There are several mechanisms through which bureaucratic accountability is promoted by various actors, such as through the appointment and removal process, the direct election of various executive officials, the governor’s recent attempt to play a more active role in agency rule-making, citizen participation in rule-making, etc. Four such mechanisms are examined more closely below: rules (also known as “red tape”); the budgeting process; sunset laws; and sunshine laws.
Rules / “Red Tape”
Clearly defined and well-publicized rules serve as a mechanism to ensure bureaucratic accountability. Indeed, if someone is uncertain as to why their application for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was rejected, they can examine the eligibility requirements (which are clearly defined and well-publicized rules) to see which criteria they did not meet. Rules promote fairness and accountability. There is a trade-off, however: rules are not necessarily efficient, which is why they are often referred to as “red tape.”
“Once established, rules, regulations, and norms of behavior are regarded as ends in themselves, with faint attention paid to their broader purposes. Goals of an organization are often displaced by procedures which are merely presumed to facilitate the goals. The broad goals of an organization can be subsumed by the instrumental procedural goals of members to play safe and follow the rules unquestioningly.” (Curry, 1990, p. 59)
The Texas legislature exercises can promote bureaucratic accountability through the budgeting process. State agencies are required to submit budget proposals and performance evaluations to the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) for review. The LBB will hold hearings with each agency; during these hearings, they will use the budgeting process as an opportunity to ask detailed questions about an agency’s activities. If the LBB believes an agency is mismanaging funds, operating inefficiently, etc., they can exert influence through appropriations (i.e., spending) by making changes to that agency’s budget for the upcoming biennium.
In 1977, the Texas Sunset Act became law; this law provides for the automatic termination of state bureaucratic agencies unless the legislature expressly renews them. To administer the Texas Sunset Act, the Texas legislature created the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission (SAC). When the SAC is conducting a sunset review for an agency, it evaluates several factors, including “the perceived need for the agency, its efficiency, and whether it adheres to basic standards such as those involving conflict of interests or open meetings . . . Sunset review requires an agency to receive positive validation of its mission rather than merely requiring an agency to defeat attempts to revise its mission” (Curry, 1990, pp. 59, 62). Based on the SAC’s recommendation, the legislature will decide whether to introduce a bill to reauthorize the agency, revise the agency’s purpose or functions, or reorganize the agency, or allow the agency to terminate following a one-year winding down period. The majority of the time, the legislature will follow the SAC’s recommendation.
While sunset laws have resulted in the termination of several agencies, the reorganization of several other agencies, and other revisions designed to promote the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencies reviewed, there is no guarantee that the recommendations will bring about the desired result. For example, the PUC went through a sunset review following the blackouts during the hard winter freeze in 2011; the SAC provided several recommendations that were incorporated into a bill in the Texas House of Representatives, including “provisions to strengthen PUC’s oversight of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)” (Sunset Advisory Commission, 2013). Unfortunately, it appears what changes were enacted ultimately were not as comprehensive as they needed to be, as the state experienced rolling blackouts again during the hard winter freeze in 2021.
Sunshine laws are designed to open the process of bureaucratic policymaking to the public, based on the assumption that “sunshine [transparency] is the best form of disinfectant.” Two important Texas sunshine laws that allow citizens an opportunity to promote bureaucratic accountability are:
- the Public Information Act, which grants the public access to information held by the state government as long as that information does not fall under an exempted category; this law is essentially our state’s version of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
- the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires governmental bodies to hold open meetings unless there is an authorized reason for an executive session (which is closed to the public); this law requires governmental bodies to give public notice of the time, date, place, and subject of the upcoming meeting at least 72 hours before the meeting is scheduled to begin