The Automated Administrative State: A Crisis of Legitimacy
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
The legitimacy of the administrative state is premised on our faith in agency expertise. Despite their extra-constitutional structure, administrative agencies have been on firm footing for a long time in reverence to their critical role in governing a complex, evolving society. They are delegated enormous power because they respond expertly and nimbly to evolving conditions. In recent decades, state and federal agencies have embraced a novel mode of operation: automation. Agencies rely more and more on software and algorithms in carrying out their delegated responsibilities. The automated administrative state, however, is demonstrably riddled with concerns. Legal challenges regarding the denial of benefits and rights — from travel to disability — have revealed a pernicious pattern of bizarre and unintelligible outcomes. Scholarship to date has explored the pitfalls of automation with a particular frame, asking how we might ensure that automation honors existing legal commitments such as due process. Missing from the conversation are broader, structural critiques of the legitimacy of agencies that automate. Automation throws away the expertise and nimbleness that justify the administrative state, undermining the very case for the existence and authority of agencies. Yet the answer is not to deny agencies access to technology. This article points toward a positive vision of the administrative state that adopts tools only when they enhance, rather than undermine, the underpinnings of agency legitimacy.