Bureaucracy is the structure and set of regulations in place to control activity, usually in large organizations and government. As opposed to adhocracy, it is represented by standardized procedure (rule-following) that dictates the execution of most or all processes within the body, formal division of powers, hierarchy, and relationships. In practice the interpretation and execution of policy can lead to informal influence.
Bureaucracy is a concept in sociology and political science referring to the way that the administrative execution and enforcement of legal rules are socially organized. Four structural concepts are central to any definition of bureaucracy:
In a letter of July 1, 1790, the German Baron von Grimm declared: "We are obsessed by the idea of regulation, and our Masters of Requests refuse to understand that there is an infinity of things in a great state with which a government should not concern itself." Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay sometimes used to say, "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Sometimes he used to refer to a fourth or fifth form of government under the heading of "bureaucracy".
In another letter of July 15, 1765 Baron Grimm wrote also, "The real spirit of the laws in France is that bureaucracy of which the late Monsieur de Gournay used to complain so greatly; here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist.
This quote refers to a traditional controversy about bureaucracy, namely the perversion of means and ends so that means become ends in themselves, and the greater good is lost sight of; as a corollary, the substitution of sectional interests for the general interest. The suggestion here is that, left uncontrolled, the bureaucracy will become increasingly self-serving and corrupt, rather than serving society.
In later, larger empires like Achaemenid Persia, bureaucracies quickly expanded as government expanded and increased its functions. In the Persian Empire, the central government was divided into administrative provinces led by satraps. The satraps were appointed by the Shah to control the provinces. In addition, a general and a royal secretary were stationed in each province to supervise troop recruitment and keep records, respectively. The Achaemenid Great Kings also sent royal inspectors to tour the empire and report on local conditions.
The most modernesque of all ancient bureaucracies, however, was the Chinese bureaucracy. During the chaos of the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States, Confucius recognized the need for a stable system of administrators to lend good governance even when the leaders were inept. Chinese bureaucracy, first implemented during the Qin dynasty but under more Confucian lines under the Han, calls for the appointment of bureaucratic positions based on merit via a system of examinations. Although the power of the Chinese bureaucrats waxed and waned throughout China's long history, the imperial examination system lasted as late as 1905, and modern China still employs a formidable bureaucracy in its daily workings.
Modern bureaucracies arose as the government of states grew larger during the modern period, and especially following the Industrial Revolution. Tax collectors, perhaps the most reviled of all bureaucrats, became increasingly necessary as states began to take in more and more revenue, while the role of administrators increased as the functions of government multiplied. Along with this expansion, though, came the recognition of the corruption and nepotism often inherent within the managerial system, leading to civil service reform on a large scale in many countries towards the end of the 19th century.
Thus, the earliest bureaucracies consisted of castes of religious clergy, officials and scribes operating various rituals, and armed functionaries specifically delegated to keep order. In the historical transition from primitive egalitarian communities to a civil society divided into social classes and estates, beginning from about 10,000 years ago, authority is increasingly centralized in, and enforced by a state apparatus existing separately from society. This state formulates, imposes and enforces laws, and levies taxes, giving rise to an officialdom enacting these functions. Thus, the state mediates in conflicts among the people and keeps those conflicts within acceptable bounds; it also organizes the defense of territory. Most importantly, the right of ordinary people to carry and use weapons of force becomes increasingly restricted; in civil society, forcing other people to do things becomes increasingly the legal right of the state authorities only.
But the growth of trade and commerce adds a new, distinctive dimension to bureaucracy, insofar as it requires the keeping of accounts and the processing/recording of transactions, as well as the enforcement of legal rules governing trade. If resources are increasingly distributed by prices in markets, this requires extensive and complex systems of record-keeping, management and calculation, conforming to legal standards. Eventually, this means that the total amount of work involved in commercial administration outgrows the total amount of work involved in government administration. In modern capitalist society, private sector bureaucracy is larger than government bureaucracy, if measured by the number of administrative workers in the division of labor as a whole. Some corporations nowadays have a turnover larger than the national income of whole countries, with large administrations supervising operations.
A fourth source of bureaucracy Marxists have commented on inheres in the technologies of mass production, which require many standardized routines and procedures to be performed. Even if mechanization replaces people with machinery, people are still necessary to design, control, supervise and operate the machinery. The technologies chosen may not be the ones that are best for everybody, but which create incomes for a particular class of people or maintain their power. This type of bureaucracy is nowadays often called a technocracy, which owes its power to control over specialized technical knowledge or control over critical information.
