This volume reconstructs a largely forgotten phenomenon in American urban history, the establishment of bureaus of efficiency as part of the civic reform agenda during the Progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century. The goal of such bureaus was to promote efficiency in local government, as a way of fighting political corruption, urban machines and political bosses. Efficiency bureaus sought to professionalize local government through civil service systems, open competitive bidding, separation of public administration from politics, and reorganizing departments to reduce duplication.
Bureaus of efficiency in some cities were nonprofit agencies pushing for governmental reform from the outside. In other cities, efficiency bureaus were established by reformers as departments within municipal government, school districts or counties. They viewed the latter approach as a way to press for reform from the inside. Two cities, Chicago and Milwaukee, had both nonprofit and municipal efficiency bureaus. Other major cities with efficiency bureaus included Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Kansas City (MO), and Rochester (NY).
The book is a study of these bureaus of efficiency, with especial attention to the interesting circumstance of two cities, Chicago and Milwaukee, having both a nonprofit efficiency bureau and a municipal one. This permitted comparing and contrasting the operations and impact of efficiency bureaus that were nonprofit agencies with the public sector one in the same city and during the same historical era.
Efficiency bureaus as vehicles for urban reform have since died out, but not their underlying goal. Efficiency has remained powerful siren call in American political culture in the twenty-first century. In that respect, little has changed conceptually from the days of the bureaus of efficiency during the Progressive era, nearly a century earlier. The legacy of the seemingly anachronistic concept of an efficiency bureau remains alive and well in contemporary times. This string of American urban history has not played itself out yet. The holy grail of efficiency in government is likely to remain a viable and powerful concept well into the twenty-first century.
Mordecai Lee, Ph.D., is a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Prior to joining the academy, he was a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, legislative assistant to a Congressman, elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly for three terms and the State Senate for two terms, and executive director of a nonprofit agency. His main areas of interest are US history and government public relations. He is author of Institutionalizing Congress and the Presidency: The U.S. Bureau of Efficiency, 1916-1933 and The First Presidential Communications Agency: FDR’s Office of Government Reports and editor of Government Public Relations: A Reader.