Yitzhak Klein
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Moving their cheese: politicians vs. bureaucrats

In a democracy, the political leadership's role is to create change where needed, and that means elected officials must be in charge of the bureaucrats

What’s the proper relationship between professionals in government bureaucracies and their elected officials? First, a relevant anecdote:

In July 1938, President Roosevelt, concerned by the rising threat of war in Europe, invited his senior generals and admirals to the Oval Office to discuss what America should do to prepare. The president put forth his proposal: “We need to build 30,000 airplanes!”

Like puppets on a string, the brass hats assembled around the table nodded up and down. The president hath spoken . . .

One senior officer was not present. The Army chief of staff was out of town on official business. To represent him he sent his deputy chief of staff, who sat on a sofa in a corner of the office.

Now, Deputy Chief of Staff was no big deal. Despite the title, the deputy was expected to act more like an office manager than the number two man in the Army hierarchy. The rank appropriate to the job was brigadier general, one star. Even in 1938, Washington swarmed with brigadier generals; they were a dime a dozen. Before adjourning his meeting Roosevelt, as an afterthought, said, “Well, the deputy chief of staff is here, let’s hear what he has to say.”

And the deputy said, “Well, Mr. President, I don’t think that would do at all.”

Jaws dropped. Heads turned. This guy contradicted the president in his own Oval Office! That’s it for him — he’ll finish up his career in charge of distributing Army mail in Alaska.

In a few trenchant sentences, the deputy chief of staff explained that the United States did not possess the military airfields to hold 30,000 aircraft, or the crews to fly and maintain them. Better to use the money to develop all the elements necessary to have, not planes, but an airforce capable of doing harm to an enemy. And the same went for the Army ground forces as well.

The deputy’s name was George Catlett Marshall. Twelve months later, Roosevelt promoted him over the heads of dozens of more senior generals, gave him four stars and made him chief of staff, smashing Army tradition and standard operating procedure. Marshall, in turn, orchestrated America’s enormous military effort in World War II. In doing so, he smashed Army traditions and procedures every month, from building a score of armored divisions to investing in thousands of heavy bombers that rained ruin on the cities of Germany and Japan (his predecessor thought they would never be of any use).

The point of this story is not just that President Roosevelt found a general he liked. Think of what the president’s decision meant for all those passed-over generals whom the president considered not good enough. One of the things Marshall did as chief of staff is weed out many of the men over whose heads he had been jumped, replacing them with more junior officers of his own choosing, men with an understanding of modern mechanized warfare who later became famous commanders of America’s army and air force in World War II.

The point of the story is the criticality of political control of public bureaucracies in a democracy.

Every institution has its own institutional point of view of its mission, its prerogatives, and, yes, its interests. Bureaucracies hate change, the more so when the changes imply that what they’ve been doing hitherto is outdated or even harmful. That they should feel this way is natural.

Nonetheless, the role of political leadership is precisely to create change when change is necessary. To make change happen political leaders have to put iconoclasts in charge of the bureaucracies, people who share the politicians’ views of what change is needed, even if means hurting feelings or tearing up long-accepted assumptions about the right policy.

In the last few weeks, Israel has been inundated by petitions by former placeholders in the bureaucracy and legal system warning that Israel’s democracy is coming to an end because the politicians are using their authority to shake things up and do things in ways they have never been done before. Retired officers have signed a petition arguing that letting politicians play the leading role in choosing who fills certain military jobs, as well as the policy changes politicians intend to make, threatens national security. Other petitioners argue that letting the police minister set priorities for law enforcement, and the policy changes the incoming National Security minister intends to make, threaten civil rights. Retired judges have signed a petition claiming that changing the way judges are appointed (to parallel the practices of most other democracies) threatens the rule of law. Educators have signed petitions arguing that taking pieces of the Education Ministry and putting them under the control of politicians with specific agendas in mind threatens education.

What readers should bear in mind is that all these people believe that the way things were done when they were in charge is the best possible way to do them. What they all have in common is that the incoming government threatens to move the bureaucrats’ cheese. Its declared policies constitute a critique that the people who are now complaining did not, when in authority, conduct themselves and their office in a manner most conducive to the public good. The petition-writers cannot be expected to agree.

Nonetheless a principle of democratic government is that elected officials are in charge of the bureaucrats — including how the bureaucracy is organized and what its missions and priorities are to be — and of policy. Any changes the politicians make in these arrangements are within their legal and constitutional competence.

Nobody can argue that the changes now being made, even if one disagrees with them, were made on a whim. The politicians who insist on them thought about them long and hard and gave ample notice to the public about what they intended to do. Having been elected on the basis of their platforms, they now possess a heavy responsibility, no less, indeed greater than the retired this or that who have petitioned against them: to execute the trust given them by their voters, using their legitimate powers in the manner that seems to them most appropriate to achieve their objectives.

The government’s opponents fear that it will use its authority to violate fundamental liberties. The members of the government claim no intention of doing so, and of course what would actually constitute such a violation is itself a matter of dispute between the parties. While this is an argument for prudence on the part of the government in exercising its authority, it cannot be an argument against the government taking the administrative steps it deems necessary and proper, or against its intention to implement the policies it was elected to carry out.

About the Author
Dr Yitzhak Klein is Head of the Department of Policy Research at Kohelet Policy Forum, Israel's leading conservative policy institute. He holds a PhD in International Relations.
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