But bureaucratic states—those organized around rules and run by unelected officials—are a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. For centuries, nations (especially geographically large ones) have ceded significant control to non-state actors. In so-called fiscal-agrarian regimes, for example, the government or monarch would sell the right to administer and collect taxes in each part of its territory to local owners.
So how do modern bureaucratic states come about?
To find out, a new study charts the formation of the federal bureaucracy in the United States during the nineteenth century. The study by Edoardo Teso, associate professor of management economics and decision sciences, and co-author Nicola Mastrorocco from the University of Bologna, was motivated by “the lack of evidence on how a state actually evolves,” Teso explains. “We have good evidence of how bureaucracies and states work today,” but much less information about how these systems were created.
Their research, based on detailed state records, shows that the federal government changed dramatically between the early 1800s and the early 1900s. Not only did it expand in size and geographic reach, it also became more stable and less dependent on personal relationships. . Teso and Mastrorocco argue that these changes stemmed from the government’s increasing ability to track workers even when they were away. These changes were made possible by new technology, namely the railroad and the telegraph.
“You have a reduction in tracking costs over the course of the 19th century because as technologies improve, you have lower transportation costs and lower communication costs,” Teso explains. “As this changes, you can now track workers more easily — you don’t have to rely on trust. This also allows the state to grow more.”
A changing federal workforce
Every two years between 1817 and 1959, the US government issued a relatively obscure publication called the Official Register of the United States. The registry listed the names, locations, occupations, salaries, and departments of every federal employee. Teso and Mastrorocco stumbled upon it “by accident,” Teso says, and quickly realized it offered an ideal way “to take a look at the organization of the US federal state at a very early period in its history.”
They digitized editions of the register between 1817 and 1905 and focused their analysis on civilian employees of the executive branch (excluding the largest branch of the industry, the US Postal Service). The rich information contained in the publication allowed Teso and Mastrorocco to track the careers of federal employees over time and reconstruct the hierarchy within each department.
The data showed that the US federal bureaucracy looked very different in the first part of the nineteenth century than it did in the second. From 1817 to the 1860s, “we find that the state was characterized by very slow growth in the number of people employed,” says Teso. But beginning in the 1860s, the federal workforce grew rapidly. From 1817 to 1859, the federal government added just 235 new jobs per year, on average. between 1881 and 1889, that number jumped to more than 3,000.
States can grow for many different reasons: because they begin to perform new functions, because they expand into new geographic areas, or because they increase in intensity—that is, they have more people performing a given function in a given location.
In the early 19th century, researchers found that government increased in functions and intensity. Geographical expansion was negligible. Since the 1860s, however, geographic expansion has accounted for nearly 30 percent of government growth.
The patterns of labor turnover have also changed. From 1817 to the 1850s, changes in the presidential political party produced many interpretations in the federal government, Teso and Mastrorocco found. During this period, workers’ careers were also likely to advance and decline in tandem with those of their bosses—suggesting that federal offices were organized around personal networks of loyalty and trust. But in the 1860s, these trends began to wane, and workers were more likely to stay in their jobs when their boss left or a new party came to power.
From personal to bureaucratic
So what happened in the 1860s that began to change the federal workforce? Why did it become so much bigger, more expansive and more stable?
Teso and Mastrorocco argue that a major driver of these changes has been the state’s increased surveillance capacity. That is, it became much easier for officials in Washington, DC to check on workers, regardless of location, and make sure they were doing a good job.
Prior to the 1860s, effective supervision of workers away from DC was nearly impossible—some federal offices could only visit their local outposts once a year. Given this limited view, trust was essential to the recruitment process. Officials usually chose workers nominated by friends or members of their party.
But recruiting in this personalized way is slow. After all, “if you need to hire someone you trust, you can find them through your network. If you have to hire 50, it becomes more difficult,” Teso points out—hence the slow growth of the federal government in the early 1900s.
Trains and telegraph networks, which developed across the country in the mid-nineteenth century, overturned old practices and assumptions. Thanks to these new technologies, journeys that previously took weeks could take days, and messages that took days in transit could now be sent in minutes. Now, leaders in DC could quickly and easily observe the work of their remote employees.
As a result, Teso and Mastrorocco suggest, personal trust became a less important component in hiring. Employees could select workers based on qualifications and experience, knowing they could spot poor performers more easily than before.
The diminished importance of personal trust also explains why turnover began to decline in the 1860s. In the early nineteenth century, “when the boss changes, the people the boss trusts will also change. You throw out the old ones and bring in your own,” says Teso. But thanks to new technology, “you don’t have to kick everyone out – you can just keep a better eye on them.”
Indeed, Teso and Mastrorocco found that as travel time between DC and a given county decreased, federal presence increased and employee turnover decreased. found similar results when they focused on the expansion of the telegraph network in one county.
How states grow
Of course, many factors explain why the federal bureaucracy looked so different at the end of the nineteenth century than it did at the beginning. The Civil War, for example, shifted power from the states to the federal government. it also left the nation in debt, making it necessary to raise funds through taxation—an important incentive for the federal government to grow.
“We’re talking about 100 years of history,” Teso says, so no single mechanism can explain all the changes the researchers observed. However, he believes that monitoring capacity is clearly central to the formation of bureaucratic states. Without the ability to oversee their workers, federal governments are inevitably limited in what they can do and how they can do it.
This suggestion is consistent with “a long literature in sociology that points out that we have the emergence of modern bureaucratic states in Europe, for example, when transportation costs are reduced and when communication costs are reduced,” says Teso.
While the research has a historical perspective, Teso believes the findings apply to developing countries today – especially those struggling to expand their core operations to rural and remote areas.
“It might seem obvious, but one of the points of the paper is that transport infrastructure and communication infrastructure are important for many different things,” he says. “And we show that it’s also important for how government agencies work.”