The Executive Essay

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The word execute means “to put into effect”; thus, executive agencies are those institutions of government that carry out the will of whoever controls government. In a democracy, the executive is expected to follow the direction of popularly elected leaders; in a dictatorship, the executive is expected to do whatever the dictator commands. Every type of government relies on organizations that ensure that its laws are faithfully executed. In an era of big government, this means not only enforcing laws that require citizens to pay taxes but also executing laws that deliver benefits to citizens, such as education and social security checks.

Every state has a multiplicity of organizations to execute its many programs; otherwise the intentions of rulers would be only invocations of what they would like to see happen. To turn intentions into public policies that affect citizens, a government must have the organizational means to get things done. Without a functioning executive, a government would be little more than courtiers in the household of a monarch whose will has little or no effect outside the gates of the royal palace. With an effective executive, the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were able to build pyramids and control the floodwaters of the river Nile. Today, the executive is used to deliver the public policies that collectively affect every household and every citizen. If executive institutions ceased to carry out their tasks, for example, in the aftermath of military defeat, this would result in a failed state. This occurred in Baghdad, Iraq, immediately after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The organizations that put the intentions of governors into effect are described as the executive branch of government. Executive is a collective noun, and the organizations that can be grouped together under that heading differ in many respects. They can be headed by elected officials, political appointees, or individuals chosen because they are experts, for example, a medical doctor in charge of a public health agency. Some executive institutions are located in the national capital, while others are part of local government, and some have offices nationwide.

Executive agencies provide continuity in the work of government. Because a constitution is difficult to amend, the institutional structure of government changes little when an election replaces one president with another or when parties alternate between controlling the cabinet or being in opposition in a parliamentary system. In public policy whatever an election outcome, executive agencies maintain activities laid down in laws enacted by administrations in the past. The money to pay for these activities comes from public budgets funded by the routine collection of taxes by revenue agencies. Many of these laws were enacted so long ago that the services in question—free secondary education, social security benefits, or clean air—are taken for granted.

The structure of the executive branch is often described as a hierarchy: political officials at the top of a pyramid, deciding what ought to be done; expert civil servants advising on technical and practical matters of policy and supervising the actions of lower-ranking officials administering policies; and public employees at the bottom delivering the outputs of public policy. Alternatively, a geographical model characterizes the executive as a sprawling range of hills with the bulk of the population living in the valleys distant from policy makers at the peak of executive institutions. To execute policies nationwide, central government departments cannot be confined to the national capital. They must have regional and local offices, or the actual execution of policies must be placed in the hands of regional and local governments and specific functional institutions such as hospitals.

Organizing For Political Decisions

To give direction to executive agencies requires the political power to make decisions that are binding on many lower-level public employees. Formally, this power can be placed in a single office, that of a president or a dictator, or it can be given to a collective body, such as the cabinet in a parliamentary system.

American government is an extreme example of a democratic system that formally concentrates executive authority in a single individual. Article II of the U.S. Constitution declares, “The executive power shall be vested in a president.” The Constitution says little about what the executive power consists of, beyond that of being the commander in chief of the army and navy and appointing ambassadors and judges. At the end of the eighteenth century, the federal government had few policies and few resources.

Today, the policies and institutions of the executive branch are vast. The United States Government Manual, published annually by the U.S. Government Printing Office, requires almost five hundred double-column pages to list in succinct form the dozens of agencies into which the federal executive is divided. The roles of the president have expanded too. Today, the president is meant to be head of state, leader of public opinion, manager of the economy, commander in chief of the armed forces, and leader of the free world as well as head of the executive branch. Each of these roles is extroverted, that is, it directs attention away from what is happening within the executive branch to what is happening in the national economy, on other continents, and in public opinion polls.

Since the president has not gained any more hours in the week to deal with these problems, the more numerous and varied the activities of the executive branch, the less time a president can devote to the great majority of policies that officials carry out in the president’s name. In the words of presidential scholar Richard Neustadt, “The president is the prisoner of first things first; and almost always something else comes first. ”The chief priorities for presidential policy making are major issues of national security and the economy, problems extending outside the control of the executive branch.