In Marx's theory, bureaucracy rarely creates new wealth by itself, but rather controls, co-ordinates and governs the production, distribution and consumption of wealth. The bureaucracy as a social stratum derives its income from the appropriation of part of the social surplus product of human labor. Wealth is appropriated by the bureaucracy by law through fees, taxes, levies, tributes, licensing etc.
Bureaucracy is therefore always a cost to society, but this cost may be accepted insofar as it makes social order possible, and maintains it by enforcing the rule of law. Nevertheless there are constant conflicts about this cost, because it has the big effect on the distribution of incomes; all producers will try to get the maximum return from what they produce, and minimize administrative costs. Typically, in epochs of strong economic growth, bureaucracies proliferate; when economic growth declines, a fight breaks out to cut back bureaucratic costs.
Whether or not a bureaucracy as a social stratum can become a genuine ruling class depends greatly on the prevailing property relations and the mode of production of wealth. In capitalist society, the state typically lacks an independent economic base, finances many activities on credit, and is heavily dependent on levying taxes as a source of income. Therefore, its power is limited by the costs which private owners of the productive assets will tolerate. If, however, the state owns the means of production itself, defended by military power, the state bureaucracy can become much more powerful, and act as a ruling class or power elite. Because in that case, it directly controls the sources of new wealth, and manages or distributes the social product. This is the subject of Marxist theories of bureaucratic collectivism.
Marx himself however never theorized this possibility in detail, and it has been the subject of much controversy among Marxists. The core organizational issue in these disputes concerns the degree to which the administrative allocation of resources by government authorities and the market allocation of resources can achieve the social goal of creating a more free, just and prosperous society. Which decisions should be made by whom, at what level, so that an optimal allocation of resources results? This is just as much a moral-political issue as an economic issue.
Central to the Marxian concept of socialism is the idea of workers' self-management, which assumes the internalization of a morality and self-discipline among people that would make bureaucratic supervision and control redundant, together with a drastic reorganization of the division of labor in society. Bureaucracies emerge to mediate conflicts of interest on the basis of laws, but if those conflicts of interest disappear (because resources are allocated directly in a fair way), bureaucracies would also be redundant.
Marx's critics are however skeptical of the feasibility of this kind of socialism, given the continuing need for administration and the rule of law, as well as the propensity of people to put their own self-interest before the communal interest. That is, the argument is that self-interest and the communal interest might never coincide, or, at any rate, can always diverge significantly.
Weber described the ideal type bureaucracy in positive terms, considering it to be a more rational and efficient form of organization than the alternatives that preceded it, which he characterized as charismatic domination and traditional domination. According to his terminology, bureaucracy is part of legal domination. However, he also emphasized that bureaucracy becomes inefficient when a decision must be adopted to an individual case.
According to Weber, the attributes of modern bureaucracy include its impersonality, concentration of the means of administration, a leveling effect on social and economic differences and implementation of a system of authority that is practically indestructible.
Weber's analysis of bureaucracy concerns:
A bureaucratic organization is governed by the following seven principles:
A bureaucratic official:
An official must exercise his or her judgment and his or her skills, but his or her duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority; ultimately he/she is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice his or her personal judgment if it runs counter to his or her official duties.
Weber's work has been continued by many, like Robert Michels with his Iron Law of Oligarchy.Criticism As Max Weber himself noted, real bureaucracy will be less optimal and effective than his ideal type model. Each of Weber's seven principles can degenerate:
Even a non-degenerated bureaucracy can be affected by common problems:
In the most common examples bureaucracy can lead to the treatment of individual human beings as impersonal objects. This process has been criticised by many philosophers and writers (Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt) and satirized in the comic strip Dilbert,TV show The Office, Franz Kafka's novels The Trial and The Castle , Douglas Adams' story The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the films Brazil and Office Space.
"... the slowness, the ponderousness, the routine, the complication of procedures and the maladapted responses of the bureaucratic organization to the needs which they should satisfy" (Crozier, 1964, p 3)
He examined a number of culturally specific examples of bureaucratic organizations in an attempt to understand why bureaucracies so often became dysfunctional.
