In his blog post, Dominic Cummings (former advisor to Boris Johnson) writes the following:

In Washington as in London, the golden rule of Government is — the government does not control the government and anybody who tries to change this is seen as the enemy by the bureaucracies that actually control ~99% of the government. Politicians talk as if the government controls the government and fundraise as if it does. The media reports as if it does. It does not.

He goes on to explain the difficulties faced by British and American politician in trying to push through their agenda, such as the FBI taking a long time to issue security clearances to Trump's appointments. Is there any academic research into this concept? I presume Cummings wasn't the first person to come up with this idea.

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    Meh, politically fractured government in factions is as old as history. Mar 26, 2022 at 7:20
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    While not exactly academic research, the British comedy Yes Minister was entirely based on this premise. Mar 26, 2022 at 10:54
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    @SteveMelnikoff while its presentation is not academic, the creator of the series actually did study the subject academically.
    – wrod
    Mar 26, 2022 at 18:55
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    @Fizz fractions is not the subject of the question. Civil servants having more power than politicians is the subject of the question.
    – wrod
    Mar 26, 2022 at 18:59
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    @wrod: sure, but it's a specialization of the same general idea: barons vs the king, bureaucrats vs elected officials etc. Mar 26, 2022 at 21:04

2 Answers 2


The idea of a bureaucratic class in conflict with the "rightful" government is probably as old as the institution of government itself. The persistent conflict between emperors, scholar-bureaucrats and eunuchs in Imperial China is a famous example. As a result, many people have written on this topic from various different perspectives.

As far as modern political theory is concerned, one of the most extensive treatments of the matter is found in Public Choice Theory, which also studies many other aspects of government, society and economics. An early example of the sort of analysis you might be interested in is Bureaucracy and Representative Government (1971) by Ronald Reagan's Advisor, William A. Niskansen.

PS: For those unaware, there is a somewhat amusing irony in the fact that Dominic Cummings is making this point. He was an (un-elected) advisor the the British government, who was dismissed by the (elected) Prime Minister and has since used his personal website and social media channels to repeatedly criticize that Prime Minister.

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    A summary seems to be found in jstor.org/stable/725050 It seems to be an econometric model, which assumes that any bureaucracy seeks to maximize its own budget. I guess that was taken as easily quantifiable proxy for "maximizes its own power". Mar 26, 2022 at 19:51

If you want simply on the level ideas as opposed to (econometrics) models, there surely are works that precede Niskansen; see e.g. R. Bendix (1945) "Bureaucracy and the Problem of Power". The idea that bureaucrats were usurping power from elected officials and were oppressing the "average Joe" was in common circulation in the general public even back then.

It's perhaps also worth noting that this conflict between bureaucrats and some other part of the government was ascribed to other forms of government as well. In his 1861 "Representative Government", J.S. Mill describes the Russian (tsarist) and Chinese ("Mandarin") governments as bureaucracies ran amok, where the monarch, while nominally an autocrat, had little real control over the bureaucracy. Mill was much more optimistic that a democracy was better suited to control the bureaucrats.

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