The president cannot be a hands-on chief executive as may be the case with the head of a business firm. Management by exception, that is, concentrating on what is out of the ordinary, leaves supervision of routine activities of the executive branch in the hands of others. Nominal subordinates may appropriate the authority of the White House to advance their own interests and importance. For example, Richard Nixon was not consulted by White House staff who organized the Watergate break-in; he nonetheless paid a high price for covering up what his nominal subordinates initiated.

On many continents political leaders have sought to be strong presidents unchecked by the courts, a legislature, or even free elections. This can lead to a dictatorship in which power is personal. Major executive agencies can be placed in the hands of loyal followers who can influence the execution of laws corruptly in ways that benefit themselves and their political allies and punish their opponents. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party placed party officials within the executive to make sure that public officials followed the party line. Josef Stalin, general secretary of the Communist Party, used terror and arbitrary punishments to enforce his will on the executive. In Nazi Germany, underlings perverted the workings of the executive in enthusiastic attempts to carry out what they thought Adolf Hitler would want. The People’s Republic of China is today an outstanding example of a collective, undemocratic executive, concentrating ultimate authority in the hands of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Parliamentary democracies place control of the executive in the hands of a cabinet consisting of a prime minister and major politicians in the governing party. Ministers are individually in charge of the departments that collectively constitute the executive branch. The prime minister can practice intervention by making a preemptive claim to handle a policy in a crisis rather than leave it in the hands of a cabinet minister; however, cabinet ministers collectively have their hands on the departments of government. The prime minister’s political eminence makes him or her the focus of media attention, which is sometimes favorable and sometimes unfavorable. The prime minister holds office as long as he or she can maintain the confidence of a majority of members of Parliament. Individual ministers are concerned not only with heading a government department but also with promoting their own popularity in Parliament, in their party, and with the public.

European political systems usually have a coalition government relying on two or more parties to constitute a majority in Parliament. Ministers in charge of departments of the executive branch are politicians of different parties. Coalition government strengthens the position of departmental ministers, who tend to see their political role as giving direction to their own department and to benefit their own party rather than government as a whole. This weakens the prime minister’s authority in the executive branch; his or her first priority must be to maintain the support of a coalition of parties, or he or she will lose office by the collapse of the coalition. An American president often has problems dealing with Congress but remains head of the executive branch for the full duration of a four-year fixed term.

The European Union illustrates what happens when officials in the equivalent of its executive branch, the European Commission in Brussels, lack executive power. Officials in the departments of the commission can make decisions that are meant to have an impact across the whole of the European Union. However, the commission depends on the national governments of its twenty-seven member states to translate its decisions into national laws and to administer them in ways that are consistent with the intentions of the commission. It does not have executive control over what is done in its name. Nor does the commission have sanctions to invoke against a government that drifts from the intent of its directives; this is left to the courts.

Because the executive branch is both large and heterogeneous, decision making cannot be concentrated in a single person or a cabinet meeting a few hours a week. The concept of the core executive has been developed as a complement to the legalistic description of the executive. For any given issue, the membership of the core executive consists of a network of limited size that includes representatives of the major political groups affected by a decision and its implementation. A president or prime minister monitors the deliberations of core executive groups dealing with major issues. In the very porous American system, participants can include select members of Congress, committee chairs, their staffs, lobbyists, academic experts, and others with a stake in an issue. The membership of the core executive is not fixed, as are such formal offices as president or prime minister. Instead, it shifts with the issue at hand: executive branch officials involved in executing national security policies differ from those executing health policies. When disagreements arise between different organizations, they are resolved by political negotiations: politics unites what institutions divide.

Organizing To Do Things

In the introverted world of politics within the national capital, the most important concerns are those affecting power struggles and bargaining within the core executive. But for the outcome of such struggles to influence society, those powerful within the core executive must reach out to deliver programs to citizens far from the corridors of power in cities, suburbs, and rural areas that are hundreds or even thousands of miles from the national capital.