After reviewing the different ways in which the term is used, Crozier describes the sense in which he uses the term bureaucracy thus:
"A bureaucratic organization is an organization that can not correct its behaviour by learning from its errors" (Crozier, 1964, p 187)
"... not only a system that does not correct its behaviour in view of its errors; it is also too rigid to adjust, without crises, to the transformations that the accelerated evolution of the industrial society makes more and more imperative" (Crozier, 1964, p 198)
In essence, Crozier presents an argument against the Tayloristic notion of 'the one best way' to organize an activity and Weber's view of bureaucracy as the ultimate expression of rationality and efficiency. He notes that in 1964 'advanced organizations' had already:
"... been obliged to discard completely the notion of the one best way [and] are beginning to understand that the illusion of perfect rationality has to long persisted, weakening the possibilities of action by insisting on rigorous logic and immediate coherence" (Crozier, 1964, p 159)
From his analysis of his case studies, he develops a theory of bureaucratic dysfunction based on his observations. Although he later extends his ideas to cover other settings, the two main cases on which he bases his theory are both located in France: "The Clerical Agency" and "The Industrial Monopoly". Crozier chose these examples not only because he was French, but also because he claims that socially and culturally France has developed in such a way that it created organizations that closely resembled the Weberian notion of an ideal bureaucracy.
His theory is based on the observation that in situations where almost every outcome has been decided in advance according to a set of impersonal and predefined rules and regulations, the only way in which people are able to gain some control over their lives is to exploit 'zones of uncertainty' where the outcomes are not already known.
"[an] unintended consequence of rationalisation [is] the predictability of ones behaviour is the sure test of ones own inferiority" (Crozier, 1964, p158)
For Crozier, organizations are not autonomous entities but social constructs that are:
"... man made and socially created [and] the indirect result of the power struggles within the organization" (Crozier, 1964, p 162)
Attacking both the rationalists and the human relations school for ignoring the role that such power struggles play in the shaping of an organization he argues that organizational relations are in fact a series of strategic games where the protagonists attempt either to exploit any areas of discretion for their own ends, or to prevent others from gaining an advantage:
"Each group fights to preserve and enlarge the area upon which it has some discretion, attempts to limit its dependence upon other groups and accept such dependence only insofar as it is a safeguard ... [preferring] retreatisim if there is no other choice but submission" (Crozier, 1964, p 156)
The result of this is that goals are subverted and the organization becomes locked into a series of inward looking power struggles. Thus, paradoxically, the result of attempting to design an efficient organization that runs on rational and impersonal lines is to create a situation where the opposite to is true.Theory of bureaucratic dysfunction Crozier argues that:
"... the bureaucratic system of organization is primarily characterized by the existence of a series of relatively stable vicious circles that stem from centralisation and impersonality" (Crozier, 1964, p 193)
He outlines four such 'vicious circles' that he observed in the organizations he studied.
In an attempt to be rational and egalitarian, bureaucracies attempt to come up with a set of abstract impersonal rules to cover all possible events. Crozier gives the example of the concours (competitive examinations) which mean that, one the exams are passed, promotion become simply a matter of seniority and avoiding damaging conflicts. The result, he argues, is that hierarchical relationships decline in importance or disappear completely which means that higher level in the bureaucracy have effectively lost the power to govern the lower levels.
If one wishes to maintain the impersonal nature of decision making, it is necessary to ensure that decision are made at a level where those who make them are protected from the influence of those who are affected by them. The effect of this is that problems are resolved by people who have no direct knowledge of the problems they are called upon to solve, and so, priority is given to the resolution of internal political problems instead. In this case, the power to influence events over which one has direct experience is lost and it is passed to some impartial central body.
The suppression of the possibility of exercising discretion among superiors and the removal of opportunities for bargaining from subordinates results in an organization that consists of a series of isolated strata. The notional equality within the strata becomes the only defence for the individual against demands form other parts of the organization and allows groups some degree of control over their own domain. The result is very strong per group pressure to conform to the norms of the strata regardless of individual beliefs or the wider goals of the organization.
It is impossible to account for every eventuality, even by the constant addition of impersonal rules and the progressive centralisation of decision making; consequently, individuals or groups that control the remaining zones of uncertainty, wield a considerable amount of power. This can lead to the creation of parallel power structures that give certain groups or individuals in certain situations, disproportionate power in an otherwise regulated and egalitarian organization. Once again, this can lead to decisions being made based on factors separate from the overall goals of the organization.
...[A]dministration in the United States must be at all points sensitive to public opinion. A body of thoroughly trained officials serving during good behavior we must have in any case: that is a plain business necessity. But the apprehension that such a body will be anything un-American clears away the moment it is asked. What is to constitute good behavior? For that question obviously carries its own answer on its head. Steady, hearty allegiance to the policy of the government they serve will constitute good behavior. That policy will have no taint of officialism about it. It will not be the creation of permanent officials, but of statesmen whose responsibility to public opinion will be direct and inevitable. Bureaucracy can exist only where the whole service of the state is removed from the common political life of the people, its chiefs as well as its rank and file. Its motives, its objects, its policy, its standards, must be bureaucratic.
