by Gregory A. Huber. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 264pp. Hardback. $85.00. ISBN: 9780521872799. eBook format. $68.00. ISBN: 9780511282966.
Reviewed by Dawn M. Chutkow, Department of Government, Ph.D. Program, Cornell University. Email: dmc66 [at] cornell.edu.
Political scientists, scholars of public administration, and organizational theorists have long pondered the dynamics of delegated authority – particularly governmental authority granted to regulatory agencies. Theories on how these entities operate, and whether they use their powers in a politically palatable manner, range from depictions of the neutral, professional bureaucrat, to agencies as insulated, autonomous fiefdoms, to bureaucracy as the malleable tool of organized interests. Gregory Huber enters the fray with his book, THE CRAFT OF BUREAUCRATIC NEUTRALITY, arguing that there is some truth in each of these depictions, because agencies engage in a strategic mix of behaviors that allows them to respond to political dictates while at the same time protecting themselves by diffusing opposition that might diminish their power and autonomy. Huber describes this agency behavior as “strategic neutrality.” This is a sensible and compelling insight, theoretically well supported, which draws convincingly on the realities of collective action and organizational methods for controlling subordinate actors. While the empirical evidence for Huber’s position leaves some questions unanswered, this remains a rich and varied piece of research, well worth engaging.
In prosaic terms, Huber’s concept of strategic neutrality means that agencies act politically but try to do so in a way that does not unite opponents. Hence, political bargains are made at a national and centralized level and agency implementation is “neutral” in the sense that it adheres to these bargains by imposing systematic and uniform local enforcement policies. Work in organizational literature has long noted the need for subordinate control through specified routines and standards to ensure that tasks are performed in a way consistent with management direction. Huber’s insight is that this routinization is politically efficient in that it allows the agency to shape the nature of political conflict surrounding agency policy. This primarily means letting the larger political battles and interest group scuffling over policy take place at a national level and then implementing those bargains locally in a systemized fashion that removes as much discretion as possible from the enforcement staff. This in turn minimizes the chances that local chauvinism and political considerations might translate into unequal treatment of regulated companies – acts that deviate from central agency policy, and provide both political fodder and organizational impetus for opposition groups. [*81]
Huber chooses the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to test his theory, focusing largely on whether enforcement variation at the state and facility level is linked to local political conditions as prior studies indicate. His inquiry benefits from a sophisticated understanding of the complex dynamics that may affect what appears to be politically discriminatory enforcement, not least of which are the wide regional variations in industry type, worker involvement in OSHA inspections, and the interactive effects of agency resource levels on inspection outcomes. He relies not only on extensive interviews with OSHA regulators and enforcement staff, but also a wide range of creatively employed data, including measures of inspector productivity, severity, and target selection. In the first half of his analysis, his findings are convincingly consistent with his theory. While OSHA does differentiate among industries and workplaces as a matter of national policy, differences in agency enforcement locally can be explained by neutral principals, primarily the hazardousness of regional industries and the nature and size of the inspected company’s workforce.
Huber does, however, tend to analyze the statistical findings in a way that makes assessing the strength of his argument more work than need be. He presents multiple models with the same dependent variable coupled with a host of independent variables which fall in and out of significance depending on which variable mix the model uses. To be fair, Huber does include unified models in the analyses as well, but he does not rely on them alone in drawing his conclusions or discussing the results. This, combined with his use of p-values of < 0.10 as denoting significance (although he also delineates the more standard p < 0.05 and p < 0.01 in his tables) complicates the presentation and discussion. The unified models’ pretty convincingly support his broader thesis; it is in the subtleties and implications of political variables that this issue largely arises.
The second half of the analysis deals with an intriguing characteristic of OSHA regulation: states willing to take a 50% cut in federal funding can self-regulate. Twenty-one states chose this option. This creates a strong selection bias in the data analyzed in the first half of the book, which examines only the federal program with jurisdiction over twenty-nine states. The twenty-one states that chose to enforce OSHA themselves overwhelmingly exhibit one of two political environments: either strong labor and weak business groups, or strong business and weak labor groups. It is possible then that the states remaining under federal jurisdiction, those in the initial analyses, are at a political stasis between business and labor interests, and therefore the neutrality of enforcement choices by OSHA occur because neither interest group has the local clout to sway inspectors systematically. This alternative explanation is not fully explored, primarily because Huber is hampered by the lack of uniform reporting and facility-level data from states that self regulate. This prevents him from extending the initial analysis to all workplace regulation, whether state or federally implemented. Huber does examine state versus federal enforcement patterns, but his focus is on whether states under or over perform as [*82] compared to OSHA, an approach that does not fully capture localized political conditions and effects. He creates several clever measures to facilitate a direct comparison of these actors, but the analyses and results are primarily descriptive, and while they appear to trend in the direction he predicts, it is difficult to fully asses what the data reveal.
These observations should not be seen as diminishing Huber’s primary point: that agencies are actors in their own right, navigating among the demands of their principals, the potential ramifications of interest group opposition, and the requirements inherent in operating multi-level organizations which need to coordinate policy decisions and policy implementation. Accordingly any discussion of agency action should include consideration of the behavioral strategy an agency must employ to accomplish these multiple goals. While straightforward, this is a thoughtful insight and one that careful scholars should incorporate in future bureaucratic studies.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Dawn M. Chutkow.