To understand the execution of public policy requires broadening attention from the core executive within central government to the great variety of public agencies delivering programs wherever citizens live. In the American federal system, this includes state and local government institutions, separately elected school boards, public utilities, state universities, and special-purpose organizations executing everything from sewage disposal to printing money. In European welfare states, executive agencies extend to hospitals and a number of industries in state ownership. Every executive agency can be characterized in terms of its territorial scope, whether national, regional, or local, and in terms of its functions, whether broad, such as education, or narrow, such as running programs for disabled children or funding research in science and technology.

The programs of government. Whereas the institutions of government describe what government is, the programs of government describe what it does. Historically, government developed to maintain domestic order and provide security against foreign invasion. To do this required an army, diplomats, a police force, courts, and tax collectors. These programs remain major concerns of governors today. The agencies executing these policies are at the center of central government; they also appropriate outside the country to deal with foreign policy, the international economy, and military and counterterrorism actions. While the maintenance of public order can be described as a public good, many citizens have viewed collection of taxes as a public “bad.”

Industrialization challenged government with new problems, such as providing sewage and clean water in cities; today, government executes programs dealing with air pollution, wherever it occurs. Regulatory agencies were created to ensure safety at work and that food was not contaminated. Today, every government has a variety of executive responsibilities for industry, employment, and trade. Whereas laws and budgets for these programs are enacted in the national capital, they must be executed on the spot, as in the case of inspecting factories. Unemployed people seek jobs from local employment agencies, and trade departments promote the export of domestically produced products through offices on every continent.

Social programs now account for the bulk of the money that government spends. Social security is the most costly program, with health second and education third. These programs are important to individuals throughout their lives, and at any given time every household benefits from one or two of these programs. In this way people are in regular contact with executive agencies such as local schools and hospitals far removed from decision making at the top of the executive branch.

The growth of government has not been led by a big increase in the number of popularly elected representatives but by the great increase in the number of programs that government delivers. In turn, this has greatly increased the variety of institutions that collectively constitute government’s executive agencies. Growth has occurred not at the top of the executive branch but mainly at the base through the multiplication of schools, hospitals, and other agencies responsible for delivering services to citizens nationwide. To understand the sprawling range of executive agencies, we must look outside as well as inside central government.

Different structures for different programs. Every public agency is authorized by laws that set out its policies, resources, organization structure, and geographical scope within which it can execute its responsibilities. Within government, there are big differences in goals, resources, and geographical scope. Departments of defense within two countries are likely to have more in common than do a department of defense and a department of agriculture within the same country.

To deliver programs, executive agencies can draw on three resources: laws, money, and personnel. Although most programs make at least minimal claims on all three resources, they differ radically in the relative importance of each. Programs concerned with citizenship or abortion tend to be law intensive: laws set out what people can or cannot do within a minimum of involvement by executive agencies. Social security programs are money intensive: the principal responsibility of a social security agency is to collect social security taxes and pay out social security benefits. Education and health programs are labor intensive; they entitle people to receive the services of teachers, doctors, and nurses.

The organizations that constitute the executive vary with the nature of the program. An organization chart that is limited to the top of the executive branch—for example, members of the cabinet in a parliamentary system or heads of presidential agencies—is misleading. Even though a department may have a head with singular authority, within every department divisions have different and competing priorities. In a department of health, there is a common goal of promoting good health, but there are differences in the spending priorities of those concerned with promoting the health of children, those caring for older persons in ill health, bureaus concerned with the treatment of mental health, and those dealing with cancer. In a ministry of education, the concerns and priorities may be related logically but not related in the work of bureaus responsible for such different educational programs as primary education, scientific research, and educating the blind.

