What Is Bureaucracy, and Is It Good or Bad?

Graphic rendering of a businesswoman being held back by red tape.
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A bureaucracy is any organization composed of multiple departments, each with policy- and decision-making authority. Bureaucracy is all around us, from government agencies to offices to schools, so it's important to know how bureaucracies work, what real-world bureaucracies look like, and the pros and cons of bureaucracy.

Essential Characteristics of a Bureaucracy

  • Complex multi-level administrative hierarchy
  • Departmental specialization
  • Strict division of authority
  • Standard set of formal rules or operating procedures

Bureaucracy Definition

A bureaucracy is an organization, whether publicly or privately owned, made up of several policymaking departments or units. People who work in bureaucracies are informally known as bureaucrats.

While the hierarchical administrative structure of many governments is perhaps the most common example of a bureaucracy, the term can also describe the administrative structure of private-sector businesses or other non-governmental organizations, such as colleges and hospitals.

Examples of Bureaucracy

Examples of bureaucracies can be found everywhere. State departments of motor vehicles, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), financial lending organizations like savings and loans, and insurance companies are all bureaucracies that many people deal with regularly. 

In the U.S. government’s federal bureaucracy, appointed bureaucrats create rules and regulations needed to efficiently and consistently implement and enforce the laws and policies made by the elected officials. All of the approximately 2,000 federal government agencies, divisions, departments, and commissions are examples of bureaucracies. The most visible of those bureaucracies include the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Pros and Cons

In an ideal bureaucracy, the principles and processes are based on rational, clearly-understood rules, and they are applied in a manner that is never influenced by interpersonal relationships or political alliances.

However, in practice, bureaucracies often fail to achieve this ideal. Thus, it's important to consider the pros and cons of bureaucracy in the real world.

The hierarchical structure of bureaucracy ensures that the bureaucrats who administer the rules and regulations have clearly-defined tasks. This clear "chain of command" allows management to closely monitor the organization’s performance and deal effectively with problems when they arise.

The impersonal nature of bureaucracy is often criticized, but this "coldness" is by design. Applying rules and policies strictly and consistently reduce the chances that some people will receive more favorable treatment than others. By remaining impersonal, the bureaucracy can help to ensure that all people are treated fairly, without friendships or political affiliations influencing the bureaucrats who are making the decisions.

Bureaucracies tend to demand employees with specialized educational backgrounds and expertise related to the agencies or departments to which they are assigned. Along with ongoing training, this expertise helps to ensure that the bureaucrats are able to carry out their tasks consistently and effectively. In addition, advocates of bureaucracy argue that bureaucrats tend to have higher levels of education and personal responsibility when compared to non‐bureaucrats.

While government bureaucrats do not make the policies and rules they implement, they nevertheless play an integral part in the rule-making process by providing essential data, feedback, and information to the elected lawmakers.

Due to their rigid rules and procedures, bureaucracies are often slow to respond to unexpected situations and slow to adapt to changing social conditions. In addition, when left with no latitude to deviate from the rules, frustrated employees can become defensive and indifferent to the needs of the people who deal with them.

The hierarchical structure of bureaucracies can lead to internal “empire-building.” Department supervisors may add unnecessary subordinates, whether through poor decision-making or in order to build their own power and status. Redundant and non-essential employees quickly reduce the organization’s productivity and efficiency.

Absent of adequate oversight, bureaucrats with decision-making power could solicit and accept bribes in return for their assistance. In particular, high-level bureaucrats can misuse the power of their positions to further their personal interests.

Bureaucracies (especially government bureaucracies) are known to generate a lot of "red tape." This refers to lengthy official processes that involve submitting numerous forms or documents with many specific requirements. Critics argue that these processes slow down the bureaucracy's ability to provide a service to the public while also costing taxpayers money and time.

Theories

Since the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, sociologists, humorists, and politicians have developed theories (both supportive and critical) of bureaucracy and bureaucrats.

Considered the architect of modern sociology, German sociologist Max Weber recommended bureaucracy as the best way for large organizations to maintain order and maximize efficiency. In his 1922 book “Economy and Society,” Weber argued that bureaucracy’s hierarchal structure and consistent processes represented the ideal way to organize all human activity. Weber also defined the essential characteristics of modern bureaucracy as follows:

  • A hierarchical chain of command in which the top bureaucrat has ultimate authority.
  • A distinct division of labor with each worker doing a specific job.
  • A clearly defined and understood set of organizational goals.
  • A clearly-written set of formal rules, which all employees agree to follow.
  • Job performance is judged by worker productivity.
  • Promotion is merit-based.

Weber warned that, if not properly controlled, bureaucracy could threaten individual freedom, locking people in a rules-based “iron cage” of control.

Parkinson’s Law is the semi-satirical adage that all “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Often applied to the expansion of an organization’s bureaucracy, the “law” is based on chemistry’s Ideal Gas Law, which states that gas will expand to fill the volume available.

British humorist Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote about Parkinson’s Law in 1955, based on his years of experience in the British Civil Service. Parkinson described two factors that cause all bureaucracies to grow as "an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and “officials make work for each other.” Parkinson also offered the tongue-in-cheek observation that the number of employees in the British Civil Service increases by five to seven percent per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”

Named for Canadian educator and self-proclaimed “hierarchiologist” Laurence J. Peter, the Peter principle states that "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

According to this principle, an employee who is competent at their job will be promoted to a higher-level job that requires different skills and knowledge. If they are competent at the new job, they will be promoted again, and so on. However, at some point, the employee may be promoted to a position for which they lack the necessary specialized skills and knowledge. Once they have reached their personal level of incompetence, the employee will no longer be promoted; instead, he or she will remain in their level of incompetence for the remainder of their career.

Based on this principle, Peter’s Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

Before he became a U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson was a professor. In his 1887 essay “The Study of Administration,” Wilson wrote that bureaucracy created a purely professional environment “devoid of allegiance to fleeting politics.” He argued that the bureaucracy's rule-based impersonality made it the ideal model for government agencies and that the very nature of a bureaucrat's job enables bureaucrats to remain insulated from outside, politically-biased influence.

In his 1957 work “Social Theory and Social Structure,” American sociologist Robert K. Merton criticized earlier theories of bureaucracy. He argued that “trained incapacity” resulting from “over conformity” eventually causes many bureaucracies to become dysfunctional. He also reasoned that bureaucrats are more likely to put their own interests and needs ahead of those that would benefit the organization. Further, Merton feared that because bureaucrats are required to ignore special circumstances in applying rules, they may become “arrogant” and “haughty” when dealing with the public.

Sources

Merton, Robert K. "Social Theory and Social Structure." Enlarged Ed Edition, Free Press, August 1, 1968.

"Parkinson's Law." The Economist, November 19, 1955.

"Peter principle." Business Dictionary, WebFinance Inc., 2019.

Weber, Max. "Economy and Society." Volume 1, Guenther Roth (Editor), Claus Wittich (Editor), First Edition, University of California Press, October 2013.

Wilson, Woodrow. "The Study of Administration." Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, JSTOR, December 29, 2010.