether they are as powerful as they are said to be.
From his efforts emerges a detailed picture of the work of the bureau leaders and of their role in their agencies and in the government generally. The picture reveals that some of the common beliefs about these officials, and perhaps about the system as a whole, are not altogether accurate. Kaufman traces the implications of his findings for organizing the executive branch, for training administrators, and for organization theory.
Herbert Kaufman was a professor of political science at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.