From a program perspective, a map of executive agencies is radically different from an organization chart that focuses on the top of central government. An agency concerned with broad issues of economic policy will have few employees but a high concentration of economic experts. It will also be based as close as possible to the key political decision makers in the national capital. By contrast, an organization concerned with delivering the mail to every household requires a network of local offices to take mail to the doorstep, regional offices to sort mail for distribution, and a small central coordinating office in the national capital.

Very few agencies are hierarchical command-and-control institutions in which the decisions of the political head are meant to be executed without question. A ministry of defense approximates this form of organization because there is a clear chain of command from the lowest to the highest-ranking officers in the army, navy, and air force. In turn, each armed service is responsible to a politically appointed minister of defense, and the minister is accountable to the president or to a cabinet and parliament. Yet this seemingly simple structure is complicated by differences in the ways in which the army, the navy, and the air force provide defense and in intradepartmental competition about which should be given the most money and the best equipment. Moreover, while civilian heads of the military can pull rank on uniformed officers, career military officials can claim that their expertise in defense matters gives them a claim to influence political decisions.

Some executive agencies are top heavy because their programs are exclusively the responsibility of central government, for example, the foreign ministry. It is distinctive in having far more staff scattered across the globe in its embassies without any branches within the country it represents. By contrast, a traditional program of government such as trash collection is executed by local government agencies rather than by a central government department for trash. A pensions ministry is concerned with a program paying out money to millions of people wherever they live. It requires a central office to pool the payments that individuals and employers make and to make payments from its central fund by computerized bank transfer. Thus, the British agency responsible for paying pensions is located more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) from London, and in the United States the Social Security Administration is located in Baltimore, Maryland, rather than Washington, D.C.

Health and education programs require the dispersion of schools, doctors’ offices, and hospitals nationwide. Federal systems make this a point of principle: many services of this type are primarily the responsibility of the states that are partners to a federal compact. Unitary states accept institutional devolution as a necessary consequence of the welfare state. In the most centralized unitary states, the national ministry of education may have regional and local offices, employ teachers at all levels from primary school upward, and make decisions about the school curriculum. However, the top minister’s capacity to influence the delivery of services is shared with those who are employed locally, and local education authorities turn over responsibility for delivering education to school heads and then to classroom teachers. Teachers have professional training in how to educate youths and considerable discretion in the classroom due to the remoteness of their nominal superiors.

The executive is multilevel and has many sides. Within every executive agency, the personnel are mixed. The leadership can be elected politicians and partisan supporters. In the United States, the president appoints hundreds from outside the Washington, D.C., area to high positions. In Europe, many of these posts are occupied by civil servants who are very experienced in the affairs of the department. In Britain, they are politically ambidextrous, that is, prepared to work for a government from either side of the House of Commons, whereas in continental Europe, high-ranking civil servants can combine party loyalties and expert knowledge of government. Government departments also have senior staff recruited for their expertise, for example, generals and admirals in the department of defense, economists in the central bank, and scientists in a department of the environment. However, for every one person to give direction to a program, there are likely to be hundreds employed to deliver it.

A comprehensive map of the executive branch, like a geographical relief map, needs to take into account both peaks in the national capital and valleys where most citizens live and where most public employees work. It must also take into account differences between programs. Those concerned with problems that are collective, such as the ministry of defense and the central bank, must be in the national capital. However, those concerned with delivering services such as health care, trash collection, and roads must operate wherever citizens live. While most of the money spent by executive agencies comes from national taxation, most of the people employed in delivering public goods and services are employed by local and regional government or by hospitals, schools, and universities.

The functional and geographical diversity of executive institutions creates the problem of joining up government. President Woodrow Wilson reflected, “I live in the midst of the government of the United States, but I never saw the government of the United States.” A half century later a report commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson concluded, “The federal government remains largely a collection of fragmented bureau fiefdoms unable to co-ordinate with themselves intelligently.”