Nevertheless, American colloquial usage is usually derogatory unless established otherwise. An example might be that an organization which puts its own comfort, convenience and longevity ahead of its mission could be called a bureaucracy.
It is no wonder that popular dictionary definitions echo our profound dislike of bureaucracy. The American Heritage Dictionary' the third and last definition of bureaucracy reads in part: "numerous offices and adherence to inflexible rules of operation;... any unwieldy administration." According to Webster's New world Dictionary of the American Language, one of the definitions reads in part "bureaucracy is governmental officialism or inflexible routine." Roget's Thesaurus gives among the synonyms for bureaucracy: "officialism", "officiousness", and "red tape".
"In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely."
This robust tendency is purported to operate to the effect that:
"...in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions."
Theodore Lowi initiated this debate by concluding in a 1979 book that the U.S. Congress does not exercise effective oversight of bureaucratic agencies. Instead, policies are made by "iron triangles", consisting of interest groups, appointed bureaucrats, and Congressional subcommittees (who, according to Lowi, were likely to have more extreme views than the Congress as a whole). It is thought that since 1979 interest groups have taken a large role and now do not only effect bureaucracy, but also the money in congress. The idea of "iron triangles" has since evolved to "iron hexagons" and then to a "hollow sphere."
The relationships between the Legislatures, the Interest Groups, Bureaucrats, and the general public all have an effect on each other. Without one of these pieces the entire structure would completely change. This relationship is considered "mu", or such that not one single piece can describe or control the entire process. The public votes in the legislatures and the interest groups provide information, but the legislature and bureaucrats also have an effect on the interest groups and the public. The entire system is codependent on each other.
William Niskanen's earlier (1971) 'budget-maximizing' model complemented Lowi's claims; where Lowi claimed that Congress (and legislatures more generally) failed to exercise oversight, Niskanen argued that rational bureaucrats will always and everywhere seek to increase their budgets, thereby contributing strongly to state growth. Niskanen went on to serve on the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors under President Reagan, and his model provided a strong underpinning for the worldwide move towards cutbacks of public spending and the introduction of privatization in the 1980s and '90s.
Two branches of theorizing have arisen in response to these claims. The first focuses on bureaucratic motivations; Niskanen's universalist approach was critiqued by a range of pluralist authors who argued that officials' motivations are more public interest-orientated than Niskanen allowed. The bureau-shaping model (put forward by Patrick Dunleavy) also argues against Niskanen that rational bureaucrats should only maximize the part of their budget that they spend on their own agency's operations or give to contractors or powerful interest groups (that are able to organize a flowback of benefits to senior officials). For instance, rational officials will get no benefit from paying out larger welfare checks to millions of poor people, since the bureaucrats' own utilities are not improved. Consequently we should expect bureaucracies to significantly maximize budgets in areas like police forces and defense, but not in areas like welfare state spending.
A second branch of responses has focused more on Lowi's claims, asking whether legislatures (and usually the American Congress in particular) can control bureaucrats. This empirical research is motivated by a normative concern: If we wish to believe that we live in a democracy, then it must be true that appointed bureaucrats cannot act contrary to elected officials' interests. (This claim is itself debatable; if we fully trusted elected officials, we would not spend so much time implementing constitutional checks and balances.)
Within this second branch, scholars have published numerous studies debating the circumstances under which elected officials can control bureaucratic outputs. Most of these studies examine the American case, though their findings have been generalized elsewhere as well. These studies argue that legislatures have a variety of oversight means at their disposal, and they use many of them regularly. These oversight mechanisms have been classified into two types: "Police patrols" (actively auditing agencies and looking for misbehavior) and "fire alarms" (imposing open administrative procedures on bureaucrats to make it easier for adversely affected groups to detect bureaucratic malfeasance and bring it to the legislature's attention).
A third concept of self-interested bureaucracy and its effect on the production of public goods has been forwarded by Faizul Latif Chowdhury. In contrast to Niskanen and Dunleavy, who primarily focused on the self-interested behaviour of only the top-level bureaucrats involved in policy making, Chowdhury in his thesis submitted to the London School of Economics in 1997 drew attention to the impact of the low level civil servants whose rent-seeking behaviour pushes up the cost of production of public goods. Particularly, it was shown with reference to the tax officials how rent-seeking by them causes loss in government revenue. Chowdhury’s model of rent-seeking bureaucracy captures the case of administrative corruption whereby public money is directly expropriated by public servants in general.