Policy Feb 1, 2022
Is an Efficient Government Always a Good Thing?
History sheds light on how processes designed to serve citizens can also be put to nefarious ends.
We tend to think of an efficient and well-organized government as an unequivocally good thing. After all, these are the agencies that pick up the trash on time, maintain up-to-date tax rolls, and disburse public funds as promised.
And it’s more than just the citizens of a country that have a stake in effective governance. Foreign aid agencies, public policy experts, and development organizations often operate from the assumption that governments have an inherent drive to work for the public good, explains Leander Heldring, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg. These groups bring this assumption into their well-intentioned efforts to improve governance in developing countries. This often involves helping governments design effective processes, teams, and incentives.
But this assumes that governments’ goals are good. What if they aren’t?
“It’s politicians that set the agenda for such governments,” Heldring says. “So it becomes a very natural question to wonder, ‘Can our well-intentioned efforts backfire?’”
In other words, what if, at some future date, a government that has been built up and made powerfully efficient flips to a different, nefarious set of policies?
Heldring studied a case where that happened to a horrible extreme—the takeover of the German government by the Nazi party in the 1930s. He sought to understand whether the efficacy of the government structure helped or hindered the Nazis’ chilling acts of oppression and genocide.
He studied Germany between the First World War and 1945—that is, across the Weimar and Nazi periods. This allowed him to investigate whether there was a difference in how policies were carried out in places with more and less effective local governments when the official German policy switched from the protection of Jewish citizens during the Weimar period to persecution during the Nazi era.
It’s possible that more effective local governments might have balked at the immorality of the Nazi directives and been more efficient in blocking them, Heldring reasoned. If so, the Nazi party would have had to rely on party militia, the secret police, or the military to carry out its orders. Or it could be that an effective government would prioritize efficiency, no matter the morality of its directives.
Heldring found that, indeed, effective governments are simply very effective: they were better at both protecting and persecuting Jewish Germans (devastatingly so, in the latter case).
“This is a time and a place where we would have liked the government to be much less well-organized—but that’s exactly the tension of the paper,” Heldring says. “We think that when a country is well-run, well-maintained, has rule of law, and everything functions, that this is a success for its people—until it isn’t.”
Looking Across an Invisible Border
To understand Heldring’s study, you first need to know a little bit about German history.
Germany was unified in 1871, only 43 years before WWI started. Much of modern-day Germany had previously been part of the Prussian empire, which Heldring believes left a legacy of more efficient and bureaucratized municipal governments compared with those parts of Germany that had not been part of Prussia. This meant that Heldring could study similar places, some of which had more efficient governments and some of which had less, to see how this impacted policies toward Jewish Germans in both the Weimar and Nazi periods.
Heldring compared locales that were a maximum of 100 kilometers apart from one another and that straddled former Prussian borders.
“If it’s true that the difference between former Prussia and the rest of Germany is in the organization of the government,” Heldring explains, “we should have these places that are very close to one another that are culturally similar, linguistically similar, geographically similar—and see differences in the way the government functions.”
This, then, was the first question Heldring set out to answer. But he needed to empirically demonstrate that formerly Prussian municipal governments were, in fact, more organized. So he zeroed in on a few metrics, pulling his data from the Statistical Yearbooks of German Cities. The first was “fiscal capacity,” or taxes raised per capita in tandem with the proportion of taxes spent on public administration. Indeed, he found that fiscal capacity was higher in formerly Prussian municipalities. He also analyzed total trash collected and found formerly Prussian regions more effective in this area, too.
What Happens When Policies Flip
Having shown that formerly Prussian areas did, indeed, have more effective governments, Heldring then set out to investigate the impact of this efficacy on policies toward German Jews. Were these better organized local governments more effective at protecting Jewish citizens when this was in line with national policy during the Weimar Republic—and were they more aggressive in deporting them when this became the new legal mandate?
His research bore out these predictions.
“A lot of tiny little actions that added up to something so terrible were split up between people. That management of repugnant directives ... makes every little step innocuous.”
— Leander Heldring
Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, formerly Prussian governments held the number of attacks on Jewish Germans to zero. After the Nazis took power, these same local governments were associated with a five-percentage-point increase in the effectiveness of deporting their Jewish citizens—translating to roughly 6,000 additional deportations across Germany. In fact, Heldring found that government efficiency had a much bigger impact on deportations than the strength of the Nazi party in the area. Although the secret police were responsible for the physical transport of Jewish citizens, local government identified who was Jewish, tracked their whereabouts, and ensured that everyone was present when the trains arrived.
Though the findings were in line with his hypothesis, Heldring says he was surprised by their strength.
“How good the local government was at implementing these policies turns out to be really very important,” he says. “You would imagine that there’s a lot of difference coming from factors like how fanatical the local Nazis were, and how many people in the local government became Nazis, for example. And that’s certainly there, but it’s dwarfed by the effect of the organization of the government.”
Making Every Step Innocuous
What made these formerly Prussian governments so much more chillingly effective? Heldring hypothesized that it was because employees there were more functionally specialized.
Indeed, he found that formerly Prussian governments had more job categories and those jobs were more specialized. This suggests that the tasks that bureaucrats were asked to perform in service of a repugnant larger goal were likely small tasks—and they fell squarely within a bureaucrat’s familiar work mandate.
Heldring suspects that this not only improved efficiency, but was also particularly effective in masking the horrors of the government’s larger goals to the individual actors carrying them out. The finding calls back to the “banality of evil” thesis introduced by political philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt.
“A lot of tiny little actions that added up to something so terrible were split up between people,” who may have felt that they were simply being asked to carry out tasks that fell into their specific roles, Heldring says. “That management of repugnant directives is something I point to, in the paper, as being an important aspect of making this terrible outcome in Germany work, because it makes every little step innocuous.”
Testing Checks and Balances
The findings present a challenge, then, for governments. They want to be efficient—and the outside agencies that work with them want them to be efficient—but what happens if a new party comes into power and wants to use that efficiency in terrible ways? What can be done, if anything, to encourage a government that’s becoming more efficient to also infuse itself with a humanitarian leaning?
This, ultimately, is a political issue, not a bureaucratic one, Heldring explains.
“What seems to be a differentiating factor between Germany and other cases, where things go differently, is the presence or absence of constraints on politicians to change laws and policies,” Heldring says.
He adds that the case he studied was an extreme historical example, and that there are parallels (ranging from minor to heinous) in whether governments bend to the will of individual leaders or political parties across geographies and history, right up to the present moment. He points to the overreach of the U.S. NSA surveillance program and recent attempts by a sitting president to overturn a presidential election. The fact that requests by that president were rebuffed by local officials in Georgia and elsewhere is an indication that local governments do not always fall in line with nefarious directives.
“I think the lessons for today are that the incentives for politicians to use bureaucrats to pursue their goals, whether they’re good or bad, still exist,” Heldring says. “But the result I have found—namely, that bureaucracies will implement bad policies as well—that’s not universally translatable, because there are other forces”—like strong legal frameworks and political competition—“that push against that.”
Katie Gilbert is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
Heldring, Leander. 2020. ““Bureaucracy as a Tool for Politicians: Evidence from Weimar and Nazi Germany.” Working paper.