The Politics Of The Executive Government

Politics provides a dynamic stimulus to the routine activities of executive agencies. Different agencies that are nominally subordinate to the same president or cabinet can fight for budget resources, for priority in promoting new legislation, and for the president’s or prime minister’s favor. Within a government agency there are debates about which part of the agency should benefit if there is extra money to be spent and which part should suffer if there is a budget cut. There are also debates about whether and how many existing programs should be altered and which new programs an agency should promote. Politicians tend to favor making changes for which they can claim credit, whereas career officials tend to favor the status quo. Expert staff can be pulled two ways, favoring innovations that fit their professional views of what government ought to do while opposing initiatives that politicians endorse but that public employees could not deliver.

Agencies operating at different levels of government and responsible for different policies are becoming increasingly interdependent. For example, what universities teach undergraduate students depends in part on what is done in local schools in teaching mathematics and writing skills. National agencies concerned with promoting full employment rely on educational institutions to give their students skills that make them employable, and national agencies promoting new technology depend on what universities achieve.

In a unitary system of government, this creates intergovernmental politics. The national agency has the formal authority to make decisions, but the capacity to deliver programs requires the creation of a nationwide network of subordinate institutions. Even a country as centralized as Britain gives local governments responsibility for running schools, fire departments, and recreational facilities, and the creation of devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland creates grounds for dispute about political principles and about the details of implementing a policy.

In a federal system, cooperation between agencies dealing with the same problem is an intergovernmental matter since each is accountable to separately elected groups of citizens, and this can justify differences in priorities for taxing and spending. Even when national policies set out common goals, the ways executive agencies act to meet these goals can differ from one part of the country to another.

In today’s world, public policies are increasingly becoming intermestic as domestic and international influences jointly affect what a public agency does. The penetration of international influences is no longer confined to national departments dealing with foreign affairs and defense. A local government in an area where old industries are declining will look abroad to attract investment in new industries and office work. From Thailand to the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, countries that lack industries have turned to tourism, with foreign visitors providing the money that can be used to pay for imports of such necessities as energy. Tourists need not only private enterprises to provide hotels and restaurants but also public agencies to keep beaches clean, streets safe, and natural beauty spots beautiful. A central bank may control money supply in the national capital, but what that money will buy internationally depends on what happens in trading on foreign exchange markets.

The growth in intermestic problems has led national governments to set up institutions to get things done by acting across national boundaries. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 to provide for the collective security of Europe, the United States, and Canada. Its executive headquarters in Brussels is in charge of defense forces that integrate units from the national forces of more than twenty countries. The European Central Bank has replaced the national currencies of sixteen countries with the euro and sets interest rates for half of Europe from its headquarters in Frankfurt.

The creation of supranational executive agencies has not eliminated political problems; instead, it has added another level to the interinstitutional politicking of multilevel governance. North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces are still subject to decisions taken by national governments. This is illustrated by member states’ differing about whether and how their national forces could be committed to action in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The European Central Bank controls the money supply of national governments, but it lacks executive authority over the decisions of national governments about taxing and spending euros. The lack of executive power is even more evident in organizations with global responsibilities. The World Bank’s capacity to give grants to developing nations depends on contributions from the governments of developed nations because it lacks the ability to collect taxes. Any United Nations effort to intervene in violent conflicts depends for its execution on the provision of effective forces by member states.

Bibliography:

  1. Book of the States. Lexington, Ky.: Council of State Governments, 2008.
  2. Finer, Samuel E. The History of Government. 3 vols. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  3. Kettl, Donald F. The Transformation of Governance: Public Administration for the 21st Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
  4. Lipsky, Michael. Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage, 1980.
  5. Page, Edward C., and Bill Jenkins. Policy Bureaucracy: Government with a Cast of Thousands. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  6. Pierre, Jon, and B. Guy Peters. Governance, Politics and the State. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005.
  7. Rose, Richard. “The Growth of Government Organizations: Do We Count the Number or Weigh the Programs?” In Organizing Governance, Governing Organizations, edited by Colin Campbell and B. Guy Peters, 99–128. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.
  8. Understanding Big Government: The Programme Approach. London: Sage, 1984.

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