Government is the means by which a society organizes itself in order to accomplish collective goals and provide benefits that benefit its members. Governments vary in how they do this, from the local school board to the national security agency, but all governments share a core set of functions: enforcement of rules and laws, provision of goods and services, and distribution of resources. Governments also differ in their philosophy and ideals, which determine how they do their jobs. For example, if a government prioritizes the values of egalitarianism and the destruction of socioeconomic inequalities, it may increase taxes to support programs such as public education, transportation, and housing for the poor. Governments may also prioritize national security or individual liberty. If they prioritize security, they might allow police to tap citizens’ phones and restrict what newspapers may publish.
One of the most important duties of government is to regulate access to common goods such as natural resources and wildlife. These are things that everyone can use, but they have a limited supply, so it is necessary to protect them so that a few people do not take everything and leave the rest with nothing. Governments also protect the infrastructure of a nation, providing things like mail delivery and a safe and reliable transportation system.
Other duties of governments are to ensure that citizens have opportunities for economic success and a level playing field. This is why governments set minimum wage standards, enact occupational safety regulations, and create educational institutions that give students a leg up on the competition. Governments also regulate the activities of businesses, such as setting environmental standards and requiring them to disclose information about their products. Many people dislike these regulations, but others argue that without them, business would harm the environment and rip off consumers.
At the federal level, there are also mandatory spending programs such as Medicare and Social Security, food stamps, and highway construction and maintenance. Mandatory spending makes up two-thirds of the total federal budget in most years. Governments also respond to disasters by creating emergency relief operations.
The contributions in this issue of the journal vary both in context and in methodological approach. The studies are rich in quite detailed descriptions of how particular agencies contribute to policy decisions, and the authors use a variety of theoretically-grounded scenarios—ranging from rational choice institutionalism and principal-agent theories to account for role divisions among overseeing bodies (Handke et al., 2012) to political explanations of bureaucratic autonomy (Painter & Yee, 2012) and formal delegation approaches (Verschuere & Vancoppenolle, 2012). The articles in this issue also explore the ways that different types of governing structures may have varying effects on de facto bureaucratic autonomy.