The direct use of government agencies for substantive policy purposes involves the ‘delivery of a good or service by government employees, funded by appropriations from government treasury’ (Leman 1989 and 2002). Within this general type of direct government organizational tool, there are several common forms or subtypes found in many jurisdictions. These include the following:

Line departments

In most countries government agencies undertake a wide variety of tasks on a direct basis. These include, but are certainly not limited to, those listed in (Table 5.1).

These services are provided at all levels of government (central or federal, provincial, state or regional, as well as urban or local) in slightly different configurations in different countries. Unemployment, welfare or social security payments, for example, can be the task of central governments in some countries and eras, and of provincial or local governments in others. Typically modern government agencies follow what is known in the public administration literature as a Weberian ‘monocratic bureaucracy’ form of organization (Brubaker 1984; Beetham 1987). This is a type of organizational structure first systematically described and analyzed by the German political sociologist Max Weber in his early twentieth-century work, Economy and Society. Weber argued that although bureaucratic forms of organization had a long history, a significant change had occurred in the modern era as such organizations had come to be viewed as providing services to the public rather than being the property of a monarch or emperor to do with as he or she pleased. The main characteristics of a modern government agency, in Weber’s view, were:

  • Personnel are appointed on the basis of a merit system of appointment, retention and recruitment.
  • Office holders do not own the office in which they work, but hold it subject to the provisions of the merit system.
  • That offices tend to be organized in a hierarchical fashion with a relatively small span of control and multiple levels.
  • That all activities in the agency operate according to the rule of law – that office holders are not above the law and must operate within its limits (including provisions for their accountability – via some form of ‘chain of accountability’ – to representative assemblies in modern liberal democracies who actually establish and promulgate laws).
    (Albrow 1970; Weber 1978)

Insert Table Here

In what are commonly called line departments have this ‘classic’ hierarchical Weberian monocratic bureaucractic form and are thoroughly embedded in legal forms of governance. Such units are typically organized in a pyramidal shape linking offices of civil servants in various branches and sections to a single department head, such as a department of health or a department of highways. A sub-variation of this is the ‘ministry’; a form in which, typically multiple pyramids of departments culminate in a single head (e.g. a ministry of lands, parks, and housing) or an ‘agency’, which operates separately from the policy-making level of managerial control (Verhoest et al. 2010).1

These forms of government organizations are the ‘workhorses’ of publicly provided goods and service delivery in most modern states. Although many modern states originally practised legal modes of governance in most sectors, establishing legal rules and forms of legitimation through the rule of law, they have grown dramatically through the creation and expansion of ministries, departments and agencies in areas such as defence, transportation and, later, social welfare, education and health provision. This has resulted in the conversion of many sectors from legal modes of governance to more corporatist ones featuring large and active state organizations, often with a monopoly over the goods and services they provide. These kinds of organizations can be very large (the US Department of Defense, for example, has over two million employees, including approximately 650,000 civilians) and can be subdivided into hundreds of separate branches, bureaus, sections and agencies. They employ the most personnel and deliver by far the largest percentage of state-provided goods and services in liberal-democratic, and virtually all other, forms of modern government.

The ‘government employees’ employed in line departments are typically civil or public servants. In most liberal-democratic countries these are unionized and well-paid positions, and although this is not the case in many other countries where officials may supplement their wages illegally through various forms of corruption (‘kickbacks’, bribes, ‘service’ payments, expediting ‘fees’ and so on), in either case the use of public servants to directly deliver public services is an expensive proposition, which in itself discourages its use. How well these officials are educated and trained and what kinds of facilities and information they have to work with also affects their capacity and perceived competence and, along with cost, can pay a significant role in their placement within a policy design (Brunsson 2006). Countries or sectors with wellresourced administrative systems regarded as highly efficient and competent by their citizenry are more likely to feature direct government service provision in their policy designs than countries with corrupt or inefficient civil services, given the advantages the former often hold for governments in terms of cost and ease of program administration.

Central support agencies

These are agencies which are similar in appearance to line departments, but often act more like private companies; delivering services within governments rather than to external constituencies. Some of these are very old (like government stationers and printers) while others (like government systems and information technology units) are much more recent. Many of these agencies are quite large and since they often serve functions similar to private companies they are, and have often been, primary targets for government efforts to develop market modes of governance in some sectors through contracting out or privatizing government services – that is, they are simply turned into ‘firms’ supplying government services by severing their funding through general appropriations revenue and establishing autonomous boards of directors. Cost issues are a major factor influencing their inclusion in policy designs.

Social and health insurance and pension plans

Social and health insurance and pension schemes like those used in many countries for unemployment insurance, elderly income support and health care are other such government organization-based schemes, ones in which all individuals in certain categories are mandated to make payments with a government agency which acts, usually, as a monopoly insurance provider for that group (Katzman 1988; Moss 2002). Some of these schemes, of course, are among the largest areas of government expenditure and are virtually identical in organizational form to direct government organizational tools given their universal and mandated nature – with the main difference being that programme funds come from dedicated insurance payments rather than general tax revenue. These schemes are generally very high profile and targeted to specific kinds of outputs. They are often intended to be revenue-neutral, although any short-term shortfalls in these schemes typically have to be made up by governments. They also can provide large pools of capital which governments can use to finance infrastructure and other kinds of investments. As such, they are very popular and found throughout the world, although their configuration and extent of private sector involvement varies greatly from country to country. Countries which do not have such schemes typically cite reasons related to costs or intrusiveness.